The “Buzz Wagon”: Studebaker’s Electric Cars

San Francisco Call and Post, October 29, 1910. Newspapers.com.

On a “fair, warmer” fall day in Philadelphia, a friendly competition on the city streets occurred. The test would determine whether a “40 horse power gasoline” car or a “runabout” electric car would perform better in the congested thoroughfares of the City of Brotherly Love. Behind the wheel of the gas-powered car sat “Tod” Middleton, described by newspapers as an “expert” driver, “thoroughly familiar with Philadelphia streets.” The electric vehicle’s driver was an “enthusiastic” booster of electric cars, who wanted to prove that they could take on tasks typically associated with gas-powered automobiles.

The rules of the competition were simple: each driver had to make twenty-five trips within Philadelphia’s shopping district, parking and shutting off their car each time they reached a destination. They would then restart their vehicle and travel to the next place on their itinerary. Some of the stops included “department stores, theaters, railroad stations” as well as “hair-dressers, and candy stores.” Whoever completed all their trips the fastest was the winner.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 25, 1908. Newspapers.com.

Both drivers started on North Broad Street, making all of the necessary stops within the city’s shopping district, and ending right back where they started. In a shocking twist, the electric car finished first, beating the gas car by ten whole minutes, providing what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “conclusive evidence of the adaptability of this kind of car over the speed cars in the work required in shopping.”

Curiously, this race didn’t happen last week or even last year, and the electric car wasn’t a Tesla or Rivian. It was a Studebaker, the South Bend-based company, and the year was 1908. And the driver of the electric car? Her name was Laure Duval, and she worked as a salesperson at the Studebaker Brothers Company of New York. She wanted to prove the durability, reliability, and efficiency of Studebaker’s electric vehicles. (Efficiency was especially important; since the gasoline car needed to be hand-cranked every time it was started, and the electric car didn’t, this key design component proved instrumental in the 10-minute lead the electric car achieved.) Her race with Tod Middleton received coverage by newspapers all over the country, from Kansas City to San Francisco.

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 1908. Newspapers.com.

Studebaker’s electric cars became a mainstay of the company during the early years of the 20th century, providing vehicles for personal use as well as transport. They were also marketed in a unique way. Studebaker focused on city businessmen, and especially society women, as the premier customers for electric cars, hence the 1908 Philadelphia car competition. While gas-powered cars became the company’s focus by 1912, Studebaker’s innovative designs and skillful presentation nevertheless made their electric cars more than a mere fad. They showed the country that electric cars could be made cost-effectively and provide customers with a reliable, affordable means of personal transportation.

*

By the time of Studebaker’s foray into electric cars, the company had already been a longstanding success. Founded as a blacksmith shop in the early 1850s by Henry and Clem Studebaker, the company originally specialized in the manufacture of horse-driven vehicles, both for personal transportation and for agriculture. Its fulfillment of military vehicle orders for the Union during the Civil War cemented its reputation, and in 1868, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was founded. The firm built a massive manufacturing plant in South Bend and employed well over a thousand people by the 1890s.

South Bend Tribune, February 6, 1905. Newspapers.com.

By 1897, Studebaker was “building and experimenting with a ‘horseless vehicle’,” according to company minutes. The Centralia Enterprise and Tribune published an article in their July 10, 1897 issue on a meeting of “forty-five Studebaker service men of the New York Metropolitan area . . . for a clinical demonstration and discussion on modern techniques in automobile repairs.” Studebaker employees, from district managers to branch service representatives, actively discussed how the company would build a car for commercial sale.

South Bend Tribune, February 17, 1952. Newspapers.com.

The company got closer to their vision by 1901, with help from two of America’s most visionary inventors. The South Bend Tribune reported that none other than Thomas A. Edison, the man behind the lightbulb and the motion picture camera, designed the battery for one of Studebaker’s two prototype automobile designs. “Mr. Edison has promised the Studebakers that they will have one of the first batteries for vehicle purposes,” the Tribune elaborated. The other vehicle prototype was developed with the assistance of Hiram P. Maxim of Westinghouse, Edison’s bitter corporate rival (and Nikola Tesla’s financial backer) in the legendary “electric current wars” of the 1890s. In the end, Westinghouse came out the victor in the “mini” electric current war, producing a battery that would “run the [electric] wagon fifty miles with a fifteen hundred pound load and two men without charging,” according to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette in the fall of 1901.

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 18, 1901. Newspapers.com.

On November 16, 1901, Studebaker successfully tested its first electric automobile. The Marshall County Independent provided more detail on its specifications: “The vehicle carries under the middle of the bed an electric storage battery sufficient for a 50 mile run on good roads, and is geared for an average speed of 11 miles an hour.” The article also noted that Studebaker intended to test their electric car in the streets of Chicago, seven years before Laure Duval’s legendary test in Philadelphia.

Marshall County Independent, November 22, 1901. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Studebaker’s electric cars and trucks were quickly put into production and the company sold twenty by 1902. Studebaker executive Albert Russell Erskine, in his company history, wrote that “the first electric runabout was sold [on] February 12, 1902, to F. W. Blees of Macon, [Missouri].” Now part of this is true. F. W. Blees did, in fact, purchase a Studebaker electric runabout, but the date for his purchase is likely closer to October of 1902, according to a newspaper account in the Macon Times-Democrat. Colonel Blees, a onetime prospective candidate for Georgia Governor, ran a successful carriage business. He purchased the electric runabout while attending the Texas State Fair in Dallas, and according to the Houston Post, the state fair ran from September 27 to October 12, 1902. Blee’s purchase had to occur in this window of time and not in February, as Erskine recounted. Colonel Blees likely used his Studebaker electric car for at least ten years, driving it to “Studebaker Day” at the Georgia State Fair in 1912, as noted by the San Francisco Examiner.

Macon Times-Democrat, October 23, 1902. Newspapers.com.

With a Westinghouse motor, an Exide battery, and a body built by Studebaker, described by one advertisement as a “combination that speaks for itself,” the company’s electric runabouts sold for $975 in 1903 ($34,604.97 in 2024 dollars). While the price tag limited the car’s marketability to mostly middle- and upper-class Americans, Studebaker managed to sell them effectively. The company showed off its electric vehicle as a part of its 3,000 square foot exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis Fair, which the South Bend Tribune described as “one of the finest to be seen at the exposition. It is simple in construction, safe, easy to operate, and free from vibration and noise.” This exhibit proved successful, since the Washington Post reported in 1905 that, “the well-known Studebaker electric. . . is meeting with a steady sale, and there will be considerable number of them in evidence on the streets in Washington this season.”

South Bend Tribune, July 23, 1904. Newspapers.com.

Studebaker’s marketing went beyond public exhibits; it also developed flashy newspaper advertisements to attract customers from two urban demographics: city businessmen and society women. As a 1908 ad in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle attested, “For the woman shopping, or for the business man [sic] to make hurried trips about town, it is the ideal and only vehicle.” As one prime example, John Mohler Studebaker, one of the original Studebaker brothers, can be seen in photographs driving the electric car. The Los Angeles Herald even printed a story about him escorting Wu Ting Fang, a government minister from China, in a Studebaker electric during the foreign leader’s trip to the United States. “Although the trip was a dizzy one,” the Herald wrote, “President Studebaker’s perfect control of the car seemed to inspire Minister Wu with confidence and enjoyed the very unusual trip.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 28, 1908. Newspapers.com.

Urban professionals especially took to the Studebaker electric, enticed by ads displaying the ‘gentleman about town’ completing his social calls and articles attesting to its popularity with such men, as Chicago’s Inter Ocean reported. Dr. Jacob Frank, a physician who lived at 49 Pine Grove Avenue, “purchased a new Studebaker electric Victoria last week and uses it daily in calling on his patients,” the Inter Ocean wrote in 1908. Dr. Frank also provided a testimonial to the paper, saying, “I drove a gasoline car for the last two years . . . but for men of my profession it does not compare with the electric for city work. My new Victoria is no trouble whatever and I would not exchange it under any conditions for a gasoline car for around town work.” As a physician who made house calls, the easier starting process for the electric likely shortened time to get to patients and made trips from house to house a smoother experience, as it did for Laure Duval in her legendary race on the streets of Philadelphia.

Alameda Evening Times-Star and Daily Argus, September 28, 1910. Newspapers.com.

By 1907, the marketing to women, especially society women, become supercharged. The company ran ads proclaiming that “the woman whose social duties require the constant use of a carriage will appreciate that advantage of a Studebaker Electric.” That same year, a photograph in the San Francisco Chronicle showcased a Studebaker electric with none other than actress Trixie Friganza in the driver’s seat. A mainstay of stage and screen for decades, Friganza was also a suffragist and attended rallies in support of women’s rights. That Friganza was willing to be photographed driving a Studebaker electric car spoke to its popularity among successful women, something the company continually leaned into.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 18, 1907. Newspapers.com.

According to the city’s Press newspaper in 1910, “a notable number of ladies of Pittsburg’s elite have visited this [Studebaker] exhibition and their expressions of approval and delight are particularly gratifying to the company’s executives.” The Press elaborated on this theme with a society woman’s remarks. “There is an elegance of appearance in the Studebaker electric that easily distinguishes it from all other electric pleasure cars,” she said. Idahoan society women agreed. As the Boise-based Statesman noted, “Mrs. Scott Anderson set the pace with her new Studebaker electric and Mrs. O. P. Johnson has ordered a fine Studebaker electric coupe costing $2500. Mrs. Hall followed suit by ordering a Studebaker electric phaeton.” Additionally, owners could charge their cars at home and travel distances well over fifty miles away. All across the country, from Studebaker’s homebase in Indiana to the sunny coasts of California, the Studebaker electric’s brand became synonymous with simplicity, elegance, and cleanliness.

Chicago Inter Ocean, May 20, 1908. Newspapers.com.

