“Unswerving Integrity”: The Radical Friendship of Eugene V. Debs and Robert Ingersoll

This post is dedicated to Tom Flynn—freethinker, friend, and keeper of the Ingersoll flame.

On July 22, 1899, Hoosier Eugene Victor Debs, a radical labor organizer and the future socialist party candidate for president, published a tribute to one of his biggest influences and close friends—the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic” for his decades-long public critique of organized religion, Ingersoll became the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States, a movement dedicated to secularism that began after the Civil War and ended around World War I. His death on July 21, 1899, at the age of 65, left an irreplaceable void in the hearts of many who saw Ingersoll as the leader of a new rationalist awakening in America.

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Library of Congress.

In his tribute to Ingersoll, printed in the Terre Haute Gazette and later in the Social Democratic Herald, Debs reflected on their decades-long friendship and the lasting impact the freethinker had on his life. He wrote:

For 23 years it has been my privilege to know Colonel Ingersoll, and the announcement of his sudden death is so touching and shocking to me that I can hardly bring myself to realize the awful calamity. Like thousands of others who personally knew Colonel Ingersoll, I loved him as if he had been my elder brother. He was, without doubt, the most lovable character, the tenderest and greatest soul I have ever known.

He also noted the amount of charity work Ingersoll did, both for organizations and for individuals, such as a woman he aided after the financial collapse of her father and abandonment by her church. “Such incidents of kindness to the distressed and help to the needy,” Debs observed, “might be multiplied indefinitely, for Colonel Ingersoll’s whole life was replete with them and they constitute a religion compared with which all creeds and dogmas become meaningless and empty phrases.”

Robert Ingersoll portraits. Library of Congress.

Later, on January 17, 1900, Debs wrote to Ingersoll’s publisher C.P. Farrell that “I have never loved another mortal as I have loved Robert Ingersoll, and I never shall another.” While this language may seem a bit saccharine for us today, Debs meant every word of it. From his initial meetings with Ingersoll as a young man in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Great Agnostic’s defense of him during the Pullman railroad workers strike of 1894, Eugene Debs always felt a deep kinship with the heretical orator. While they took different spiritual tracks—with Ingersoll a dedicated agnostic and Debs a social-gospel Christian—both saw the importance of caring for others in this life, despite what might come after, and believed in the power of human reason as a vehicle for transcending outmoded superstitions. Debs learned the power of effective oratory from Ingersoll, routinely citing him as one of his biggest rhetorical influences. Ingersoll also had views on labor and capital that went far beyond the traditional liberalism of his day, something that likely played a role in the radicalization of Debs. As such, their unique friendship left a lasting imprint on American life during the turn of the twentieth century.

They first met in the spring of 1878, after Debs invited Ingersoll to give a lecture to the Occidental Literary Club in Terre Haute, an organization that the former helped organize. The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette reported on May 2, 1878 that Ingersoll’s oration the previous evening was on the “religion of the past, present, and future” and noted that “Mr. Ingersoll was introduced by Mr. E. V. Debs, in well chosen and well delivered words.” Years later, in his “Recollections on Ingersoll” (1917), Debs reflected on his first encounter with the legendary orator. In fact, the lecture that Ingersoll gave that evening, according to Debs, was one of his most important, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In it, Ingersoll excoriates those who held humanity in the bondage of superstition and called for freedom of intellectual development. As he declared, “This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself. Keep your mind open to the influences of nature. Receive new thoughts with hospitality. Let us advance.” Debs was amazed by this speech. Writing decades later, “Never until that night had I heard real oratory; never before had I listened enthralled to such a flow of genuine eloquence.” Ingersoll’s words, which “pleaded for every right and protested against every wrong,” galvanized the budding orator and political activist.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience. Peoria Magazine.

Also in 1878, Ingersoll used his considerable speaking talents towards another issue of grave importance: the condition of labor. While it would be too much to say that Ingersoll was a socialist like Debs, he was nevertheless a socially-conscious liberal Republican who understood the inequities between workers and owners in a capitalist society. In a speech entitled “Hard Times and the Way Out,” delivered in Boston, Massachusetts on October 20, 1878, Ingersoll laid out his views on the subject. While he reiterated his belief that “there is no conflict, and can be no conflict, in the United States between capital and labor,” he nevertheless chastised the capitalists who would impugn the dignity and quality of life of their laborers. “The man who wants others to work to such an extent that their lives are burdens, is utterly heartless,” he bellowed to the crowd in Boston. He also called for the use of improved technology to lower the overall workday. Additionally, in a passage that could’ve been composed by Eugene V. Debs decades later, Ingersoll declared:

I sympathize with every honest effort made by the children of labor to improve their condition. That is a poorly governed country in which those who do the most have the least. There is something wrong when men are obliged to beg for leave to toil. We are not yet a civilized people; when we are, pauperism and crime will vanish from our land.

This speech left a lasting impression on Debs, so much so that he quoted it at length in an 1886 article in the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine calling for the eight-hour workday. It is safe to say that Ingersoll’s own progressive views on labor influenced Debs’s own labor advocacy, especially during his time leading the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and co-founding the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W).

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Indiana Memory.

Years later, in 1894, Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) led a massive labor strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the outskirts of Chicago. Approximately 2,000 employees walked off the job in May, demanding an end to the 33 1/3% pay cut they took the year prior. When the strikes escalated into violence, largely due to the aggressive tactics of the Chicago police, the United States Court in Chicago filed an injunction against Debs and the ARU. The injunction claimed that Debs, as head of the ARU, violated federal law by “block[ing] the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. Debs was later arrested for his actions, using legendary civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow for his defense. Some speculated at the time that Robert Ingersoll, himself a lawyer, would defend Debs in court, but that never came to pass. Instead, Ingersoll defended Debs in the court of public opinion, when the press reported his previous treatment for alcoholism in an effort to discredit his cause.

Workers leaving the Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893. Wikimedia Commons.

An article in the July 9, 1894 issue of the Jersey City News reported that Dr. Thomas S. Robertson treated Debs in 1892 for “neurasthenia” and “dipsomania,” terms used in the era to describe anxiety due to spinal cord injury and alcoholism, respectively. To help his friend, Ingersoll had written a letter of introduction for Debs to Dr. Robertson, as he had used the physician’s services before. The article quotes Dr. Robertson at length, who claimed that Debs suffered from exhaustion, which had been exacerbated by drinking, but he had improved in the two years since. When asked if Debs was of sound mind, Dr. Robertson said, “in ordinary times, yes, but he is likely to be carried away by excitement and enthusiasm.” In essence, Debs suffered from what today we might call stress-induced anxiety, which became more pronounced by substance abuse. However, it is important to note that charges of alcoholism were common in this era, and Debs might have exhibited symptoms of it without ever being intoxicated.

