Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell
Created by Robert Ervin Coker, 1921, courtesy of University of Washington, accessed Wikipedia.

leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood. Image courtesy of Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910. The man on the far left, second row, in the black apron is Andrew Jackson Wigner, the great-grandfather of Trisha Johns who submitted the photo, accessed https://www.wvgenweb.org/pleasants/workmen.htm)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks‘ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister
Image courtesy of Google Books.

Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.


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Marion’s Allen Temple and the Importance of Black Spaces

Slave Registry, Indiana Territory, Knox County, 1805-1807, Early Vincennes Collection, Knox County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Black Hoosiers helped shape Indiana by establishing early farming communities, preserving the Union through service in the Civil War, gaining suffrage for women in the 1920s, defending democracy in WWI and WWII, and expanding equality and political power throughout the Civil Rights Era and beyond. But Black Hoosiers also suffered enslavement in Indiana, violent persecution, discrimination in jobs and housing, Jim Crow laws, and lynching.

Many Black Hoosiers and Black Americans continue to feel the stress imposed both by the continued disproportionate violence against people of color as well as the inherited traumas of the past. Already facing entrenched and systemic racism in American culture, people of color have additional burden of social media and news outlets filled with images of violence, sometimes fatal, against Black people. These images only reinforce the brutal American legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow.[1]

This racial trauma impacts mental health, sleep patterns, appetite, fertility, and susceptibility to disease, among other detriments. According to Safe Black Space, a community organization promoting healing, people of color “are experiencing trauma related to systemic racism and are feeling the impact of our humanity not being valued.” Their statement continues:

Some of us avoid our feelings or numb out. Some of us experience fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to our loved ones. Some of us are struggling with rage and frustration. It can be overwhelming.[2]

“Trinity United Methodist Church (Muncie),” photograph, 1948, Other Side of Middletown Photographs, Ball State University Digital Media Repository, accessed Indiana Memory.

But sacred Black spaces have been and continue to be essential to healing from this trauma, feeling safe, breathing deeply, and reclaiming health. The history of overt racism and violence inflicted on Black Hoosiers by their white neighbors makes clear just how important Indiana’s African American churches were to Black Hoosiers in centuries past. Since at least the early 19th century, Black Hoosiers gathered in small churches across the state to worship, celebrate, and socialize – but also to organize opposition to voter suppression and the Klan, to form local NAACP and Urban League branches, and organize protests and rallies that furthered civil rights.

Local history can show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the bravery of average folks, and the work of a community to make the world just a little better. Allen Temple in Marion, Indiana was not unlike other Black churches in the Midwest or even others in Grant County. And yet, Allen Temple pastors and members pushed their community to desegregate, to increase rights of African Americans, and to stop violence against Black Marion residents. And those feats are no less remarkable for being reflected by other churches. The Civil Rights Movement and the gains it brought Black Americans was not an inevitable wave of progress. This wave was made up of individual droplets of hard work and bravery by small groups of people like those who found a home at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Family of Joseph and Martha Pettiford at Weaver Settlement, n.d., accessed Free African Americans.

Allen Temple’s history is rooted in Weaver Settlement. Black pioneers fleeing threats to their freedom in southern slave states founded this nearby Grant County community by the 1840s. Weaver grew over the decades as the pioneers were joined by other free and formerly enslaved families. These hardworking Black settlers established productive farms and the settlement grew to over 3000 acres by 1860. As the self-sustaining community thrived, residents built schools, churches, and stores, and male residents participated in the political process. But farmers could only divide their land between so many children before the plot would no longer be able to sustain a family. One or two children would inherit the farm, while others would have to find work elsewhere. By the 1880s, the descendants of the settler-farmers were looking to Marion for employment opportunities.[3]

“Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

As more African Americans moved to Marion, the Rev. G. W. Shelton, who served as pastor of Hill’s Chapel at Weaver Settlement, began organizing a new A.M.E. church in South Marion. Marion residents had already established an A.M.E church on 5th Street in the city’s downtown, but Weaver residents settling on the southside needed both a religious and civic center in that area. Rev. Shelton completed the organization of the as-yet-unnamed church in September 1900. Church and county histories report that the congregation first gathered in a private home. By November 1901, the congregation purchased the church building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation.[4]

Indiana Department of Natural Resources, “Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal,” IHSSI County Survey, SHAARD Database, Indiana Historic Buildings, Bridges and Cemeteries Map, accessed arcgis.com.
“South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 7, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Most of the information about Allen Temple’s early history comes from columns in the Indianapolis Recorder reporting on the Black communities of Weaver and Marion. For several years of the church’s early history, the newspaper referred to the church as “the South Marion Mission” or “the 35th Street A. M. E. Church.” From 1901 to 1904, church leadership organized a choir, raised funds for improvements, and established a Sabbath School. Congregants hosted social dinners, Thanksgiving suppers, and lectures by prominent religious leaders.[5]

“Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library.

In 1905, the congregation finished remodeling the building and the church joined the Indiana A.M.E. Conference, officially making it a part of the larger A.M.E. hierarchy and organization. Finally, on July 23, 1905, the church received the name Allen Temple during a “grand rally.” More than 600 African American residents of Marion and surrounding communities attended a corner stone laying celebration. Allen Temple Rev. J. J. Evans, leading regional A.M.E. clergy, the prestigious “colored Masons,” and the Marion mayor were among those who led the ceremonies. Church leaders chose the name Allen Temple to honor Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.[6]

Over the following decades, Allen Temple hosted fundraisers and revivals, often sharing members and pastors with Hill’s Chapel, and worked to pay off its mortgage.[7] Meanwhile, Marion prospered from the gas boom and industrial  workers organized and became more political. By the end of WWI, the city boomed. According to historian James Madison, “Lining the Courthouse Square in the 1920s were banks, clothing stores, drug stores, ice cream parlors, cigar stores, and theaters, some spreading a block or so off the square.” Black Marion residents were among the city’s business owners, professionals and civic employees. But they were not welcome everywhere in their own hometown.[8]

“Washington Street, Marion, Ind.,” postcard, c. 1911, Postcards of the Jay Small Collection, Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, accessed Indiana Memory.

Black residents did not have access to a number of Marion businesses and recreational attractions. Segregation was the rule, despite the 1885 Indiana Civil Rights Act that legally gave African Americans the right to patronize these establishments. In addition, bootleggers and gamblers brought increased crime as they flouted Prohibition. The police were reportedly apathetic at best. Most alarmingly, the Ku Klux Klan rose in power as many white Protestant Hoosiers turned their fears of crime, immigration, and increased diversity into an organized force for hate and discrimination.[9] But these forces did not go unchallenged.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, photograph, n.d., accessed Find-a-Grave.

When NAACP state president Katherine “Flossie” Bailey organized a Marion branch in 1918, Allen Temple Rev. W. C. Irvin signed on as a founding member.[10] Allen Temple clergy would continue to serve the NAACP at the state and local level throughout the church’s history. In September 1929, Bailey brought African American U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest to Allen Temple. Speaking to a large crowd of Black congregants and residents, DePriest called on the audience to vote and “to stand together.”[11] Again, Allen Temple was not unique as a civil rights organizational center. Black churches across the country served this role. Allen Temple was not even unique in Marion, as several other churches hosted civil rights rallies and speakers as well. But that does not make it less heroic.

“Oscar DePriest,” glass negative, 1929, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.

In September 1930, a white mob tore three Black teenagers, accused but not convicted of crimes against two white Marion residents, from the Marion jail. The mob then beat, mutilated, and lynched Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. The perpetrators left the young men’s bodies hanging as a message to Black residents that “they were at the mercy of white residents,” according to historian Nicole Poletika. The story of the 1930 Marion lynchings has been thoroughly and sensitively told elsewhere by other scholars, notably by James H. Madison in his 2001 monograph Lynching in the Heartland.[12] But understanding that Marion’s Black community was deeply wounded, shaken, and afraid for their lives is important to understanding the significance of the work that Marion’s Black churches accomplished in the shadow of the lynchings.

“Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.

In the face of this horror and fear, some local Black leaders still found the courage to speak out and call for action. Rev. Hillard D. Saunders, who had only recently been appointed pastor of Allen Temple, joined Bailey and others in demanding legal justice in the wake of the lynchings. They presented the Indiana governor with a petition calling for the removal of the sheriff who failed to protect Smith and Shipp. [13] While Bailey deserves the credit for ultimately leveraging the heinous crimes into anti-lynching legislation, the united support of the local NAACP leaders, Marion clergy, and the courage of every day Black residents demanded the attention of the Indiana General Assembly and governor. [14]

“John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.

