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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indiana General Assembly (1850-1865): A New Constitution and the Civil War


Accessed The Indiana Historian.

* See Part Two: Surveying, the First Statehouse, and Financial Collapse (1826-1846)

The New State Constitution of 1851

After years of political and budgetary turmoil, the Indiana General Assembly and the general public agreed that it was time for an improved state constitution. The failures of the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act in the 1830s and 1840s precipitated a need for more safeguards against “special legislation,” or local legislation that served special interests.[1] The election of state delegates, many from within the General Assembly, ensured that state debt would be contained and allowed for only special defense purposes. For example, delegate Schulyer Colfax (future vice-president under Ulysses S. Grant) wanted the language on debt to be so clear that, “no more State debt shall hereafter be created upon any pretext whatever. . .”[2] The limitations enacted against the General Assembly created a rigid political system that neglected the promise of debt remuneration for at least three decades, especially during the disastrous effects of the Civil War.

The delegates, however, did create more effective organizational tools for the legislature. The General Assembly was provided with biennial sessions with sixty-one days of legislative time, and a two-year term for representatives and a four-year term for senators were also established. Furthermore, the House and Senate were limited to only 100 and fifty members, respectively. These same provisions continue today, with the notable exception that the General Assembly now meets every year. The delegates also made some social progress, instituting a stronger push for public schools and easier access to citizenship for immigrants.[3] Yet, there was one particular provision of the new state constitution that created widespread animosity up through the Civil War.

Indiana and Race: The Antebellum Years

When the state constitution was ratified by the public in February 1851, it institutionalized its own version of racism. Article 13 stated that, “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.”[4] Even though Indiana was a Free State, a strong antagonism towards African-Americans lingered. As historian David G. Vanderstel noted, Article 13 “demonstrated the strength of the exclusion and colonization movements, which sought to remove blacks to Africa.”[5] Voting rights for the already 11,000 African-American citizens was also prohibited by the 1851 constitution, and African-American marriages were also left unrecognized.[6] Many of these egregious policies were slowly reversed after the Civil War, but discrimination and legal obfuscations continued well into the mid-twentieth century.

Indiana and the Civil War

The Civil War permanently altered the course of the United States, and Indiana’s unique role in the conflict underscored these drastic changes. Indiana ranked second among the Union in the amount of troops, just over 197,000, and suffered over 25,000 casualties.[7] While personal sacrifices occurred on the battlefield, an internal civil war erupted between the governor and the Indiana General Assembly. The eye of this political hurricane was Governor Oliver P. Morton, often cited as Indiana’s most influential Governor. Elected as Lieutenant Governor under Henry Smith Lane, Morton assumed the governorship after Lane went the U.S. Senate.[8] From 1861 to 1867, Morton made his presence felt throughout the state, often in controversial ways.

Indiana’s war-time Governor. His policies led to a fierce internal civil war with the General Assembly, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Morton’s leadership exacerbated the political divisions within the Indiana General Assembly. Some Democratic legislators scrambled to remain relevant, supporting the aims of the Union but not the executive power grabs of Morton or President Lincoln. Others were fierce “Peace Democrats,” which the Morton administration targeted as “Copperheads” and “traitors.”[9] The same divide pervaded the Republicans as well, but their leadership often bowed to Morton’s forceful demands. But by 1862, the barrage of military failures and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had angered the Indiana public enough to ensure a Democratic sweep in the mid-term elections.

James F. D. Lanier. Sketch of the Life of J. F. D. Lanier (self published, 1877).

Once the Democrats had control of the state’s legislature and finances, the legislative progress of Indiana stagnated for over two years. When the General Assembly tried to pass a law that truncated the Governor’s war-time powers, the Republicans, “bolted, fleeing Indianapolis in order not to be forced to provide a legislative quorum.”[10] The finances of the state become so dire that Governor Morton, along with a consortium of bankers united by fellow Hoosier James Lanier, financed the state government by fiat, without legislative approval. At one point, Morton doled out funds from a safe in his office, virtually circumventing the General Assembly.[11] By 1864, Morton was essentially a dictator, but the cause of the Union, at least in his perspective, was larger than the need of constant legislative approval. The Indiana public largely agreed. The 1864 elections swept a wave of Republicans into the legislature, reelected Morton, and helped calm some of the storm that was Indiana’s government.

