See Part I to learn about the unparalleled professional accomplishments of Dr. Helene Knabe.
Who entered Dr. Helene Knabe’s rooms at Indianapolis’s Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear? The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine.
Officials followed a variety of leads regarding the gruesome crime. The first person on the list, suspiciously, was an African American janitor named Jefferson Haynes, who lived below her. Second on the list was a Greek prince who was seen mailing a letter near her apartment. This absurd line of inquiry continued for months by the very people who should or could have advanced the case more quickly. Police Chief Martin Hyland reasoned that she committed suicide because at 5’6″ and 150 pounds, he believed her strong enough to ward off any attack or to take her own life.
Also problematic, evidence was left in a room where anyone could access it. Although fingerprinting was in its infancy, officials ignored a bloody fingerprint, despite Dr. Knabe having no blood on her hands. Police and some physicians believed despondency over her unproven sexual preference or financial situation caused her to take her own life. Even Detective William Burns, known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, publicly stated that based solely on the evidence in the newspapers, he believed she killed herself.
Local, state, national, and even some international press ran stories about Dr. Knabe. Indianapolis newspapers were surprisingly fair in their coverage and published editorial and opinion pieces that were overwhelmingly complementary of Dr. Knabe and her professional achievements. Although these newspapers interviewed people who believed Dr. Knabe got what she deserved, they did not give these sentiments undue attention or sensationalize them.
Thankfully, the coroner, Dr. Charles O. Durham, determined that Dr. Knabe was murdered. Dr. Durham noted she had defense wounds on her arms and he was adamant that she could not have made both cuts. He also noted several factors he considered “strongly presumptive of murder,” including the position of the hands, which had been closed after death; the absence of a plausible suicide weapon; and the fact that many witnesses had seen a man that night around the apartment building. Dr. Durham’s findings negated rumors regarding Dr. Knabe’s sexuality and finances, which police felt could have contributed to her death by her own hand.
In response to Dr. Durham’s findings, female doctors who were Dr. Knabe’s friends actively tried to help find her killer. They hired private investigator Detective Harry Webster at their own expense, through donations, and at the detective’s own expense. Almost fifteen months after her death, two men were indicted by a grand jury, based on Detective Webster’s findings. The prosecution believed that Dr. William B. Craig was engaged to Dr. Knabe, a fact he vehemently denied, and that he wanted out of the relationship. As Dean of Students, lecturer, and financial stakeholder in the Indiana Veterinary College, he would have been very familiar will zoology and the “sheep’s cut,” which is the type reported to have killed her.
Dr. Craig met Dr. Knabe in 1905 and maintained a friendship, at the very least. He recommended her for the position as Chair of Hematology and Parasitology in 1909 at the veterinary college. Shortly before her death, Dr. Craig and Dr. Knabe seemed to be in the middle of an ongoing dispute. Dr. Knabe went to the IVC to see about changing her lecture time with Dr. Craig so that she could attend her course at the Normal College. Dr. Craig became enraged when a colleague asked for his answer and he said “Oh, f—! Tell her to go to hell!” and he stormed out of the room. The night before Dr. Knabe died, Dr. Craig’s housekeeper overheard them arguing and she heard Dr. Knabe say, “But you can continue to practice and so can I!” Police had a letter in their possession in which Dr. Knabe told a friend she was getting married. Dr. Knabe confided to a friend she was getting married to a man with an “ungovernable temper.” At the time of her death, Dr. Knabe, an accomplished seamstress and dressmaker, commissioned a costly dress, indicative that she was getting married.
The second man indicted, Alonzo M. Ragsdale, was an undertaker and Dr. Knabe’s business associate. Dr. Knabe often joked with Ragsdale that when she died, she would be sure to give him her business. And so she did. Augusta appointed Ragsdale undertaker and estate executor. He was accused of concealing evidence against Dr. Craig in the form of the kimono Dr. Knabe was wearing at the time of her death. It was said he had laundered it in an effort to rid it of blood stains.
In the words of Ms. Frances Lee Watson, Clinical Professor of Law at IUPUI, “She was screwed from day one.” Dr. Knabe was never treated as a victim; she was treated as a villain. Society in general could not understand a woman wanting to work in a field that was sometimes unpleasant and coarse. In the media and by some of her peers, Dr. Knabe was chastised for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Her character was summarily attacked because she expected equality with her peers, male or female. Because she was a 35-year-old woman, who was a physician living in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—Dr. Knabe was automatically judged unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, who in addition to being indicted was also an unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed her to be an unsuccessful, pauper physician.
The truth was Dr. Knabe had many revenue streams from jobs that she loved: practitioner, instructor, and artist. She planned to continue her work and make herself even more financially stable. By looking at her financial records, Dr. Charles Durham proved that she was financially sound, bringing in over $150 per month. The public did not know for many months that Dr. Knabe chose to send most of her disposable income back to her uncle because he was no longer able to work.
None of these facts mattered. The defense attacked Dr. Knabe’s personal character in the courtroom, claiming she was an aggressive and masculine woman. The character witnesses, who sought to discredit Dr. Craig, suddenly moved out of state or could not be found. A key witness who positively identified Dr. Craig changed his story, and Dr. Craig’s own housekeeper, who had signed an affidavit stating she saw him return late and leave early with a bundle of clothes the night Dr. Knabe died, refused to come to the courthouse.
Consequently, the state’s case fell apart and after nine days the prosecution could not make a connection between Dr. Craig and the evidence. In an unusual move, the judge stepped in as the thirteenth juror and instructed the jury to acquit Dr. Craig. Normally a judge provided this instruction only when a technical error was committed, which was not the situation in this trial. He did rule that the prosecution had proven Dr. Knabe had been murdered, but that they had no real evidence against Dr. Craig.
Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the charges against Ragsdale were dropped. No one was ever convicted of Dr. Knabe’s murder. Oddly enough after the trial, Ragsdale declared Dr. Knabe’s estate insolvent without collecting all debts. Many of her personal items did not sell and their whereabouts were undocumented. The probate records submitted over three years to the courts contained erroneous calculations that went unnoticed and several hundred dollars were not reconciled.
Dr. Knabe was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill. Over the years, newspapers have revisited her case, but in 1977 her case file was destroyed in a flood. Unfortunately, the sensationalizing of Dr. Knabe’s death has obscured her legacy as a tenacious, committed, and savvy physician in a field dominated by men.