The brand cultivated a reputation for reliability and performance. Numerous newspaper articles documented many interesting experiments with Studebaker electric vehicles. For instance, traveling on rural routes was a concern with potential customers, as Studebaker often marketed its electric vehicles as city transportation. David Clem, a mail carrier in South Bend, tested a Studebaker electric on his rural mail route, with it performing quite well. As the South Bend Tribune reported on July 20, 1907, “the time generally consumed in making the round by Mr. Clem is eight hours, but the auto left the local office at seven in the morning and after completing the trip and delivering the mail, reached the office again at 10 o’clock, consuming only three hours.” Cutting five hours off a rural mail route was pretty impressive, which Mr. Clem likely appreciated. A series of tests in 1908 displayed a Model 22 Studebaker electric runabout expertly traveling from Kansas City, Missouri to Ottawa, Kansas, “in spite of the fact that the roads were very rough in places and a number of steep hills proved to be a severe test for some of the contestants,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. Drivers also received a helping hand from local farmers, “who turned out in force with scrapers and spades and did their best to get the roads in good condition for the tests.”

South Bend Tribune, April 02, 1910. Newspapers.com.

Studebaker also manufactured electric trucks and delivery wagons, with prominent companies such as American Express and Gimbel Brothers using them consistently. The U.S. Census Bureau also purchased “a 1,500-pound Studebaker electric. . . for hauling mail, supplies, and publications,” according to a 1912 issue of San Francisco Examiner. The paper noted that “the machine has been in service practically a year and has given perfect satisfaction.” Likely the most newsworthy cargo a Studebaker electric truck ever carried was Tillie, an injured elephant from the Robinson Brothers’ circus, who was transported to a veterinarian in South Bend (the circus’s latest stop) by a truck converted into an ambulance. The Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based Northwestern published a striking photograph of Tillie, with a bandaged left front leg, standing aloft an electric truck with “Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co.” on the side. From transporting letters and telegraphs to industrial machinery and even elephants, Studebaker electric trucks and wagons played a vital role in those early years of the twentieth century.

Oshkosh Northwestern, June 4, 1910. Newspapers.com.

All of this leads us to a pivotal question: why did Studebaker stop manufacturing electric vehicles? The sources tell us a conflicting tale. As late as 1910, newspapers documented “heavy demand [for electrics] . . . at Studebaker’s branches in New York, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Denver,” and the company made plans to expand its factories to accommodate the demand. However, sometime between 1911-1912, Studebaker halted production of electric vehicles. One possible explanation might have been the merger of Studebaker with the Everett-Metzger-Flanders (E-M-F) automobile company in Detroit, subsequently creating the Studebaker Corporation. Since E-M-F produced gasoline-powered automobiles, Studebaker may have seen it as more efficient to double down on existing automobile plants for its corporate expansion. As Stephen Longstreet wrote in his history of Studebaker, “there was no real future in such a slow car depending on batteries. Gasoline-powered cars were the talk in smart engineering circles.” Albert R. Erskine recorded that Studebaker discontinued production of electric vehicles in 1912, after selling 1,841 in ten years.

Minneapolis Journal, May 1, 1910. Newspapers.com.

Furthermore, the history of automobiles indicated a significant shift towards gasoline-powered vehicles and “electric vehicles were pretty much irrelevant by the mid-1930s and would remain so for decades,” according to automotive historian Kevin A. Wilson. Significant technical challenges stalled the wider adoption of electrics, as many early vehicles were slower overall than gasoline-powered cars. “The relatively poor energy density of affordable batteries, however, kept electrics in the shade,” Wilson noted, and “advances in electric propulsion came slowly while limitations of speed and range came to look even greater in the world as it was remade by the gasoline automobile and consumers grew accustomed to long-distance highway travel at increasing velocities.”

Today, this has all changed. With the success of companies like Tesla, Rivian, and BYD, electric vehicles genuinely compete for both customers and road space, since they are just as fast, reliable, and elegant as any gas-powered vehicle. In a sense, the pioneering spirit of Studebaker and many other companies lives on in these new manifestations of electric cars.

Washington Times Herald, May 24, 1908. Newspapers.com.

For roughly a decade, Studebaker stood at the forefront of an electric vehicle revolution that provided affordable, durable, and reliable cars to the public. The company constantly sought to improve its vehicles through rigorous testing and innovative technological advancements, such as home charging and extended trip times. Studebaker also marketed their cars to a wide swath of consumers, from the city businessman to the society woman. And behind it all was a company based in South Bend, Indiana, that would go on to make gasoline-powered cars for decades until its dissolution in 1966.

One senses that John Mohler Studebaker, one of the original brothers who built the company from the ground up, would be pleased to see electric cars having a dramatic resurgence. Who knows? Maybe he would’ve been photographed driving a Cybertruck if he was around today. Now that would’ve been something for the newspapers.

Chicago Inter Ocean, May 17, 1908. Newspapers.com.

The Superman: Dr. Edward A. Rumely and American Identity

At the height of World War I, American culture, particularly the press, exhibited an anti-German animus. Propaganda routinely emerged that referred to Germans as “Huns” and displayed German soldiers as “brutes.” In Indiana, this resulted in the widespread closure of German newspapers like the Täglicher Telegraph und Tribüne, the renaming of the Indianapolis-mainstay Das Deutsche Haus into the Athenaeum, and banning the teaching of German in public schools. This hostility eventually targeted one particular Hoosier of German-American ancestry: the LaPorte-native Edward A. Rumely. His own connections to Germany and its culture ignited a profound controversy that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

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Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “Ambient, Adventure, Score Song” by Patrik Almkvisth, “The Descent ” by Kevin MacLeod, “Lurking” by Silent Partner, “Mean Streetz” by MK2, “Voyeur” by Jingle Punks, and “Far The Days Come” by Letter Box

Continue reading “The Superman: Dr. Edward A. Rumely and American Identity”

Cultural Emissaries: Chinese Immigration to Indianapolis

Crowd gathered outside of Dong Gong Tshun’s laundry, “Chinese Murder Mystery,” Indianapolis News, May 6, 1902, accessed via Newspapers.com.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by approximately 339 percent in 2022. Indiana was no exception. In 2023, the Bloomington community was shocked when a white woman named Billie Davis stabbed an IU student, who has chosen to remain anonymous, on a public bus because she “looked” Chinese. Events like this stunned the nation and forced Americans to reconsider their historical treatment of Chinese immigrants and, more importantly, where they fit into American society today.

This renewed “Chinese question” has warranted a scholarly reexamination of Chinese immigration history. Recent works have examined everything from the lived experiences of the Chinese immigrants who built the Transcontinental Railroad to the vigilante violence white workers in Tacoma, Washington perpetrated against Chinese workers, whom they viewed as economic competition. While great strides have been made in diversifying Chinese immigrant scholarship, historians have left out one small but critical piece of the narrative–Chinese people who lived in the Midwest. In doing so, scholars inadvertently erased the experiences of midwestern Chinese immigrants, ignoring the deep roots they established in the region. Considering renewed interest in both midwestern history and Chinese immigration as a whole, this piece seeks to illuminate the experiences of Chinese immigrants in midwestern communities like Indianapolis.

Chinese Immigration in Indianapolis

The U.S. Census did not record Chinese residents in Indianapolis until 1880, nearly three decades after Chinese immigrants began settling in the U.S. during the California Gold Rush. The Chinese population in Indiana remained small during the late 19th and early 20th centuries with eighty-nine residents in 1890, 273 in 1910, and 279 in 1930. Most Chinese immigrants in Indiana settled in Indianapolis, but others migrated to Ft. Wayne and Richmond. The 1880 Census recorded approximately ten Chinese residents in Indianapolis, all single men.[1] Despite these small numbers, the Chinese community in Indianapolis received outsized newspaper coverage and attention from the mainstream Hoosier community, with many residents regarding their new neighbors with curiosity. An 1880 edition of the Indianapolis News covered the presence of new Chinese laundries in the city, stating that the presence of Chinese laundryman “has created a decided sensation . . . At any hour of the day crowds are seen gathered in front of laundries watching the Chinese work.”[2] This interest in the nascent Chinese community continued throughout the years and, later, entrepreneurial types, such as restaurant owner Moy Kee, would learn how to leverage the community’s fascination with Chinese culture to their economic benefit.

R.L. Polk & Co.’s Indianapolis Directory for 1879 (Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., 1879), p. 540, accessed via Internet Archive.

Historian Keith Schoppa noted that for most Chinese immigrants, Indianapolis was a “secondary” settlement, where Chinese people moved after they initially lived in the more populous Chinatowns on the East and West Coasts.[3] It appears many were motivated to move to Indianapolis for economic reasons, with several Chinese residents starting businesses, namely laundries. In 1875, the Indianapolis City Directory recorded two laundries, Sang Lee & Co. on 41 Virginia Avenue and Wah Lee & Co. on Illinois Street.[4] The number of Chinese laundries increased quickly and by 1879, the city directory noted the presence of eight laundries in the city. Notably, the directory also began designating these laundries as “Chinese,” similar to how directories would note if a business was “Black,” and, in doing so, differentiate them from white businesses. The laundries were spread out around the city, along Illinois Street, Washington Street, Mass Avenue, and Kentucky Avenue, indicating the more dispersed nature of the Indianapolis Chinese population.[5]

One point to note is the business acumen of the Chinese residents. They advertised their services in mainstream newspapers to attract new patronage, often capitalizing on existing curiosity about Chinese immigrants to build interest in their businesses.[6] Newspapers show that laundrymen across Indiana maintained connections with one another, often working in tandem to ensure their safety and security.[7] Inter-state networks between Chinese businessmen was critical to the welfare of dispersed Chinese immigrant communities like Indianapolis, where residents were bereft of the typical community and connections present in traditional Chinatowns. Businessmen also were cognizant of supply and demand, as demonstrated in the Indianapolis News, which reported that, “The Chinese considering the laundry business overdone in this city [Indianapolis], are talking of sending a colony to Fort Wayne.”[8] This demonstrates that the Chinese business community in Indianapolis not only paid attention to economic conditions in the city, but also actively collaborated with one another to avoid unnecessary competition. These strategies proved effective and many residents, such as Moy Kee, E Lung, and Sam Sing, died with sizeable fortunes and extremely successful businesses.

