Better with Age: The Late-Blooming of Artist Will Vawter

Will Vawter, Autumn in Brown County, n.d., Flanner Buchanan Indiana the Beautiful Art Collection, https://flannerbuchanan.com/our-art-collection/.

Since at least the late-19th century, art galleries and critics have focused most of their attention on young, emerging artists. This strategy has paid off for savvy dealers and galleries, as these rising stars of the art world have brought in large amounts of money and produced blockbuster shows. The downside of this trend for the artists themselves, is that it can be difficult to find places to exhibit and sell their work as they get older. This is especially disappointing, as many artists peak later in life and produce their best work in their golden years. In this way, an artist’s best work might go largely unappreciated. [1]

Georgia O’Keeffe, From a Day with Juan II, 1977, Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org.

There are signs that this reign of young artists may be coming to an end. For example, the Tate announced that artists over the age of 50 would now be eligible for the coveted Turner Prize, awarded to a British artist each year for innovation in the arts. This shift recognizes that older artists can also be innovators. [2]

Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] recently featured an exhibition titled The Long Run, which featured artists who were at least 45 years old when they made the exhibited piece of artwork. Most were much older, like Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted From a Day with Juan II at 90. The MOMA explained:

Innovation in art is often characterized as a singular event—a bolt of lightning that strikes once and forever changes what follows. The Long Run provides another view: by chronicling the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, it suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio. [3]

The Carter Burden Gallery, accessed NPR.

The Carter Burden Gallery, which like other New York City spaces sells its artists’ works for thousands of dollars, is different in one significant way. All of its exhibited artists are 60 or older. The gallery’s director Marlena Vaccaro told NPR:

Older adults do not stop being who they are because they hit a particular age. Professional artists never stop doing what we do, and in many cases we get better at it as we go along. [4]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Will Vawter at Work in His Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Simply put, some artists get better with age. This was true for Indiana artist Will Vawter. He began his artistic career in the 1890s as a talented but unremarkable illustrator for his local newspaper. He gained popularity mid-career for his drawings that brought the children’s books of James Whitcomb Riley to life. Vawter peaked, later in his life, as one of the finest landscape artists ever to work in Indiana. As the current art world shifts to include older artists, it’s worth examining one Hoosier painter who produced his best work in his late 60s. Will Vawter’s late-blooming reminds us to give exhibit space to older artists, not for the sake of inclusion only, but because we don’t want to miss out on the best work of their careers.

The Early Years of Will Vawter

John William “Will” Vawter was born in West Virginia in 1871 and moved with his family to Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, by 1880. [5] He worked as an illustrator for the (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat before becoming an illustrator at the Indianapolis Sentinel and the Indianapolis News in 1891. [6] In 1893, Vawter got his big break. The Indianapolis Journal dedicated a full page to an exclusive new poem by James Whitcomb Riley. [7] The Journal described the special edition, produced to coincide with a large national Grand Army of the Republic meeting, as “by far the most expensive and delightful feature ever offered its readers by an Indianapolis newspaper.”[8] The newspaper prominently featured Vawter’s illustrations of the poem.

James Whitcomb Riley, “Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the time Vawter started his illustrations for Riley, the “Hoosier Poet” had achieved national renown, and several of his volumes of poetry were best-sellers. [9] Riley was known for using “Hoosier dialect” to create poems “infused with the very spirit of the Hoosier soil from which they sprung.” [10] Likewise, Vawter honed his artistic skills observing life around him for local newspapers. Both men were Greenfield natives and keen observers of the local culture that colored Hoosier life. In this way, Vawter was uniquely positioned to interpret Riley’s work. Thus, the Riley-Vawter pairing, initiated by the Indianapolis Journal, was the beginning of a long creative partnership.

James Whitcomb Riley, Child-Rhymes, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1898 edition accessed Indiana State Library, 1908 edition accessed Hathi Trust.

