Braceros in the Corn Belt Part One: Secretary Wickard & the Myth of the Agricultural Labor Shortage in WWII

In 1942, headlines in Indiana newspapers warned:

“Acute Labor Shortage Perils Midwest Farms”
(Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County

but also

“No Labor Shortage”
– Indianapolis Recorder

So which was it? An acute labor shortage endangering the farms of the corn-belt, and in turn, the country’s war production? Or no labor shortage at all? The answer is surprising and continues to impact policy today.

John Vachon, “Wheat,” photograph, 1941, Farm Security Administration Photographs, IUPUI University Library, http://ulib.iupuidigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/IFSAP/id/562

The Agricultural Front

Just before U. S. entry into the Second World War, large farming and agricultural processing companies—which had become dependent on the cheap labor that was abundant during the Great Depression—warned of an impending labor shortage. They claimed that there was not a sufficient number of workers available to fill the positions left behind by the men enlisting in the armed forces, or by the men and women who left the farm for war-related industrial work.

At the same time, with the introduction of President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program (which lent food and supplies to Great Britain and its allies), the U.S. needed to produce more agricultural products than ever before. The battle on the agricultural front would need a larger number of agrarian soldiers. Indiana newspapers worried over how Hoosier farmers would meet production goals as their sons left for the “army camps” and “defense industrial plants.” The Muncie Post Democrat continued:

Now that the sons are gone, the farm operators find it impossible to compete with industrial labor wages for help. This may result in many acres uncultivated this season . . . This condition rates as serious when food production is important in the defense program.

In spring 1942, Purdue University reported that “anticipated shortages of farm labor, resulting from enlistments in the armed forces and attractive industrial wages, have not developed.” However, as the year went on, Indiana newspapers became more frantic in tone. They reported that farmers were selling acreage and animals because they could not find farm hands to help with the work. The weekly industry newspaper, the Prairie Farmer, surveyed eighty-one midwestern counties and reported that  three-fourths of them “were found to be suffering from a shortage of farm hands.”

“Farmers on the Carlin Farm, Monroe Township, Kosciusko County, Ind.,” 1949, Collection of Elaine (Carlin) Brown, Pierceton and Washington Township Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Indiana Canneries and the “Labor Shortage”

By the fall of 1942, large Indiana agricultural businesses joined the national cry of “labor shortage.” Indiana newspapers gave extensive coverage to the professed concerns of the tomato canning industry.  The Muncie Evening Press ran the headline: “Labor Shortage Hits Tomatoes: Cannery Shutdowns and Crop Losses Threaten.”

The article reported that the “acute war-born labor shortage” would close a dozen canneries and that “picked tomatoes awaiting processing [were] lying idle and periled by rotting.” State government officials and the Indiana Farm Bureau spoke on behalf of the canneries and appealed to local men and women to go to work at the plants. Hasil E. Schenck, president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, stated:

Reduced farm production will be no reflection on the patriotism of farmers, for without manpower they can not produce food and fiber any better than industry can produce ships, tanks and guns without steel.

Indiana Governor Henry Schricker issued “an appeal to housewives and all others available to apply for work at the nearest cannery.” The Evening Press reported that the canneries were already employing WPA workers and were calling for women “peelers” and for school children “packers” to volunteer their services.

“Can label for IT brand Indiana tomatoes packed by R. W. Jones Canning Corporation,” n.d., Trade Catalogs for Indiana Businesses, Digital Images Elkhart Public Library, Auburn Indiana, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p16066coll3-21.

Yes, volunteer. These industry giants, many of whom had profitable government contracts, were asking for women and children to freely donate their labor. A few days after the call for volunteers went out, the Elwood Call-Leader praised the response of school staff and students in the Madison County area while rebuking the “apathetic and uncooperative” attitudes of local women—women who likely had increased workloads at home because of the war effort. According to the article, employment service and local government officials complained that “despite all appeals that have been made throughout the past week, many . . . women still do not realize the seriousness of the situation and are not willing to work, even [though] they are needed only to get through the brief critical period the industry is now facing.”

The Call-Leader added that army officials were “alarmed at the situation” and were “making a check to see whether the army will be able to get the tomatoes it has ordered.” The canneries’ message was clear. Without cheap or free labor, American boys on the front would go without food. Like corporations across the country, Indiana businesses began to demand that the government supply them with an inexpensive source of labor.

African American Newspapers and the “Labor Shortage”

And yet, African American newspapers saw “no labor shortage.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the companies need only to “hire negroes.” The Recorder, continued:

Nobody has yet proved there is a labor shortage in this country. . .  There is no need to work a few workers to death while others walk the streets hungry, seeking work. There are still enough qualified workers in this country to allow employers to continue their discrimination against workers because of the race, religion, and nationality of such workers.

Indiana’s African American newspapers reported that thousands of African Americans were looking for work and were willing to travel great distances to take jobs, but employers didn’t want them. For example, in November 1942, the Indianapolis Recorder and the Evansville Argus reprinted a report from Graphic Magazine that 3,000 African American men left “the Deep South” at the request of California farmers for help saving the harvest. When they arrived “there were no jobs for them!”

Graphics Magazine, reprinted as “Editors Expose Abuse of Negro Labor,” in Evansville Argus, October 31, 1942, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and Indianapolis Recorder, November 14, 1942, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Labor Shortage Myth

The observations of the African American newspapers were correct. There was no labor shortage that the federal government could not meet with domestic workers. However, the myth of the labor shortage had its own power.

Over the previous decade, the Great Depression created a large surplus of workers seeking employment. In 1941, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor reported that farmers had “come to consider this over supply as the normal supply, and to consider any reduction in the surplus supply as a shortage.” These departments concluded, however, that all of the shortages, perceived or real, could be met by moving surplus domestic workers into the areas of need. The catch, however, was that the balanced supply of available workers and demand for their labor required employers to pay a fair wage for agricultural labor.

Spencer Douglass Crockwell, “Work On A Farm This Summer,” poster, 1943, United States Office of War Information, Print Department Collection, Boston Public Library, accessed Digital Public Library of America

A remarkably organized effort of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the U. S. Employment Service (USES) was prepared to deal with any real “pockets of labor scarcity.” They expanded the New Deal migratory camp program, setting up permanent and mobile camps around the country to bring American workers across the country for harvests. However, because employers had to pay more reasonable wages, they still complained of shortage. In fact, they cited higher wages as evidence of a shortage.

Statistics from the Indiana division of the U.S. Employment Service show that Indiana’s available labor pool reflected the national situation. J. Bradley Haight, the Director of the U.S. Employment Service (USES) in Indiana estimated in 1942 that there were “100,000 individuals in the state seeking employment. He stated, “The job insurance division issued checks to 40,000 persons. This represents a reservoir of labor which is to be tapped.” However, the large growers, dependent on cheap labor, continued to cry shortage even as they were provided with workers by the FSA and USES—workers that they didn’t want to employ because of racial prejudice or unwillingness to pay a fair wage.

So these wealthy, powerful, and organized growers and processors of agricultural commodities demanded that the federal government respond to their manufactured labor shortage by importing foreign workers. The government quickly gave in to their demands. History professor Cindy Hahamovitch, writing for the Center for Immigration Studies, summarized the government’s response to the labor myth:

The officials who created the guestworker program never believed there was a national labor shortage in agriculture. . . They created the importation program, not because it was necessary, but because it was politically expedient to do so, because the nation’s most powerful growers were demanding the preservation of the cheap, plentiful, and complacent labor force to which they had become accustomed over the previous 20 years of agricultural depression.

The federal government complied because the myth was persuasive. A false labor shortage would have the same effect on agricultural production as a real one. No amount of statistics or economic reports could allay the fears of farmers worrying if sufficient help would be available at harvest time. Therefore, farmers anticipating a lack of aid and picturing their produce rotting in the fields, would plant less, and the country wouldn’t meet its production goals—just as if there was a real labor shortage.

Despite their best efforts to meet the real pocket labor shortages with domestic workers and their distribution of reports on the available domestic labor pool, the federal government needed to allay the small farmer’s growing fear of a massive shortage. By 1942, the Roosevelt administration was cornered into responding to the shortage myth by importing foreign workers. As Congress tore apart the Farm Security Administration and its program of migrating workers to areas of need, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, left for Mexico to negotiate a deal that would affect agricultural and immigration policy for decades.

Hoosier Dirt Farmer as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture

Claude R. Wickard was a Hoosier dirt farmer through and through. He was born in 1893 and raised in Carroll County on his family’s farm. His father, a staunch democrat named for Andrew Jackson, was a strict disciplinarian who raised his son with every expectation that the farm was his present, future, and legacy. The younger Wickard, however, grew ambitious. He saw that the farm could be more productive and efficient with the application of modern methods. Against his father’s wishes, he enrolled in classes at Purdue, where he learned about scientific farming and got hands-on experience with sanitary hog care and breeding. He soon vastly improved the farm and received recognition from farming organizations as a leader in modern farming methods. His influence in local Farm Bureau organizations grew in the 1920s and he advanced to several leadership positions where he took on the challenges of his fellow farmers.

“Secretary of Agriculture Wickard Tours the Family Farm…” in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 82. [Claude Wickard on left]
Beginning at Purdue and continuing throughout his career, Wickard remained focused on rural social justice and “the farm problem.” To Wickard, social justice for rural folks meant that farmers should have equal buying power as urban workers. The inextricably related farm problem was what economists called a parity problem, that is, the prices farmers received for their products was not in balance with their expenses. Wickard, like many leaders of the New Deal, spent his early career trying to figure out how the state and federal government could achieve parity for farmers by solving the problem of overproduction.

By 1930, several factors made Wickard a prime political candidate. First and foremost, while most Indiana farmers were Republicans, Wickard was born into a staunchly Democratic family and remained loyal to the party despite the fact that the national party had not prioritized rural concerns through the 1920s. Thus, Wickard was one of the few farmers with influence in the Farm Bureau and other organizations who was also a Democrat. Second, Wickard’s embrace of scientific farming ideas made him open to production control as a method to achieving parity for farmers. Most farmers, who were already barely making ends meet while operating their farms at full production could not imagine cutting down on output. Wickard, however, could see that farmers needed help from the federal government to make the drastic, nationwide economic shift required to give them the same standard of living as the urban people they fed. This way of thinking aligned with the ideas of the men who would soon take over leadership of the nation. Wickard was poised to join them.

His political career began modestly. A group of county organizers convinced him to run for a state senate seat and he reluctantly agreed. Wickard stated in an interview:

I didn’t like politics . . . [but] like all other things, sometimes you’ve got to make your contributions to your community and to the Democratic Party . . . I had a feeling of responsibility toward my fellow citizen.

Wickard was elected state senator November 8, 1932 as Democrats swept elections across the country and Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the U. S. presidency.

In May 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act took effect and farmers saw that the new administration recognized their plight. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA or Triple-A), a division of the Department of Agriculture, was tasked with creating parity through taxing companies that used agricultural produce and decreasing production. Wickard was quickly elected chairman of the Corn-Hog Section of the Indiana Triple-A. He soon became the Assistant to the Chief of the National Corn-Hog Division, and in July 1933 Wickard went to Washington.