Lithograph of W. Washington Street. The rightmost building advertises “Gun Wa’s Chinese Herb and Vegetable Remedies.” Image circa 1890, Hannah House Collection, accessed Indiana Album.

Overall, it appears that the Chinese community of Indianapolis maintained a nuanced relationship with police and white authority figures. While no mobs or overt hate crimes were committed against the Chinese residents in Indianapolis, they were frequently the target of burglaries at the hands of white assailants. Notably, the victims often reported these incidents to police and worked with authorities to recoup their losses, suggesting a somewhat cooperative relationship between the two groups.[9] However, this cooperative relationship was somewhat tenuous, and white Hoosiers were constantly paranoid about the possibility of Chinese crime or “Tong” activity in Indianapolis. Police frequently placed laundries and restaurants under surveillance due to suspicions of illicit activities. Law enforcement conducted multiple raids on Chinese laundries at night in hopes of finding evidence of gambling and the Chinese betting game Fan-tan.

For example, in January of 1911 approximately twenty Chinese residents appeared in court after being arrested during a police raid while gathering at Quong Lee’s laundry on North Delaware Street. The Indianapolis News covered this event, writing, “Twenty-one unsuspecting Chinese, wearing poker faces, were seated around his [Quong Lee’s] table, yesterday afternoon, when the police appeared … Quong Lee and his ‘guests’ were still deep in their game, among Chinese and American coins and dominoes, when the police suddenly stood among them.” The article noted that the Chinese residents were “respectful” in court and twelve of the men quickly pled guilty and settled their fines with the city.[10] Both the police surveillance and newspaper coverage of possible illicit activity were disproportionate compared to the relative size of the Chinese population. A critical Indianapolis Journal article even categorized the police’s raids a “Chinese Scapegoat,” pointing out that “the police have made no raids recently on the various crap games around the city.”[11]

“The Chinese Scapegoat,” Indianapolis Journal, January 31, 1898, accessed Newspapers.com.

To be sure, Chinese residents likely gambled and played Fan Tan after work. However, little evidence exists to suggest these activities extended beyond local betting or were connected to a vast Chinese criminal network, as some Hoosiers speculated. Unwarranted concern over illicit activity likely was due to the sensationalized news reporting from Chicago, San Francisco, and other states, which often reached Hoosier ears. The white community’s dual fascination with Chinese culture and mistrust of the intentions of their Chinese neighbors created a difficult environment for Chinese businessmen to navigate. Chinese residents capitalized on their heritage to encourage patronage to their shops but struggled to dispel negative stereotypes about Chinese criminal activity or Hoosier concerns about Chinese gambling.

Concerns over criminal activity in the Chinese community peaked in 1902, when a prominent Chinese laundryman, Dong Gon Tshun, colloquially known as Doc Lung, was found murdered at his business on Indiana Avenue. Reporters sensationalized the murder, reporting gory details and speculating on possible criminal activity within the Chinese community. Chin Hee, a Chinese man from Chicago, was quickly arrested for the murder. The murder of Lung pushed Indianapolis into near hysteria, with some residents worrying that the Chinese gang members, often referred to as highbinders, were behind the murder and still active in the city. Doc Lung’s funeral procession was even followed by a curious crowd, which, in other circumstances, could have easily erupted into violence. The murder occurred on Indiana Avenue, where the city’s Black population predominantly lived, and increased tensions between the city’s Chinese community and Black community. Many Chinese residents alleged that a Black assailant, rather than Chin Hee, was responsible for the crime. Chin Hee was ultimately not convicted, and the courts would later convict three Black men for the crime based on dubious evidence.[12]

“Scenes at the Funeral of Doc Lung,” Indianapolis News, May 10, 1902, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ultimately, Doc Lung’s murder case epitomized the tenuous relationship between the Chinese community and white authority figures. Chinese individuals often cooperated with the police and court system, using it to protect their businesses. Police, it appears, were also willing to provide this protection and investigate burglaries or violence against Chinese people in Indianapolis. However, the authorities also regarded the Chinese community with suspicion and paranoia. They speculated that Doc Lung was murdered by highbinders without reasonable evidence and were constantly concerned about Chinese criminal activity permeating into the city. This tension shows that, while Indianapolis residents tolerated Chinese immigrants at a level not seen in coastal states, they never fully accepted them.

Chinese residents also frequently utilized the Marion County court system to settle disputes or advocate for themselves, often successfully. In 1894, a Crawfordsville laundryman named Moy You Bong brought a civil suit against Indianapolis resident Lee Wah over a dispute on the sale of a laundry business in Indianapolis. In response, Lee filed a countersuit denying he defrauded Moy. The court ultimately ruled against Moy, awarding Lee thirty-five dollars.[13] This case of two Chinese residents using the courts to settle a business dispute shows a degree faith in the court system. It also stands in stark contrast to places like California, which actively barred Chinese people from testifying at all.

Conclusion
Launderer and business owner, E. Lung.

Chinese laundrymen, restaurant owners, and store owners of Indianapolis achieved relative economic success. They collaborated with one another to ensure their own safety and, in the early years, began experimenting with tying Chinese culture to their business ventures through advertising Chinese goods. Ultimately, the nascent Chinese community in Indianapolis was small, but closely connected and economically astute. Chinese residents utilized the court system and traditional journalism to advocate for their own needs. However, due to unfounded and sensationalized fears over Chinese criminal activity, many were forced to walk a tight line between embracing their culture for economic gain and distancing themselves from their Chinese identity to remain tolerated members of the Indianapolis community.

Historian Anthony J. Miller characterized Chinese immigrants in the Midwest as “pioneers,” who, far removed from Chinatowns, “not only resisted discrimination but were also the first emissaries of their nation to bring cuisine, customs, dress, language, and artwork from their ancestral homeland to states such as Iowa.”[14] While he wrote primarily about Iowan Chinese residents, this characterization too can be applied to Indianapolis’s Chinese population, which displayed resilience and achieved success in the face of discrimination. In doing so, they brought cultural diversity and resources to the Hoosier community. Today, as Americans revisit the “Chinese question,” it is important that scholars expand beyond the coasts and examine a broader spectrum of the Chinese experience. This reveals a narrative not only of exclusion, violence, and discrimination, but also of success, resilience, and community.

Mian Situ, Chinese Family Laundry, 1880, n.d., oil on canvas, accessed MianSitu.net.
For further reading, see:

Joan Hostetler, “Indianapolis Then and Now: Moy Kee Chinese Restaurant, 506 E. Washington Street,” March 21, 2013, accessed Historic Indianapolis.

Kelsey Green, “Moy Kee Part I: The ‘Mayor’ of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community,” Untold Indiana, Indiana Historical Bureau, June 2, 2022, accessed Untold Indiana Blog.

Kelsey Green, “Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit,” Untold Indiana, Indiana Historical Bureau, June 27, 2022, accessed Untold Indiana Blog.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

 

 Notes:

[1] Ruth Slevin, “Index to Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Mulattoes in Indiana, 1880 Census,” Genealogy Division, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis.

[2] “Curiosity of Races,” The Indianapolis News, May 21, 1880, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[3] R. Keith Schoppa, “Chinese,” Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience (Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Historical Press, 1996), p. 88.

 [4]Swartz & Tewdrowe’s Annual Indianapolis City Directory (Indianapolis: Sentinel Company Printers, 1874), p. 464, accessed Internet Archive.

[5] R.L. Polk & Co.’s Indianapolis Directory for 1879 (Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., 1879), p. 540, accessed via Internet Archive.

[6] “Wash List,” Indianapolis News, November 12, 1881; “Wah Lee: A Good Hand Laundry,” Indianapolis Star, December 31, 1923, accessed Newspapers.com.

[7] “Sam Sing Lee’s Funeral,” Indianapolis News, October 30, 1900, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] “The Chinese,” Indianapolis News, October 29, 1877, accessed Newspapers.com.

[9] “A Chinaman Robbed,” Indianapolis Journal, June 15, 1885; “The Chinese Laundry,” Indianapolis News, May 10, 1880, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “12 Chinese Promptly Settle Fan Tan Fines,” Indianapolis News. January 16, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com.

[11] “The Chinese Scapegoat,” Indianapolis Journal, January 31, 1898, accessed Newspapers.com.

For newspaper coverage of other raids on Chinese businesses see: “Get 22 in Fan-Tan Raid,” Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com; “Inquiry to Follow Arrest of Chinese,” Indianapolis Star, May 23, 1915, accessed Newspapers.com; “Pong Tells of High Stakes in Chinese Gaming House,” Indianapolis News, September 21, 1915, accessed Newspapers.com; “Police Find Lid at Slight Angle,” Indianapolis Star, July 2, 1917, accessed Newspapers.com.

[12] “A Chinaman Murdered,” The Indianapolis Journal, May 6, 1902, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Chinese in Court on Murder Charge,” Indianapolis News, May 21, 1902, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Threats on Moy Kee Cause of Commotion,” Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Prisoners’ Lips Sealed,” Indianapolis Journal, March 21, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[13] “A Cry of Police Falsely Raised,” Indianapolis News, December 22, 1894, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[14] Anthony J. Miller, “Pioneers, Sunday Schoolers, and Laundrymen: Chinese Immigrants in Iowa in the Chinese Exclusion Era, 1870-190,” The Annals of Iowa 81, no. 2 (Spring 2022): 118.

 

“Foully Shot Dead:” The Mysterious Death of John Seay and the Murder Trial of William Fodrea

It turns out that James P. Hornaday’s coverage of the Martinique and St. Vincent earthquakes was not the only big story in the Indianapolis News in the summer of 1902. A heavily-covered murder trial also graced the front pages during those months. William Fodrea, a young man with a penchant for engineering, stood accused of the murder of John Seay, an employee of the Noblesville Mining Company. Seay’s mysterious death and Fodrea’s equally mysterious alibi opened up a tale of unrequited love, obsession, and murder that captivated readers of both the News and the Indianapolis Journal. The resulting trial took many twists and turns before the jury’s surprising, unexpected decision. In the end, many walked away from the trial with more questions than answers and the details of that fateful night still remain obscured.