Along with many of her fellow 19th-Century sisters of the pen, Susan Elston Wallace and her work are little known to us today. These female authors practiced their craft seriously and sold well, yet were never regarded as important as male writers whose subjects were presumed to be nobler, of higher value. When fine work by women disappeared and men’s work became classics, an unknown cost fell upon our culture and our vision of ourselves as a nation.
As a writer, Susan Wallace (1830-1907) possessed certain attributes that partially set her apart her from the “female writer” stereotype. Initially, as a young woman she had more or less lived the stereotype by publishing poetry on domestic subjects. One of those poems was anthologized and widely circulated in a children’s textbook.
Later in life, she was exempted from ordinary critique as a “female writer” because she was the wife of General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, the best-selling book of the 19th century. (Only the Bible sold more copies). Lew was a prolific writer and a man of great personal accomplishment, who, among other distinctions, was a Civil War general, Governor of New Mexico Territory (1878-1881), and an ambassador to Turkey. Susan, without a doubt, was Lew’s collaborator and co-researcher. She was fully recognized by him as an intellectual and literary equal. Given this unusual and little-known partnership, it is no wonder that deep knowledge of the world and of its peoples mark both of their works. Surely both partners strongly influenced the other’s work. Whether they were living in Crawfordsville, Indiana, or in the New Mexico Territory, or in the Ottoman Empire, both husband and wife engaged in writing projects.
It is the New Mexico piece of Susan’s writing career that I will use to demonstrate Elston Wallace’s talent as a non-fiction writer, whose insights track a line of prescient environmental thinking. Her writing style is not only alive with ideas, it exhibits a freshness and wit that makes it inviting to contemporary readers.
Elston Wallace’s book about her New Mexico sojourn is called The Land of the Pueblos. It is comprised of twenty-seven essays, first published as “travel pieces” in prestigious national magazines and newspapers like the Atlantic Monthly, the Independent, and the New York Tribune. Being published in such influential East Coast periodicals speaks of the high regard in which her writing was held at the time. In these essays, Susan did not write a word about the many social duties—the teas, the formal receptions, entertaining visiting dignitaries—she would have performed as the wife of the Governor of New Mexico Territory. Nor does she write about her husband in his official capacity. Rather, she applied her excellent educational background and her intellectual curiosity to learning and writing about New Mexican natural history and human history.
Elston Wallace also holds the rare honor of having saved much of New Mexico’s written colonial history, which had been forgotten in an outbuilding adjacent to the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe. There, Elston Wallace came upon and then personally helped salvage much of the Territory’s surviving early recorded history, a topic about which she wrote vividly. These documents tutored her. They spurred her curiosity and inspired many of her essays.
It was New Mexico, though, that made Elston Wallace aware of environmental issues. She was an astute observer of the natural world, learning names and habits of the plants and animals; she studied landforms and how rivers ran. Her ability to write about these things gives her work its most notable signature. Increasingly more knowledgeable about her surroundings and thereby more fully conscious of how human life in New Mexico had been shaped, Elston Wallace soon apprehended how the Spaniards, in particular, had affected the land and its original inhabitants. In her first essay, Elston Wallace makes clear that the “greed of gold and conquest” had despoiled New Mexico.
She also proves herself as an able thinker regarding how land and people’s fates are intertwined, such as this example:
Four hundred years ago the Pueblo Indians were freeholders of the vast unmapped domain lying between the Rio Pecos and the Gila, and their separate communities, dense and self-supporting, were dotted over the fertile valleys of Utah and Colorado, and stretch as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico. Bounded by rigid conservatism as a wall, in all these ages they have undergone slight change by contact with the white race and are yet a peculiar people, distinct from the other aboriginal tribes of this continent as the Jew are from the other races in Christendom. The story of these least known citizens of the United States takes us back to the days of . . . the . . . great Elizabeth.
Note how in this passage Elston Wallace identifies the “vast unmapped domain” of the Pueblos and identifies their communities as “separate,” “dense,” and “self-supporting.” She identifies the land as fertile and the Pueblos as having a distinct culture, comparing them favorably to Jews among Christians. She calls the Pueblos “citizens.”
Elston Wallace’s use of the term “conservative” in this passage may be accurately rendered as “stable.” So, the nature of the Pueblo peoples, she says, have “undergone [only] slight change by contact with the white race.” By using this terminology, she points toward stabilizing forces that were afoot in 19th-Century America, when colonies promoting shared, stable agrarian living were being intentionally created. The Shakers, New Harmony, and the Amanas were and are communities so notable that their names and accomplishments come down to us today. In the previous passage, Elston Wallace describes the Pueblo communities, their governance, and their farming practices with phrases admired by her own culture and era. New Mexico’s native peoples were freeholders; they were self-supporting; they formed communities; they were citizens. Few other historians of the period write about the Pueblos at all, let alone view them as central to the history of the land they inhabit, and as admirable people.
It can be argued, of course, that Elston Wallace’s progressive fellow citizens of the period had a habit of idealizing Native Peoples and had a strong aversion (call it prejudice) against Catholic Spain. That being said, Elston Wallace’s analysis and her rich empathy supported by historical knowledge and argumentation make her work stand apart. Her brave voice stands in strong contrast to typical histories of her day and those written through the middle of the 20th century. A pertinent example is Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe (1956), which presents the conquest version of New Mexico’s history as thoroughly Eurocentric. In this version, the Mexicans succeeded the Spanish and the Americans succeeded the Mexicans until the New Mexican piece of America’s Manifest Destiny fell into place in 1846.
Given this widely accepted version of conquest history that Horgan and other historians espouse, it is no wonder that he not only displaces the Pueblos, he displaces Elston Wallace as a New Mexican historian who understands and chronicles their worth and richness. Ironically, Horgan credits Governor Lew Wallace, not his wife, as saving “what he could of the collection of [New Mexican historical] documents already scattered, lost, or sold.”
Horgan’s “authoritative” reporting, so common among mainline historians of the 20th century, renders the Pueblo peoples, their land, and the intelligent woman who told their stories in the l880s invisible. No matter how accurate and astute Elston Wallace’s argument was, it had no efficacy since it was not “remembered” in mainstream histories of New Mexico and the West. Such an argument, had it been heard and then acted upon, might have reshaped our history.
In an era of unstoppable exploration and exploitation of the West and its mineral resources, Susan Elston Wallace saw, understood, and wrote about a broader, deeper story, one which speaks of how we as people can best live on the land. She vividly chronicles what happens when natural patterns are disrupted. In our century, we would regard Elston Wallace’s vision as a strongly environmental one, central to our 21st-Century understanding of essential sustainability.
