From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for From Redlining to Better Homes

[Birds Chirping, Neighborhood Sounds]

Beckley: Dr. Bernard Vagner and his wife Audrey moved to South Bend, Indiana in January, 1949. The young couple had decided to lease some rooms in a house while familiarizing themselves with their new city. But by that summer, it was time to start looking for a place of their own. After being shown several properties that left much to be desired, they decided that perhaps building their own home would be a better option. And they were in luck – there were two lots available on the corner of Campeau Street in a nice neighborhood. According to the Vagner’s attorney, the landowner was very anxious to sell. And she must have been for when the couple arrived to look at the land, she showed up with the deeds in-hand, apparently ready to make a deal that very day.

That is, until she saw the couple. As soon as she laid eyes on the pair, she started making excuses – “the neighbors might not like it.” “My husband wouldn’t approve.” And so on. What she hadn’t realized until that moment was that the Vagner’s were African American. And in the US in 1949, that meant that many neighborhoods were closed to them, whether they had the money to buy a home there or not.

The Vagner’s weren’t able to purchase a home that year. In fact, it took them until June of 1955 to find a house – that’s nearly 6 years of searching…just to find someone willing to sell them property. At this same time, similar experiences drove 22 families also in South Bend, to come together to confront this racist exclusion and build a community for themselves – a community called Better Homes of South Bend. In this episode, we’ll explain and examine the role redlining has played in our state’s history and tell the story of Better Homes of South Bend, which was created for the precise purpose of defeating redlining.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History

Newsreel: I was just one of the New Deal’s idealistic programs that changed the face of the nation.

Beckley: On August 1, 1933 seventeen thousand people stood in line in front of the newly opened Home Owners Loan Corporation office in Chicago. The Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, was a newly formed government-sponsored organization – part the New Deal – formed to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis in America. To do this, HOLC was offering long-term, low interest rate home mortgage loans for both refinancing existing mortgages and financing new home purchases.

Newsreel: Home ownership is the basis of a happy, contented family life. And now, through the use of the national housing act ensured mortgage, it’s brought within the reach of all citizens on a monthly payment plan no greater than rent.

Beckley: This meant that many Americans, for the first time in their lives, had the opportunity to own their own home, rather than renting. Many white Americans, that is.


Beckley: In the 3 decades after the establishment of HOLC, just 2 percent of all loans went to non-white families. Various methods were employed to exclude minorities from receiving home loans, but among the most effective and infamous were the Residential Security Maps. These maps, kept secret and only discovered by historians in the 1980s, are considered the basis for the widespread, systematic denial of housing loans for Black Americans, known as redlining, a term referring to officials drawing red lines around specific neighborhoods.

HOLC began research for the maps in the mid-1930s. Working with local realtors and banks, the organization painstakingly divided 239 American cities, including what were then the 7 largest cities in Indiana – Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary, Muncie, Terre Haute, Evansville, and South Bend –  into neighborhoods, assigning each neighborhood a grade of “A” through “D.” “A” being what they considered to be the best, and “D” the worst – kind of like school. Each grade corresponded with a color on the security map – green for “A,” blue for “B,” yellow for “C,” and red for “D.”

Many features of a neighborhood were considered when assigning these grades. Building type and age, proximity to shopping and business districts, sales histories…and “infiltration of inharmonious racial groups.” The Underwriting Manual, which served as a comprehensive guide to those deciding who was to receive HOLC loans stated that:

Voice actor reading from HOLC handbook:  “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in [home] values.”

Beckley: If the valuator judged an area to even be in danger of “infiltration,” they were instructed to downgrade the rating of the whole neighborhood. And those ratings were incredibly important. White families seeking a mortgage in a green or blue area were nearly always approved. In yellow areas, the chances of approval dropped dramatically. And if were looking to purchase a property in a red area, their chances were slim to none. For Black families, the possibility of obtaining a mortgage in any area was close to zero.

If you’re Black, you can only live in specific all black neighborhoods. Banks won’t approve mortgages for any homes in that area due to redlining. But you can’t get a loan for a house in other neighborhoods because you’re Black. Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s books Black Wealth / White Wealth on this topic:

Voice Actor:  “African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”

Beckley: Making it even more difficult for minority families to purchase property, many neighborhoods had what were called racially restrictive covenants. These covenants were written into the deed for the property, and they could be very specific about who could and could not purchase the home in the future.

Voice Actor: “No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall reside on any of said described premises excepting that a domestic servant in the actual employ of an occupant may reside in the home of his master.”

“Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.”

Beckley:  Both of those are examples of real covenants in deeds from the 1930s and 40s in Seattle, Washington. Similar covenants existed across America.


Beckley: Together, redlining and racially restrictive covenants all but excluded minority families from participating in the American dream. The dream owning a home that could be passed down through the generations. This has had long term effects – access to home mortgage loans is an underpinning of wealth building in America, meaning that these practices hindered the upward mobility of all Black Americans. In fact, Mapping Inequality states that:

Voice Actor:  “More than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality.”

Beckley: In the early 1950s in South Bend, Indiana, 23 families challenged this inequality with bravery and ingenuity.

Most of South Bend’s African American population had arrived during the Great Migration, a period from around 1916 to 1970 when many Black Americans moved from the rural south to northern cities to fill the need for industrial workers during the first and second world wars.

Newsreel: America is many things to many people.

Beckley: Before this time, very few Black families lived in South Bend.

Newsreel: It’s all races, creeds, and religions.

Beckley: Those few families of color who did live in the city lived alongside their white neighbors, without much segregation.

Newsreel: Freedom to own property.

Beckley: As the black population began to rise, though, this changed dramatically.

By the time the families we’ll be following for this episode were living and working in South Bend, Jim Crowism, a term used to describe the racist attitudes, policies and laws from the late 1800s to the 1960s, was a strong force in cities throughout America, including South Bend. In Better Homes of South Bend, author Gabrielle Robinson writes of the Black citizens of her city:

Voice actor reading from Better Homes of South Bend: “They met Jim Crow at every step; whether they were at work… or at home…whether they were shopping and served only after white customers had been helped or could enter city hotels and restaurants only as bellboys and waiters.”

Beckley: Decades of redlining had forced the majority of South Bend’s Black population into rentals in the area surrounding the Studebaker plant, which was also one of the main employers of African Americans in South Bend. In two developments just one block from the immense, smoking factory – Maggie’s Court and Horse’s Alley – 54 families were crowded together in 44 small rental houses.


Beckley: Those who didn’t live in that most densely populated areas often rented nearby federal defense homes.

These homes had been built to accommodate the rapidly expanding African American population during World War II and were prefabricated homes supplied, as their name suggests, by the federal government. These were meant to be temporary structures, constructed quickly and to be torn down after the war. That had never happened due to the continued lack of housing for African Americans in South Bend and the refusal of white residents to allow desegregation.


Beckley: Even if white residents were willing to sell their homes to a Black family, they would have been hard pressed to find a realtor willing to help navigate the process. Up until 1950, the official code of ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers stated,

Voice actor reading from Code of Ethics: “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence would clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.”

Beckley: After 1950, this portion of the code was amended to remove “race or nationality,” but that didn’t lead to any change in their practices – redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and general racism worked together to keep the Black families of South Bend from owning land in large swaths of the city.

It was in this context that several families gathered after church on Sunday, May 21, 1950 to take matters into their own hands. Their plan was to form a housing cooperative. Through this co-op, which they named Better Homes of South Bend, the families hoped to achieve what few had done before – own their own homes, outside of the industrial slums they had been relegated to for their whole lives. The idea was for them to pool their money and resources to purchase several undeveloped lots. The co-op would obtain a mortgage loan to start the construction and then each individual family would, with the co-ops help, obtain their own mortgage to finish construction.

By and large, the people of Better Homes were just like the vast majority of the Black residents in South Bend. Many had moved to the north seeking employment and better opportunities for their families. Almost all of the men worked at the Studebaker plant in one position or another. And they had all struggled to find adequate housing for their families.

Now, I’m going to get into the actual nuts and bolts of how the Better Homes of South Bend hoped to achieve their goals – bear with me, I promise the payoff is worth it.


Beckley: Like any new organization, the members of Better Homes of South Bend started by electing officers, hiring a lawyer, and drawing up incorporation papers. Their lawyer, noted African American civil rights advocate J. Chester Allen, advised the group that forming a corporation gave them the best chance of success. So, that’s what they planned to do. He also estimated that the group would need at least $2,000 for startup money. This money came from the founding families themselves, who would pay an initial amount of $100 to secure their spot and another $300 payment as soon as they were able to. Considering one Studebaker worker reported his income as $72 per week, these sums were nothing to be scoffed at.

After the initial meeting, things moved quickly for a time. Less than a month later, they were able to successfully place an option on 26 undeveloped lots on North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb, the youngest member of the Better Homes group, recalls the first time he saw the Elmer Street site over 60 years later. He and a friend took a bus to the area and, after getting lost, he finally set eyes on the empty street that would become his neighborhood. Little did he know that acquiring the land would be the easiest part of the process.

Every step after that was slowed by bureaucratic red tape, discriminatory practices, and the normal problems that can creep up when taking on a project of this size.

Since these were totally undeveloped lots, one of the first hurdles was getting the city to install sewage and water lines, a task that took years to complete. The next, more obvious task was to hire a contractor, but the local contracting companies were notorious for using sub-par materials for homes being built for African Americans. When they finally found what they thought was a suitable contractor, he delayed and made excuses and changed prices so often that it was hard to attribute it just to bad business practices. And later, once the families moved in, the discrimination continued. One Better Homes resident recalled that the local little league changed the borders of the district to stop just a few blocks before Elmer Street, apparently to exclude Black children.

