See PART I for Philo Farnsworth’s struggle to commercialize the
television and his involvement in the 1935 patent suit against RCA.
In 1938, investors in the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation (FTRC) scoured the nation for a manufacturing plant that would allow them to profit from Farnsworth’s invention: the television. They selected the former Capehart Phonograph Company building in Fort Wayne, Indiana because, according to biographer Paul Schatzkin, the “company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”
The FTRC plant opened in 1939, stimulating the city’s economy with the production of radios, phonographs and television equipment. Not only did Farnsworth oversee production, but continued his scientific endeavors with a research department that, according to his wife Pem, operated at “high efficiency.” She noted that Farnsworth’s “input breathed energy into the men, and in turn their reciprocation kept him on his toes.” The plant’s opening coincided with the outbreak of World War II and Fort Wayne would experience the same economic revival as the nation through the manufacture of war goods.
Shortly after the FTRC began operations in Fort Wayne, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt required all television and radio materials be converted to the production of military equipment. With America’s involvement in World War II, the FTRC expanded throughout Indiana, culminating in a total of seven factories in the state during the war years, including those in Marion, Huntington and Bluffton. Donald Sinish, who worked with Farnsworth at the FTRC Research Department, recalled that the Ft. Wayne facilities were “rapidly converted to production of military equipment and engineering channeled to development of radio communication, missile guidance and radar systems.”
Despite the company’s expansion, Farnsworth’s quest to commercialize television was halted by the production of war materials and the FCC’s hesitation to establish broadcasting channels and standards, narrowing the period in which he could benefit from his patents, which expired in 1947. Disheartened by the obstacles preventing him from capitalizing on his invention, Farnsworth moved to Maine and vowed never to return to Fort Wayne.
But when the company struggled to repay war loans that allowed for expansion, Farnsworth returned to Fort Wayne and reluctantly convinced investors to sell FTRC to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). The Fort Wayne company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth researched and experimented in his lab. Pem stated that the Fort Wayne lab “developed a device for the United States early-warning system” that could detect and destroy missiles and planes in the early atomic era. Farnsworth’s primary post-war research interests centered around developing a low cost form of fusion. Creating self-sustaining fusion is equivalent to bottling a star, a nearly impossible task that has yet to be conquered.
Farnsworth hoped to usher in the “high-energy era” with fusion, as a minuscule amount could power a whole city without the pollution of fossil fuels. Pem stated that Farnsworth’s fusion idea “gained solidarity early in 1947,” when a mutual friend set up a phone call between him and Albert Einstein. After discussing scientific theories for about an hour, Pem recalled “Phil reappeared, his face aglow from the excitement of finding someone who understood what he was talking about.”
Allegedly, Einstein had developed similar theories, but “was so shocked that his work had been used to produce the atomic bombs dropped on Japan that he vowed never to contribute further.” However, he encouraged Farnsworth to pursue the fusion work for “peaceful” purposes and requested Farnsworth contact him once he worked out the mathematics. Pem contended that “it was a great psychological relief to find another human being who shared his increasingly unique perspective” and that he found Einstein to be a “fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.”
Encouraged, Farnsworth established a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne and devised a “fusion reaction tube” called the Fusor, which he patented in 1968. He reportedly achieved fusion in Fort Wayne, but it is unclear whether or not he generated self-sustaining fusion. Unfortunately, Einstein died before Farnsworth could share his mathematics with him and, upon his passing, Farnsworth felt more alone than ever. The burden of his genius again overwhelmed him when he collaborated with employees to finalize his second fusion patent. According to Pem, upon realizing that they too did not grasp the “vital point of his concept” he closed his briefcase and informed them “’I have given you all the material you need to finish this patent. Now I am going home and get drunk!’”
After self-imposed isolation, he moved to Provo, Utah with Fort Wayne employees to pursue fusion away from ITT’s influence. In 1966, he established Philo T. Farnsworth Associates and collaborated with Brigham Young University on sustaining fusion. Eventually, Farnsworth’s health failed and he cancelled the fusion project. According to Schatzkin, family members suspected he carried the secret of fusion to his grave out of concern that humanity was not spiritually prepared for it.
Farnsworth was reportedly disgusted with television programming for its failure to facilitate his noble goals of exchanging cultures and educating viewers. Pem stated that while watching the 1969 moon landing Farnsworth professed “this has made it all worthwhile.” Ironically, Farnsworth himself appeared only once on the medium he invented on the program I’ve Got a Secret. Farnsworth passed away March 11, 1971 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Philo T. Farnsworth kept a plaque on his desk that read “MEN AND TREES DIE—IDEAS LIVE ON FOR THE AGES.” Farnsworth’s life serves as a testament to this. Schatzkin eloquently summarized his contributions, stating “There are only a few noble spirits like Philo T. Farnsworth . . . who can alter the course of history without commanding great armies.”
It is notable that in this age of celebrity worship, most people cannot name the inventor of the television. Even the meticulous Aaron Sorkin confused the details of Farnsworth’s life in his stage play. Woefully unrecognized, Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electronic television at the age of 14 and brought his conception to fruition in 1927 with his first electronic transmission.
Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Farnsworth nurtured a broad, idealistic vision of how his invention would change the world, envisioning how television might increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. Farnsworth’s greatest resource, much like Jobs’, was unconventional thinking and an ability to assemble a small team of determined ingénues like himself. Farnsworth’s wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, attributed her husband’s success to “intuitive thinking, logic, and hard work,” as well as his ability to combine “seemingly unrelated elements into new instruments of amazing effectiveness.”
