Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, image accessed NPR.org.

After investigating over 4,000 incidents of “racial terrorism” that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950 in the form of lynchings, the Equal Justice Initiative realized the trauma left in their wake had never been properly confronted by the nation. The EJI sought to remedy this and opened the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. Memorial visitors first encounter sculptures of chained slaves before experiencing memorial square, an exhibition of 800 6-foot monuments that represent lynchings in each of the counties where they took place. The memorial concludes with a bronze sculpture that examines “contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice.”

Woven into the fabric of racially-motivated violence in America is a summer night in Marion, Indiana in 1930. On August 7, black teenagers Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron were held in the Marion jail for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. Before they could stand trial, a mob comprised of white residents tore the young men from their cells and brutally beat them, mutilating and hanging Shipp and Smith from a tree on the courthouse lawn. They intended to send a message to other African American residents, one which Marion NAACP leader Katherine “Flossie” Bailey scrambled to prevent.

A crowd at the Marion courthouse looks on following the lynching of Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Organization of American Historians.

Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took a photograph of the swinging bodies, capturing a white crowd that looked on in a mixture of satisfaction, hostility, amusement, and bewilderment. This photo was reproduced on postcards and circulated by the thousands. NPR noted that in the late 1930s white poet, activist, and Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol remained haunted by the image of “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” and penned a poem about the lynching, published by the teacher’s union. Inspired by Meeropol’s words, artists like Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Sting, Kanye West, and Nina Simone have performed their own versions of “Strange Fruit.”

Historian Dr. James Madison contends that the Marion lynching continues to command attention because it took place outside of the Deep South and occurred after the Ku Klux Klan-prompted lynchings of the 1920s. The East Tennessee News noted weeks after the lynching that the “deplorable affair” confirmed the notion that “mob law” can break “forth in all its furry [sic] in North as readily as in the south.” The paper added that only the enactment of a federal law would “serve to discourage the tendency of irresponsible hoodlums who are inclined to take the law into their own hands.” Prior to August 7, 1930, it is believed that the last lynching in Indiana took place in 1902 in Sullivan County and the resurgence sent shockwaves through Indiana and around the nation.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

As white residents gathered on the afternoon of the 7th, formidable NAACP state president Flossie Bailey mobilized. Born in Kokomo, Bailey was described as a “hotrod,” “born leader,” and “superb organizer” for her tireless work with the NAACP. She established the Marion branch in 1918 and built it up, despite encountering apathy created by Great Depression conditions. She became head of the Indiana NAACP and offered her house as headquarters when Marion’s Spencer Hotel refused to accommodate black guests.

As the restless crowd hoisted Claude Deeter’s blood-stained shirt from the window of the Marion City building, Bailey called Sheriff Jacob Campbell to alert him to the mob’s plan to lynch the prisoners. According to NAACP acting secretary Walter White, upon Bailey’s phone call, Sherriff Campbell checked the jail’s garage and found that gasoline had been removed from the cars and the tires flattened, preventing transportation of the endangered prisoners. He made no attempt to procure working cars, despite three hours passing until the lynching. Bailey also called on Governor Harry G. Leslie’s secretary, operating in his absence, to dispatch troops to the restless city. He abruptly hung up on her.

Mary Ball, courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal, August 11, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Bailey tried to intervene, Mary Ball’s father, Hoot Ball, entered the jail to speak with Sheriff Campbell and, upon failing, the crowd broke into violence and stormed the jail. The Muncie Evening Press estimated that of the thousands gathered around the jail “only about 75 men actually took part in the rioting,” encouraged by the shouts of onlookers. The mob penetrated the front and side of the jail using crowbars and hammers. Officials inside tried to stop rioters with tear bombs, one of which was lobbed back into the jail and exploded among nearly fifty prisoners.

Walter White declared the lynching of Shipp and Smith to be the “most horrible and brutal in the whole history of lynching.” He stated that Smith was taken first and lynched from the jail bars and “When first pulled up he held on to the rope, preventing strangulation.” Shipp “fought furiously for his life, burying his teeth in the arm of one of the lynchers. In order to make him loosen his teeth his skull was crushed in with a crow-bar and a knife plunged into his heart.” 

The rancorous mass took Smith’s life by dragging him to the courthouse square and hung him from a tree before a crowd that included children, an act witnessed and recounted by Muncie podiatrist Dr. E. Frank Turner. He saw the “ghastly spectacle” around 8 p.m. and, hearing that water would be used to disperse the crowd, “felt that everything would be alright, and went away.” When he returned around 10 o’clock, he saw the mob drag Shipp and Smith to the courthouse lawn. Lynchers utilized shadows created by tree branches to obscure their identities. Dr. Turner recalled that:

The body went up, dangling on the rope, and a demoniacal yell surged from the crowd. It was hideous! That mob sounded like wild wolves, the yells were more like vicious snarls. Some even clapped their hands. 

Not all observers cheered, he recalled. Some wept and others condemned the crowd.

Grant County jail where white residents mobbed Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal, August 11, 1930. The Journal noted that the arrow indicated the “window from which one body was suspended.”

Cameron, the youngest of the three accused men, was ripped from his cell and nearly hanged before someone in the crowd shouted that he was not involved in the crime. Muncie policeman Earl Doolittle noted that when Indianapolis officers finally arrived in their “big touring car” they were “greeted with boos and catcalls” from the crowd, lingering to prevent the coroner from removing the bodies. This was the same crowd that had left the jail “ravaged,” with “gaping holes in the walls” and the “twisted remains of broken locks.” Reportedly by midnight, an “indignation meeting” formed in Johnstown, the Marion neighborhood where African Americans lived. Hundreds of black residents listened to speeches about the sheriff’s unwillingness to order officers to shoot at the mob. Officers broke up the meeting, which prevented further violence. An Illinois newspaper reported that about 200 black residents fled Marion for Weaver, a historic black community in Grant County, out of fear of escalating violence.

At the time of the lynching, the state militia was training in Kentucky and, therefore, the “lawless element” controlled the scene of the lynching for over half a day. After Sheriff Campbell removed the bodies the following day, the crowd used penknives to cut buttons and shreds of fabric from the victims’ clothes as “souvenirs.” Shipp’s and Smith’s bodies were then taken to Shaffer Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Muncie because Marion lacked a black mortician.

Echoing editor George Dale‘s 1920s skewering of the Ku Klux Klan via the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Muncie Evening Press condemned the act, stating “Not alone Marion but the state of Indiana stands today disgraced in the eyes of the world as a result of the lynching of two Negroes in that city last night. As for Marion herself she will be regarded abroad as a city of barbarians.” The paper believed that Marion could be partially redeemed only by indicting rioters on murder charges. The article noted “This ought not to be difficult.”

NAACP acting secretary Walter White, courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Flossie Bailey knew otherwise. According to James Madison, after the crime Bailey convinced Walter White to investigate the lynching. Fearing her phone calls were being monitored, she traveled back to Kokomo to communicate with NAACP leaders in Indianapolis and Marion. She received threatening phone calls, Madison noted, and drivers “deliberately backfired their cars as they cruised past her house.” Despite these threats, Bailey worked diligently to hold the perpetrators accountable. She joined a delegation of ten African American citizens from Marion and Indianapolis that met with Governor Leslie, including prominent pastors and Walker Manufacturing Company attorney Robert L. Brokenburr. In a formal resolution presented by Bailey, the group demanded that Governor Leslie ask for Sheriff Campbell’s resignation and promise protection for those who would testify about the identity of the lynchers. According to The Kokomo Tribune, Governor Leslie responded by claiming that “rumors had come to him that negroes in Marion were equipped with dynamite and were threatening to blow up the county jail.”