Allen Temple members and clergy continued to humbly push Marion towards greater inclusion and equality. In 1945, the church hosted John C. Dancy, executive secretary of Detroit Urban league.[15] Dancy had helped desegregate industrial businesses in Michigan, opening skilled positions to African Americans. He likely spoke to Marion residents on peaceful desegregation tactics.[16] By 1947, Allen Temple hosted regular meetings of the Marion Urban League, which was incorporated in 1942 with a much-needed mission of working “to secure equal Opportunities in all sectors of our society for Black and other minorities.”[17] In May 1949, Allen Temple pastor C. T. H. Watkins joined speakers from Marion College and the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council at an “interracial fellowship dinner.”[18] By November 1949, the Marion Urban League boasted a membership of 350 African Americans, almost 15% of the city’s Black population.[19]

Yet Marion remained segregated. In 1954, the Marion Urban League and the local NAACP successfully worked to desegregate the public pool, a highly visible symbol of inequality in the city. White and Black Marion residents pushed for increased hiring of Black teachers and police officers throughout the 1950s and 60s, making small but regular gains.[20]

Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1961, A.M.E. leadership appointed the “dynamic” Rev. Dr. Ford Gibson to serve as pastor of Allen Temple. An Indianapolis native and former school teacher with a Ph.D. in sociology, Rev. Gibson had recently served as the president of the Indianapolis NAACP. In 1957 and 1958, Rev. Gibson led “the epic struggle for fair employment” at local supermarkets.[21] Unsurprisingly, when he arrived at Allen Temple, Rev. Gibson invested himself in the fight for greater equality in Marion.

In the summer of 1962, Rev. Gibson and Rev. B. A. Foley of Bethel AME led a campaign demanding an “immediate investigation and the removal” of Marion Postmaster Charles R. Kilgour.[22] The pastors charged that Kilgour, as president of the Francis Marion Hotel, which “allegedly refused to accommodate Negroes,” should be removed from his position as postmaster.[23] Foley and Gibson publicly called on U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to act. Rev. Gibson, who had also served as president of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP, addressed a crowd of 300 people at a mass meeting. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, the pastor stated that the Black residents of Marion “will not stop until segregation is dead and buried and never to rise again.”[24]

“Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

While Kilgour kept his job, Rev. Gibson continued his calling. Rev. Gibson went on to serve the NAACP as the president of the Indiana Conference of Branches and president of Region 11, which included eight state organizations. He also joined the 1964 March on Washington and worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act.[25] While Black Americans continued to make progress toward equality,  Marion still had a long way to go.

By July 1969, the city was on edge. The Marion NAACP reported “continued police brutality, abuse, harassment and refusal to protect young black people in that city.”[26] White residents blamed local Black youth for a series of firebombings that destroyed a lumber company and country club.[27] The Marion NAACP reported “arrests of black victims of unprovoked assaults by white hoodlums and the holding of young black people in custody and refusal of bonds on illegal grounds.”[28] At the same time, the Marion city council approved the purchase of police dogs, threatening to further escalate violence.[29]

Charles Moore, “Civil Rights Demonstrations, Birmingham Protests,” photograph,1963, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed Smithsonian.

On July 19, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the national NAACP convention where the organization addressed the escalating violence in Marion. Marion representatives reported that in only one week, seventy-five Black residents had been arrested by Marion police “in a fashion of harassment and intimidation.” Once jailed, authorities were demanding excessive bail bonds of up to $10,000. Most alarmingly, the Marion NAACP leadership, including local branch president Carlyle Gulliford, received death threats.[30]

“Marion NAACP Elects,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1956, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles. [Carlyle Gulliford pictured far right.]
In response, NAACP president Roy Wilkins called on the state NAACP organizations of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and West Virginia to descend on Marion for “a seven-state mass protest rally” on July 20.[31] The NAACP published a list of demands for Marion officials, mainly attacking segregation and job discrimination. They demanded the city hire Black firemen, policemen, and officials and called out specific companies who would not hire African Americans, including the municipal phone and light companies. The NAACP also called for fair housing and mortgage practices and for an end to segregation in recreational facilities.[32]

Indianapolis Recorder, July 26, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

An estimated 3,000 people marched in the name of these demands, including the congregants of Allen Temple. Long time member Pearl Bassett, who was also active in the Urban League and a leader within the state NAACP, remembered the march. She recalled, “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.”[33] Bassett told the Indianapolis Recorder, “It was so well organized and we accomplished what we set out to do.”[34] Black activists did change Marion, but it took a long time. The city’s civil rights progress trailed the nation and the state. In his book Lynching in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison presents convincing evidence that this stunting of equality was in large part a result of the lingering fear and trauma imposed on the community by the 1930 lynchings.[35]

But for centuries sacred Black spaces have served to heal some of this trauma. In these spaces, people of color can feel heard and process anxiety, engage in prayer and meditation, and become empowered through activism. Thus, these spaces are essential to creating positive change in all communities. By marking and preserving these spaces, we honor those people of color who sought refuge here throughout history- a moment to regain their strength in the face of oppression in order to continue fighting for civil rights. Each small, historically Black church across our state has a story to tell.  The Indiana Historical Bureau and the friends and family of Weaver Settlement look forward to dedicating a new state historical marker in 2022 to tell the story of Allen Temple.

Notes:

[1] “Coping with Racial Trauma,” Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, psychology.uga.edu.

[2] Akilah Cadet, “Black Health Matters: Safe Spaces to Exist and Thrive,” January 29, 2021, Healthline, healthline.com; Safe Black Space, “Historical Perspective,” www.safeblackspace.org.

[3]Indiana Historical Bureau, Weaver Settlement State Historical Marker, in.gov/history.

[4] “Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 15, 1900, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Asenath Peters Artis, “The Negro in Grant County,” 1909, in Centennial History of Grant County, 1812-1912, edited by Ronald L. Whitson (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1914), 348-57, accessed Archive.org. Church histories produced by Allen Temple report that the congregation first met in the home of local resident Turner Wallace. IHB was unable to confirm the claim with census or newspaper research. Noted local historian Aseneth Peters Artis reported in 1909 that the congregation then purchased the building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation in 1901. This would have to have occurred in the second half of the year as the Indianapolis Recorder reported in July 1901 that the congregation was looking to build a church. By November 1901, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the South Marion Mission held services in the Methodist Protestant Church on 35 street.” It still took the congregation some years to pay off the mortgage.

[5] “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 7, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 20, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[6]“Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1905, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Conference Meets,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 22, 1905, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library; “Great Event,” Marion News-Tribune, July 24, 1905, 2, Marion and Grant County File, Marion Public Library.

[7] “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 13, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 20, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 7, 1908, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “$400, Piano Free,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 28, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Richmond District of A. M. E. Conference in Good Condition,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 5, 1910, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 8, 1913, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 32.

[9] Madison, 30-42.

[10] Marion Indiana Branch National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Application for Charter, Date of Organization Meeting: November 28, 1918, NAACP Founding Documents, Library of Congress, copy available in IHB’s Allen Temple marker file.

[11] “Marion Group to Escort DePriest,” Kokomo Tribune, September 7, 1929, 11, Newspapers.com; Madison, 60.

[12] Madison, passim. 

[13] “A. M. E. Church Appointments Made Public,” Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1929, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.

[14]Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, blog.history.in.gov.

[15] Merle L. Thruston, “Marion, Ind.,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 24, 1945, 15, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.

[17] “Urban League, Carver Center Hold Annual Meet at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 13, 1947, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Urban League Stages Campaign; Seeks 600 Members,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 7, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Fellowship Meet Addressed by Local Cleric, at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 14, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “Marion Urban League Lauded at Meet: Work of Marion Urban League Wins Praise,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 12, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] Madison, 130-138.

[21] “Hoosier Minister Gets Degree in California,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ministerial Appointments Are Made at AME 123rd Meet,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 18, 1961, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Marion Hotel Owner Under ‘Bias Fire:’ Ind. Postmaster Party to Charge of Jimcrowism,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 30, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “AME Minister Scores Racial Bias at Marion, Ind,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 7, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[25] “Dr. Ford Gibson Assumes New AME Church Post,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1968, 13, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dr. Ford Gibson to Speak Sun. at Allen Chapel AME,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 11, 1969, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] “NAACP Protests Racial Atrocities at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 5, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[27] “Riots Engulf Three Hoosier Cities,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 5, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[28]”NAACP Protests Racial Atrocities at Marion,” 1.

[29] Madison, 140.

[30] “Wilkins to Address Marion Rally,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 19, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “3000 Turnout for Marion Protest,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 26, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[33] Pearl Bassett, Oral History Interview, 2009, University of Southern Indiana, University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana.