The inventor of television grew up in Utah prior to the existence of power lines, making his radical electronic concepts all the more remarkable. Farnsworth’s family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where Farnsworth delighted at the sight of a Delco power system, immersed himself in scientific magazines and invented tools that facilitated household chores. While working on the farm, a teenaged Farnsworth observed the straight rows created by the horses as he plowed, and abruptly thought “he could build the image like a page of print and paint the image line after line . . . with the speed of the electron, this could be done so rapidly the eye would view it as a solid picture.”
According to Pem, Farnsworth reasoned that by using an image dissector tube, he could manipulate electrons to “change a visual image into a stream of electrical current, transmit that to another vacuum tube at the receiver, and on a fluorescent screen turn the current back into the visual image again.” Farnsworth sketched his idea on the blackboard of his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and presented him with a drawing of it, which would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling.
In 1923, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah and pursued formal education, enrolling at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study mathematics and physics, although, like Jobs, never graduated. Ironically, his lack of formal training contributed to his success, as fundraiser George Everson recalled that Farnsworth “attacked the whole assignment with no engineering experience and little engineering knowledge, but to compensate for these inadequacies he had courage and genius.” After leaving BYU, Farnsworth worked for Everson as an organizer at the Community Chest Campaign, who, along with fundraiser Leslie Gorrell, funded Farnsworth’s electronic television idea. With this financial backing, Farnsworth moved to California, eventually establishing a lab on Green Street in San Francisco and hand-picking a team of scientists and innovators.
In the team’s early days, engineers shuffled in and out of the lab with various instruments, a “glittering array of crystals, prisms, and lenses.” This activity attracted the attention of police in the Prohibition era and Pem stated “it’s not hard to imagine how suspicious our operation must have looked to an outsider. Strange packages were being brought in, and the curtains were drawn for demonstrating the light relay.” Pem reassured two policemen, who came to investigate the lab, that she and her husband were not operating a still and continued their electronic experiments.
Farnsworth focused on perfecting the image dissector tube with the help of Pem’s glassblowing brother, Cliff Gardner. The scientific team constructed numerous models before developing a bulb that was delicate, yet strong enough to transmit an image electronically. After years of failed experiments and twelve hour work days, on September 27, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted the first “electronic television image.” With Farnsworth and his staff at the receiver, Cliff inserted the slide into the Dissector and a small line materialized in the receiver room, ushering in the television age. Farnsworth wired Gorrell a simple message: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” and applied for his first television patent on January 7, 1927.
Farnsworth was “the first to form and manipulate an electron beam” and according to his biographer Paul Schatzkin “that accomplishment represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is still in use today.” Farnsworth’s ability to harness electrons negated the need for mechanical objects to transmit images and later contributed to breakthroughs in radar and electron microscopy.
However, transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal problems. Farnsworth struggled to maintain a balance between scientific experimentation and his financial backers’ desire for a return on investment. In 1928, Farnsworth met with impatient investors who demanded to see “some dollars” in his invention, and stunned them when an image of a dollar sign materialized in the screen before them. This presentation bought Farnsworth more time, but later that year the backers repealed their support, forcing Farnsworth to rally his team to continue with the development of television.
In the period between his first transmission and first public demonstration of the television in 1934, Farnsworth continued to navigate around financial problems, company reorganization, and protests by radio and film actors fearing the new medium could jeopardize their jobs. The primary obstacle to commercialization was RCA’s lawsuit regarding his 1927 television system patent. Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin attempted to devise an electronic television system and applied for a patent in 1923, despite lacking proof of its feasibility. Farnsworth invited Zworykin, a former employee of Westinghouse, to see his San Francisco lab in 1930 in hopes that Westinghouse might fund his invention. Unbeknownst to Farnsworth, Zworykin no longer worked for the company and his visit to the lab was motivated by personal objectives.
Farnsworth demonstrated how to construct an Image Dissector for Zworykin, who later replicated the tube and presented it to RCA. Farnsworth’s refusal to sell his patents to RCA prompted the company to sue for priority of invention, so as to introduce commercial television to the public. The U.S. Patent Office settled the “David and Goliath confrontation,” as described by Farnsworth’s wife Pem, when it ruled in Farnsworth’s favor based on Justin Tolman’s presentation of Farnsworth’s high school Image Dissector sketch. For the first time in RCA’s history, the company had to pay patent royalties, rather than receive them. The ruling also established Farnsworth as the inventor of television, despite ongoing debate and distortions to the historical record like Aaron Sorkin’s stage play proclaiming RCA the victor of the suit. Schatzkin provides a superb synopsis of the debate about the inventor of television and errors punctuating the narrative in The Boy Who Invented Television.
Farnsworth continued to fight against RCA’s appeals and his refusal to bow to the corporation taxed his mental and physical health. While struggling with depression, exhaustion and a dependence on liquor to cope with the stress, Farnsworth vowed to bring television from conception to commercialization. He aimed to get into broadcasting, but because the FCC would not yet allocate spectrum space for television, Farnsworth decided to enter into manufacturing, which would lead him to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Read part II: Philo T. Farnsworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne here.
“I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” This is how poet Etheridge Knight Jr. described his experience at the Indiana State Prison, where he served eight years for armed robbery. This post focuses on the years 1960-1968, in which the man “with something to say” began sharing his voice through poetry.
Born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight’s family moved to Paducah, Kentucky before moving to Indianapolis. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enlisted in the army in 1947. Knight served as a medical technician in the Korean War until 1950, when a serious injury would indirectly serve as a catalyst for his revolutionary Poems from Prison. His wounds proved so physically and psychologically traumatic that Knight soon developed an addiction to morphine. Or as Knight put it, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me.” Following his army discharge, Knight supported his habit by dealing drugs and stealing, which led to his sentence in the Michigan City, Indiana prison.