Indianapolis News, December 23, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The murder of John Seay occurred on a cold, snowy night in 1901, just three days before Christmas. “About 1 o’clock yesterday morning,” the Indianapolis News reported, “while John E. Seay, in the employ of the Noblesville Milling Company, was resting on a stairway, a load of buckshot, fired by an assassin through a nearby window, entered his neck and head and he fell dead.” Within hours of the murder, attention turned to likely culprit William Fodrea, the twenty-five-year-old son of a former county prosecutor and aspiring engineer. Fodrea’s name rose to the top of officials’ list because he was reportedly obsessed with Seay’s girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Carrie Phillips. “Fodrea was infatuated with the girl and insanely jealous, and, it is said, made threats against Seay,” the News wrote. When Phillips rejected his advances, Fodrea increasingly fixated on her, “lingered” in her neighborhood, and was even “found hiding under the veranda” of her home. When she chose Seay instead, he was said to have lost all composure, resulting in the other suitor’s murder.

Indianapolis News, June 9, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fodrea, “perfectly calm and collected when arrested,” claimed total innocence. Even so, local authorities used a “‘sweat box’ examination,” but it “failed to compel the accused to implicate himself.” For context, a “sweat box” was an often-used torture device in US prisons that isolated the incarcerated in a small room with a tin roof. Due to a lack of ventilation, these small rooms greatly increased in temperature during the day and made prisoners “roast in the grueling heat, enough in some cases to cause death, or little better, madness.”  It apparently did neither to Fodrea and he stayed locked up in the Hamilton Country jail while authorities began to sort out the crime.

Indianapolis News, January 16, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

From the initial investigations and throughout the trial,  only circumstantial evidence linked Fodrea to the crime. Fodrea claimed to have never known Seay, and when asked to identify him in a photo, said that, “So far as that man is concerned, I never saw him before.” Despite his claims of innocence, other clues began to trickle in. The first piece of evidence found was a gun barrel, discovered by “school boys under a brush pile on the outskirts of the city.” As for testimonial evidence, Carrie Phillips and her mother both claimed that Fodrea’s obsession bubbled into a frenzy, with him finally declaring that “if he could not go with the young woman no one else could.” Phillip Karr, night manager of the Model Mill, said he saw Fodrea “loafing about the place late one night about a week before the shooting.” While these developments seemed damning on the surface, authorities noted that “these incidents will fall far short of being sufficient to convict him, if there are no new developments in the case.”

Ralph Kane, the lead prosecutor in the Fodrea murder trial. Indianapolis News, June 12 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ralph Kane, a veteran prosecutor, replaced J. Frank Beals after he withdrew from the case, citing his wife’s familial relationship to Fodrea. Judge William Neal began the process of establishing a grand jury to investigate the murder in more detail. The Hamilton County Council also convened, “acting on a petition signed by fifty business men,” to appropriate funds towards “a reward for the arrest and conviction of the assassin of John E. Seay.” One indication that the prosecution might have a case against Fodrea was that Seay did not appear to have any enemies in his former home of Richmond, Virginia. The grand jury first met on February 18, 1902. The Journal noted that, “Judge Neal, in his instructions to the jury, said no indictment could be returned against Fodrea unless there was a probability of guilt.” The case still hinged on circumstantial evidence. As such, Judge Neal further “instructed the jury to devote all of its time to the inquiry.”

By March of 1902, the investigators were still continuing their search, but were confident that they had “unearthed much new evidence against him.” In the meantime, the Hamilton County Council “appropriated $600 for the defense of William Fodrea” and “$1,000 for the prosecution of the same cause.” By April, Hamilton County’s Circuit Court teased a trial date, likely sometime in the summer term.

Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1902 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

The trial for the murder of John E. Seay began on June 9, 1902, at the Hamilton County Circuit Court. Billy Blodgett, a titan of turn-of-the-century investigative journalism, covered the proceedings for the Indianapolis News. The prosecution argued that William Fodrea shot Seay at close range while he was resting on a step. The alleged round from Fodrea’s shotgun “struck Seay in the neck and head, tearing a ghastly wound in his throat, and several of the grains of shot penetrating his brain.” Despite the cursory investigations indicated “no trace of the murderer,” a police officer had heard that Fodrea made threats against Seay. Fodrea, maintaining his innocence, “said he had gone downtown between 7 and 8 o’clock that evening, and visited different places, returning home about 10 o’clock. Being unable to sleep, he went back down-town an hour later, and for some time sat on the steps on the north and west sides of the court house.” He returned home around 2am. Due to the immense cold that wracked Noblesville that December night, the police were not sold on Fodrea’s story, especially his lounging on the courthouse steps. He was arrested soon thereafter.

Indianapolis Journal, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The prosecution hung the success of their case on the testimony of Carrie Phillips. They again remarked of his odd behavior directed towards Miss Phillips—the passing her by home every day, hiding under her veranda, and his intense jealousy of Seay’s apparent courtship of Phillips. Her mother recalled that Fodrea called on the young woman shortly before the murder, asking for her whereabouts and the full name of her new suitor. Fodrea “said he would get even before long,” according to the State. These circumstantial accounts, while wholly based on the imperfect testimony of other people, painted a grim picture of the young man. The murder also highlighted a growing problem within Hamilton County. As Blodgett wrote in his first article for the News, “The killing of Seay was the third crime committed in Hamilton County within a short time, and consequently there was great indignation, not only at the murder, but because of what is termed ‘the epidemic of crime’.” The first day also focused on the selection of a jury, of which only two of twelve men would be over forty. This measure was taken to accommodate Fodrea, who was only 25 at the time and to ensure a fair trial. Leota Fodrea, William’s sister and a “prominent schoolteacher of the county,” showed “her devotion to her brother by her consistent presence by his side.”

Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, the prosecution laid out its case in greater detail. Ralph Kane, lead prosecutor for the State, reiterated the problematic behavior of Fodrea and his supposed threats to Seay and Carrie Phillips. He argued that witnesses claimed to have seen Fodrea “lurking around the mill late at night and was seen standing at another time on the spot at the mill where the murderer stood” as well as “peering into the mill when Seay was there.” He also “caused a sensation when he declared that the State will show that the night of the murder, William Fodrea was seen within two squares of the mill with a shotgun in his hand.” These conclusions were based on the testimony of twenty-five witnesses, one of which was Frank Bond, a co-worker with Seay at the mill. He discovered the body as well as “12-gauge shotgun wads near it.” Bond then called Dr. Fred A. Tucker, another witness, who examined the body and concluded that Seay died instantly. Head miller Daniel H. McDougall also testified against Fodrea and claimed that he had applied for a job at the mill multiple times and even visited the grounds on three separate occasions.

Indianapolis News , June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The second day also provided the jury with details about the lives of both Fodrea and Seay. Fodrea, in his mid-twenties, called Hamilton County his home for most of his life. As the News wrote, “he has always been modest and unassuming and did not have a large circle of friends.” His life had taken for the worse after his laundry business went belly up as a result of a bad business partner, which prompted the young man to say, “It seems as if everyone that has anything to do with me beats me.” Seay, much like his accused assailant, lived a quiet life and kept to himself, likely the result of a speech impediment. He had very few close friends and lived modestly, dying with only a few hundred dollars to his name. What linked these two seemingly innocuous men was their relationship to Carrie Phillips.

Linnaeus S. Baldwin, the lead defense attorney. Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fodrea’s defense, led by Linnaeus S. Baldwin, sought to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by establishing doubts about the circumstantial evidence. This proved to be a difficult task; a gun barrel was found near the murder scene and further eyewitness testimony suggested that a “man wearing a long overcoat” had been spotted close to the mill. The defense leaned on character witnesses for Fodrea, specifically his family.

Fodrea’s mother and father corroborated that their son was at home during the times he described and spoke of his good character. In particular, his mother noted that he was “very fond of machinery and wanted a job at the mill,” which paints his intentions with the mill in a different light. Additionally, the court came to a near stand-still when Fodrea’s sister took the stand. “She told of the dolls he made her,” Billy Blodgett’s wrote in the News, “the mechanical toys he constructed and the engines he built. Everyone in the room realized that the delicate sister was pleading for her brother, and it had effect at the time.”  In all, the defense produced nearly 20 character witnesses for Fodrea, who all spoke positively of him and doubted the claims of the prosecution.

Indianapolis News, June 12 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Even though many people testified to the goodness of Fodrea’s character, the testimonies of Carrie Phillips and Myrtle Levi described a completely different man. “Miss Phillips said she had known Fodrea for four years, and that during that time she had frequently told Fodrea that she did not want him to come to see her any more, but that he persisted in making calls at different times,” wrote the Journal. Phillips’s mother corroborated her daughter’s impressions of Fodrea and further noted that he threatened her and Seay. The defense pounced on this, arguing that “the State could not prove that Phillips went with other company, unless it also proved that Fodrea knew of it and talked about it.” The court agreed, the testimony was challenged, and Phillips was asked “not to say when she began going with Seay.” Regardless, her testimony displayed a man obsessed and incapable of thinking clearly about his relationships. Conversely, Myrtle Levi’s testimony proved more compelling, because she was the only one who directly connected Fodrea to the crime. As written in the News, “She testified that she knew Fodrea, and that on the night of the murder he and a companion came to her house and tried to enter.” He was accused of holding a shotgun, which two other witnesses claimed they saw on his person when he appeared at Levi’s residence. The defendant, asked by his lawyers not to take the stand to defend himself, calmly watched the proceedings as they developed.