The Riley Years

In 1898, Indianapolis publisher Bowen-Merrill Company reissued a collection of Riley poems as Riley Child-RhymesVawter’s illustrations were heavily featured in the book. In an extensive interview with the Indianapolis News, Riley  described Vawter’s innate ability to capture the spirit of the folks depicted in the poems. Riley stated:

It is a very gratifying thing to find an artist who is unconsciously aware of the exact situation and who understands his own intimate surroundings. Will Vawter is such an artist. There is no vagueness in his interpretation of the poems of this book. He is a Greenfield boy, and natively an artist . . . He depicted people and things in no patronizing way. They are taken in a realistic spirit; he is of them. [11]

Riley went on to describe the importance of understanding the subtlety of local dialect when dealing with characters like the “town gossip,” for instance. He continued on Vawter’s ability to capture these individuals:

All these characteristics have been unconsciously observed by young Vawter. Now that he comes to sit down and illustrate these scenes and people, he knows his material and surroundings perfectly . . . While he may be criticized for lack of technical finish, it would be dangerous to equip him with an exacting technical art knowledge . . . This would be to the absolute loss of native feeling, of the tone and direct blood relationship that is needed in his work. [12]

Riley’s comments are a mixed bag. He praised Vawter for his talent, but noted his unpolished rendering skills. He admired the way Vawter captured in ink the very people Riley depicted in words, but implied that the artist did so out of naiveté. Vawter captured their essence only because they were just the kind of folks that the simple young man knew and understood. At this early point in his career, Riley did not see Vawter as an artist with a vision of his own. Vawter would prove this assumption wrong much later in his career.

The fact that Riley’s appreciation for Vawter grew over the following years is evidenced by the sheer number of times the author paired with the artist on lushly-illustrated volumes of poetry. Vawter illustrated:

James Whitcomb Riley, Book of Joyous Children (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections.

Riley Farm-Rhymes (1901, 1905 editions),
The Book of Joyous Children (1902),
His Pa’s Romance (1903),
A Defective Santa Claus (1904),
Riley Songs O’ Cheer (1905 edition),
The Boys of the Old Glee Club (1907),
Riley Songs of Summer (1908),
Riley Songs of Home (1910),
Riley Songs of Friendship (1921 edition).

Vawter also created front pieces for Riley’s A Child-World (1897) and Home Folks (1900), and illustrations for short Riley volumes Down Around the River and Other Poems (1911) and Knee Deep in June and Other Poems (1912). [13]

A Golden Age for Greenfield

Vawter illustrated a children’s book for another Greenfield author: his sister, Clara Vawter. “Miss Clara” as the local newspapers called her, was a rising star of the Indiana literary scene. She was writing for “several publications of prominence,” her work was read aloud and praised by the Western Writers’ Association, and publishers had written her “offering to pay her handsomely for her literary work.” The illustrated book by the Vawter siblings, Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven (1899, later published as The Rabbit’s Ransom) was widely praised not only for stimulating the imaginations of children, but also for appealing to the nostalgia of older people. Unfortunately, every article that mentioned Miss Clara’s promise as a writer, also noted her “delicate health” and she died in 1900. Of Such Is the Kingdom was her only published work. [14]

Will Vawter, illustration from The Rabbit’s Ransom by Clara Vawter (Brooklyn: Braunworth, Munn & Barber, 1899), accessed GoogleBooks.

Vawter contributed art to other Greenfield authors. He illustrated historian and poet John Clark Ridpath’s Epic of Life (1893) and contributed engravings to William H. English’s two-volume history Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 (1897). And he illustrated a children’s book by Greenfield author Adelia Pope Branham called Grandma Tales and Others (1899) and poet Barton Rees Pogue’s work Fortunes in Friendship (1926). [15] He made art for numerous other Indiana authors outside of Hancock County. [16] And by the turn of the twentieth century, his original book illustrations were exhibited around the country. [17]

The Rise of American Impressionism

By this time, Vawter was an accomplished illustrator, working in a popular style, and highly demanded by publishers. With the drastic increase in number and circulation of illustrated journals across the country, an illustrator like Vawter could stay gainfully employed in that medium. At the same time, American artists were hungry for an artistic style they could call their own. American painters educated in Europe were returning with the influence of French impressionism – broad, quick strokes, a bright palette, an eye for capturing the effects of light, and a desire to paint en plein air, or outside the walls of the studio. For example, Indiana-born painter William Merritt Chase shifted from the darker tones of the Munich school where he was trained as a young man, to the bright, impressionist style of the era’s avante garde painters during his mid and late career. Working out of his studio in New York, Chase and his colleagues helped to define this style of American Impressionism. These artists remained at home, painting scenes of life and landscape in the United States, as opposed to expatriating to European art capitals like their predecessors. While they drew on artistic elements from European styles as they saw fit, their goal was to create a uniquely American style of art. [18]

