Mary Ann Martin: A Northern Indiana Boat Master

Abandoned boat on the Wabash and Erie Canal, circa 1877, courtesy of Huntington City-Township Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Mary Ann Hassett was born in Ireland’s Tipperary County on May 1, 1842, and at the age of four emigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio. Her husband to be, Patrick Henry Martin, was born in 1840 in Cincinnati and in 1858 the two were joined in marriage at Franklin, Ohio.

After the Civil War broke out Patrick Martin enlisted in the Union army as a private on May 2, 1864, serving with Ohio Company E, 146th Infantry Regiment. He returned to Ohio, where he went canalling between Dayton, Ohio, running on the Miami & Erie Canal to its connection with the Wabash & Erie at Junction, Ohio on the Wabash & Erie. Eventually, he operated two boats, landing at ports between Toledo, Ohio, Lafayette, Indiana, and below.

Canal boat crews were usually described as a five-man team: captain, two steersmen, a driver for the horses or mules and a man or occasionally a woman to do the cooking. Captains were typically men who had to deal with rough and tumble boat hands. Nothing was motorized, including the boat towed by animals, and work on board was done by hand. It meant navigating past oncoming boats and moving through locks, where movement rules were mostly ignored in favor of a boat crew who fought with fists and clubs to determine who got first passage.

License to run a Canal Boat, issued to Mary Ann Martin, courtesy of the Miami County Historical Society.

After Patrick died in 1871, his wife Mary Ann operated the boats during the last years of the old waterway. In 1874, the courts ordered the canal closed, and by 1876 a group of investors, with rail interests in mind, purchased the route from Lafayette to the Ohio state line. However, before the canal-era ended, Mary Ann was issued a license to operate the canal boat John Jay with its sixty-two plus tonnage rating, its plain head and square stern, measuring seventy-eight feet long and thirteen feet wide on the Wabash & Erie Canal. A rather typical canal vessel, since these long narrow crafts had to be maneuvered into and out of lifting locks, which were constructed on a standard inside measurement of ninety feet long by fifteen feet wide chamber.

Other than having to deal with tough crewmen, Mrs. Martin was responsible for all manner of boat master duties, including the accounting of cargoes and passengers at toll stations in northern Indiana, located at Fort Wayne, Lagro, Logansport and Lafayette.

Wabash Erie Canal, Mary's River Aqueduct, ice damage, 1885-1890.
Wabash Erie Canal: remains of St. Mary’s River Aqueduct after ice damage. ca. 1885-1890, courtesy of Allen County Community Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

During those final years, neighbors along the canal had tired of the ditch, blaming the canal for all sorts of issues-real or imagined. Among those accusations were fever emanating from canal water, occasional inadequate water supply, decaying structures, overwhelming debt, crop-field flooding, the inconvenience of roadways interrupted by canal waters, as well as a growing public favor for ever-improving railroad technology.

Unsurprisingly, one night a disgruntled citizen cut a ditch through the canal towpath. That meant the water in the canal channel between the lift locks drained away, putting a stop to navigation. Such vandalism caused Martin to lose her two boats– one at the Carrollton lock near Delphi and another at Logansport. After a career as a canal boat master, Mary Ann Hassett Martin died in September 1914 at the age of seventy-two and was laid to rest beside her husband Patrick in the Catholic Cemetery at Logansport, Indiana.

Inequality Remade: Residential Segregation, Indianapolis Public Schools, and Forced Busing

In 1971, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) system was brought to court and found guilty of practicing de jure segregation or racial separation enforced by law. This lesser-known story of desegregation in Indianapolis’s schools reveals a community deeply divided over race and offers one local response to an important national conversation.

Indianapolis had been racially segregated long before the 1970s. In particular, residential segregation coupled with a practice called redlining reinforced boundaries between the city’s white and African American populations. Redlining is denying services to people based on race: in this case, financial services. In response to the Great Depression, between 1934 and 1968 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) used the National Housing Act to make housing more affordable. In practice, the Act only made home ownership easily accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans. It explicitly denied to back loans for black people or even residents of majority black neighborhoods.

Aerial View of Indianapolis, 1938, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Appraisers ranked residential areas on a grading scale from A (green) to D (red). These color-coded maps, created by lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers for the FHA and HOLC, dictated how easy or difficult mortgage companies would make it for residents to secure loans in different areas. The appraisal process proved damning to areas where African Americans lived. An A-grade area, as one appraiser said, would not include “a single foreigner or Negro.” The lowest D-grade, red areas included “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree” with “undesirable population or infiltration of it.” Since the appraisers purposefully graded areas where African Americans lived poorly, redlining made it impossible for African Americans to benefit from residential mobility and reinforced racial segregation in the city.

In Indianapolis, A-grade areas were mainly located in the suburbs while C- and D-grade neighborhoods were located in the inner-city – where 98 percent of the African American population lived. One Indianapolis neighborhood on the Old Northwest Central side of the city, where African Americans made up 90 percent of the population, was catalogued as D-25. The appraiser who surveyed the area in 1937 gave it a D-grade for being “blighted” and “almost solid negro.” Even areas described as having “better class” African Americans were still classified as D-grade. In contrast, desirable Grade-A locations, like A-1 near Butler University, boasted “[n]ative white; executive and other white-collar type” residents with “nominal” foreign-born and no black residents.

Courtesy of Mapping Inequality, Richmond.edu.

Explore the redlining map of Indianapolis.