When he arrived in Washington as second in command of the Corn-Hog Section of the AAA, he was overwhelmed by the job. In his own words, Wickard was “just a farmer” and had to work to understand the complex economic issues the administration faced. And he got frustrated with the pace of bureaucracy. However, he was likeable, earnest, easy to work with, and his ideas about parity aligned with those of Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture. Most important to Wickard’s rise, however, was that he was known as a loyal Democrat and commanded the respect of midwestern farmers.

When the Department of Agriculture reorganized by region, as opposed to commodity in 1936, Wickard became Assistant Director of the North Central Division. By this point, Wickard was on Wallace’s radar and the secretary saw potential in the Hoosier dirt farmer. Wallace later noted that Wickard was rare in a department of apolitical technocrats and subject experts in that he was actually a Democrat. Wallace stated: “He was about the only one of the whole crowd in agriculture that had any claim to being a democratic politico.” In the fall of 1936, Wallace brought Wickard with him as he stumped for FDR throughout the Midwest. When FDR won reelection, Wickard continued to make himself useful to Wallace at the USDA and was quite successful and well-liked in  his division.

“A Speech to the Nation,”  in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 340.

In January 1940, Wallace recommended Wickard to FDR for the position of Undersecretaty of Agriculture. After making sure he was not aligned with Roosevelt’s Hoosier adversary Paul McNutt, the president agreed. Wickard was sworn in February 29, 1940. He served less than six months before Wallace resigned as Secretary of Agriculture to run as FDR’s vice president. Wallace recommended Wickard to succeed him and Wickard was sworn in as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture September 1940.

Wickard, The Labor Issue, and The Bracero Program

With much of Europe dependent on U.S. agricultural production, the Secretary of Agriculture’s job was even more important than in peace time. Meeting war production goals was paramount. Wickard faced many challenges, among them, the increasing claims of a labor shortage.  In December 1941, Wickard testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee:

The farm labor shortage is not as serious as generally believed. Farm production has suffered, of course, from the loss of farm hands who have been drafted or got higher pay in defense plants. But the situation is not alarming.

While he downplayed the labor shortage claims, he did make it clear that farmers would “have to pay more for their help” than they had before the war stimulated the economy and reduced the labor surplus. As the earlier examination of newspaper articles has shown, this was not an option many corporations were willing to consider.

Less than a year later, Wickard had changed his approach to the issue. The (Richmond) Palladium-Item reported :

Secretary of Agriculture Wickard warned that the United States would face a food shortage unless it quickly solves the problem of manning the farms. He estimated the armed forces and factories may drain off approximately 2,000,000 farm workers by the end of 1942 in addition to those who have already gone.

By this point, it seemed like Wickard was treating the labor shortage claims as a legitimate threat to production goals. However, this same Palladium article still noted that “the most mentioned causes” of the shortage “were high wages.” Even at the peak of industry claims of a labor shortage, the crux of the issue was still that companies would “have to pay more for their help,” as Wickard told the House in 1941.

“Photograph [of Wickard] used for a newspaper owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company,” 1946, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed Gateway to Oklahoma History.
While Wickard described his understanding of complex economic issues as limited and his progress in grasping what his statistician colleagues reported as slow and labored, he deeply understood and cared about agricultural issues and maintained a strong moral decision-making process throughout his career. Like most government officials with access to labor statistics, Wickard would have known that, while there was no labor shortage, a fictional labor shortage was just as dangerous to the war effort. It is, however, possible that his tenuous grasp of complex economic issues meant that he thought the shortage was real. (His biographer Dean Albertson implies the second). Wickard’s career record shows that he would not have acted to address the labor shortage had he not believed it was the best thing for the American people. There are many instances during his career when a different vote or decision would have furthered his political career, but he did what he believed to be the right thing for American farmers.*

Dorthea Lange, “Braceros,” ca. 1942, photograph, Oakland Museum of California, accessed Online Archive of California.

Tasked with addressing the issue, Wickard left for the Second Inter-American Conference on Agriculture in Mexico City early in July 1942, to make a deal that would import Mexican workers and ensure the United States met its production goals. Several agencies were involved in creating a plan to import Mexican agricultural workers, but it was Wickard who was responsible for negotiating an agreement between the interests of the Mexican government, the United States government, American farmers, labor organizations, and large farming and processing conglomerates.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Evequiel Padilla Peñaloza was reluctant to agree because of U.S. exploitation of and discrimination against Mexican workers in the past. Padilla insisted that any agreement include a number of guarantees for the rights of braceros. Padilla demanded Mexican workers receive the same guarantees of wages and working and living conditions as American workers. Wickard agreed to a minimum wage and work and living standard. However, there were no such guarantees for American workers. Thus, as labor organizations were quick to point out, these workers were guaranteed, at least in theory, more protection by the U. S. government than domestic farm laborers. After ten days of negotiations Wickard formalized the agreement August 4, 1942. In less than a year’s time, Indiana farms were benefiting from foreign labor. Hoosier response to these guest workers was mixed.

In Part Two of this post we will look at the stories of these farmers and foreign workers as told through Indiana newspapers:

Further Reading:

Albertson, Dean. Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Claude R. Wickard. State Historical Marker. Indiana Historical Bureau, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4420.htm

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Hahamovitch, Cindy .”The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.

THH Season 2 Episode 3: The Rhodes Family Incident

Transcript of The Rhodes Family Incident

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Door opening]

Beckley: Picture a house with one entrance – no windows to let in the light, no back door for easy access to the back yard– just the one front door. In 1844, the Rhodes family lived in just such a house. John Rhodes had built his family home in such an unusual manner with one thing on his mind – protection. Protection from the threat that loomed large over everyday life on his small Westfield farm. Protection from the day that John and his wife, Louann hoped would never come. Protection from slave catchers paid to hunt down and re-enslave freedom seekers. John and Louann Rhodes, along with their infant daughter, escaped from the home of their enslaver 7 years before, in 1837. On this episode, we’ll discuss the Underground Railroad in Indiana and what came to be known as the Rhodes Family Incident.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

[Music]

Beckley: Slave escape narratives and stories of the Underground Railroad abound in the American collective memory. These stories tend to follow a similar plot. The enslaved person is concerned about being separated from their family. They include daring and ingenious escapes. And they end just after the central figures reach the “freedom” of the North. These plot points can be seen clearly in two of America’s most well-known escape stories.

Guest speaker: After watching his wife and children sold away, Henry Brown resolved to escape slavery by any means necessary. That means, as it turned out, was to be a wooden crate marked “dry goods.” On March 23, 1849, Brown, with the help of others, concealed himself in a wooden box and shipped himself from Virginia to Philadelphia. He traveled – first by wagon, then by steamboat, and finally by railroad – for 27 hours to the home of abolitionist James Miller McKim. His daring escape was successful and he became known as “Box” Brown.

Guest Speaker: William and Ellen Craft married in 1846, despite being owned by two different families. The two dreaded a possible separation and decided to flee north. Ellen, who had a lighter complexion than her husband, posed as a white male slave owner travelling with a male slave, who would, of course, be William. The two fled their enslavement in Georgia in December 1848 and after several days – and several close calls – they reached their destination – Philadelphia.

[Music]

Beckley: But that’s not where their stories ended – Henry Brown and William and Ellen Craft all eventually moved to England to escape the possibility of recapture. People who had escaped enslavement were often forced to continue escaping for the rest of their lives.

Recapture was a constant threat to those who had escaped slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 declared that any person accused of being a runaway slave could be claimed by providing proof – in the form of verbal assurance or an affidavit – that that person was their property. Not so shockingly, this honor system was often abused by people seeking to enslave other people. The act also imposed penalties on those who assisted a fugitive slave in escape or concealment after escape.

The threat of these penalties meant that any work being done to assist enslaved people in their search for freedom had to be done in secret and that led to the development of the Underground Railroad. This secrecy, as crucial as it was to the continuation of the Underground Railroad, has presented some problems for historians in the years since the abolition of slavery. The lack of documentation means that it’s difficult to verify local lore that the church – or home – or local dry goods store – was a stop. And what few documents we do have are almost exclusively from white allies of the Underground Railroad, despite the fact that free black communities were crucial in the escape stories of many people. This has created a distorted view of the UGRR as being a system of white people saving enslaved African Americans from the bonds of slavery while largely ignoring not only the work done by free black communities but also the agency of the escaping people themselves.

Luckily, every so often, there’s a story that comes through the ages that can be verified and that tells a story of formerly enslaved people fighting to remain free. This is one of those stories.

$1,100. $1,100 could buy three humans in 1836. In this case, those humans were John and Louann Rhodes and their child, Lydia. They were sold as slaves to Singleton Vaughn, of Missouri, who took them to his land to work. Little is known of the conditions of the Rhodes family while they lived on the Vaughn property. Regardless of their treatment, one fact is certain – they weren’t free. About a year later, the family learned that Vaughn planned to sell Louann and Lydia further south, splitting up the Rhodes.

They had two choices – stay and hope that such an eventuality never came to pass, or attempt an escape. Both were risky. It was common practice for slave holders to sell members of the same family to other enslavers. On the other hand, the prospect of an escape must have been daunting and the repercussions of a failed attempt could be harsh or even deadly. Surely, the two weighed their options and debated the probability of being separated. In the end, they decided that escape was the only plausible option – the risk of separation was too high.

In the middle of the night in April, 1836, John, Louann, and Lydia stole away from the Vaughn farm. They traveled lightly – they carried an axe and some clothes but little else.

[Sound of water]

Beckley: The family made their way across the Mississippi River and into Illinois. Vaughn, upon discovering their absence, sent notices to various authorities alerting them to be on the lookout. Apparently, those notices worked and the fleeing family was captured and placed in jail somewhere in Illinois.

The details of the story are vague, but somehow nearby agents of the Underground Railroad were alerted to the freedom seekers’ plight. They broke into the jail and freed the family, who continued their journey, presumably heading towards Canada. Travelling north east, the family moved through the fields of Illinois, and later, Indiana.

[Transition music]

BeckleyEventually, they made their way to Hamilton County, Indiana – just North of Indianapolis. While we don’t know for certain why they made this decision, the family decided to settle in Hamilton County, near Bakers Corner. The area was home to many free people of color who were farming and thriving – this likely fostered a sense of belonging.

[Sound of felling a tree]

Beckley: In the years after settling in the area, the family bought and cleared a 10 acre plot of land, built their house… you know, the one with just one door, and presumably lived a fairly typical life for farmers in rural Indiana. To get a glimpse of that life, we can turn to the nearby Roberts Settlement, a community of free people of color not even 10 miles north of the Rhodes family home. In the book Southern Seed Northern Soil, the preeminent work on the topic, historian Stephen Vincent writes,

Voice actor reading from Southern Seed Northern Soil:  “Throughout the 1830s and 1840s…pioneers engaged in a constant struggle to gain an upper hand on this forbidding wilderness. Much of their time and energy was devoted to clearing their forested claims, tackling the work associated with farm-making, and producing most of the food and other goods needed for survival.”

Beckley: The Rhodes family would have faced similar struggles in taming the land, along with the ever present threat of their former enslaver catching up to them. In the spring of 1844, their worst fears became reality when Singleton Vaughn appeared on their doorstep.

[Transition music]

Exactly how Vaughn learned of the Rhodes’ presence in Hamilton County is unknown. But when he heard, he, along with two agents who could confirm that he had bought the family, travelled to Indiana. Once they arrived, Vaughn applied for and received a warrant to arrest the Rhodes and return with them to Missouri. Then, in the middle of the night, the men, who were intent on re-enslaving the family within, arrived at that small home with just one front door.