William Merritt Chase, Ready for the Ride, oil on canvas, 1877, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accessed collections.mfa.org.
William Merritt Chase, At the Seaside, oil on canvas, ca. 1892, Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

The Aesthetic Pull of Brown County

Another Hoosier painter took this localism further, pushing his cohorts to not just remain in the U.S., but to paint the beauty of their home state. T. C. Steele followed in Chase’s footsteps, studying in Munich before returning to live and work in Indianapolis. Steele found his calling in the Indiana landscape and his muse in the hills of Brown County. Steele’s plein air paintings captured the light and natural beauty of the region and helped establish the reputation of the Hoosier Group, painters of the Indiana landscape that achieved international recognition by 1900. [19]

Indianapolis News, May 4, 1918, 32, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Someone of Vawter’s artistic sensibilities could not help but be influenced by this aesthetic shift, as well as the renown of the Hoosier Group. By 1909, Will and his wife Mary moved to Brown County, Indiana, just south of Nashville on a scenic farm they jokingly called “Rattlesnake Terrace” after some of the local fauna. Vawter set up a studio in an “old clapboard-roofed log cabin” with an expansive view of the property. Reportedly he kept a cow grazing on the property, despite the fact that it gave very little milk, because it added “picturesque interest to the landscape.” [20] While Vawter continued to derive his income from newspaper and magazine illustration, he too was enraptured by the Brown County landscape and began to work in an impressionist style influenced by the Hoosier Group. [21]

Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, n.d., accessed Fine Art America.
Frank M. Hohenberger, “Willa Vawter Painting in Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was known to be kind and became popular with the locals. A 1917 Indianapolis News article reported on a little girl who came to visit him in his studio, carrying a well-loved doll. Noticing that the doll’s painted face had faded, Vawter “painted a new face with the rosiest cheeks and a beautiful pair of unwinking blue eyes.” The little girl left “bubbling over with gratitude.” Vawter went back to his work, but only for a few minutes. He was interrupted by another little girl holding her doll, and a half hour later, he had a dozen little fans gathered outside the studio. He quit trying to work and “gave up the day to making faces for all kids of dolls, from the old-fashioned rag baby to the most pretentious efforts in wax.” After fixing everyone’s toy over the course of a day, he joked that “this beauty parlor has closed.” [22]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Vawter in Potato Patch,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was just as generous with his fellow artists. After becoming interested in etching in 1919, he opened up the small studio he had moved to in downtown Nashville, Indiana, to his peers. The modest room stood over a grocery store and still displayed the sign of the previous occupant, a realtor. It housed a copper plate printing press, cans of ink, cheesecloth for wiping the plates, a table, and a stove.

The Brown County Democrat reported:

Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, Hoosier State Chronicles.

It is understood between the few members of a little community etching and printing club that any member is free to use the press, stove, table, etc, but no member must be guilty of using any other member’s printing rags. [23]

In September 1919, Vawter exhibited some of these etchings at the H. Lieber Company art store in downtown Indianapolis, along with oil paintings by Steele and others. [24] While his work gained popularity across the state, Vawter worked to enhance the art scene in Brown County.

Will Vawter, Brown County Landscape, 1920, accessed MutualArt.

By August of 1920, Vawter and fellow artist Adolph R. Shulz, were working to establish an art museum. They found support in unlikely places, both with artists and locals hoping that such an art center would preserve the “nature wonders of a country that is fast losing its old-fashioned atmosphere,” and local businessmen who saw it as a means to increase tourism. [25] Their dream became a reality in 1926 with the opening of a gallery on the public square.  The artists and locals supporting the gallery formed the Brown County Art Gallery Association in order to open quality exhibitions to the public. [26]

In 1925, the work of Vawter and his fellow Brown County artists was exhibited at the art galleries of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. This exhibit, known as the “Hoosier Salon,” was popular and well-covered by the press, thus establishing Vawter permanently in the canon of great Indiana artists. For his oil painting Our Alley, which depicted a winter scene in Brown County, he won the Frank Cunningham prize and one hundred dollars. He continued to exhibit regularly at the H. Lieber gallery in Indianapolis and the Hoosier Salon in Chicago into the 1930s. [27]

The Late-Blooming of Vawter

Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27, accessed Newspapers.com.