Once the war was over, Morton finished out his term and became a United States Senator. The Indiana General Assembly, by 1869, was flooded with Radical Republicans, ensuring that at least some of Reconstruction’s policies were carried out. Nonetheless, the Civil War divided the Hoosier state in ways not felt since, and Morton’s tempestuous relationship with the General Assembly certainly motivated those divisions.

Notable Legislators

  • Horace Heffren
    • The Civil War era was full of cantankerous characters, and State Representative Horace Heffren was no exception. In 1861, Heffren, a Democratic representative from Washington County, was accused of treason by Republican lawmaker Gideon C. Moody. Tensions grew so quickly that on February 11, 1861, Moody challenged Heffren to a duel in Campbell County, Kentucky. A Sheriff stopped them just before fatal shots could be fired and the Indiana General Assembly took no recourse against them.[12] After the attempted duel, Heffren was again tried for treason in 1864, but to no avail. Heffren was lambasted by Republicans as, “one of the most loudmouthed, rampant, bitter, boisterous, violent, venomous, poisonous copperheads that could be found on the face of the footstool.”[13] Whether or not Heffren was actually a traitor is lost to history, but the level of animus against him shows the bitter divisions within the Indiana General Assembly during the Civil War.
  • Alexander J. Douglas
    • The arrest and trial of Indiana State Senator Alexander J. Douglas provides us with a glimpse into the intense and polarizing era of the Civil War. Douglas, born in Ohio in 1827, practiced law and served as Whitley County prosecutor from 1859 until his election to the Indiana General Assembly in 1862.[14] With a voting public disgruntled from the heavy-handed policies of Morton, Douglas benefited from wave of votes for Democrats in the mid-term elections. As a fierce opponent of the policies of Lincoln and Governor Oliver P. Morton, Douglas used his new-found influence in the Senate to denounce Unionist policies and their “centralization” of state of power.[15] These tensions accelerated after the arrest of noted anti-war Democrat Clement Vallandigham, whose speech in Columbus, OH chastised the dissent-snuffing policies of General Ambrose Burnside. Douglas came to Vallandigham’s defense in a series of speeches denouncing the use of military arrest on civilians. Douglas was then arrested by General William Tecumseh Sherman and put on trial through a military tribunal.[16] Even though he was found not guilty of treason, Douglas’s trial illustrated the deep ideological and political divisions at the heart of Indiana during the Civil War.

See Part Four

[1] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 179.

[2] Donald F. Carmony, “Historical Background of the Restrictions Against State Debt in the Indiana Constitution of 1851,” Indiana Magazine of History 47, no. 2 (June 1951): 129, 140.

[3] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 138-140.

[4] Charles Kettlebrough, Constitution Making In Indiana, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1916, 1930 [reprint edition], Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1971), 1: 360.

[5] David G. Vanderstel, “The 1851 Indiana Constitution,” Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed November 12, 2014,

[6] Madison, The Indiana Way, 169-170.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] Ibid, 198.

[9] John D. Barnhart, “The Impact of the Civil War in Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 57, no. 3 (September 1961): 187.

[10] Madison, The Indiana Way, 203.

[11] Ibid, 203.

[12] Walsh, Centennial History, 189.

[13] Ibid, 190-191.

[14] Stephen Towne, “Worse than Vallandigham: Governor Oliver P. Morton, Lambdin P. Milligan, and the Military Arrest and Trial of Indiana State Senator Alexander J. Douglas during the Civil War,” Indiana Magazine of History 106 (March 2010): 6-8.

[15] Ibid, 10.

[16] Ibid, 32.