Bailey countered this rumor directly in a letter-to-the-editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers in the country. The Courier previously printed a story about plans for retaliation by Marion’s black residents. Bailey noted that this was a “LIE,” one absolutely not perpetuated by the city’s black pastors, as the Courier had claimed. She stated that because of the rumors she and her husband “are daily receiving anonymous letters of a threatening nature” and alleged that “The Negroes who start rumors of this sort are the ones who will not help in anything constructive.” She concluded her letter “A few of us refused to be intimidated and do all we can in the name of the Association [NAACP] to bring law and justice again to Marion.”

The county grand jury began its investigation into the lynching in September. Bailey testified that she warned Sheriff Campbell of the formation of the mob just before 5 p.m., countering Campbell’s statement that it was made after 7 p.m. When questioned about his lack of action, he stated he feared hitting a woman or child with a stray bullet. Ultimately, the jury decided that Sheriff Campbell handled the mob in a “prudent manner” and exonerated him of any responsibility for the deaths of Shipp and Smith. 

Flossie Baily and husband Dr. Walter Thomas Bailey, courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Unable to extricate Campbell from office, Bailey and her husband focused their efforts on prosecuting the lynchers. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that they led the effort to gather names from witnesses at “considerable personal risk.” White sent a list of twenty-seven alleged participants, along with evidence of their involvement, to Governor Leslie and Indiana Attorney General James M. Ogden. According to Thornbrough, only seven men were arrested, two tried, and both acquitted. She noted that at the trial of the second man, antagonism “against the blacks who attended it was described by a representative of the national NAACP as ‘appalling.’ Most of the whites who packed the courtroom were jubilant when the accused man was acquitted.” The New York Age noted of Bailey that “A high tribute is paid her courage and energy in working to restore order in Marion and to bring the lynchers to justice.” The NAACP awarded Bailey with the Madam C.J. Walker Medal for her refusal to be intimidated in her quest to bring the perpetrators to justice.

While Bailey’s efforts were ultimately unfruitful, she used the Marion lynchings as a springboard to enact anti-lynching legislation in Indiana. House Democrats introduced a bill in February 1931, for which Bailey organized statewide meetings, and convinced African Americans to contact their legislators. Her legwork paid off. Governor Leslie signed the bill into law in March, which allowed for the dismissal of sheriffs whose prisoners were lynched. The law also permitted the families of lynching victims to sue for damages. The Indianapolis Recorder, one of state’s preeminent African American newspapers, praised the law. The paper stated, “Indiana has automatically retrieved its high status as a safe place to live.” It added that without the law, Indiana “would be a hellish state of insecurity to our group, which is on record as the most susceptible victims of mob violence.” Although the newspaper praised Governor Leslie, it credited a “small group which stood by until the bill became a law.”

Using this momentum, Bailey and her NAACP colleagues worked to pass a similar bill on a federal level. Madison noted that she tried to change national lynching laws by publishing editorials, wiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and distributing educational materials to Kiwanis clubs. Although these efforts were unsuccessful, Bailey fought for the rights and safety of African American citizens until her death in 1952, challenging discrimination at IU’s Robert W. Long Hospital, speaking against school segregation, and suing a Marion theater for denying Bailey and her husband admittance based on their race.

Memorial for Peace and Justice, courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice has made tangible the tragic events of August 7, 1930. Perhaps one day the American landscape will represent Flossie Bailey and other individuals who tried to prevent racial terrorism at considerable personal risk. Learn how to apply for a state historical marker via the Indiana Historical Bureau.

 

SOURCES USED:

“Marion and Indiana Are Disgraced,” “Negro Killers Hanged in Courthouse Yard After Big Mob Storms Jail; Trio Accused of Attacking White Girl,” “Muncie Man is Lynching Witness,” and “Police Tell of Scenes at Marion,” Muncie Evening Press, August 8, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Negroes Leave City,” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois), August 9, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Gross Failure of Officials Is Exposed by Investigators” and “Lynching, North and South,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 30, 1930, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mrs. F.R. Bailey, Letter to the Editor, The Pittsburgh Courier, August 30, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Marion, Indianapolis Negroes Call upon Governor for Action,” The Kokomo Tribune, August 21, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Five Heard in Lynching Quiz,” Muncie Evening Press, September 3, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Sheriff Was Negligent,” The New York Age, September 6, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“The Anti-Lynching Law” and “Cruising Around,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 14, 1931, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

James H. Madison, “A Lynching in the Heartland: Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930,” Journal of American History (June 2011), accessed Organization of American Historians.

James H. Madison, “Flossie Bailey,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2000): 22-27.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 67-69.

“Tired of Going to Funerals:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary

Delegates, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, marching into the National Black Political Convention, courtesy of Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times, accessed wbez.org.

They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”

According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:

I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains.  This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. According to the NWI Times, he declared “all black people, involved in any way with survival programs for the black community, [to be] revolutionaries at the National Black Political Convention,” AP Photo, courtesy of the NWI Times.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panthther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.

Television crews waiting for convention to start, courtesy of the NWI Times.

A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.

The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.

Welcome poster, courtesy of the NWI Times.

Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”

State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”

Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.

Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).

While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (Indianapolis Recorder).

However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”

Presidential campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, accessed BBC.com.

Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.

After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.

Image courtesy of NWI Times.

The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . .  defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (Indianapolis Recorder).

In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”

Contact: npoletika@history.in.gov

 

SOURCES USED:

“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Ron Daniels, “It’s Nation Time: The 40th Anniversary of the Gary National Black Political Convention,” Institute of the Black World 21st Century, March 28, 2012.

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” Columbus Republic, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Hatcher to Keynote Black Convention,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1972, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 19, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

John Hopkins, “Leaders Mold Black Power: Warn Parties” and James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Keeping Watch,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 10, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, Second Edition, eds. Barbara Krauthamer, Chad Williams, and Thomas G. Paterson (Cengage Learning, 2016): 510-515.

“National Black Agenda Calls for Permanent Political Movement,” Kokomo Tribune, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Plans Span Wide Range of Opinion,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wants Changes,” Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Bertita Carla Camille Leonarz de Harding: Jewels, War, and Writing in Indianapolis

Bertita Harding
“Bertita Harding Is Satisfied With Movie Based on Her Book,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1939, accessed Newspapers.com

Before social media instantly familiarized people with new cultures, Bertita Harding endowed Americans, and specifically Hoosiers, in the 1930s and 40s with illuminating accounts of Europe’s and South America’s rich, sometimes volatile past and present. The Hungarian author spoke five languages, interviewed dictators, and witnessed the gleam of royal jewels. Her experiences compelled her to author more than a dozen lucrative books, mostly biographies. Indianapolis firm Bobbs-Merrill published most of her books. Bertita brought a fresh approach to biography, giving depth to royal figures, illuminating their motives, and endowing them with humanity. Her life was as interesting and tragic as the royal figures about which she so aptly wrote.