But it was in the last years of his life that Vawter created his finest work. No one was better poised to observe this development than Lucille E. Morehouse, an insightful art critic whose popular column “In The World of Art” ran for decades in the Indianapolis Star. [28] In 1936, she covered the Annual Brown County Exhibit at the H. Lieber Company galleries, as she did every year. Morehouse clearly had a fondness for the Brown County artists but also a certain weariness of their subject matter, the landscapes of the county in various seasons, which had become standard fare by the 1930s. Nonetheless, she covered the show in her usual energetic and descriptive manner, because it was still in demand by the public. She explained that the show’s popularity was owed to Indianapolis residents, who vacationed in Brown County and looked to the paintings as reminders of their scenic vacations.

She explained that the public appreciated that Brown County Artists hadn’t changed their style, that they resisted modernism, and made pictures that could “smooth away the cares of the day.” [29] On the other hand, Morehouse wrote: “Sometimes we wish they would paint new subjects or would interpret the old ones in a different angle.”[30] Vawter did just that. Unlike his colleagues, Vawter began to travel in his later years and it refreshed his work. Morehouse especially praised Vawter’s recent painting Blue Pool, which was “one of the fine things from the group of New England coast scenes and Marines.” [31]

Will Vawter, Along the Coast, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

Besides exhibiting his reinvigorated work alongside the Brown County artists, Vawter showed his marine paintings in a one-man show at the H. Lieber Company gallery. Morehouse praised his bold paintings in a lengthy article. [32] Comparing his marinescapes with an earlier, popular Brown County fall landscape, she wrote:

When a Hoosier from the Brown county woods goes East to paint New England coast scener[y], one might expect him to go about it timidly. Not so Will Vawter. He makes his brush slash into the ocean just as if it were putting “the glory of autumn” on canvas. [33]

For Morehouse, who had long been familiar with Vawter’s work, these paintings of coastal scenes were like seeing his work fresh for the first time. She wrote:

But I never have been able to throw off my early feeling of wonder when I back away from a broadly-painted canvas and see form emerging from massively-painted surfaces over which the brush had evidently moved with more or less of inspiration. [34]

Detail of Vawter’s Along the Coast showing the abstraction of the work up close as opposed to the impressionist style of the larger work as noted by Morehouse.

She continued to praise the spontaneity of the work and the “striking evidence of genius” in his mastery of form and “expression of light and atmosphere.” [35] The works were vigorous, alive, and fresh, proving the innovative spirit of the older artist.

In 1938, Vawter again held a solo show. This time he combined his seascapes with other scenes from his travels, including hilly landscapes painted on the East Coast. In a show of maturity as an artist, he also included new, but traditional views of Brown County. He could both try new things and showcase his mastery of the light and scenery of his home county. Morehouse took note:

Indianapolis Star, December 26, 1939, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

What a heritage Will Vawter will leave to Hoosierdom! The longer he paints, the more beauty he captures from nature and transfers to canvas. Because the present exhibit is so all-inclusive, representing every phase of his work. [36]

Morehouse described his Brown County landscapes as “lusciously painted,” his flower still lifes as “vigorously alive,” and again praised his adventuring beyond his home state for new subject matter. [37] She concluded that Vawter’s 1938 exhibit “surpasses all previous showings by this gifted Hoosier painter of landscape.” [38] At 67 years old, Vawter was reaching his artistic peak.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1940, 76, Newspapers.com.

In 1940, just two months before his death, Vawter held what would be his last one-man exhibition. It surpassed all previous exhibitions, even the acclaimed 1938 show. Vawter showed nineteen paintings, including tranquil seascapes, the Great Smoky Mountains in early fall, the New England coast in spring, and Brown County landscapes from all seasons. For Morehouse, even his paintings of traditional flower still lifes felt fresh and vibrant. She explained that Vawter didn’t just reproduce the appearance of the plants, but that “he interprets the souls of flowers, makes us feel their personality.” In fact, Morehouse regretted that she couldn’t do Vawter justice by describing his paintings; you just had to see them. She wrote that he depicted something “spiritual that can be expressed only in terms of paint, and not in words.”