[Ominous music]

They knocked on the door, but when the family realized who was calling, they refused to open. Vaughn and his men pried the door from its hinges and broke through the stick and mud chimney. Realizing that physical resistance was not only futile, but dangerous, John Rhodes turned to his intellect…he had a plan.

He and Louann surrendered themselves to the slave catchers and agreed to return to Missouri. First, though, John claimed that a neighbor owed the family $50, knowing that Vaughn would want to collect on the debt since the money would actually go to him, as their enslaver. Vaughn allowed the neighbor to be fetched, just as John had hoped. The neighbor arrived, and he was followed shortly by more neighbors – many of whom were friends of the Rhodes and protested their kidnapping.

Vaughn knew the law was on his side. In his mind, he had little to lose by going through the judicial system – he had enslaved the Rhodes lawfully, put them to forced labor lawfully, and now, he wanted to re-claim them lawfully. To that end, he agreed to have the matter put to trial in Noblesville. The group – made up of the Rhodes, who were being carried in a wagon, surrounded by Vaughn, his agents, and an ever increasing crowd of neighbors on foot – made their way toward town for some time before stopping at a farm for a few hours to break their fast. While they were stopped, their company grew even more.

Finally, they started down the road once more, moving ever so slowly towards Noblesville. They reached a fork in the road – one path led to Noblesville, the other to Westfield. The throng of neighbors – now 150 people strong, were well aware that the Rhodes had a better chance at freedom if their trial was in Westfield, which had more abolitionist leaning officials than Noblesville. That’s why, upon arriving at the fork in the road, the members of the crowd urged the driver of the wagon to proceed to Westfield. After much arguing, it had been almost decided to take their chances in Noblesville when, with a shout, the wagon driver urged his horses down the Westfield road. Vaughn and his companions attempted to follow but the fleeing wagon was too fast. The wagon escaped and with it, the Rhodes family, not to be seen by Vaughn or his associates again.

Vaughn had lost his property, but he had one more course of action at his disposal. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 states that:

Voice actor: “Any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor…shall forfeit and pay the sum of 500 dollars, for the benefit of such claimant.”

Beckley: Citing this rarely enforced section of the act, Vaughn singled out Mr. Owen Williams as being in the crowd on the day of the escape and filed suit against him in an attempt to recuperate at least a portion of his investment.

The case was brought to the Indiana Circuit Court in May, 1845, a year after the Rhodes narrowly escaped Vaughn’s grasp. The presiding Judge, John McLean gave the jury several instructions prior to trial, such as: the jury were not to make a judgement on slavery itself, but rather on the case in question, based on legal precedent, rather than their personal feelings about the practice. He also reminded the jurors that the U.S. constitution was in full effect in the state of Indiana, including those sections upholding slavery and the rights of property that went with that. It was the very last instruction that was most crucial to the case at hand, though.

Voice actor: “An owner of slaves, who takes them to the state of Illinois, and keeps them at labor six months, and then removes them to Missouri, forfeits his right to them as slaves.”

Beckley: Before Singleton Vaughn purchased John, Louann, and Lydia, they were living with their enslaver, name of Tipton, in Illinois. Tipton had moved them to Illinois, a free state, from October, 1835 to April, 1836 – that’s almost exactly 6 months. Just long enough for them to become legally free.

During the course of the trial, Vaughn provided evidence that he had purchased the family of 3 for $1,100 – $500 down with ongoing payments arranged – basically, he purchased them on an installment plan…a phrase which is typical, if you’re buying a car, but which becomes nearly unfathomable when talking about human beings. He also provided evidence that the Rhodes lived and worked on his land for 1 year. And that he had acquired the appropriate paperwork to recapture them in Indiana. He even provided evidence that he was not a cruel enslaver – not that that was necessary, as, under the law, he could treat his property however he saw fit.

On the other side, the defense presented evidence that Tipton, the Rhodes’ former enslaver, had not only lived in Illinois, but that he had made improvements to his land. And he had participated in elections. And told his neighbors he intended to stay in the state, and eventually become a citizen of the state. All of this evidence added up to prove that Tipton knowingly moved John, Louann, and Lydia to a free state for over 6 months. Thus, Singleton Vaughn could not have bought them, because they were not enslaved. Thus, the Rhodes family was free.

After both sides rested their case, the jury took only a few minutes to come to a verdict: Owen Williams did not owe Singleton Vaughn the $500 fee for aiding and abetting a fugitive, due to the fact that the Rhodes were not fugitives.

Vaughn v. Williams was not a landmark case. There was plenty of legal precedent upon which to base the decision. But it was a landmark moment in the lives of this Hoosier family. John and Louann Rhodes lived freely in Hamilton County for the rest of their lives.

If the case of Vaughn v. Williams had been decided after 1857, the outcome would have been much different. The legal landscape had changed in two drastic ways in the intervening years. First, the 1793 Fugitive Slave act had been replaced by the much stricter and federally enforced Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Second, in 1857, Scott v. Standford, more commonly known as the Dred Scott case, toppled legal precedent and ruled that a slave, in this case Dred Scott, who had resided in a free state, in this case, Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, was not thereby free. Furthermore, it was ruled that African Americans, whether they were free or enslaved, could not be citizens of the United States. Justice John McLean, who had presided over the Vaughn v. Williams case, wrote a scathing dissenting option on the Dred Scot case. In it, he underlined the legal precedent, as he had done with his jurors instructions 12 years before.

Although John, Louann, and their children were legally free in perpetuity, the anxiety of being re-enslaved was ever present, through the Civil War. As discussed at the top of the episode, all an enslaver needed to do in order to claim a person of color as their property was to convince a judge that he owned them, oftentimes with extremely tenuous, even false evidence.

For example, in the case of Vallandingham v. West, which was discussed in season 1, epsidoe 3 of the podcast, Vallandingham, who claimed that West had escaped enslavement on his property, cited the fact that he had cut off one of West’s fingers during his enslavement. Despite the fact that West did not have any such injury, it was ruled that West was to be sent to Kentucky to be put to forced labor on Vallandingham’s property. In this case, as in many other cases, there was no justice.

When people live in a place where they don’t feel protected by the governmental authorities or judicial system, they often find other ways to cope – John Rhodes built his home with only one exit in order to avoid slave catchers. Young African American boys were taught not to look at a white woman during the early 20th century in order to avoid the wrath of vigilante justice. And today, the national discussion still centers around the discrepancies in the treatment of minorities in the American judicial system.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau which is a division of the Indiana State Library. Special thanks to our guest speaker, Angela Downs, who is an administrative assistant at the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark. Visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook at @talkhoosierhist and like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

[Door Closing]

Season Two Episode Three Show Notes

Other

Vaughan v. Williams, Indiana Circuit Court, May Term: 1845, Case No. 16,903, Accessed in IHB Rhodes Family Incident Historical Marker File.

Newspaper

“Pioneer Times Recalled,” Hamilton County Ledger, April 6, 1909, 1.

Articles

                C.W.A. David. “The fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and its Antecedents,” The Journal of Negro History, 9, no. 1 (January 1924): 18-25.

Heighway, David. “The Law in Black and White: The Story of a Hamilton County Family,” https://www.westfield.in.gov/egov/documents/1376663863_54293.pdf

Conklin, Julia. “The Underground Railroad in Indiana,” The Indiana Magazine of History, 6, no. 2 (June 1910): 63-74.

Shirts, Augustus. A History of the Formation, Settlement and Development of Hamilton County, Indiana, From the Year 1818 to the Close of the Civil War.

Books

                Cox, Anna-Lisa. The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers & The Struggle for Equality, New York: Public Affairs, 2018.

                Vincent, Stephen. Southern Seed Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

 

Boiled, Burned, and Guillotined: The Inventions of Magician Lester “Marvelo” Lake

Business stationary, Lester “Marvelo” Lake, courtesy of London the Mentalist, reproduced in Julie Schlesselman’s Buried Alive Every Afternoon Burned Alive Every Evening, p. 123.

Lester “Marvelo” Lake was born in 1904 in the small town of New Trenton, Indiana, where his father owned a local dry goods store. It was in that store that Lake met a man who would change his life. The man remains unnamed in the story told to a reporter, but Lake recalled “Then came . . . an old timer that kindly showed me some tricks and very nicely ruined me forever.” Magic came to be not only a passion for the outgoing and entertaining young Hoosier. It would become his profession.

Lake’s magic career spanned from 1925 to 1960. He performed shows in theaters, parks, and nightclubs from California to Louisiana, as well as abroad in Europe and Cuba. The changes in his career reflected closely the changes in the entertainment industry. Early in his career, during the tail end of the “Golden Age of Amusement Parks,” Lake was contracted to perform multiple daily shows at Forest Park in Dayton, Ohio. As the Great Depression set in, Lake began travelling more frequently for work, going wherever he could get a gig – mostly in small theatres and nightclubs. However, Lake’s importance comes not from his performances but from his many inventions.

Lake is credited with either inventing or improving upon 300 tricks and illusions during his career. First independently, and later in conjunction with Abbott’s Magic Co. of Colon, Michigan, Lake invented and sold versions of popular illusions such as the Indian rope trick, 3-card monte, and a sword-box. Some of his most notable developments were his spectacular outdoor performance pieces – Boiled Alive and Burned Alive, as well as the Lester Lake Guillotine.

Boiled Alive

Outdoor venues such as amusement parks were the perfect venues for spectacular illusions. Lake’s first large scale outdoor illusion was Buried Alive, versions of which had been performed by the likes of Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. After gaining some notoriety for his performance of Buried Alive, he began performing a new illusion of his own creation – Boiled Alive. The illusion is described in the Dayton Daily News:

Dayton Daily News, August 12, 1928, 22, Newspapers.com.

“Permitting himself to be bound with chains and shackled, he jumps into a tank of blazing fluid, emerging a few moments later free of all his bounds and seemingly without being any the worse for his experience. That there is not fraud in the manner in which he permits himself to be bound and shackled, he permits personal inspection of his bonds by anyone so desiring, before leaping into the tank.”

Later, Lake described some of the mechanics of the illusion in a magic magazine called The Sphinx:

“Suggested measurements for the props for this effect are a platform five feet wide, twelve feet long, which is raised twelve feet from the ground on four uprights or substantial posts. The platform needs to be braced and to have a trap door in the center four feet by four feet. This trap door has two doors opening down and a release connected with a rope which runs to the edge of the platform and hangs down . . . Around the base of the tank is laid light kindling and brush wood and excelsior . . . I filled the tank practically to the top and poured a quart of gasoline on top of the after . . . After the performer has released himself from the shackles in the water, he stays down as long as he is able in order to heighted the effect.”

Lake preparing to plunge into the Boiled Alive container, courtesy of Ken Klosterman’s Salon de Magie, reproduced in Schlesselman’s Buried Alive, p. 79.

Perhaps due to all of the equipment involved in the production of this illusion, reports of Lake performing it are confined to his time at Forest Park. His next large scale spectacular illusion would become much more wid espread.

Burned Alive

The Richmond Item, July 5, 1929, 15, Newspapers.com.

On Monday, July 1, 1929, Lester Lake unveiled his newest act – Burned Alive. The set-up of the performance was described in The Sphinx:

“A platform was built and covered with sand. Coal oil was poured around and papers scattered about and in the center was a box of zinc construction. Lake was put into it and the lid clamped down. Then someone set4 the oil on fire. The mass burned for seven and one-half minutes, after which Lake was removed from the box, hot but unburned.”