[34] Annette L. Anderson, “NAACP Victorious Then and Now,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 10, 1993, 11.

[35] Madison, 142-153.

Ku Klux U: How the Klan Almost Bought a University

Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923
Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923. Newspapers.com.

When the Hagerstown Exponent published this headline in October 1923, the editor had slightly exaggerated. The Ku Klux Klan’s powerful “Indiana Realm” had not literally bought itself a venerable institution of higher learning that summer– but it had come close. For a few weeks, Valparaiso University — sixty miles from downtown Chicago and formerly one of the largest private schools in the U.S. — teetered on the brink of becoming a “Ku Klux Kollege.” Once praised as the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” in 1923, many feared the university was about to become a “hooded Harvard.”

“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK.  Yet, a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school experienced hard times that took many alumni and faculty by surprise.

Founded by Methodists in 1859, the original school — Valparaiso Male and Female College — took in students of all levels, from elementary to college age.  The pioneer school was also one of the few co-educational institutions in America before the Civil War. That war wreaked havoc on enrollment, leading the college to close its doors in 1871.  Two years later, it reopened as a teacher’s college. Until 1900, the school went by the name Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute.

Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S.  With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard.  Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the aforementioned “Poor Man’s Harvard.”


Valparaiso University circa 1915
Valparaiso University, circa 1915. Flickr.com.

Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers there. Some were later busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills.  Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago.  When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.

Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers.  But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.


The Inter Ocean, August 1, 1905
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 1, 1905. Newspapers.com.

Yet, once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline. After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century  — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition.  Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard.  (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)


VU
Postcard from Valparaiso University, 1911. Flickr.com.

World War I issued another blow. The famously affordable university had always attracted international students.  (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.)  But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI.  When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty.  Also, with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.


Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), July 17, 1923
Journal Gazette, Mattoon, IL, July 17, 1923. Newspapers.com.

In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment.  Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy.  The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.

Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Daniel Russell Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners.  That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk.


Daily Republican (Rushville, IN), August 16, 1923
Daily Republican, Rushville, Indiana, August 16, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Then, in August 1923, a new bidder expressed interest. For some residents of Valparaiso — which hosted a parade of at least 6,000 Klansmen in May 1923 that attracted 50,000 visitors from around the Midwest — the offer from the Ku Klux Klan to take over the struggling school seemed like a God-send.  Academics, alumni, and students thought differently, especially Catholics and Jews, and many were ready to pack up and leave. Yet, as far as the trustees were concerned, the question of selling Valparaiso University to the Ku Klux Klan mostly came down to whether that organization itself had the resources to made good on its own offer.

The efforts of the revived Klan proved more durable than that which had died out in the 1870s.  Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago and L.A. to Oregon and Maine.   KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity.  D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 states, operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”


KKK Members, Valparaiso, 1923
Klansmen on Franklin Street, Valparaiso, Indiana, 1923. Smithsonian Magazine (via Ancestry.com).

The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923
Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The “second wave” of the Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history. Instead of waving the Confederate flag at rallies and parades as had previous iterations of the Klan, they flew the red, white, and blue. During the 1920s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso.  The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.

Ku Klux Klan Rally in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1926. Library of Congress.

These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan. The “Invisible Empire” even found strange bedfellows in the Progressive movement, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the Klan, albeit with different objectives. They also got involved in public health. In 1925, the organization helped fund a hospital in Logansport that catered only to Protestants. Alongside these initiatives, acquiring a university would have helped the Klan project a more legitimate image. Since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could also propagandize American children from within schools.


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (4)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By July of 1923, the trustees of Valparaiso University and the Klan were talking. Representing the Klan was Milt Elrod, whom Stephenson had recently made editor of the Fiery Cross, the major KKK newspaper, printed at the Century Building on South Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis.

When encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be filled with Klan appointees.  The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere.  Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper educational requirements, including African Americans, though he later admitted that the school would not have adequate facilities for them.  (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923 (2)
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Few people (trustees excepted, it seems) took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university, except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation.  Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out. In the Fiery Cross on August 24, 1923, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien forces” as his opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (3)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Heavy opposition came from the press.  Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group.  Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat.  Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that was virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employing a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.


Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923
Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt.  (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.)  As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.”  The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.


Abandon All Brains, Ye Who Enter Here. Republished in Literary Digest, September 15, 1923. UNZ.org.

Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana.  The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for those in the Klan might at least have a few “salutary” side-effects.


The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923

The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923 (2)
The Independent Record, Helena, Montana, August 28, 1923. Newspapers.com.

One editorial, “Ku Klux and Kolleges”, appeared in Robert W. Bingham’s Louisville Courier-JournalIt asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan.  The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.


Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923 (3)
Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength.  His proposal to buy the school wasn’t completely baseless, but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.

Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the leadership of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself.  D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of the Klan to come up with (or hang onto).

The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.”  Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923. Newspapers.com.

“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might have been a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode.  Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Fortunately, Valparaiso University never fell into KKK hands. With the corrupt Klan itself in disarray by 1925, and with Stephenson headed to the nearby state prison at Michigan City for rape and murder, any future Klan bids were out of the question.

In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school.  Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university. They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college.  Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


The Republic (Columbus, IN), May 18, 1925
The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 18, 1925. Newspapers.com.

Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression.  By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.


Hoosier State Chronicles provides searchable access to several years of The Fiery Cross.

Other materials from the Indiana State Library on the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana can be found here.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

THH Episode 52: Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Jump to Show Notes

[Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. And she joins us here today to speak about her article that is very related to our most recent episode about Anita Bryant, and I am so excited to talk with you today. Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Beckley: Yeah. And I was telling you before we started recording that, as I was doing the research for the Anita Bryant episode, my boss actually sent me your article. And I was so glad because I was going to get was definitely going to get something wrong in that episode. And it’s always nice to have another historian spoofing and save me from that, and do the work before I have to. So I was wondering – So in your article, you kind of debunk a myth that has been pervasive in our culture for several decades now, I was wondering if you could kind of start off by telling the myth as it’s been told by various groups for decades.

Johnson: For sure. So Anita Bryant, as you know, and as your listeners will know, was a medium famous pop singer in the 1970s. And a really big celebrity in the evangelical world. And she was also famously a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. So, a lot of people have talked to remember this experience of like, coming into their living rooms, and she would come onto her ads and be like, hello, I’m Anita Bryant. And they’re grandmothers – I’ve heard this from multiple people, their grandmothers would be like, hello, Anita. Um, so she was sort of a political in the way that conservative Christians were in the mid-1970s. She had some very political ideas about feminism and about homosexuality. But she identified herself as being outside of politics until 1976, when her local Miami Dade County passed an anti-discrimination code that included affectional, or sexual preferences, which is the mid-1970s way of saying gay people. Um, and she found out about this actually, from her pastor who was furious about it, and who wanted her to use her celebrity in order to spearhead a movement against the anti-discrimination code. And it was personal for her because the sponsor of the amendment was Ruth Shaq, who was a friend of hers, and the wife of her booking agent, and she had told all her church friends to vote for Ruth. So she felt responsible for the amendment. So she became the face of this successful effort to repeal the amendment. It passed two to one, the repeal vote, which happens six months after the code was originally passed. And this mobilized a national response among gay and lesbian, it was mostly gay and lesbian groups then. And one of the things that they did was boycott Florida Orange Juice, because that was her most famous corporate sponsor. And there’s been in both communities – the conservative Christian community and the LGBTQ community – this idea that the boycott destroyed her career brought her down. And it was this early triumph for a new, more radical gay liberation movement. And so I believed that as well, and I was doing research in the archives of the Florida Orange Juice marketing and advertising committee, and found that not only did they not fire her because of it, but they actually probably extended her contract because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking a side. And so, first of all, there was remarkably little discussion of her political activities, even well into the boycott. But they did do a sort of marketing survey to see how well. . . Oh wait, you only asked about the myth.

Beckley: I want – I want to know anything you’ll give us.