The Indiana General Assembly (1826-1846): Surveying, the First Statehouse, and Financial Collapse


David Dale Owen, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 7177, George P. Merrill Collection, accessed

* See Part One: Statehood, Slavery, and Constitution-Drafting (1815-1825)

Indiana’s Geological Survey

One of the more daunting tasks asked of the legislature was establishing a geologic survey of the state. Its origins date to 1830, when the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the state’s first geologic survey connected with a professorship at Indiana University. This plan failed and the issue was not readdressed until 1836, when the General Assembly passed a new resolution calling for the creation of a geologic survey, led by twenty-seven year old David Dale Owen. Starting in 1837, Owen surveyed the state’s southern half and made his way northward. His primary task involved marking the delineation of coal and mineral deposits.[1]

Owen also perfected a method for determining the depth of coal deposits, which stipulated that once miners discovered limestone displaying specific fossils, no more coal was underneath. Owen’s reports to the General Assembly in 1837-39 gave legislators a wide range of information about the geologic properties of the state, including a topographical analysis and exact measurements of coal and mineral deposits. Due to his superb findings on the first geological survey, the General Assembly even consulted Owen on future geological projects up until his death in 1860. Owen’s dedication to science and exact methods inspired generations of geologists interested in Indiana and the Midwest.[2]

The First State House in Indianapolis

First Marion County Courthouse, sketched by artist Christian Schrader, courtesy of Historic Indianapolis.

While the current state house in Indianapolis remains a hub for visitors and legislators alike, it was not the city’s first permanent seat of state government. The first state house in Indianapolis was completed in 1835 and designed by New York architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, whose designs won approval from the Indiana General Assembly in 1831. A year before, the General Assembly authorized the construction of a new state house, with funding supplied through the sale of land plots within the city.[3] Construction began in 1832 with an original cost of $58,000 but an accelerated schedule grew costs to $60,000.[4] The builders’ speed insured the state house’s opening in December 1835, just in time for the incoming session of the Indiana General Assembly.

Town and Davis’ derived inspiration from Greco-Roman architecture; the state houses’ design resembled a temple surrounded by Doric columns like that of the world-famous Parthenon. Above the temple stood a rotunda dome influenced by Italian Renaissance style.[5] The state house’s visage contradicted much of the architecture in early Indianapolis. One legislator noted the building’s “striking contrast with the log huts interspersed through the almost ‘boundless contiguity of shade’ which surrounds it.”[6] The state house ushered in a new era for Indianapolis, filled with architectural marvels and urban transformation.

Accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

The state houses’ most notable visitor, Abraham Lincoln, also had humble roots in the Hoosier state. After his childhood years in Indiana, Lincoln visited the statehouse in 1861 as President-Elect of the United States and his body returned with a funeral procession after the assassination in April 1865.[7] The building’s poor materials, mostly of wood and stucco, brought the collapse of the roof in the summer of 1867. The building went through numerous repairs before the Indiana General Assembly approved the construction of a new state house in 1877. The original Indianapolis state house was demolished the same year.[8]

Internal Improvements and Financial Collapse

During the early years of the American republic, the policy that united most legislators and the public was “internal improvements,” which today we might call “infrastructure.” No state caught this fever quite like Indiana. Inspired by the successful opening of Fort Wayne’s Wabash and Erie Canal in July 1835, the General Assembly passed the Massive Internal Improvements Act of 1836.[9] The act, strengthened with over $10,000,000 through loans, proposed the creation of interconnected canals, turnpikes and railroads throughout the entire state. It was supposed to come under budget and take only ten years to finish.[10]

A state bond for the Wabash and Erie Canal. Bonds like this were issued to citizens and speculators for funding of the failed Internal Improvements Act of 1836, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The economic Panic of 1837 and the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States left the country gripping with economic hardship. This hit the internal improvements plan in Indiana dramatically, with construction costs ballooning over $10,000,000 and leaving little to no funds for repair costs. By August, 1839, none of the railroad, canal, or turnpike projects were finished and implementation stopped when the state ran out of funds.[11] State bonds, sold to citizens after the state’s land sales left the plan short, could not be paid back. Indiana’s state debt increased to, “$13,148,453 of which $9,464,453 was on account of the internal improvement system.”[12] By 1846, the General Assembly passed the Butler Bill, which funded the state debt two ways: revenues from the successful Wabash and Erie Canal and raising tax revenues.[13] These massive tax increases were hard on citizens and left many in the state with ill feeling towards unmanageable government spending. The financial failure of the internal improvement system heavily influenced the new state constitution of 1851, which required strict limits on government expenditures and enforcement of tax collection.