Sensing the intention of the press with this story, Ingersoll released a statement to the Philadelphia Observer, later reprinted in the Unionville, Nevada Silver State on August 27, 1894. In it, he stood up for his friend and the causes he fought for. “I have known Mr. Debs for about twelve years,” Ingersoll said, and “I believe, [he] is a perfectly sincere man—very enthusiastic in the cause of labor—and his sympathies are all with the workingman.” When asked about Debs’s drinking, Ingersoll pushed back on the claims, saying “I never met him when he appeared to be under the influence of stimulants. He was always in good health and in full possession of his faculties.” He also commented on the attempts at scandal in the newspapers, adding that his “testimony is important in view of gossip and denunciation that everywhere attend the public mention of the strike leader.” In one of Debs’ darkest hours, when his character and cause came under fire, Ingersoll publicly defended his friend and challenged the claims made against him. Such was the nature of their bond.

Harper’s Weekly, July 14, 1894. Library of Congress.

While Robert Ingersoll certainly influenced Debs on the importance of oratory and the cause of labor, he also left a profound intellectual influence on the future socialist. Early in his life, Debs developed an iconoclastic view of religion, which primed him for a rewarding relationship with Ingersoll. In conversations with Larry Karsner, published in book form in 1922, Debs reflected on the event that made him weary of organized religion. At the age of 15, Debs attended a sermon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Terre Haute. The priest’s vivid descriptions of hell, with a “thousand demons and devils with horns and bristling tails, clutching pitchforks, steeped in brimstone,” completely soured him on institutionalized Christianity. “I left that church with rich and royal hatred of the priest as a person, and a loathing for the church as an institution,” Debs said, “and I vowed that I would never go inside a church again.” Furthermore, when asked by Karsner if he was a disbeliever at that time, Debs replied, “Oh yes, a strong one.”

He furthered his views on hell in a February 19, 1880 article in the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette. “I do not believe in hell as a place of torment or punishment after death,” he wrote, “. . . the hell of popular conception exists solely in the imagination.” He further argues that while the idea of hell may have served a beneficial function in the past, “as soon, however, as people become good enough to be just and honorable for the simple satisfaction it affords them, and avoid evil for the same reason, then there is no further necessity of hell.” With these words, Debs actually echoed much of what Ingersoll said on the subject in an 1878 lecture. “The idea of a hell,” Ingersoll noted, “was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous, to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell.”

Robert Ingersoll pamphlet on Hell, 1882. Google Books.

While the doctrine of hell and the strictures of the church left Debs cold, he nevertheless adopted a liberal, nondenominational form of Christianity later in his life, one molded by his exposure to Ingersoll and freethought. In a 1917 article entitled “Jesus the Supreme Leader,” published in the Call Magazine and later reprinted in pamphlet form, Debs shared his thoughts on the prophet from Nazareth. Debs saw Christ not as a distant, ethereal presence, but rather as a revolutionary figure whose own humanity made him divine. “Jesus was not divine because he was less human than his fellow-men,” he wrote, “but for the opposite reason, that he was supremely human, and it is this of which his divinity consists, the fullness and perfection of him as an intellectual, moral and spiritual human being.” He placed Jesus in the same pantheon of transformative figures as abolitionist John Brown, President Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Karl Marx.

For Debs, Christ’s appeal to “love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” was the same in spirit as Marx’s famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” Both statements are about solidarity—of people coming together, helping one another, and fighting for a better world. In this sense, Debs interpreted Christ like many humanists and non-sectarian Christians do today—as a deeply human figure that preached love, peace, and harmony with others.

Eugene V. Debs and Jesus of Nazareth pamphlet. Internet Archive.

While Debs and Ingersoll did not share the exact same views on Christianity, they did share a commitment to secularism, tolerance, freethought, and social justice. Debs would parlay his knowledge from Ingersoll and others into a successful political career, running five times on the socialist party ticket and earning nearly a million votes in 1920 while imprisoned for speaking out against America’s involvement in WWI. As Ingersoll was the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought,” Debs was the leader of the “Golden Age of American Socialism,” with thousands attending his speeches and joining socialist organizations. Despite their friendship being tragically cut short by Robert Ingersoll’s death in 1899, Debs honored the legacy of the Great Agnostic for the rest of his life. Writing in his “Recollections of Ingersoll” in 1917, Debs said:

He was absolutely true to the highest principles of his exalted character and to the loftiest aspirations of his own unfettered soul. He bore the crudest misrepresentation, the foulest abuse, the vilest calumny, and the most heartless persecution without resentment or complaint. He measured up to his true stature in every hour of trial, he served with fidelity and without compromise to the last hour of his noble life, he paid in full the price of his unswerving integrity to his own soul, and each passing century to come will add fresh luster to his immortal fame.

In studying their lives and their friendship, one might say these words for Robert Green Ingersoll could equally apply to Eugene Victor Debs.

Eugene V. Debs standing by pillar. Indiana Memory.

Vesto Slipher: Uncovering the Cosmos

The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.
The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.

This article was originally published on the Hoosier State Chronicles blog on August 26, 2016.

The known universe is big; insanely big! At a staggering age of 13.8 billion years, our observable universe has a diameter of 92 billion light-years. Over the last century, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians have helped us understand a more precise measurement of the size of the universe and how it has changed over time. The prevailing theory is the “Big Bang,” which, “At its simplest, [it] talks about the universe as we know it starting with a small singularity, then inflating over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.” A key component of Big Bang cosmology, “Expansion Theory,” stipulates that the universe is expanding, rather than a static state, which accounts for the changing distances of stars and galaxies. So, how did we come to this conclusion?

Red and blue shift. Courtesy of Caltech.
Blue and red shift. Courtesy of Caltech.

Part of our understanding of the expanding universe has benefited, in no small part, to an Indiana farmer’s son named Vesto Slipher. Slipher developed spectrographic methods that allowed researchers to see a Doppler effect in the distances of what were then called “spiral nebula,” what we today call galaxies. Simply put, by measuring the longer wavelength red shift (objects moving away) and shorter wavelength blue shift (objects moving closer), Slipher demonstrated that the universe was not static. In fact, it was expanding and often pushing objects towards each other. Slipher’s name doesn’t get regularly name-checked as one of the greatest scientists of all-time, but his contributions helped to establish our current view of the cosmos.

Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.
Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vesto Melvin Slipher was born on November 11, 1875 on the family farm in Mulberry, Indiana. As biographer William Graves Hoyt noted, Slipher’s early life on the farm “helped him develop the strong, vigorous constitution that later stood him in good stead for the more strenuous aspects of observational astronomy.” Slipher received a B.A. (1901), M.A. (1903), and Ph.D (1909) in Astronomy from Indiana University. His Ph.D. dissertation paper, The Spectrum of Mars, which tentatively identified atmospheric characteristics (namely, water vapor) on the red planet.

The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

Slipher’s professional career in science began in August of 1901, when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to fill a vacancy at the Lowell Observatory. Founded by the idiosyncratic Dr. Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory became one of the foremost institutions of astronomy during the early 20th century. As the Coconino Sun put it, the observatory, “is known and recognized all over world for its discoveries and correct calculations.”

Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.

Lowell’s chief pursuit with the observatory was to prove that there were inhabitants on Mars, and hired young Slipher to help him. As early as 1908, Slipher found evidence through his spectroscopic techniques that Lowell may be on to something. The Washington Herald reported that V. M. Slipher (newspaper articles almost always identified him in print with just his initials) and his brother, Earl C. Slipher, “discovered evidences of the presence of water in the atmosphere of Mars. . . .” Sometime later, on May 20, 1909, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian noted that Slipher’s observations, “favor the view that the whitecaps about Mars poles are composed of snow rather than of hoarfrost,” and that “prevalent conditions of Mars . . .are those of a mild but desert climate, such as Professor Percival Lowell has asserted exists there.”

The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Lowell’s interest in Mars, emboldened by Slipher’s results, intensified. In 1912, Slipher helped install a 13,000 feet high telescope in the San Francisco Mountains so as to refine his measurements. Slipher’s efforts culminated in a 1914 announcement of further confirmation to his Water Vapor hypothesis. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that, “while the amount of water is difficult to determine, the estimates placed it at about one-third that of the atmosphere of the earth.” While Slipher and Lowell never found Martians on the red planet, their findings established atmospheric models that are still corroborated by scientists to this day.

The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

With his research on Mars, Slipher was only getting started. His real passion was observing the position and velocities of “spiral nebula,” and he used his spare time away from his Mars projects to advance his research. His early successes convinced Dr. Lowell to give him time devoted to this research. It came with spectacular results. In 1912, Slipher began recording spectrographic results of the Andromeda Nebula (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) and found that they were blue-shifting, which indicated that the nebula was “not within our galaxy.” “Hence we may conclude,” Slipher observed in his published findings, “that the Andromeda Nebula is approaching the solar system with a velocity of about 300 kilometers per second.” Within the next couple of years, Slipher also discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was also rotating as it traveled, and published these results in a subsequent article. From there, the results went to the press; the Daily East Oregonian published the findings in its November 15, 1915 edition. The Caldwell Watchmen in Columbia, Louisiana also reported that the Nebula was traveling at an unprecedented speed of “186 miles a second.” Similar articles were published in the Ashland, Oregon Tidings and the Albuquerque Evening Herald.

The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Slipher eventually observed the speeds of 15 nebulae, shared his findings at the 1914 American Astronomical Society meeting, and “received a standing ovation.” His results were then published by the society in 1915, demonstrating that the average velocity of these nebulae at 400 kilometers a second. A few years later, in 1921, Slipher found a record-breaking nebula called Dreyer’s Nebula (known today as IC 447) that was traveling away from our galaxy at 2,000 kilometers a second! With nebulae moving at varying velocities and in varying directions, Slipher’s research had started a conversation about the need to reevaluate the static theory of the universe. Why were these nebula acting like this?

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.

In comes Edwin Hubble, the lawyer-turned-astronomer with the dashing looks of a movie star who pushed our understanding of the universe even further (Like Slipher, Hubble also had an Indiana connection as he taught and coached basketball at New Albany High School during the 1913-14 academic year) . As physicist Lawrence Krauss noted, Hubble used Slipher’s data on spiral nebula, combined with new observations he obtained with colleague Milton Humason, to postulate a new cosmological law. This new theorem, called “Hubble’s Law,” argued that there was a direct “relationship between recessional velocity and galaxy distance.” In other words, the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. These results flew in the face of both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein’s notions of the universe, which argued for a static universe. If Hubble was right, the universe was actually expanding.

To test this idea, Hubble began a new series of spectrographic experiments in the 1930s. The Muncie Post-Democrat reported on one of these experiments on November 25, 1938:

The answer [to the expansion theory], they said, may be found when the new 200-inch reflector, cast in Corning, N. Y., glassworks, is completed. If the universe is expanding, the giant reflector being built on Mt. Palomar, in California, may indicate the type of expansion. The new mirror will collect four times as much light as the 100-inch Hooker reflector now in use at Mt. Wilson.

The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

These further experiments reaffirmed Hubble’s earlier conclusions and the expansionary model of the universe became the standard-model. The evidence was so overwhelming that Einstein changed his mind and accepted the expansionary theory. Like with his work on Mars, Slipher’s early observations helped to uncover a field-altering discovery, and as biographer William Hoyt concluded, his research “enabled astronomers to gauge the approximate age and dimensions of the known universe.”

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.
Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.

Even after his momentous research on spiral nebula, Slipher continued to be involved in key discoveries. For example, Slipher assisted in the discovery of the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto! A January 2, 1920 article in the Coconino Sun recalled that, “Dr. Slipher said he believes it is true that there is an undiscovered planet. This belief is due to peculiar actions of Uranus, who gets kind of wobbly sometimes in her course around the sun.” To confirm these claims, Slipher brought young scientist Clyde Tombaugh onto the project in 1928. After many attempts of photographing the unknown body, and Slipher even missing it in some telescopic photographs, Tombaugh finally discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930. The New York Times later reported the discovery on April 16, 1930. “Denial to the contrary,” the Times wrote, “Dr. V. M. Slipher, director of the Lowell Observatory [here], believes evidence indicates that the recently discovered “Planet X” is the long-sought trans-Neptunian planet, and is not a comet.” While Tombaugh rightfully gets the credit for the discovery, Slipher’s hard work in assisting the young scientist should count as one of his accomplishments.