So, while Elston Wallace certainly did entertain the intellectual readers of the East Coast and Midwest with tales of Montezuma and adventures of travel in the Wild West, in The Land of The Pueblos, she also boldly introduced her readers to what happens when “a native self-sustaining people, independent of the Government, the only aborigines among us not a curse to the soil” are abused along with their land through the claims of colonialism.
During the late 19th century, it was widely assumed that men make history. Elston Wallace challenges that point of view and deserves a place in our history as an excellent non-fiction essayist. She also deserves a place as a dissenter to colonial history’s single, obliterating story of man as controller of nature. Susan Wallace was an early environmentalist: she gave voice to New Mexico’s landscape and to its original peoples. Researchers have exciting work to undertake in the Susan Elston Wallace archives.
The Steuben County Asylum near I-69 in northeastern Indiana represents two contrasting ideals of poverty care. On the one hand, this imposing building on the rural landscape embodied the modern ideal of an end to poverty through scientific principles. In spite of the U.S. industrial economy of the later 19th century, marked by frequent panics and recessions, a new poor care system held out the hope that all indigent persons could be retrained and readied to work in the modern industrial world. The new system would provide a safety net supporting those through the hard years and would help impoverished people develop improved habits in a healthy and orderly atmosphere. On the other hand, this building symbolized failure and loss of place in the community. To be a resident of this facility required separation from society and often induced a lifelong stigma of shame.
These institutions represented both a severe solution meant to frighten the “lazy” into working harder and a belief in a safety net to support those living on the margins.  This was especially important in an era when layoffs were not supplemented by benefits like workers compensation. Across rural America, there was fear associated with the various names for asylums: almshouses, county farms and infirmaries, poor farms, county homes, workhouses, and “the pogey.”
Traditional poor relief (after private charities and local churches were exhausted) fell to local government. This was called “outdoor relief” because the poor or destitute were helped where they lived. To contain costs, the sheriff might “warn out” (or throw out) potential pauper residents to discourage poor people from staying there. Officials often employed this method to keep immigrants, especially the Irish, from settling in their town.
If the family could not care for an indigent resident, a landowner might take that person in on the lowest bid for room and board. By the 1820s, this informal arrangement was rapidly supplanted by an increasingly standardized system recognizing one place as a county poorhouse. The professionalization of these institutions focused on isolating each class of patient from what social reformers thought was the cause of their ailments or bad habits. The system was intended to instill a culture of order on the disorder of their lives. The enforced order would help cure the issues they faced. However, most residents used the farm only for periodic stays during times of unemployment and sickness.
In line with the rest of the nation, Indiana initiated its statewide system of county poor asylums. In 1821, the state legislature approved Indiana’s first poorhouse in Knox County. Following the national standards for poorhouse improvements, promoted in prescriptive literature, many counties built what were called “model homes” by the later nineteenth century. These were modern buildings constructed to meet the current standards of that time. These asylums even provided libraries for residents to use in preparation for a changed life outside the asylum.
Many rural almshouses were working farms, providing food for residents and a profit to the county government. The Democrat newspaper of Huntington County praised its superintendent in 1871 for keeping the farm as an “almost self-sustaining . . . charitable institution.” Efficiency and thrift were valued far higher than any other management trait. These practices led to abuses of a very vulnerable group in society. To create a more orderly life for their residents, almshouses increased the level of isolation and separation in the homes. This policy is reflected in the houses’ physical form as it changed during the 19th century.
The Democrat provided a brief glimpse into the Huntington County almshouse during February of 1871. The paper listed 18 assorted inmates, but ten or twelve more typically resided there during the year. Most residents were temporally admitted during sicknesses and job slowdowns. Most poorhouses apparently hosted a few long-term residents and sometimes children were born there too. The farm around the almshouse provided work for residents capable of manual labor. One resident at the Huntington Almshouse was the full-time farm hand. Others worked on the farm or in the almshouse kitchen.
Between 1830 and 1900, four stages in almshouse design demonstrated a stronger commitment to scientific poor care. The first stage involved converting a portion of a private house to accommodate paupers placed in the home owner’s care. The owners made no effort to separate the residents, and they were assigned farm work, as able, to help earn their keep. The famous 1872 poem by Will Carleton “Over the Hill to the Poor House” was inspired by his experience at just such a home in Hillsdale, Michigan. The lack of family support, as well as old age temporarily landed elderly mothers in the poor house.
In the second stage, the county purchased a farm to use for the care of the poor. Other buildings might be constructed for dorm facilities for the majority of the residents.
The next stage was the first real attempt at building a custom facility for poor care. The Steuben County Asylum, built in 1885, appears to match this third stage. The strong center area indicates there was a public entrance with rooms for the County Superintendent of the Poor. There is room enough to separate men from women and to create the ordered environment that could be both helpful and oppressive.
The fourth stage is the full scale, scientifically approved poor house. As can be seen in the illustration above this facility is a massive element in the landscape. The very obvious three-part construction is easy to recognize. Some of you will have seen buildings like this around rural Indiana. They seem out-of-place among local farms. They may be marked by a road name such as Asylum Road or County Farm Road. The well-used 1911 textbook, The Almshouse Construction, and Management (written in Indiana) noted that asylums must be near the center of the region they serve, allow for complete segregation of the sexes, provide an abundance of sunlight and fresh air, and be designed for convenient access for administrators to the whole house. 
They are designed to house men and women in completely separate wings with public space in a center section. Usually, the County Superintendent of the Poor lived in the upstairs of the center section. Larger homes had infirmaries for men and for women. This feature became more common in the early 20th century as the almshouse became more of an old age home rather than a place of refuge from destitution.
When I first started researching this theme I interviewed staff at the Steuben County Asylum, which had been completely converted to a senior rest home. The problem was that many elderly residents refused to consider living there out of the memory of what that building had once meant. Even in the 1980s, seniors related residency in the poorhouse with a loss of freedom and personal dignity. The company managing the care facility failed to grasp the public memory of the County Asylum on that generation. Ironically, the current generation of seniors (Baby Boomers) might laugh at residing in a former poorhouse perhaps as a way of poking fun at their elders’ fears.
County poorhouses should remain a visual reminder of the hazards inherent in reform efforts. Even with good intentions, abuses of vulnerable people occurred. The poorhouse had little to regulate it except mixed national ideals and local attitudes. Torn between purposes of punishment and rescue, poorhouses failed to cure poverty. The complexity of poverty caused reformers and politicians endless pains. We might gain some comfort that citizens and politicians before us found poverty as difficult to manage as we do now.