These residential patterns made it easy for IPS to uphold segregation in the school system as the School Board would zone, or divide, different residential areas to feed into different schools. As such, racially segregated housing generated racially segregated schools. A deeply divided school system had been in place in the city since 1927 when the Ku Klux Klan pressured the Board of School Commissioners to build what became Crispus Attucks High School for African American students. IHB’s historical marker observes the school’s history.

Indiana Historical Bureau marker.

Although school segregation was outlawed in Indiana in 1949, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) reestablished the elementary school boundaries in 1953 to ensure that the school system remained racially divided. The boundaries were so clearly racially-motivated that “[i]n some instances the lines drawn . . . ignored natural boundaries, requiring students to cross a canal, railroad track” or busy street “to get to their assigned school where no impediment stood between the student and an adjoining school.” An African American child tragically died after being struck by a train in 1952 because of these boundaries.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In 1968, a group of African American parents of children who attended IPS schools requested that the US Justice Department file a suit in the federal district court to charge IPS with unconstitutional segregation. The case, United States v. Board of School Commissioners, was tried in Indianapolis in July of 1971. The verdict, given on August 18, 1971, found “a purposeful pattern of racial discrimination based on the aggregate of many decisions of the Board and its agents.” IPS was guilty of de jure segregation, including racist “gerrymandering of school attendance zones, the segregation of faculty, the use of optional attendance zones among the schools, and the pattern of school construction and placement.” The court believed that “complete desegregation within IPS boundaries would encourage ‘white flight’ and lead to rapid resegregation” of IPS. To address this, the State of Indiana was added to the suit so that the township schools within Marion County would have to racially integrate with IPS.

In 1973, IPS having taken no significant steps towards desegregation, the district court asserted jurisdiction over the issue. Judge Dillin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered a one-way busing system to force IPS and the township schools to integrate.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Many Indianapolis parents, both black and white, were nervous for this transition the preceding summer of the 1973 school year. Meridian-Kessler, located on the north side of the downtown, had only recently become multi-racial at the time, and the neighborhood’s August/September newsletter carried a somewhat anxious tone. The front page read:

Uppermost in the minds of most Indy residents this fall is the unsettled school situation . . . There are three grade schools within our boundaries, and our children attend two nearby high schools. All of these schools will be involved in the desegregation plan eventually due to the changing racial balance in this area.

The city had reason to be nervous. Forced busing schemes in other cities like Detroit and Boston made headlines for the violence they incited. Indianapolis residents associated with the Ku Klux Klan became a common presence at anti-busing protest events. On the morning of September 27, 1971, Sgt. J. Adamson of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD), was assigned to cover an anti-busing demonstration at the Indiana Statehouse. He identified “[a] group of approximately twenty (20) mixed men, women and male teenagers…under the name of ‘Americans for America’,” noting, “[t]his organization has strong Klan affiliation.” Three days later, September 30, 1971, the IPD deployed their Special Investigation unit to cover another meeting: The Citizens Against Busing at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple. Again, many involved were members of the KKK-affiliated group “Americans for America.” Meetings like these were not uncommon.

“Blacks Hurt in Boston Busing Protest,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 13, 1974, front page, accessed Newspapers.com.

In Indianapolis, the first buses of black students began commuting to white schools in 1973. Not all schools responded to the desegregation order immediately. Some townships, including Perry, Decatur, Franklin, and Lawrence only began accepting IPS students bused to their schools in 1981. That year, when her bus, coming from Indianapolis’s east side, pulled into Perry Meridian High School, LaTonya Kirkland was terrified. She “remembers a dozen of her white classmates approaching the bus, their hands slapping against the yellow metal side panels . . . the bus started to rock as the white students slammed against the bus” before throwing an egg at the window. Police had to escort her and her fellow black classmates into the school.

Perry Meridian High School was the site for many violent racial altercations. The burden of reversing segregation, a problem instigated by the white population, fell heavily on the shoulders of black teenagers. The letters “KKK” were found painted on the school building, and there were rumors of black students coming to school with weapons to protect themselves. Only one African American girl was actually caught with such a weapon. She was concealing a meat cleaver. The situation at Perry Meridian High School had escalated so much that in 1981 the FBI came to investigate.

The interconnected stories of redlining and the desegregation of IPS reveal a city deeply divided, struggling with issues of race and equality. In the end, busing briefly achieved what it was meant to do. The court order created schools which appeared racially balanced and integrated on paper, but were often still segregated and hostile. Indianapolis began to phase out forced busing in 1998, ending the court-ordered desegregation era with LaTonya Kirkland’s daughter LaShawn’s graduating class in the 2015-2016 school year.

Women at Work in Science, Technology, and Medicine

Historians, Get to Work!

Women have been consistently left out of the story of the Hoosier state. On paper, historians agree that including the histories of women and other marginalized groups provides a more complete understanding of the events that shaped our communities, state, and world.  However, in practice, few historians are researching, publishing, or posting on women’s history.  Having identified a dearth of resources on Indiana women’s history, organizers from various institutions, both public and private, came together to develop an annual conference. This conference strives to energize the discussion of Indiana women’s history and make the papers, presentations, and other resources resulting from the conference available to all Hoosiers. This year, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host the second annual Hoosier Women at Work Conference.

This conference also aims to address and work towards correcting the pervasive lack of resources on Indiana women’s history. Even historians sensitive to the issue often follow established practices of treating the history of government and business and military as the “real” and “significant” history. However, these are areas where women have been categorically denied entrance or discriminated against directly or through lack of education or opportunities.  These areas exclude women of color, poor women, and native women even more disproportionately than white women of means.  To point out our own complicity, of the over 600 state historical markers created by our agency, only thirty-nine are dedicated to women’s history.  Several are simply wives or mothers of influential male notable Hoosiers, some only tangentially include women, and only ten include native women or women of color. We have work to do too.