Vawter passed away in 1941 after a forty-eight year long art career. But before he died, he mastered not just the technical aspect of art, but found in the heart of his life’s work a spiritual connection to nature so powerful it could be sensed secondhand by the viewer. Will Vawter remains an example to artists everywhere to keep working, despite obstacles the art world places before older artists. By considering the long career of a late-blooming artist, we see that artists can do their best work in their autumn years. Hopefully, art museums and galleries will continue to make more space for this mature, yet still innovative and evolving work.

Will Vawter, A Sunny Day in Springville, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

 

 

 

Notes:
All newspapers accessed Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] Susan Stamberg, “This New York Gallery Has an Unusual Age Limit: No Artists Younger Than 60,” Morning Edition, January 11, 2018, NPR.

[2] Thomas Marks, “Is This A Golden Age for Older Artists?” Apollo: The International Art Magazine, May 29, 2017.

[3] The Long Run, MoMA, November 11, 2017-May 5, 2019.

[4] Stamberg, “This New York Gallery . . .,” NPR.

[5]“The Eclectics,” Indianapolis News, May 14, 1879, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Seriously Hurt,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, July 24, 1879, 3; 1880 United States Census (Schedule 1), Enumeration District 194, Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, Page 15, Line 27, June 5, 1880, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Eclectic Physicians in Council,” Indianapolis News, November 17, 1880, 3. Newspapers and the 1880 census show Will Vawter’s father Lewis working as a physician in Greenfield by 1879. The 1880 census confirms the family’s move.

[6] (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, March 5, 1891, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, April 9, 1891, 1; “Notes of Newspaper Men,” Indianapolis News, December 5, 1891, 7.

[7] James Whitcomb Riley,“Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “That Girl Wuz, and Is, I know, A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, August 30, 1893, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] Advertisement, Indianapolis News, October 14, 1893, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[10] “Riley’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1900, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11]“A Co-Worker with Riley,” Indianapolis News, reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 8, 1898, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Most of Riley’s books featuring Vawter’s illustrations are accessible via Livin’ the Life of Riley Digital Collection, IUPUI University Library. Most other Riley books are accessible via Hathi Trust. First editions are accessible through the Indiana State Library. Vawter’s illustrations for Riley Songs of Cheer are accessed through Newfields.

[14] “New Authoress Rapidly Coming to the Front,” Hancock Democrat, September 21, 1899, 5; “Of Such Is the Kingdom,” Indianapolis Journal, December 11, 1899, 4; Book Buyer 19: 2 (September 1899), 83, accessed HathiTrust; “Miss Clara Vawter Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 12, 1900, 14.

[15] John Clark Ridpath, Epic of Life (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893), accessed HathiTrust; “Mr. English’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, December 14, 1895, 5; William Hayden English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 and, Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Company, 1897), accessed Archive.org; Advertisement, (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, June 1, 1899, 1; “Greenfield Genius,” Hancock Democrat, June 8, 1899, 8; Adelia Pope-Branham, Grandma Tales and Others, (Greenfield, Indiana: Harold Pub. Co. Press, 1899), accessed Archive.org; “Greenfield Now at the 5,000 Mark,” Indianapolis News, November 30, 1901, 3; Charles H. Bartlett, Tales of Kankakee Land (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), accessed HathiTrust; “C. H. Bartlett’s New Book,” South Bend Tribune, April 9, 1904, 6; John William Vawter, Sheet of 15 Illustrations to Barton Rees Pogue’s ‘Fortunes and Friendship,’ pen and ink over pencil on paper, n.d., Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

[16] Robert J. Burdette, Smiles Yoked with Sighs (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1900), accessed HathiTrust; “Recent Literature,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 30, 1900, 13; Advertisement, Indianapolis News, November 14, 1903, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Wallace Bruce Amsbary, The Ballad of Bourbonnais (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904); “The Ballads of Bourbonnais,” Indianapolis News, May 7, 1904, 16; “Among the Books,” Topeka State Journal, June 4, 1904, 13.

[17] Advertisement, (Rochester, New York) Democrat and Chronicle, October 29, 1898, 8; “Exhibit of Paintings by Indiana Artists,” Indianapolis Journal, April 24, 1904, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Exhibit of Original Drawings for Novels,” Indianapolis News, March 20, 1905, 8. Vawter’s illustrations from Riley’s Child Rhymes were exhibited in Rochester, New York in 1898. In 1904, his original illustrations were exhibited at the H. Lieber Art Gallery in Indianapolis and the St. Louis Exposition; in 1905, at the Indianapolis “city library.”