However, there were reasons for celebration alongside the frustrations. Milestones that were scattered throughout that same time included divvying up the lots, hiring contractors, and obtaining mortgages. That last one was especially important since local banks were well known for denying black families mortgages, especially in non-black neighborhoods. Leroy Cobb recalled the meeting with the bank executives:

Voice actor: “Here I am, just a bit over twenty years old, sitting in one of those fancy board rooms and facing all these white men in their suits.”

Beckley: DeHart Hubbard was an African American man and the race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority. Leroy Cobbs recalled Hubbard helping the group navigate the mortgage process, saying:

“What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. That inspired me.”

Beckley: And really, the whole experience must have been inspiring. The process, though long and sometimes demoralizing, was ultimately successful.


Beckley: All told, 22 homes were built through the Better Homes of South Bend Co-op. The first family was able to move into their home sometime in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1954 that all Better Homes members were listed in their Elmer Street residences in city directories.

[Music. Bird song]

Beckley: Just think about what that meant to those families. They were able to obtain what had seemed unobtainable – a piece of the American dream. The families celebrated their accomplishments with a community picnic in the summer of 1954, and let me tell you, looking at the group photo from that picnic is something special. A group of well dressed, smiling people, kids fidgeting, eyes squinted in the bright light of a beautiful summer afternoon, posing with the roofs of the homes they had worked so long to secure visible in the background. It’s beautiful. And it’s lasting.

That picnic wasn’t the only community celebration in the years to come. Picnics were held every summer. There were neighborhood parades, where a King and Queen were crowned. The children grew up together – they were the only African American students to attend the nearby Marquette Elementary School, just as their families were the only African American families to live in that area of the city. The success of Better Homes went beyond the immediate reality of living in a new neighborhood though.

Home ownership is a foundation of generational wealth and security in America. The Better Homes families built more than just houses in that empty space – they built a community and, even more than that, they built a legacy. When Better Homes of South Bend author Gabrielle Robinson spoke to the children of the members of the organization, she discovered the true importance of the project. Beyond breaking color barriers or defying racism, the members created a safe, happy place for their children to grow up and those children reflected fondly on their childhoods on Elmer Street.

Voice actor: “It was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in.”

“We had hedges between our homes, and flowers in the yard. On Saturdays you could hear the lawnmowers in the yards.”

“We were proud of where we lived.”

“You couldn’t get away with anything…On Elmer Street, I had many dads.”

Beckley: These children went on to become lawyers, teachers, principals, nurses, and more. At a time when 70-75% of African Americans in the nation graduated high school, 100% of the Better Homes children graduated and 13 went on to graduate from college. And today, some of them can still be found right there on Elmer street, living in the same one story homes with flowers in the yards and hedges on the fence line that their parents built all those years ago.

The Better Homes of South Bend Co-op was a success. It afforded those families the opportunity to live in a nice area. The children of Better Homes members integrated their schools and went on to successful professional careers. And some other families were even able to move into the same area after the Better Homes blazed the path for them. Unfortunately, this success did not spread far from those few blocks on Elmer Street.

Redlining and other exclusionary practices have left a lasting effect on South Bend. Today, 83% of families living in areas that received “D” ratings on the 1937 Security Maps fall in the low to moderate income bracket while 95% of families living in areas that received “A” ratings earn mid to upper incomes. Simply put, neighborhoods that were redlined in 1937 are economically depressed today. The same holds true for the vast majority of cities where Security Maps were developed.

In those instances where a formerly “D” rated area now contains a high number of mid to upper income earners, it is by and large the result of gentrification, which comes with its own set of problems. When an area is gentrified, the people who have lived in the area for generations – often minorities – are forced out by inflated property taxes and higher living costs. This leads to the question posed by National Community Reinvestment Coalition researcher Bruce Mitchell:

Voice actor:  “Is Gentrification promoting sustainable desegregation? Or is it just a movement towards increased segregation in the next census period?”

Beckley: If gentrification is a movement towards increased segregation, it’s likely join the likes of slavery and redlining in history books as the basis for widespread wealth building for white Americans and widespread inequality for Black Americans.

However, redlining is effecting our communities in more direct ways than its relationship with gentrification. In fact, just this year, in June of 2019, First Merchants, an Indiana based bank, settled a redlining lawsuit brought against them by the Department of Justice. Although it settled out of court, the case was strong and made it more evident than ever that redlining is more than just a footnote in history – it’s an ongoing injustice in American cities.

[Theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. My main secondary source for the information on Better Homes of South Bend in this episode came from Gabrielle Robinson’s Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. We’d like to thank Brenna young, Carrie Reiburg, Alleah Varnett of Shortridge High School, Sam Smith of Butler University, and Justin Clark of the Indiana Historical Bureau for lending their voices to the podcast. Find us on twitter and Facebook as the Indiana Historical Bureau. And please, take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. As always, thanks for listening.

Redlining Show Notes

Jackson, Kenneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lipsitz, George, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Gabrielle, Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage, Charleson: The History Press, 2015.

Tindall, George and David Shi, America: A Narrative History, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Under Title II of the National Housing Act, Washington D.C.: Federal Housing Administration, 1936 accessed Hathai Trust:


                “Thousands Ask U.S. Home Loans on First Day,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1933, p.9.


                Mitchell, Bruce and Juan Franco, HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 2018, Accessed:

Welsh, Nancy, “Racially Restrictive Covenants in the United States: A Call to Action,” Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 2018, Accessed:


                Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America:

                Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions Across King County, “The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project:”

“T-RACES: a Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces”
R. Marciano, D. Goldberg, C. Hou:


The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Better Homes of South Bend” Historical marker file.


Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White, Hamilton Heights, and Tony Cook’s Educational Crusade

Ryan in the hallway of Hamilton Heights High School, 1987, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

In the early years of the AIDS crisis, when fear and misunderstanding accompanied any mention of the disease, schools across the nation faced a decision: whether to allow students diagnosed with AIDS to attend classes. In October 1985, a New York school district barred children from attending classes after officials learned that their mothers’ boyfriends had been diagnosed with the disease. When a different New York district admitted a student with AIDS around that same time, attendance dropped by 25%, despite the fact that the specific school the child was attending was kept confidential. In Swansea, Massachusetts, school officials decided to “do the right thing” by admitting a teenager living with AIDS—only two families decided to keep their children from school after the decision. A year earlier, in late 1984, a Dade County, Florida school admitted triplets who had been diagnosed with AIDS, but kept the siblings isolated from the rest of the students.

The (Elwood) Call-Leader, Oct. 04, 1985, 1.
Ryan White’s physician listens to his lungs while his mother, Jeanne White, looks on, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

While new controversies sprung up around the nation, one school in Central Indiana shot to the forefront of the debate in the summer of 1985. Ryan White, a 7th grade student in Howard County, was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984 after contracting the disease from a contaminated hemophilia treatment. For several months, he was too ill to return to school, but in the spring of 1985 he began voicing his desire to return to his normal life by resuming classes at Western Middle School. When his mother met with school officials to talk about this possibility, she was met with resistance. Concerns about the health of other students, and that of Ryan himself, whose immune system had been ravaged by his illness, gave officials pause. In one of the earliest news articles about the issue, Western School Superintendent J.O. Smith asked:

You tell me. What would you do? . . . I don’t know. We’ve asked the State Board of Health. We’re expecting something from them. But nobody has anything to go by. Everybody wanted to know what they’re doing in other places. But we don’t have any precedent for this.

These two headlines ran within one day of each other in October 1984. Top: York Daily Record, October 11, 1984, 23. Bottom: San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 1984, 15.

He was right. While a few schools had faced similar situations, the issues surrounding a child with AIDS attending school, namely, the risk this posed to other students, were far from settled. At this time, new and conflicting information came out at a dizzying pace. Most reports held that AIDS was not transmissible through casual contact, but others implied that you couldn’t rule out the possibility of it being passed through saliva, which would have made it a much bigger threat. With so much information—and misinformation—in the news cycle, the desire to hear from health authorities on the topic was understandable.

Three months later, the Board of Health released a document containing detailed guidelines for children with AIDS attending school:

AIDS/ARC children should be allowed to attend school as long as they behave acceptably . . . and have no uncoverable sores or skin eruptions. Routine and standard procedures should be used to clean up after a child has an accident or injury at school.

Despite this recommendation, Western School Corporation officials continued to deny Ryan admittance to class. Instead, they set up a remote learning system. From the confines of his bedroom, Ryan dialed in to his classes via telephone and listened to his teachers lecture. He missed out on visual aids, class participation, and sometimes the lectures themselves, as the line was often garbled or disconnected.

Ryan participating in the Western School Corporation’s remote learning system from his home, courtesy of Getty Images.

A November ruling, this time by the Department of Education, confirmed the Board of Health’s assertion that Ryan should be admitted to class:

The child is to be admitted to the regular classrooms of the school at such times as the child’s health allows in accordance with the Indiana State Board of Health guidelines.

Ryan returned to school for one day before the school filed an appeal and he was once again removed from class. A series of rulings, appeals, and other legal filings followed, ultimately ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to hear further arguments and Ryan finally got what he and his family had fought so hard for—returning to classes for good. However, upon his August 25, 1986 return, Ryan faced intense discrimination from classmates and other community members. Addressing the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1988, Ryan recalled some of the more poignant moments from his time in Kokomo:

Some restaurants threw away my dishes, my school locker was vandalized inside and folders were marked ‘fag’ and other obscenities. I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.