Indianapolis News, June 13, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On June 16, 1902, after six days of deliberation, the jury shockingly acquitted William Fodrea of all charges; a unanimous verdict was reached on the fourth ballot. The Journal described the atmosphere of the courtroom:

When the verdict, “We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty,” was read there was a sigh of relief from the crowd. Fodrea was as calm and undisturbed as any person in the room. His mother was the first to clasp his hand. Quietly he took the hand of each juror and thanked him while a smile played over his face. His relatives and friends then engaged in a love feast that lasted some time. His devoted sister Leota was not present when the verdict was returned, but after met and embraced him and escorted him to the home from which he had been absent for six months.

Some last-minute developments likely changed the direction of the jury. Thomas Levi, Myrtle Levi’s father, told the court that she did not originally identify Fodrea as one of the men who visited her home. While this important detail likely persuaded the jury, Levi’s personal life may have influenced them as well. As Hamilton County Historian David Heighway pointed out, Levi was a well-known prostitute in the community whose lifestyle might have weighed heavily on their verdict. Heighway’s evidence about her lifestyle comes from the Hamilton County Ledger.

Indianapolis Journal, June 15, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

This explanation seems incomplete, in some respects. First, the changing nature of her testimony could have had a stronger impact on the jury’s decision. Second, some of the jury may not have taken her lifestyle into consideration or may have not even known about it. Third, her profession should not have had any bearing on whether her testimony was true or not. The last of these hypotheses is sadly anachronistic; at the turn of the century, Victorian values were still in full swing and it is less than likely that the jury, if they had known about Levi, would have ignored it. Biases are an inherent part of everyone’s experiences, so the jury may have been biased against her from the start. Heighway’s explanation only answers part of this puzzle.

Alongside the knowledge of Levi’s lifestyle and changing testimony, it should be noted that Fodrea was accused of stalking, intimidation, threats, and eventually murder. It is not absurd to suggest that he could have killed Seay as a tragic conclusion to a failed courtship. Yet, as his defense pointed out, Fodrea was only connected to this crime via the woman his alleged victim was interested in. A full murder weapon was never found, eyewitnesses only described a gentleman in an overcoat at the mill, and the only witness who directly connected him to the crime had changed her story before it came to trial. There was enough doubt to acquit Fodrea, but the newspaper accounts of the trial acknowledge that Fodrea’s acquittal came from a weak prosecution, not a strong defense.

Prototype of the “Beetle Flyer,” an automobile built by the Fodrea-Malott Manufacturing Company, Hamilton East Public Library.

William Fodrea eventually picked up the pieces of his life, but in the most surprising way imaginable. Between 1908 and 1909, he co-founded the Fodrea-Malott Manufacturing Company, where he used his improved transmission design to build a better type of automobile. They developed only one vehicle during their lifetime, the “Beetle Flyer,” which was built by a staff of 8 (including Fodrea). When his partner, Charles Malott, suffered an auto accident in 1909 that destroyed much-needed supplies, the company folded. Malott moved to California and Fodrea moved to Arkansas, “to work on mechanical devices.” To this day, Fodrea-Malott remains the only known automobile company from Hamilton County. Fodrea died around 1945, according to Social Security and Census records.

The death of John Seay and the murder trial of William Fodrea captivated the citizens of Hamilton County and both of Indianapolis’s major newspapers. It displayed all the classic elements of a pulp-crime novel: unrequited love, intrigue, obsession, and murder, hence its extensive coverage by the News and the Journal. Fodrea’s acquittal put to rest, at least for the newspapers, whether or not he actually committed the horrendous deed, but his subsequent move to Arkansas suggests that it continued to haunt him. We may never know what exactly happened on that brisk, December night, but its effects left a deep influence on the community for years after.

“The Saloon Must Go:” Fred Rohrer, the Berne Witness and the Fight for Temperance in Berne, Indiana

Fred Rohrer, unknown date, located in the Thirtieth Anniversary Souvenir Edition of the Witness,1926, accessed Indiana Memory.

On December 24, 1903, an article from a Kentucky-based newspaper known as The Bee highlighted the following: “Not daunted by the fact that his house was blown up by dynamite, by being assaulted twice and severely beaten, nor by an attempt to made to lynch him, Fred Rohrer, editor of the Berne Witness, declares that he will continue his relentless war upon the saloon element of the town.”[1] That year had proved to be a defining moment for both Rohrer and the City of Berne. With the help of the Berne Witness, Rohrer tied Berne to the Temperance Movement, and helped put Indiana on the national map to Prohibition.

Religion and the Rise of Temperance

In the early nineteenth century, Indiana and other states across the Midwest saw the arrival of Mennonites, who traveled from northeast Switzerland, and Germany. Their religious beliefs stemmed from the Anabaptist Movement of the sixteenth century and encompassed a range of practices, such as “believer’s baptism, the separation of church and state, personal nonviolence, a rejection of church hierarchy and the refusal to take an oath.”[2] A range of societal changes influenced their exodus from the homeland, such as the Napoleonic Wars, poor harvests, and mandatory military service. As more Mennonite families experienced a world of religious and social freedom on America’s frontier, extended kin soon followed.[3] The network of chain migration resulted in the creation of small, German speaking settlements across the Midwest landscape, as Swiss Mennonites made the U.S. their new home.

Interior of Mennonite Church in Berne, courtesy of the Thirtieth Anniversary Souvenir Edition of the Witness,1926, accessed Indiana Memory.

This was the case for sixteen-year-old Fred Rohrer, who emigrated from Berne, Switzerland to Sonneberg, Ohio, in the spring in 1883 with his parents and thirteen siblings. Three years later, the Rohrer family made their way to the newly incorporated town of Berne, Indiana, named after their original hometown. They arrived at a pivotal time in the town’s history. Rumblings of the Temperance Movement gripped the city leaders within the freshly established city, as the Mennonite population dealt with Berne’s growth. Historian John Eicher explains that during the late nineteenth century, the Temperance Movement began to influence religious and political identities of the United States and inspired the many secular organizations to link alcohol consumption to moral and economic problems that faced the U.S. landscape.[4] Methodist groups served as the bedrock of early temperance activism, and soon more religious groups followed, with the first major temperance group in Indiana appearing in 1826 with the formation of the American Temperance Society. However, it was not until 1828 that activism surrounding temperance intensified in Indiana.[5] Between 1830 and 1850, temperance organizers helped pass nearly 125 laws throughout the state that bolstered temperance by regulating liquor prices and amount sold.

Eicher explains that beliefs of piety, self-restraint, and morality connected Mennonites to the Temperance Movement. Drunkenness coincided with sex work and gambling – all sins originating in the saloon.[6] Rohrer was quick to join the fight against liquor consumption. After purchasing an old Washington hand press and equipment from the Decatur Press and Decatur Democrat offices, Rohrer established the Berne Witness in 1896, publishing its first issue on September 3. Recognized as a Temperance paper, the Berne Witness began as a weekly newspaper that by the turn of the century had a circulation of about 700. At the time, the city had a population of approximately 1,037 individuals.[7] That same year, Rohrer incorporated a supplement to the Witness in the German language, reflecting the steady growth of the Mennonite population.  Berne’s status as a respected Hoosier town was emerging – but in 1902, the discovery of oil just a few miles outside of Berne’s city limits threatened the population’s solitude. Transient single, working-class male workers, alongside prominent oil men seeking a fortune, flooded the local population. As a result, concerns over vice-related activities, like drinking, gambling, and sex work, skyrocketed.[8] Many prominent leaders believed this was the perfect opportunity to enforce liquor laws before the town became any bigger.

Image courtesy of the Tenth anniversary souvenir edition: The Berne Witness, accessed Indiana Memory.

As a leading supporter of Prohibition, as well as an active voice within the Christian Temperance Society of Berne (CTSB), Rohrer’s role in establishing the city as a dry town is highlighted in the Berne Witness. Tales of his protests, his success and failures, and his dedication to upholding his religious beliefs are spread across nearly twenty years of publications. His influence in the CTSB allowed Rohrer to use his paper to establish a fluid connection between Temperance activists and the larger community. Rohrer and the Witness played a crucial role in turning Berne into a dry town. It frequently reported updates on local Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s meetings, alongside changes in Indiana’s liquor laws and liquor license requirements. More importantly, the Berne Witness became a weapon that enabled Rohrer to call out local authorities and saloon owners for their illegal activities. As his paper grew in popularity and readership, Rohrer became a local legend – but his fame also made himself the main target for retaliation.

Rohrer’s Fight

In September of 1902, Rohrer met with several other men met to discuss the “enforcement of the local option provision” brought on by the Nicholson Law.[9] The law required a two-year waiting period between liquor license applications and its issuance. Additionally, the law allowed for remonstrances – or public votes and petitions – for the denial of any liquor license.[10] The CTSB was quick to form petitions against every saloon in Berne. Rohrer, also a member of Indiana’s Anti-Saloon League, commented on the remonstrance’s in the Witness in 1902, saying that Christian patriotic forces in Indiana were attempting to solve the saloon question by eradicating saloons all together. “The saloon must go,” he wrote, “Remonstrances have been circulated and a great majority of the names of voters have been secured.”[11] Initially, these remonstrances were successful. The Witness reported on December 5 that two saloons – one owned by Jacob Brennaman and the other by Jacob Hunsicker – officially closed, with another to cease in March of 1903.[12]

However, the celebration of these closures did not come without complaint from others. Though the Berne Witness gave him unfettered access to disseminating his opinion, it also opened the door to immense retaliation by saloon owners and liquor drinkers. And, by the start of the new year of 1903, tensions escalated between saloon owners and Rohrer.  Early in January, Rohrer posted a notice on the front page of the Witness, incentivizing the community to report liquor violations and sign their public petitions:

Opponents to the remonstrance often said that there would be more liquor sold in Berne if licenses were refused than if said license were granted. To assist in demonstrating the matter, $100.00 has been deposited with the undersigned to be used as follows: $10.00 to be paid for the first, $15.00 for the second, and $25.00 for the third conviction of any one party by the Adams Circuit County. Money to be paid by the undersigned to such parties that file the complaint.[13]

Monetary incentives, however, failed and remonstrances were ignored. The board of commissioners approved liquor licenses for several men across town, directly violating the Nicholson Law. The CTSB complained but were forced to take their grievances to the circuit court.[14]

Rohrer spent the summer of 1903 biking ten miles to Decatur daily to bring Berne locals remonstrances to the circuit court. As early as March, the Decatur Democrat reported on Fred Rohrer’s appearance in Decatur on “temperance and saloon business.”[15] On June 4, the Democrat claimed that the City of Berne, despite protests, was still “wet,” as the commissioners court granted a license to John Reineker to operate a saloon in town. Rohrer’s remonstrance against Reineker had been declared insufficient due to his lack of attorney.[16] A month later, the Democrat claimed that Rohrer was still busy in the auditor’s office, where he filed remonstrances containing 396 local signatures “against the granting of license to sell liquors to J. M. Ersham, William Sheets and Sammuel L. Kuntz.”[17]

Berne Witness staff,1906, courtesy of the Tenth anniversary souvenir edition: The Berne Witness, accessed Indiana Memory.