[18] “William Merritt Chase,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[19] “T.C. Steele Home, Studio, Gardens,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[20] (Greenfield ) Daily Reporter, October 9, 1908, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, April 7, 1909, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, May 11, 1909, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, May 13, 1909, 1; “Vawter’s Brown County Home,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 8, 1909, 1; “Rattlesnake Terrace, the Vawter Home,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, August 12, 1909, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; N. L., “A Day in the Artists’ Arcadia in Brown County,” (Muncie) Star Press, September 5, 1909, 14; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, October 28, 1909, 8.

[21] William Forsyth, “Art in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, September 27, 1916, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Paintings of Local Artists Exhibited,” Indianapolis News reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 27, 1917, 4; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; William Herschell, “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Art Notes,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1920, 5; John William Vawter, Barnes Cabin on Owl Creek, Brown County, circa 1920, Oil on Canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, published in Lyn Letsinger-Miller, Artists of Brown County (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 41.

[22] “Little Stories of Daily Life,” Indianapolis News, May 3, 1917, 24, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[23] “Produced in Brown County Etching Club Shop,” Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Brown County Etchers’ Club,” Brown County Democrat, June 12, 1919, 5.

[24] Ibid.; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[25] “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Urge a Museum to Keep Romance of Hoosier Art,” South Bend News-Times, August 12, 1920, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] “Brown County Art Gallery at Nashville,” Brown County Democrat, September 2, 1926, 1; “Brown County Art Gallery Is Assured,” Brown County Democrat, September 9, 1926, 1; “New Art Gallery,” Huntington Herald, September 8, 1926, 8; “Artists in Brown County Organize,” Indianapolis Star, September 8, 1926, 1; “Art Gallery Association Grows Rapidly,” Brown County Democrat, September 16, 1926, 1; “Open Art Gallery in Brown County,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1926, 5; “Vawter Heads Local Artists’ Association,” October 23, 1930, 1.

[27] “Brown County Artists at Exhibit in Chicago,” Brown County Democrat, March 5, 1925, 1; “Winter Scene Wins Prize for Artist,” Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1925, 11; “Richmond Man Wins Art Prize,” Richmond Item, March 7, 1926, 1; “46 Paintings by Brown County Artists Put on Display at Lieber’s Galleries,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1927, 24; “Vawter’s Landscape Wins Prize in Exhibit at Hoosier Salon in Chicago Galleries,” Indianapolis News, January 31, 1928, 7; “Eighth Hoosier Salon Will Be Held in Field Galleries Jan. 23 to Feb. 6,” Indianapolis Star, December 20, 1931, 50. Other newspaper articles on Vawter’s exhibitions available in the IHB marker file.

[28] “Miss Morehouse Dies; Ex-Art Critic,” Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27.

[29] Lucille E. Morehouse, “In The World of Art: Local Art Exhibitions Scheduled for December Are Distinctly Inviting and of Unusual Character,” Indianapolis Star, December 6, 1936, 75.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Brown County Landscapist Turns Marine Painter; One-Man Show at Lieber Gallery for Another Week,” Indianapolis Star, November 22, 1936, 65.

[33 – 35] Ibid.

[36] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Will Vawter’s Exhibition Tops Previous Shows,” Indianapolis Star, December 18, 1938, 69.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

Dr. Sarah Stockton: In Love with Her Profession

Dr. Sarah Stockton with male colleagues at the Central State Hospital pathology lab library, 1910, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

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.”

Instructions written by Dr. Stockton, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

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.

Anna Agnew, From Under the Cloud (1886), courtesy of Archive.org.

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.'”

Indianapolis Sun, March 26, 1895, accessed Newspaper Archive.

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).

Ad, Indiana Medical Journal vol. 26, iss. 10, accessed Google Books.

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.”

Circa 1900, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

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.

Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1924, accessed Newspapers.com.

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.

Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Hayden English: A Man Apart

William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

When I started researching him, William Hayden English seemed like a pretty typical figure for the 19th century: Congressman, businessman, Vice-Presidential candidate. However, I soon realized how complicated his life and his politics really were.