Johnson: Um, so they had been looking into Anita Bryant’s effectiveness, basically, ever since they hired her in 1969. They had been doing yearly marketing surveys, and they had been finding that her appeal was declining it, it soared through the 1970’s – 71, 72 and then had been declining since then, sort of steadily and there was no real change as a result of the boycott, they did this kind of emergency study in response to the boycott. And they found that 11% of people said that they supported her more because of the boycott. 10% of people said they supported her less. And the vast majority of people did not care at all. And they were getting letters, sometimes sacks full of letters every week. And they were equally upset on both sides. There were people saying, “If you fire Anita Bryant I will never buy Florida orange juice again. And people saying I’m boycotting Florida orange juice until you fire Anita Bryant.” And to be perfectly honest, most of the people who were threatening to be upset if she was fired, were closer to their core demographic. They were Florida growers and Florida families. And so they essentially didn’t know what to do, they had this really difficult decision to make. And in the meantime, Singer sewing machines had had a contract with Anita Bryant to, for her to have her own like daytime variety show. And they cancelled it in the midst of the controversy, and that went really badly for them. They got a lot of bad publicity. So Florida orange juice said, we’re going to put out this kind of like, ambivalent support letter that says like, we’re very proud to be associated with Anita Bryant, but please don’t involve us in the politics on either side, we’re not interested. And there were a few things that contributed to the sense that she was fired because of the boycott. One was the there was one particular Florida Orange Juice executive who just popped off a lot and said things to the press, like, I wish we would fire her, which and he was very high up in the company, so people took that as gospel truth. And he got a lot of trouble behind the scenes. And then she was actually let go in 1981. But the key thing there was that she had then gone through a really messy divorce with her husband, which he opposed. And she had been both as a pop star and then as a political figure. She had represented herself as this emblem of American motherhood and Christian housewifery and patriotism. And all of that kind of crumbled in the midst of this divorce. So the things that she had based her non-political celebrity on, and the supporters who had rallied around her during the boycott, all kind of fell away. And at the same time, the marketing research that Florida orange use was doing suggested that this kind of 1950s-esque, although it started in the late 60s, view of the sunny, happy housewife was really not resonating with their consumers anymore. And so by 1981, they figured they were far enough away from the boycott, that they could let a let Bryant go without losing too much. And it was close enough that people remember it as being the boycott that sent her down.

Beckley: Well, and then I have read newspaper interviews that she did, where she went out and kind of blamed the boycott and and her political dealings with – blamed that for her being fired for her losing a lot of revenue. I read one, where she said that she could no longer buy the prime cuts of meat, and now she had to buy the choice cuts of meat. So she was saying, you know, she’s lost so much revenue that she’s had to change every facet of her life. And, you know, I kind of looked at that, at first I was like, okay, so this is her saying that the boycott, and her political dealings did lead directly to loss of revenue and loss of contracts. But when we were talking about it, when we were kind of brainstorming and factchecking were like, oh, well, that is good for her narrative that it was that rather than her divorce, that kind of was the nail in the coffin. So, your work definitely helped there where it kind of contextualize her self-proclaimed victimhood, if you will.

Johnson: Yeah, so she, it wasn’t just the divorce. It was also this kind of broader decline in the American appetite for the kind of patriotic over the top motherhood

Beckley: That Leave it to Beaver type.

Johnson: Exactly. And so it doesn’t. It doesn’t make her feel good to feel either like she is less popular on her own. merits, or that she’s made this huge mistake by divorcing her husband. And her turn towards victimhood is something that’s really emblematic of the new Christian right at this time, which is what we historians call the kind of beginning of the modern religious right in the United States. Leaders had been really skeptical of the African American freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, they are taking that language and using it to say that conservative Christians are being denied their civil rights, that they’re being denied their right to speak in the public square. And they take this kind of rightsp-based language directly from the black civil rights movement and other civil rights movements at the time to make the argument that their First Amendment rights are being infringed. And that’s exactly what Anita Bryant is doing in this moment.

Beckley: Yeah. And I noticed even before that, her using that language, I forget if it was during her press conference here in Indianapolis when she arrived here, or if it was one in Dade County, where she was saying that I don’t want to abridge anybody else’s rights, but my rights are being infringed by allowing gay individuals to influence our children and things like that. So she definitely was already mirroring that even early in her crusade, I guess she called it. So yeah, it definitely kind of as a theme throughout her journey, it seems like.

Johnson: yeah, and I think the thing to remember is that she was really practiced at narrating her own self. She wrote, I think, a record of 11 autobiographies in nine years, she would have had a blog if a blog was possible, but a blog wasn’t possible. And so she just published that much about herself. She had a lot of practice and a lot of finesse with taking what was happening and making it a narrative that suited her brand. So this wasn’t something she was just kind of coming up with, as the Florida orange juice thing was happening. It was something she already really knew how to do. And she actually ends up even mirroring the language of the gay rights community at this time. There’s this great quote, where she says, you know, they were all talking about coming out of the closet. And then I realized, Anita Bryant has come out of the closet too, as a conservative Christian, which is no longer a cool thing to be, according to her.

Beckley: I noticed a lot of mirroring and a lot of very, I mean, probably by the standards of the time, quietly, very homophobic language as far as fruit pies, even, you know, right after she was hit in the face with the pie saying, Oh, at least it was a fruit pie, kind of laughing it off like that. And, yeah, I was not alive during any of this – I’m from the 90s. I was born in 92. So I really didn’t become aware to the early 2000s. Obviously, still a lot of homophobia. But to read, people just saying awful, blatant homophobic things, just in the newspaper for everybody to read. It was just so shocking. This was my first queer history topic that I’ve covered. So I think that going into it, obviously, I expected homophobic language and and kind of coded messages. But they weren’t coded. They were coming right out and saying it and it was pretty shocking to read. I mean, I’m not queer. I can’t imagine being queer now or ever, but just I just admire the people that did come out and did face and Anita Bryant and did kind of come out and proclaim themselves as queer and here and kind of opposing her it was. It made it even more of a topic that I was excited to cover as I read more and more.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s, it’s the casualness of it. I think I also, I run an Oral History Program in Muncie, Indiana, looking into the queer history of the area. And what I’ve heard from a lot of the older generation is that they grew up thinking that they were literally the only gay person who had ever existed. And when you look at like the casual homophobia that was just in mainstream press, and the assumptions that are being made, you can see how you would come to that conclusion, but like, literally no one else in the history of time had ever had these same feelings that you did. And I think that, for me is one of the most heartbreaking things. Another thing about Anita Bryant is that she so she frequently frequently said, I don’t hate gay people. In fact, I love them even more than the people who claim to support them, because I am trying to save them from eternal burning in hell, whereas like supporting them on Earth is nice. Obviously, you don’t even care about their souls.

Beckley: To kind of pivot a little bit and talk about this at a meta level. When I first read your article, I obviously loved it because it crushed it miss conception I had. But also I love it, because it is such a good example of history being an ever evolving process. It’s not, history isn’t a written thing in a book is a process that we are always perform. And every time we uncover a new source, or we include a new viewpoint that’s never been included, that story is going to change. And often times, I find that when you do change the accepted story, the accepted narrative, you get labeled as a revisionist historian, which I don’t think is an insult that people think it is because that’s, again, what history is, is revising those all the time. Have you gotten any of that kind of feedback for your article? Can you talk a little bit about that, and about the process of history.

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. So before we started recording, I said to you that this is the article that has gotten the most negative comments on it. And it was actually a really interesting experience that’s been kind of emblematic of my career, which is that a lot of the comments on the Washington Post article accused me of being homophobic, there’s one person who says, I know this woman, she’s a huge Christian conservative, and I do not know them. And that is not accurate. But then I also got a voicemail where a woman, a Pentecostal woman, essentially laid hands on me over voicemail in order to cast out the demon of homosexuality, which, like I said, is kind of typical of my career. And I don’t know what this says about human nature. But I have found that whatever people are, they assume I’m the opposite. So whatever they want from the history, they assume I’m against them. And I, I think that part of it is that misunderstanding that you’re flagging, but the idea that by changing history, or by finding new things about history, that we, as historians have some kind of bad motive, when really, that is what we are trained to do. We’re trained to find the new angle, the new, the new thing to say, because there are always new perspectives, and always new things to say. And, as I tried to say, in my article, I think the story is really interesting, because it – I mean, we have this kernel of a fact that Anita Bryant was not fired as a result of the boycott and was, in fact, in fact, kept on longer. And yet, I think some of the lessons that have been taken from that myth are still very true. I mean, the fact that and, and that the myth helped those things to become true. So the fact that the gay community felt like they had taken down and Anita Bryant ended up feeling like this huge success, which galvanized the movement and made us stronger in a way that wouldn’t have happened, or maybe, maybe wouldn’t have happened. And a lot of people have said that it set up the activism of the AIDS era that it created those networks that were already in place. So I don’t think this revision is bad for the queer community. I think it actually tells us something more about our history. And that’s what historians in general are trying to do. Certainly, I’m not arguing that we are just objective narrators with no relationship to what we’re talking about. But most of the time, I think when we uncover new perspectives and new facts, what we’re doing is history. That is what historical research is, and we’re trying to shine new light, to get new understandings not to put down communities that have believed things, because that’s the evidence that they had.