It is essential that we, as historians who want a complete picture of the history of our state, do the work – the digging through newspapers, letters, photographs, and interviews; the comparing, analyzing, interpreting, writing, posting, and publishing; and the pushing back, organizing, and speaking up – to tell these stories at the local level.  These are the stories that in turn inform the national narrative of who we are as Americans and world citizens.  Half the story is missing!

Write an article, make a podcast, start a blog, edit a Wikipedia page, and join us for the Hoosier Women at Work Conference to hear speakers on a myriad of women’s topics and get inspired to contribute to the Hoosier story.

The Hoosier Women at Work 2017 Conference: Science, Technology, and Medicine

On April 1, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host a symposium on the history of Indiana women at work in the fields of science, technology, and medicine.  The one-day conference aims to expand the scholarship and ignite discussion on topics as diverse as inventors/inventions; medical breakthroughs; agriculture and technology; public health; sanitation; exposure to hazardous materials in the work place; access to medical care; hospitals; women’s access to training and employment in any of these fields; and the impact of science, technology, and medicine on complicating or improving women’s lives.

The keynote speaker is Sharra Vostral, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. The conference will take place at the Indiana State Library and Historical Building in downtown Indianapolis and registration is open now. Visit www.in.gov/history/hoosierwomenatwork to register and check back for updates.

“Still Pretty Close to Prehistoric Savagery:” Booth Tarkington’s Plea for U.S. Intervention in WWII

Hoosier author Booth Tarkington penned an article for this issue.

On December 17, 1942, the Indianapolis Times noted that Pulitzer-Prize winning author Booth Tarkington was not only a master novelist, but a “student of human nature.” This is evident in the pieces he penned for local newspapers regarding his belief that national isolationism contributed to global war. Prior to America’s involvement in World War II, during the conflict, and following the United States use of the atomic bomb to end it, Tarkington continually plead for national engagement as a way to prevent future bloodshed.

Tarkington knew a thing or two about political activism. Born in Indianapolis in 1869, he earned widespread literary acclaim with his first novel The Gentleman from Indiana (1899). The popularity of this book and his successive Monsieur Beaucaire proved enough to win election to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902. The Columbus Republic noted that although Tarkington “is unknown to the party workers, the fame of his stories have been sufficient to land him a nomination.” He easily won the elected office without campaigning, but served only one session after becoming completely disillusioned with politics. However, he utilized his legislative experience as material for his 1905 book, In The Arena, which was set in a fictional midwestern legislature.

Booth Tarkington, courtesy of Indiana Historical Society, W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection.

Although he stepped away from the Statehouse, Tarkington’s political activism never waned, particularly regarding America’s involvement in war. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he lent his voice to the American minority that supported engagement in the war. He traced the growing European conflict back to the United States’ decision not to join the League of Nations, an international organization proposed by President Woodrow Wilson after World World I. The League sought to prevent war by providing “a forum for resolving international disputes.” According to Tarkington, America’s retreat from the international sphere created a “pacifist nation.”  He wrote, “There grew up a belief that it was a kind of a silly war, and that England led us into it. Then war was made disreputable.” This detachment, he said, led Americans to overlook legitimate national security threats.

The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian noted that a “combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in World War I contributed to pushing American public opinion and policy toward isolationism.” Sensitive to this, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to keep America out of the war abroad and convinced Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941. The bill enabled the United States to dispatch badly-needed arms and war supplies in an attempt to the help Britain defeat Hitler’s forces and to stall its own military engagement.

Appraising the Lend-Lease Bill, Tarkington posited in April 1941 via the Indianapolis Star that simply supplying arms would likely prove too little too late, noting “Having done our best to keep out of war, we now either take another chance of getting into it or await our own turn with the Nazis, which might not mean a long waiting.” He added, “Every intelligent American knows now . . .  that his country and his family and he, himself, are imperiled by Hitler’s will to ruin them for the aggrandizement of Nazi power.”

T.H. Tetens, Know Your Enemy (New York: Society for the Prevention of World War III, Inc., 1944), accessed Archive.org.

On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into military involvement. Congress declared war on Japan the following day. Tarkington noted in an interview published in the Indianapolis Star in January 1942 that “the day of isolationism is past, whether you like it or not.” He conflated America’s absorption into the conflict abroad with his move from his house on Pennsylvania Street to Meridian Street in Indianapolis, stating that his old “neighborhood is almost downtown. It was considered some distance out in earlier years . . .  The same thing is happening in the world today. There are more people-the world is more concentrated.”

After learning of the casualties of WWII, Tarkington suggested in December 1942, that engagement proved more necessary than ever because humans are “self-seeking” and “still pretty close to prehistoric savagery.” Unchecked, they were “‘slashing at each other’s jugular veins'” and countries had “gone back to wholesale murder.” Tarkington put his money where his mouth was, in terms of engagement, as the motorboat at his Maine home was “commandeered for an auxiliary flotilla to discourage submarines along the coast. Mr. Tarkington went out almost every day to do his bit at ‘soldiering.'”