Newspapers reported that there were some adjustments to be made for future performances, noting:

At Monday night’s performance the oven in which Lake allows himself to be placed became ‘a little too hot.’ He emerged from it as per schedule, but a little too warm under the collar. A fire that is not too hot has been ordered by Lake for future performances.

Lake denied all accusations of utilizing an oxygen tank during his performances. He explained in interviews that he employed “self-hypnosis,” a type of meditation, in both his Burned Alive and Buried Alive Acts. After being closed in the coffin (a wooden coffin was used for Buried Alive and a metal coffin was used for Burned Alive), Lake would enter a “catatonic state,” allowing him to survive on a limited amount of oxygen and withstand the high temperatures.

Lake’s Buried Alive Performance, Courtesy of London the Mentalist, Schlesselman’s Buried Alive, p. 131.

Lester Lake Guillotine

Advertisement for the Lester Lake Guillotine, personal collection of Julie Schlesselman, reproduced in Schlesselman’s Buried Alive, p. 110.

Probably Lake’s most recognizable illusion, the Lester Lake Guillotine, improved upon past beheading illusions. The history of decapitation illusions can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Lake’s version of the ancient trick was different in that it was portable. Weighing about 30 lbs. and transported in a briefcase-like package, the Lester Lake Guillotine was much more feasible for a travelling show and small stage than its large, cumbersome forbearers.

The Linking Ring, 10, No. 12 (February 1931): 1557.

Unlike the Boiled Alive and Burned Alive illusions, Lake manufactured and sold the Lester Lake Guillotine, which caused him to be tight lipped on the exact construction. It is clear that, like most decapitation apparatuses that came after it, the Lester Lake Guillotine employed two blades – one above the head and one below the head – and stopper blocks hidden within the neck stock piece to stop the upper blade just before it reached the neck of the “victim.”

Lake manufactured his guillotines independently from 1931 until 1934, when he began working in conjunction with Abbott’s Magic Co. From that time on, the device became more frequently referred to as the “Head Chopper.” Later, Lake produced many similar products for the company, including The Chopper (a smaller, even more portable version of the Guillotine) and The Disecto Illusion (shown below).

The Conjurors’ Magazine, 1 No. 4 (May 1945): 47.

Lester Lake’s contributions to the world of magic are enduring. In the years after his 1977 death, magicians continued to perform and improve illusions pioneered by “Marvelo.”

THH Season 2 Episode 2: Haunted Hoosier History 2018

Transcript of Haunted Hoosier History 2018

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey from Original Research

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins:

Lindsey Beckley: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people lived a lot more closely with death than we do today. Mortality rates were much higher. Wakes were held in the family home. And relics of the dead, such as death photographs and hair jewelry, were kept as prize possessions after the wake had ended. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that from this time came the religion of spirituality, which was based on the belief that the spirits of the dead were not only here, in this world, but could even communicate with you, if you had the right skill set. Spiritualism was fairly widespread by the late 1800s and interest in the paranormal was at an all-time high. Skepticism was also at an all-time high. Cashing in on this divide, newspapers printed a wide variety of ghost stories and paranormal investigations. On this episode, join me as we explore just a few of these ghastly tales from the pages of historic Indiana newspapers.

[Music]

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Before we get to the eerie escapades of this episode, I wanted to give a bit of a warning. We’ll be exploring some rather spooky subjects today and there will be violence and there will be murder. If those topics make you uncomfortable, perhaps you should turn back now and join us again next episode. Otherwise…Welcome.

Most ghost stories start with death. And our first terrifying tale is no exception. The Logansport Journal brought us reports of a patricide in Galveston, Cass County on September 9, 1895.

[Gun Shots]

Beckley: The early afternoon calm of Galveston was ripped away in an instant as gunshots emanated from the home of Daniel Kemp, one of the oldest and most well respected men of the small town. Daniel’s son, Frank, who had lost both of his legs in an accident and so used a hand operated tricycle to get around, fetched a doctor. The doctor attended the scene and found not only had Daniel been shot, he had also been bludgeoned in the head. The good doctor did everything he could for the wounded man, but it was in vain. The injury proved to be fatal.

In the meantime, the ugly truth came to light: it had been Frank, Daniels own son, who pulled the trigger after quarrelling with his father over money.

The body was removed and buried. Frank was taken away in chains to be tried for the murder of his father. Time passed. Lives went on. Over a year later, this tragic event reared its head several miles away in Logansport, the county seat of Cass County.  On February 3, 1897, newspaper headlines announced that “A Ghostly Shape Haunts the Catacombs of the Court House.”

In that very courthouse where, a year and a half before, Frank Kemp had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to three years in prison. Two grisly reminders of this case sat in the basement of the court house, forgotten after the trial. The hand operated tricycle which Frank Kemp had used to fetch the doctor that fateful day, and the cudgel he had used to bludgeon his father’s head, still stained with blood.

[Creaking door]

Beckley: The courthouse night watchman had made it his habit to eat lunch in the basement each night. He knew the murderous story behind the relics stashed away in the basement and there’s little doubt that the brutal scene of that September day came to mind every time he saw it, only to be brushed aside as superstition. That is, until one fateful night…he was sitting there, with the bright…

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Sitting there, with the bright glow of an electric lamp over his head, he could hear the footsteps of the janitor. Beyond the bright light of the boiler room, there was darkness, black, impenetrable, save for the feeble ray of light reflected from the windows of the Journal office over the way. The shadows were blackest where reposed the mementoes of murder, and he looked with an apprehensive shiver toward this spot, there appeared to him the moving shape of a human being. Involuntarily he held his breath. With a sharp intake of air, which was more like a gasp, he half rose in his chair…his eyes opened to their widest, and his hair stood out in obstreperous points all over his head. The figure advanced with silent tread, weaving about from side to side as if mortally hurt, and, reaching the dim reflected light from the windows across the way, paused a moment as if for consideration. The figure was that of an old man, his shoulders stooped, his head crowned with silvery locks; his patriarchal beard swept his breast as he moved his head toward the speechless watcher, and his eyes glowed in their sunken sockets with a fire that was supernatural.

Tom could stand no more; with a yell that roused the workers in the room above he dashed for a window to escape from the dreadful shape.

Beckley: Others saw the same figure in the following nights but none were able to explain what they saw. It was widely believed that this was the ghost of Daniel Kemp, haunting the space where these grisly relics of his murder were being stored.

[Door closing]

Beckley: Our next phantom filled fable is from the Logansport Reporter. The Tale begins on February 18, 1899.

Voice actor reading from Newspaper:  Thornhope, a little village north-west of Logansport…is all agog over a emarkable ghost story, the details of which were made public but yesterday.”

Beckley: On February 16, 1868, John Baer set out, on foot, from Thornhope, Cass County, to Star City, in Pulaski County to purchase several head of cattle. In order to conduct his business, he was carrying $3,000, – that’s nearly $90,000 today. Somewhere between his home and that of a friend, where he was planning to stop on his way out of town, Baer disappeared without a trace. That is, until exactly 30 years later, when Gabriel Fickle was walking along the same path that John Baer had 3 traveled decades before.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: As he was returning from Royal Center to his home via the railroad he dimly decried a form approaching as he neared the old water tank. The figure was walking slowly and as Fickle approached it stopped in front of him. Fickle crossed to the other side of the track and the figure did likewise at the same time extending a hand and exclaiming, ‘Why Gabe, don’t you know me.’ Fickle replied negatively, but put forth his hand to shake hands with the friendly stranger when to his horror he found himself grasping thin air, although in other respects the apparition was life like. Before Fickle could make an effort to speak the specter further frightened him by continuing, ‘I am the ghost of John Baer, murdered on this spot thirty years ago tonight.’ Fickle declares he was seized with the most abject fear. His hair stood on end, his throat was parched and strive as he would not a sound came from his lips. He tottered past the vision of the dead, but the latter followed.

Beckley: Fickle screwed up his courage and asked the entity how he met his death. The ghost confirmed that he had been murdered for the money he carried and stated that those guilty of the egregious crime were still living in the area. The specter then demanded that Fickle not speak a word of this encounter for exactly one year. Fickle, eager to be gone, gave his word and fled the site. One year later, his account was published by the Reporter, lacking one important detail – the identity of the murderers. Fickle explained that the ghost had not yet given the names of the guilty parties but he assured them that he would attempt to meet the spirit again, and this time he would demand to know who among the towns’ people had murder in their hearts.

Before that could happen, though, the apparition appeared in front of a railroad worker and said,

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Tell Thornhope people that my bones are crying out for vengeance and they are the instruments through which my murderers are to be brought to justice.

Beckley: However, the ghost must not have been too keen for justice because even after several conversations with Fickle, spanning the next year, Baer still refused to reveal the names to him. Yet, even as late as April of 1900, newspapers report that the truth was forthcoming.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Gabe Fickle of Thornhope claims to have had another visit from John Baer’s ghost, warning him to keep a compact to meet the specter at an old well, at midnight, when the names of Baer’s murderers would be divulged. Fickle hesitates about going to the well alone, and can induce no one to go with him. The ghost threatens to haunt him all his life if he does not keep the appointment.

Beckley: Whether or not he attended that last meeting, we will never know as the Thornhope ghost – or indeed the names of Gabe Fickle or John Bear – never appear in the pages of newspapers after that.

Beckley: Our next tale is about another justice seeking shade, only this time, he’s not in pursuit of those who caused his death…rather, he’s looking to safeguard his legacy. The story can be found in the July 19, 1914 issue of The Indianapolis Star.

[Music]

Beckley: James Whitcomb served as Governor of Indiana from 1843-1848. He was once described as “one of the most cautious and timid men in the world.” The same could not be said of his ghost.

Upon his death in 1852, Whitcomb left his large, eclectic library to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He apparently put little faith in the security of the library because, instead of spending his afterlife in paradise or roaming the halls of his home or tormenting his enemies, he took to haunting the stacks. His will had specified that the books in his collection were strictly for reference and were not to go into circulation. But mistakes were made and on a few occasions a book was allowed to leave the doors of that stately institution.

Each bible-transgression incurred the wrath of the wraith. The governor’s ghost hunted down each tome like a hound. The article says there were several different instances of book related hauntings on campus but one in particular stood out among the others.

A freshman, browsing the books of the Whitcomb collection, happened across one in particular that caught his eye. A rather old volume with a faded cover bearing the name “The Poems of Ossian.” The book, written in the mid-1760s, is purportedly a collection of ancient Scottish folklore, collected by James Macphereson. It was also Governor Whitcomb’s favorite tome.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: This book the freshman carefully slipped into his pocket and carried away. That night the freshman buried himself in the weird lore of this eighteenth century poet until long past the midnight hour. Before retiring he carefully concealed the stolen treasure beneath his pillow. He turned out the light, retired and for a considerable time lay listening to the intermittent noises of the night, made vastly weird by the thoughts his reading had induced… A midnight visitor suddenly stood at the foot of the startled student’s bed. Although no door hinge had squeaked, the vapor figure in the habiliments of the coffin loomed gigantic against the black background of the room. A menacing arm protruded from the shroud and pointed at the student, who, moved by fright, crowded against the headboard and imagined he felt the fingertips of the uncanny intruder brush his face. He threw his arm over his head as if to ward off the blow. Fright had paralyzed his tongue. Then in cavernous voice spoke the ghost: ‘Osion, Osion! Who stole Osion?’