The “adopted Hoosier” was born in Hungary and moved to Mexico when her father was solicited to work as an engineer in Mexico City.  As a child, she grew intrigued with the story of ill-fated Carlotta and Maximilian, Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The story is worthy of a Shakespearean quarto:

Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph accepted the offer of the Mexican throne in 1863, having been assured that the Mexican people voted for his governance. However, he was installed into power through the collusion of Mexican conservatives and the French emperor, against the wishes of many Mexicans. He and his beloved wife Carlotta traveled to Mexico, where the liberal-minded emperor tried to rule with “paternal benevolence,” working to abolish the peonage system. When French troops pulled out of Mexico, and former Mexican president Benito Juarez returned, Carlotta fled to Europe to fruitlessly plead for support of her husband. Unwilling to abandon the impoverished people he had advocated for, Maximilian refused to abdicate the throne. He was executed near Queretaro, devastating his wife who remained in Europe. She fell into a debilitating depression and never recovered, refusing to acknowledge his death.

Chapultepec castle, courtesy of the National History Museum.

Bertita’s house was adjacent to the city’s Chapultepec castle, where the royal couple lived. The Indianapolis Star noted that “Each night as she went to bed she saw from her nursery window a light gleaming on the terrace of the somber castle, and she learned that there the beautiful Empress and her imperial husband had walked on starry nights.”

In 1909, Bertita, along with her mother and two brothers, journeyed to Vienna with a “mysterious black trunk.” Emperor Maximilian’s brother Frans-Joseph received the trunk, revealing to Bertita’s mother the jewels and insignia worn by the tragic royal couple. For returning the goods to the House of Hapsburg, Frans-Joseph bestowed Bertita’s mother with the signum laudis award for service to the crown. Bertita’s brushes with royalty proved to be the inspiration for many of her works.

Bertita traveled to the United States for school, training to be a pianist at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her husband Jack Harding. The couple moved to Indianapolis, where he worked as an executive at Harding Advertising Company. Eventually, the pair applied their literary gifts to writing film scripts in Hollywood. The Indianapolis News recalled in 1957, that Bertita “espoused the role of a young Hoosier wife and blithely entered local activities . . . She had a rare gift for being folksy and fabulous, cozy and continental at the same time.” Here, they participated in the Lambs Club, Athenaeum, and Players Club.

In a 1958 Anderson Herald article, Bertita stated that after her children were killed in an accident her husband encouraged her to write, an endeavor she found more convenient than practicing the piano. She mused “‘I’ve put a cake in the oven and gone over in my desk to write. If the cake burned, the chapter turned out to be a masterpiece. If the chapter was bad, the cake was delicious. And many times both turned out just right.'”

Ill-fated royal couple Empress Carlota and Emperor Maximilian, photographic print on carte de visite mount, created ca. 1864-1880, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1934, Bobbs-Merrill published her literary jewel, Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlotta of Mexico. At a talk for the Women’s Club in Richmond, Indiana in 1934, Harding stated that as a little girl in Mexico City she interrogated former ladies-in-waiting for the royal couple about their fates. The adopted Hoosier added “I could visualize how they felt-transplanted Europeans, somewhat bewildered.” Harding penned the impeccably-researched biography in her Indianapolis apartment, writing methodically from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She recalled “As I wrote the book sometimes I would laugh at my own jokes, and sometimes I would cry with sympathy for them, and I loved to think my own book could arouse such sympathy in myself.”

With the success of Phantom Crown, Harding cemented her place in the Hoosier literary canon, residing among a prolific list of Indiana poets, playwrights, novelists, travel writers, and journalists. These included novelist Booth Tarkington, author Gene Stratton-Porter, and poet James Whitcomb Riley. The book she described as “manifest destiny” created a demand for Bertita’s unique perspective. She went on the lecture circuit, speaking to clubs around the country about her experiences. The Muncie Evening Press noted in 1935 that with these lectures she took audiences on a vivid tour through Mexico and Europe, showing them “‘the small out-of-the way, pieces of art and works of beauty to be found in such travel.'” Listeners traveled down the Danube into Hungary and then Vienna, where they experienced picturesque domes and woodcarvings, before arriving at French convents. Of Germany, she remarked it “‘is too far advanced, with far too much intellect as well as sentiment, to provide the obscure forms of art . . . Their great capacity is for work.'”

Juarez promotional material, accessed IMDb.

By 1939, the story of the ill-fated lovers proved so popular that Warner Brothers adapted Harding’s book into a film called “Juarez,” starring Bette Davis. According to the Indianapolis News, Harding threatened to sue the studio for failing to give her screen credit, but the parties came to an agreement and Harding described “Juarez” as a “‘beautiful picture.'” Harding noted that the film’s theme had been adapted to “fit modern conditions” and that, during a time of Hitler-led German aggression, Warner Brothers was advocating for “America and the Constitution right now, so ‘Juarez’ just had to fit in.” Harding contended that “Juarez” was obviously made in the vein of anti-fascist film Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

Harding followed Phantom Crown with additional biographies about the House of Hapsburg, such as  Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz-Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria and Imperial Twilight: The Story of Karl and Zita of Hungary. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African-American newspaper, praised Harding’s writing, noting “Stiff, regal figures become understandable, human-beings. Royal mazes are unraveled. Motives for strange actions grow lucid.” The newspaper added that “A flawless instinct for drama makes the utmost of every event without the slightest strain.”

    

Harding’s life and books seemed to place her on the perimeter of political and military upheaval. In October 1940, she traveled to Brazil to gather material for a forthcoming book. By this time, Nazi Germany had captured France, and the Allied Powers feared that Brazil, which had been fairly politically neutral, could be susceptible to Nazi attack. Harding interviewed Brazilian dictator President Getulio Vargas, concluding that although Vargas was a dictator, Brazilians would never permit a European dictatorship. According to the Indianapolis Star, Harding asserted “I am convinced that, for reasons both sentimental and practical, Brazilians would resist any attempt to give either Naziism or Fascism a foothold in their country.'”

Jack Harding
Lt. Col. Jack Harding, Indianapolis News, August 10, 1944, accessed Newspapers.com.

By 1944, Bertita and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Jack Harding, an executive officer of public relations, were fully entrenched in the war effort. That year, the Indianapolis News reported on Jack’s work in England, noting that as an intelligence officer he briefed and interrogated combat crews and laid out the operational plan for air force public relations for the D-Day invasion. In a letter published by the Indianapolis News,  the lieutenant colonel illuminated for Americans the sacrifices made by soldiers in France on D-Day.

He wrote stirringly “it is still true that aircraft, artillery, warships and other auxiliary arms all radiate from a common center, one little man with one little gun. This day belongs to the infantryman, may God protect him.” Following the pivotal invasion, Jack accompanied war correspondents on a journey through France. They witnessed the fall of Cherbourg, where “Street fighting, snipers, artillery attacks, as well as a ride through crossfire, added up to part of the night’s work.” While her husband wrote about “those kids of ours,” Bertita helped sell war bonds through a literary group.

She continued to do what she did best–write about royal exiles. Harding published Lost Waltz in 1944, centering around Austria’s Leopold Salvator and his family of ten. The Indianapolis News praised her ability to “place for us these Hapsburgs in the broad movement of our own eventful times, her unusual ability to recreate past scenes and make them live again with the verve and sparkle of fiction, though she never deviates from sober fact.” Other books written by Harding after the war include Magic Fire: Scenes around Richard Wagner and The Land Columbus Loved: The Dominican Republic.