Notable Legislators

  • John Finley
  • Courtesy of

    John Finley, the state’s first Poet-Legislator, served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1828-1831. A newspaper editor by trade, Finley’s greatest contribution came with the publication of his poem “The Hoosier’s Nest” in 1833. Finley’s use of the term “Hoosier” in literature helped garner the term respect, rather than its traditionally pejorative meaning of “country backwoodsman.” He also owned and edited the Richmond Palladium from 1831-1834 and published a book of poems, including “The Hoosier’s Nest,” in 1860. He died in Richmond, Indiana in 1866.[14]

  • John Ewing
    • Born in Cork County, Ireland in 1789, John Ewing represented Vincennes and Knox County as a State Senator from 1825-1833 and again from 1842-1845. He was also a United States Representative from 1833-1839. Ewing’s success as politician came with equal scorn. His home was set on fire multiple times due to his staunch Whig party beliefs in an era of Democratic domination. His most valiant performance as a legislator came with his very public battle against State Representative Samuel Judah. Judah’s General Assembly bill re-chartering the financial benefits of then-defunct Vincennes University pushed Ewing to come home from the U.S. Congress, regain his State Senate seat, and defeat the bill though both legislation and through the courts. While his plans failed (he lost his seat in 1845 and his reforms did not pass), Ewing’s commitment to sound financial policy earned him respect and honor as one of the longest serving State Senators from his era.[15]

* See Part Three: A New Constitution and the Civil War (1850-1865)

[1] For a detailed account of David Dale Owen, see Walter B. Henderson, “David Dale Owen and Indiana’s First Geological Survey,” Indiana Magazine of History 36, no 1, 1-15, accessed October 9,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 132.

[4] Dorothy Riker and Gayle Thornbrough, eds., Messages and Papers Relating to the Administration of Noah Noble, Governor of Indiana, 1831–1837 (Indiana Historical Collections, Vol. XXXVIII; Indianapolis, 1958), 351-352, accessed October 22, 2014,

[5] James A. Glass, “The Architects Town and Davis and the Second Indiana Statehouse,” Indiana Magazine of History 80, no. 4 (December 1984), 335-337, accessed October 9, 2014,

[6] Walsh, Centennial History, 132.

[7] For a detailed description of Lincoln’s visits to Indianapolis, see George S. Cottman, “Lincoln in Indianapolis,” Indiana Magazine of History 24 (March 1928), 1-14.

[8] Glass, “The Architects Town and Davis,” 337.

[9] Margaret Duden, “Internal Improvements in Indiana: 1818-1846,” Indiana Magazine of History 5, no. 4 (December 1909), accessed October 22, 2014,, 163.

[10] George S. Cottman, “The Internal Improvement System of Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 3, no. 3, accessed October 22, 2014,, 119.

[11] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 83.

[12] Margaret Duden, “Internal Improvements in Indiana,” 168.

[13] Ibid, 169.

[14] Walsh, Centennial History, 124. Calhoun, January, Shanahan-Shoemaker, and Shepherd, Biographical Directory, 126.

[15] Walsh, Centennial History, 126-129. For Ewing’s government positions and elections, see Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 1: 1816-1899 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 437-446.