Betty De Ramus wrote in the Detroit Free Press that black poets of the 1960s, including those writing behind bars, were not trying to
pass civil rights laws or integrate bathrooms or even to trouble America’s conscience. They were battling for the minds of blacks, bent on persuading them of their potential and power, trying to open them, layer by layer, to their own lost beauty.
She argued that this movement, comprised also of African American music, theater, films, and novels were black artists’ way of “lighting candles in the darkness.” Knight would become a quintessential voice of the Black Arts Movement, described by Larry Neal as “’radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.’”
Knight did not immediately illuminate the darkness at the Indiana State Prison, where he became embittered by “racist guards and racist parole boards.” According to a 1972 Baltimore Sun article, he began writing poetry 18 months into his sentence, inspired by other black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks (who later visited him in prison) and Langston Hughes. He recalled “I read Walt Whitman and the European poets, too . . . I could never really get to them as I got to Hughes and Brooks.”
According to the Poetry Foundation, Knight “was already an accomplished reciter of “‘toasts'” before he entered the penitentiary. These toasts were long, narrative poems spoken from memory that related to “‘sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities.'” At the Indiana State Prison, he “toasted,” amidst cell doors slamming and prisoners shouting. Other times, Knight recalled, “Sometimes in the joint . . . I’d back people up against the wall and say, ‘Here, you want to hear this?’ After all budding poets do need an audience, and where better to find one with time to listen?”
Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.” This poetry explored themes like “suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love.” The Richmond Palladium-Item reported that through his words he “lashed out at the power brokers in prison and in literature with equal intensity and humor.” At first the budding poet encountered no trouble mailing out his poetry in an attempt to get published. The authorities did not resist, he recalled, because they considered James Whitcomb Riley to be a poet and “they didn’t understand what I was all about.”
His first published piece, a tribute to Dinah Washington, appeared in the Negro Digest about a year after he started writing from prison. Once published, prison officials began censoring his mail and prohibited him from mailing out his poetry. Knight responded by “smuggling material out to friends . . . who worked on the outside.” This resistance to prison life manifested not only in words, but in behavior and he spent time in solitary confinement, or, as he termed it the “hole” and “on the rock.”
“The more oppressive the system you live under, the louder the poets scream,” Knight contended in 1989. And scream he did. His short stories and verses written in the penitentiary, were published in periodicals, anthologies, and the Journal of Black Poetry. Most famously, he published his book Poems from Prison, which included poems like “Cell Song” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison.” When he left prison in 1968 he worked as a punch press operator at a factory in Indianapolis. By 1972 his scream had been heard across the country and he had taught students creative writing at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and the University of Pittsburgh, and served as poet-in-residence at Lincoln University in Springfield, MO. He alleged that year that “There is more creativity going on in college campuses and prisons than any other places in the country.”
Knight assessed his years in prison, “My time made me see that prisons don’t rehabilitate. If you come out with any degree of sanity at all, you’re lucky. Prison is inhuman. It kills you.”
But poetry brought him back to life. Knight went on to establish Free People’s Poetry Workshops to counteract the “domination of the publishing industry by moneyed white males.” His books and spoken word garnered popular and critical acclaim and he received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, won the American Book Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Dr. Sarah Stockton earned a reputation as a gritty, compassionate physician at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane (later renamed Central State Hospital). According to a Moment of Indiana History, her appointment as assistant physician in the Women’s Department in 1883 was regarded as “significant enough to the cause of women’s rights as to merit mention by no less prominent an advocate than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in History of Woman Suffrage.” Patients, like Anna Agnew, also praised her appointment. Agnew recalled in her 1886 reminiscences, “I felt the first time she came into my darkened room, where I lay in such agony as only miserable women suffer, and seating herself at my bedside, looking pityingly at me, the expression in her lovely blue eyes in itself a mute promise of assistance, before a word was spoken, that an angel had been with me.” Dr. Stockton was remarkable not only for her prolific medical career, but her tireless work for women’s suffrage.
According to the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Stockton was born on a local farm in 1842, the daughter of “pioneer settlers of Tippecanoe county.” She and her sister operated the Stockton boarding house in Lafayette, before she studied at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Stockton graduated in 1882, penning a doctoral thesis about the history of insanity and the treatment of mental illness. An article in the Indianapolis News noted that she also graduated from a “Female medical college of Chicago” and practiced at a Woman’s hospital in Boston. In 1883, Indiana Hospital for the Insane Superintendent Dr. William Fletcher appointed Dr. Stockton to the woman’s department. He stated in 1884:
It may not be that a larger number of women would recover under special treatment, but it would be a comfort to every parent, brother, and sister, to know that their afflicted loved ones who are insane from the fact of being a woman, were to fall into the hands of a cultured and refined female physician when shut behind the hospital bars.
The progressive superintendent-who abolished the use of restraints and advocated moral treatment of patients-lauded Dr. Stockton’s accomplishments and those of female doctors in general. He noted at a medical conference that her appointment to the “woman’s department has proven a great benefit to a large class of patients hitherto utterly uncared for, so far as their special maladies were concerned.” He added “I do not understand how a hospital for insane women can reach its best results without the kindly aid of educated, skillful medical women.”