Beckley: The words were repeated again and again as the young man lay frozen in fear. After some time, the apparition, along with its accusing words, faded into the darkness. He spent a sleepless night waiting for the library to open its doors the following morning and was the first patron of the day.

[Owls hooting]

Beckley: Not all ghosts have such a specific purpose behind their ghastly wanderings. Take for example this account from the Muncie Evening Press from July 31, 1905.

[Train whistle]

Beckley: Residents of Flaherty’s Siding, near LaPorte, upon arriving at the nearby train station would see nothing out of the ordinary…unless, that is, they were arriving after sunset. Then they would see…well…a ghost, of course.

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  Headless, and acting for all the world like an animate thing, the apparition occurs intermittently. It makes its appearance with unfailing regularity, and standing on the platform with dinner pail in hand, it swings its arms back and forth as if it were flagging an approaching train. Then it disappears, and, in disappearing, frequently gives unearthly shrieks, as though suffering terrible pain.

Beckley: It was widely believed that the phantom was the spirit of Columbus Cole.

Voice actor reading from Newspaper: Cole, who was a well-known and popular resident of the vicinity of Flaherity’s, was run over by an engine within a few feet of the spot where the water tank stands. In the accident his head was completely severed from his body.

Beckley: Some of the young men of the town, dubious of the claims, set off to reveal the ghost as some sort of hoax, or trick of the imagination. Their first night of investigation resulted in nothing but lack of sleep – nary the shadow of a ghost was glimpsed. The second night, however, was a different story, as one of the young men reported,

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Reaching the station early in the evening, we prepared to take things easy, for we felt sure no ghost would be seen. However, we had hardly been there an hour when one of the boys raised his hand and cried: ‘Hush!’

We looked, and right before us, and but a short distance from the old water tank, we saw a strange apparition – a form, headless and carrying a dinner pail. It was the ghost and not a delusion of the eyesight. We would plainly see the real, clear outline of Columbus Cole as we knew him in life, and it was even the same dinner pail that he invariably carried to and from his work.

For 5 minutes or more we watched the apparition as its arms swung back and forth…Presently, as if spurred on by one united impulse, we rushed to the spot where we had seen the headless figure. But upon reaching the spot nothing but vacancy greeted us. Cole’s ghost had entirely disappeared and we stood and looked at one another in silence, marveling at the supernatural incident. But our curiosity had been satisfied and we were no longer skeptics, but believers.

Beckley: This apparition, unlike others we have covered, seemed to not realize it had passed from the realm of the living. Columbus Cole was there, waving down the train that would kill him, for years after his death.

That’s all the time we have for ghost stories. We’ll be back next month with more Hoosier History, this time without the haunts.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Song]

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. The voice of newspapers on the show is Justin Clark, project assistant for Hoosier State Chronicles, Indiana’s digital historic newspaper program. Find more alarming anecdotes of the supernatural from the pages of historic newspapers at newspapers.library.in.gov. To see the sources for this episode, and all of our episodes, go to blog.history.in.gov and click on Talking Hoosier History at the top. Keep up with us on Facebook at Talking Hoosier History or on Twitter at @TalkHoosierHist. Subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening!

Season Two Episode Two Show Notes

                “A Ghostly Shape.” The Logansport Journal, February 3, 1897. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Farm Boiler Explodes.” The Indianapolis Journal, November 15, 1903. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Frank Kemp’s Awful Crime.” The Logansport Journal, September 10, 1895. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Ghost Walks Again.” Logansport Reporter, February 26, 1899. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Ghost Will Not Lie.” The Hamilton County Ledger, April 27, 1900. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Headless Ghost Grows Uneasy.” Muncie Evening Press, July 31, 1905. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Kemp Sentenced.” The Logansport Daily Reporter, September 23, 1895. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Shade of Baer.” Logansport Reporter, June 17, 1899. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Talked With a Ghost.” Logansport Reporter, February 18, 1899. Accessed Newspapers.com.

“Governor’s Ghost Guards Library.” The Indianapolis Star, July 19, 1914. Accessed Newspapers.com.

Season Two Episode Two Audio Credits

Music:

Ross Bugden, “Scary Horror Music – Haunted,” (Copyright and Royalty Free), accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOrxwqvfD2E

Mattia Cupelli, “Dark Choir Music,” (Download and Royalty Free), accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GuD1rs9Z5I

Kevin MacLeod, “Horrorific,” FreePD, accessed https://freepd.com/horror.php

Kevin MacLeod, “Creepy Haunted House Music / This House / Ambient Dark Creepy Music,” Soul Candle – Relaxing Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCKQgJ0Eqlg

Kevin MacLeod, “Deep Horrors,” (No Copyright Music), Audio Library, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7URbQvJzztI

GoSoundtrack, “Mystery,” [No Copyright Music], Audio Library, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TKy9bzrk24

Alexander Nakarada, “Hor Hor,” FreePD, accessed https://freepd.com/horror.php

Rafael Krux, “Lonely Mountain,” FreePD, accessed https://freepd.com/epic.php

Syd Valentine’s Patent Leather Kids, “Rock and Gravel,” PublicDomain4U, accessed publicdomain4u.com

Sound Effects:

OXMUSEXO, “DoorCreak,” File: 168650_0xmusex0_doorcreak, FreeSound, https://freesound.org/people/0XMUSEX0/sounds/168650/

FunWithSound, “Door Slam,” File: 361167_funwithsound_door-slam, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/FunWithSound/sounds/361167/

Nura Studio, Scary Footsteps sound effect free download, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spDzJCAL5lk

Topschool, “Gasp,” File: 360469_topschool_gasp, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/Topschool/sounds/360469/

Epicdude959, “Creepy Ghost Scream,” File: 352508_epicdude_959_creepy-ghost-scream, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/epicdude959/sounds/352508/

Jaredi, “Rattling Locks,” File: 215312__jaredi__rattling-locks, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/jaredi/sounds/215312/

Xdrav, “Frozen Window Opening,” File: 112841__xdrav__frozen-window-opening, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/xdrav/sounds/112841/

Benboncan, “Tawny Owls,” File: 64544__benboncan__tawny-owls-2, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/Benboncan/sounds/63842/

KRC Videos, “TRAIN Sound Effects – Steam Train Start and Whistle,” accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oJAVJPX0YY

HaraldDeLuca, “Horror Ghost,” File: 380510__haralddeluca__horror-ghost-sound, FreeSound, accessed https://freesound.org/people/HaraldDeLuca/sounds/380510/

 

The Underground Railroad at Slavery’s Banks: An Unlikely Alliance

Wilson Armistead, “The friends of humanity laying the axe to the upas tree of slavery, which is ever loaded with the sum of all villanies,” (1853), courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, accessed via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In 1833, an enslaved African American man named Samuel Barkshire received his freedom in Boone County, Kentucky, manumitted (or legally freed) by slaveholder Joseph Hawkins for the cost of one dollar.  He would go on to become the patriarch of a group of Underground Railroad (UGRR) activists who helped freedom seekers along the Ohio River for over thirty years.  What makes his story distinctive, is that he was joined in this cause by his family and their own former slaveholder.

The Ohio River acted as a boundary between slavery and freedom.  For nearly 40 miles, it forms the northern border of Boone County, separating it from neighbors in Indiana and Ohio. This proximity to freedom caused local slaveholders to become hyper-vigilant for signs of pending escapes.  The county’s riverfront was under near-constant scrutiny of patrollers and slave hunters. In the event of an escape, the first to come under suspicion were any free African Americans living in the area. With the exception of the elderly and infirm, most formerly enslaved people left for friendlier communities immediately after manumission.

Deed of Manumission for Samuel Barkshire, Boone County Deeds, Book I, p. 28.

Samuel Barkshire chose to stay in Boone County, perhaps because his family was still enslaved there.  He bought a 100-acre farm bordering the land of his former slaveholder, Joseph Hawkins.  The land once owned by Samuel’s first slaveholder, Dickey Barkshire, was also nearby. Part of the land Samuel once owned runs along a ridgeline overlooking the Ohio River.  The ridges near the river were often used by freedom seekers as safe routes leading to several crossing points from Boone County to free states.  In addition to the heirs of slaveholders Joseph Hawkins and Dickey Barkshire, Samuel’s neighbors also included the Universalist Church and some of its anti-slavery members.  This placement put Samuel in a position to help freedom seekers while still living in a slave state.  This was a dangerous endeavor, but a strong possibility, considering his level of involvement in the UGRR in Rising Sun.

R.G. Williams for the American Anti-Slavery Society, “Cruelties of Slavery,” (1835), courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, accessed via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

When Joseph Hawkins died in 1836, his widow Nancy was his only heir. Little is known about Nancy’s early life, but she appeared in Joseph’s life sometime around 1817, and they had no children. Hawkins’ will is a simple document; he left all of his land and property to Nancy.  There was no inventory taken of the estate, but tax lists of the year of his death show he was the owner of ten enslaved people and about two hundred acres of land.

Before her marriage to Joseph, Nancy was the consort of Dickey Barkshire for a period of years following his first wife’s death.  Though this relationship is referenced in her probate, no marriage document has surfaced; she may have been Dickey’s wife in name only. This connection to the Barkshires indicates she knew Samuel Barkshire for years before marrying Joseph. Nancy’s relationship with Samuel and his family was very close, so it’s likely she asked her new husband to acquire ownership of the man, in order to free him.   This also may have been the case with Violet, a woman once listed as a slave of Hawkins, who was later freed. Violet and Nancy were baptized together upon joining Middle Creek Baptist Church, and lived either in the same home or nearby one another until Nancy’s death in 1854.

Nancy Hawkins’s Rising Sun house, which was owned by Barkshire’s sons after her death. Photo courtesy of the author, taken January 2017.

Two days after the probate of Joseph Hawkins’ estate, Nancy purchased a home in Rising Sun. The Barkshire family, Violet and several other bondsmen moved across the river at the same time.  Nancy, now living in a free state, began to manumit the enslaved people she had brought from Kentucky. Nancy seemed cognizant of the dangers faced by African Americans, even those legally manumitted and living on free soil. They could be kidnapped and sold back into slavery, or bound as an indentured servant, if debt or need came into play. If the former slave was not yet of age, and had no guardian, one would be assigned by the courts, without consent of the minor. In order to avoid these pitfalls, Nancy Hawkins filed manumissions only after there was some sort of protection in place, should something happen either to her or to Samuel and his wife.

This fall marks the 180th and 170th anniversaries of two rounds of manumissions filed by Nancy Hawkins in Indiana.  In August, 1838, the first group: Harriet Frances Barkshire (Samuel’s wife), a man named Sandy and Mariah Hawkins (listed together), and a woman named Catherine were manumitted by deed.  All were adults, but the manumission did not get filed until after Catherine was married in Dearborn County.  This is important, a single woman would have been more vulnerable than the married women in the group.  The second round of manumissions was filed in September of 1848, and included the Barkshire children:  Arthur, Garrett, Matilda, Emily, Woodford and Minerva.  One curious detail of their manumission papers was that each person’s exact birthdate was given. At the time of their manumissions, the two eldest boys, Arthur and Garrett, were both over 21 years old, and could therefore act as guardians for the younger children if something were to happen to their parents or to Nancy Hawkins.  This was no light concern, considering the involvement of the family in UGRR activity in the area.