Tensions between Rohrer, Berne’s saloon owners and local anti-Temperance supporters peaked by September. After midnight on September 10th, Rohrer’s wife, Emma, awoke to a scratching noise coming from the first floor of the house. After investigating and finding nothing out of the ordinary, she returned to bed. Twenty minutes later, Rohrer awoke to two heavy explosions in his home. As Rohrer and his family slept on the second floor, someone slipped one stick of dynamite through a downstairs window and another under his front porch. The explosions destroyed half of his home. Rohrer described the wreckage in the Berne Witness a few days later:

We looked out the windows in the kitchen and dining room and then came into the sitting room, just beneath the bed room we were all sleeping in. The moon was shining in through a large hole in the wall where the front door used to be, and through two other large holes where windows were missing. A few shreds of the curtains left hanging from the top were wafted in by the south wind and made a spectral noise and together with the debris of broken pieces of glass and dishes and furniture lying topsy-turvy gave the room a ghastly appearance.[18]

Local carpenters were quick to get to work on repairing Rohrer’s home the following morning. News of the attack spread across the Midwest, with articles regarding the murder attempt appearing in the Indianapolis News, the Kentucky Post, and even the Salt Lake Herald.[19] But many, especially Rohrer, were not surprised. He wrote in the Berne Witness, “As had been stated in Friday’s issue and in other papers, the attack was not unexpected to us…Every night as we went to bed last week I told my wife to be prepared for almost anything.”[20] It was later reported that the special grand jury tasked with investigating the incident failed to bring any indictments in the case, and no one was charged.[21]

Rohrer’s home, courtesy of the Tenth anniversary souvenir edition: The Berne Witness, accessed Indiana Memory.

Women within the CTSB began surveilling Rohrer’s home shortly after the attack. The Plymouth Tribune reported that five women, armed with their husbands’ revolvers, kept guard to ensure that Rohrer could rest peacefully. In fact, their continued support encouraged him to move forward. On September 11, the morning after the bombing, Rohrer biked back to Decatur to approach the commissioners’ court with a remonstrance against Joseph Hocker, a Monroe resident who was seeking to apply for a liquor license in Berne. The Berne Witness stated that Rohrer also brought thirty-three cases of law violations to a grand jury against Berne saloonkeepers, claiming that the attack on his house was “very naturally connected” with the saloon fight in town. A grand jury convened and handed down six indictments and saloonkeepers had to pay a minimum fine, As a result, on November 18, sixty suspected patrons of Berne’s saloons received subpoenas to appear before the court to testify. [22]

“Only Women Guard at Night,” The Plymouth Tribune, October 1, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Enraged by the indictment, a mob against Rohrer formed on November 19. Resident Louis Sprunger approached Rohrer in the Berne Witness offices, challenging him to a fight out on the street, which Rohrer refused. Later that evening, Sprunger followed him into the post office, and Sprunger attacked him. Two female workers came to Rohrer’s defense, tackling Sprunger and forcing the man to leave. After retreating to the safety of the Witness offices, the president of the town council, Abe Boegly, attempted to drag Rohrer out but failed to get him on the street. Instead, Boegly decided to give Rohrer a “beating” until the local marshal arrived at the scene to break up the fight. As Rohrer was taken to safety, a mob – consisting of saloonkeepers and other locals – gathered outside of the Witness offices to determine the extent of Boegly’s assault.[23]

The Indianapolis News covered the incident and stated that Rohrer was advised by the local sheriff to temporarily leave Berne out of fear of more violence. He found asylum in Decatur, where he released a statement that he “proposes to continue the fight against the saloon until his enemies kill him.” Rohrer did not return home until a week later, and on December 4, the Kansas Prohibitionist reported that Rohrer began arming his home and offices with revolvers and shotguns. His wife, who refused to leave her husband’s side, began practicing with the weapons to protect the home. The increased violence in the town, however, forced saloonkeepers to come to a compromise with Rohrer and the CTSB. On December 18, the Berne Witness reported that John Reineke, J. M. Ehrsam and Samuel L. Kuntz offered a compromise – the saloonkeepers would go out of business on April 1 of 1904, provided they were dismissed on paying the costs of their current indictment charges.[24]

Image courtesy of the Tenth anniversary souvenir edition: The Berne Witness, accessed Indiana Memory.

As concessions were deliberated, Rohrer released another statement on Christmas Eve, declaring that he would not concede despite his friends fearing that he would be murdered. It was clear that Rohrer would not back down, no matter how much violence saloonkeepers and liquor supporters inflicted on him. On December 29, the Indianapolis Journal reported that “after one of the bitterest anti-saloon battles in the history of the State,” saloon owners Reineke, Ehrsam, and Kuntz agreed to close their doors on the grounds that within a few days Rohrer would drop his cases against the men regarding various liquor violations.[25] As the City of Berne approached the new year, it seemed that the liquor fight was finally coming a peaceful end.

Moving Forward – Rohrer’s Legacy

Ultimately, 1903 proved to be the most defining year for Rohrer’s activism and for the City of Berne. Over the next three years, Rohrer and the Witness reported the continued forced closures of Berne’s saloons and liquor law violators. However, the election of Governor James Franklin Hanly – a staunch supporter of Prohibition – in 1904 brought an end to the violence that accompanied Rohrer’s fight. Governor Hanly’s involvement in the Temperance Movement solidified the ban of alcohol at the highest political level with the Moore Amendment, which enacted a county option law regarding the ban of alcoholic beverages.[26] The liquor fight officially ended in 1907, when the city rejoiced over the last quantities of alcohol being carried into the street and drained. Berne was officially a dry town and remained that way until the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1932.[27]

* The Berne Witness will soon be digitized and incorporated into the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database and IHB’s own Hoosier State Chronicles, to give historians the chance to explore Hoosier grassroots efforts within the Temperance Movement and Prohibition.

Notes:

[1] “Indiana Editor, Takes His Life in His Hands,” The Bee, December 24, 1903, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] John Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty’ Piety, Politics, and Temperance in Berne, Indiana, 1886 – 1907,” Indiana Magazine of History 107, no. 1 (2011):  4, accessed https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/12591/18853.

[3]  Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 5.

[4] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 10.

[5] Charles E. Canup, “The Temperance Movement in Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History, 16 no. 1 (1920): 13, accessed https://www.jstor.org/stable/27785940.

[6] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 11-13.

[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Indiana City/Town Census Counts, 1900 to 2020,” City and Town Census Counts: STATS Indiana, accessed https://www.stats.indiana.edu/population/PopTotals/historic_counts_cities.asp. According to the 2020 Census, the population of Berne is just above 4,000 people.

[8] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 2; Learn more about the connection between vice and industrialization with our post about the effects of the Gas Boom in Muncie, Indiana.

[9] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 21; In 1895, the Nicholson Law was passed in Indiana. This law states that the majority of voters in townships and cities can halt the approval for liquor licenses issued to any applicant. See the Indiana Historical Society’s Temperance and Prohibition Time Line for more information on Indiana legislation regarding Temperance.

[10] Jane Hedeen, “The Road to Prohibition,” Indiana Historical Society, 2011, p. 3, accessed 1d7d71dfbb39529a736fdba5279a5ba9.pdf (indianahistory.org).

[11] “War on Saloons,” The Berne Witness, November 11, 1902; In this context, a “remonstrance” refers to a forceful protest, expression of complaint, or formal statement of grievance.

[12] “The Liquor Fight,” The Berne Witness, December 5, 1902; “War on Saloons,” The Berne Witness, November 11, 1902.

[13] “Liquor Being Sold Illegally in Berne?,” The Berne Witness, January 20, 1903; For reference, $100.00 is equivalent to about $3,549.23 today.

[14] Eicher, “’Our Christan Duty,’” 24.

[15] Decatur Democrat, March, 5, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] Decatur Democrat, June 4, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Decatur Democrat, July 9, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “God Saved,” The Berne Witness, September 15, 1903.

[19] “Two Explosions Under Residence,” The Indianapolis News, September 10, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dynamited,” The Kentucky Post, September 11, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dynamite Outrage,” The Salt Lake Herald, September 11, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “God Saved,” The Berne Witness, September 15, 1903.

[21] “Failed to Indict,” Daily News-Democrat, September 30, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Only Women Guard at Night,” The Plymouth Tribune, October 1, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “F. Rohrer’s Home Dynamited,” The Berne Witness, September 11, 1903; Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 26.

[23] “Editor Rohrer Brutally Assaulted,” The Berne Witness, November 20, 1903.

[24] “Editor Rohrer in Peril from Mob at Berne,” The Indianapolis News, November 19, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Fred Rohrer Again,” The Kansas Prohibitionist, December 4, 1903, accessed Newspapers.com; “Saloon Keepers Offer Terms,” The Berne Witness, December 18, 1903.

[25] “Indiana Editor, Takes His Life in His Hands,” The Bee, December 24, 1903, accessed Newspapers.com; “Editor Fred Rohrer Wins a Long Fight,” The Indianapolis Journal, December 29, 1903, accessed Newspapers.com.