Beckley: I often say that if history was unchanging, and if what we wrote in the book, the first time was all that was to be said, then there would be no need for the, what 500,000 different books written about Abraham Lincoln, or, you know, it just seems so obvious that, including new narratives and new  viewpoints is so essential. And as we grow as a culture and find these hidden stories, it’s so important to bring those to light to give those people a voice and to, you know, just correct the narrative. It’s, sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I’m appreciative of the work you’re doing.

Johnson: Thank you. One of the metaphors that we use in the profession is that when history was a new pursuit, in the early 20th century, they thought about it as bricks in a wall, and you would just like, get your Abraham Lincoln brick, and you’d put in the wall, and you’d be done. And you get your civil war brick and put in the wall, and you’re done. And we now sort of since the 1970s, have coming out of the Black civil rights movement out of the women’s movement, the queer movement, this insight that there are a lot of different perspectives on any one event, that there are a lot of different ways of thinking and looking at it. And I think that’s so much more exciting than just having one brick, I think it’s so cool that we get a rainbow on every single thing.

Beckley: Absolutely. And that’s, you know, one of the things we try to do is tell some of those stories that people might not have heard yet and Indiana’s history. So thanks for helping us with that. I wanted to give you a minute here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or tell people where they can find more of your work or even the the article we’ve been talking about so much. Sure.

Johnson: Sure, so the article we’ve been talking about is published in The Washington Post’s made by history blog. And this research is all based on my book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 called This is our Message: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right, and it looks at Anita Bryant, as well as a number of other prominent Christian women, including Tammy Faye Baker for another queer angle on it. And even though it is published by University Press, I tried to write it in a way that was still fun.

Beckley: Well, thank you. And I think that is all for today. I hope all of our listeners at home have enjoyed this as much as I have come back in a few weeks for our next episode. And thank you for joining us today.

Johnson: Thank you so much.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, The Myth that has Shaped the Christian right and the LGBTQ Rights Movement for Four Decades, June 21, 2019.

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Oxford University Press, 2019.

The Crusader: J. Frank Hanly and the Election of 1916

Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916?  The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson.  The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes.  You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916?  If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong.  After being the  Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.

The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement.  As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors.  The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections.  For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.

The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.
The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Source: Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1904.

According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.

He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.

Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894, from Hoosier State Chronicles.
Governor J. Frank Hanly and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Governor J. Frank Hanly (Center) and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:

Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.

Jasper Weekly Courier, April 10, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

The type of “strong and effective laws” that Hanly wanted came in the form of a “county local option bill,” which Hanly foisted upon the Indiana General Assembly via a special session. This law strengthened the intent of the Nicholson Law, which required extended waiting periods for liquor licenses. Hanly saw this as the first step towards state-wide prohibition, but his opposition saw it as an opportunity. Due to his heavy-handed use of executive power during 1908, the Republican gubernatorial candidate James E. Watson was easily defeated by the Democratic challenger, Thomas Marshall.

Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:

I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.

To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).

Over the next eight years, Hanly dedicated himself to his cause with a near-religious fervor. He wrote and published pamphlets calling for stricter laws for state liquor trafficking and for nation-wide prohibition. He also formed an organization called the Flying Squadron Foundation that routinely gave speeches throughout the country in defense of outlawing alcohol.  He also founded a prohibitionist newspaper, the National Enquirer (not to be confused with the supermarket tabloid).

Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.

Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in the Jasper Weekly Courier.  On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.

Dr. Ira Landrith (Left) and J. Frank Hanly (Right) shaking hands at their nomination ceremony for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential nominations for the Prohibition Party, respectively. Source: Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1916.

His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.

Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.

Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis News covered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.

Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Of the returns, Hanly was delighted despite his small showing at the polls.  He stated, “I believe that of all the presidential candidates at the last election, I am the happiest. The returns were no disappointment to me.” Despite the Prohibition Party’s electoral loss, the prohibition movement made great strides after the election. The News wrote“More than one-third of the people of the whole nation now live in territory where prohibition will be effective.” After the election Hanly remained an active prohibition proponent.  He played a key role in lobbying for the state-wide prohibition of alcohol by 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandated prohibition across the United States. Hanly celebrated its implementation by introducing National Dry Federation President William Jennings Bryan at a meeting in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”

Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.

THH Episode 51: Petals, Not Pies: Queer Hoosiers Protest Anita Bryant

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Petals, Not Pies: Queer Hoosiers Protest Anita Bryant

Bryant news clips: What they wanted to do was to flaunt it and not lose their jobs because of it . . . if we were going to go on a crusade across the nation to get rid of the homosexuals, then we certainly would have done . . .

Beckley: On October 14, 1977, gay rights activist Thom Higgins reserved his place in history when he threw a pie in the face of anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant during a Des Moines, Iowa press conference..

[Archival audio of incident]

Beckley: When Bryant made her way to Indiana less than two weeks later for a rally, gay activists welcomed her not with a pie in the face, but with Hoosier kindness – she was presented roses and invited to a reception in her honor. Today, we examine Hoosier’s reactions to Bryant’s appearances in the Hoosier state during the early years of the fight for gay rights.

[Protestors chanting]

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

[Music]

Beckley: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said,

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Beckley: That arc is rarely smooth, though. It’s fraught with twists and turns, with forward progress followed by periods of setback. This push and pull can be seen throughout our history.

In the wake of the Civil War, during Reconstruction, newly free citizens actively participated in the political process. During that time, some 2,000 Black Americans held political office in the South. In fact, the first South Carolina Legislature elected after the 1867 Reconstruction Act was majority African American. Following Reconstruction, however, the backlash was harsh – Jim Crow laws placed nearly insurmountable hurdles in the way of Black voting rights and widespread racial violence and intimidation further quelled Black political power.

Between 1940 and 1945, 5 million women entered the workforce to aid in the war effort. Unlike before the war, they were employed in positions thought of as exclusive to men, like truck driving and aircraft repair. With the end of the war, society expected women to return to the home and more “traditional” positions. By the 1950s, women were expected to be in the home cooking, cleaning, and child rearing, and while this expectation wasn’t universally met, historians believe that it contributed to the baby boom of the 1950s.

[Funky music]

Beckley: And the 1960s and 70s were a time of great social change, and, as we’ve seen is often the case, great social pushback. Activists worked tirelessly for the passage of the Civil Rights Act while opponents resurrected the Ku Klux Klan, built monuments honoring Confederate generals, and championed the “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA which would have guaranteed equal legal rights for American citizens regardless of sex, was gaining widespread support. After being approved by both the U.S. House and Senate, it was well on its way to becoming law with 35 of the 38 states needed having ratified it, including Indiana. Then, in 1972, Phyllis Schlafly mobilized conservative women in protest. She argued that the amendment would strip women of the “special protections” afforded to them such as alimony and exemption from the military draft. The ERA remains unratified.

[Protests chanting]

Beckley: At the same time, queer Americans were making themselves more visible in society. The Stonewall Uprising of 1969, a watershed moment of the gay rights movement in the United States, fostered solidarity and encouraged further activism. In the wake of the uprising, activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front formed. Unlike earlier gay organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, this new generation left no question as to what their identity and intentions were, from the inclusion of the word “gay” in their name to the language used in their manifesto:

Clark reading from manifesto: The Gay Liberation Front is a militant coalition of radical and revolutionary homosexual men and women committed to fight the oppression of the homosexual as a minority group and to demand the right to the self-determination of our own bodies.

Beckley: This increase in visibility and activism began producing change relatively quickly. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Gay Pride events were held in several cities across the country. In the five years following Stonewall, 15 states decriminalized same-sex intercourse. In 1974, Elaine Noble became the first openly queer person to be elected to state-wide office when she won her bid for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. And by 1977, 40 cities throughout the US had passed ordinances banning discrimination in housing and employment opportunities based on sexual orientation.

Indiana experienced some of the same social progress. By 1973, there were two gay advocacy groups in Bloomington – the Bloomington Gay Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front. Same sex intercourse was decriminalized in 1975. There was a thriving gay bar scene in Indianapolis, with over a dozen bars around the city. And clubs like The Seahorse in South Bend provided gathering spaces for queer Hoosiers in other parts of the state.

However, unlike other places, Indiana did not pass non-discriminatory ordinances, and the queer community was largely relegated to dark bars and so-called “cruising” spots. And there was always the looming possibility of police raids. Randall King, who was in his 20s in 1970s Indianapolis, described his experience in an oral history interview with the Indianapolis Public Library’s Indianapolis LGBTQ+ Oral History Project:

King: Coming out in the 70s was a lot different than coming out today. In the 70s it was . . . if you were brave enough to go to the bars. If you were closeted you went to parks, you went to cruising areas, if you were out you went to bars. Bars got raided every weekend. I mean, it was a fact of life. There was always a cop in the parking lot taking down your license plate. I don’t know if they were really taking down this plate. That’s what everybody said, but there was always a cop there.