The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Slipher retired from the Lowell Observatory in 1952 and spent the remaining years of his life involved in minor astronomical work and community affairs before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 94. While not a household name, Slipher’s achievements in astronomy are legendary, from his discovery of the atmospheric conditions of Mars and assisting with the discovery of Pluto to his ground-breaking research on spiral nebulae that led to our understanding of the expanding universe. In short, he helped science, and in turn humanity, further uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. Pretty good for a farm boy from Mulberry, Indiana.

Leedy Manufacturing Company and Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”

Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”, made by Indianapolis’ Leedy Manufacturing Company in 1921, has been involved in many rivalries over its size. Learn more about its unique history from our latest video.

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Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Music: “Regimented Instinct” by Teknoaxe, “Jumpin’ Boogie Woogie” by Audionautix, “Anchors Aweigh” by US Marine Corps Band, “National Emblem” by US Naval Academy Band, “Low Tide” by Silent Partner, “Jazz Bar” by Doug Maxwell, Media Right Productions, “Hail, Purdue” by Purdue All-American Marching Band

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“Washed Up:” A Discovered Artifact and the Rub-No-More Soap Company

At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we routinely get requests from researchers for assistance. Some of these are fairly simple, like helping with someone’s family history or determining the age of an antique they just bought. However, every once in a while, we get queries so interesting that they require a whole lot more research, and you never know what you might turn up.

Back in March, I received an email from a gentleman in California who recently found a unique item while metal-detecting on the beach. He needed help figuring out what it was and how old it might be. It was a weathered, rusted emblem with two elephants on the front and a name, “Rub-No-More.” On the back, it said, “some worry about wash day; others use Rub-No-More.”  He also knew it had an Indiana connection, as a quick internet search determined that the Rub-No-More brand was based out of Fort Wayne.

The Rub-No-More Watch Fob that washed up on the beach. Image: Kevin O’Brien.

It turns out that the item he found was a Rub-No-More watch fob, likely made sometime between 1905-1920. A watch fob was a decorative piece that accompanied a pocket watch, and helped keep the watch in a wearer’s pocket. A fob exactly like this one was recently sold at auction. Chicago’s F.H. Noble & Company, whose long history includes making trophies and urns for cremated remains, manufactured the fob. But what about the history of the company who commissioned it, the Rub-No-More Company? In learning more about this small, weathered piece of advertising, I discovered a history of one of Indiana’s most successful businesses at the turn of the twentieth century.

Rub-No-More watch fob recently sold at auction. Image: Hakes’s Auctions.

While its origins go back at least to 1880, the Summit City Soap Works of Fort Wayne (the Rub-No-More Company’s original name) was formally incorporated in May of 1885, with a capital stock of $25,000  for “manufactur[ing] laundry and other soaps,” according to the Indianapolis Sentinel. Their penchant for lavishing gifts on customers goes back almost to its founding. As the Wabash Express reported on May 27, 1886, Harry Mayel of the Summit City Soap Works came to Terre Haute and provided “over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in beautiful and valuable presents” to purchasers of the company’s Ceylon Red Letter Soap. While this was a great deal for consumers, it appears it wasn’t as good for the company. By 1888, the Summit City Soap Works was insolvent, with $18,000 in debt and only $14,000 in assets, and a court-ordered receiver came in to clean up the mess. The difficulties didn’t end there. Two years later, as mentioned by the Crawfordsville Daily Journal, the company’s facilities on Glasgow Avenue burned to the ground, an estimated loss of $6,000. The company, sadly, had no insurance to cover these damages.

Clearly, it was time for new leadership, and it came in the form of the highly successful Berghoff family, German immigrants who became a mainstay of Fort Wayne’s business community. The Berghoffs ran a profitable brewery in the city, most known for its “Dortmunder Beer” brand. They parlayed this success into other ventures, including the Summit City Soap Works. Gustave A. Berghoff, a traveling salesman for the brewery, purchased the soap manufacturer in 1892, likely from his own brother, Hubert. The latter had purchased the firm a year earlier for a measly $5,000, and intended to revive the soap maker to “run day and night,” according to the Fort Wayne Sentinel.

Dortmunder Beer advertisement from Berghoff Brewing Company. Image: FortWayneBeer.com.

Gustave Berghoff and his team wasted no time getting the company back on its feet and profitable, betting its success on a brand new product, Rub-No-More. Introduced in 1895, Rub-No-More was a “labor saving compound” that “clean[ed] the working clothes of a mechanic as well as the finest linen of the household, without much rubbing,” the Fort Wayne News wrote in its May 30th issue. To kick off the new product, the company launched a massive advertising campaign that provided free samples of Rub-No-More to every family in Fort Wayne. Summit City Soap Works then sold it at five cents, in a package that would cover five washing weeks. Rub-No-More became a hit, greatly benefiting Berghoff and his company. As such, they continued their tradition of giveaways. For example, in 1898, Summit City Soap Works offered its customers a free children’s book or wall calendar in exchange for saved Rub-No-More coupons and Globe Soap wrappers.

Fort Wayne Daily News, November 4, 1898. Image: Newspapers.com.

The company completely reorganized in 1903, including a new incorporation and expansion of its facilities. After eighteen years as an incorporated company, the Summit City Soap Works saw its capital stock increase four fold, to $100,000. Its executive staff also evolved, with Gustave Berghoff retaining his position as president but appointing his brothers, Henry and Hubert Berghoff, along with J. W. Roach and Albert J. Jauch, to the board of directors. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported that Berghoff was “having built a large addition to his factory, which will double the plant’s capacity.” The paper also commented on the company’s success, writing that “the business has grown from a small beginning to large proportions, and the institution is now known all over the United States, and the output is used almost universally in this country.”

The company also expanded its marketing, filing for multiple trademarks in 1905. The first filing, from April 17, 1905, included its new logo for Rub-No-More as well as an emblem, one so iconic to the company that it inspired my research: the two elephants logo. Used for decades as the symbol of Rub-No-More, the trademark displays an adult elephant dressed as a washerwoman washing a child elephant with its trunk. The second filing, dated September 19, 1905, includes both the new logo for the company’s name as well as the two elephants symbol. These became the company’s go-to branding for both its products and promotional materials, and it served them well. Grocers at Kendallville purchased 14,000 pounds of soap from the company in April of 1909, as noted by the Fort Wayne Sentinel, which traveled “in a single shipment over the [city’s] interurban.” That year, the Summit City Soap Works continued its tradition of promotional giveaways. An advertisement in the Dayton Herald offered customers free gifts in exchange for some of their products’ packaging trademarks. They offered girls an embroidery set and boys a “very interesting game” suitable for thirteen people.