[26] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 28; Stacey Nicholas, “J. Frank Hanly,” Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, accessed J. Frank Hanly – indyencyclopedia.org.

[27] Eicher, “’Our Christian Duty,’” 17, 29.

The World on Fire: James P. Hornaday and the Disasters of Martinique and St. Vincent

Indianapolis News, May 13, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

For all of human history, natural disasters have plagued the citizens of villages, towns, and nations. One such incident, the volcanic eruptions on Martinique and St. Vincent in 1902, displayed the immense destruction left in the wake of such a tragedy. As one of the few journalists allowed back to the islands after the eruptions, James P. Hornaday, Washington correspondent for the Indianapolis News, witnessed the devastation first-hand and wrote detailed articles about his experiences. In doing so, Hornaday chronicled one of the world’s most violent natural disasters and provided future scholars with a thorough rough draft of what came after.

Indianapolis News, May 9, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The islands of Martinique and St. Vincent served as colonial outposts in the Caribbean; the former belonged to the French and the latter belonged to the English. In particular, the Indianapolis News described Martinique as “one of the West Indies, belonging to the chain of the Lesser Antilles. . . . thirty-three miles south of Dominica and twenty-two north of St. Lucia.” St. Vincent, the largest of a chain of islands collectively known as the Grenadines, sits within miles of Martinique. Both islands contained valuable natural resources, agriculture, and industry, especially sugar. Being the creations of tectonic shifts and volcanic activity, Martinique and St. Vincent always faced the potential threat of violent eruptions. However, nearly no one in 1902 expected what carnage awaited them.

Indianapolis News, May 9, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On May 8, 1902, after a few days of growing volcanic pressure, Mount Pelée spewed forth ash, rocks, and steam that completely covered the city of St. Pierre, Martinique’s population center. The News reported that St. Pierre was “totally destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic disturbances” and that “almost all the inhabitants—more than 25,000—are said to have been killed.” This left the thousands who survived “without food or shelter.” Across the way, St. Vincent’s Soufrière volcano also gained momentum, with “a big cloud of steam” lingering over the island and startling its inhabitants. The trouble for both of these islands was only beginning.

The eruption of Mont Pelée, Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

Within days, the news of Martinique’s destruction reached the ears of two prominent Indiana legislators, U.S. Senators Albert J. Beveridge and Charles W. Fairbanks. They started crafting legislation that would send relief supplies to the island, originally calling for an appropriation of $100,000. Upping the ante, President Theodore Roosevelt asked for $500,000 from Congress. They eventually settled on a compromise of $200,000 (over $5.6 million in 2016 dollars) after further negotiations in the appropriations committee led by Indiana Congressman James A. Hemenway. The president also offered his condolences to the French president, Emile Loubet. “I pray your excellency,” President Roosevelt wrote, “to accept the profound sympathy of the American people in the appalling calamity which has come upon the people of Martinique.” Additionally, his message to Congress stressed the importance of a swift relief effort. “I have directed the departments of the Treasury, of the War and of the Navy to take such measures for the relief of those stricken people as lies within the executive discretion,” he declared.

Indianapolis News, May 12, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By May 12, the death toll on Martinique grew to 30,000 and the island was engulfed in “almost total darkness.” Among the living, some 50,000 people were without homes, ample food, and supplies. Nearby islands began taking in refugees, but that also came with difficulties. As one Guadeloupe civil servant said, “I do not believe Gaudeloupe [sic] can adequately relieve the stupendous distress.” The next day, the News reported that 1,600 people perished in the eruptions on St. Vincent. James Taylor, an officer on the Quebec shipping liner Roraima, shared his encounter with Mount Pelée:

Suddenly I heard a tremendous explosion. Ashes began to fall thicker upon the deck, and I could see a black cloud sweeping down upon us. I dived below, and, dragging with me Samuel Thomas, a gangway man and fellow-countryman, sprang into a room, shutting the door to keep out the heat that was already unbearable.

The eruption of Mount Pelée, May 8, 1902, The Volcano’s Deadly Work, Internet Archive.

He also shared, in painful detail, the aftermath of the destruction:

All about were lying the dead and the dying. Little children were moaning for water. I did what I could for them. I obtained water, but when it was held to their swollen lips they were unable to swallow, because of the ashes which clogged their throats.

The Reverend William A. Maher, an Indianapolis native who frequently visited Martinique, also expressed his thoughts on the tragedy that fell upon the island. “The horror of this destruction in Martinique is appalling to me,” Maher noted, “It may be that it comes to me more strongly for the reason that some of the persons I have known may have been among the victims.”

Bodies of victims among the wreckage on Martinique, The Volcano’s Deadly Work, Internet Archive.

As soon as the ink was dry on the appropriations, relief ships sailed for Martinique. One such ship was the Dixie, which left from New York City on May 14, 1902. It carried thousands of pounds of food, clothing, shelter materials, and medicines. The stores were desperately needed; nearly 100,000 inhabitants of Martinique were without a steady source of food and supplies. The crew included three army surgeons, thirteen army officers, and 14 civilians, among which were geologists, explorers, volcanologists, and a small handful of press. Among the select journalists included in the crew was Indianapolis’s James P. Hornaday, Washington correspondent for the News. His inclusion came after Senator Beveridge, Senator Fairbanks, and Congressman James Eli Watson sent an appeal to the ship’s captain, Robert Mallory Berry, who allowed Hornaday to join the crew.

Indianapolis News, May 15, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Over the next month, Hornaday wrote about his experiences aboard the Dixie and on the islands of Martinique and St. Vincent. The News ran these stories as front page features for over a week. The first article appeared on June 5, 1902, under the title, “With the Relief Boat Dixie: First Story of Uncle Sam’s Work.” Hornaday described his time on the relief vessel, learning from the eminent scientists and military personnel as well as his first glimpses of the Mount Pelée and the island. “In a little while the clouds that surrounded and obscured the volcano on the island shifted, and the crater came into full view,” wrote the newsman, “The island, containing only five square miles, looked like a great heap of volcanic debris piled up—as it really is.”

Indianapolis News, June 5, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

As he went ashore, Hornaday saw some of the refugees for the first time:

Thousands of refugees, with faces almost expressionless, crowded the sea line in the town of Fort-de-France. Many of them implored the strangers to take them away. To stay, they said, meant certain death.

Two small steamboats, plying the Caribbean waters, were being loaded with such refugees as could raise money enough to get away. Families carried on their heads all their earthly possessions and dumped them into these boats

As for those who stayed on Martinique, he noted their reluctance to use electricity, which resulted in the city of Fort-de-France switching from “electric lights to candles.” “The sensibilities of the natives,” wrote Hornaday, “seemed to be so paralyzed that grief could not manifest itself.”

The front page of Les Colonies, Martinique’s newspaper before the disaster, Century Magazine, Google Books.

In his next article, Hornaday pieced together a rough outline of the events that resulted in the destruction of St. Pierre. Les Colonies, Martinique’s premier newspaper, served as a guide for some of his conclusions. One of the first indications of volcanic activity was reported on April 25, a full 12 days before the eruption. A “picnic guide” named Julian Romain saw what he described as “a boiling mass of what be called ‘bituminous stuff’” around the volcano. “In the cauldron of the crater I saw a boiling, black mixture of bituminous stuff, it rose up, popped, and allowed jets of steam to escape,” Romain said of his encounter with Mount Pelée. Showers of ashes emerged from the sky by May 1, which “did not reach St. Pierre, but guides returning to the summit reported that the ground was well covered high up on the side of the mountain.” May 5 brought on more steam, ash, and eventually boiling water that “formed a good river, and rushed down the mountain side.” The watery onslaught “engulfed several large sugar-cane mills and killed many persons—how many will never be known, for no record had been made up before the great disaster came.”

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Two days later, a government commission published a report arguing that “Mont Pelée [sic] offers no more danger to the people of St. Pierre than Vesuvius offer to those of Naples.” The editor and publisher of Les Colonies sided with the government in an attempt to calm the island. “Since the day Jules Romain looked over into the boiling cauldron no one knows what has happened on Pelée,” the editor opined, “We only know we have been getting ashes. What has to-morrow in store for us?” As Hornaday solemnly noted, “the next morning the man who penned those lines was smothered by the escaping gas and buried beneath the ruins of his little printing office.”

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hornaday surveyed the ruins of St. Pierre on May 22, with his reporting appearing in the News on June 7. “In a land area ten miles wide and twelve miles long every living thing was destroyed. . . . the dead were buried by the same force that destroyed the life,” he reported. As he walked around, he would eventually see Pelée and the outline of the former city. Here are some of his details:

Pelée, rising to the northeast of the city, was cloaked in gray ashes from base to summit. Here and there up the side of the mountain could be seen jets of steam issuing forth. The whole scene was one of desolation. Not a sprig of green came within the range of sight. As we drew a little nearer the beach off St. Pierre the details of the ruins stood out before us.

As for those “details,” Hornaday wrote of city buildings ravaged like “children’s blocks tumbled over” and ashes that “buried the dead to a considerable depth.” The island’s governor was reported lost in the wreckage and no attempt was made to recover his body “which, from the general appearance of the place, was buried in ten feet of debris from the building and the ashes from the volcano.” Hornaday stared death in the eyes and he and his crew left the island “happy…to put the picture behind us.”

“Destruction of St. Pierre’s Inhabitants”, Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

From there, the coverage shifted from the destruction to the relief efforts. Hornaday’s article from June 9 outlined the efforts of relief workers and the response from the natives. “A whole dozen steamers had emptied their cargoes on the island within ten days after the disaster” when the Dixie and its crew arrived to deliver its supplies. During Pelée’s active eruption on May 8, a vast majority of citizens scrambled towards the north end of the island towards the city of St. Pierre. As Hornaday discovered, “practically every life in the north half of the island had been sacrificed.” Despite the seemingly good intentions of those offering help, the thousands who survived apparently saw the relief efforts in a different light. “The population, almost entirely colored, showed no appreciation of the donation of food and clothing by the United States,” Hornaday opined. By contrast, “the government and city officials, of course, did appreciate the act.”