The Hoosier author looked towards the conclusion of the war, having no doubt that the Allies would win. He again returned to the idea of the League of Nations, noting “We’re going to justify Woodrow Wilson . . . The country is ready to do that now.” Americans had been hesitant to join such a council for fear of losing autonomy, but Tarkington felt that American interests could be assured while collaborating with nations to stamp out global aggression.

Tarkington (center) with Indiana State Commander of the American Legion Clarence Gramelspacher (left), April 30, 1943, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

A member of the Indiana Committee for Victory, Tarkington posed a question to Indiana Republican candidates for Congress on April 30, 1944. He asked, via the Indianapolis Star, “How shall the United States obtain a peace that will be permanent?” He proposed his own plan, which involved the United States passing a law to outlaw war and inviting other nations to form an organization “in which every concurring nation should have the same number of representatives.”

According to his proposal, all nations would disarm and “any country making war or preparing to make war, no matter in what cause, would bring down upon itself the overwhelming force of all the rest of the world.” Tarkington’s question became increasingly important after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In a piece for the Indianapolis News, entitled “Fools Will Burn,” Tarkington wrote “that fire flash lets us know that we are crossing a strange threshold, stumbling dazed into a new period promptly to be more dangerous to man than the Ice age or the too near approach of a comet.”

The Palladium-Item and Sun-Telegram, Richmond, Indiana, December 27, 1945, accessed Newspapers.com.

In this article, Tarkington challenged the long-held assumption that advancements in weaponry could prevent war by generating fear of increasingly-horrific repercussions. He lamented, “there were more wars; always there were governments that took the people into the new annihilation.” Tarkington considered Congress’s proposal to safeguard the process of developing an atomic bomb laughable. He lampooned this attempt at nuclear exclusivity as “comedy at its lamentable zenith and the bill should be passed by a convention of ostriches. Congress may as well pass a measure keeping electricity a secret and outlawing the use of gasoline engines in Persia.”

In Tarkington’s view, the only thing that could preclude military conflict was engaging with other nations and persuading them to outlaw war. He likened the global interdependence of the early atomic age to a “a family living in a house with walls irretrievably built of dynamite.” Family members who disliked each other had to be counted on to “walk softly” and “not to be irritating to one another.” The household, he suggested, would need an “impartial watchman” to ensure that “nobody jars the walls or has any possible chance to jar them. Disputes in the family would have to be settled without pummelings. Any physical violence at all might set off the dynamite.” This watchman, Tarkington concluded, should be the security council of the United Nations, which “must have complete control of the A-bomb.” On October 24, 1945, this council officially came into existence, when the United Nations Charter was ratified, creating an “international organization designed to end war and promote peace, justice and better living for all mankind.”

Egypt signs the UN Charter at the the San Francisco Conference. A facsimile copy of the Charter is superimposed on the photo, courtesy of un.org.

Tarkington died on May 19, 1946 in Indianapolis, shortly after the formation of the council. Tarkington’s concerns about nuclear proliferation are more relevant than ever and call to mind his 1945 assertion that “Only suicidal madmen would think A-bomb races with anybody an attractive idea. Mankind has a practical choice between suicide and peace.”

Learn how vigilant Hoosiers sought to deter nuclear catastrophe from their own backyard with the early atomic age Ground Observer Corps program.

“A Permanent Emblem of Its Own:” The Indiana State Flag & Its Designer

Indianapolis News, March 11, 1916

Indiana’s state flag waves from all corners of the state, from the Statehouse to a farmhouse in Selma. It has so proliferated the state’s landscape that it’s easy to assume it has flown since Indiana’s birth. However, it was not until 100 years after statehood that Indiana got a flag representative of the Hoosier people; and it was decades after that before the public recognized the design. We’ll examine why so much time elapsed before Hoosiers proudly hoisted blue and gold from their flagpoles.

We were surprised to learn that the U.S. flag was made Indiana’s official state flag by the Indiana General Assembly in 1901. This changed when, in 1914, Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) delegates Mary Stewart Carey, of Indianapolis, and Mrs. William Gaar, of Richmond, attended the 23rd Continental Congress of the National Society, DAR in Washington, D.C. At the conference they observed that the Memorial Continental Hall was decorated with state flags, but that Indiana was one of few states missing representation. The women returned to Indiana with the goal of obtaining a state banner that was representative and unique to Indiana, particularly in light of Indiana’s upcoming centennial of statehood. The Indianapolis News reported on March 11, 1916 that:

The Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, and some other patriotic organizations, have decided that it is wholly suitable, and very desirable that the Indiana centennial observance should be lastingly marked by the creation and adoption of an Indiana state banner.

Mary Stewart Carey, Chairman of the State Flag Committee, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com

The Indiana DAR established a State Flag Committee, headed by Carey, and hosted a public competition for the design of a state banner. The Indianapolis News reported in 1916 that the DAR chapter was careful not to infringe on the existing state flag, reporting that the group:

[I]s not proposing the creation or adoption of a state flag. There is no disposition to try to share the place of the one flag, but there is a feeling that it is wholly appropriate to adopt an individual standard or banner. Other states—all of them thoroughly patriotic and loyal—have done so.

The committee offered a $100 award for the winning entry and received over 200 submissions from Hoosier men and women, as well as applicants from other states. Carey contended in a report of the State Flag Committee:

It is difficult to find a motive to be expressed on our banner, as Indiana has no mountain peak, no great lake or river exclusively its own—but it is possible to find some symbol expressive of its high character and noble history.