Rub-No-More trademark application, September 1905. Image: Google Books.

One incident in 1911 showed how Rub-No-More soap could lead to more than just fun giveaways. A young woman named Bessie Lauer, an employee of the Summit City Soap Works, wrote her name on the inside of a soap bar’s packaging. It made its way out west, where a “wealthy California orange grower” found it and sought out a courtship, perhaps even marriage. She turned down his offer, but the publicity it garnered led to a Hanford, California Sentinel article describing the whole affair. Apparently embarrassed by the incident, Lauer told the Sentinel that “this is the first time she has ever written her name on a soap wrapper, and she fervently states that it will be her last.”

After decades of operation under the Summit City Soap Works moniker, the company formally changed its name in 1912 to the Rub-No-More Company, solidifying the importance of their branded soap to the entire enterprise. (A notification of the name change was published in the January 18, 1912 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily News, but it wasn’t official until April 12, 1912, when articles of incorporation were filed, according to the Indianapolis News. Advertisements in newspapers as early as June of that year indicated the name change). Around this time, Gustave Berghoff, the company’s president, began serving on the board of directors of the German-American National Bank based in Fort Wayne, greatly increasing his stature within the local business community.

Rub-No-More Logo, Trade Mark News. 1911. Image: Google Books.

By 1917, sales of the Rub-No-More Company topped $3,000,000 a year, as referenced in a profile in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette celebrating its 25th anniversary under the ownership of Berghoff. The article noted the expansion of its production facilities, from “the old days [when the plant was] comprised [of] but a few shacks” with “equipment consisting mostly of crude apparatus[es],” to a plant comprising “thousands of square feet.” This machinery was “of the most modern design . . . the value of which totals near a million dollars.” Within two decades, Rub-No-More, the company’s flagship product, became a mainstay product for consumers, with “circulars, wrappers, etc. . . . reproduced 200,000,000 times a year,” bringing “both the institution and the city continually before the minds of millions of people residing in this and foreign countries.”

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, March 22 1918. Image: Hoosier State Chronicles.

An interesting modern parallel, the Rub-No-More Company encouraged sterilizing face masks during the influenza pandemic of 1918. A notice printed in the November 22, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News instructed readers to “sterilize flu masks” by “thoroughly dissolv[ing] two tablespoonsful [sic] of Rub-No-More soap chips in one quart of boiling water” to “carefully wash masks.” As with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, soap companies have used their advertising to encourage people to wear masks and to keep them clean, something the Rub-No-More company did over 100 years ago.

Indianapolis News, November 22, 1918. Image: Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the Rub-No-More Company having a mostly positive reputation, it wasn’t without controversy. In 1918, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Rub-No-More Company was one of several companies charged with violating the federal child labor law. In a grand jury indictment against them, it was alleged that “three children were required to work ten and one-half hours a day” at their plant. Another issue the company faced came from its manufacturing process— one of “obnoxious odors.” The Indianapolis Times wrote in 1923 that the City of Fort Wayne was seeking a “permanent injunction” requiring the Rub-No-More Company to reconfigure their production process to alleviate the harsh smells that bothered the city’s east side residents.  It is unclear what the outcomes of these situations were, but violations of child labor laws and air quality, somewhat new to American industry in 1918, represented some of the lesser angels of industrialization.

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 4, 1917. Image: Newspapers.com.

After 35 years of success at the helm, Gustave Berghoff sold the Rub-No-More Company to Procter & Gamble and retired from the company in 1927. The company’s roughly 140 employees were transferred to other Procter & Gamble plants after a transitional period where Rub-No-More Company’s manufacturing stock was used. The Rub-No-More brand continued for many years under the Procter & Gamble umbrella, with advertisements for the product appearing in newspapers well into the early 1950s. Gustave Berghoff, the company’s former president, died on January 25, 1940 at the age of 76. He is buried in Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne.

The Rub-No-More Company exists in history as something of a Horatio Alger tale. A German immigrant, helped by his family, purchased a failing firm and turned it into one of the most successful soap companies of the early 20th century. Additionally, its innovative approach to marketing, promotions, and branding ensured its dominance in the marketplace. This story is also about how even a simple item, like a watch fob washing up on the beach in California, can lead to an understanding of one of northern Indiana’s industrial giants at the beginning of the American Century.

Overcoming South Bend’s Influenza Outbreak to Enumerate the 1920 Census

This year, the federal government undertook the all-encompassing task of completing the U.S. Census, a project instituted every ten years. The census is a national count of everyone living in the United States, providing policymakers with essential demographic information that they use to map congressional districts and allocate federal funds. However, the COVID-19 pandemic created difficulties for its completion, specifically in counting those who did not complete the census form by mail or online. As the New York Times reported earlier this year:

 Already, a multi-day nationwide count of roughly a half-million homeless people has been put off. Processing of mailed-in census forms has slowed because the bureau shaved its staff at regional centers in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Tucson, Ariz. And social-distancing cuts in the bureau’s call center work force have slowed down responses to people who want to complete the census by phone or need other kinds of help.

2020 Census materials in Detroit. Brittany Greeson, New York Times.

These kinds of obstacles are not new to census-takers. In fact, a similar problem occurred in South Bend during the 1920 Census, where a small, but powerful Influenza epidemic stunted the city’s completion of the census.

In South Bend, the work of the 14th decennial census started on January 3, 1920, with seventy-one initial enumerators (census takers) tasked with counting the city’s population. Initially, weather proved a more formidable foe. “The enumerators were somewhat handicapped owing to the severe weather encountered on the first day,” the South Bend News-Times noted. Despite the weather slowing down progress, enumerators succeeded in getting citizens to cooperate and answer all their questions. Inspector for the local district, attorney Edwin H. Sommerer, anticipated a count of the city population in fifteen days and the rural population in thirty.

South Bend News-Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within a few weeks, this task was complicated by an outbreak of Influenza, a lingering problem possibly stemming from the widespread Spanish Influenza epidemic a year prior. The city downplayed the outbreak’s potential to become another epidemic on January 16, when Dr. Emil G. Freyermuth, secretary of the city’s board of health, reported that no cases had been noted by physicians and that a chance of an epidemic was an “exaggeration,” as recounted in the News-Times. Freyermuth seemed to be contradicted by the South Bend News-Times itself, which published a notice in the January 17 edition that “the ranks of the [paper] carriers are sorely depleted at the present time on account of the mild form of influenza prevalent in the city.”