Levi Coffin, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Samuel Barkshire acted as a coordinator and point of contact for Rising Sun’s UGRR network. He was well-known to local anti-slavery activists, and was acquainted with Levi Coffin, the “President of the Underground Railroad.” His participation is also mentioned in the memoirs of abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland, who sought his help in freeing a Boone County family who were enslaved in Rabbit Hash.

The three Barkshire sons acted as conductors, both on the river and over land.  Their reach stretched from New Orleans all the way to Ontario, with Rising Sun serving as their base of operations.  The three daughters’ involvement is not clear, but their parents and Nancy Hawkins, (with whom they sometimes lived), ran “stations” or temporary hiding places. The clandestine nature of this work would require both the help and complicity of the three girls.

The Journal-Courier (Louisville, Kentucky), March 18, 1837, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

Though Nancy’s involvement was not discovered during her lifetime, it was later revealed in a remembrance printed in the newspaper. As a well-heeled widow and former slaveholder herself, it was likely she wasn’t suspected by slave hunters.  The author of the newspaper piece written in the 1880s, describes in great detail an episode in which five freedom seekers were kept hidden in Nancy’s home for days on end, unbeknownst to their Boone County slaveholders just across the river. It’s probable that this event was not an anomaly; she may have helped many times over.

Violet’s participation may have been comparable to that of the Barkshire daughters.  She lived either with or next door to Nancy in Rising Sun over the years. Sandy Hawkins, who was freed along with Mariah, moved to New Orleans after his manumission. In 1851, he was accused of harboring a fugitive slave in his New Orleans home.  Like many UGRR conductors, he also worked on riverboats, traveling from slave territory to free states regularly.  Joseph Edrington, the man Catherine married in Rising Sun shortly before her manumission, was also named in Laura Smith Haviland’s memoir, as an agent of the UGRR.

The relationship between Nancy Hawkins, her friend Violet and the Barkshire family is clear in the will she left in 1854.  The entirety of her household possessions were divided between the three Barkshire girls, and Violet received personal items and money. The three Barkshire sons were to share in the profit from the sale of her house, which they promptly bought back at auction. Though an unusual group, these Rising Sun activists did much to further the cause of freedom from bondage.

The Politics of Pollution in “The Region”

The Times (Munster), August 13, 1970, accessed Newspapers.com.

* See Part I to learn about the origins of Federated Metals’ Indiana plant and community protest to its pollutants.

Carl Weigand, acting chief of air pollution control, reported in 1969 that Federated Metals’s Hammond-Whiting smelting plant “has a hell of [a] stink problem” (Munster Times). He worked untiringly to combat air pollution generated by “The Region‘s” industries. Weigand’s description of his professional obstacles mirrored the conflicting financial and environmental interests enmeshed in the plant: “Sometimes all a company has to do is call up a councilman or city hall to mention, ‘we could move this operation'” and pollution policies would go unenforced. “But,” Weigand countered, “‘I’m a stubborn German.'”

That year, the Munster Times noted that the Calumet Region was 11th in air pollution in the U.S. When including the Chicago area, it was the second or third highest. Nationally, Americans turned their attention to the impact of industry on the environment, especially following the Santa Barbara oil spill. In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson created the first Earth Day, and throughout Indiana Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis. In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. The constituent support for Earth Day encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, and the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Christy Miller, a student at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, stands among trash picked up around the school and asks other students to sign a petition against pollution, Kokomo Tribune, April 23, 1970, accessed newspapers.com.

In this framework, Federated Metals found itself on the periphery of a heated public debate about the fate of Lake George in the late 1970s. The Times reported in 1979 that silt containing toxic metals, like arsenic and mercury, was found at the bottom of the “‘decaying lake,'” potentially making fish dangerous to eat. This complicated Calumet College‘s proposal to deepen the lake, and resulted in a “turbulent hearing involving debates over private vs. public rights, hazardous waste and legislative intent.” The college owned the title to the lake, except for the section belonging to Federated Metals. College president Rev. James F. McCabe petitioned to drain the lake and remove sand, which would then be sold, generating approximately $1.5 million for the struggling school.

Rev. McCabe contended “If you force us to preserve a decaying lake, it will be an infringement on the rights of private ownership.” But the U.S. Corps of Engineers advised against dredging because it could stir up pollutants. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, however, thought the petition should be approved, with conditions, because “The proposed project would increase the recreational potential and desirability of the lake, and would preserve the existing wildlife habitat.”

In 1981, “emotional tension” arose when senators debated a bill allowing Calumet College to sandmine Lake George, despite the city having an ordinance against sand-mining. The Times reported on a skirmish on the Senate floor between bill sponsor Senator Ralph Potesta (R) and opponent Senator Frank Mrvan (D). The legislators argued over ownership of the lake, control of which would be taken from the DNR with passage of the bill. Senator Mrvan opposed this, as well as the potential for property damage caused by sand-mining. He was accompanied by women from the Robertsdale neighborhood, who protested “the most lobbyed [sic] bill to be considered this session” in the Senate chambers. State policemen manned the chambers after one woman reportedly threatened to shoot Senator Potesta if the bill passed. When it did, the Times noted “tiny pieces of a printed copy of the bill flurried to the floor of the Senate from where the women were seated. One began to cry.” The project was expected to generate $38 million ($2-$3 million allocated to the college) and some of the sand would be used to fill the Cline Avenue extension. The debate about dredging the lake was for naught. Calumet College scrapped the idea in 1989, stating “Calumet College has no interest—long-term—in being in the lake business, the park business, the sand business, the real estate business or any related business” (Times).

Senator Mrvan had earlier opposed Federated Metal’s 1977 expansion, which involved building a “sludge treatment plant designed to extract nickel compounds used for nickel-plating steel.” He exclaimed, in response to the City Council’s approval of municipal-rate bonding for the plant, “‘I don’t believe this. Here are nine councilmen just coming in and we’re expected to pass this thing in one night when we’ve never seen it before.'” Mrvan also took issue with the unannounced caucuses that took place prior to the vote and influenced councilmen.

Although it had closed its Indiana plant in 1983, Federated Metals found itself in hot water in 1985, when it had to pay civil penalties to the Indiana Environmental Management Special Fund for permit violations. The Times stated that the company “failed to provide groundwater monitoring equipment on its property where hazardous waste was treated and stored.” In December of that year, HBR Partners, Inc. purchased the former plant.

“Appeal Goes Out to Study Dumps, The Times (Munster), February 21, 1988, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Federated’s troubles deepened in 1986, when Councilman Gerald Bobos requested an investigation into possible contamination of Lake George by dump sites owned by Federated and the former Amoco facility. Preliminary studies conducted in 1984 indicated that “‘at one time there were 50,000 cubic yards of persistent toxic substances—picking liquors, degreasers and fine heavy metal powders—on the site that could be filtered into the lake'” (Times, March 1986). The study also noted that a child sustained third-degree burns while playing at the dump in 1978.

“Innuendos” and “allegations” is how Councilman Edward Repay described Bobos’s presentation of the surveys, which he used to convince the council of the need for an official investigation. Repay, who sponsored the lake dredging, contended that “we’ve got studies from last year from the Robertsdale Foundation that show the sand is clean. I’ll go along with those studies.” Ultimately, Repay voted to investigate the dump sites, but not before accusing opponents of the dredging as guilty of “‘rotten, no-good, uncitizenlike behavior'” for presenting the studies.

Feeling the need to explain himself, Repay wrote to the Munster Times that his anger towards a Hammond councilman, presumably Bobos, was deserved. Repay leveled that his ire was not because the councilman and United Citizens Association (UCA) brought up the alleged toxic state of the Federated site, but “that they waited to use it as a ‘trump card’ against possible improvements to George Lake.” (Bobos had earlier mentioned that he requested the 1984 studies months prior, but the state board’s delay meant he was unable to use them in the decision to issue a dredging permit). Repay maintained “This is ‘one-upsmanship,’ not statesmanship or an act of a responsible civic organization.” Repay agreed that action should have been taken when the child was exposed in 1978, but the “inaction of a councilman and the leaders of the UCA is reprehensible and deserving of angry criticism.”

The Times (Munster), April 30, 1991, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ultimately, the EPA  planned to investigate, which site inspection official Harry Atkinson considered crucial because there were over 800 alleged dump sites in the state, but Lake County has “‘tons’ of such alleged sites.” The Times reported that federal inspectors tried to examine the former site of Federated Metals in 1985, but the property owners denied access.

In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department sued Federated Metals, Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel, jewels in The Region’s industrial crown. According to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, the Justice Department sued for violation of pollution laws, which threatened Lake Michigan by “‘creating fish too contaminated to eat, forcing frequent beach closings, harming wildlife living along the shore, and depositing toxins in lake bottom sediment.'” The Northwest Indiana Times reported that at the time Indiana was one of seven U.S. states without air pollution control laws and relied on federal regulations that only limited small amount of emissions. Increased enforcement of pollution laws through heavy fines, a Justice Department official contended, “would teach industrial polluters that befouling the air and waterways can cost more than spending to control hazardous wastes.” The director of the Grand Cal Task Force, a citizens environmental group, approved of the “aggressive plan,” stating “In the past, smoke has meant jobs. . . . People were afraid to put pressure on the companies. Now there aren’t as many jobs and pollution is just as bad.”

The Tribune (Seymour), October 17, 1990, accessed Newspapers.com.

The following year, Federated Metals and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) came to an agreement to make the site safer. The Munster Times reported that within a year the smelting company would place a “sophisticated clay cap” over nineteen acres of contaminated slag in Lake George and install monitoring wells. Federated’s residual heavy metals had been linked with “mental retardation in children and high blood pressure in adults.” Preventing these health effects, an IDEM official said, “has been a thorn in our side for quite a long period of time.”

The Times credited citizens living in the Robertsdale neighborhood for the remediation. The paper stated that the group had worked for years to “get the site cleaned up and fenced off from unsuspecting children who enjoyed riding their bikes on the lead, zinc and copper dust piles because they were soft to land in.” Kids also scavenged for metal to sell at the former site. By 1991, Federated Metals, a subsidiary of Asarco Inc., installed a security guard and fence to prevent this from reoccurring.

Federated Metals
The Times (Munster), November 11, 2003, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

But hazards posed by the former Federated Metals site endured into 21st century. The Times reported in 2003 that the “hazardous waste dump” had “never been closed or capped, allowing the release of toxins into the air and the contamination of water that runs into the lake [George].” That year, environmental consulting and remediation company ENACT began a “long-awaited cleanup” of the former Federated site.

To David Dabertin, a now retired EPA official and Hammond resident, history repeated itself in 2017. IDEM renewed Whiting Metals’s permit (which operates at the former Federated site), despite the EPA investigating off-site soil contamination in residential areas. This area included the St. Adalbert Catholic Church, which complained in 1939 that Federated’s noxious fumes kept students home. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, IDEM renewed the permit without a public hearing or meeting. Dabertin, one of the local children that had ridden his bike through the piles of metal dust, railed that issuing the permit in

an area where lead may be an issue without obtaining the test results is foolish and bordering on the negligent . . . The refusal to hold a public hearing is plain cowardice. And IDEM’s attempt to address my concerns about the prior ownership of the facility by relying on the unintelligible correspondence of its prior director is so nonresponsive it is insulting.