As the banner competition progressed, Carey urged contestants to submit simpler designs that could be “recognized at a distance, and simple enough to be printed on a small flag or stamped on a button.” She encouraged applicants to design banners striking in symbolism” and utilize colors differing from those of the U.S. flag. Hadley’s submission met these suggestions, featuring a gold torch representing liberty atop a blue background. Radiating from the torch were thirteen stars on the outer circle to represent the thirteen original states, five stars in the inner circle to represent the states admitted before Indiana, and a larger star symbolizing the State of Indiana.

(In 1976, David Mannweiler of the Indianapolis News reported that Hadley’s additional submissions in 1916 won prizes for first, second, third and all honorable mention awards. Mannweiler noted that one of the entries included a tulip tree leaf and blossom and another featured an ear of corn with an Indian arrowhead).

Indianapolis Recorder, October 1, 1955, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

After Hadley’s design was selected, it was submitted to the Indiana General Assembly in 1917 for approval and adoption as Indiana’s official state banner.  The legislature ordered that the word “Indiana” be added above the star representing the state. The enacted law stated that the banner “shall be regulation, in addition to the American flag, with all of the militia forces of the State of Indiana, and in all public functions in which the state may or shall officially appear.” So as not to conflict with the 1901 legislation, the U.S. flag remained Indiana’s official state flag and Hadley’s design was referred to as the Indiana state banner. In 1955, the General Assembly approved an act making Hadley’s design the state flag of Indiana.

***

Paul Hadley (left) observes John Herron Art Institute student Ralph E. Priest (right) applying gold leaf to an Indiana State Flag, ca. 1923

The flag’s designer was born August 5, 1880 in Indianapolis, but spent much of his life in Mooresville, Indiana. Hadley initially attended Indianapolis High School (later renamed Shortridge High School), but transferred to Manual Training High School to study under “Hoosier Group” artist Otto Stark. According to fine arts curator Rachel Berenson Perry, in the fall of 1900 Hadley enrolled in the Pennsylvania Museum and Industrial School of Arts in Philadelphia and studied interior decorating for two years, afterwards working as an interior decorator in Chicago.

Paul Hadley, circa 1905, (Picture Postcard by J. P. Calvert), courtesy Mooresville Library.

Hadley returned to Mooresville and primarily painted watercolors of local landscapes, Some of the subjects he commonly depicted included cabins, streams, woods, outhouses, farmhouses and shrubbery. Perry reported that in 1921 Hadley’s studio in the Union Trust building in Indianapolis had become “well known among art enthusiasts.” The Indianapolis Star noted in December of that year that Hadley traveled through Italy, Switzerland, France, England and Belgium, painting water colors that he later exhibited at the Woman’s Department Club in Indianapolis. The Star article described the water colors:

Of charming quality and lovely color, a veritable delight as to design and pattern, likewise expressive of poetic feeling and an imaginative faculty that bespeaks the true artist, these pictures form an important series in the beautiful work coming from Mr. Hadley’s brush within the last few years that is indeed distinctive.

“House Among Trees,” watercolor on white paper, courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Hadley gained a reputation for his watercolors and frequently exhibited his work in Indianapolis. He participated in Indiana Artist Club exhibitions and belonged to the prestigious Portfolio Club. The Indianapolis Star Magazine and a Hoosier Salon booklet reported that Hadley received awards for his watercolors at the annual Hoosier Art Salon and Indiana State Fair. A 1922 Indianapolis Star article asserted that the winning Indiana State Fair pieces conveyed “freshness of outlook, evidence of fine color sense and a feeling for harmony and balance. His creative ability and versatility are evident in the handling of various subjects in different mediums.” That same year Hadley was invited to teach at the John Herron Art Institute, where Art Association of Indianapolis bulletins show he frequently exhibited watercolors.

Courtesy of portfolioclub.org.

Hadley joined the faculty of the John Herron Art Institute in the fall of 1922 as an interior decorating instructor. The Indianapolis Star reported in November of that year that he taught topics relating to “color design and arrangement of furniture in home interiors.”

In 1929, Hadley’s job at Herron transitioned to water-color instructor. According to The American Magazine of Art, a change in school administration in 1933 led to the dismissal of Hadley along with seven other professors, including “dean of Indiana painters” William Forsyth. Hadley transferred to the Art Institute’s museum in 1932, working as assistant curator.

John Herron Art Institute, Students sketching in the lobby of the museum, 1921, courtesy of HistoricIndianapolis.com.

An Indianapolis Star Magazine article, published in 1951, highlighted the prevalence of his work, stating that “there is a Hadley water color in most of the Indianapolis high schools, and a large one is in the John Herron Art Institute.”  The article added that Hadley’s “products are in demand everywhere. Many established artists regard him as a great teacher, partially responsible for their own successes. He is regarded as one of the best water color technicians of the Middle West.” David Mannweiler noted similarly in his 1976 Indianapolis News article that Hadley is regarded as “dean of Hoosier watercolor painters.”

***

Hadley’s banner submission was met with some apathy, as the Attica Ledger noted in 1917 that:

there were several of the lawmakers that were not enthusiastic over the proposition for a state flag and Gov[ernor James P.] Goodrich himself thought so little of the proposition that he allowed it to become a law without his signature.