 David Wagner, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2005), 19.
 Kayla Hassett, “The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability,” (Masters Thesis, Ball State University, May 2013), 13.
 See report by Henry N. Sanborn, “Institution, Libraries: The Outlook in Indiana” Forty-Third Annual Meeting Conference of Charities and Correction. (Indianapolis, IN 1916), 367-371.
 “The County Alms-House Its General Condition-The Number and Character of its Inmates,” The Democrat, (Huntington, Indiana), February 2, 1871, accessed www.poorhousestory.com.
A private research web page titled Poorhouse Story provides images, primary sources, and readings for poorhouses and related agencies around the United States. They can be accessed at http://www.poorhousestory.com.
The black snake undulated between the two women, winding back and forth, circling overhead. A lascivious leer seemed to be affixed to the snake’s mouth as it weaved, moving the women closer, but then winding between and pulling them apart. Augusta Knabe could not bear to see this horrible apparition between them. She reached for her cousin.
Augusta lost her grip on Helene and sat up in bed, struggling to catch her breath. She pushed her sweat-drenched hair back and collected herself. What a horrible dream! Augusta felt guilty she had not accepted her cousin’s offer of tea the past afternoon. She was sure the dream was her penance for wanting to avoid late afternoon traffic and enjoy the comfort of her home after shopping. Augusta promised herself she would stop by Helene’s flat after school and take her to tea the very next afternoon. Despite this promise, Augusta passed the rest of the night fitfully.
Augusta’s cousin, Helene Elise Hermine Knabe, yearned to be a doctor. In Germany women were not allowed in medical school until 1900 and it would not be allowed for women in the German state of Prussia, where she lived, until 1908. Her father, Otto Windschild, left her mother when Knabe was an infant and she was raised by her uncle after her mother died. Given her humble upbringing, becoming a doctor became more of a dream and less a reality with each passing year.
When Augusta informed Helene that women were allowed to attend medical school in America, Helene’s life changed forever and she moved to Indianapolis in 1896. The motto she heard most often growing up was “You cannot be a master in anything unless you know every detail of the work.” No one applied this maxim more than Knabe. To prepare for school she worked for four years in domestic and seamstress work in order to learn English from the upper class. She attended Butler University for a term to supplement her self-learning and to prepare her for the rigors of medical school.
In 1900, Knabe entered the co-educational Medical College of Indiana (MCI). She was required to attend classes, dissect every body part of cadavers, maintain a 75% grade in all classes, refrain from drinking, and work fourteen hour days. During this time, she continued as a seamstress to supplement her income. Knabe also used her drawing skills by providing medical textbook illustrations to several books, including detailed sketches for anatomy, surgery, and pathology slides.
Knabe proved a trailblazer with her medical school accomplishments. Dr. Frank B. Wynn, the Director of Pathology at MCI, appointed her curator of the pathology museum. She was consequently placed in charge of the pathology labs at the school. Much to the chagrin of many of her male peers, Dr. Wynn chose her to be his only preceptee for the year. She began teaching underclassmen, an unheard of honor for a student. On April 22, 1904, Knabe became one of two women to graduate from MCI. She threw herself wholeheartedly into her profession, burning the candle at both ends to gain a foothold in practice, networking, and skills.
Dr. Knabe stayed on in her positions as lab curator and clinical professor—for which she was not paid. Appointed a deputy state health officer in 1905 by Dr. J. N. Hurty, the Secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health (ISBH), Dr. Knabe became the first woman to hold this office in Indiana. Part of her duties involved investigating suspected epidemics, such as typhoid and diphtheria, and making recommendations to reverse unsanitary conditions. Dr. Knabe routinely traveled the state to work with the public and doctors, and processed hundreds of pathological samples.
Despite Dr. Knabe’s expertise, Dr. Hurty did not hire her as superintendent of the lab. Instead, he chose Dr. T. V. Keene, regardless of the fact that he did not apply for the job. As the laboratory grew, Dr. Knabe became Assistant Bacteriologist and was expected to work longer hours and spend more time in the field. During her work at the ISBH, Dr. Knabe presented papers and worked with the public in diagnosis and education. Local papers interviewed her for her thoughts on how to make Indianapolis a more beautiful and clean city.
Dr. Knabe also kept current on new methods, most notably studying with Dr. Anna Wessel Williams of the New York Research Laboratory. Dr. Williams was brilliant in her own right as the originator of the rapid diagnosis of rabies, which was based on research from Negril and the co-developer of the diphtheria antitoxin. Dr. Knabe proved the widespread existence of rabies in Indiana. From this work, she implemented ways to prevent the spread of rabies by educating the public about the disease and its consequences.
Widely accepted as the state expert on rabies, Dr. Knabe was promoted to acting superintendent and paid $1,400 annually. Dr. Hurty promised her the superintendent position and an increase to $1,800 or $2,000. Over a year later Dr. Hurty told Dr. Knabe that there was no money for her salary increase and that because she was a woman she could not command the amount of money the position should pay anyway. Dr. Knabe contacted the newspaper and tendered her resignation, citing discrimination and broken promises.
Dr. Hurty had searched for what he considered “a real capable man” by actively recruiting Dr. Simmonds as the new superintendent. Additionally, although Dr. Hurty told Dr. Knabe the state had no money for her raise, he informed Dr. Simmonds he would pay $2,000 the first year and $3,000 in the second. That was a 47% increase from Dr. Knabe’s salary. The final slap in the face came from Dr. Simmonds himself in the first 1909 Indiana State Board of Health bulletin. He published Dr. Knabe’s findings about rabies in Indiana and elsewhere without crediting her.
Leaving the oppressiveness of state employ could not have been better for Dr. Knabe. Her dedication to medicine was rejuvenated. She opened her own private practice and continued her rabies research at $75 or more per case. While many female physicians shied away from accepting male patients because they may not be taken seriously or feared being attacked by male patients, Dr. Knabe insisted on having a phone installed in her apartment in case a patient needed her. She would always answer a knock or a call, regardless of the hour. Quite often she would treat people for free or accept payments via the barter system. This is how she acquired a piano and the lessons to go with it.
One of her biggest achievements was when she became the first elected female faculty for the Indiana Veterinary College (IVC), where she was the Chair of the Parasitology and Hematology. Dr. Knabe’s tenure at the IVC predates any recognized woman department chair at any veterinary college in the United States prior to 1920.