In April 2018, Dabertin introduced himself to Governor Eric Holcomb near the former Federated site and calmly informed him, “You are telling these people there is lead in their backyard, but [the state environmental agency] just permitted that facility to produce lead . . . That’s a disconnect.” Former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quietly accompanied Governor Holcomb on his visit to the EPA Superfund site and the following day authorized $1.7 million to remove contaminated soil. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, soil sampling detected the presence of lead above the EPA’s designated level. Removal of contaminated soil was slated to start the following week, beginning with properties inhabited by “sensitive populations,” such as pregnant women and children under the age of seven. But remediation costs at $50,000 per property, and the bankruptcy of Federated Metals, left no “responsible party” to replace the homeowner’s soil. It remains to be seen who will bear the financial burden of restoring the yards.

Will these efforts satisfy the community’s concerns about Federated Metal’s impact on their health? Or will they fall short, like Federated’s attempt to quell citizen protest in 1939 by replacing a problematic smokestack? That history is yet to be written.

Pride and Pollutants: Federated Metals

On April 19, 2018, over a chain link fence Hammond resident and former EPA attorney David Dabertin voiced his concerns about the former site of Federated Metals to Governor Eric Holcomb. East Chicago environmental activist Thomas Frank told Mother Jones weeks after the visit “’We’d known for quite some time that there was some contamination there,’” but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management allowed plants at the site to keep polluting. For decades, industry was the region’s bread and butter and often the corporation’s and community’s financial well-being was prioritized over health or environmental concerns. Frank noted that older generations viewed the plants with “a sense of pride as it provided jobs and stability” and do not “‘want to look at what they’re so proud of and see that it’s harming them.'”

The EPA’s 2018 investigation of Hammond’s soil lead levels, a response to the “national criticism of its slow reaction to polluted water in Flint, Mich., and lead-contaminated housing in East Chicago,” (Chicago Tribune) inspired us to take a look at Federated Metal’s origins. In 1937, the Chicago-based company announced it would establish a plant in the Whiting-Hammond area. By 1939, hundreds of workers produced non-ferrous metals used in automobile, housing, and oil drilling industries. Almost immediately after production began, the community voiced complaints about the effects on their health.

In the spring, a citizens committee decried the fumes and smoke being expelled by the new smelting and refining plant—so noxious that students at St. Adalbert Catholic parochial school had to miss class due to illness—and pressed city officials to intervene. That year, resident Frank Rydzewski wrote to the Munster Times that Federated Metals foisted upon the Hammond community a “generous sample of sickening odors which emit from its midget—partially concealed smoke stacks and which have already showed its ill-effects on pupils of a school situated not a block distant.”

Rydzewski’s next sentiment encompassed the conflicting priorities related to Federated Metals from the 1930s until its closing in 1983: “Certainly, the value of health impairment to residents in the vicinity far surpasses any questionable tax-able asset this company can create.” Although he bemoaned the fumes plaguing the city’s residents, he also noted that the plant could “boast of its colored personnel; its predominating out-of-state and outside employe[e]s; its labor policies.” Since the 1930s, Federated Metals has served as both the bane and pride of Hammond and Whiting residents. The plant experienced labor strikes, symbolized livelihood and industrial progress, helped the Allies win World War II, and was the site of accidental loss of life.

“Hammond Plant Makes Various Metal Alloys,” The Times (Munster), June 13, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

In April, the Munster Times reported that hundreds of residents in the area “revolted” against the plant’s operations at the city council meeting. They charged that “harmful gas discharges from the plant damaged roofs of residences, caused coughing and sneezing that punctuated school studies and prayers in the Whiting church and school and made it virtually impossible to open doors or windows of homes in the neighborhood.”

The paper noted that Mrs. Feliz Niziolkeiwicz wept as she addressed plant manager Max Robbins. She told him “You can live in my home for free rent if you think you can stand the smoke nuisance. The home I built for $10,000 is almost wasted because of the acid from the plant.” Her concerns were shared by Hammond Mayor Frank R. Martin, the city council, the city board of public works and safety, and the health department, whose secretary ordered Federated Metals one month prior to “abate the nuisance” within sixty days. In October, the company was tried in a Hammond city court hearing and found not guilty of criminal liability for the fumes, despite city health inspector Robert Prior testifying that Federated Metals “continued to operate and discharge gasses on the Whiting-Robertsdale community after repeated warnings to abate the alleged nuisance.”

By November, Federated Metals had constructed a $50,000 smoke stack much taller than the previous, offending one, so as to diffuse smoke farther above the Robertsdale neighborhood. In March 1940, Prior stated that citizen protests had ceased with the improvement. Following this remediation, the Munster Times published a smattering of articles throughout the 1940s about health complaints related to plant output. In October 1941, the Times published a short, but eyebrow-raising article regarding allegations that Federated Metals tried to pay Whiting residents in the area as a settlement for property damaged by fumes. Councilman Stanley Shebish shouted “When the people of this community suffer bad health and many can’t go to sleep at night because of this smoke and particles of waste, it is time to stop an underhanded thing like this!” Health officials maintained that the sulphur dioxide fumes were “not a menace to health,” but may be “detrimental to flowers and shrubs.” Whiting’s St. Adalbert’s Church filed a similar complaint about the health of students, teachers, and parishioners in 1944.

Cpl. Glen Kirkman transporting war material from Federated Metals Whiting location on Indianapolis Blvd. to the company’s Chicago headquarters, The Times (Munster), June 19, 1945, accessed Newspapers.com.

While citizens lamented pollutants, the plant churned out “vital war materials” for World War II operations. (The Air Force also awarded the company contracts in the 1950s.) In accordance with the national post-war trend, 1946 ushered in labor strikes at the Hammond-Whiting plant. The Times reported that in January CIO United Steelworkers of America closed down the “Calumet Region’s steel and metal plants,” like Inland Steel Co., Pullman-Stan. Car & Mfg. Co., and Federated Metals. On February 17, Federated Metals agreed to increase the wages of its 350 employees to $32 per month. Labor strikes, such as that which “deprived workers of a living and dampened Calumet Region business,” took place at Federated Metals until at least 1978. This last strike lasted nearly five months and required the service of a federal mediator.

On January 5, 1949, one of the grimmest events in the plant’s history took place at the receiving department. While unloading a shipment from National Lead Co., Federated workers were suddenly overcome by arsenic seeping from rain-sodden drums. The gas, which can also cause paralysis, memory loss, and kidney damage, took the lives of four men and hospitalized eleven. The Times noted that “only the caprice of weather saved scores of Hammond and Whiting residents” from dying while the open freight cars transported the drums from Granite City, Illinois to the Federated Metals plant. The cities’ residents narrowly avoided catastrophe, since rain causes metal dross to generate deadly arsine gas.

Drums at Federated Metals’s Whiting-Hammond plant, The Times (Munster), January 9, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Richard H. Callahan, East Chicago deputy coroner, probed the deaths and placed the blame primarily on the state board of health. He lamented “‘It is inconceivable that the chemists in the state board did not know that dross used by Federated Metals would poison workmen with arsine. Federated Metals was in the possession of a dangerous toy.” He noted that safeguards against arsenic poisoning had existed for thirty years, ranging from gas masks to the use of caged birds, who fell ill at lower concentrations of gas than humans. The Times noted that Dr. Callahan’s investigation was expected to “foster national and international safeguards against arsine poisoning.”

Deputy Coroner Dr. Richard H. Callahan, The Times (Munster), January 20, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

A.J. Kott wrote in the paper that Federated workers’ lives could have been saved had British Anti-Lewisite (BAL) been on hand, “a miracle drug, discovered during World War I in University of Chicago laboratories.” Instead, the drug had to be rushed to St. Catherine Hospital to treat affected workers. While Dr. Callahan identified the state board as the responsible party, questions regarding Federated’s culpability lingered, such as if they violated the state act requiring employees wear gas masks and if they should have had BAL on hand. Following the accident, the company promised to strengthen safety procedures, like employing gas detecting devices when material arrived.

Nearly twenty years later, Federated Metals found itself in the cross-hairs of the environmental movement, which had produced the first Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency. Learn about the U.S. Justice Department’s suit against Federated and the politics of pollution in Part II.

Dr. Helene Knabe: Revictimized in Death

J.P. Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City (1910).

See Part I to learn about the unparalleled professional accomplishments of Dr. Helene Knabe.

Who entered Dr. Helene Knabe’s rooms at Indianapolis’s Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear? The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine.

Officials followed a variety of leads regarding the gruesome crime. The first person on the list, suspiciously, was an African American janitor named Jefferson Haynes, who lived below her. Second on the list was a Greek prince who was seen mailing a letter near her apartment. This absurd line of inquiry continued for months by the very people who should or could have advanced the case more quickly. Police Chief Martin Hyland reasoned that she committed suicide because at 5’6″ and 150 pounds, he believed her strong enough to ward off any attack or to take her own life.

Martin Hyland

Also problematic, evidence was left in a room where anyone could access it. Although fingerprinting was in its infancy, officials ignored a bloody fingerprint, despite Dr. Knabe having no blood on her hands. Police and some physicians believed despondency over her unproven sexual preference or financial situation caused her to take her own life. Even Detective William Burns, known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, publicly stated that based solely on the evidence in the newspapers, he believed she killed herself.

Local, state, national, and even some international press ran stories about Dr. Knabe. Indianapolis newspapers were surprisingly fair in their coverage and published editorial and opinion pieces that were overwhelmingly complementary of Dr. Knabe and her professional achievements. Although these newspapers interviewed people who believed Dr. Knabe got what she deserved, they did not give these sentiments undue attention or sensationalize them.

Thankfully, the coroner, Dr. Charles O. Durham, determined that Dr. Knabe was murdered. Dr. Durham noted she had defense wounds on her arms and he was adamant that she could not have made both cuts. He also noted several factors he considered “strongly presumptive of murder,” including the position of the hands, which had been closed after death; the absence of a plausible suicide weapon; and the fact that many witnesses had seen a man that night around the apartment building.  Dr. Durham’s findings negated rumors regarding Dr. Knabe’s sexuality and finances, which police felt could have contributed to her death by her own hand.

Dr. Knabe’s cousin and assistant, “Scene of Knabe Murder and Principals in Trial,” Palladium Item (Richmond), November 28, 1913, accessed Newspapers.com.

In response to Dr. Durham’s findings, female doctors who were Dr. Knabe’s friends actively tried to help find her killer. They hired private investigator Detective Harry Webster at their own expense, through donations, and at the detective’s own expense. Almost fifteen months after her death, two men were indicted by a grand jury, based on Detective Webster’s findings. The prosecution believed that Dr. William B. Craig was engaged to Dr. Knabe, a fact he vehemently denied, and that he wanted out of the relationship. As Dean of Students, lecturer, and financial stakeholder in the Indiana Veterinary College, he would have been very familiar will zoology and the “sheep’s cut,” which is the type reported to have killed her.