After the death of her beloved first husband, she married Count Josef Radetsky in Vienna in 1957, an ancestor of Austrian nobility. The Indianapolis News reported that the Count’s family estates had been “reduced to poverty” when Communists seized Czechoslovakia in 1948 and that he was working as a taxi driver in Vienna when he met Harding. By 1958, Bertita had made such a name for herself that the Orlando Executives Club nominated her to speak, among other nominees such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1958, her life took another somber twist when a Vienna court found Radetsky guilty of trying to defraud her, sentencing him to eighteen months in an Austrian prison.

Adamant that “age cannot wither you,” Bertita began work on a book about German musician Clara Schumann, which Bobbs-Merrill published in 1961. Bertita passed away in Mexico in 1971, having fulfilled her 1935 dictum that “‘Life comes before letters . . . If life results in writing, that is good: but writing without living is worthless.”

Maurine Dallas Watkins: Sob Sisters, Pretty Demons, and All That Jazz

Movie poster for “Chicago” (2002), courtesy of Miramax.com.

“Yes, it was me! I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! And I’d do it again-,” cried Roxie Hart, the achingly beautiful murderess conjured up by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. Inspired by crimes she covered for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, Watkin’s 1926 play “Chicago” became an instant hit and has been continuously reinterpreted, from Bob Fosse’s 1970s production to the Oscar-winning 2002 Miramax film. The Crawfordsville, Indiana native’s take on women murderers, who employed charm and theatrics to convince sympathetic male jurors of their innocence, earned the praise of critics and theater-goers. The Los Angeles Times noted that year “critics claim that the play is without a counterpart in the history of the American stage.” In an era of instant, often fleeting social media-derived celebrity, Watkins’ fame-obsessed murderesses who kept the press enraptured seem more relevant than ever.

Maurine Dallas Watkins
Maurine Watkins, News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 14, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, Watkins moved with her family to Indiana and attended Crawfordsville High School. According to a 1928 Indianapolis Star article, she started writing dramas from a young age. At 11-years-old, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church presented her “Hearts of Gold,” which generated $45. The St. Louis Star and Times described Watkins in 1928 as “simply dressed, with big, innocent-looking blue eyes and an exceedingly shy manner.”

After studying at Butler University in Indianapolis and Hamilton College in Lexington, Kentucky, she sought experiences about which she could write and contacted the city editor of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper, convinced by Watkin’s zeal, hired her to write about the city’s crimes from a “woman’s angle.” Her eight month stint as a “sob sister,” or women journalists who wrote about female criminals and were often sympathetic to their crimes (although not in Watkins’ case), inspired her to write “Chicago.” She described the piece as “‘a composite of many different happenings, while Roxy the heroine, was drawn from one of our leading ‘lady murderesses’-the loveliest thing in the world, who looked like a pre-Raphaelite angel, and who shot her lover because he was leaving her'” (Ind. Star).

Beulah Annan
Beulah Annan in a Chicago jail cell immediately following her arrest for the murder of her lover, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 29, 1928. Watkins covered the 1924 trial for the Chicago Tribune and served as inspired for her play, accessed Newspapers.com.

This murderess was one Mrs. Beulah Annan of Chicago, who confessed to killing her lover Harry Kalstedt. She was pronounced not guilty by a jury, swayed by her innocent persona and “man-taming eyes.” While Annan served as the inspiration for “Chicago,” the name of the play’s protagonist Roxie Hart was likely borrowed from a 1913 murder in Crawfordsville involving the lover of the deceased Walter Runyan. Like Annan, this lover was also praised for her captivating eyes and delicate features.

The St. Louis Star and Times noted that Watkins enjoyed this work for a period of time “because the psychological reactions interested her.” With literary inspiration in hand, she moved to New York and worked as a movie critic for the American Yearbook. She attended Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class “47” at Yale University, drafting “A Brave Little Woman.” According to The Best Plays of 1926-27, upon completing the play Watkins, “being a thorough feminist,” approached play broker Laura Wilck, who “promptly bought it for herself and announced an intention of producing it. But before she got around to this the men interfered.” Well-known producer Sam Harris soon bought and changed the play’s name to “Chicago.” Best Plays attributed the piece’s success to Watkin’s “freshness of viewpoint,” “natural gift for writing,” and “interview with a lady murderess.” The Roaring Twenties provided the perfect canvas for Watkin’s literary skills and, as the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News noted in 1927, “No period ever left itself wider open to lampooning than this in which the absurd antics of bootlegging, publicitizing, exploitation, crime and all the rest are commonplaces.”

Clark Gable, Chicago, Maurine Watkins
Actor Clark Gable (far left) portraying a reporter in “Chicago,” courtesy of Gable Archives, accessed Clark Gable, in Pictures: Candid Images of the Actor’s Life.

The play achieved immediate stage success. According to a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, it ran for 172 Broadway performances. Its debut generated widespread anticipation and the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1927 that preparations were being made at the city’s Music Box Theater, “with stage and screen stars, literary prominents, civic officials and society leaders in attendance, the opening promises to develop into a social event.” The showing featured an undiscovered Clark Gable (who later married Hoosier actress Carole Lombard), portraying “Jake the reporter.”

Ad, Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania), April 29, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

A review published by the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted that “Chicago’s” text was “so packed with knowledge and seasoned irony that any one could picture for himself the kind of toughened old buzzard of a sob-sister who would have knocked about enough to know how to write it.” The Arizona Republic published one of the more colorful and insightful reviews of the play’s impact on the public, noting that Watkins filled her “drama with comedy of terrific realty and, with never a word of preachment . . . and sends the audiences home converted to a skepticism that can hardly fail to have important results when enough people have seen the play.” As the scintillating third act concluded, the “audience staggers home, laughed out, yet somehow sadder and wiser, and realizing with tragic wonder that tomorrow the headlines will brazen forth some new female criminal.”

The Republic suggested that Watkin’s drama could change the public’s perception about these “pretty demons.” It added that her work was a “tremendous denunciation of the sacrilege by which the juryman, who should be the wisest and sanest of our guardians, is easily turned into a blithering come-on.” And, “best of all,” the satire was written by a woman “on the folly of men in their false homage to woman, their silly efforts to protect her while she dupes them.”

Maurine Dallas Watkins, father George
Maurine with her father on a return visit to Indiana. She stayed with her parents at their farm in Clermont, Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indianapolis Star reported that the reverend’s daughter still considered Indiana home, despite moving to New York following the success of her play. She recalled upon a return visit “‘I love it out in the country-life’s terribly complicated! You count the rings of the telephone to see if it is your number, and you have to go and meet the postman.'” The woman who wrote about a “flashy negligee of blue Georgette with imitation lace,” kept her hair “unbobbed” due to her father’s dislike of short hair.

Following the success of “Chicago,” Watkins continued to write, but never achieved the same level of literary acclaim. She was commissioned to dramatize Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel Revelry, about the Harding administration’s Ohio Gang, for which she conducted research at the White House. In April 1927, the newspaper hired her to cover the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband. The paper noted that Watkins, a sobless sister, would “deal with facts, without tears, in a notable author’s inimitable way, from her place at the trial table in Queens courtroom.” She reportedly moved to Hollywood, writing screenplays and articles for Cosmopolitan magazine. The author later settled in Florida, where she died of lung cancer in 1969. Watkin’s three act play cemented her legacy among the pantheon of accomplished Hoosier writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, I Love Lucy‘s Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Crawfordsville colleague Lew Wallace.

“Blacks Must Wage Two Wars:” The Freeman Field Uprising & WWII Desegregation

Registration at Freeman Field in 1944, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

The 1948 desegregation of US armed forces can be partially attributed to a bellwether protest at Indiana’s Freeman Field in the spring of 1945. Here, officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.