Demonstrating her willingness to be a social feminist, Dr. Knabe bucked trends at every turn by her work in sex education. She served as the medical director and Associate Professor of Physiology and Hygiene, known today as sex education, at the Normal College of the North American Gymnastics Union in Indianapolis. She also networked with women’s clubs and the Flanner House to create and teach hygiene and sanitation practices to all ethnic groups across the State of Indiana, especially African American communities.
The same night that Augusta dreamt about the black snake, a person entered Dr. Knabe’s rooms at the Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear. The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine. See Part II to learn how Dr. Knabe’s non-conformist lifestyle and work as a female physician would be used against her in the bungled pursuit of her killer.
On July 18, 1862, a brash young Kentuckian with aspirations of military advancement, Adam R. “Stovepipe” Johnson, used a rowboat and a small flatboat ferry to lead a group of approximately thirty men across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Newburgh, Indiana. Landing on the waterfront, unoccupied at lunch time, Johnson and his men seized a small store of weapons from a riverside warehouse and bluffed a group of some eighty Union soldiers convalescing in a nearby hotel into surrendering their unloaded muskets. Johnson’s men then looted a few homes and stores, paroled their prisoners, and returned safely across the river with their booty. The entire action lasted only a few hours.
Johnson recounted the events many times, and eventually published the account in his memoir, Partisan Rangers of the Confederacy. Filled with enthusiasm, southern chivalry, and name-dropping—although often sparse on corroboration—his memoir placed the Newburgh raid in the context of Confederate movements in Kentucky in the summer of 1862. If it had no other effect, the Newburgh affair enabled Johnson to raise and arm a number of youthful recruits for what became his 10thKentucky cavalry (CSA). He returned to Indiana a year later as a brigade commander in General John Hunt Morgan’s 1863 raid.
Johnson’s actions provide an opportunity to consider the role of southern fighters in the Ohio Valley. Using the language of the 1862 Confederate Partisan Ranger Act, he pictured himself in his later book as part of a military force operating in an irregular manner under the authority of such superiors as General Nathan Bedford Forrest and General John C. Breckenridge. Yet at the time of the raid, his own account suggests he had no formal appointment as an officer, wore no uniform, and commanded a hastily assembled body of civilians—more guerrillas than soldiers. Union authorities certainly viewed him as little or nothing more than a brigand, and rejected the authority of the paroles he had issued to his eighty prisoners.
The Newburgh raid may have had greater influence upon Union war activities in Indiana and the Ohio Valley than any results that Johnson claimed for his cause. The total surprise and the bloodless success was, without doubt, a shock to many Hoosier leaders. In Newburgh, it embarrassed the local Indiana Legion commander, a merchant with an unusual first name, Union Bethell. He had been among those lunching while the raiders struck, and had previously enjoyed limited success in raising and training a local company of that state militia. Accordingly, he had stored the weapons provided for them in his own unguarded riverfront warehouse. When Bethell arrived on the scene in civilian attire, he refrained from more than verbal protests after Johnson pointed out two cannon emplaced across the river—cannon that were actually dummies made from a blackened log and the piece of stovepipe that gave Johnson his subsequent nickname.
Through chance rather than Confederate action, the telegraph line from Newburgh to Evansville was not in operation. Word of Johnson’s incursion thus took extra hours to reach state and federal military authorities. When it did become known, the raid set in motion several frantic days of Union responses. Lieutenant Colonel John Watson Foster, on leave from the 25th Indiana Regiment, took command in Evansville. He called for volunteers, including local convalescent Union soldiers, assembled a small riverboat flotilla, sailed up the Ohio River to the mouth of the Green River—where Johnson’s raiders had taken their loot—and engaged in skirmishing with a small number of Confederate guerrillas.
Finding few defenders, Foster then proceeded to Newburgh. Half a dozen local residents who were perceived as friendly to the rebels were arrested. One, Andrew Huston, was later tried and acquitted by a federal court jury in Indianapolis on changes of treason and assisting the rebels. Two other Newburgh residents who had assisted the raiders were slain by members of an angry local crowd before order was restored.
As often happened in military emergencies, Governor Oliver P. Morton soon took a visible hand. First in Indianapolis and then in Evansville, he issued repeated calls for volunteers, and urged vigorous military responses. Within three days, state and federal military officers had sent approximately a thousand regulars and volunteers to the scene, occupied Henderson, Kentucky, and sent probes into that city’s countryside. One of the probes, led by Captain Bethell, recovered a portion of the stolen arms—as well as his local reputation—at a nearby farm.
The occupation of Henderson proved to be a long term consequence of the raid; Newburgh would not again be threatened. Occurring during a call for large numbers of new volunteers, the raid also proved to be a significant boost for Union recruiting in Indiana. The July volunteers were formed into a short-lived thirty day unit, the 76th Indiana. Volunteers of longer service would become parts of the 65thand 78th Indiana regiments. Several thousand more Indiana volunteers joined the Army in the following days and weeks. Disappointed with the performance of his militia, Morton returned to Indianapolis and devoted much time to improving militia equipment and training, and extending the telegraph network along the exposed Ohio River.
Mulesky, Raymond, Jr., Thunder from a Clear Sky: Stovepipe Johnson’s Confederate Raid on Newburgh, Indiana. (Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse Star, 2006).
Davis, William J., ed., The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army: Memoirs of General Adam R. Johnson. (Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1995). Reprint of the original edition published by Geo. G. Fetter Company, Louisville, 1904.
Terrell, W. H. H., Indiana in the War of the Rebellion: Report of the Adjutant General. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1960). Reprint of volume one of the eight-volume original report, 1869. See especially pages 181 to 189.
The only effort I ever made was to state on divers[e] occasions that I was not a member of the Klan.
– Samuel M. Ralston, 1924
Late in Ralston’s career as a Democratic politician in the 1920s, his party had to take a stand on the issue of the Ku Klux Klan‘s political influence. Would Democrats in Indiana and the country cater to the secret organization for their vote or disavow them as counter to the very principles of democracy? With individual exceptions, the party chose the later, albeit feebly, inserting an anti-Klan plank in their platform at the state and national level, without calling out the organization by name.
When questioned, Ralston consistently and repeatedly denied any affiliation with the Klan. Nonetheless, modern secondary sources continue to link his name with Klan influence, especially in relation to his 1922 U.S. Senate race. However, these sources charge Ralston with the wrong transgression. If Ralston was guilty of anything, it was not for being a Klan member or seeking Klan political support. Rather, he attempted to remain neutral when the Klan threat to immigrant, Catholic, Jewish, and African American Hoosiers demanded clear and bold moral action. This issue from his later career is worth examining in a more nuanced manner as we prepare to dedicate a new state historical marker to his earlier legacy as governor of Indiana.