THH Episode 7: Spanish Influenza: The Dread Malady Hits Indiana

Transcript for Spanish Influenza: The Dread Malady Hits Indiana

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley from research by Jill Weiss Simins

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins

[Military music and marching]

Lindsey Beckley: Imagine this: it’s the year 1918. You’ve got a job, a family, a home. You’ve put down roots in an Indiana town. Suddenly, there are reports of an unexpected threat looming on the horizon. At first, public officials downplay the danger but you can hear the whispers of coming attacks. You read newspaper reports on how best to keep you and your loved ones safe. You see reports of the first casualties. Next, you hear the call to service. Knowing all too well the dangers involved, you answer that call. You leave your home, your family. You wear a uniform to serve your county. The nation is at war, but you’re no soldier. You’re a nurse. And the enemy isn’t a mass of men in some foreign land. It’s the flu. And it has come to Indiana. On this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we’ll discuss the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Indianapolis.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Hello, and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier History. Now, it’s time to start talking Hoosier history. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: In his memoirs, Doctor Victor C. Vaughan wrote that

Voice actor reading from Vaughan:[Influenza] encircled the world, visited the remotest corners, taking toll of the most robust, sparing neither soldier nor civilian, and flaunting its red flag in the face of science.

Beckley: While his words are accurate, they fail to capture completely the death and destruction wrought by this malady. It’s hard, really, to convey the magnitude of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic. The numbers are almost too high to comprehend; even conservative estimates say 50 million people succumbed to the flu itself or to the pneumonia that often followed in its wake.  That’s almost 5 times the number of military deaths in all of World War 1, in just half the time.

Not only unique for the extraordinarily high number of people it killed, the 1918 strain of influenza was also unusual for who it killed. Historically, influenza is only deadly to the very young, the very old, and those already weakened by another illness. In contrast, the 1918 strain often killed healthy individuals from 20 to 40 years old, making it seem as though no one was safe from the ravages of the disease. This unique characteristic had another consequence; those men and women who were tasked with caring for the sick and dying were themselves susceptible to the illness.

Scientists now believe that the origin of the pandemic was most likely at a crowded army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas. As the troops from that camp were shipped out to join “the war to end all wars” they came into close contact with other soldiers, spreading the virus throughout Europe.

While the governments of most European nations censored reports of the outbreak, Spain did not. As a result, newspaper reports made it seem as if Spain was particularly hard hit by the first of the three waves of the virus, Thus, the strain was dubbed “The Spanish Flu.” Indiana was untouched by that first wave of the pandemic, which started in March 1918. We wouldn’t be so lucky during the next wave.

[Somber music]

Beckley: In August 1918, the War Department announced that the majority of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just 9 miles north east of Downtown Indianapolis, would be converted into General Hospital 25. Workers began to make accommodations for the care of a few hundred soldiers who would be returning from the European front wounded and “shell shocked.” But those beds would not be filled with causalities of war. Instead, they began to fill with soldiers who were falling ill.

On September 26, the Indianapolis News reported influenza outbreaks at 2 Indianapolis area military training detachments; 125 cases were reported at the detachment station at the State School for the Deaf and 60 cases at Fort Benjamin Harrison. While the Deaf School was quarantined, state and city officials reassured citizens that this was not the deadly Spanish influenza, and that an epidemic was not feared. While those reassurances were on the front page, page 22 of the same paper told a bleaker tale.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: [Spanish Influenza] is not yet epidemic in Indiana – only a few mild cases reported and no deaths. It has invaded several of our training camps and will doubtless become epidemic in civil life.

Beckley: And just below that, the secretary of the State Board of Health, Dr. John Hurty, gave advice on how to prevent the flu:

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Don’t worry, don’t feast, don’t hurry, don’t fret…Eat only plain foods avoid riotous eating of flesh.

Beckley:  Despite such advice and the efforts made to stop the epidemic before it started, the city would be teeming with infected individuals in just a matter of weeks. Newspaper reports provide a near daily account of the epidemic in the city and in nearby military camps throughout September and October 1918. Each day, the reports from the Indianapolis News grew more dire.

Day one – September 26, 1918 – Fort Benjamin Harrison reports 60 cases. No infected Indianapolis citizens.