English played a key role in the unrest in Kansas during the antebellum period, yet supported the Union during the Civil War (but was still antagonistic towards Lincoln’s presidency). A deal broker, English often chose the middle of the road. He was a conciliator, a compromiser, and a tactical politician who was a Pro-Union Democrat who held misgivings about both slave-sympathizers in the South and radical Republicans in the North. In more ways than one, he was truly a man apart.

William Hayden English was born on August 27, 1822. Early in his life, English received some formal education. According to a letter by E. D. McMaster from 1839, English received education in the “Preparatory and Scientific departments” of Hanover College. Additionally, he received accreditation to teach multiple subjects at common schools by examiners Samuel Rankin and John Addison. He would eventually leave school and pursue law, where he passed the bar in 1840.

The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

His major break in politics came with his selection as the principal Secretary of the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850. During his time as Secretary, he earned the reputation as being a thoughtful and balanced tactician, someone who was willing to work with others and make things happen.

The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Using this newly-earned reputation, English was first elected to the Indiana House of Representatives from Scott County in August of 1851. On March 8, 1852, after the resignation of Speaker John Wesley Davis, English was elected Speaker of the House with an overwhelming majority of the vote. He was only 29 years old, making him the one of the youngest Speakers in Indiana History.

In his election speech, he stated his praise for the new Constitution and called for a full new legal code to be established. He additionally called for a “spirit of concession and compromise” and for his colleagues to “zealously apply himself to the completion of the great work intrusted [sic] to us by a generous constituency.” In effect, the Indiana House of Representatives under Speaker English had consolidated state government and extended its purview to neglected regions of the state.

William English's officialt Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
William English’s official Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in state government, English was called for national service. He won his first election to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and was reelected in 1854, 1856, and 1858. During his tenure in Congress, English would be remembered for his “wise and patriotic course in Congress,” notably his important role in crafting a controversial bill that gave Kansas the choice of whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state.

English’s time in Congress, much like the rest of his political career, can be seen as pragmatic. While he morally abhorred slavery, he condemned abolitionists and believed in the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which argued that the people of a state or territory should choose for themselves whether to have slavery. He stated his view in a speech in 1854:

Sir, I am a native of a free State [sic], and have no love for the institution of slavery. Aside from the moral question involved, I regard it as an injury to the State where it exists….But sir, I never can forget that we are a confederacy of States, possessing equal rights, under our glorious Constitution. That if the people of Kentucky believe the institution of slavery would be conducive to their happiness, they have the same right to establish and maintain that we of Indiana have to reject it; and this doctrine is just as applicable to States hereafter to be admitted as to those already in the Union.

During this session, Congress was debating a bill named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Compromise of 1820) and allow for states and their citizens to decide whether they wanted to be admitted as a slave state or free state. English voted for the bill and it was later signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Almost immediately, violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates in the state, who could not agree on the direction of the state constitution.

Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the "English Bill" that would later ensure that Kansas as a free state. Today, he is best remembered for being the Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the “English Bill” that hoped to quell unrest in the territory of Kansas. Ironically, he is best remembered for being Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his reelection in 1856, English, along with congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, went to work on a compromise bill that would potentially quell the violence and political unrest. This compromise, known as the English Bill, allowed the citizens of Kansas to either accept or reject the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. However, if the citizens of Kansas chose to be a slave state by referendum, they had to additionally let go of federal land grants within the territory.

The bill passed and the voters of Kansas did not reject the land grants, thus rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Upon the Bill’s passage, English declared that, “The measure just passed ought to secure peace, and restore harmony among the different sections of the confederacy.” The Kansas issue would be not resolved until its admission to the Union as a free state in 1861.  As he did in the Indiana House, English struck a compromise that hoped to quell the violence, using federal land grants as a way to take heat off the slavery issue.

While the English Bill attempted to stave off conflict within Kansas, the harmony among the nation was short lived. The growing tensions among pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country were mounting, and English lamented this development in one of his final speeches to Congress. He chastised both the abolitionists and radical Republicans, who he believed had appealed to the “passions and prejudices of the northern people, for the sake of getting into office and accomplishing mere party ends.” To English, the cause of all this strife was the agitation of the slavery question and the solution would be to elect a Democrat President and ensure that the national discussion be reverted back to other issues of state. This did not happen; in the fall of 1860, voters chose Republican Abraham Lincoln and the first seven southern states seceded from the union.