Ralston the Governor
Samuel M. Ralston could be classified among the more progressive of the candidates who swept the 1912 state elections. Such a political leaning helped him defeat Progressive Party nominee Albert J. Beveridge, his closest gubernatorial challenger. The Progressive Party, or Bull Moose, were a third party of Republicans led by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt who challenged the political status quo. GOP gubernatorial nominee and former Governor Winfield T. Durbin came in third in the 1912 election.
Once in office, Ralston worked for many of the reforms advocated by the Progressive Party, albeit at a moderate pace that did not rock the Democratic Party boat. According to historian Suellen M. Hoy, Ralston’s publicly-declared progressive measures included: women’s suffrage, workmen’s compensation, better roads, improved vocational education, more humane prison conditions, and a child labor law, among other issues.
His concern for the average Hoosier’s welfare was evidenced in his advocacy for the creation of a public utilities act, which redefined utilities as being both publicly and privately owned and thus rightly regulated by citizens through their government agencies. His concern was also apparent in his swift and unrelenting action in organizing emergency relief in response to the Great Flood of 1913. Later that same year, he personally helped negotiate a resolution to a strike organized by streetcar workers that had turned violent.
Klan Allegations in Historical Sources
However, Ralston’s progressive legacy has been overshadowed by his alleged association with the Ku Klux Klan during his 1922 United States Senate campaign. This taint on his legacy seems to stem in part from an oft-quoted sentence from David M. Chalmers’ 1965 work Hooded Americanism. Chalmers wrote about the 1922 election:
The Klan’s most notable effort was its role in sending Samuel M. Ralston, to the Senate.
Chalmers’ source for this claim is a talk Ralston gave at St. Mary of the Woods, a Catholic women’s college in Terre Haute. In his address, the candidate spoke in part about “the importance of religious liberty and the separation of Church and State.” It is important to remember that in 1920, Indiana’s African American population was less than 3% of the total. Much of the Indiana Klan’s rhetoric and actions were directed to the more sizable Catholic populations. In reaction to this speech, Chalmers wrote that “the Klan was delighted.” Chalmers continued: “Here was a man who was not afraid to tell the papists off to their very face.” Chalmers argued for his interpretation, “Backed by the Klan . . . Ralston won.”
Chalmers is correct that the Klan endorsed Ralston’s candidacy. However, their support came not from Ralston’s actions, but his inaction, or neutrality, on the Klan issue. Retrospectively, this was not an admirable position. However, Chalmers overemphasizes any direct connection between the senator and the Klan.
The Klan in Context
The Klan was politically active in Indiana by the 1920s. Infamous Klan leader D. C. Stephenson claimed to have some measure of control of the votes of 380,000 Klansmen. He explained that his followers would receive sample ballots with a Klan-approved choice marked for both political parties – a Democrat and a Republican candidate favorable to, or at least not opposed to, the Klan. Eventually, Stephenson released the names of several prominent Indiana politicians who were Klansmen, including the Governor Ed Jackson and Mayor John L. Duvall of Indianapolis.
However, as historian Joseph M. White argues, the Klan’s “actual political power should not be overdrawn.” According to White, while the Klan had “a high level of influence” on Indiana politics, it never achieved the “outright control” that it did in other states. For example, in Georgia, Tom Watson gained his U.S. Senate seat in 1920 “using the supposed threat of Catholicism as the principle issue.” Ralston, on the other hand, mainly ignored the Klan in his 1922 bid for the Senate. While he did not cater to the secret organization, he also did not denounce it as other state leaders did. For example, Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen spoke at Richmond, Indiana, in October 1922 where he “flayed the Ku Klux Klan,” according to the Indianapolis News.
According to historian Thomas Pegram in his book One Hundred Percent American, the Klan was better at “targeting enemies” than it was at gaining politicians’ support for their desired policies. This was certainly true in Indiana. The Klan did not win the open support of any major Democratic candidates. Instead, it acted against the election of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Albert Beveridge for “various aspersions uttered by him about ‘groups’ and ‘racial prejudice’ [that] were taken by the Klan as occasion for passing the word to vote against Beveridge,” according to the Richmond Palladium. Stephenson himself stated that it was the aforementioned anti-Klan speeches that Governor Allen made in support of Beveridge that turned Klan support toward Ralston – not any specific action or position of Ralston.
On November 8, 1922, Indiana newspapers announced Democratic Party gains nationwide, including the election of Ralston to the United States Senate. The extent to which his neutrality on the Klan issue helped his win is difficult to determine. What is clear, is that Ralston, once in office, did nothing to further any Klan-favorite legislation during his term. His position would become clearer as the 1924 elections drew near.
Indiana Democrats under the influence of political boss Thomas Taggart attempted to stay neutral on the Klan, neither courting their support nor directly denouncing the organization throughout the early 1920s. According to historian Leonard J. Moore in his book Citizen Klansmen, the party strategized that this neutrality would “deemphazise the Klan as an issue” allowing them to “attack the Republicans at their weakest point — corruption in both Indianapolis and Washington.”
However, the party and Ralston, soon had to take a clearer position.
In November 1923, Indiana newspapers reported on Ralston’s response to questions on his relationship to the Klan from the Marion County branch of the American Unity League, a mainly Catholic organization working to unmask Klan members and thus obstruct their secret agenda. Most Indiana newspapers reprinted his letter in full on their front pages.
The League asked six questions in their letter. The first three addressed a petition filed against U. S. Senator from Texas, Earle B. Mayfield, by his opponent in the 1922 election, George E. B. Peddy. According to the U. S. Senate’s summary of the case, Peddy alleged that Mayfield benefited from the “use of fraudulent ballot counting procedures, excessive expenditure of money, and the flagrant participation of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The League asked Ralston if he thought Mayfield’s Klan association was “consistent with loyalty to the laws and constitution of the United States;” if Mayfield was worthy of his Senate seat while charged with receiving “vast sums of money” from the Klan; and if Ralston would vote for Mayfield to keep his seat “when the question comes up before the Senate.” Ralston responded that he would not “pre-judge” anyone before a hearing and that doing so would “be a gross violation of official duty, and would render me unfit to hold a seat in the Senate.” He continued:
Certainly your love for justice is such that it would shock you to know that I had deliberately taken on a frame of mind that would render it impossible for me to give Senator Mayfield a fair and impartial hearing.