South Bend News-Times, January 17, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By January 20, the outbreak had worsened, leaving factories in South Bend short on labor as a result. Four were reported dead the next day, including a student at Notre Dame, and the illness reached epidemic proportions at local Army camps. Despite continued assurances about the mildness of this outbreak by Dr. Freyermuth, the situation worsened to such an extent that the Salvation Army volunteered to assist in combating it.

On January 26, the South Bend News-Times officially declared an epidemic, after 1,800 cases were reported around the city (250 at Notre Dame alone) and twenty-two deaths over the prior weekend. Dr. M. V. Ziegler of the State Board of Health confirmed these numbers, but Notre Dame physician, Dr. F. J. Powers, denied the high level of cases, “stating that the majority was afflicted with colds and la-grippe [another name for the flu].” Regardless of the disputes, the city reeled from the disease.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The epidemic devastated census-taking, incapacitating forty-five of the eighty-five-member staff and crippling those still healthy enough to continue. Census district chief Edwin H. Sommerer told the News-Times, “the enumerators working find it difficult to complete their task because of the sickness in the homes.” The News-Times doesn’t mention whether enumerators took any preventative precautions to avoid infection, other than just staying home. By contrast, mail carriers only experienced a loss of five workers during the outbreak, which was attributed to them being more acclimated to the intense winter weather.

By January 27, the epidemic began to subside, with only one death reported on the Monday after the weekend in which twenty-two people died. Employees in factories, stores, and offices also started returning to work. Even though this news was positive, the News-Times encouraged its readers to remain vigilant, noting “This marked decline does not mean, however, that all danger is past . . . the public is warned by the health department to exercise the greatest precaution in avoiding colds.”

South Bend News-Times, January 27, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite delays, South Bend’s census enumeration continued, with some staff returning to duty starting on Wednesday, January 28 and over the subsequent days. By the end of January, the team completed half of the districts, most of which were cities, but still needed to complete the rural populations. On April 9, the News-Times reported that Sommerer and his team finished South Bend’s census, with only one-hundred names not accounted for. The city’s final count was sent to LaPorte for a larger district tabulation and then on to Washington, D.C. for inclusion in the federal count. In all, South Bend’s population increased by 32.2%, from 53,684 in the 1910 Census to 70,983 people in the 1920 Census. As the The city’s population increase “can be credited almost entirely to the industrial development of South Bend,” the News-Times wrote.  Additionally, residents’ land valuation almost doubled, from $26,000,000 in 1910 to $43,000,000 in 1920. Months of bad weather, a flu outbreak, and some uncooperative citizens never stopped Sommerer and his crew of enumerators from obtaining the final figures and providing a demographic portrait of South Bend.

South Bend News-Times, July 28, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

South Bend’s 1920 Census, and the flu outbreak that nearly derailed it, can inform modern census analysis. The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected the completion of the 2020 Census, with the deadline to to be counted extended to October 31. However, if Indiana’s enumerators are as dedicated to their roles as Sommerer’s team was 100 years ago, there is no doubt that an accurate count of our state will be completed.

HoosierKind: Drawing and Piecing Together Community

Photo by Andreanna Moya Photography on Foter.com / CC BY

As you’re likely in your second or third week of social isolation, you’ve probably done everything you can think of to occupy yourself. You’ve exercised at home, binged all your favorite shows, cleaned and dusted, and reread your favorite books. What else is there to do?

Puzzles!—a longtime mainstay of home-bodied folks. Whether it’s crosswords or word searches, tabletop jigsaw puzzles or drawing games, puzzles can be a welcome pastime. These three stories from Hoosier State Chronicles, our freely-accessible digital repository of nearly a million pages of historic newspapers, will challenge your mind and warm your heart. The first item comes to us from nearly 100 years ago, in the August 28, 1920 issue of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram. This puzzle, known as “Pencil Twister,” was printed in the Junior Palladium section of the paper, a four-page insert published on Saturdays.

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, August 28, 1920, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Do you think you can complete the picture? (You can view the answer here.) You would copy the object shown onto a blank piece of paper and then turn it 90-degrees counterclockwise.From there, you would attempt to complete the drawing based on a clue, which for this puzzle is “Can you change Santa into an Apricot Sundae?” I hope that you got it! This drawing puzzle is a bit different than most of your average brain games.

Next up is an inspiring story from the October 29, 1983 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. It centers on the life of Bertie Miller, a retired nurse’s aide and secretary who devoted her golden years to jigsaw puzzles—using only one hand to complete them. Years before, Miller lost her right hand to an amputation following a stroke, but that didn’t stop her. Her passion for puzzles started around that time, when her friend asked her to help finish one. “By having use of only one hand,” Miller shared, “I didn’t think I would be much help—I looked past my handicap and helped her.” After that, she was hooked. Over the next seven years, she completed roughly 200 jigsaw puzzles, many of which she had framed for display in her room at the Central Healthcare Center where she lived. She even won a blue-ribbon award at the Indianapolis Black Expo for one of her puzzles.

Alongside her jigsaw joys, Miller kept herself busy with distributing mail to her fellow residents at the Central Healthcare Center, playing bingo, chatting with other residents who were room bound, and attending church. She was also a grandmother to seven and great grandmother to another seven, all of whom she would regularly visit with. The Recorder called her a “truly remarkable and independent lady.”

Indianapolis Recorder, October 19, 1983, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mary Jane Allen, activity director for the center, remarked on Miller’s love for puzzle craft. “Among Mrs. Miller’s favorite puzzles to work have been The Lord’s Supper, the Changing of the Guards, animals, flowers, antique cars and a large puzzle of kinds of jellybean candies.” Allen also reflected on how this hobby improved Miller’s life for the better. “She has rehabilitated herself with this hobby and is learning to use her good hand,” Allen said. Miller loved sharing her hobby with others; her completed puzzles adorned the walls of the center and were given to fellow residents as gifts. Bertie Miller “hasn’t let her handicap prevent her from living and [bringing] happiness to others,” the Recorder noted. During your time at home, dust off your puzzles and finish one in Bertie’s honor.