Because of these negative hometown experiences and his desire to evade oppressive media coverage, Ryan asked his mother if they could move out of Howard County. When the family decided to settle in Cicero, they couldn’t have known how drastically different their lives were about to become.

Ryan poses with students from Hamilton Heights Middle School, along with principle Tony Cook (right), courtesy of the Hamilton County Times.

Tony Cook, who was the Hamilton Heights High School principal in the 1980s and is now a State Representative, heard through informal channels that Ryan’s family was moving into his school district in April 1987. The degree of media coverage surrounding Ryan’s battle to attend classes meant that Cook was well aware that his community’s reaction to the White family’s arrival would be heavily scrutinized. Thus, he set out on an AIDS educational crusade the likes of which had not been seen before.

With the backing of his superintendent and school board, Cook quickly made the decision that not only would Ryan be admitted to the school, but there would be no restrictions placed on what Ryan was able to do in school (while in class in Western Middle School, he was not able to attend gym, used a separate restroom, and ate off of disposable trays with plastic utensils.) After gathering AIDS-related materials from the Indiana State Board of Health, the Center for Disease Control, major newspapers, and scientific journals, Tony Cook turned what was supposed to be his summer break into a months-long educational campaign.

Throughout the coming months, Cook spoke about AIDS at Kiwanis groups, Rotary Clubs, churches, and to any group that asked. He sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables throughout the community, personally addressing the concerns of fellow citizens. The school developed a collection of AIDS education materials that could be checked out by students. Tony contacted members of the student government to ask them to act as student ambassadors, advocating on Ryan’s behalf with their fellow students and the media. The school staff went through additional training to prepare them for the possibility of a blood or other biohazard spill. By the time the school year came around, Cicero, Arcadia, and the surrounding area had some of the best informed populations when it came to AIDS.

The first few days of the 1987-1988 school year at Hamilton Heights High School were peppered with convocations in which Cook addressed each grade level to assuage any remaining concerns over sharing classrooms and hallways with Ryan. Students were encouraged to ask questions and support was provided for any feeling uncomfortable with the situation. Administration also offered to change class schedules to avoid conflict.

Ryan with classmates at Hamilton Heights High School, courtesy of

On Ryan’s first day of class, which was a week after school started, the campaign seemed to have been successful. As the press surrounded him on his way out, he smiled and said, “It went really great—really. Everybody was real nice and friendly.” Later, when speaking in front of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic, Ryan attributed his positive experiences at Hamilton Heights directly to the education campaign:

I am a normal, happy teenager again . . . I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves, and believed in me . . . Hamilton Heights High School is proof that AIDS education in schools works.

When reflecting on the experience in a recent interview, Representative Cook spoke to the power of education to overcome even the most intense fear, “Yes, there were some folks that were uneasy and nervous, but we did see education overcome. And we saw a community that . . . trusted us.” One obstacle Ryan and the school faced was the sheer amount of publicity surrounding his move to Hamilton County. Hamilton Heights High School was an open campus–students traveled between three different buildings throughout the day–which would have made having members of the media on campus both distracting and potentially dangerous. But restricting access all together also wasn’t possible, as Ryan was a nationally-known figure by this time. The compromise was to have weekly press conferences during which Ryan, student ambassadors, and faculty could answer questions and update the press about the goings-on at the school, a practice that persisted throughout Ryan’s first full semester at Hamilton Heights.

Ryan in April 1988, courtesy of Time Magazine.

After that first semester, the media began to lose interest in the story as it became more and more apparent that a mass walk-out or other dramatic event would not take place. The first time Tony Cook met Ryan, Cook asked why Ryan wanted so badly to attend school. During our interview with Representative Cook, he recalled that the fifteen-year-old Ryan, who by that time had been in the middle of a media storm for nearly two years, replied “’I just want to be a normal kid . . . I may die. So, for me, it’s important that I try to experience the high school experience as well as I can.” At Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan was able to do just that.

In the years following Ryan’s acceptance into Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan, Tony Cook, and others who had been involved in the educational program traveled around the country advocating for increased AIDS education. By August 1988, just one year after Ryan’s first day at Hamilton Heights, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis began developing an exhibit centering on the issue:

While Ryan White zips around the country speaking out for AIDS education, the students of Hamilton Heights High School are telling children visiting The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis what it was like accepting Ryan into school . . . ‘I think everyone was uneasy at first,’ said one student on the videotape about Ryan’s coming to the school. ‘Education eased a lot of people’s minds,’ said another student.

Sixth grade students listen to Heather Stephenson, a high school friend of Ryan, about bullying in Ryan’s room at the Power of Children exhibit, courtesy of the Washington Times.

Ryan White died on April 15, 1990 after being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children with a respiratory tract infection. In 2001, Ryan’s mother, Jeanne, donated the contents of his bedroom to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where it has been painstakingly recreated as part of the “Power of Children” exhibit.  The museum also houses thousands of letters written to Ryan and his family throughout his illness. You can read the letters and even help transcribe them here.

Blue Skies, Pink Slips: The Cold War in Indiana

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Blue Skies, Pink Slips

Newsreel: Let us face without panic the reality of our times. The fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival by understanding the weapon that threatens us.

[Bomb exploding]

Beckley: During the Cold War, Hoosiers dealt with the stress of living under the constant threat of impending nuclear war in a variety of ways. Some joined their local civilian defense board. Others planned and participated in extensive evacuation drills. Still others allowed their children to have their blood type tattooed on their body to facilitate blood transfusion. And still others simply looked for someone to blame. On this episode, we’ll be sharing two stories illustrating how different Indiana communities reacted to the fear and misunderstanding of the Cold War era in America.

[Duck and cover music playing]

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

Near the end of, and directly after, World War II, American views of the Soviet Union began to shift dramatically. During the war, Americans pointed to similarities between themselves and one of their strongest allies. After the war, they drew comparisons between Soviet ideology and that of Nazi Germany. During the war, we were working collaboratively. After the war, the U.S. refused to share atomic research, leading to an arms race.

At the onset of the arms race, Americans retained a sense of security in the knowledge that the U.S. held an ace in the hole – the Atomic Bomb. It was thought that the Soviet Union was years away from developing atomic technology. But in September 1949, this illusion of security was shattered when President Truman announced to a stunned nation,

Voice actor reading quote from Truman:  I believe the American people, to the fullest extent consistent with national security, are entitled to be informed of all developments in the field of atomic energy. This is my reason for making public the following information. We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.

Historic news audio: President Truman’s dramatic announcement that Russia has the atomic secret caused state departments all over the world to stir uneasily.

Beckley: With that revelation, and fearing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki arriving on our shores, the United States Air Force decided to re-launch a program first established before the American entry into World War II. Then, it was known as the Aircraft Warning Service but for its Cold War operations, it was renamed the Ground Observer Corps, or GOC. The objective of the GOC was to work in conjunction with the existing radar system to guard the United States from a Soviet air attack.

[Sound of bomb dropping]

Beckley: Essentially, the GOC was a network of civilian volunteers strategically placed across the northern 2/3 of the country to identify incoming enemy aircraft in the event of an aerial attack Volunteers observed from rooftops or watch towers constructed in any location with an unobstructed view of the sky. And participants came from all backgrounds. There were monks and prisoners, school children and centenarians, oil executives and housewives – all doing their part to keep their neighbors and loved ones safe.

Historic Newsreel: Just as important as all of these is the vast army of civilian observers. People from all walks of life – thousands of them – watching, vigilant, 24 hours a day.

Beckley: From atop their towers, volunteers would scan the sky for suspicious air craft. When a potential threat was spotted, they telephoned a filter station, where volunteers worked alongside Air Force personnel to review each report. If the station confirmed that threat, the Air Defense Direction Center was immediately contacted and interceptor jets would be deployed to shoot down the enemy plane.

Newsreel fades in: …accordingly sending them up at the strategic moment to intercept the oncoming bombers.

Beckley: In early 1950, Indiana emerged as a leader in organizing their GOC. It was thought that the heavily industrialized northern region of the state made us particularly vulnerable as a target, an assumption which spurred government officials and citizens to act. Governor Henry Schricker led the organizational efforts and advised officers from nearby states in forming their own programs.

The need for such a system as the GOC was highlighted on March 16, 1950 when multiple B-26 Bombers conducted a mock air raid over Indiana. They went “completely undetected” by the states only warning facility, located at Fort Harrison in Indianapolis. The radar of the time was unable to detect low flying aircraft – and that is where the GOC would step in. In the wake of the mock attack, Civil Defense directors were named in 51 of Indiana’s 92 counties, Ground Observer Corps towers began to spring up across the northern 2/3 of the state, and filter centers were established in Terre Haute and South Bend.

Newsreel: In each of these, a skeleton crew remains on crew 24 hours a day.

Beckley: The exact number of GOC volunteers throughout the duration of the program is unknown but it can be estimated to have been in the thousands.

At first, volunteers were essentially on stand-by to be called to their posts in the event of an attack. But after Soviet backed North Korea invaded US supported South Korea on June 25, 1950, fear of Soviet aggression rose, prompting the United States Air Force to implement “Operation Skywatch.” Skywatch moved GOC operations from an as-needed bases to a 24 hour per day enterprise. These volunteers were doing more than just scanning the skies for enemy aircraft – in fact, the United States Air Force itself admitted that, at best, GOC activity and Air Force intercepts could destroy only 30% of enemy aircraft. So, why was the United States Government supporting a program that it knew would only work a third of the time? In large part, it was the promotion of American Values.