By 1861, right as English was leaving Congress, the United States became engulfed in Civil War. While many within the national Democratic Party either defected to the Confederacy or took a tenuous position of support in the north, English was unequivocally for the Union. In an August 16, 1864 article in the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the Committee of the Second Congressional District, under the chairmanship of English, wrote a platform that supported the Union and decried the act of secession. However, it did reserve criticism for President Lincoln, particularly with regards to supposed violations of freedom of speech. English’s pragmatic, even-handed political gesture fell in line with many of his past political actions.

Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in Congress,  he was the President of the First National Bank of Indianapolis for 14 years. He established the bank in 1863, taking advantage of the reestablished national banking system during the Civil War. According to historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the First National Bank of Indianapolis became “the largest bank of Indianapolis, and one of the largest in the Middle West.” He is also listed as a “banker” in the 1870 Census and as a “capitalist” in the 1880 Census. By the time of his death in 1896, English had become one of the wealthiest men in Indiana.

Even though his time in national politics was years removed, he was nonetheless nominated by the Democratic Party in 1880 for Vice President, with Winfield Scott Hancock as President. Articles in the Indianapolis News and the Atlantic noted that his chances for the Vice-Presidential nomination were quite good, especially if the candidate was presumed front-runner Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Within days of the News piece, when asked if he was interested in the VP nomination, English said, “None whatever, for that or any other office.

A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite his protestations, English was nominated for the Vice-Presidency by the Democratic Party on June 24, 1880, after Tilden redrew his consideration for the Presidential nomination and General Winfield Scott Hancock was elected in his stead. In his acceptance letter, English wrote that he was “profoundly grateful for the honor conferred” and that his election with Hancock would be a triumph over the dominance of the Republican Party in the presidency. Their chances to win the White House were dashed when they lost to Republicans James Garfield and Chester Arthur in the General Election.

English's Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
English’s Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English's Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English’s Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

While he was running for Vice-President, English’s business empire was also expanding, with his financing and construction of the English Hotel and Opera House. Historians James Fisher and Clifton Phillips noted that English purchased land on the city circle in the 1840s, as a residence for himself and his family. In early 1880, during renovations on the circle, English announced that he would invest in the construction of a new Hotel and Opera House. His son, William E. English, became the proprietor and manager. It officially opened on September 27, 1880, and the first performance was Lawrence Barrett as Hamlet. It would be in continual use until its closure and demolition in 1948.

English served as the President of the Indiana Historical Society, from 1886 until in his death ten years later. During his tenure, English wrote a two-volume history of the Northwest Territory and the life of George Rogers Clark. It was published in 1896, shortly after his death. An 1889 article in the Indianapolis Journal noted his compiling of sources and his emerging methodology; a two-volume general history that would be divided at the 1851 revised State Constitution. By 1895, the project materialized into the history mentioned above, with English using documents from leaders involved, such as Thomas Jefferson and Clark himself. He also conducted interviews with other key figures of the revised Indiana Constitution. English’s historical research became the standard account of the Northwest Territory for those within the Historical Society and the general public for many years.

The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

William English died on February 7, 1896, as reported by the Indianapolis Journal. On February 9, thousands came to see his body displayed in the Indiana State Capitol before he was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

His legacy in Indiana is lesser known, but he does have some monuments. A sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse commemorates his place in history. The town of English, Indiana is also named after the late politician. According to historian H. H. Pleasant and the Crawford County Democrat, the unincorporated town was originally named Hartford. It was changed to English in 1886 after the town was officially incorporated, in honor of election to Congress from the area. He also has an IHB marker at his former home in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana.

The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.
The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.

To many who enter the Statehouse and see his statue on the fourth floor, he might be just another leader of Indiana’s past. However, English’s political career attempted to stave off Civil War (at least temporarily) and reinforced Indiana’s political tradition of measured, temperate leaders who sought a middle ground on most issues. In that regard, English might be one of Indiana’s most emblematic statesmen.

The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.
Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.

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 patriach 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. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]

The Vonnegut Hardware Store, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company on Washington Street, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.

The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

The German-English Indepdendent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years.
The German-English Independent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday.  Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”

However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:

True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.

A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.

Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.

In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut's most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut’s most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.

His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:

A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.

So it goes.

“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.

Kurt's son Mark reading his late father's remarks of Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis's "Year of Vonnegut" ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.
Kurt’s son Mark reading his late father’s remarks at Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:

Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.

Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.

Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.

Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.

[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).