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.

Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage, 1945-1987

Photograph from Nancy Poling’s personal collection.
  •  Out of courtesy to their descendants, the names of the Richmond couple have been changed.

Twenty-two years before Loving v. Virginia, Anna Harley, a white woman, and Daniel Winters, an African American man, sacrificed family, friends, and even country, to live together as husband and wife. In 1986, the Winters allowed me to interview them at their Mexico City home. It took me nearly 30 years to write Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). As the trust between us developed and they shared a part of their life they’d intended not to speak of, theirs became a more difficult narrative to put to paper. Looking back on their forty-two-year marriage—a tape recorder between them on their green sofa—they reflected on their relationship with startling honesty.*

On February 2, 1945, the Richmond, Indiana couple drove to Chicago, where they could legally marry. In Indiana “marriage between a white person and a person with one-eighth or more Negro blood” was a felony, punishable by a heavy fine, imprisonment, and the voiding of the marriage. Not until two years later, when Daniel’s mother, in Richmond, became ill, did the couple return to Indiana. During the eleven years they lived there, they were never prosecuted, but faced persecution.

Daniel was born in Richmond in 1908. The town he remembered was as segregated as most southern cities, with restaurants, beaches, and hotels off-limits to the city’s black population. When African American celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Joe Lewis, and Marian Anderson, visited the Indiana city they had to spend the night with a local widow, who rented out rooms.

A precocious child and an outstanding athlete, Daniel wasn’t bothered by the community’s discrimination until he was old enough to participate in team sports at school. A particularly painful memory included a frigid evening in which he had to change into his basketball uniform outside in the shadows of the YMCA building, because the association prohibited him from using its locker room. Although he took all of the advanced classes in high school, his white teachers never encouraged him to attend college. Yet in 1933, during the Great Depression, he graduated from Earlham College with a teaching degree in Spanish. While at the school, President William Cullen Dennis’s office chided Daniel for walking into town with groups of white women on his way home from classes. Daniel could not participate in Earlham’s social events that took place at the YMCA or Richmond hotels. After a long period of working menial jobs, he was able to teach Spanish in the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) program.

The Richmond Item, August 30, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

Anna, born near Lima, Ohio, was seven when her mother died. Six years later her father took off to California without her. Abandoned, she went to live with her older sister, Violet, in Brookville, Ohio, near Dayton. She grew up independent and with an adventuresome spirit. Following her 1938 graduation from Manchester College, in Indiana, she became a social worker.

Daniel and Anna met in Richmond. The WPA office he worked out of was located in the same building as the Unemployment Relief Agency, which Anna supervised. A gregarious man, Daniel went downstairs to visit the young women who worked there. He and Anna began meeting at night in the privacy of her car, where they talked, kissed, and held each other. When Anna was transferred to northern Indiana and attended meetings in Indianapolis, Daniel rode there by bus. Indianapolis was large enough for them to appear in public and maintain anonymity. Yet people stared when they walked arm in arm along the sidewalk. Men sneered, “whore” in passing.

Only one of Anna’s friends, Inez, met Daniel before the marriage. Inez was quickly drawn to his charm and urbane demeanor, but she warned in letters that Anna should follow her head instead of her heart. A daughter of Anna’s sister, Violet, later said, “Mom practically had a nervous breakdown,” upon learning of the approaching marriage.

Daniel working at International Harvester, courtesy of Nancy Poling’s personal collection.

With World War II boosting production, International Harvester hired Daniel as a janitor at its Richmond plant- some company leaders were convinced that African Americans lacked the intelligence to operate machinery. The labor union, however, valued his education and elected him to leadership positions. During the McCarthy era, like other union activists, he was labeled a communist and intimidated by the FBI.

When Harvester closed its Richmond plant in 1957, no one in town would hire the “n— commie troublemaker.” By now the family included two school-age daughters. A move to Mexico offered Daniel the opportunity to practice the profession he’d been trained for and their daughters a chance to grow up free of racial prejudice.

But the move put new stressors on the couple’s relationship. Daniel, who taught English at a prestigious boys’ school, was soon saying he felt “as Mexican as chili verde.” Anna, a reserved, blond woman, felt at odds with the effusive culture whose language she never fully mastered. Daniel resented her not being outgoing; she resented his making little effort to help her adjust.

While personal in nature, Daniel’s and Anna’s story is also cultural. It speaks to the discriminatory attitudes resulting from the Ku Klux Klan’s influence during the 1920s and of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It is not the happily-ever-after story I anticipated, but an honest portrayal of the love and hurt any two people, not just a biracial couple, can encounter in an intimate relationship.

Learn more about the struggles Daniel and Anna faced as a biracial couple in Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), available wherever books are sold.

* Daniel died five months after the interview; Anna is also deceased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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