The volunteer-style of civil defense used by the Ground Observer Corps was seen as the antithesis of communist principles. In America, hundreds of thousands of civilians were volunteering to watch the skies for enemy aircraft, while the Soviet Union had to force their citizens into observation roles- or at least that’s how the US government framed the mandatory observation in the Soviet Union. American communities were coming together to build and man watchtowers and the very act of willingly working together towards a common goal was thought to be a deterrent to the Soviets.

Historic audio clip: I found out that a bunch of guys can do anything if they work together. That’s the way democracy works and that’s why democracy works.

Beckley: As the Korean War ended, this alternate utility of the GOC began to move from being a secondary motive to the primary – historian Nicole Poletika sums it up saying,

Voice actor reading from article: “Officials increasingly realized the program’s utility as a vehicle to impress upon citizens the objectives of the Cold War, the Soviet communist threat, and traditional American values of volunteerism and individualism.”

Beckley: As that quote eludes to, volunteers were encouraged to educate themselves and their fellow citizens about the “Soviet threat.” One United State Air Force officer overseeing the GOC argued for the continuation of the program even after advances in ground radar had made the GOC all but obsolete, saying:

Voice actor reading: “No other group is better equipped and positioned at the community level to take an active hand in the enlightening of all citizens on the dangers confronting this nation in the atomic age.”

Beckley: A last significant component of the importance of the Ground Observer Corps in the Cold War period is the simple fact that it was something for people to do to feel as though they were doing something – anything – to protect their homes and their families.

Newsreel: …that the preparation that we are making new will be the very thing that will prevent our being harmed at all and that, I say, is worth the time and energy of every man, woman, and child.

Beckley: Families like the Haans, of Cairo in Tippecanoe County, worked long days in the fields and yet still volunteered to man the tower throughout the night, almost as an act of defiance in the face of a seemingly overwhelming enemy. The simple act of sitting in a tower, scanning the night sky, knowing that other Hoosiers were doing the same, must have provided them with some sense of security during a time of widespread fear and anxiety.

In direct contrast to the democratic, collaborative effort of the Ground Observer Corps of Cold War America stood the aggressive and at times combative tactics employed by various levels of leadership throughout the Red Scare.

Historic audio: [gavel] Order please. This committee, under its mandate from the House of Representatives, has the responsibility of exposing and spotlighting subversive elements wherever they may exist.

Beckley: Often, when we think of McCarthysim and blacklisting, our minds leap to the Hollywood 10 and perhaps loyalty oaths. But another group widely targeted during this time were academics at universities across the nation. One early instance of this occurred in southern Indiana at Evansville College, now the University of Evansville.

Yale University graduate George Parker was brought onto the college staff in 1946 to teach religion and philosophy. When Parker arrived at the campus, he would have found a recently expanded student body made up largely of World War II veterans and a city dominated by conservative beliefs. As the Cold War heated up in the 2 years after his arrival, the students grew ever more anxious and ever less willing to trust alternative viewpoints. Parker, who espoused no specific political affiliation but generally supported “liberal” positions, may have felt out of place in the increasingly conservative landscape of Evansville College. If so, he wasn’t the only one. One student wrote to the editor of the school’s newspaper, saying:

Voice actor reading from letter: “There are two dangers inherent to a student body from such a present hysteria – the first and greatest lies in the overwhelming readiness of students to condemn as ‘Communistic’ any statement or practice which does not agree with their own thoughts; without regard to truth or facts, the average student will unfailingly dismiss such thoughts by applying the current most devastating censure – ‘Communistic.’”

Beckley: It was in this atmosphere that the presidential election of 1948 began revving up and the field included former vice-president Henry A. Wallace, running on the Progressive Party ticket.

Wallace audio: I announce that I will run as an independent candidate in 1948 for President of the United States.

Beckley: Wallace’s platform consisted of a string of progressive policies such as school desegregation, gender equality, a national health insurance program, and, most importantly to this story, he supported improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, something he believed would benefit both countries.

His willingness to work with the Soviet Union earned the ire of conservatives and moderates across the country but he remained popular in liberal circles – 15 percent of poll respondents approved of his platform just after he announced his candidacy. Not too bad for a 3rd party candidate. One of those who approved of his message was Professor Parker who soon took on the post of chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace organization.

Evansville College President Lincoln Hale was unenthused. He later stated that:

Voice actor reading quote: “within a week I called Mr. Parker in for a conference. I made it quite clear to him that further participation in such an official political capacity would prove embarrassing to me and would be certain to seriously harm Evansville College.”

Beckley: Hale was acting in what he thought was the best interest of the college. In order for the school to thrive, it needed the support of the community. And having a staff member acting in an official capacity for a figure that was so unpopular in conservative circles didn’t bode well for community support. Parker, on the other hand, knew that he was well within his rights to continue in the position. And the position was only temporary – Parker was planning to leave during the summer to work on his doctorate, and he told Hale as much.

Parker wasn’t breaking any rules. In fact, it was his right to be politically active in his free time, regardless of who he was supporting. Therefore, Parker had no plans to set aside his political activism and no rules or regulations barred him from such activities. In fact, as chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace, Parker coordinated a campaign event in Evansville, scheduled for April 6, where Henry Wallace himself would deliver a speech promoting the conversion of wartime industry to peacetime uses.

As the day of Wallace’s appearance neared, tensions mounted. Local newspapers, businesses, and veterans organizations voiced their displeasure about the event. Two hours before the event was to begin, protesters began gathering for a parade to the coliseum in which the politician would appear. By the time Wallace supporters began arriving, they were met with a crowd of over 2000 protesters, many of whom were shouting accusations of communist affiliation.

The leader of the protest, Arthur Robinson, intoned,

Voice actor: “That group in Memorial Coliseum tonight and their candidate, Henry Wallace, are enemies to the American way of life.”

Beckley: As the meeting started, the crowd outside the building grew more and more restless. Windows were shattered. Doors were pounded in. And before Wallace even arrived at the venue, the protestors pushed their way into the coliseum lobby, forcing attendees of the event to barricade the doors with metal chairs. Several Wallace supporters entered the lobby in an attempt to calm the crowd, but soon returned after being struck by the protestors. After some time, local police arrived and were able to clear the protestors from the lobby and Wallace was finally able to make his speech without much further disturbance.

Wallace audio: We can turn towards darkness, destruction and death. Or towards light, peace, and abundance.

Beckley: Four days later, Evansville College announced the dismissal of George Parker. In the aftermath, students protested on the basis of free speech. Later, there was a report by the American Association of University Professors stating that Parker had not violated any guidelines. Despite this, Parker would never work at Evansville College again, making him among the first of a long list of Americans striped of their livelihoods due to accusations of un-American-ness.

Americans – and Hoosiers – reacted to the perceived threat of war in thousands of ways. We continue to feel the echoes of this tenuous time in American history. We can look to the past and see Americans who met peril with volunteerism. Others met the same peril with fear that overrode their democratic principles. Today, we are faced once again with mounting tensions between the United States and Russia. We’re confronting a similar question: how do we preserve democratic ideals and liberties while fighting infiltration. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the not-so-distant past.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Today’s episode was based largely on two articles. For the Ground Observer Corps portion, I relied on Nicole Poletika’s graduate thesis “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!’ Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense through the Ground Observer Corps.” And for the second segment I turned to Oakland City University’s Dr. Randy Mills’ article “The Real Violence at Evansville,” The Firing of Professor George F. Parker.” Both articles are linked in the show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration. Visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and Facebook as Indiana Historical Bureau. And please take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Blue Skies, Pink Slips.


Poletika, Nicole, “Wake Up! Sign up! Look up!:” Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense Through the Ground Observer Corps, 1949-1959, Indiana University Graduate Thesis, 2013.

Mills, Randy, “The Real Violence at Evansville”: The Firing of Professor George F. Parker, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 2. 

Walter Dorwin Teague’s “World of Tomorrow”

Walter Dorwin Teague, courtesy of North Carolina State University.

Visit the ultra-sleek website of the industrial design firm TEAGUE and you will see the echoes of company founder and namesake Walter Dorwin Teague. TEAGUE touts “we design experiences for people and things in motion.” This could easily have been declared in 1939 when Teague applied his experience as an industrial designer to the New York World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow.”

Walter Dorwin Teague’s story starts in the house of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in Decatur, Indiana. Here, Walter was born on December 18, 1883, the youngest of six children to Reverend M.A. Teague and Hettie Teague. By late 1889, the family had settled in Pendleton, where Teague graduated high school in 1902. Teague credits his time in Pendleton, and particularly a book on the history of architecture from the Pendleton High School library, with setting him on the path that would eventually lead him to become a dominant force in American industrial design.

Walter Dorwin Teague designed the Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and its packaging, seen here. The Baby Brownie, sold for just $1, is credited with helping popularize amateur photography. Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Soon after his graduation, Teague moved to New York City to study at The Art Students League of New York. However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Teague discovered his life’s passion: industrial design. He was early to the game – in the decade after Teague scored his first major contract with Eastman Kodak in 1928, mentions of the phrase “industrial designer” in printed material increased 40 fold. Many sources consider Walter Dorwin Teague to be one of the five founders of industrial design in the United States, along with Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes.

In the decade after his first contract with Kodak, Teague designed for the likes of Boeing, Texaco, the Marmon Motor Company, and Ford Motor Company. He built lasting business relationships with many of these companies, and in some cases those relationships went beyond the designing of products. In the early 1930s, Henry Ford turned to Walter Dorwin Teague to design a cutting-edge exhibit hall for the 1934 re-opening of the Chicago World’s Fair, themed “Century of Progress.” The exhibition featured a wide array of elements, including a museum, industrial barn, and gardens tied together by–what else–design.