Our final story comes from a May 4, 2001 article in the Indianapolis Recorder that also reports on jigsaw puzzles but focuses this time on their educational value. W. Bruce Adams, an entrepreneur who worked as a salesman for iconic game company Parker Brothers, started his own venture creating African American history themed jigsaw puzzles. “I couldn’t believe that 10 years after I left Parker Brothers there were still no puzzles with African-American themed images on them,” he said. This inspired Adams to develop his own line of African American themed puzzles. “I looked all over and couldn’t find any,” he remembered. “I said ‘this is a perfect opportunity for me to start a business, doing something no one else is doing.’”

Indianapolis Recorder, May 4, 2001, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Adams’s passion for culturally-relevant products may have started when he worked as an intern for the trailblazing congresswoman and presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm. Realizing law wasn’t for him during his work with Chisholm, Adams found his calling in sales and worked for Parker Brothers, as well as Gabriel Toys and Bristol-Myers. It was at Parker Brothers that he first discovered there were no African American themed games, so he started developing prototypes in his spare time that he sold at flea markets, yard sales, and trade fairs.

Portraits of African American Inventors, W. B. Adams Puzzles & Games, Amazon.com.

Adams began his own game company around 1998, with his first two puzzles centered around African American history. The first, “Portrait of African American History,” highlighted important figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The puzzle “The Dream, Martin Luther King, Jr.” focused exclusively on the civil rights leader and orator. Later, he created puzzles focusing on Kwanzaa and Kenyan culture. Adams developed these puzzles and others with African American artists, such as Brenda Joysmith, Synthia St. James, Charles Bibbs, and Paul Goodnight. His roster grew to 20 puzzles by 2001.

“Developing a Winner,” W. B. Adams Puzzles & Games, Art by Brenda Joysmith, Amazon.com.

Customers at flea markets and trade shows were thrilled with Adams’s puzzles, citing their educational value. Adams recalled:

When I was doing flea markets, African American parents would always come up to me and ask, ‘Do you have any African-American educational puzzles?’ Puzzles are very educational because they teach eye hand coordination skills, they help your memory, and I noticed that a lot of African Americans bought puzzles.

His success with the company led to retailers like Walmart and Toys “R” Us carrying his products, which sometimes sold out too quickly for his small sales staff to keep up with. In an effort to meet demand, the company used telemarketing and the internet to get the word out about his puzzles.

Kwanzaa Family Celebration 300 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle, W. B. Adams Puzzles & Games, Amazon.com.

Alongside puzzles, Adams developed educational CD-ROM games with Lady Sala Shabazz, a nationally-syndicated radio host and independent children’s book author. He also developed puzzles with food entrepreneur and television personality Wally “Famous” Amos. Adams’s dedication to fun games with a message should encourage you to take advantage of the time you have at home, to perhaps finish a puzzle with a historical or educational theme. If you have kids, bring them in on the fun!

We hope these stories of puzzles, games, and community have helped uplift you. It’s through all of our actions that we can extend our sense of Hoosier kindness to ourselves and others. Now, get to puzzling!

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, http://www.in.gov/history/2689.htm.

[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 Evansville.edu.

* 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 Waynet.org

    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, http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/7194/8101.

[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, https://archive.org/stream/messagespapersre55nobl#page/350/mode/2up.

[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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27790832.

[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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/view/27785234, 163.

[10] George S. Cottman, “The Internal Improvement System of Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 3, no. 3, accessed October 22, 2014, http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/5612/4946, 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.

The Indiana General Assembly (1815-1825): Statehood, Slavery, and Constitution-Drafting

The first Indiana Statehouse in Corydon, used from 1816-1825.
  • World Events

During the early nineteenth century, the end of the Napoleonic Wars shaped the direction of the western world. After Napoleon’s defeat in the Cossacks (Russia) in 1814, the western powers reshaped the international order. To this end, the European powers that defeated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions (Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, and Austria) met in 1814-1815 in Vienna to create a new system of alliances that would keep the peace in Europe for the next 100 years. Called the Congress of Vienna, these meetings built a new international order based on the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, creating a “balance of power” system throughout the region.[1] This framework of negotiations continued to meet annually until 1822, when meetings met more sporadically. The Congress of Vienna was the first attempt by nation states in the modern period to create a system of peace that would be long-lasting, internally strong (which would be problematic due to the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire), and fair.[2]

  • National Events

The “Era of Good Feeling,” embodied by the Presidency of James Monroe (1817-1825), defined the decade. The Democratic-Republicans, a party solidified under President Thomas Jefferson, became the dominant party in the United States. The War of 1812, bitterly fought between the United States and Great Britain, had strained the young republic, especially for a young territory-turned-state like Indiana. As historian Logan Esarey notes, “the first results of the War of 1812 were disastrous. The inroads of the Indians broke up many settlements.”[3] The election of 1820 saw President Monroe reelected to the Presidency with all electoral votes except one. This sweeping mandate reaffirmed the public’s trust in the Democratic-Republicans and Monroe’s vision for the United States.[4]

Yet the era was not without controversy. The hotly debated Missouri Compromise of 1820 created a balance of power between the slave states of the south and the free states of the north. The law called for Missouri’s admittance as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and prohibited slavery from the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.[5] This was a compromise created out of various bills passed by both the House and the Senate who could not agree on whether to admit Missouri as a slave or free state. The law would remain in effect until the Kansas-Nebraska was passed in 1854. The debate about slavery was an instrumental part of Indiana’s own founding, with factions on every side.

  • State Events & Legislative Responses

Indiana officially became a state on December 11, 1816, but the push for statehood traces back to before the War of 1812. Due to battles between British-leaning Native Americans and the United States, the Indiana Territory did not have the 60,000-residents status until after the conflict. Nevertheless, on April 19, 1816, the United States Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed for Indiana to petition for statehood.[6] Delegates met in Corydon in the summer of 1816, and on June 29, they signed the newly-drafted constitution. This new constitution created a General Assembly, comprised of a House of Representatives and a Senate, with members serving one and three years, respectively.[7] The state constitution also authorized the General Assembly to create a primary and secondary public education system, which included Indiana University[8]

Constitutional elm in Corydon, under which constitutional delegates reportedly met during the convention, courtesy of Allen County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

During its first ten years, the General Assembly faced many challenges, but the issue that divided its legislators the most was slavery. Admitted to the union in 1816 as a free state, Indiana nonetheless was politically fragmented on the issue. Indiana’s first Governor, Jonathan Jennings, led a wing of fiercely anti-slavery Democratic-Republicans (the only party of consequence in Indiana at the time). On the other side, the James Noble faction was pro slavery and the William Hendricks faction was neutral on the conflict.[9] To settle these divisions, the General Assembly passed a measure in 1816 that outlawed “man-stealing,” which authorized indentured servitude only if the claimant could substantiate his case in court, otherwise it was considered slavery and illegal under the Indiana Constitution.[10] This ensured a compromise that kept all parties happy but allowed some forms of slavery in Indiana well into the 1830s.[11]