Dr. William B. Craig, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Craig met Dr. Knabe in 1905 and maintained a friendship, at the very least. He recommended her for the position as Chair of Hematology and Parasitology in 1909 at the veterinary college. Shortly before her death, Dr. Craig and Dr. Knabe seemed to be in the middle of an ongoing dispute. Dr. Knabe went to the IVC to see about changing her lecture time with Dr. Craig so that she could attend her course at the Normal College. Dr. Craig became enraged when a colleague asked for his answer and he said “Oh, f—! Tell her to go to hell!” and he stormed out of the room. The night before Dr. Knabe died, Dr. Craig’s housekeeper overheard them arguing and she heard Dr. Knabe say, “But you can continue to practice and so can I!” Police had a letter in their possession in which Dr. Knabe told a friend she was getting married. Dr. Knabe confided to a friend she was getting married to a man with an “ungovernable temper.” At the time of her death, Dr. Knabe, an accomplished seamstress and dressmaker, commissioned a costly dress, indicative that she was getting married.

Alonzo Ragsdale, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The second man indicted, Alonzo M. Ragsdale, was an undertaker and Dr. Knabe’s business associate. Dr. Knabe often joked with Ragsdale that when she died, she would be sure to give him her business. And so she did. Augusta appointed Ragsdale undertaker and estate executor. He was accused of concealing evidence against Dr. Craig in the form of the kimono Dr. Knabe was wearing at the time of her death. It was said he had laundered it in an effort to rid it of blood stains.

In the words of Ms. Frances Lee Watson, Clinical Professor of Law at IUPUI, “She was screwed from day one.” Dr. Knabe was never treated as a victim; she was treated as a villain. Society in general could not understand a woman wanting to work in a field that was sometimes unpleasant and coarse. In the media and by some of her peers, Dr. Knabe was chastised for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Her character was summarily attacked because she expected equality with her peers, male or female. Because she was a 35-year-old woman, who was a physician living in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—Dr. Knabe was automatically judged unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, who in addition to being indicted was also an unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed her to be an unsuccessful, pauper physician.

The truth was Dr. Knabe had many revenue streams from jobs that she loved: practitioner, instructor, and artist. She planned to continue her work and make herself even more financially stable. By looking at her financial records, Dr. Charles Durham proved that she was financially sound, bringing in over $150 per month. The public did not know for many months that Dr. Knabe chose to send most of her disposable income back to her uncle because he was no longer able to work.

Shelby Republican, December 4, 1913.

None of these facts mattered. The defense attacked Dr. Knabe’s personal character in the courtroom, claiming she was an aggressive and masculine woman. The character witnesses, who sought to discredit Dr. Craig, suddenly moved out of state or could not be found. A key witness who positively identified Dr. Craig changed his story, and Dr. Craig’s own housekeeper, who had signed an affidavit stating she saw him return late and leave early with a bundle of clothes the night Dr. Knabe died, refused to come to the courthouse.

Consequently, the state’s case fell apart and after nine days the prosecution could not make a connection between Dr. Craig and the evidence. In an unusual move, the judge stepped in as the thirteenth juror and instructed the jury to acquit Dr. Craig. Normally a judge provided this instruction only when a technical error was committed, which was not the situation in this trial. He did rule that the prosecution had proven Dr. Knabe had been murdered, but that they had no real evidence against Dr. Craig.

Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the charges against Ragsdale were dropped. No one was ever convicted of Dr. Knabe’s murder. Oddly enough after the trial, Ragsdale declared Dr. Knabe’s estate insolvent without collecting all debts. Many of her personal items did not sell and their whereabouts were undocumented. The probate records submitted over three years to the courts contained erroneous calculations that went unnoticed and several hundred dollars were not reconciled.

Dr. Knabe was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill. Over the years, newspapers have revisited her case, but in 1977 her case file was destroyed in a flood.  Unfortunately, the sensationalizing of Dr. Knabe’s death has obscured her legacy as a tenacious, committed, and savvy physician in a field dominated by men.

* To learn more about the tragic case of Dr. Knabe, see She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe and “She Sleeps Well; Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe.”

Susan Elston Wallace: Forgotten Writer and Early Environmentalist

Susan Wallace, courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.

Along with many of her fellow 19th-Century sisters of the pen, Susan Elston Wallace and her work are little known to us today.  These female authors practiced their craft seriously and sold well, yet were never regarded as important as male writers whose subjects were presumed to be nobler, of higher value.  When fine work by women disappeared and men’s work became classics, an unknown cost fell upon our culture and our vision of ourselves as a nation.

As a writer, Susan Wallace (1830-1907) possessed certain attributes that partially set her apart her from the “female writer” stereotype.   Initially, as a young woman she had more or less lived the stereotype by publishing poetry on domestic subjects. One of those poems was anthologized and widely circulated in a children’s textbook.

Later in life, she was exempted from ordinary critique as a “female writer” because she was the wife of General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, the best-selling book of the 19th century.  (Only the Bible sold more copies).  Lew was a prolific writer and a man of great personal accomplishment, who, among other distinctions, was a Civil War general, Governor of New Mexico Territory (1878-1881), and an ambassador to Turkey.  Susan, without a doubt, was Lew’s collaborator and co-researcher.  She was fully recognized by him as an intellectual and literary equal.  Given this unusual and little-known partnership, it is no wonder that deep knowledge of the world and of its peoples mark both of their works. Surely both partners strongly influenced the other’s work.  Whether they were living in Crawfordsville, Indiana, or in the New Mexico Territory, or in the Ottoman Empire, both husband and wife engaged in writing projects.

It is the New Mexico piece of Susan’s writing career that I will use to demonstrate Elston Wallace’s talent as a non-fiction writer, whose insights track a line of prescient environmental thinking.  Her writing style is not only alive with ideas, it exhibits a freshness and wit that makes it inviting to contemporary readers.

Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.

Elston Wallace’s book about her New Mexico sojourn is called The Land of the Pueblos.  It is comprised of twenty-seven essays, first published as “travel pieces” in prestigious national magazines and newspapers like the Atlantic Monthly, the Independent, and the New York Tribune.  Being published in such influential East Coast periodicals speaks of the high regard in which her writing was held at the time. In these essays, Susan did not write a word about the many social duties—the teas, the formal receptions, entertaining visiting dignitaries—she would have performed as the wife of the Governor of New Mexico Territory.  Nor does she write about her husband in his official capacity.  Rather, she applied her excellent educational background and her intellectual curiosity to learning and writing about New Mexican natural history and human history.

Elston Wallace also holds the rare honor of having saved much of New Mexico’s written colonial history, which had been forgotten in an outbuilding adjacent to the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe.  There, Elston Wallace came upon and then personally helped salvage much of the Territory’s surviving early recorded history, a topic about which she wrote vividly.  These documents tutored her.  They spurred her curiosity and inspired many of her essays.

***

It was New Mexico, though, that made Elston Wallace aware of environmental issues.  She was an astute observer of the natural world, learning names and habits of the plants and animals; she studied landforms and how rivers ran.  Her ability to write about these things gives her work its most notable signature.  Increasingly more knowledgeable about her surroundings and thereby more fully conscious of how human life in New Mexico had been shaped, Elston Wallace soon apprehended how the Spaniards, in particular, had affected the land and its original inhabitants. In her first essay, Elston Wallace makes clear that the “greed of gold and conquest” had despoiled New Mexico.

Image from The Land of the Pueblos (1889), courtesy of Archive.org.

She also proves herself as an able thinker regarding how land and people’s fates are intertwined, such as this example:

Four hundred years ago the Pueblo Indians were freeholders of the vast unmapped domain lying between the Rio Pecos and the Gila, and their separate communities, dense and self-supporting, were dotted over the fertile valleys of Utah and Colorado, and stretch as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico.  Bounded by rigid conservatism as a wall, in all these ages they have undergone slight change by contact with the white race and are yet a peculiar people, distinct from the other aboriginal tribes of this continent as the Jew are from the other races in Christendom.  The story of these least known citizens of the United States takes us back to the days of . . . the . . . great Elizabeth.

Note how in this passage Elston Wallace identifies the “vast unmapped domain” of the Pueblos and identifies their communities as “separate,” “dense,” and “self-supporting.”  She identifies the land as fertile and the Pueblos as having a distinct culture, comparing them favorably to Jews among Christians.  She calls the Pueblos “citizens.”

Image from The Land of the Pueblos (1889), courtesy of Archive.org.

Elston Wallace’s use of the term “conservative” in this passage may be accurately rendered as “stable.”  So, the nature of the Pueblo peoples, she says, have “undergone [only] slight change by contact with the white race.”  By using this terminology, she points toward stabilizing forces that were afoot in 19th-Century America, when colonies promoting shared, stable agrarian living were being intentionally created.  The Shakers, New Harmony, and the Amanas were and are communities so notable that their names and accomplishments come down to us today.  In the previous passage, Elston Wallace describes the Pueblo communities, their governance, and their farming practices with phrases admired by her own culture and era.  New Mexico’s native peoples were freeholders; they were self-supporting; they formed communities; they were citizens.  Few other historians of the period write about the Pueblos at all, let alone view them as central to the history of the land they inhabit, and as admirable people.

It can be argued, of course, that Elston Wallace’s progressive fellow citizens of the period had a habit of idealizing Native Peoples and had a strong aversion (call it prejudice) against Catholic Spain.  That being said, Elston Wallace’s analysis and her rich empathy supported by historical knowledge and argumentation make her work stand apart.  Her brave voice stands in strong contrast to typical histories of her day and those written through the middle of the 20th century. A pertinent example is Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe (1956), which presents the conquest version of New Mexico’s history as thoroughly Eurocentric.  In this version, the Mexicans succeeded the Spanish and the Americans succeeded the Mexicans until the New Mexican piece of America’s Manifest Destiny fell into place in 1846.

Given this widely accepted version of conquest history that Horgan and other historians espouse, it is no wonder that he not only displaces the Pueblos, he displaces Elston Wallace as a New Mexican historian who understands and chronicles their worth and richness.  Ironically, Horgan  credits Governor Lew Wallace, not his wife, as saving “what he could of the collection of [New Mexican historical] documents already scattered, lost, or sold.”

Horgan’s “authoritative” reporting, so common among mainline historians of the 20th century, renders the Pueblo peoples, their land, and the intelligent woman who told their stories in the l880s invisible.  No matter how accurate and astute Elston Wallace’s argument was, it had no efficacy since it was not “remembered” in mainstream histories of New Mexico and the West.  Such an argument, had it been heard and then acted upon, might have reshaped our history.

John Gast/George A. Crofutt, “American Progress,” circa 1873, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In an era of unstoppable exploration and exploitation of the West and its mineral resources, Susan Elston Wallace saw, understood, and wrote about a broader, deeper story, one which speaks of how we as people can best live on the land. She vividly chronicles what happens when natural patterns are disrupted.  In our century, we would regard Elston Wallace’s vision as a strongly environmental one, central to our 21st-Century understanding of essential sustainability.

So, while Elston Wallace certainly did entertain the intellectual readers of the East Coast and Midwest with tales of Montezuma and adventures of travel in the Wild West, in The Land of The Pueblos, she also boldly introduced her readers to what happens when “a native self-sustaining people, independent of the Government, the only aborigines among us not a curse to the soil” are abused along with their land through the claims of colonialism.

During the late 19th century, it was widely assumed that men make history. Elston Wallace challenges that point of view and deserves a place in our history as an excellent non-fiction essayist.  She also deserves a place as a dissenter to colonial history’s single, obliterating story of man as controller of nature.  Susan Wallace was an early environmentalist:  she gave voice to New Mexico’s landscape and to its original peoples.  Researchers have exciting work to undertake in the Susan Elston Wallace archives.