Interior of the Ford Pavilion at the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress. This diorama shows the extraction of different materials used in automobile production. Image courtesy of Hemmings Daily.

According to historian Roland Marchand, the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress:

ushered in a period of striking convergence between an increasing corporate sensitivity to public relations and the applications of designers’ expertise to display strategies. More than ever before, the great fairs became arenas for the public dramatization of corporate identities.

Gone were the sales-driven exhibits of the past, in which company representatives pitched the latest and greatest Ford products. With Teague at the helm, salesmen were replaced by young, affable college students. Product demonstrations were replaced by art, dioramas, and museums. Pressure to buy was replaced with entertainment, as well as information about the concepts behind and benefits of featured products. These innovations made the exhibit a hit of the fair and Walter Dorwin Teague a highly sought after exhibition hall designer.

In the wake of the successful Ford project, Teague designed exhibits for a number of regional fairs. He designed for Ford in San Diego (1935), Dallas (1936) and Cleveland (1936), and for Du Pont and Texaco in Dallas (1936). These smaller exhibits were a trial of sorts for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which would become Teague’s crowning achievement in the realm of exhibit design.

Cover, New York World’s Fair 1939 Brochure, from the Collections of The Henry Ford.

For the New York World’s Fair, which was themed “The World of Tomorrow,” Teague designed the exhibition halls for heavy-hitters like Ford, U.S. Steel, Du Pont, National Cash Register (NCR), Consolidated Edison Company, Eastman Kodak, A.B. Dick, Bryany Heater Company, and parts of the United States Government Building. In addition, Teague served on the official Design Board, the lone industrial designer among a group of architects.

One might assume that with so much on his plate, Teague would have moved towards a more hands-off approach at the 1939 fair. However, he was deeply involved in the conceptualization process. While on previous projects he had simply put the finishing touches on an already developed idea or perhaps added design elements around an existing exhibit plan, by 1939, Teague was involved in “the fundamental work of determining what [the] exhibit should be.” Employing lessons learned at the 1934 Century of Progress, Teague determined that exhibits should include animation and audience participation whenever possible. He and his team also began using phrases such as “visual dramatization” and “industrial showmanship” to describe their work. The resulting 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibits reflected the evolution of his design approach.

Exterior of Du Pont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry,” designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. Image courtesy of Curbed New York blog; The “Tower of Research,” from the cover of the June 1939 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, accessed with the Hagley Digital Archive.

Du Pont, the company responsible for developments such as Kevlar, Teflon, neoprene, and Freon, had high expectations for their exhibit. In the November 1938 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, the company promised, “a panorama of man’s triumphs over his environment, of the progress he has made in building a new nation and a new civilization, of the hopes and plans he has for creating a better world in the future” and to illustrate “chemistry’s part in making the United States more self-sufficient.”

The resulting exhibition building, featuring a 120-foot “Tower of Research” inspired by test tubes, literally towered over passersby. The essential element of animation was incorporated through lights and bubbles that flowed through the test tubes and brought the structure to life. Inside the building were a variety of displays that highlighted the role of chemistry in the modern world–and painted a picture of what the “World of Tomorrow” could look like with further investments in the sciences. Displays followed the production process from raw materials to laboratory testing, and finally to manufacturing. Still other exhibits featured technicians weaving rayon, making cellophane, and demonstrating various techniques used in producing Du Pont materials. From the Tower of Research to fully functional displays to a plethora of dioramas, every aspect of Teague’s design employed the tenets of visual dramatization, industrial showmanship, and educational entertainment.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ford Building Model, courtesy of New York Public Library New York World’s Fair (1939-1940) Collection.

The same tenets were present in Teague’s development of the Ford building. Whereas a tower drew visitor’s eyes towards the Du Pont building, a metallic sculpture of the Roman god Mercury–symbolizing “fleet, effortless travel”–attracted exhibit-goers. Inside the exhibition hall, a 70-foot-high moving mural made of automobile parts, planned by Teague and designed by Henry Billings, welcomed visitors to the Ford building. The theme, “From Earth to Ford V-8,” was depicted in the “Cycle of Production,” a massive revolving wedding cake-like structure with three tiers. On the bottom tier, small animated figures harvested raw materials such as cotton, wool, and wood. On the next tier, figures processed those raw materials into cloth and boards. Finally, on the top tier, those products were incorporated into the final product – the wildly popular 1939 Ford V-8, a finished version of which adorned the top of the turntable. Surrounding the “Cycle of Production” were live demonstrations of the production process depicted in the display.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Even more so than in the Du Pont exhibition, Teague incorporated a plethora of entertainment elements into the Ford pavilion. The same figures from the Cycle of Production were featured in a Technicolor film, telling the story of Ford production. Visitors watched the history of transportation unfold in the form of a live musical drama and ballet. They also watched race car drivers demonstrating the abilities of Ford cars on an outdoor track. Teague united these seemingly disparate parts through design to tell the story of Ford’s impact on the world–whether that be in job creation, technological advancement, or simply as an amusing diversion.

The features seen in these two exhibition buildings could be found to varying degrees in Teague’s other designs at the fair. The U.S. Steel building consisted of a 66-foot-high stainless steel hemisphere, an early example of a building designed to highlight, rather than mask, its steel structural supports. The National Cash Register exhibit was perhaps the least innovative, yet most striking of Teague’s 1939 World’s Fair designs–it was simply a gigantic, working cash register which displayed the fair attendance numbers. Inside, various models of NCR registers were shown being used in exotic locals around the world. For Consolidated Edison’s “The City of Light” display, Teague recreated New York City by building 4,000 scale buildings. The diorama came to life to depict a day in the city–the printing press of the Brooklyn Eagle whirred, a family lounged on a porch listening to the radio, and a six-car subway sped through the display.  These innovative features developed by the industrious Hoosier and his design firm would be the central design elements in exhibition halls for decades to come.

Walter Dorwin Teague is best remembered as the “Dean of Industrial Design.” His impact on corporate exhibitions has largely been forgotten with the diminishing role of exhibits in modern life. But at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the impact of this industrious Hoosier was impossible to ignore.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2019 Marker Madness


Learn more about each topic here

While the rest of Indiana is gearing up for March Madness, IHB is excited to announce the second annual Marker Madness! In 2018, we pitted 32 potential marker topics against each other every day in March until, in the end, we came up with one winner – the Tuskegee Airmen at Freeman Field.

This year, we have 32 NEW potential marker topics from across the state. Each day, there will be a featured match up from one of the four regions: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast and YOU get to decide which topic will move forward.

Below are the results of 2019 Marker Madness as of Monday March 18, 2019.

Voting for the featured match will start daily at 5:00 am and close at 5:00 the next morning. You can vote on Facebook and Twitter so follow us on both to participate! Check back here to see the results and the updated bracket.

Want to get even more involved? Fill out your own here and post it on social media using #MarkerMad2019 by March 1, 2019. The person who gets the most individual matchups correct will win an Indiana gift bag containing a t-shirt (size S-2XL), an 1816 Indiana Map, and a copy of Getting Open: The Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball. See the contest rules here.


“The People Shall Rule:” Debs’ Campaign for Socialism

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript of Debs’ Campaign for Socialism

Beckley: The countryside surrounding the Wea train station, just west of Lafayette, was dark and quiet on the evening of September 28, 1898. In the distance, a train whistle sounded and soon the light from the engine drew nearer. It was a freight train, owned by the Wabash Railroad Company and as it passed it bellowed black smoke into the night sky. On board, Edward Ragan, the train’s fireman, shoveled coal into the burning hot boiler in front of him while the engineer, Oscar Johnson, maintained their speed at about 25 miles per hour.

Suddenly, the world turned upside down.

[Crashing Sounds]

Beckley: The sound was deafening and neither man could see a thing but falling debris as the car overturned. The two men were buried beneath tons of coal, wood, and steel. The boiler had exploded, ripping the engine to shreds. Some time later, Edward Ragan awoke with injuries to his spine, head, and internal organs – but he was the lucky one. Oscar Johnson didn’t make it out at all. In the months after the accident, Ragan found that he would not be able to return to work for years, if ever at all.

After living 9 months without a salary, Ragan filed suit in Fort Wayne. He alleged that the accident was avoidable and the fault lay with the Wabash Railroad company, which he accused of neglecting the routine maintenance of the engine. He wanted $30,000 – the equivalent of about 45 years of his income at the time of the crash. He settled for $4,000 – less than 5 years of wages. Not much when you consider he likely never worked again but it was all he would get in a time before social safety nets and worker’s compensation.

Just 3 years later, a political party would be formed on the foundation of providing insurance against accidents, pensions for the injured, and bettering the conditions of all workers in the United States – the Socialist Party of America advocated for all of these changes. Today, we’ll discuss one of the men behind this political movement and examine the high water mark of the party.

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

Support of socialism in America has fluctuated wildly over the years. Today, it’s used as a sort of political buzzword. Sometimes it’s a stand-in for communism and sometimes for countries with comprehensive welfare systems. Some people hear socialism and think of Soviet Russia, Red China, and Cuba. Others think of nationalized healthcare, free college tuition, and an extensive social safety net. Today, I ask you to set any preconceived notions you may have to one side. Not so that we can promote socialism or even pass judgment on it, but rather so we can attempt to gain a historical understanding of the movement and how it became a viable option for many Americans.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone like Edward Regan whose life was blown apart in an instant. Or like the millions of men and women just like him who toiled in factories and mines without paid time off, safe working condition, or even clean air to breath. Once you begin to understand the plight of workers at the time, you may start to understand what drew so many people to socialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regardless of your political persuasion.