America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”

Indianapolis Recorder, April 7, 1945, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.

Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:

Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.

Freeman Field Airport and Industrial Field, 1947, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.

On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.

Officers, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:

could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.

He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”

Quentin P. Smith (center) with honor graduates of Class 45-A, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”

Administrative reprimand of Smith by Selway, courtesy of Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 38, Folder 3, Indiana Historical Society.
Roger C. Terry, courtesy of indianamilitary.org

Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”

Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, the black airmen’s protest significantly influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”

Edna Stillwell and the “Real Making of Red”

Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton
Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton, The Times (Shreveport, LA), December 16, 1941, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Guzzler’s Gin, Dunking Donuts, “I dood it!:” Red Skelton’s iconic characters and quips would not exist without the influence of his first wife Edna Stillwell. In fact, a Rochester, NY newspaper reported that Skelton insisted “he’d be a bum” without her  Through Stillwell’s comedic and management muscle, Skelton went from an unknown circus performer to one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.

Stillwell was born in Missouri on May 25, 1915. As a teenager she was attracted to show business and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that she was head usherette at Pantages Theatre in Kansas City, where seventeen-year-old Skelton performed. Skelton recalled that she took an immediate disliking to him. At his next job, he served as master of ceremonies at a walkathon, where Stillwell happened to be working as cashier. He eventually convinced her to go on a date with him. Skelton cemented her affections when he chose her to kiss in a photoshoot. He recalled “‘I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married.'”

Stillwell’s and Skelton’s marriage license, 1932, accessed Ancestry Library.

The entertainer, at the time, was so poor that Stillwell had to pay for their marriage license. After the wedding she assumed the role of business manager, a duty she would continue to fill even after their 1944 divorce. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the manager of a walkathon in St. Louis wanted to cut Skelton’s salary, prompting Stillwell to approach him and successfully demand more money. Skelton noted, “‘I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning.'” She eventually negotiated his walkathon pay up to $500 per week and invested his money in real estate. She also forced Skelton, a high school drop-out, to study and earn his high school degree. He admitted “‘pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.'”

Stillwell was just as formidable when it came to comedy writing. According to the Indianapolis Star, Skelton’s vaudeville run in Montreal was nearly cancelled after his first performance, so:

Red went back to his own individual style, which had put him over in vaudeville. And his wife in a moment of contempt for the old routines they were doing, said, ‘I could write better stuff than that,’ Red’s answer was “Why don’t you?’ also in sarcasm. But she did, and she has written his material ever since.

In a 1941 article, The Tennessean observed that “from several years of watching what tripe came down the pike on the old Pan circuit, Edna got some pretty definite ideas about what to avoid in a vaudeville skit.”

Edna and Red at their California home, accessed Wikipedia.

A newspaper piece by Ted Gill noted that soon after marrying, Stillwell dreamed up Skelton’s famous “Junior” character. When the couple strolled past stores Red could never “resist the urge to buy things” and if “Edna attempted to talk him out of it, he’d lie down on the sidewalk, kick his heels and make such a scene that he soon had scores of passersby in near-convulsions.” From then on Stillwell considered herself “Mommie” to his “Junior.” According to a 1942 Indianapolis Star article, Stillwell’s “Junior” sketch catapulted Skelton’s career forward and as she “schemed out that screamingly funny little boy burlesque-topped off by those three precious words, ‘I dood it!’-the name of Skelton fairly leaped from the bottom to the top of various radio comedian polls.” The article also mentioned that she helped mastermind Skelton’s “$50,000 doughnut dunking act,” after the couple dined at a Montreal cafe. The article stated that Stillwell and Skelton,

then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it  up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.

Accessed gettyimages.co.uk.

Writing material and coaching her husband from theater wings proved to be the steady hand Skelton needed to succeed in his career. Skelton’s biographer Wes Gehring contended that “Stillwell’s mid-1930s donut routine and other reality-based writing helped Skelton segue his skills into vaudeville, the next rung on the entertainment ladder.” He noted that “Working, performing, and traveling together as nomadic vaudevillians in the 1930s, the Skeltons were a team to reckon with.” By the late 1930s, the couple moved to Hollywood, where Skelton earned a notable $2,000 for appearing in the film Having Wonderful Time, alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Script, courtesy of the Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Box 2, Folder 16, Indiana Historical Society.

In order to make money between films Skelton returned to the stage. Stillwell demanded he refuse any offer under $1,000, causing them to go without food for days. But staying the course paid off, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, because Skelton “got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville-and at Edna’s price.” Stillwell wrote for and appeared on Skelton’s popular radio show and had performed with him on Rudy Vallee‘s program. His national NBC show (featuring renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted Skelton to national fame in 1941. Gehring concluded that Stillwell also had a hand in his film success, stating that “True to Stillwell’s good instincts for her husband, she was the first to recognize just how effective he would be” in Whistling. The Indianapolis Star informed readers that year that “At his disposal at present are some 500 comedy routines all written by himself or his wife, with which he has been throwing Hollywood audiences, both on and off the screen, into hysterics.”

Edna Stillwell, 1943 press photo, accessed outlet.historicimages.com.

At the end of 1942, newspapers across the country announced that Stillwell had filed for divorce from her partner in comedy. The Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph noted that she filed suit, “charging cruelty, but plans to continue to write the wit that has made his radio act famous,” which she did after the court finalized the divorce. The former couple even performed their original vaudeville routines at army camp shows in WWII to popular reception. Their professional relationship continued until 1952, one year after Skelton was given his own, groundbreaking television show. Gehring contended that their post-divorce work was “a mixed bag-a rousing success professionally, but a stressful distraction for each of their subsequent marriages.” Skelton married actress Georgia Maureen Davis and Stillwell married Hollywood film director Frank Borzage, who had directed Skelton in films like Flight Command.

Stillwell died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1982. Without “Mommie’s” aptitude and intuition, Skelton likely would never have “dood it!” Learn more about the funny man with our newest historical marker, located in Vincennes.

Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights

In 2015, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend announced in a South Bend Tribune op-ed that he was gay, making him Indiana’s first openly gay mayor. Four decades before Buttigieg’s announcement, the city reportedly outlawed same-sex dancing. In 1974, Gloria Frankel and her gay club, The Seahorse Cabaret, withstood police harassment, challenged regulations against LGBT individuals, and endured a firebombing. In this post, we explore the fight for gay rights in the Michiana area and the intrepid woman who lead the charge.

Gloria Frankel (right) and friend, circa 1950s, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to Ben Wineland’s “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Frankel opened South Bend’s first gay club in 1971. Its opening followed the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which members of New York City’s LGBT bar community responded to a police raid with a series of violent protests. The riots immediately forwarded the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights in America. LGBT individuals in smaller cities capitalized on the momentum by opening bars that fostered gay communities and provided them with a relatively safe space for entertainment, dialogue, and activism.

Frankel filled this role in South Bend with The Seahorse. She hosted shows and events, and distributed fliers for them, an act “which embodied the new kind of confidence and visibility that the Stonewall riots helped to create.” Also like those who frequented the raided Stonewall Inn, patrons of The Seahorse encountered an intimidating police presence, in which officers would “‘walk around and make people nervous. ‘Cause it was a gay bar'” (Wineland, 74). Wineland contended that The Seahorse was considered a threat by law enforcement because it “became more than just a hole in the wall, it looked to the opposition like hope; a hope for visibility, mainstream appeal, and a point of organization for the gay movement.”