In the era during which Dr. Stockton practiced, many in the medical establishment believed that reproductive organs and menstrual function correlated with mental disorders. According to Nicole R. Kobrowski’s Fractured Intentions: A History of Central State Hospital for the Insane, “It was believed that because of the nervous energy and cerebral movement, the body used the menstrual blood as a power source for the body,” therefore irregular periods and menopause could induce insanity. In her 1885 “Report of Special Work in the Department for Women,” Dr. Stockton generally ascribed to this theory, but noted that she did not “believe that in every instance it takes part in causing insanity.” She wrote:
Agitation of the mind from external influences, or increased cerebral excitement that calls for a greater amount of blood and nervous energy, will for a time arrest the menstrual flow. In those cases removal of the exciting cause, with remedies that will aid in restoring the nervous and mental equilibrium, will usually result in a return of menstruation, and prove to be the first evidence of recovery.
Generally this treatment consisted of applying tonics to the “pelvic organs” and occasionally required surgery. Dr. Stockton’s “bedside manner,” and the fact that she was a female physician serving in a woman’s department, proved as important to patient health as medicinal treatment.
In her Personal Reminiscences of Insanity; Or, Personal Reminiscences of Insanity, Anna Agnew expressed how vital Dr. Stockton’s presence was to her recovery, noting “If I could only express the hopefulness her words inspired, not that I cared then to live, for I did not, but I was so thankful to be relieved from my terrible physical sufferings, and she was so handsomely dressed, too!” Agnew was deeply moved by Dr. Stockton’s compassionate treatment, writing:
And I still retain my admiration for my friend, and have added to my admiration of her personal appearance and intellectual endowments-love-for her never failing kindness and sympathy toward me in my sorrowful life. Thus this advantage one possesses in having a woman for your physician.
In fact, Agnew so valued Dr. Stockton she admitted that although she was not a women’s rights activist, “I do with all my soul sanction, her education as a physician! And for the sake, and in behalf of suffering woman-insane women in particular-since they can not tell their misery, I make an appeal to the board of trustees of every female hospital for the insane in the land, for the appointment of a woman upon their medical staff.” Dr. Mary Spink, an Indianapolis doctor who practiced during the same period, noted similarly that female patients preferred women doctors because “‘the man’s policy is to always laugh and make fun of hysterical and nervous women. . . . it makes the poor women mad, just the same, and they naturally seek more sympathizing ears.'”
While at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, Dr. Stockton was pressured by administrators to overlook dismal hospital conditions, resulting partly from lack of funding and staffing. However, she bravely testified in February 1887 that the butter was filled with worms, which was “not an uncommon thing.” In March 1889, the Indianapolis Journal reported on an investigation into the hospital’s conditions. Dr. Stockton again testified against the institution, despite dreading “the ruling powers at the hospital.” CC Roth, former assistant storekeeper, alleged that the trustees “‘had it in for anyone’ who disclosed the entire truth about the hospital, and that of the witnesses at the investigation two years ago those who told the truth about Sullivan’s maggoty butter and the conduct of the trustees had one after another been discharged.”
Indeed, Dr. Stockton was fired as a result of her testimony. However, she “did not heed its insolent imperiousness, but took time to withdraw from the place she has served so long and so faithfully with the deliberation that any person under like circumstances would employ.” One hospital trustee lamented her dismissal and the politics surrounding it, noting that Dr. Galbraith “was the most inefficient man who ever held the position of superintendent at the hospital, and that Dr. Stockton was the only really capable physician out there.”
Dr. Stockton continued to practice medicine after leaving the hospital, working at former superintendent Dr. Fletcher’s private sanatorium in Indianapolis (later known as Neuronhurst).
In 1891 she served as physician at the Indiana State Reformatory for Girls and Prison for Women. Around 1900, Dr. Stockton returned to her former hospital, renamed Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. Ten years later, the Indianapolis Star hailed her as a pioneer in her field, noting “Not longer than thirty years ago there was only one woman physician in Indianapolis-Dr. Sarah Stockton. Now there are fifty.” Similarly, the Arkansas Democrat described her in 1916 as “one of the leading women physicians in the United States.”
Early-20th century newspapers reported on the noted physician’s suffrage work. Illustrating why the fight for women’s equality was necessary, Dr. Spink stated that women doctors rarely married and that “the average man won’t enter the connubial harness with a woman who can’t attended to household duties.” Dr. Maria Gates was the only Indianapolis doctor at the time who married and it is “a significant fact that she dropped the ‘Dr.’ the moment the knot was clinched.”
The Indianapolis News stated in December 1915 that Dr. Stockton was slated to present a paper titled “The Woman Physician” at the Indianapolis branch of the Women’s Franchise League as part of a panel about women in “professional and business life.” In January 1917, nineteen stenographers signed a petition to protest the anti-suffrage movement in Indiana, citing suffrage as “a weapon that business women needed in dealing with the business world.” Nineteen graduates of Vassar College signed a similar petition. Dr. Stockton joined nineteen women doctors who also signed a pro-suffrage petition “‘just because it is right.'” In 1920, she gave a talk at a reminiscence meeting of the Indianapolis League of Women voters, along with other notable Hoosier women like Mrs. Meredith Nicholson and Miss Charity Dye.
After dedicating twenty-five years of service to Central State Hospital and fighting for women’s right to vote, Dr. Stockton passed away at midnight of March 14, 1924. The Indianapolis Star reported that the “widely-known woman physician” had a “wide circle of acquaintances, both socially and professionally.” Most notably, she provided solace for countless female patients in an otherwise desolate hospital environment.
On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.
Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.
The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.
Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale). The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.
Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”
However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:
‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’
In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”
Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”
While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.
Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.