Similarly, the Hoosier public remained largely unaware of the emblem. The Ledger suggested that same year that most readers would not recognize the banner if they passed it. The Indianapolis News reported at the end of 1917 that the banner had yet to be publicly displayed (having only been exhibited at a DAR convention) until Carey presented it to the crew of the U.S.S. Indiana. Perry noted that after Carey’s gesture the banner “virtually disappeared from public consciousness for several years.” Indianapolis newspapers reported in 1920 that the public remained generally unaware of the banner’s existence. The Indianapolis News asserted that “probably not one person in a thousand knows what the state flag is.” An Indianapolis Star article lamented the banner’s lack of visibility, stating:

[I]n the four years that have elapsed since the centennial celebration, this flag has never been displayed at a public gathering with the exception of the celebration of the centennial of Indiana [U]niversity, and then, through the instrumentality of a pageant master from another state. It was not seen during the Indianapolis centennial celebration, nor during the recent encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. . . The flag is not to be found in the Statehouse . . . some one in authority should see that this flag should be manufactured and should be displayed on all suitable occasions together with the flag of the United States.

The Indianapolis News reported in 1931 that members of the Mooresville Delta Iota Chapter of Tri Kappa made state banners to sell through their sorority. Member M.E. Carlisle stated “‘We have felt that the state banner has not been receiving the proper attention in the state’” and that “‘many people do not know that we have one and some that do would not recognize it if they saw it. Our idea is to acquaint the state with its banner.’”

Visibility of the banner increased somewhat when American soldiers serving overseas in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War requested it as a symbol of home and solidarity. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1942 that:

When Hoosier soldiers gather in USO headquarters or other recreation spots, the Indiana flag of blue and gold is a symbol of home, displayed much more widely now than it was during World War No. 1. Viewing the banner prompts handclasps which are the beginning of friendships, stories of people at home, and singing of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash.’

The banner was sent to Hoosier soldier Private First Class Edman R. Camomile, serving in the Korean War, who flew it from a hilltop on the war front. He stated “‘It is the most wonderful thing that could happen to me. Just knowing the United States flag and all 48 state flags are flying high over different areas of Korea shows that they all stand for peace to all mankind.’” According to the News, an unofficial query showed that the state did not mass produce the flag and that they were made only when ordered, speaking to the continuing lack of demand for the emblem. Marine Corporal Tony Fisher, fighting in the Vietnam War, requested an Indiana flag. He flew it over his gun pit, returning it “tattered and torn and perhaps bullet nicked.”

Image courtesy of Terapeak.

By 1966, many Hoosiers recognized Hadley’s design because of concerted efforts by the Indiana legislature to encourage celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial. On February 24, 1965, the Indiana House of Representatives approved a resolution stating observance of the sesquicentennial “should include widespread display of the State Flag of Indiana throughout the State.” The resolution directed state-funded institutions and schools to purchase and display the flag. Additionally, the Indiana Senate approved a resolution honoring Hadley for his design, stating “in connection with the observation of the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1966, [the Senate] does hereby honor and commend Mr. Paul Hadley, an octogenarian citizen of the State of Indiana, for his brilliant and perceptive work in designing the official flag of the State of Indiana.”

The measures were largely successful in bringing awareness to the flag. A June 2, 1966 Indianapolis News article reported “almost any school child can recite the significance of the present official flag” and that “today it is known by all public-spirited Hoosiers of all ages.” The Delphi  Journal noted that the state flag, purchased by the “Sesqui” group, was on display and would be exhibited at the REMC auditorium. The Tipton Tribune informed readers that the Sesquicentennial Queen would be delivering a tribute to Hadley.  The anniversary of statehood was commemorated on a national scale at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California with a float depicting the state flag and other symbols of Indiana. The flag continues to be used publicly to represent and celebrate the Hoosier state, such as its display at the 2015 Statehood Day, an event that kicked off Indiana’s bicentennial celebration.

Check out IHB’s new historical marker and corresponding notes to learn more about the flag and its designer.

Location: Intersection of E. Main Street and Indiana Street, Mooresville (Morgan County, Indiana).

Popular Facebook Posts of 2016

We wrap up this bicentennial year with some of our most popular Facebook posts, ranging from Eugene V. Debs to a 19th century divorce mill. If you don’t already follow us, check out our page.

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1916 Indiana Centennial Film

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National Surgical Institute

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Fall Creek Massacre

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Eugene V. Debs & the Sedition Act

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Beulah Bondi: Jimmy Stewart’s “Mom”

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Stiffy Green: The Spectral Pup

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Indiana’s 19th Century Divorce Mill

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Indianapolis’s Cyclorama & Zoo

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Bison: Made the National Mammal of the U.S.

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Janet Flanner: “Letter from Paris”

Top Posts of 2016

We’ve compiled our top 10 most read Blogging Hoosier History posts.  We are searching for guest bloggers to kick off 2017, so check out the Guest Blogger Guidelines if you think you could be a good fit. Thank you for your readership!

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  1. World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Ammunition Plant, Part 1 & Part 2

During WWII at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, women and African American employees, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.

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2. The King’s Final Bow: Elvis’s Last Concert in Indianapolis

Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is his final performance, which occurred at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His concert, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.

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3. The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

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 patriarch 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.

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4. Lincoln’s Forgotten Visit to Indianapolis

Aside from two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten until 1928 when a researcher rediscovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.

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5. Bill Monroe in Indiana: From Lake to Brown County, Oil to Bluegrass

William “Bill” Monroe’s Hoosier roots run deep. While Bill was born and raised in Kentucky, he moved to northwest Indiana in 1929 when was he was just eighteen years old. His brother Charlie started a job at the Sinclair Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, and sent for Bill and their other brother, Birch. It was the start of the Great Depression, and the crowds outside the refinery of eager job seekers grew large enough that the police moved them so the street cars could get through.