Beckley: What progress had been made was being threatened in 1977 when Greenwood legislator and evangelical preacher Don Boys introduced a bill in the Indiana House of Representatives that would have recriminilized of same-sex intercourse in the state. Boys made his views on the private lives of American citizens quite clear in an opinion piece published in the Franklin Daily Journal. He said that critic of the bill Attorney…

Clark reading from Journal: …Martha Michaels says that such anti-gay activity will only drive them underground. What she doesn’t understand is – that is where we want them . . . I said . . . that if you make perversion legitimate, perverts will come out of the closets and expect to be treated like normal people. They will be teaching in our schools, acting as big brothers, adopting children and marrying each other!

Beckley: This was not the first time Boys had introduced his anti-gay legislation – in 1976, the bill had received virtually no media coverage and had been quietly defeated in committee. But something happened in 1977 to bring Boys’ bill to the forefront of Hoosier politics. He brought pop singer, Florida Orange Juice spokesperson, and evangelical Christian Anita Bryant to the Circle City to lend her voice – literally – to the cause.

Anita Bryant archival clips: Natural orange juice is rich in vitamin c . . .it’s an obomination to practice homosexuality . . . so drink pure orange juice from Florida, you can buy it . . . my pastor said that he would do the same and even burn the school rather than allow them to be taught by homosexuals . . . come to the Florida sunshine tree . . . as long as they do their job and do not want to come out of the closet and force their homosexuality on me and the parents in the business and in the schools . . . remember, breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!

Beckley: Bryant had made headlines earlier in 1977 when she publicly opposed an ordinance in Dade County, Florida protecting the rights of queer residents.

Bryant archival clips: Just biologically, God made mothers so we could reproduce. Homosexuals can not reproduce biologically, but they have to reproduce by recruiting our children.

Beckley: Citing religious convictions and her belief that queer people would attempt to recruit children if allowed to hold positions in schools, Bryant rallied the evangelical community in protest of the Florida ordinance with her “Save Our Children” campaign.

Largely due to her efforts, the ordinance was overturned, but she wasn’t done with her campaign. She hit the road to help repeal similar ordinances in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas, and Eugene, Oregon. In October 1977, she headed to Indianapolis for a “Rally for Decency” at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum.

[Music]

Beckley: Even before Bryant entered the Hoosier state, queer activists and allies began marshalling a defense. On the day before the rally was to take place, the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights hosted a news conference announcing that they would be picketing the performance because, they said,

Clark reading from statement: she represents a force for evil and persecution. She has inflamed irrational prejudices and fostered fear and hatred.

Beckley: Joining the picketers would be Baptist minister Rev. Jeanine C. Rae, who, according to IHB historian Nicole Poletika, believed that fundamentalists’ attempts to legislate sexuality threatened the separation of church and state and argued that withholding human rights from certain communities limits the freedoms of all Americans. Upon her arrival, Bryant hosted her own press conference at the Indianapolis International Airport, looking, in the words of journalist Robert Reed,

Clark reading from Reed: Very much like an aging but attractive president of the local PTA.

Beckley: She and her husband fielded questions about her work to repeal the Dade County ordinance, which she felt afforded gay individuals “special privileges” and would allow them to flaunt homosexuality in the classroom. She believed:

Marino reading Bryant: God put homosexuals in the same category as murderers, thieves and drunks. Homosexuality is a sin and I’m against all sin. I’m also against laws that give respectability and sanction to these types of individuals.

Beckley: Her remarks, which also included multiple plugs for her upcoming book and charges of a “nationwide homosexual conspiracy” against her, were not well received by the press, many of whom left before the end of the conference.

[Cheering crowd]

Beckley: That night, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum thrummed with cheers and “Amens” as approximately 7,000 attendees absorbed the words of speakers who outlined their plans to “restore decency” in America. The Martinsville Reporter-Times noted that the event “took on the aura of a political rally and a Baptist revival.”  Local pastors emphasized the need to elect officials who supported causes like “Save Our Children,” some of whom sat in that very coliseum. Representative Boys advocated for his anti-sodomy bill, to be introduced later that year, and for lawmakers to expunge the Equal Rights Amendment.

After the speakers had had their turns, Bryant took the stage to perform in a white, flowing dress.

[Bryant singing Glory, Glory]

Beckley: The audience was rapt, hanging onto every word she sang. She occasionally punctuated her religious and patriotic songs with oration—like warning the audience that:

Marino reading Bryant: if parents don’t rise up and set standards for our children, the humanists, the ultra-liberals and the militant homosexuals will.

[Protestors chanting]

Beckley: Outside the coliseum, 500 protestors marched in the rain wielding signs saying, “Straights for gay rights” and “Anita Bryant – Molester of Human Rights” while chanting “Anita Bryant go away, human rights are here to stay.”

[Music]

Beckley: Protesters included Fritz Lieber, co-chairman of the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights, who lost his teaching position for being gay. While most of the protestors were young, Indianapolis resident Mary Hoffman, her husband, and three kids also attended the demonstration, believing that Bryant’s message “‘parallels McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler.’” As protesters made their presence known, Rev. Jerry Falwell quipped on the stage:

Clark reading Falwell: It’s a shame it’s raining. It might wash off their make up.

Beckley: Although Bryant left the state following her performance, the anti-gay furor continued in her wake. The morning after the rally, 500 people gathered at Military Park in Indianapolis and marched the half mile to Monument Circle, where they joined 2,000 supporters for a “Save our Society” rally.  Local pastor Earl Lawson, who worked to reform homosexual individuals and sex workers, declared that he would organize similar rallies across the state.

Some people in the queer community reported an increase in police harassment in the wake of Bryant’s visit. Ernest Rumbarger, a writer for local gay newsletter, The Works, wrote:

Clark reading from The Works: My partner and I were two of her better-known local victims. We were taken from our home in the middle of the night and held for eight days in jail, incommunicado.

Beckley: Despite being denied assistance from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and the Gay People’s Union, a grand jury found Rumbarger not guilty and reportedly offered him an “unsolicited public apology.”

Along with sparking a wave of anti-gay activity in the state, Bryant’s visit acted as a catalyst for gay rights support from those outside of the community, who may never have considered the discrimination queer individuals endured on a daily basis.

Archival audio of protestors: The major effort today is to change the social institutions that make life difficult for us . . . if straight people can do all this carrying on, and holding hands, and kiss in the park, why can’t we do it?

Beckley: Gay activists and allies responded to the rallies through protest and press. Indianapolis newspapers printed an advertisement compiled by sixty-three clergy protesting the crusade. A few days after the rally, Indianapolis resident Jerry Briscoe wrote to the Indianapolis News editor that Bryant’s judgment of others “has become devastating to their existence” and contradicted Christian theology. He stated,

Clark reading from Briscoe: God is our ultimate judge—that is, of course, before Anita Bryant came along.

Beckley: When Bryant made a return visit to the state later that month, this time for a concert at the University of Notre Dame, Hoosiers were joined by Cleveland and Chicago activists to protest. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed ahead of her October 26th concert. Protesters planned to march with signs bearing Bible verses and Shakespearean quotes reaffirming human rights. That evening, only 500 of the arena’s 10,000 seats were occupied. The South Bend Tribune reported that Bryant, who led the scant audience in prayer for gay individuals, unwed couples living together, and divorced couples, “seemed lost in the vastness of the Athletic and Convocation Center.” The number of protesters, both in support of and opposition to Bryant, nearly matched that of concert-goers.

Although subjected to abuse from Bryants’ supporters, one of whom spat on the seven-year-old daughter of a Michiana Coalition leader, the protestors were determined to demonstrate kindness, even going so far as to invite Bryant to a reception in her honor and giving her a bouquet of roses.

Notre Dame employee Charles Early contested that the “fiasco” of a concert showed a growing acceptance of the marginalized community.

Three days later, Bryant performed one last time in the Hoosier state at the Embassy Theater in Fort Wayne, again with demonstrators picketing outside carrying signs reading “Gay is Okay” and “Anita Bryant is Proof Orange Juice Causes Brain Damage.”

In the following years, LBGTQ+ Hoosiers continued to seek visibility in ways that aligned with the “Hoosier Kind” attitude shown in their dealings with Anita Bryant. When meeting antipathy from the police in the midst of a string of homicides in the Indianapolis gay community in the 1980s, activists advocated for a solution. At a meeting with the Indianapolis Police Department, they made recommendations which would improve police relations with the queer community. After implementing some of these recommendations, progress, although intermittent, was made.