One of those people drawn to socialism – and, indeed, drawing people to socialism – was Eugene V. Debs. Debs grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of French Immigrants. He left school at the age of 14 and took a job with a local Railroad Company. At 20, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and soon became a national figure within that organization. He devoted the rest of his life to labor activism and the advancement of the working classes.

Debs’ political views and tactics changed as he learned from setbacks and failures throughout his career. He started his political career as a Democrat – campaigning for multiple democratic candidates for president and even being elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat in 1884. He started his labor activist career with very conservative views of the role of Unions and disdain for striking, once even writing:

Voice actor reading from Debs: A strike at the present time signifies anarchy and revolution, and the one of but a few days ago will never be blotted from the records of memory. The question has often been asked, Does the Brotherhood encourage strikers? To this question we most emphatically answer No, Brothers. To disregard the laws which govern our land? To destroy the last vestige of order? To stain our hands with the crimson blood of our fellow beings? We again say, No, a thousand times No.

Beckley: Seventeen years after writing those words, Debs burst onto the national stage at the forefront of one of the largest railroad strikes in American history – the Pullman strike. By this time, in 1894, Debs had left the Democratic Party for the populists and formed his own union, the American Railway Union. The ARU was one of the first union to admit all railroad workers, regardless of their specialty or skill level – and about 35 percent of Pullman’s workforce were members.

In the year leading up to the strike, wages had been slashed by an average of 33 percent at the Chicago factory. This, along with increasingly difficult working conditions, led the workers to call a strike. At first, the ARU was reluctant to officially back the strike but after leaders heard testimonials from workers, an official, nationwide boycott of the Pullman Company was ordered by the union. Beginning on June 25, 1894, ARU workers refused to handle Pullman cars. If management refused to detach Pullmans from trains – and most did – the workers refused to work at all.  Over 100,000 workers went on strike, effectively bringing all rail travel west of Detroit to a standstill.

For nearly 2 weeks, the strike remained peaceful. The strikers received a great deal of support in Chicago and it seemed that the strike may be a success. Then, the federal government passed an injunction ordering an end to the strike, ostensibly because it was affecting the transportation of mail, but realistically, the government was caving to the pressure of the Railroad conglomerates. President Grover Cleveland sent thousands of troops to Chicago to enforce the injunction.

The presence of these troops agitated the strikers and violence broke out on July 4. The riots that followed resulted in millions of dollars in damage, the deaths of 30 people, and, eventually, the failure of the strike. Debs was heavily criticized by the press – a New York Times editorial called him “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.” He was arrested and charged with contempt of court for violating the injunction. He was found guilty and spent the next 6 months in jail.

At this point in the story is where most general biographies of Debs says something along the lines of – Debs entered that Woodstock, Illinois jail a populist and emerged a Socialist. And he did read a lot about Socialism during his imprisonment. He also began questioning how much could be accomplished in a capitalist economy. But to say that he left that prison a Socialist is an oversimplification. In fact, in 1894, he stated,

Voice actor reading from Debs: I do not call myself a socialist.

Beckley: That seems pretty definitive to me. But, nevertheless, his imprisonment at Woodstock Jail remains the central part of Debs’ conversion myth. And, in reality, it didn’t take long for him to stop resisting the title. On January 1, 1897, he wrote:

Voice actor reading from Debs: Speaking for myself, I am a socialist… The issue is, Socialism vs. Capitalism. I am for socialism because I am for humanity.

Beckley: Considering Debs was already such a recognizable public figure in addition to being an accomplished political and labor organizer, it’s unsurprising that he skyrocketed to the forefront of the movement. In 1900, he was the presidential nominee for the newly formed Social Democratic Party of America. Then, when that organization merged with other factions to form the Socialist Party of America, he received the nomination in 4 of the next 5 presidential elections – 1904, 1908, 1912, and finally 1920.

To really understand Debs’ ideology, it’s important to separate Socialism as an economic system and Socialism as a political system, or a replacement for democracy. Debs supported Democracy whole-heartedly. In fact, he believed that the only way to realize the full potential of democracy for all was through socialism. The 1904 socialist party platform stated:

Voice actor reading from 1904 platform: We, the Socialist party…make our appeal to the American people as the defender and preserver of the idea of liberty and self-government, in which the nation was born. To this idea of liberty the Republican and Democratic parties are utterly false… They alike struggle for power to maintain and profit by an industrial system which can be preserved only by the complete overthrow of such liberties as we already have, and by the still further enslavement and degradation of labor.

That same year’s platform concluded with a list of objectives which would, in their opinion, be in the immediate interest of the working class. They pledged themselves completely to these objectives:

Voice actor reading from Debs: For shortened days of labor and increase of wages; for the insurance of the workers against accident, sickness, and lack of employment; for pensions for aged and exhausted workers; for the public ownership of the means of transportation, communication, and exchange; for the graduated taxation of incomes, inheritances, and of franchise and land values, the proceeds to be applied to public employment and bettering the condition of the workers; for the equal suffrage of men and women; for the prevention of the use of the military against labor in the settlement of strikes; for the free administration of justice; for popular government, including initiative, referendum, proportional representation, and the recall of officers by their constituents; and for every gain or advantage for the workers that may be wrested from the capitalist system, and that may relieve the suffering and strengthen the hands of labor.

Beckley: Overall, these objectives don’t seem wildly radical from a modern standpoint, but when compared to the major party platforms from the same year, it’s clear that what they were suggesting was quite extreme. But by the time we get to the 1912 presidential election, something interesting happens.

There were 4 main parties in this election. Theodore Roosevelt had formed the progressive party, often called the Bull Moose Party, after failing to receive the Republican nomination. Then, of course, there were the Democrats and Republicans. And, rounding out the field, was the Socialist Party of America. But more interesting still was that all 4 parties were touting some form of progressivism, each with their own flavor.

If we extend the metaphor, we might say that three of the parties were at least in the same flavor profile. The Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives shared a lot of characteristics, at least on economic issues. They promoted tariff reform, federal regulations on monopolies, and anti-trust laws. Generally, they supported the reform of the existing structure in order to address the problems facing the nation – poor working conditions, government corruption, and other problems arising from the rapid economic growth of the American Gilded Age.

But the Socialists were different. Just like in 1904, the Socialist platform was radical in comparison to the other parties in the race, despite each party campaigning on progressivism. Where the other parties were advocating regulations on big business and monopolies, the socialists were calling for…

Voice actor reading from Debs: “The abolition of the monopoly ownership of patents and the substitution of collective ownership, with direct rewards to inventors by premiums or royalties.”

Beckley: While the other parties were promising anti-trust laws, the Socialists declared…

Voice actor reading from Debs: “Anti-trust laws…have proved to be utterly futile and ridiculous.”

Beckley: And where other parties were concerning themselves with arguing over the merits of protective tariffs, the socialist platform didn’t even contain the word tariff.

They weren’t without their own talking points, though. Many echoed those which you just heard from the 1904 campaign but there were some new, more radical points. For example, collectivization of property, although it was mentioned briefly in the previous platforms, made a strong appearance in 1912. Basically, they called for the collective ownership of transportation, communications, agricultural processing industries, all natural resources, and the banking system. More revolutionary still were demands such as:

Voice actor reading from 1912 party platform: The abolition of the Senate and of the veto power of the President…Abolition of all federal districts courts and the United States circuit court of appeals…Abolition of the present restrictions upon the amendment of the Constitution, so that instrument may be made amendable by a majority of the voters in a majority of the States.

Beckley: Of course, we’re doing a bit of cherry picking there. The overwhelming majority of the platform would hardly raise an eyebrow today. Objectives like government provided unemployment assistance, shorter workdays, child labor laws, equal suffrage, and a minimum wage made up the bulk of the platform. But even so, much of those policy points would have been fairly radical had they been enacted. The thing is, many people wanted something radical. They were living and working in nearly unimaginable conditions and nothing that either major political party had done up to that point had changed that. In fact, the same year it was competing against 3 other parties all promising progress, 1912, is widely considered the high water mark of Socialism in America.

Debs presented the choice a stark light – this election was him vs. all others. Socialism vs. capitalism. In a brief article for the Pittsburg Press, Debs wrote:

Voice actor reading from Debs: The supreme issue in this campaign is Capitalism versus Socialism. The Republican hosts under Taft, the Democratic cohorts under Wilson and the Progressive minions under Roosevelt are but battalions of the army of capitalism.

Opposed to them are the ever augmenting phalanxes of the world’s workers, organizing in the ranks of the Socialist party, to do battle for the cause of Socialism and industrial emancipation.

No longer can the political harlots of capitalism betray the workers with issues manufactured for that purpose. The beating of tariff tom-toms, the cry for control of corporations, the punishment of “malefactors of great wealth,” the wolf cry of civic righteousness under capitalism, will not avail the politicians in this campaign.

They have bunched all the so-called issues of all the capitalist parties, along with wage slavery, poverty, ignorance, prostitution, child slavery, industrial murder, political rottenness and judicial tyranny, and they have labeled it “Capitalism.” They are bent upon the overthrow of this monstrous system and upon establishing in its place an industrial and social democracy in which the workers shall be in control of industry and the people shall rule.

The Socialist party offers the only remedy, which is Socialism.

It does not promise Socialism in a day, a month, or a year, but it has a definite program with Socialism as its ultimate end.

The hour has struck! The die is cast and Socialism challenges the institution of Capitalism.

Beckley: The hour for Socialism had indeed struck, though not loudly enough. When the votes were tallied, Debs had earned over nine hundred thousand votes or nearly 6 percent of the popular vote – more than double his 1908 total but still far short of a winning percentage.