On December 17, 1942, the Indianapolis Times noted that Pulitzer-Prize winning author Booth Tarkington was not only a master novelist, but a “student of human nature.” This is evident in the pieces he penned for local newspapers regarding his belief that national isolationism contributed to global war. Prior to America’s involvement in World War II, during the conflict, and following the United States use of the atomic bomb to end it, Tarkington continually plead for national engagement as a way to prevent future bloodshed.
Tarkington knew a thing or two about political activism. Born in Indianapolis in 1869, he earned widespread literary acclaim with his first novel TheGentleman from Indiana (1899). The popularity of this book and his successive Monsieur Beaucaire proved enough to win election to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902. The Columbus Republic noted that although Tarkington “is unknown to the party workers, the fame of his stories have been sufficient to land him a nomination.” He easily won the elected office without campaigning, but served only one session after becoming completely disillusioned with politics. However, he utilized his legislative experience as material for his 1905 book, In The Arena, which was set in a fictional midwestern legislature.
Although he stepped away from the Statehouse, Tarkington’s political activism never waned, particularly regarding America’s involvement in war. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he lent his voice to the American minority that supported engagement in the war. He traced the growing European conflict back to the United States’ decision not to join the League of Nations, an international organization proposed by President Woodrow Wilson after World World I. The League sought to prevent war by providing “a forum for resolving international disputes.” According to Tarkington, America’s retreat from the international sphere created a “pacifist nation.” He wrote, “There grew up a belief that it was a kind of a silly war, and that England led us into it. Then war was made disreputable.” This detachment, he said, led Americans to overlook legitimate national security threats.
The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian noted that a “combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in World War I contributed to pushing American public opinion and policy toward isolationism.” Sensitive to this, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to keep America out of the war abroad and convinced Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941. The bill enabled the United States to dispatch badly-needed arms and war supplies in an attempt to the help Britain defeat Hitler’s forces and to stall its own military engagement.
Appraising the Lend-Lease Bill, Tarkington posited in April 1941 via the Indianapolis Star that simply supplying arms would likely prove too little too late, noting “Having done our best to keep out of war, we now either take another chance of getting into it or await our own turn with the Nazis, which might not mean a long waiting.” He added, “Every intelligent American knows now . . . that his country and his family and he, himself, are imperiled by Hitler’s will to ruin them for the aggrandizement of Nazi power.”
On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into military involvement. Congress declared war on Japan the following day. Tarkington noted in an interview published in the Indianapolis Star in January 1942 that “the day of isolationism is past, whether you like it or not.” He conflated America’s absorption into the conflict abroad with his move from his house on Pennsylvania Street to Meridian Street in Indianapolis, stating that his old “neighborhood is almost downtown. It was considered some distance out in earlier years . . . The same thing is happening in the world today. There are more people-the world is more concentrated.”
After learning of the casualties of WWII, Tarkington suggested in December 1942, that engagement proved more necessary than ever because humans are “self-seeking” and “still pretty close to prehistoric savagery.” Unchecked, they were “‘slashing at each other’s jugular veins'” and countries had “gone back to wholesale murder.” Tarkington put his money where his mouth was, in terms of engagement, as the motorboat at his Maine home was “commandeered for an auxiliary flotilla to discourage submarines along the coast. Mr. Tarkington went out almost every day to do his bit at ‘soldiering.'”
The Hoosier author looked towards the conclusion of the war, having no doubt that the Allies would win. He again returned to the idea of the League of Nations, noting “We’re going to justify Woodrow Wilson . . . The country is ready to do that now.” Americans had been hesitant to join such a council for fear of losing autonomy, but Tarkington felt that American interests could be assured while collaborating with nations to stamp out global aggression.
A member of the Indiana Committee for Victory, Tarkington posed a question to Indiana Republican candidates for Congress on April 30, 1944. He asked, via the Indianapolis Star, “How shall the United States obtain a peace that will be permanent?” He proposed his own plan, which involved the United States passing a law to outlaw war and inviting other nations to form an organization “in which every concurring nation should have the same number of representatives.”
According to his proposal, all nations would disarm and “any country making war or preparing to make war, no matter in what cause, would bring down upon itself the overwhelming force of all the rest of the world.” Tarkington’s question became increasingly important after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In a piece for the Indianapolis News, entitled “Fools Will Burn,” Tarkington wrote “that fire flash lets us know that we are crossing a strange threshold, stumbling dazed into a new period promptly to be more dangerous to man than the Ice age or the too near approach of a comet.”
In this article, Tarkington challenged the long-held assumption that advancements in weaponry could prevent war by generating fear of increasingly-horrific repercussions. He lamented, “there were more wars; always there were governments that took the people into the new annihilation.” Tarkington considered Congress’s proposal to safeguard the process of developing an atomic bomb laughable. He lampooned this attempt at nuclear exclusivity as “comedy at its lamentable zenith and the bill should be passed by a convention of ostriches. Congress may as well pass a measure keeping electricity a secret and outlawing the use of gasoline engines in Persia.”
In Tarkington’s view, the only thing that could preclude military conflict was engaging with other nations and persuading them to outlaw war. He likened the global interdependence of the early atomic age to a “a family living in a house with walls irretrievably built of dynamite.” Family members who disliked each other had to be counted on to “walk softly” and “not to be irritating to one another.” The household, he suggested, would need an “impartial watchman” to ensure that “nobody jars the walls or has any possible chance to jar them. Disputes in the family would have to be settled without pummelings. Any physical violence at all might set off the dynamite.” This watchman, Tarkington concluded, should be the security council of the United Nations, which “must have complete control of the A-bomb.” On October 24, 1945, this council officially came into existence, when the United Nations Charter was ratified, creating an “international organization designed to end war and promote peace, justice and better living for all mankind.”