In 1984, in a show of solidarity against police harassment and surveillance, a series of gatherings was held on the steps of Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. Rather than a protest, these “Knights on the Circle” were meant to simply demonstrate the fact that queer Hoosiers existed and that they had the same rights as all Americans. The series culminated in a rally on August 31, 1984, with 600 gay and lesbian Hoosiers in attendance. In 1991 at the second ever large outdoor Pride event, religious protestors threatened members of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus with baseball bats. Rather than meet violence with violence, choral director Michael Hayden instructed the men to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, a move which stopped the protestors in their tracks.

Hoosiers were not the only ones to protest a visit by Anita Bryant – she had a similar reception across the country. Gay bars around the nation boycotted the use of orange juice in their drinks, nixing the traditional Screwdriver and instead serving “Anita Bryant Cocktails,” made with apple juice and vodka. Partly in response to criticism of her anti-gay crusade and partly due to her recent public divorce and other personal hypocrisies, Bryant was dropped from endorsement deals and reportedly lost an estimated $500,000 in television contracts.

The anti-gay crusade led by Bryant was, in part, a reaction to societal changes. Backlash – whether it be to newly enfranchised Black Americans practicing their rights or to women working nontraditional jobs or queer individuals gaining visibility – often comes from a place of yearning for a “simpler time,” a more harmonious past when people were nicer and things were easier. But that past never really existed. A homogenous, unified America only existed in the imagination. Our nation has always been diverse – full of people from different backgrounds with different beliefs – it has just been a matter of people with privilege recognizing that. As social progress continues to evoke backlash, it’s important for us to recognize calls to return to a simpler time for what they are – calls to return to a time when fewer people shared in the American dream of freedom from discrimination.

Queer activist Barbara Gittings once said,

Weiss Simins reading from Gittings: Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.

[Music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a Division of the Indiana State Library. This episode of was adapted from IHB historian Nicole Poletika’s Indiana History Blog post called The Debate Over “Decency:” How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade. Sound engineering and production by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thank you to Indianapolis Central Public Library Special Collections Librarian Stephen Lane for providing access to their LGBTQ+ Oral History Project interviews and transcripts. A huge thank you to Justin Clark, Michella Marino, and Jill Weiss Simins for lending their voice to the podcast. You can find a full transcript and show notes for this episode by visiting Blog.history.in.gov and clicking Talking Hoosier History at the top. Find us on Facebook and Twitter as the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to like, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Petals, Not Pies: Queer Hoosiers Protest Anita Bryant

Blog Posts 

Poletika, Nicole, The Debate over “Decency:” How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights CrusadeIndiana History Blog.

Oral History

Randall King, interview by Elise Schrader, October 16, 2020, virtual, Indianapolis Public Library’s Indianapolis LGBTQ+ Oral History Project.

Websites

Facing History and Ourselves, “The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy.”

NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, “Gay Liberation Front at Alternate U.”

PBS, “Women and Work After World War II.”

Death Through the (P)ages: Funeral Homes in Indiana

Muncie Funeral Parlor, 1910s. Indiana Memory.

During the month of Halloween, it seemed fitting to do a blog about the history of funeral parlors and funeral homes in Indiana. The funeral parlor, or funeral home, became a mainstay of American life in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Before that, most American families held a wake (now called a “viewing”) in their home, in a room often named the parlor. Then, they were either buried on the family homestead or in the cemetery by their church. The Civil War changed that; massive numbers of dead soldiers from across the country prompted new funerary practices, such as embalming and preserving for long trips. After the war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class facilitated further modernization of funerals. It was here that the funeral parlor, or funeral home, became the norm. In this blog, we will share with you how the funeral homes of Indiana’s past often advertised themselves in newspapers and how they developed into the modern, standardized industry that they are today.

Isaac Ball, the co-founder and first president of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association. Find a Grave.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 21, 1881. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The modern Indiana funeral industry began in the 1880s, with the establishment of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association (IFDA). It was founded in 1880-81 by a group of undertakers led by funeral pioneer Isaac Ball. Ball and company wanted to modernize and standardize their practices, making it less macabre and more inviting to the public. One of the first steps that they took was a name change. No longer would leaders within the industry refer to themselves as “undertakers;” the preferred term under the IFDA was “funeral director,” hence the organization’s name. In fact, the Bloomington Progress even published as much in their June 1, 1881 issue: “An undertaker will hereafter be known as a ‘funeral director,’ at least that is the name the State organization has assumed.” Ball served as the IFDA’s first president at their first annual convention in Indianapolis. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail published a short mention of the conference in their May 21 1881 issue, ironically noting that “It was an odd coincidence that the State Medical Association was in session at the capital at the same time.”

Coots and Willey’s Funeral Parlor, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1897. Indiana Memory.

While “funeral director” became the accepted industry term, it took a few years for funeral homes around the state to use the term. Some of the earliest uses of “funeral director” found in Hoosier State Chronicles are in the Indianapolis News. Its April 21, 1899 issue printed a funeral director section on its classified page; similar funeral director sections from the classified pages can be found in 1916 and 1918, respectively. Individual funeral directors, such as Indianapolis’s Frank W. Flanner & Charles J. Buchanan, adopted the term as early as 1888.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal , June 14 1901. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These examples are the general listings for funeral homes and funeral directors; there are also many newspaper advertisements that document the change in funeral homes over time. One of the earliest paid ads found in Hoosier State Chronicles was for the Athens Funeral Parlor, run by William D. McClelland in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1901. McClelland fully purchased the business in June of 1901 and published a formal announcement in the June 7 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal:

Having purchased the Interest of my partner, W. W. McCann, in the undertaking business, situated on south Water street, (Thomas block) I submit my services to the public of this city and county, competent in the business and profession which each and every family have to support sooner or later. My equipments [sic] are of the best, and stock first class, and at reasonable prices, and each one will be treated with only kindness and respect. Death comes to all and the great responsibility of the care is taken from the family in this sad and distressful hour. Hoping that you may feel when you place your confidence in me that it will be for carried out to the letter,

I Remain Your Friend

W. D. MCCLELLAND.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, May 2, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another ad ran in a 1902 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal. The later ad provided more details on the staff of the funeral parlor. Alongside McClelland’s title as “proprietor” and “licensed embalmer.” He also employed a “lady assistant” (to prepare the bodies of deceased women and girls) and a business assistant named James H. Robbins.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 12, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 9, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 11, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One demographic well documented in Hoosier State Chronicles, in regards to funeral homes and directors, is the African American community. George W. Frierson, originally from Nashville, Tennessee and then Louisville, Kentucky, established a funeral parlor at 632 Indiana Avenue (near the Walker Theatre) in 1907. The first published ad for Frierson’s funeral parlor ran in the January 12, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. About a month later, a new ad ran in the Recorder confirming that Frierson partnered with James B. Garner, an embalmer. Frierson served as the “proprietor” and Garner as the “manager.” Like McClelland back in Crawfordsville, they also had a “lady attendant.” Frierson maintained his funeral parlor until at least 1914, at which point it was located at 642 Indiana Avenue.

W. A. Gaines Funeral Home, Evansville, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Portrait of W. A. Gaines, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Evansville Argus, September 26, 1942. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another key African American funeral parlor owner was Wallace A. Gaines of Evansville. Gaines founded the W. A. Gaines Company in 1918 with wife Tillie Y. Gaines and Rudolph D. O’Hara and $5,000 in initial capital, according to the Indianapolis News. It ran ads in Evansville newspapers for decades, with the particular ad in the September 10, 1938 issue of the Argus being an example. Gaines died in 1940, but his funeral home operated until at least 1989, when the last mention of its operation was made in the Indianapolis Recorder. It was then run by Michael J. Bluitt, who owned the funeral home and served as one of IFDA’s presidents.

Richmond Palladium, October 26, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While funeral parlor ads generally represented newspaper coverage, pithy anecdotes also made the cut. An interesting story out of Chicago and published in the Richmond Palladium noted that “Eighty women, playing cards for a prize, adjourned their game to an undertaking room and continued playing . . . with several coffins . . . .” The ladies moved to the funeral parlor “after the police had broken up their game at the home of Mrs. Clara Dermot.” It is unclear whether or not the coffins were occupied.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Up in the north, the city of South Bend maintained a few funeral parlors in the early 20th century. Harry L. Yerrick ran a funeral business in the 1910s in South Bend, as sort of a jack-of-all-trades with funerals. In a 1915 ad in the South Bend News-Times, Yerrick declared that “I am as near to you as your telephone” and cited multiple services, including a chapel, an ambulance, and a carriage. Yerrick died in 1920 and Clem C. Whiteman and Forest G. Hay took over the business. Whiteman owned a wholesale grocery company and Hay was the partner given “active charge of the business for the present.” In September of 1920, James H. McGann joined the business as their “licensed embalmer”, holding “one of the highest grades in the state” for his profession. Over the decades, McGann eventually created his own funeral home business while Hay’s also flourished. In 2005, after multiple generations of their respective businesses, they merged to form the McGann-Hay Company. The funeral home is now based in Granger, Indiana. What started as one guy’s profession became a decades-long, family-run business that still operates today.