Lambda Society of Michiana, newsletter, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to oral history interviews with Seahorse patrons-conducted by Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about the club-a city ordinance prohibited same sex dancing until 1974. One interviewee recalled that if men were found dancing or being affectionate they would be arrested, escorted to the police station, and charged with a lewd act. According to these interviews and Frankel’s obituary, Gloria combated this by successfully challenging the City of South Bend to allow same sex dancing. More research should be undertaken regarding her reported legal battle. The Lambda Society* of Michiana was also concerned with laws discriminating against the gay community, urging newsletter readers in 1974 and 1975 to write their legislators.

Lambda Society of Michiana newsletter, p.4, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

In a May 1974 newsletter, the organization noted a desire to evolve from social objectives to those also involving advocacy. It noted that the organization was founded “because gay is more than sexual preference, and because gay can be more than just an alternative life style. Lambda has struggled through nine months offering little more than social functions as an alternative to the bars, baths, and bus station.”

Newsletter articles about the 1974 Indiana Gay Awareness Conference in Bloomington, Indiana give a window into the origins of mobilized political action for Michiana’s LGBT community. One article noted that after discussing issues that gay individuals encountered with their families, police, landlords, and employers, the decision was made to “address the problem, which is not that we are criminals, but how to help others deal with their problems with homosexuality.” There was a panel discussion regarding “Gayness and the Law” and efforts were made to aid attorneys handling related cases. When discussing Indiana laws “hope was expressed that in the re-codification of our criminal code, consenting adult acts will be eliminated.” Notably,

mention was made that Illinois and Ohio have already removed consenting acts by adults from the criminal statues, that legislation is now pending in Michigan, and Kentucky is also considering some similar action, leaving Indiana ‘an island of persecution’ (perversion?).

Cover of TIME.com, September 8, 1975, a year of national conversation about gay acceptance.

The conference also held sessions about topics such as “Telling Your Parents,” “Professionals,” and “Racial Problems.” One newsletter author reflected candidly that “to say that this conference produced any dramatic changes or systems for dramatic changes, would be wrong.” However, it planted the seeds for unified efforts to change perspectives about homosexuals. The newsletter article noted that the conference showed “groups and individuals that there are others in our state willing to meet and try for change. As with all new associations, time and experience with each other and ourselves will cement the relationship into a working coalition for change.” The author concluded by stating “I learned more about others and my own attitutes [sic] towards homosexuals and straights. . . . we all joined hands in a circle, raised them high, singing We Shall Overcome – I was frightened – I was thrilled – I couldn’t have done that 24 hours earlier.” A 1975 newsletter illustrated some community support, printing an invitation from the Michiana Metropolitan Community Church, whose objective was to “better relationships amongst ourselves and within the community around us.”

Sea Horse II, moving announcement, 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

Frankel too sought to forward the rights, identity, and well-being of the gay community. She hosted Michiana Lambda Society events and successfully grew the local LGBT community, underscored by having to open The Seahorse II to accommodate an increase in patronage. Frankel also served as an unofficial mentor to others in South Bend who established gay bars, such as Jeannie’s Tavern and Vickie’s. She advised her “bar children” and had significant input regarding their businesses.

The Seahorse suffered a blow in 1982, when it was firebombed by an unidentified arsonist at 6:30 a.m. Residents who lived in apartments above the bar fled and one was hospitalized. Although firefighters contained the flames to the front of the building, it suffered approximately $90,000 worth of smoke damage.

The Seahorse after firebombing, 1982, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

Though devastating, the bombing demonstrated the solidarity of the South Bend’s LGBT community. According to code, the bar would be shut down if it could not get back to standards within ten days. Members of the community rallied to repair and clean it, shocking officials by getting the club back to code and reopening within the allotted time. They celebrated by hosting their annual anniversary party.

In the mid-1980s, the city used code enforcement to stymie Seahorse operations. This included denying the routine renewal of a liquor license and challenging the acquisition of a parking lot for customers. The Seahorse perceived these actions to be discriminatory, while the city insisted they were not.

Frankel continued to serve as a pillar of South Bend’s gay community when she led the local fight against HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, funding AIDS ministries and making The Seahorse a cite of free HIV testing. According to Wineland, she “knew that if the testing was available at her bar, a place where the LGBT community felt at home, they would be more likely to get tested and also become more educated about HIV and AIDS.”

The Seahorse continued to be foundational to South Bend’s LGBT community until 2007, when Frankel passed away. The club closed shortly thereafter and Jeannie’s Tavern became the home of Seahorse patrons and performers. However, Frankel’s pioneering efforts established South Bend’s enduring LGBT community.

The Seahorse Cabaret stage, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

*Lambda Legal Non-Profit Organization was founded in 1973 as “the nation’s first legal organization dedicated to achieving full equality for lesbian and gay people.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this blog, citing an oral history, suggested the profession of the arsonists. Also citing the same oral history, the blogger stated that Frankel erected a wall around the bar for protection. Former employees of the bar at the time of the arson have called into question the veracity of the oral history’s claims on these two points. In an effort for us to present an accurate account of the historical events, we have edited the blog accordingly.

Sources:

Conversation with Margaret Fosmoe, a South Bend Tribune reporter who graciously searched the newspaper’s archive for articles for this post.

Conversation with Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about The Seahorse. Lee has conducted interviews and done extensive archival research about South Bend LGBTQ history.

Diane Frederick, “Homosexuality Laws Vary Widely,” Indianapolis News, August 22, 1975, 1, Indiana State Library, Clippings File-Homosexuality.

Kathy Harsh, “Arson Suspected in Tavern Fire,” South Bend Tribune, November 26, 1982, Indiana State Library, microfilm.

St. Joseph County Public Library, Michiana Memory, LGBTQ Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center.

Ben Wineland, “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Indiana University South Bend Undergraduate Research Journal of History, vol. VI (2016): 69-79, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

Philo T. Farnsworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne

See PART I for Philo Farnsworth’s struggle to commercialize the
television and his involvement in the 1935 patent suit against RCA.

Engineers and office personnel at Farnsworth TV and Radio Corporation, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1940, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

In 1938, investors in the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation (FTRC) scoured the nation for a manufacturing plant that would allow them to profit from Farnsworth’s invention: the television. They selected the former Capehart Phonograph Company building in Fort Wayne, Indiana because, according to biographer Paul Schatzkin, the “company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”

The FTRC plant opened in 1939, stimulating the city’s economy with the production of radios, phonographs and television equipment. Not only did Farnsworth oversee production, but continued his scientific endeavors with a research department that, according to his wife Pem, operated at “high efficiency.” She noted that Farnsworth’s “input breathed energy into the men, and in turn their reciprocation kept him on his toes.” The plant’s opening coincided with the outbreak of World War II and Fort Wayne would experience the same economic revival as the nation through the manufacture of war goods.

Mark III, installed on vacuum system of television set, ca. 1930s-1940s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

Shortly after the FTRC began operations in Fort Wayne, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt required all television and radio materials be converted to the production of military equipment. With America’s involvement in World War II, the FTRC expanded throughout Indiana, culminating in a total of seven factories in the state during the war years, including those in Marion, Huntington and Bluffton. Donald Sinish, who worked with Farnsworth at the FTRC Research Department, recalled that the Ft. Wayne facilities were “rapidly converted to production of military equipment and engineering channeled to development of radio communication, missile guidance and radar systems.”