Other pressing matters in the first ten years of Indiana’s statehood included funding, construction of infrastructure, and selecting a new state capital. An Ohio Falls Canal, along the Ohio River, was proposed with financial allotments enacted by the General Assembly in 1818. However, by 1825, the canal project collapsed; poor management of its finances and Kentucky’s finished Ohio River Canal destroyed any chances of Ohio Falls Canal’s completion.[12] Yet, these setbacks only served as a catalyst for future internal improvements. In 1820 and 1823, the General Assembly passed roadway legislation that, “provided for twenty-five roads along definite routes through various counties, including five that were to be routed to the site of the new seat of government [Indianapolis].”[13] Costing over $100,000, these new roadway systems began the layout of Indiana’s infrastructure.

Courtesy of the Indiana State Library, Indiana Division, accessed The Indiana Historian.

While Corydon served the state well as its first capital, northern migration facilitated the need for a more centralized seat of government by 1820. Named “Indianapolis” by state Representative Jeremiah Sullivan, the new state capital was surveyed by Alexander Ralston and Elias P. Fordham. Ralston, a surveyor and city planner who had worked in Washington, D.C., surveyed plats for Indianapolis in a similar design to the nation’s capital. In 1822, the General Assembly approved a law authorizing plat sales to facilitate the transfer of government and the construction of a Marion County Courthouse. In the 9th session of the General Assembly in 1824, Indianapolis was made the legal capital of the State of Indiana and chose Samuel Merrill, the State Treasurer, to oversee the arduous task of moving the government. It took eleven days to trek the 125 miles to the new capital, but Merrill and the Indiana General Assembly had finally arrived at their permanent home.[14]

  • Notable Legislators
Thomas Hendricks, Governors’ Portrait, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.
  • Thomas Hendricks was a State Representative and State Senator from 1823-1831 and 1831-1834, respectively. He represented Decatur, Henry, Rush, and Shelby Counties. Wearing many hats, Hendricks served as a school superintendent, surveyor for Decatur County, and a Colonel of the Indiana militia in 1822. He was the first in the long and illustrious Hendricks family line to be in Indiana public service. His brother, John Hendricks, also served in the Indiana General Assembly and his nephew Thomas A. Hendricks later became the twenty-first Vice President of the United States.[15] 

 

  • Justice Isaac Blackford, courtesy of Courts in the Classroom.

    Isaac Newton Blackford was the first Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, serving in the role from 1816-1817. Born in New Jersey and a graduate of Princeton, Blackford began his life in the Hoosier state as the Washington County Recorder. After a stint in the Indiana House of Representatives as its first Speaker, he went on to become an Indiana Supreme Court Justice, a role he filled until 1853. While never elected to higher office, he was appointed the United States Court of Claims in 1853, adjudicating cases until his death in 1859. Blackford is notable for his deep involvement in both the legislative and judicial branches of Indiana government, a role he pioneered and would have many follow in his footsteps.[16] 

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

  • Session Dates and Locations, Number of Legislators, Number of Constituents[17]
    • 1st General Assembly: November 4, 1816-January 3, 1817. 10 Senators and 30 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2130 constituents per Representative.
    • 2nd General Assembly: December 1, 1817-January 29, 1818. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,203 constituents per Representative.
    • 3rd General Assembly: December 7, 1818-January 2, 1819. 10 Senators and 28 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,282 constituents per Representative.
    • 4th General Assembly: December 6, 1819-January 22, 1820. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,203 constituents per Representative.
    • 5th General Assembly: November 27, 1820-January 9, 1821. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 14,171 constituents per Senator and 5,075 constituents per Representative.
    • 6th General Assembly: November 19, 1821-January 3, 1822. 16 Senators and 44 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,345 constituents per Representative.
    • 7th General Assembly: December 2, 1822-January 11, 1823. 16 Senators and 44 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,345 constituents per Representative.
    • 8th General Assembly: December 1, 1823-January 31, 1824. 16 Senators and 46 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,200 constituents per Representative.
    • 9th General Assembly: January 10, 1825-February 12, 1825. 17 Senators and 46 Representatives. Roughly 8658 constituents per Senator and 3,200 constituents per Representative.
    • The 1st-8th General Assemblies met in Corydon, IN and the 9th was the first General Assembly that met in the new capital of Indianapolis.

[1] Stella Ghervas, “The Congress of Vienna: A Peace for the Strong.” History Today, last modified 2014, accessed September 11, 2014, http://www.historytoday.com/stella-ghervas/congress-vienna-peace-strong.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Logan Esarey, History of Indiana (Bloomington: Hoosier Heritage Press, 1969), 209.

[4] For an overview of this period, see “American Political History: “Era of Good Feeling.” Eagleton Institute of Politics: Rutgers University, last modified 2014, accessed September 4, 2014, http://www.eagleton.rutgers.edu/research/

americanhistory/ap_goodfeeling.php.

[5] “Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 1st Session, Pages 1587 & 1588 of 2628.” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875: Library of Congress, last modified July 30, 2010, accessed September 4, 2014, http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/ampage?collId=llac&fileName=036/llac036.db&recNum=155.

[6] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 50.

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jacob Piatt Dunn , Indiana and Indianans. (New York and Chicago: American Historical Society, 1919), 334

[10] Ibid, 341.

[11] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way, 54.

[12] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 24.

[13] Ibid, 26, f.117.

[14] Ibid, 14-16.

[15] 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), 178.

[16] Minde C., Richard Humphrey, and Bruce Kleinschmidt, “Biographical Sketches of Indiana Supreme Court Justices,” Indiana Law Review 30, no. 1 (1997): 333.

[17] This data is compiled from two major sources: 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 and James H. Madison, The Indiana Way, 50, 59, 325.

Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Literary History Blog.
Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and American Literary Blog.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.

He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”

General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.

An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.
An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.

On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:

[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.

General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”

The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mail and the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.

Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story.  However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, lawyer and future Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman (incorrectly transcribed as Joseph Vardaman), asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel.  Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”

Ingersoll's letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in an 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Ingersoll’s letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in a 1921 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place.  In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.”  This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.

While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.

The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.