Casket With the Body of a Young Woman named Clara, Spiceland, Indiana, 1900s. Indiana Memory.

By the late 1920s, newspapers published more elaborate, detailed funeral home ads to share the services they offered. John A. Patton’s Funeral Home on Boulevard Place ran an ad describing its “thoughtful service” in the February 12, 1927 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. The ad declared:

After the last rites are said over a departed relative, and the family recalls with comforting satisfaction the smooth attentive manner in which everything was executed, then comes a realization of the assuaging helpfulness of the thoughtful funeral director.

It is this faithful service that endears the funeral director in the hearts [of] families and in such manner we have built up our business. Our desire always is to serve in a thoughtful dignified way.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 12, 1927. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The texts reads like a service itself, with keen attention paid to the grieving families and an emphasis on dignity and thoughtfulness. This wasn’t the only ad from the period like this. When Nannie Harrison reopened her late husband’s funeral parlor in 1929, she published a nearly half-page ad in the Recorder. Pitching it as the “most modern funeral parlor,” Harrison’s ad proclaimed that families “will be satisfied at so complete a service for the benefit of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . .”

Knightstown Buggy Company Catalog, 1920s. Indiana Memory.
Indianapolis Recorder, January 19, 1929. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This trend continued into the 1930s. The Willis Mortuary in Indianapolis published an ad in a 1936 issue of the Recorder that called it their “honor to serve you in your hour of bereavement” and “endeavor[ed] to live up to your greatest expectations.” Nearly a decade after the illustrious grand reopening of the Harrison funeral parlor, brothers Plummer and Carey Jacobs opened up their Indianapolis Funeral Home on October 30, 1938. Two days before, they took out a whole-page ad in the Recorder to inform the public of their formal opening, including a full program of events and photographs of their new facilities. A few days later, the Recorder ran an unsolicited article about the Jacobs Brothers Funeral Home grand opening. “Marking another milestone in the increasingly brilliant parade of business activities among colored persons,” the Recorder reported, “thousands of persons swarms the new eastside funeral home of Jacobs Brothers in an unbroken stream Sunday.” They further added that the “general comment is that this is finest funeral home in the city for our people.” The Jacobs brothers had joined a long, historic line of groundbreaking, African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Recorder, October 29, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, November 5, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As the 1940s went along, not only did funeral home ads get more detailed, but the funeral home section did as well. A 1949 issue in the Indianapolis Recorder dedicated an entire newspaper column to fully detailed and illustrated funeral home ads, for such businesses as the Willis Mortuary, King & King Funeral Home, and the aforementioned Jacobs brothers. However, some papers, like the Sullivan Daily Times, stuck to a more simple approach to funeral homes, with one, non-detailed ad for the McHugh funeral home and a smaller ad for M. J. Aikin & Son.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 26, 1949. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Speaking of the King & King funeral home, one of their more unique ads ran in the winter of 1951. King & King released a full-page ad on December 22 wishing the community a Merry Christmas. It came with a holiday message, much akin to a greeting card, and advertised the funeral home at the bottom, emphasizing their “Ambulance Service.” Now, if this strikes the reader as odd, other funeral homes engaged in this practice. As an example, a December 1963 ad in the Wolcott Beacon from the Foster Funeral Home wished readers a happy new year. They didn’t, however, advertise their ambulance service.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 22, 1951. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Wolcott Beacon, December 26, 1963. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The 1960s brought further experimentation to funeral home ads in newspapers. A rather clever ad in the Greencastle Daily Banner displayed the Whitaker Funeral home, who used their ad space to share with readers a short fable. “Experience is a bad teacher,” the story declared in its final line, “she gives the test first; the lesson afterwards.” Using ad space to share an amusing homily while advertising a funeral business appears inappropriate, but it actually elicits from readers a humble, personal connection that personifies the best in advertising.

Greencastle Daily Banner. February 19, 1968. Hoosier State Chronicles.
J. A. DeMoney & Son Funeral Parlor, Columbia City, Indiana, circa 1960. Indiana Memory.

Ads and business articles about funeral homes comprise the majority of coverage in newspapers, but occasional editorials surfaced as well. In the April 21, 1972 issue of the Jewish Post, Rabbi Maurice Davis wrote a heavily critical editorial concerning a funeral practice, not of the directors, but of the visitors. Entitled, “Visiting at Funeral Parlor as Un-Jewish as They Come,” Rabbi Davis lambasted the practice of a “wake” the night before a funeral, arguing that the “pre-funeral chapel visitation” goes against Jewish traditions of shiva (meeting with the family at their home after the funeral) and violates the mourners’ rights to privacy. “I only wish,” Rabbi Davis wrote, “that more of our people would know the origin, and move away from the practice of this distasteful custom.” The wake has continued to be a common practice at funerals since Davis’s time, but his editorial educates readers on traditional Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish Post, April 21, 1972. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Circling back to advertising, funeral homes often used their newspaper space to celebrate their anniversary as a business. The Hopkins Funeral Home put out an ad in the Greencastle Banner Graphic in 1973 celebrating their 20th anniversary. “We are proud of the reputation for dependability that we have in servicing Putnam County for 20 years. Feel confident in turning to us in your hour of need,” the full-page ad lauded.

Greencastle Banner Graphic, December 13, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ads from the 1980s and 90s highlighted the benefits of pre-arranging funerals, an expanding practice during the last 30 years. Summers Funeral Chapels published an ad in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1989 selling the benefits of pre-arranged funerals, noting that “making arrangements ahead of time has become the smart thing to do.” The Meridian Hills Mortuary sent out an ad in a 1994 issue of the Jewish Post that also advocated for pre-arranged funerals. “Arranging a Funeral in advance of need is becoming more and more a choice of those who wish to relieve their family of the burden of making those arrangements at a time of emotional stress,” the ad stressed. This trend continued into the 2000s as well, with the Stuart Mortuary and the Washington Park North Cemetery and Funeral Center urging patrons to consider a pre-arranged funeral plan.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 14, 1989. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, February 9, 1994. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For over 120 years, funeral homes and funeral directors have gone from a small, burgeoning family enterprise to big business. Nevertheless, the focus on dignity, customer service, and the importance of family continued in the pages of newspaper ads. Whether it was Isaac Ball and the IFDA re-configuring an industry or modern funeral homes pitching pre-arranged funeral plans, the emphasis on being a caretaker for the bereaved has never wavered. Death is a sore topic of discussion; people fear it and often ignore it altogether. Yet, it’s as much as a part of life as a birth, a graduation, or a wedding. It also helps us understand how we live, as a culture. Funerals changed as America, and Indiana, changed; they evolved from mostly rural and familial affairs into urban and professionalized practices. In sharing this history, as it unfolds in the pages of newspapers, we understand a crucial part of Hoosier life over the last century.

A Communist in Terre Haute: Earl Browder and Free Speech

This video was originally published on the Hoosier State Chronicles blog.

Five men are sitting in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. The leader of the group—a middle-aged, mustached, and unassuming figure—had been arrested on charges of “vagrancy and ‘for investigation’,” according to the local police chief. But it wasn’t a drunk or an unlucky drifter sitting in the cell. It was the leader of an American political party and its nominee for President of the United States. He had tried to give a speech in Terre Haute when arrested by the local authorities. His case became a statewide and even national discussion on the importance and limits of free speech. Now, who could’ve caused all of this ruckus? It was Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.

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Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “And Then She Left” by Kinoton, “Echo Sclavi” by the Mini Vandals, “Namaste” by Audionautix, “Myositis” by the United States Marine Band, “Finding the Balance” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Dana” by Vibe Tracks

Continue reading “A Communist in Terre Haute: Earl Browder and Free Speech”

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

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

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

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Library of Congress.

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

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

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

Robert Ingersoll portraits. Library of Congress.

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

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

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience. Peoria Magazine.

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

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

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

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Indiana Memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Ingersoll pamphlet on Hell, 1882. Google Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene V. Debs standing by pillar. Indiana Memory.

Vesto Slipher: Uncovering the Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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