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6. James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the “Natural Rights of Man”

As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans in Indiana, prompting the Indiana General Assembly to pass prohibitive laws. Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.

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7. The Lincoln Funeral Train

On April 30, the Lincoln funeral train passed into Indiana where Lincoln spent much of his youth (1816-1830).  The War Department directed: “The route from Columbus to Indianapolis is via the Columbus and Indianapolis Railroad, and from Indianapolis to Chicago via Lafayette and Michigan Railroad.  In order to guard against accidents, trains will not run faster than twenty miles per hour.” The train stopped in Richmond first, at 3 a.m., to the sound of tolling bells and a crowd of somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Here, Governor Oliver P. Morton and almost 100 elected officials paid their respects. The governor and other several other high-ranking officials boarded the train for the trip to the state capital.

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8. George Washington Julian: Radical Representative of Moral Conviction

Long before Indiana Governor ran as vice president, another Hoosier sought the office in 1852.  Centerville’s George Washington Julian was a radical political leader defined by his strong moral convictions. During a period marked by slavery, Civil War, monopolies, and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women, Julian tirelessly advocated for abolition, equal rights, and land reform. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849-1851, served as an attorney in several fugitive slave cases in the 1850s (one which included a daring escape plan), ran for vice president on the Free Soil ticket in 1852, and again served as the U.S. House from 1861-1871.

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9. Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part 1

In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American athletes would follow his lead to join professional league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball.

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

Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah T. Bolton was born as Sarah Barrett in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Her family moved to Indiana when she was a young child, and 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.

Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

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Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

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Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

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WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

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Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
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WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

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African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”

Mesmerism, Rappings, & Trance Speaking: Spiritualism in Indiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform

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If Roberta West Nicholson has received any recognition at all, it’s been from Men’s Rights Groups, who have praised her revolutionary Anti-Heart Balm Bill. However, the bill, like much of her work, was progressively liberal and centered around equality. As the only woman legislator in 1935-1936, in her work to educate the public about sexual health, efforts against discrimination in Indianapolis, and champion children’s causes, West was a public servant in the purest sense. Despite her tireless work, she struggled to escape the shadow of her father-in-law, famous Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, and to be associated with social reform rather than her “cuteness.” In an interview with the Indiana State Library (ISL) conducted in the 1970s, she did just that, but unfortunately, it has been largely overlooked.

Even as a young college student, the Cincinnati, Ohio native deviated from the norm. Nicholson attended one semester at the University of Cincinnati, leaving after an exasperating experience with the sorority system, which she found “excessively boring.” Unbending to sorority policies which required dating male pledges and attending numerous parties, it became evident that Nicholson interests were incompatible with those of her sisters. After one of several instances of bullying, she proudly returned the sorority pin, withdrew from the college, and went to finishing school.

Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI. In 1926, the two were married and she moved to Indiana, where she was “absolutely bowled over by the fact that it was virtually the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and their vile machinations.” From a politically conservative family, Mrs. Nicholson soon found that in Indiana “the Republican party, as far as I could ascertain, was almost synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. Well, how could you be anything but a Democrat, you know? That was to be on the side of angels so to speak.”

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Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” scene on a mural representing Indiana at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

The day of her wedding, Roberta’s father received two letters, “terrible penmanship-pencil on cheap lined paper-warning him to stop the marriage of his daughter to that ‘nigger loving Jew.'”* Her father spent a large amount of money trying to identify the author of the “vitriolic hatred,” an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The couple’s wedded bliss was also impeded by the Great Depression, in which Meredith Jr. lost everything in the stock market and “this beautiful dream world we’d been living in is all of a sudden gone.” Following the bankruptcy of her husband’s company, Roberta took a job at Stewarts book store, supporting the family on $15 a week.

After the adoption of liberal principles, Nicholson engaged in her first real reform work in 1931. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger solicited Nicholson to establish a Planned Parenthood center in Indianapolis. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

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Margaret Sanger, circa 1917, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Outside of her role in Planned Parenthood, she worked as a public educator, going into cities, sometimes “very poor, miserable ghetto neighborhood[s],” to increase awareness of the “menace of venereal disease.” It became clear to Nicholson that ignorance about sexual health was widespread, including her own lack of knowledge about diseases, which she had referred to syphilis as the “awful awfuls” and gonorrhea the “never nevers.” During these often uncomfortable meetings with the public, Nicholson sought to inspire an open dialogue and a back and forth about taboo subjects. Nicholson also showed reproduction films to middle schoolers a job that provoked titters by students and sometimes outrage on the part of parents.

Her dedication to improve the welfare of children intensified during the Great Depression, when she witnessed impoverished children modeling clothes made by WPA employees. This was an effort to prove to those Indianapolis newspapers highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal that social programs were effective. Seeing these children being used to “get some bigoted publisher to change his views on some very necessary emergency measures” made her think of her own children and brought her to tears. In her ISL interview, she stated that “I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping children that were disadvantaged, and I have.”