“Members of the First Relief Party Who Visited St. Pierre After its Destruction,” Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

Now, it is safe to assume that a statement such as this could be seen as prejudiced, as he singled out the natives of color from the government. In that light, Hornaday’s view on the situation is rather myopic. The people who survived had just gone through the worst disaster of their lives, one the government promised just days before would not happen. Perhaps the natives did not feel like trusting the outsiders and the governments who support them as a result. The island also suffered through an additional eruption on May 20 that reached parts of Fort-de-France, although no one died. Additionally, Hornaday reported that many of the natives felt “numb” from the entire experience, so it’s reasonable to suggest that while Martinique’s government appreciated the good intentions of relief effort, the natives had good reasons to be weary of the whole thing.

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The attitude of St. Vincent could not have been more different. As Hornaday pointed out in his article from June 10, “the cruiser [Dixie] was received by the governor and the officers of the British cruisers as a friend in need, and arrangements were made at once to receive the stores.” While many died on Martinique, St. Vincent had far more injured survivors and thousands “made penniless and homeless.” While St. Vincent’s government appeared just as grateful as Martinique’s, the natives also appreciated the American relief efforts. “Everywhere one heard expressions of good will toward America for having so promptly come to the relief of the stricken people,” Hornaday highlighted. Again, this is one reporter’s view of the situation, but it is worth noting that the British island (St. Vincent) received the Americans more favorably than the French Island (Martinique). As political scientist Sidney Milkis noted, the Roosevelt administration’s relations with France did not strengthen until the second term.

Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After four intense days of investigation, James P. Hornaday left the island of St. Vincent on May 25, 1902 aboard the Madiana, while the Dixie stayed behind and unloaded the relief supplies. The Madiana also carried “as many wealthy refugees as she can carry,” which were described by Hornaday as “well-to-do whites.” He further noted that “the opinion was expressed by the refugees brought away that within a year many of the islands would be entirely left to the negroes.” As with his many pontifications, Hornaday comes off as wildly obtuse, if not prejudiced. Regardless, this passage is telling for one clear reason. Martinique and St. Vincent were colonial outposts, which gave their respective French and British transplants easy access off the island while the natives were left to fend for themselves. It is a case study, among many others, that documents the problematic practices of colonialism and imperialism at the turn of the century. While many non-natives perished, like the US consulate and his family, they had the easiest access to food, shelter, medical treatment, and transportation. The natives were not so lucky.

Indianapolis News,  June 14, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In his final article, dated June 14, 1902, Hornaday makes some tentative conclusions about the entire ordeal. He praised the “promptness with which the United States came to the relief of the needy in Martinique and St. Vincent” and that the “act touched the people of the colonies and they will not soon forget it.” That is, except those who were uneasy about American aid; this is Hornaday slightly reversing his previous conclusions, unless he is talking solely about the islands’ governments. He also praised the work of the scientific community whose initial investigations concluded “that there was ample warning from both Pelée and Soufrière” and “it is nearly always possible to foretell an eruption in time to save life.” Finally, he honored those who died in the destruction, especially American service members:

If the names of the officers and the sailors of the ships who went down could be ascertained and their families sought out wherever they may be there would be undoubtedly be an opportunity to spend wisely the relief fund which the United States holds a reserve. And since the names of most of the ships are known, it ought not to be a task beyond performance.

Once all of his articles were released, the Indianapolis News published Hornaday’s work in a pamphlet, known as the Martinique Letters, on June 19, 1902. It sold for 10 cents a copy and hailed as “a connected and comprehensive account for the great volcanic disasters.”

James Hornaday’s Martinique Letters, Indiana State Library Pamphlet Collection.

Sadly, Martinique suffered another volcanic upset on August 30, 1902, killing several hundred people near the towns of Carbet and Morne Rouge. One of the fatalities was Father Père Marie, who aided the scientific teams and journalists during the initial destruction on Martinique. Hornaday wrote an obituary for Mare that appeared in the News.  “If the cable report be true,” he wrote, “his parishioners have perished.” Hornaday praised the priest for his kind assistance on the island during his investigations the previous May.

Indianapolis News, September 3, 1902 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

Martinique and St. Vincent eventually recovered from the tragedies of 1902 and the latter became an independent nation in 1979. Martinique is still a part of France but is no longer a colony; it became an “overseas department” in 1946 that grants its citizens full rights under the French government. Fort-de-France, the major city that survived the eruptions, became the capital. Their towns, villages, and economies all bounced back and both have become viable producers of sugar as well as prime tourist destinations. They have faced volcanic activity since their 1902 disasters but have always found a way to endure.

Indianapolis Star, December 25, 1935, Newspapers.com.

As for James Hornaday, he worked as the White House Correspondent for the Indianapolis News for another 33 years and became the Dean of White House Correspondents. He died on December 24, 1935 at his desk in Washington, writing up new stories about President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The president released an official statement the next day:

I share with his legion of friends the grief which the passing of James P. Hornaday has brought to all of us at this Christmas time. Dean of White House Correspondents, he had through long years faithfully chronicled national events, not less admired for his talents as a newspaperman than he was beloved because of the beauty and strength of his personal character. There was, there is, among Washington newspapermen no gentler, truer soul than Jim Hornaday. We shall long remember him, and miss him, and mourn him, and be thankful that we were permitted to know him and love him.

The obituary in the Indianapolis Star also lauded the legendary newsman. Reporter Gavin Payne wrote, “I have never known a man who, in my opinion, outranked him in the sterling qualities of manhood. . . . few men have attained a higher reputation in Washington correspondence.” The article also noted his love for Indiana, saying, “He a was a true Hoosier, and though living in Washington for much more than a quarter of a century, never lost his attachment for the folks back home.”

James P. Hornaday’s articles about Martinique and St. Vincent stand among some of the Indianapolis News’ finest reporting from the period. It was also rather unique; a veteran Hoosier reporter traveled across a continent to vividly chronicle the destruction of some of the Caribbean’s most treasured islands. He helped readers then and now understand the immense geographic, political, economic, and personal struggles these islands faced in the wake of such a disaster. While some of his conclusions about the natives are out of touch with our modern sensibilities, which should be acknowledged, he nonetheless created a portrait of the event that resonates even today. He shows us what journalists will often go through to get their story, even when the world is on fire.

The Tower of Pelée, a short lived volcanic cliff, in the fall of 1902. The Tower of Pelée, Internet Archive.

Art and Controversy: Thomas Hart Benton, Herman B Wells, and the Indiana Murals

Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.

Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists during the twentieth century, painted series of murals about Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in storage of the Indiana State Fairgrounds until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.

Learn more Indiana History from the IHB: http://www.in.gov/history/

Search historic newspaper pages at Hoosier State Chronicles: www.hoosierstatechronicles.org

Visit our Blog: https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/

Visit Chronicling America to read more first drafts of history: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

Learn more about the history relevance campaign at https://www.historyrelevance.com/.

Please comment, like, and subscribe!

Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “Fresno Alley” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers, “Lazy Boy Blues” by Unicorn Heads, “Progressive Moments” by Ugonna Onyekwe, “Creeping Spiders” by Nat Keefe & BeatMower, and “Plenty Step” by Freedom Trail Studio

Continue reading “Art and Controversy: Thomas Hart Benton, Herman B Wells, and the Indiana Murals”

“Oh Boy! She’s Coming to Richmond”: Mamie Smith Brings the “Crazy Blues,” 1921

talking-machine-jan-1921
The Talking Machine World, January 15, 1921, 27, accessed archive.org.

Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals.  In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana.  Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.

Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati,  worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York.  Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith.  Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”

"A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith," photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed "Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market," All Things Considered, NPR, http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market
“A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith,” photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed “Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market,” All Things Considered, NPR.

In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering.  Bradford recalled:

Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.

Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:

There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs.  Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.

Image of "Crazy Blues" on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, "Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues," http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
Image of “Crazy Blues” on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues,”

This was certainly true in Indiana.

Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.”  Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:

Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles
Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year.  In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph  to play them on:

Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads.  So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.

According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?

The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date.  Here are some great examples:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

And:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:

Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921, 3.
Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.
"Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. 9
“Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”

Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 4.
Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted  blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.

Obrecht writes:

While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…

"Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921, 11.
“Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”

In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.”  This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history.  While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such.  While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past.  Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers.  On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:

Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.

Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorsey explained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”

There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success.  The Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”

Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.

As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance.  The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue.  The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram reported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.”  So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?

While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture.  That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people.  There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post.  However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why.  Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921, 5
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month.  On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend.  The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium.  The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”

Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed.  Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:

“The recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ led the way for the professionalization of black music, for the black entertainment industry, and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.”

Search Hoosier State Chronicles for yourself to find more on Mamie Smith in Indiana. For more on Mamie Smith’s long career see Jas Orbrecht’s well-researched article, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues.”

Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies

The Reno Gang, often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries.

While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all strove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices.

In this  video, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Search historic newspaper pages at  Hoosier State Chronicles  and Chronicling America to read more first drafts of history.

Continue reading “Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies”

“The Best of the Season:” Mark Twain’s Indiana Lectures

"America's Best Humorist," Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.
“America’s Best Humorist,” Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.

From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.

Map highlighting Mark Twain's lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.
Map highlighting Mark Twain’s lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.

One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.”  As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:

We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.

Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,
Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,

While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.

Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!).  As the News reported:

Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].

This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.

Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:

When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”

The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.

However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”

George W. Cable. Library of Congress.
George W. Cable. Library of Congress.

When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Nevertheless, their joint appearance at Plymouth Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 7, 1885 was greatly lauded. The Indianapolis Sentinel reported that their performances was “the best of the season” and the Indianapolis News wrote that it was “one of the finest audiences that could be gathered.” The Greencastle Times even reported that efforts were underway to bring the two over to Greencastle to perform (alas, it was not to be).

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:

‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’

The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.

Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribune complimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.

Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:

“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”

“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”

“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”

“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”

In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.

Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.
Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.