Day two – September 27, 1918 – Indianapolis Mayor Charles Jewett directs preventative measure be taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

He ordered:

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  All public places – hotel lobbies, theatres, railway stations, and street cars – placed at once in thorough sanitary condition by fumigation and cleansing.

Beckley: He also directed the Indianapolis police chief to strictly enforce an ordinance against spitting on the sidewalks, a practice thought to spread influenza. Despite city officials’ best efforts, the flu had spread to the civilian population.

Day 5 September 30, 1918 – Four civilian influenza cases are reported in Indianapolis; 500 cases of “respiratory disease,” which may be influenza are reported at Ft. Benjamin Harrison:

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Dr. Herman G. Morgan, secretary of the city board of health, said the reporting of only a few cases should convince the public of the urgent need of co-operating with the health authorities to the fullest extent in the effort to keep the disease from spreading.

Beckley: Dr. Morgan urged the public to avoid crowds and called on anyone who developed a cold to take steps to cure it “before it gets to the stage where influenza germs have easy sailing.”

At Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Military officials reported a shortage of trained nursing staff to newspapers. With 500 cases of “respiratory disease”, the hospital was already well over their 300 bed capacity and was pulling from the ranks of medical personnel stationed at the base to care for the sick since only 20 nurses were left in the camp; the others had been sent to help at a different camp which was also in the throes of the epidemic.

Day 6 – October 1, 1918 – 10 new civilian influenza cases reported, bringing the total to 14. At Ft. Benjamin Harrison, officers are confident that the outbreak is under control. Citizens rush to buy disinfectants to combat the spread of disease.

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  Medical officers were confident the disease is under control and will soon be overcome. There have been no deaths. In fact, many of the cases recorded as influenza, under other circumstances would be regarded bad colds.

Beckley: A mere one percent drop in newly reported cases prompted the officers at Ft. Ben to release that statement to the Indianapolis news, most likely to reassure the civilian population that all was under control and to quell their fears. Although no deaths had been publicly reported in the city or even in the fort, Indianapolis newspapers ran stories of uncontrollable outbreaks of disease in other cities, outbreaks which often started at an outbreak at a military base. And the reports were starting to hit close to home; Hoosier soldiers stationed at a base in the Great Lakes region had contracted the flu, and several had already died.  Perhaps it was understandable, then, that community leaders were attempting to keep people calm while encouraging them to take steps to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the methods used were not up to the task of warding off the escalating crisis.

Day 12 – October 7, 1918 – Death tolls begin to rise. Public meetings are forbidden. Civilian nurses volunteer to treat the sick at Ft. Harrison

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  A sweeping order prohibiting public gatherings of five or more persons was issued today…as part of the program to prevent an epidemic of influenza in Indianapolis.

[Crowd noises]

Beckley: As the number of cases increased and death tolls rose, the city board of health took action by banning public gatherings. This was a bold move which affected theatres, churches, and even schools. Learning from the mistakes other cities had made, Indianapolis city officials took decisive, cohesive action in the face of mounting tragedy. While their actions almost undoubtedly saved lives, at least 10 civilians had died by this point as well as 41 soldiers in the military camps. Ten of those deaths occurred all in a single night at Fort Harrison.

The medical staff shortages were becoming more problematic as more and more young people fell ill. The Indianapolis News reported that “soldier boys are dying for lack of trained help.” To try to fill the void, newspapers began to print pleas for trained nurses to volunteer at Fort Harrison and other military bases. Many Indiana women responded to that call.

[Inspirational music]

Beckley: Student nurses from the Lutheran hospital in Fort Wayne were among the first to answer the call, as reported in the Fort Wayne Sentinel.

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  Willing to risk their lives in the nation’s service in helping combat the ravages of Spanish Influenza, ten Lutheran hospital nurses left the city…for Fort Benjamin Harrison…where they will enter service in the military base hospital, which is very urgently in need of qualified nurses…as fifteen of the army medical officers…are stricken with the dread malady.