Tarkington died on May 19, 1946 in Indianapolis, shortly after the formation of the council. Tarkington’s concerns about nuclear proliferation are more relevant than ever and call to mind his 1945 assertion that “Only suicidal madmen would think A-bomb races with anybody an attractive idea. Mankind has a practical choice between suicide and peace.”
Indiana’s state flag waves from all corners of the state, from the Statehouse to a farmhouse in Selma. It has so proliferated the state’s landscape that it’s easy to assume it has flown since Indiana’s birth. However, it was not until 100 years after statehood that Indiana got a flag representative of the Hoosier people; and it was decades after that before the public recognized the design. We’ll examine why so much time elapsed before Hoosiers proudly hoisted blue and gold from their flagpoles.
We were surprised to learn that the U.S. flag was made Indiana’s official state flag by the Indiana General Assembly in 1901. This changed when, in 1914, Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) delegates Mary Stewart Carey, of Indianapolis, and Mrs. William Gaar, of Richmond, attended the 23rd Continental Congress of the National Society, DAR in Washington, D.C. At the conference they observed that the Memorial Continental Hall was decorated with state flags, but that Indiana was one of few states missing representation. The women returned to Indiana with the goal of obtaining a state banner that was representative and unique to Indiana, particularly in light of Indiana’s upcoming centennial of statehood. The Indianapolis News reported on March 11, 1916 that:
The Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, and some other patriotic organizations, have decided that it is wholly suitable, and very desirable that the Indiana centennial observance should be lastingly marked by the creation and adoption of an Indiana state banner.
The Indiana DAR established a State Flag Committee, headed by Carey, and hosted a public competition for the design of a state banner. The Indianapolis News reported in 1916 that the DAR chapter was careful not to infringe on the existing state flag, reporting that the group:
[I]s not proposing the creation or adoption of a state flag. There is no disposition to try to share the place of the one flag, but there is a feeling that it is wholly appropriate to adopt an individual standard or banner. Other states—all of them thoroughly patriotic and loyal—have done so.
The committee offered a $100 award for the winning entry and received over 200 submissions from Hoosier men and women, as well as applicants from other states. Carey contended in a report of the State Flag Committee:
It is difficult to find a motive to be expressed on our banner, as Indiana has no mountain peak, no great lake or river exclusively its own—but it is possible to find some symbol expressive of its high character and noble history.
As the banner competition progressed, Carey urged contestants to submit simpler designs that could be “recognized at a distance, and simple enough to be printed on a small flag or stamped on a button.” She encouraged applicants to design banners “striking in symbolism” and utilize colors differing from those of the U.S. flag. Hadley’s submission met these suggestions, featuring a gold torch representing liberty atop a blue background. Radiating from the torch were thirteen stars on the outer circle to represent the thirteen original states, five stars in the inner circle to represent the states admitted before Indiana, and a larger star symbolizing the State of Indiana.
(In 1976, David Mannweiler of the Indianapolis News reported that Hadley’s additional submissions in 1916 won prizes for first, second, third and all honorable mention awards. Mannweiler noted that one of the entries included a tulip tree leaf and blossom and another featured an ear of corn with an Indian arrowhead).
After Hadley’s design was selected, it was submitted to the Indiana General Assembly in 1917 for approval and adoption as Indiana’s official state banner. The legislature ordered that the word “Indiana” be added above the star representing the state. The enacted law stated that the banner “shall be regulation, in addition to the American flag, with all of the militia forces of the State of Indiana, and in all public functions in which the state may or shall officially appear.” So as not to conflict with the 1901 legislation, the U.S. flag remained Indiana’s official state flag and Hadley’s design was referred to as the Indiana state banner. In 1955, the General Assembly approved an act making Hadley’s design the state flag of Indiana.
The flag’s designer was born August 5, 1880 in Indianapolis, but spent much of his life in Mooresville, Indiana. Hadley initially attended Indianapolis High School (later renamed Shortridge High School), but transferred to Manual Training High School to study under “Hoosier Group” artist Otto Stark. According to fine arts curator Rachel Berenson Perry, in the fall of 1900 Hadley enrolled in the Pennsylvania Museum and Industrial School of Arts in Philadelphia and studied interior decorating for two years, afterwards working as an interior decorator in Chicago.
Hadley returned to Mooresville and primarily painted watercolors of local landscapes, Some of the subjects he commonly depicted included cabins, streams, woods, outhouses, farmhouses and shrubbery. Perry reported that in 1921 Hadley’s studio in the Union Trust building in Indianapolis had become “well known among art enthusiasts.” The Indianapolis Star noted in December of that year that Hadley traveled through Italy, Switzerland, France, England and Belgium, painting water colors that he later exhibited at the Woman’s Department Club in Indianapolis. The Star article described the water colors:
Of charming quality and lovely color, a veritable delight as to design and pattern, likewise expressive of poetic feeling and an imaginative faculty that bespeaks the true artist, these pictures form an important series in the beautiful work coming from Mr. Hadley’s brush within the last few years that is indeed distinctive.
Hadley gained a reputation for his watercolors and frequently exhibited his work in Indianapolis. He participated in Indiana Artist Club exhibitions and belonged to the prestigious Portfolio Club. The Indianapolis Star Magazine and a Hoosier Salon booklet reported that Hadley received awards for his watercolors at the annual Hoosier Art Salon and Indiana State Fair. A 1922 Indianapolis Star article asserted that the winning Indiana State Fair pieces conveyed “freshness of outlook, evidence of fine color sense and a feeling for harmony and balance. His creative ability and versatility are evident in the handling of various subjects in different mediums.” That same year Hadley was invited to teach at the John Herron Art Institute, where Art Association of Indianapolis bulletins show he frequently exhibited watercolors.