Ralston moved on to the League’s fourth question: “Are you a member of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, or of the organization known as the Royal Order of Lions, which is affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan?” Ralston replied, “I am not now, and never have been, a member of either organization.” He added that he was a Mason, an Elk, a Presbyterian, and a Democrat.
The League’s fifth question read: “Do you believe in the officially announced program of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan which openly declares that Jews, Catholics, negroes and foreign-born citizens of the United States are not 100 per cent American, and should be discriminated against on account of race, creed, color or birthplace?” Ralston responded:
My answer is that I hold no such view of these people, as a class, and if you had followed me in my campaign for the Senate you would know that I do not.
The League ended with a sixth question: “Finally, are you for the constitution of the United States and the ideals of the American republic, or for the announced principles of the Ku Klux Klan and the invisible empire?”
Ralston called the question “an insult” and gave an extensive response:
I do not believe that the Ku Klux Klan, or any civic organization has announced principles and ideas the equal of those set forth in the constitution of the United States . . . I have never failed, when it was seemly for me to mention the subject, to declare my unabated devotion of our Federal constitution, which provides for the separation of Church and States, and guarantees to every man the right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience . . . I shall in the future, as I have in the past, stand ready to oppose the promulgation of any principle of the Ku Klux Klan, or of the Presbyterian church to which I belong, or of any Jewish organization to which you may belong, or of any other character, that is at war with [the constitution].
Neutrality as Complicity
Finally, Ralston had made a strong statement disavowing any association with the Klan. However, the Fiery Cross, a Klan newspaper published in Indianapolis, also reprinted Ralston’s letter in full. It might seem strange that the Fiery Cross published a denunciation of their organization by a politician they had supported. However, they may have felt they benefited from Ralston including the Klan in a list with major groups and religions, including his own, thus normalizing their movement to some extent.
On June 26, 1924, at the Democratic National Convention in New York, Senator Ralston, despite his objections, was one of nineteen candidates nominated for the presidency of the United States. The convention was one of the most contentious political conventions in U.S. history (and no it really was not called the “Klanbake.”)
After eighty-eight ballots it started to look like the convention was swinging towards Ralston, the supporters of New York Governor Al Smith’s nomination, including the New York World, attempted to link Ralston with the Klan issue. The story quickly gained traction during a quick-paced convention that didn’t have a clear front-runner or consensus candidate. The Indianapolis Star printed daily reports from their correspondent in New York. On June 28, the Star reported that “in a last-hour effort to kill off the Ralston candidacy which has been in its ascendancy for the past two days, the New York World, the Al Smith organ,” printed a story claiming that the Klan supported Ralston even more than William Gibbs McAdoo, who had catered their support.
The following day, the Star reported that Ralston was “nettled” by the New York World‘s charges, “emphatically denied allegiance with the Klan, and denounced persons who attempted to link his name with it.” The Star quoted Ralston:
You can say for me that any one who says or intimated that I am a klansman is a ‘liar,’ and you can put that on the wires too.
The Star reported that “Ralston declared that he could not understand the attitude of the World, saying that he had already emphatically stated his position on the Klan question, and that there should be no further question as to where he stood.” He reiterated that “he had never sought the vote of any klansman, that he was not a klansman or in any way affiliated with the organization.” Instead, the Star reported, he would “appreciate the votes of all citizens regardless of race, creed or belief, provided that the support was given him with the full understanding that he would stand squarely on the platform of the Democratic part and the constitution of the United States.”
As he did (wittingly or not) in his response to the American Unity League, his grouping the Klan in with a “creed or belief” assimilated the extremist organization into the standard pool of voters. In fact, in his response to the World, he drove this message home. The Star quoted Ralston:
I never asked a klansman to vote for me. I never asked a Jew or a Catholic to vote for me. I never asked any one to vote for me for President . . . But if I am nominated and elected I will try to give a good, honest Democratic administration. Jew, Catholic and klansman will be treated alike in full recognition of the constitutional rights guaranteed every citizen.
What Ralston did not or did not choose to see, of course, was that there was no democracy for Catholics and Jews as long as the Klan was tolerated by men in power. His statement to the convention attendees was more succinct. Ralston wrote again that he was “not a member of the Klan or any of its branches” and continued:
If nominated, I shall stand on the platform of the New York convention and insist upon every citizen having his constitutional rights safeguarded.
The New York World took one final shot at Ralston on July 2, printing the claims of attorney Claude V. Dodson of Boone County, Indiana, where Ralston also lived and practiced law for much of this career. Dodson told the New York World that he “to my shame” was at one time a member of the Boone County Indiana Klan, which had been organized in that region in 1923 by P. B. Ramsey. Dodson described one of Ramsey’s recruiting tactics:
These organizers told members of the Klan after their initiation that Samuel M. Ralston was a member of their organization. He also told prospective members in some instances that Senator Ralston was a member in an effort to gain the prospect as a member.
Dodson agreed that any claims that Ralston was a member of the Klan were indeed false. However, he and the New York World thought that Ralston should have forthwith and publicly denied the unauthorized use of his name, and denounced the Klan as an “unAmerican organization” in his hometown. Dodson continued:
I will say frankly that the Klan claim as to Senator Ralston’s membership should have little weight or credence, because most of the Klan claims are false, but in this instance, Senator Ralston’s attention was called to this matter more than a year ago. He was informed that his name was being used by the Klan organizers, and no doubt it influenced many people to join the Klan . . . At that time Senator Ralston did not avail himself of the opportunity to inform the people of the state as to the truth of falsity of the Klan claim; neither did he show any anger publicly toward Klan organizers for using his name. It was only when those opposed to the Klan some six months later insisted on a public statement from Senator Ralston as to his attitude toward the Klan and his membership therein that Senator Ralston was insulted . . . Senator Ralston’s statement that he stands on the constitution . . . is well and good, but we who are opposed to the Klan ask Senator Ralston to come out and state flatly, calling the Klan by name, what his attitude is toward that organization and its principles.
Ralston responded tepidly to these charges, continuing to disavow membership without actually condemning the Klan:
To what extent the Klan or any other organization runs counter to the constitution of my country I am against it.
The World reported that when “asked what efforts he had made to prevent the Klan from using his name to obtain new members,” Ralston reiterated:
The only effort I ever made was to state on divers[e] occasions that I was not a member of the Klan.
Several days later, Ralston withdrew from the race. Although to be clear his withdrawal was due to poor health, and not being interested in running for national office (his supporters had promoted his candidacy against his will). The Klan rumors had next to nothing to do with his decision.