Beckley: The story of these nurses who volunteered to care for the sick, knowing full well that they risked their lives doing so, must have been a familiar one to readers of the day – indeed, thousands of young people were doing just that when volunteering for the war effort – but to me, this is perhaps the most poignant moment in this story. Dozens of young women were willing to jeopardize their lives to help the sick. In fact, two of the 10 nurses from that article did lose their lives to the “dread malady.”  Yet, while soldiers returned home to parades in the streets, these women quietly returned to their lives. They weren’t the only ones to stand against the flu. Regular citizens from across the state banded together to combat the illness. But before we get to that, let’s take a quick break.

[Advertisement music]

If you’re listening to this, you probably love Hoosier history as much as we do. Can’t get enough? Check out our blog, Blogging Hoosier History for compelling, informative posts covering a wide range of topics. If you want to read more about the Spanish Influenza in Indiana, look no further. Much of the content of this episode comes from the post “War, Plague, and Courage: Spanish Influenza at Fort Benjamin Harrison & Indianapolis.” If you’re interested in other affects the epidemic had on Indiana, “Guns, Germs, and Indiana Athletics, 1917-1920: How Did the Great War and the Great Pandemic Affect Indiana Sports?” might be the post for you! Find those posts and more at Now back to the show.

[Advertisement music]

[Transitional music]

Day 13 – October 8, 1918 – “Citizens Join Hands to Stamp out Flu.” Officials are optimistic that compliance with meeting ban will keep illness in check.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: They believe the situation is well in hand and it is felt that the prohibition of all meetings and gatherings will be a definite step toward arresting the epidemic.

The citizens of Indianapolis banded with the city officials in the efforts to stave off the epidemic. Normal life in the city must have ground to a halt with so many establishments closed. Bulletins printed by the Indiana State Board of Health contained useful recommendations and give a glimpse into what it must have been like to be ill in Indianapolis at the time. Here is an example of such a bulletin:

Voice actor reading from newspaper:   INFLUENZA: How to avoid it – How to care for those who have it. The Following suggestions of the Indiana State Board of Health may prove of immeasurable value to any man or woman who will read, remember and act upon them in the present great emergency…What to do until the doctor comes: If you feel a sudden chill, followed by muscular pain, headache, backache, unusual tiredness and fever GO TO BED AT ONCE…

Open all windows in your bedroom and keep them open at all times, except in rainy weather.

Take medicine to open the bowels freely.

Take some nourishing foods such as milk, egg-and-milk or broth every four hours.

Stay in bed until a physician tells you that it is safe to get up.

Allow no one else to sleep in the same room,

Insist that whoever gives you water or food or enters the sick room for any other purpose shall wear a gauze mask, which may be obtained from the Red Cross or may be made at home…

Beckley: These instructions were posted in public places, reprinted in newspapers, and even reproduced in pocket sized folders to be distributed throughout the state and country. While many are good suggestions, the contagion, it seemed, could not be stopped.

Day 17 – October 12, 1918 – 6000 cases of influenza in the state. Restrictions of businesses increase. The influenza epidemic is peaking in Indianapolis.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: All retail stores in the district bounded by North, South, East, and West streets…will open at 9:45 a.m. and close at 6:15 p.m.….under orders issued today by the city board of health…the purpose of the order is to prevent crowding of the street cars

Beckley: With the plague still spreading, Indianapolis officials expanded the ban on public meetings to so called “dry saloons” which were Prohibition Era gathering spots. All businesses, with the exceptions of wartime production plants, grocery stores, and pharmacies, had their hours restricted in order to stagger arrival and departure times of commuters to the city; factory workers, grocers, and druggists would arrive first, followed by retail workers and shoppers. Stores were forbidden to have sales, yet another measure to prevent crowding in the city. At this point in the epidemic, Indiana State Board of Health officials also started carrying cards reading “Quarantine, Influenza,”, and would post them on the doors of the sick. While the cards did not put the homes under a strict quarantine, as was done in some other cities, they did serve as a warning to anyone contemplating a visit.