Hadley joined the faculty of the John Herron Art Institute in the fall of 1922 as an interior decorating instructor. The Indianapolis Star reported in November of that year that he taught topics relating to “color design and arrangement of furniture in home interiors.”
In 1929, Hadley’s job at Herron transitioned to water-color instructor. According to The American Magazine of Art, a change in school administration in 1933 led to the dismissal of Hadley along with seven other professors, including “dean of Indiana painters” William Forsyth. Hadley transferred to the Art Institute’s museum in 1932, working as assistant curator.
An Indianapolis Star Magazine article, published in 1951, highlighted the prevalence of his work, stating that “there is a Hadley water color in most of the Indianapolis high schools, and a large one is in the John Herron Art Institute.” The article added that Hadley’s “products are in demand everywhere. Many established artists regard him as a great teacher, partially responsible for their own successes. He is regarded as one of the best water color technicians of the Middle West.” David Mannweiler noted similarly in his 1976 Indianapolis News article that Hadley is regarded as “dean of Hoosier watercolor painters.”
Hadley’s banner submission was met with some apathy, as the Attica Ledger noted in 1917 that:
there were several of the lawmakers that were not enthusiastic over the proposition for a state flag and Gov[ernor James P.] Goodrich himself thought so little of the proposition that he allowed it to become a law without his signature.
Similarly, the Hoosier public remained largely unaware of the emblem. The Ledger suggested that same year that most readers would not recognize the banner if they passed it. The Indianapolis News reported at the end of 1917 that the banner had yet to be publicly displayed (having only been exhibited at a DAR convention) until Carey presented it to the crew of the U.S.S. Indiana. Perry noted that after Carey’s gesture the banner “virtually disappeared from public consciousness for several years.” Indianapolis newspapers reported in 1920 that the public remained generally unaware of the banner’s existence. The Indianapolis News asserted that “probably not one person in a thousand knows what the state flag is.” An Indianapolis Star article lamented the banner’s lack of visibility, stating:
[I]n the four years that have elapsed since the centennial celebration, this flag has never been displayed at a public gathering with the exception of the celebration of the centennial of Indiana [U]niversity, and then, through the instrumentality of a pageant master from another state. It was not seen during the Indianapolis centennial celebration, nor during the recent encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. . . The flag is not to be found in the Statehouse . . . some one in authority should see that this flag should be manufactured and should be displayed on all suitable occasions together with the flag of the United States.
The Indianapolis News reported in 1931 that members of the Mooresville Delta Iota Chapter of Tri Kappa made state banners to sell through their sorority. Member M.E. Carlisle stated “‘We have felt that the state banner has not been receiving the proper attention in the state’” and that “‘many people do not know that we have one and some that do would not recognize it if they saw it. Our idea is to acquaint the state with its banner.’”
Visibility of the banner increased somewhat when American soldiers serving overseas in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War requested it as a symbol of home and solidarity. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1942 that:
When Hoosier soldiers gather in USO headquarters or other recreation spots, the Indiana flag of blue and gold is a symbol of home, displayed much more widely now than it was during World War No. 1. Viewing the banner prompts handclasps which are the beginning of friendships, stories of people at home, and singing of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash.’
The banner was sent to Hoosier soldier Private First Class Edman R. Camomile, serving in the Korean War, who flew it from a hilltop on the war front. He stated “‘It is the most wonderful thing that could happen to me. Just knowing the United States flag and all 48 state flags are flying high over different areas of Korea shows that they all stand for peace to all mankind.’” According to the News, an unofficial query showed that the state did not mass produce the flag and that they were made only when ordered, speaking to the continuing lack of demand for the emblem. Marine Corporal Tony Fisher, fighting in the Vietnam War, requested an Indiana flag. He flew it over his gun pit, returning it “tattered and torn and perhaps bullet nicked.”
By 1966, many Hoosiers recognized Hadley’s design because of concerted efforts by the Indiana legislature to encourage celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial. On February 24, 1965, the Indiana House of Representatives approved a resolution stating observance of the sesquicentennial “should include widespread display of the State Flag of Indiana throughout the State.” The resolution directed state-funded institutions and schools to purchase and display the flag. Additionally, the Indiana Senate approved a resolution honoring Hadley for his design, stating “in connection with the observation of the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1966, [the Senate] does hereby honor and commend Mr. Paul Hadley, an octogenarian citizen of the State of Indiana, for his brilliant and perceptive work in designing the official flag of the State of Indiana.”
The measures were largely successful in bringing awareness to the flag. A June 2, 1966 Indianapolis News article reported “almost any school child can recite the significance of the present official flag” and that “today it is known by all public-spirited Hoosiers of all ages.” The Delphi Journal noted that the state flag, purchased by the “Sesqui” group, was on display and would be exhibited at the REMC auditorium. The Tipton Tribune informed readers that the Sesquicentennial Queen would be delivering a tribute to Hadley. The anniversary of statehood was commemorated on a national scale at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California with a float depicting the state flag and other symbols of Indiana. The flag continues to be used publicly to represent and celebrate the Hoosier state, such as its display at the 2015 Statehood Day, an event that kicked off Indiana’s bicentennial celebration.
Check out IHB’s new historical marker and corresponding notes to learn more about the flag and its designer.
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During WWII at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, women and African American employees, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.
Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is his final performance, which occurred at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His concert, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriarch of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics.