In 1932, Nicholson founded the Juvenile Court Bi-Partisan Committee, to convince politicians to reform juvenile justice and “keep the court out of politics and to employ qualified persons to handle the children.” These efforts proved successful, when in 1938 Judge Wilfred Bradshaw reformed the court. Nicholson served as a longtime committee member and in 1946, when other members became frustrated with progress and resigned, Nicholson stayed, saying “I feel that because you are going to sometimes lose your point of conviction doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Nicholson also worked to improve the lives of Indianapolis children as the president of the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency and group home, and in her work on the board of Directors of the Child Welfare League.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In her interview with ISL, she explained her motive for joining the effort to repeal the 18th Amendment:

“These women felt very deeply about the fact that prohibition had inaugurated the era of of the gangsters: the illicit traffic in liquor, with no taxes and everything. They were building this empire of crime…And I said, ‘I am interested in it because these are the craziest days.’ Everybody had a bootlegger. I suppose real poor people didn’t but you never went to a party where there weren’t cocktails. I remember feeling very deeply ashamed to think that my children would be growing up with parents who were breaking the law. How was I going to teach them to fly right? I certainly wasn’t up to bucking the trend. So I thought, ‘All right, Ill work on this, that’s fine.’”

In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition.

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Terre Haute Brewing Company, circa 1934, likely celebrating the repeal of prohibition, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office. In 1934, she was convinced by the county chairman to run for Legislature during the FDR administration because “the Democrats smelled victory, because of the dramatic actions of the president. They wanted to get some names they thought would be meaningful to the voters so they invited me.” Although Nicholson had studied the issues in depth, it turned out that in order to be elected “all that was expected of one was to step up to the podium and say, ‘I stand four square behind FDR.’ That did it.”

Win she did, becoming the only woman to serve in the 1935-1936 Legislature, where she routinely faced sexism. According to the Indianapolis Star, during her time as secretary of the public morals committee, she informed her committeemen, “‘If you you think you’re going to stop me from talking just because I’ll be taking minutes, you’re wrong-I’ve got some things to say, and I’m going to say them.'” Nicholson elaborated that many of her colleagues thought:

“Wasn’t it cute of her. She’s got a bill. She’s going to introduce it just like a man. Isn’t that darling?’ I restrained myself, because after all I was in the distinct minority. I could not offend them. So I would just bat my eyelashes and beam at them and act as if I thought it was the way I wanted to be treated. Wasn’t that the only thing to do?”

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Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.

Not only did she “have” a bill, but her breach of promise bill, dubbed the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” made waves in Indiana and across the country. Nicholson’s proposal would outlaw the ability of a woman to sue a man who had promised to marry them, but changed their minds. She felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be absolutely condemned. Nicholson described her reasoning for the bill,  which had been protested by some women’s groups:

“…it just seemed perfectly silly to me, that from time immemorial, a female being engaged to be married could change her mind and say, ‘Sorry Joe, it’s all off.’ But if the man did, and if he had any money, he could be sued. I thought that was absolutely absurd. . . . The thing that was so amazing and truly surprising to me is that it was widely interpreted as giving free reign to predatory males to take advantage of chaste maidens which, of course, was diametrically opposed to what my conception was. I thought-and I still think-that it was an early blow for women’s liberation. I thought it was undignified and disgusting that women sued men for the same changing their mind about getting married.”

Nicholson’s bill passed the House fairly easily, but was held up in the Senate because, in her opinion, “Something new was being tried and several of the senators felt, ‘Why should we be first?” The bill also encountered resistance by lawyers who profited from breach of promise suits. Eventually the bill passed, inspiring similar legislation in other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing the “Spotlight, Pathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

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Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon, courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

After passage of the “Gold-Diggers bill,” Nicholson was invited to speak around the country. At an address to the Chicago Association of Commerce and the Alliance of Business and Professional Women, she said “It seemed to me that we should say to these gold diggers and shyster lawyers, as did the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Off with their heads!” She added, “I am not a professional moralist, but I have attempted to set up a deterrent to irregular relations by removing the prospect of pecuniary profit from them.”

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The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Nicholson also received criticism during her legislative career for supporting the Social Security Act, for which a special session was called in 1936. The Head of the Indiana Taxpayers Association stopped her near the statehouse and asked if she would be voting for “‘that terrible communist social security.'” When she confirmed she was, Nicholson noted that his face creased with rage and he sped off in his chauffeured car. A state senator shared his conviction, contending that the act’s supporters were “‘Trying to turn this country into a GD Ethiopia!'”

Perhaps the most intense scrutiny Nicholson faced as a lawmaker was in her role as a working mother. The Indianapolis Star noted that nothing made Nicholson madder than “to have interfering friends charge that she is neglecting her family to pursue the career of a budding stateswoman.” The paper relayed Nicholson’s response:

“‘Some of my friends have told me that they think it is ‘perfectly terrible’ of me to get myself elected to the Legislature and spend the greater part of sixty days away from the children. . . . I told them, ‘I don’t spend any more time away from my children than other mothers do who play bridge and go to luncheons all the time.’ I try to be a good mother and so far as my being in the the Legislature preventing me from going to parties is concerned, I don’t care much for parties anyway!'”

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Nicholson with her daughter, Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1941, p.55, accessed Newspaper.com.

Despite criticism, Nicholson proved steadfast in her political convictions and was perceived of as a “force” by many observers; the Indianapolis Star proclaimed “Mrs. Nicholson yesterday wore a modish dark red velvet dress and smoked cigarettes frequently during the proceedings, and if any of her fellow legislators didn’t like it, it was just too bad. It was a pleasure to watch her.” When her term ended, the tenacious legislator ran for reelection, but lost because the political climate swung in favor of the Republican Party. However, this was far from the end of her public service.

Check back for Part II to learn about her WPA work alongside Ross Lockridge Sr.; visit with Eleanor Roosevelt; tiresome efforts to find housing for African American soldiers in Indianapolis who had been turned away; and observations about the Red Scare in local politics.

*The Nicholsons were not Jewish. It is likely that the author of the letter used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term for progressives.