Day 24 – October 19, 1918 – Civilian and military deaths continue to mount

Voice actor reading from newspaper:

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  The Influenza-pneumonia record among the civilian population of Indianapolis and in the army camps in and near the city follows, the figures on new deaths and new cases being for the last 24 hours: Civilian population: New cases: 252. Total: 2,942; new deaths; 28. Total: 198. Ft. Benjamin Harrison; New cases: 12. Total: 2948; new deaths, 4. Total: 165.

Beckley: Day 29 October 24, 1918 – First signs of the end of this wave the epidemic surface, despite rises in new civilian cases.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: A decrease in the number of new influenza patients admitted at Fort Harrison was shown for the 24 hours ending last night, only four being reported.

[Hopeful music]

Beckley: Finally, there appeared a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. Fort Benjamin Harrison reported a vast decrease in the number of new cases reported. Since the Fort was struck before the city, citizens must have looked to this as a sign of hope. Still, the malady persisted; while only 4 new cases and 4 new deaths had been reported at the fort, the city reported 275 new cases and 12 new deaths. Ever cautious, city health officials urged flu victims to stay at home for treatment if possible. With hospitals overburdened and rooms crowded with as many beds as possible, it was often more safe and more comfortable to be cared for in the home…as long as proper precaution was taken by caregivers, of course.

Day 35 October 30, 1918 – Bans and restrictions are lifted. New case numbers dwindling.

Voice actor reading from newspaper:  The ‘flu’ ban will be lifted in Indianapolis tomorrow morning and business will resume its normal course with only the minor health rules enforced.

Beckley: Twenty-four days after the ban was first instituted, residents of Indianapolis were free to go about business as normal after the ban on public gatherings was lifted on November first. For the most part, the lifting of the ban signaled the end of the epidemic. There were some small resurgences of the illness in the coming months but nothing near as devastating as the October 1918 calamity. Just days later, the war which, at least in part, had facilitated the rapid spread of this dreaded disease, ended on November 11, 1918.

As the city began its return to normalcy, the damage was assessed. In just one month, Indiana had lost 3,266 lives to influenza. More than half of these people died in their prime, many with spouses and children. As a result, 3,020 children were orphaned in the state during the month of October.

While those numbers are grim, they could have been much worse. City leaders, business owners, and common citizens of Indiana and Indianapolis came together in a time of crisis, put away their differences and worked towards two common goals; keep people from contracting the flu when they could and treat those who had the flu as well as they could. This resulted in Indianapolis having one of the lowest epidemic death rates in the nation.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. This episode was based almost exclusively on the work of Jill Weiss. You can read her Blog Post “War, Plague, and Courage: Spanish Influenza at Fort Benjamin Harrison & Indianapolis” online at Jill also does all of the recording, editing, and mixing on the show. Basically, without her, I’d just be in a room talking to myself about Indiana History. Also, a thank you goes to Justin Clark of Hoosier State Chronicles who is the voice of newspapers here on Talking Hoosier History. And thanks to you for listening! If you haven’t already, please subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes. It really helps us get our name out there!

Show Notes for Spanish Influenza: The Dread Malady Hits Indiana


                “Body Found in Pond and Weighted Down.” The Star Press, November 1, 1904.

“Death Frees Cook From Reformatory.” Muncie Evening Press, April 6, 1907.

“Tale of a Hoosier Haunted House.” Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901.

“The Ghost Club.” The Record-Union, October 31, 1891.

“The Haunted Farm-House.” The Indianapolis Journal, July 24, 1892.

“Hundreds Saw The Goshen Ghost.” The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, February 7, 1909.

“See Pres Sanderson’s Ghost?” The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 3, 1907.

Special Thanks

Jill Weiss

                                Jill is the outstanding sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. From selecting awesome music and sound effects to setting up equipment to uploading content, Jill is a Jack of all trades!

Justin Clark

                                Justin is a project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project. Justin is the voice of newspapers here on Talking Hoosier History. In this episode, you heard his very best Vincent Price impression! If you’re interested in reading historical newspaper articles, visit Hoosier State Chronicles online.

Music Notes