The split in the Republican Party had paved the way for a Woodrow Wilson Presidency in 1912. And it was Wilson who went on to play a large role in the downfall of the Socialist Movement in America by signing the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I. This was done partly in response to the party organizing anti-war and anti-draft rallies around the nation and declaring the war “a crime against the people of the United States.”

The Espionage and Sedition acts sparked the first Red Scare which resulted in more than 2,000 people being tried for speaking out against the war. One of those people tried and convicted was Eugene Debs himself who delivered a speech on June 16, 1918 in Canton, Ohio which led to his arrest and conviction. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison and he ran for the presidency for the last time in 1920 from his jail cell. He earned only a small percentage of the popular vote, a reflection of the unsteady state of the party.

In the years after that loss, the Socialist Party of America continued to weaken and fracture until, in 1972, it was dissolved completely. But in its wake, socialist ideas have continued to influence the party system.

In fact, that’s one of the lasting legacies of the Socialist movement in America. In the years between 1904 and 1912, key tenets of the Socialist Party platform began showing up in the Democratic and Republican platforms alike. After the progressive era, the Democratic Party in particular adopted many policies that were once solely in the realm of socialists – things like Social Security, the minimum wage, and federal disability.

This is often the effect political movements –weather they be left of right of center. They cause a shift in the political base, resulting in a shift in the political platforms of the major parties to which they pose a threat. Weather it’s the socialist movement driving the Democratic Party towards the adoption of social welfare in the 20th century, the Tea Party movement encouraging the Republican party to take a hard line on immigration in the 2010s or the Democratic Socialists of America moving the present Democratic party towards single payer healthcare, political movements have always had a fundamental impact on the major political party platforms in America.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau which is a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration. Visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook as Indiana Historical Bureau. And please take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Debs’ Campaig for Socialism


Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Census of Manufacturers: 1905, Earnings of Wage-Earners, Government Printing Office, 1908,;view=1up;seq=1;size=150.

History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928: Revision of Bulletin No. 499 with Supplement, 1929-1933, United States Government Printing Office, 1934,;view=1up;seq=5;size=125


“Locomotive Boiler Explodes,” Indianapolis News, September 29, 1898, page 2,

(Huntington) Daily News-Democrat, October 3, 1898, Page 3,

“Ragan’s Big Suit,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, June 26, 1899, Page 1,

“Other Court Notes,” The Fort Wayne News, September 28, 1899, Page 8,

“James Ragan Gets $4,000,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 20, 1899, Page 1,


Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive

Party Platforms



















THH Season 2 Episode 3: The Rhodes Family Incident

Transcript of The Rhodes Family Incident

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Door opening]

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sound of water]

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

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

[Transition music]

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

[Sound of felling a tree]

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

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

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

[Transition music]

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

[Ominous music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

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

[Door Closing]

Season Two Episode Three Show Notes


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


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


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

Heighway, David. “The Law in Black and White: The Story of a Hamilton County Family,”

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Boiled Alive

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

Dayton Daily News, August 12, 1928, 22,

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

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

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

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

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

Burned Alive

The Richmond Item, July 5, 1929, 15,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lester Lake Guillotine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THH Season 2 Episode 2: Haunted Hoosier History 2018

Transcript of Haunted Hoosier History 2018

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey from Original Research

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins:

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


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

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

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

[Gun Shots]

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

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

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

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

[Creaking door]

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

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

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

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

[Door closing]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[Owls hooting]

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

[Train whistle]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Song]

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

Season Two Episode Two Show Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two Episode Two Audio Credits


Ross Bugden, “Scary Horror Music – Haunted,” (Copyright and Royalty Free), accessed

Mattia Cupelli, “Dark Choir Music,” (Download and Royalty Free), accessed

Kevin MacLeod, “Horrorific,” FreePD, accessed

Kevin MacLeod, “Creepy Haunted House Music / This House / Ambient Dark Creepy Music,” Soul Candle – Relaxing Music, accessed

Kevin MacLeod, “Deep Horrors,” (No Copyright Music), Audio Library, accessed

GoSoundtrack, “Mystery,” [No Copyright Music], Audio Library, accessed

Alexander Nakarada, “Hor Hor,” FreePD, accessed

Rafael Krux, “Lonely Mountain,” FreePD, accessed

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

Sound Effects:

OXMUSEXO, “DoorCreak,” File: 168650_0xmusex0_doorcreak, FreeSound,

FunWithSound, “Door Slam,” File: 361167_funwithsound_door-slam, FreeSound, accessed

Nura Studio, Scary Footsteps sound effect free download, accessed

Topschool, “Gasp,” File: 360469_topschool_gasp, FreeSound, accessed

Epicdude959, “Creepy Ghost Scream,” File: 352508_epicdude_959_creepy-ghost-scream, FreeSound, accessed

Jaredi, “Rattling Locks,” File: 215312__jaredi__rattling-locks, FreeSound, accessed

Xdrav, “Frozen Window Opening,” File: 112841__xdrav__frozen-window-opening, FreeSound, accessed

Benboncan, “Tawny Owls,” File: 64544__benboncan__tawny-owls-2, FreeSound, accessed

KRC Videos, “TRAIN Sound Effects – Steam Train Start and Whistle,” accessed

HaraldDeLuca, “Horror Ghost,” File: 380510__haralddeluca__horror-ghost-sound, FreeSound, accessed


THH S02E04: “Hello Girls” Fight Back

Transcript of “Hello Girls” Fight Back

Written by Lindsey Beckley from Research by Donald Edward Jones and Supplemented with original Research

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins:

[Rotary Telephone being dialed]

[Phone ringing]

Lindsey Beckley: If you’re a young woman, between 17 and 26 years of age, with a grammar school education, who speaks unaccented English, is unmarried, has an arm stretch of at least 5 feet, a sitting height of 32 inches, good eyesight, unimpaired hearing, a pleasant voice, a patient and courteous disposition, a neat appearance, and can pass a blood test to clear you of any heart diseases, boy do I have a job for you. Then again, perhaps not. For once you pass this litmus test, the job you face requires you to work at a “pace which kills” – and that job is switchboard operating.

Woman’s Voice from Historic Footage: Perhaps you’re never seen an operating room. You’ll find it very interesting.

Beckley: On this episode, we’ll discuss the harsh conditions of switchboard operators in the 19 teens – and 13 women from Linton, Indiana who, along with their entire town, took on the Indiana militia in an effort to better those conditions.


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

A lot was expected of Telephone Switchboard operators in 1919. In a single hour, a “hello girl” was expected to transfer up to 600 calls – that’s 1 call every 6 seconds. During each of those calls the operator would see a small light glowing, indicating someone was on the line. She would plug into the jack associated with that line and answer “Number, Please?” Once the caller gave the number, the operator would repeat each digit back to the caller. She would then test the line of the receiving party before connecting the call by plugging into the appropriate jack. All in 6 seconds.

[Sounds of an operating room]

Beckley: And that 6 second average wasn’t just a guideline. Telephone switchboard operators were considered some of the most heavily supervised workers of the time. Stopwatches were used to ensure efficient operation. Supervisors were able to plug in to any operators’ calls to ensure the proper “phraseology” was being used. And, as if that wasn’t enough, most companies also employed “service testers,” which are kind of like secret shoppers in today’s retail stores. They’d call in, take detailed notes on any errors made by the operator, and compile a report for management to review.  One Boston operator said,

Voice actor reading from newspaper: Inside the central office an operator is supervised, tested, observed, disciplined, almost to the breaking point. It is scarcely possible for her to obey any natural impulse without breaking a rule. She must not move her head to the left or right; she must not indulge in social conversation…she must sit, even when not engaged in operating, if such a moment ever comes, with plug in hand ready to answer…

Beckley: This heavy oversight, restrictive work environment, and breakneck work pace, combined with low wages and limited opportunity for advancement, led to a series of telephone operators’ strikes throughout the United States between 1917 and 1919.


Beckley: By that time, there was a long history of women striking for better working conditions in America. One of the most notable of these was in 1910, when 20,000 garment factory workers in New York City struck for 13 weeks for improved working conditions and better pay. The strikes were largely successful – over 300 companies capitulated to the women’s demands. One of the few that resisted reform was the Triangle Waist Company. One year after the strike, a devastating fire ripped through the Triangle Waist Factory resulting in 146 deaths – overwhelmingly women. This tragedy highlighted the cost of the owner’s reluctance to reform and the resulting outrage sparked new strikes and labor laws.

Less than a decade later, in the wake of World War I, inflation had doubled the cost of food and tripled the cost of clothing. Wage increases weren’t even close to keeping up. In 1919, the same year as the Linton Strike, labor unrest was at an unprecedented height. That year, nearly one fifth of the nation’s workforce went on strike at some point. But for all that, what happened in Linton, Indiana was unique.


Beckley: On Thursday, April 24, 1919, 13 women took off their headsets and staged a walk out at the New Home Telephone Company in Linton, Greene County, Indiana. Strikes were a fairly regular occurrence in the small town where nearly every working person was a union member. And at first, this strike seemed no different than previous strikes.


Beckley: The demands were reasonable enough – the women wanted $8 a week minimum pay, an 8 hour work day, and, more importantly, they wanted the company to recognize their union. The next day, the company brought in 8 women from Indianapolis to work the lines and keep telephone service going. And this is where the strike turned from a typical labor stoppage to something quite different.

With the strikebreakers, telephone service in the town continued throughout the week, but tensions were mounting. As news spread of the strikebreakers being brought in to Linton, the union workers of the town rose in outrage.