Aside from two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten until 1928 when a researcher rediscovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.
William “Bill” Monroe’s Hoosier roots run deep. While Bill was born and raised in Kentucky, he moved to northwest Indiana in 1929 when was he was just eighteen years old. His brother Charlie started a job at the Sinclair Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, and sent for Bill and their other brother, Birch. It was the start of the Great Depression, and the crowds outside the refinery of eager job seekers grew large enough that the police moved them so the street cars could get through.
As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans in Indiana, prompting the Indiana General Assembly to pass prohibitive laws. Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.
On April 30, the Lincoln funeral train passed into Indiana where Lincoln spent much of his youth (1816-1830). The War Department directed: “The route from Columbus to Indianapolis is via the Columbus and Indianapolis Railroad, and from Indianapolis to Chicago via Lafayette and Michigan Railroad. In order to guard against accidents, trains will not run faster than twenty miles per hour.” The train stopped in Richmond first, at 3 a.m., to the sound of tolling bells and a crowd of somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Here, Governor Oliver P. Morton and almost 100 elected officials paid their respects. The governor and other several other high-ranking officials boarded the train for the trip to the state capital.
Long before Indiana Governor ran as vice president, another Hoosier sought the office in 1852. Centerville’s George Washington Julian was a radical political leader defined by his strong moral convictions. During a period marked by slavery, Civil War, monopolies, and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women, Julian tirelessly advocated for abolition, equal rights, and land reform. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849-1851, served as an attorney in several fugitive slave cases in the 1850s (one which included a daring escape plan), ran for vice president on the Free Soil ticket in 1852, and again served as the U.S. House from 1861-1871.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American athletes would follow his lead to join professional league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball.
Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah T. Bolton was born as Sarah Barrett in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Her family moved to Indiana when she was a young child, and when much of the state was still unsettled. According to the Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.
Beulah Bondi’s is not a recognizable name today, but her face certainly is. You’ve likely seen it in classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Valparaiso, Indiana native portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times on film, including Vivacious Lady and Of Human Hearts, in addition to Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Stewart affectionately called Bondi “Mom.” By the ripe old age of 39, Bondi was cast to play characters well beyond her age and she became the equivalent of “Hollywood’s mother,” despite herself never marrying or having children.
“America’s greatest character actress,” according to United Artists, MGM, and Paramount, was born Beulah Bondy in 1888. She got her start at the age of seven as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” at Valparaiso’s Memorial Opera House. After the lead actress fell ill, she had one week to memorize 47 pages worth of lines and became hooked on acting after delivering them on the stage. The young actress was drawn to “dramatics” and the stage throughout her public education, including her time at the Convent of the Holy Name and Valparaiso University.
After graduation from university, she traveled the Midwest with a theatrical touring company. The Valparaiso Vidette Messenger reported that she changed her last name to “Bondi” at the suggestion of an Indianapolis journalist. Bondi noted, laughing, that “‘He said all of the letters in my name should be above the [credit] line.”
Following her work with an Indianapolis stock theater company, Bondi began her professional acting career in 1919. She was promptly informed by her first director that she “‘had no more talent than on the head of a pin.'” This criticism equipped her to endure even the most difficult directors of stage and film. In 1925, Bondi made her Broadway debut, beginning a prolific Broadway career that would eventually deliver her to Hollywood acclaim. According to the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger, film producer Samuel Goldwyn viewed her Broadway performance as a bigoted neighbor in the three-year run of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” and brought her to Hollywood.
From “dowagers to harridans,” Bondi deliberately chose character work, embodying each of the characters she played. In 1929, the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger printed excerpts of colorful New York reviews of Bondi’s portrayals:
“As a catty and scandal mongering neighbor Miss Beulah Bondi never overplays a role that would tease a lesser actress to do so.”
“Beulah Bondi who was so good in ‘Saturday’s Children’ and so amusing in ‘Cock Robin,’ turns out a gossipy busy body with remarkable detail and rare effect.”
In “Street Scene:” “the comedy relief is intrusted [sic] to the greatest character actress in America, Beulah Bondi. Hers was a magnificent performance.”
Bondi reflected in 1976 that “With each part, I ‘meet the woman’ for the first time when I read the script . . . And then I imagine her past life-what made her into the character she is.” She appeared in over 50 major films, appearing with Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyk, and of course her “son” Jimmy.
The Vidette Messenger noted that Bondi came to be greatly respected by directors because she:
“was never given ‘The Grand Build-up’ by inspired press agents. She is just one of the ‘old timers’ on the various lots, highly capable and highly dependable. Neither temperamental nor demanding, she is an actress to delight both producers and directors. She choses [sic] her parts with great discrimination, asking always the best, and always giving her best.”
Bondi received recognition and accolades for her supporting roles, receiving commendation by the New York Times for her role in the 1939 film On Borrowed Time, in which she played opposite Lionel Barrymore. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1936 for The Gorgeous Hussy and 1938 for Of Human Hearts. At the sunset of her career, Bondi received an Emmy award in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for her portrayal as Aunt Martha on an episode of The Waltons.
The Vidette Messenger aptly concluded in 1976 that Bondi “deserves a place in the series of local celebrities-and unlike some who have gone off to conspicuous success in the entertainment world-she never belittled the town that was the scene of her childhood. She is a product of Valparaiso-and proud of it.” In her 80s, Bondi quipped to the newspaper that same year “‘I never played an actress my own age . . . I now play girls of 16.'” The acclaimed Hoosier passed away on January 12, 1981 in Hollywood, leaving behind a legacy of compelling silver screen characters.