In short, Indiana Democrats knew that open support of the Klan would lose moderate votes. However, they also knew it was politically expedient not to have the Klan actively working against a particular nominee. Thus, Ralston chose a course of “emphatic” denial of membership in the secret organization, without denouncing the Klan itself. In fact, he stated that he would treat Klan members no differently than anyone that attended his own church. This implication that they would be left alone was good enough for some Klan members. However, it’s also clear from his record as governor and his reverence for the Constitution that he did care about upholding the rights of women, workers, children, and the incarcerated.
Of course, from our perspective today, we judge those in power who do not act in times of moral crisis as complicit in the related atrocities. Ralston, however, did not have this clear picture of the Klan’s legacy. In the Progressive Era political climate, Ralston walked a middle path that he knew would help him stay in office and effect change on the issues that were important to him. The work of fighting the Klan and working for civil rights would be left to other Hoosiers who had a clearer vision of the threat the secret organization posed to the democracy Ralston loved.
Suellen M. Hoy, “Samuel M. Ralston: Progressive Governor, 1913-1917,” PhD Dissertation, April 1975, Department of History, Indiana University.
Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
Thomas Pegram, One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011).
Joseph M. White, “The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920’s as Viewed by the Indiana Catholic and Record,”1975, Master’s Thesis, Butler University, accessed Butler University Digital Commons.
In an era when African Americans, especially women, were often professionally sidelined, Vivian Carter forced herself onto the field. Through her ingenuity and personal popularity, the musical “matriarch” became a business owner and record producer. Her company, Vee Jay Records, recorded and popularized many successful musicians of the mid-20th century, ranging from Rhythm-and-Blues to Pop Rock, Doo-Wop, Gospel, Soul, and Jazz artists. Although music had been strictly segregated along racial lines, Vee Jay introduced both black and white artists to mixed crowds of local teenagers first, and then to a national audience between 1953 and 1966. The company released recordings of some of the nation’s most prolific musicians, including Little Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Four Seasons.
Born in 1921 in Tunica, Mississippi, Vivian Carter moved with her brother and parents to Gary at age 6. As a child and teenager, she was competitive, outgoing, and self-confident. These qualities helped her win a 1948 contest for the “best girl disc jockey in Chicago,” which was the beginning of Vivian’s radio career. Eventually, Vivian had a five-hour nightly radio program in Gary, called “Livin’ With Vivian,” referring to female listeners as “Powder Puffs” and male callers “Sponges.” The “hostest who brings you the mostest” played music by black artists and much of what she played was not available on commercial records. Since Vivian owned a record store in the heart of Gary, along with her future husband Jimmy Bracken, she knew that recordings of this music would sell.
Teenagers of all races from several Calumet Region schools would gather after school to watch Vivian through the glass store window while loudspeakers broadcast her favorite Rhythm and Blues recordings, as recalled by Jerry Locasto, a future radio executive who was one of those kids. While the records played, Vivian would come out and mingle with the kids to find out what they liked or disliked about each one. Kids could request songs, and she would play them. In 1953, Vivian and Jimmy started their own record label, called Vee Jay Records from the initials of “Vivian” and “Jimmy,” to record the music of local black artists.
Their first group was the Spaniels, a group of crooners from Gary Roosevelt High School, Vivian’s alma mater. The boys walked into the record shop after winning a talent contest at school, to ask if Vivian knew how they could get a recording made. Vivian listened to the group, then gave the impoverished boys a place to practice – her mother’s garage –and arranged to record them at Chance Records, a studio in Chicago. She later bought suits for their publicity photos and a station wagon for their travels.
Best Years of Vee Jay Records
The Spaniels’ first record, “Baby, It’s You” reached #10 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Then the Spaniels hit #5 with their second record, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” The record “crossed over” from the Race Records category to become a hit with white purchasers as well. But Vivian was disappointed when the McGuire Sisters, a “white girl trio,” sold more copies with their “cover” of the same song. She asked her brother, Calvin, to put more of a white-sounding background on the future records, to appeal to broader audiences. And the young company learned to print and register publishing rights to all their performers’ original songs, so they still made money when other performers covered them.
In 1954, Vee Jay moved to Chicago and eventually opened on Michigan Avenue’s “Record Row.” Vivian, Calvin, and her husband Jimmy remained the heads of the company. But according to Bob Kostanczuk of the Gary Post-Tribune, Vivian was always “viewed as the company’s matriarch and driving force.” They hired the knowledgeable Ewart Abner, accountant for the former Chance Records, after Chance went out of business. Abner started as manager and eventually worked his way up to president.
In the next ten years, Vee Jay Records released successful recordings of black and white performers, including hits like The Four Seasons’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Dells “Oh, What a Night,” and The Beatles’s “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout.” Since radio stations wouldn’t play several records from one company label in the same time slot, Vee Jay also recorded under the labels Falcon, Conrad, Tollie, and Abner, from the middle names of the company’s principals. Vee Jay opened a Los Angeles studio, and Vivian and Jimmy soon drove around in luxury convertibles and fur coats.
The Beginning of the End
Vee Jay’s best (and worst) luck came in 1962 when they tried to buy distribution rights for Australian singer Frank Ifield’s European hit single “I Remember You.” The Gary Post-Tribune on August 23, 1998, noted that the British agent insisted they also take a quartet named The Beatles, unknown at that time in the United States. Vee Jay released several Beatles singles and their first U. S. album, to lukewarm success until the group appeared on the nationwide Ed Sullivan Show.
Then Beatles’ sales skyrocketed. Capitol Records, who had earlier turned down the Beatles, started filing lawsuits against Vee Jay to get the group back, as reported by Mike Callahan in “The Vee Jay Story” in Goldmine (May 1981). The cost of defending the lawsuits, in addition to Ewart Abner’s poor financial management and gambling habit, wiped out Vee Jay’s money and credit, and put the company out of business.
In a life story that Vivian called “rags to riches to rags,” Vivian and Jimmy lost everything, even their little record store, and divorced. Jimmy died and Vivian worked days at the county trustee’s office and hosted a late-night radio program in Gary from 1967 to 1982. According to Dr. James B. Lane’s Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History article, when her best friend from high school, Yjean Chambers, asked how Vivian felt about the spectacular rise and fall of her recording business, Vivian replied that she had “learned too late the art of looking over the shoulder of those who work for you.” Then Vivian added, “But I don’t miss a thing. That’s all behind me now.”
After several years of illness, Vivian died of complications from diabetes and hypertension in 1989. Lane says one of Vivian’s last visitors was James “Pookie” Hudson, her first recording artist, who sang Vivian to sleep with his hit song, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”