Two men, who had recently returned from the WWI front, donned their military uniforms, climbed to the top of the building, lowered the American flag, and took it to a nearby house, saying that the American flag should not fly over such a place. While the men scaled the building, Verna Talbott fired two shots at them, thinking they were trying to force their way into the building. Fortunately, both shots missed their targets.

The crowd around the building grew more and more riotous as time passed and began throwing stones and rocks, breaking many of the windows and leaving the floors strewn with broken glass. Strikebreaker Ruby Stevens fled to the roof, where the Greene County sheriff, Isaac Wines, and Mayor Miller later found her and took her to a nearby hotel before returning to the site of the riot.

A so called “indignation meeting” was scheduled for Monday evening in support of the striking women. Both the Mayor and Sherriff of Linton attended the meeting, hoping to assess the situation and maintain the peace. While there, Mayor Andrew Miller made a speech advocating for law and order and advising the attendees against any “rash actions.”

Apparently his words had little effect on those in the crowd because directly after the meeting, the crowd spilled out to the streets and made their way to the telephone building, where two of the replacement operators, Verna Talbott and Ruby Stevens, along with the telephone company manager Harley Guthrie, were posted. The crowd, estimated to be between 500 and 1000, surrounded the building and demanded that the outside operators be removed and returned to Indianapolis.

The crowd wasn’t satisfied with the departure of Miss Stevens, though, and demanded that the one remaining operator leave the building before negotiations commenced. Talbott finally agreed to leave after being warned by the police chief that she may be killed if she stayed any longer. When she walked out of the building, the crowed parted and she walked among boos and jeers to the same nearby hotel where all the other strikebreakers were staying.

The striking Linton telephone operators had one more demand before they were willing to come to the table. New Home Telephone Company manager Harley Guthrie had to leave the building. This was a demand that Guthrie, Mayor Miller, and others inside the building were unwilling to meet. So, those remaining inside the telephone building, all of whom were armed, hunkered down and called for reinforcements.

The next day, April 29, newspaper headlines across the state declared:

Voice actor reading form newspaper: Linton Under Martial Law!

Beckley:  The ordeal made front page news as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas, Montpelier, Vermont, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, beating out coverage of soldiers returning from the war front.

You see, the night before, when Mayor Miller called for backup, he wasn’t calling in the local police, or even the sheriff’s office. No, he knew local law enforcement would be unable to deal with this situation. Instead, he called the Governor of Indiana, James Goodrich, and asked him to send in the Indiana militia. And he did.

Adjutant General of Indiana, Harry Smith, arrived in Linton at around 5:00 am on Tuesday, April 29 to assess the situation. At 8:10, Governor Goodrich officially declared Linton to be under Martial Law, saying

Voice Actor reading from proclamation: I, James P. Goodrich,…do  hereby proclaim and declare said city and its immediate environments to be in the state of riot and insurrection against the laws of the commonwealth and the peace and dignity of the state, and do hereby proclaim martial law throughout said city and throughout the territory adjacent thereto, and for a distance of five miles in all directions…and do hereby command all turbulent and disorderly persons immediately to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective homes …

Beckley: He also gave a statement to the Indianapolis News underlining his feelings on the subject:

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The riot at Linton last night is a disgrace to the citizenship of Linton and Greene county and a blot upon the fair name of Indiana. The mayor of Linton and the sheriff of Greene county have signed a statement admitting their inability to enforce the law and stating that they were unable to secure aid from citizens of the county to uphold the law. If these gentlemen tell the truth, their statement is a reflection upon the good name of Greene county and any citizen who was called upon to aid the officers and did not has himself become a violator of the law.

Beckley: So, in his estimation, not only were the protesters themselves a blot upon the fair name of Indiana, but everyone in Linton who hadn’t stepped up to help put down the protests was a criminal.


Beckley: Soon after martial law was declared, 2 companies of Indiana militia, one from Terre Haute and one from Sullivan, were deployed to the town. When they arrived, they met a crowd of over 2000 townspeople, many of them miners who had stayed out of the mines for the day in order to support the striking telephone operators.


Beckley: They weren’t the only ones rising in support. Shop owners all over town closed their doors. Women crowded the streets, children in tow. Restaurants refused to serve the militia men. People called the telephone company and demanded that their phones be removed from their home within 24 hours threatening to rip the phone from the wall. Linton was in the midst of a general strike.

As the militia advanced through the town, the crowd parted to allow them to pass, but quickly closed ranks behind them, totally surrounding the soldiers. The throng booed and hissed as the troops passed. In the business section of town, a large group of uniformed WWI veterans rallied around an American flag and marched to the telephone company, where the militiamen and General Smith were stationed.

When the vets their destination, Smith faced them and reprimanded them for having the audacity to take such action while in uniform. For an instant, it seemed that his words may quell the protesters. But then someone in the crowd shouted “slug him!” to which Smith replied that there “would be no such tactics” before hastily retreating to the safety of the telephone building.

[Rioting sounds]

Beckley: The assembled masses surged forward, throwing bricks and coal into the already shattered windows. Militiamen patrolling the streets were assaulted by the mob, their guns torn from their hands and thrown to the street and the men kicked to the side. Inside the building, three men, including General Smith, were struck by flying debris.

Realizing that they were close to losing any semblance of control, Smith ordered the militia to shoot into the crowd. When the soldiers raised their guns, they saw that the front of the crowd was composed mostly of women and children. Being reluctant to fire upon them, the militia lifted their weapons and fired over the heads of the mob. One protester was injured when a bullet grazed his forehead.

Through all of this, several of the telephone operators who had been brought in from Indianapolis were apparently attempting to work at the switchboards in the building. It was agreed that it was high time for them to get out of dodge and so a portion of the uniformed protesters formed two lines and allowed the women to pass through the crowd.

With that perceived victory, the crowd moved to their next demand – the militia needed to leave the town. One newspaper from a nearby town summed up the thoughts of Linton’s citizenry on having what was essentially a small army invade their town.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The good name of the city of Linton and its many hundreds of good law abiding citizens has been smirched by the coming of armed soldiers to quell a little three-girl riot…The whole thing hinges on the fact that a bunch of officials who had at some time traded backbones with a set of Goose Pond fishing worms crawled shiningly into the telephone building and yelled lustily for the state troops to come quickly…we’ll wager two bits there were less than six culprits.

Beckley: Workers from Linton and surrounding areas refused to return to work while their town hosted these outsiders. All business in the town was at a standstill until the Linton telephone operators’ demands were met. Facing this community solidarity, Governor Goodrich agreed to get the troops out of the street and send committee to the city to investigate the situation and arbitrate an agreement.

The Governor’s agreement, as well as an agreement from the New Home Telephone management to address the concerns of the operators, was announced to the assemblage from the steps of city hall.

And with that, the throng dissipated and returned to their homes. The next day, when the Governor’s commission reached the city, a temporary agreement was reached.


Beckley: The operators agreed to return to their posts for at least the next two weeks and the New Home Telephone Company agreed to a 40% wage increase, an 8 hour work day as opposed to the 9 hour day they had previously mandated and the striking women received full back pay for the duration of the strike. Another demand made by the striking women was that Maude Sherb, the chief operator, be dismissed, as she had crossed the picket line and continued working throughout the strike. Consequently, she was fired and Thelma Anderson, the leader of the unofficial operators’ union, replaced her. While this sounds like the strikers got quite a lot out of the agreement, the telephone company still wouldn’t recognize the operators’ union.

After 2 weeks, when New Home still refused to recognize the union at the end of the temporary agreement, the operators went on strike again. This time, however, it was a much calmer affair. The company had learned their lesson and decided not to bring in outside workers to continue operations. Thus, the people of Linton didn’t rally as they had previously and there was no need to call in the militia.

This second strike lasted for 9 weeks, all the while the town of Linton had no telephone service. Although there were appeals from Linton businesses for the strike to end, the New Home Telephone Company didn’t feel the same pressure to capitulate as they did in the face of the violence of the first strike. So, the strike ended after 9 weeks with the Operator’s union still not recognized by the company.

While the second strike didn’t have any direct outcomes, the Linton Telephone Operators’ actions had a lasting effect on the community. Before the operator strike had even ended, another group of female workers in the area went on strike – this time, it was the teachers of Stockton Township, which is just outside of Linton. It’s impossible to think that the teacher’s strike was uninfluenced by that of the operator’s. Indeed, in a mass meeting much like the “indignation meeting” held in support of the operator’s strike, teachers called for another general strike to be carried out in support of the cause. However, the feat was not to be repeated and, while the strike did last for 3 months and even caused several schools to push back their start date, the teachers did not receive the same community support that had been shown for the operators.


Beckley: 1919 was the high point in labor activism for years to come. There wouldn’t be a year with as many strikes or as much union activity until the height of the Great Depression. At that point, union membership began to rise again and peaked in 1954 at nearly 30 percent of workers. Since then, union membership has declined dramatically. In 2017, less than 11 percent of American workers were in a union.

Today, while unions aren’t as mainstream as they once were they’re still very much a part of America, as we saw with the recent teacher’s strikes across the country. In addition, grassroots activity like the Occupy Movement of 2011 and, more recently, the fight for 15 movement, are using some of the same tactics used by unions in the past to accomplish similar objectives.

[Sounds of an operating room]

Beckley: Labor movements have a long, mixed history in America and the Linton Telephone Operator’s strike of 1919 is just one small, yet fascinating, part of it.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Newspaper excerpts read by Justin Clark. Visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook at @talkhoosierhist and like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.