Despite the company’s expansion, Farnsworth’s quest to commercialize television was halted by the production of war materials and the FCC’s hesitation to establish broadcasting channels and standards, narrowing the period in which he could benefit from his patents, which expired in 1947. Disheartened by the obstacles preventing him from capitalizing on his invention, Farnsworth moved to Maine and vowed never to return to Fort Wayne.

Farnsworth (far right) with “Fusor” and engineers, ca. 1930s-1940s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

But when the company struggled to repay war loans that allowed for expansion, Farnsworth returned to Fort Wayne and reluctantly convinced investors to sell FTRC to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). The Fort Wayne company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth researched and experimented in his lab. Pem stated that the Fort Wayne lab “developed a device for the United States early-warning system” that could detect and destroy missiles and planes in the early atomic era. Farnsworth’s primary post-war research interests centered around developing a low cost form of fusion. Creating self-sustaining fusion is equivalent to bottling a star, a nearly impossible task that has yet to be conquered.

Farnsworth hoped to usher in the “high-energy era” with fusion, as a minuscule amount could power a whole city without the pollution of fossil fuels. Pem stated that Farnsworth’s fusion idea “gained solidarity early in 1947,” when a mutual friend set up a phone call between him and Albert Einstein. After discussing scientific theories for about an hour, Pem recalled “Phil reappeared, his face aglow from the excitement of finding someone who understood what he was talking about.”

Albert Einstein with J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientists whose work contributed to invention of the atomic bomb used in World War II.

Allegedly, Einstein had developed similar theories, but “was so shocked that his work had been used to produce the atomic bombs dropped on Japan that he vowed never to contribute further.” However, he encouraged Farnsworth to pursue the fusion work for “peaceful” purposes and requested Farnsworth contact him once he worked out the mathematics. Pem contended that “it was a great psychological relief to find another human being who shared his increasingly unique perspective” and that he found Einstein to be a “fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.”

Encouraged, Farnsworth established a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne and devised a “fusion reaction tube” called the Fusor, which he patented in 1968. He reportedly achieved fusion in Fort Wayne, but it is unclear whether or not he generated self-sustaining fusion. Unfortunately, Einstein died before Farnsworth could share his mathematics with him and, upon his passing, Farnsworth felt more alone than ever. The burden of his genius again overwhelmed him when he collaborated with employees to finalize his second fusion patent. According to Pem, upon realizing that they too did not grasp the “vital point of his concept” he closed his briefcase and informed them “’I have given you all the material you need to finish this patent. Now I am going home and get drunk!’”

Farnsworth with “Fusor,” 1960, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

After self-imposed isolation, he moved to Provo, Utah with Fort Wayne employees to pursue fusion away from ITT’s influence. In 1966, he established Philo T. Farnsworth Associates and collaborated with Brigham Young University on sustaining fusion. Eventually, Farnsworth’s health failed and he cancelled the fusion project. According to Schatzkin, family members suspected he carried the secret of fusion to his grave out of concern that humanity was not spiritually prepared for it.

Farnsworth was reportedly disgusted with television programming for its failure to facilitate his noble goals of exchanging cultures and educating viewers. Pem stated that while watching the 1969 moon landing Farnsworth professed “this has made it all worthwhile.” Ironically, Farnsworth himself appeared only once on the medium he invented on the program I’ve Got a Secret. Farnsworth passed away March 11, 1971 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Philo T. Farnsworth kept a plaque on his desk that read “MEN AND TREES DIE—IDEAS LIVE ON FOR THE AGES.” Farnsworth’s life serves as a testament to this. Schatzkin eloquently summarized his contributions, stating “There are only a few noble spirits like Philo T. Farnsworth . . . who can alter the course of history without commanding great armies.”

“THE DAMNED THING WORKS!:” Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television

Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s
Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

It is notable that in this age of celebrity worship, most people cannot name the inventor of the television. Even the meticulous Aaron Sorkin confused the details of Farnsworth’s life in his stage play. Woefully unrecognized, Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electronic television at the age of 14 and brought his conception to fruition in 1927 with his first electronic transmission.

Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Farnsworth nurtured a broad, idealistic vision of how his invention would change the world, envisioning how television might increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. Farnsworth’s greatest resource, much like Jobs’, was unconventional thinking and an ability to assemble a small team of determined ingénues like himself. Farnsworth’s wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, attributed her husband’s success to “intuitive thinking, logic, and hard work,” as well as his ability to combine “seemingly unrelated elements into new instruments of amazing effectiveness.”

Farnsworth's childhood home in Indian Springs Utah
Farnsworth’s childhood home in Indian Springs Utah, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

The inventor of television grew up in Utah prior to the existence of power lines, making his radical electronic concepts all the more remarkable. Farnsworth’s family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where Farnsworth delighted at the sight of a Delco power system, immersed himself in scientific magazines and invented tools that facilitated household chores. While working on the farm, a teenaged Farnsworth observed the straight rows created by the horses as he plowed, and abruptly thought “he could build the image like a page of print and paint the image line after line . . . with the speed of the electron, this could be done so rapidly the eye would view it as a solid picture.”

According to Pem, Farnsworth reasoned that by using an image dissector tube, he could manipulate electrons to “change a visual image into a stream of electrical current, transmit that to another vacuum tube at the receiver, and on a fluorescent screen turn the current back into the visual image again.” Farnsworth sketched his idea on the blackboard of his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and presented him with a drawing of it, which would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling.

Philo T. Farnsworth's sketch for teacher Justin Tolman
Philo T. Farnsworth’s sketch for teacher Justin Tolman, courtesy of philointhehall.com.

In 1923, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah and pursued formal education, enrolling at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study mathematics and physics, although, like Jobs, never graduated. Ironically, his lack of formal training contributed to his success, as fundraiser George Everson recalled that Farnsworth “attacked the whole assignment with no engineering experience and little engineering knowledge, but to compensate for these inadequacies he had courage and genius.” After leaving BYU, Farnsworth worked for Everson as an organizer at the Community Chest Campaign, who, along with fundraiser Leslie Gorrell, funded Farnsworth’s electronic television idea. With this financial backing, Farnsworth moved to California, eventually establishing a lab on Green Street in San Francisco and hand-picking a team of scientists and innovators.

In the team’s early days, engineers shuffled in and out of the lab with various instruments, a “glittering array of crystals, prisms, and lenses.” This activity attracted the attention of police in the Prohibition era and Pem stated “it’s not hard to imagine how suspicious our operation must have looked to an outsider. Strange packages were being brought in, and the curtains were drawn for demonstrating the light relay.” Pem reassured two policemen, who came to investigate the lab, that she and her husband were not operating a still and continued their electronic experiments.

Farnsworth’s 202 Green Street lab in San Fransisco, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

Farnsworth focused on perfecting the image dissector tube with the help of Pem’s glassblowing brother, Cliff Gardner. The scientific team constructed numerous models before developing a bulb that was delicate, yet strong enough to transmit an image electronically. After years of failed experiments and twelve hour work days, on September 27, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted the first “electronic television image.” With Farnsworth and his staff at the receiver, Cliff inserted the slide into the Dissector and a small line materialized in the receiver room, ushering in the television age. Farnsworth wired Gorrell a simple message: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” and applied for his first television patent on January 7, 1927.

Farnsworth was “the first to form and manipulate an electron beam” and according to his biographer Paul Schatzkin “that accomplishment represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is still in use today.” Farnsworth’s ability to harness electrons negated the need for mechanical objects to transmit images and later contributed to breakthroughs in radar and electron microscopy.

Farnsworth Television Model, 1936, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah.

However, transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal problems. Farnsworth struggled to maintain a balance between scientific experimentation and his financial backers’ desire for a return on investment. In 1928, Farnsworth met with impatient investors who demanded to see “some dollars” in his invention, and stunned them when an image of a dollar sign materialized in the screen before them. This presentation bought Farnsworth more time, but later that year the backers repealed their support, forcing Farnsworth to rally his team to continue with the development of television.

In the period between his first transmission and first public demonstration of the television in 1934, Farnsworth continued to navigate around financial problems, company reorganization, and protests by radio and film actors fearing the new medium could jeopardize their jobs. The primary obstacle to commercialization was RCA’s lawsuit regarding his 1927 television system patent. Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin attempted to devise an electronic television system and applied for a patent in 1923, despite lacking proof of its feasibility. Farnsworth invited Zworykin, a former employee of Westinghouse, to see his San Francisco lab in 1930 in hopes that Westinghouse might fund his invention. Unbeknownst to Farnsworth, Zworykin no longer worked for the company and his visit to the lab was motivated by personal objectives.

Farnsworth’s television system patent, contested over in the 1935 patent suit against RCA, accessed Google Patents.

Farnsworth demonstrated how to construct an Image Dissector for Zworykin, who later replicated the tube and presented it to RCA. Farnsworth’s refusal to sell his patents to RCA prompted the company to sue for priority of invention, so as to introduce commercial television to the public. The U.S. Patent Office settled the “David and Goliath confrontation,” as described by Farnsworth’s wife Pem, when it ruled in Farnsworth’s favor based on Justin Tolman’s presentation of Farnsworth’s high school Image Dissector sketch. For the first time in RCA’s history, the company had to pay patent royalties, rather than receive them. The ruling also established Farnsworth as the inventor of television, despite ongoing debate and distortions to the historical record like Aaron Sorkin’s stage play proclaiming RCA the victor of the suit. Schatzkin provides a superb synopsis of the debate about the inventor of television and errors punctuating the narrative in The Boy Who Invented Television.

Farnsworth continued to fight against RCA’s appeals and his refusal to bow to the corporation taxed his mental and physical health. While struggling with depression, exhaustion and a dependence on liquor to cope with the stress, Farnsworth vowed to bring television from conception to commercialization. He aimed to get into broadcasting, but because the FCC would not yet allocate spectrum space for television, Farnsworth decided to enter into manufacturing, which would lead him to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

According to the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah, in 1938 the Farnsworth television show was taken on a country- wide tour and was very well received.

Read part II: Philo T. Farnsworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne here.

Etheridge Knight: “can there anything good come out of prison”

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed theparisreview.org.

“I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” This is how poet Etheridge Knight Jr. described his experience at the Indiana State Prison, where he served eight years for armed robbery. This post focuses on the years 1960-1968, in which the man “with something to say” began sharing his voice through poetry.

Born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight’s family moved to Paducah, Kentucky before moving to Indianapolis. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enlisted in the army in 1947. Knight served as a medical technician in the Korean War until 1950, when a serious injury would indirectly serve as a catalyst for his revolutionary Poems from Prison. His wounds proved so physically and psychologically traumatic that Knight soon developed an addiction to morphine. Or as Knight put it, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me.” Following his army discharge, Knight supported his habit by dealing drugs and stealing, which led to his sentence in the Michigan City, Indiana prison.

Betty De Ramus wrote in the Detroit Free Press that black poets of the 1960s, including those writing behind bars, were not trying to

pass civil rights laws or integrate bathrooms or even to trouble America’s conscience. They were battling for the minds of blacks, bent on persuading them of their potential and power, trying to open them, layer by layer, to their own lost beauty.

She argued that this movement, comprised also of African American music, theater, films, and novels were black artists’ way of “lighting candles in the darkness.” Knight would become a quintessential voice of the Black Arts Movement, described by Larry Neal as “’radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.’”

Knight did not immediately illuminate the darkness at the Indiana State Prison, where he became embittered by “racist guards and racist parole boards.” According to a 1972 Baltimore Sun article, he began writing poetry 18 months into his sentence, inspired by other black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks (who later visited him in prison) and Langston Hughes. He recalled “I read Walt Whitman and the European poets, too . . . I could never really get to them as I got to Hughes and Brooks.”

According to the Poetry Foundation, Knight “was already an accomplished reciter of “‘toasts'” before he entered the penitentiary. These toasts were long, narrative poems spoken from memory that related to “‘sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities.'” At the Indiana State Prison, he “toasted,” amidst cell doors slamming and prisoners shouting. Other times, Knight recalled, “Sometimes in the joint . . . I’d back people up against the wall and say, ‘Here, you want to hear this?’ After all budding poets do need an audience, and where better to find one with time to listen?”

Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.” This poetry explored themes like “suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love.” The Richmond Palladium-Item reported that through his words he “lashed out at the power brokers in prison and in literature with equal intensity and humor.” At first the budding poet encountered no trouble mailing out his poetry in an attempt to get published. The authorities did not resist, he recalled, because they considered James Whitcomb Riley to be a poet and “they didn’t understand what I was all about.”

His first published piece, a tribute to Dinah Washington, appeared in the Negro Digest about a year after he started writing from prison. Once published, prison officials began censoring his mail and prohibited him from mailing out his poetry. Knight responded by “smuggling material out to friends . . . who worked on the outside.” This resistance to prison life manifested not only in words, but in behavior and he spent time in solitary confinement, or, as he termed it the “hole” and “on the rock.”

Courtesy of The Paris Review article “Terence Hayes Brings Etheridge Knight Into Focus”

“The more oppressive the system you live under, the louder the poets scream,” Knight contended in 1989. And scream he did. His short stories and verses written in the penitentiary, were published in periodicals, anthologies, and the Journal of Black Poetry. Most famously, he published his book Poems from Prison, which included poems like “Cell Song” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison.” When he left prison in 1968 he worked as a punch press operator at a factory in Indianapolis. By 1972 his scream had been heard across the country and he had taught students creative writing at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and the University of Pittsburgh, and served as poet-in-residence at Lincoln University in Springfield, MO. He alleged that year that “There is more creativity going on in college campuses and prisons than any other places in the country.”

Knight assessed his years in prison, “My time made me see that prisons don’t rehabilitate. If you come out with any degree of sanity at all, you’re lucky. Prison is inhuman. It kills you.”

But poetry brought him back to life. Knight went on to establish Free People’s Poetry Workshops to counteract the “domination of the publishing industry by moneyed white males.” His books and spoken word garnered popular and critical acclaim and he received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, won the American Book Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Knight at typewriter, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The poet, described by modern African American poet Terrence Hayes, as a “talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic” died in 1991 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. For an in-depth examination of Knight’s works, see thepoetryfoundation.org.

 

Material for this post was derived from:
“Poet Gains Worldwide Acclaim,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 27, 1968, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Helen Fogel, Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1969, accessed Newspapers.com.

Randi M. Pollack, “Etheridge Knight Talks on Prison,” The Baltimore Sun, February 18, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Mike Fitzgerald, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 18, 1984, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Etheridge Knight: Going Against Safe Literary Doctrine,” The Indianapolis Star, March 12, 1989, accessed Newspapers.com.