This has been adapted from its original August 22, 2019 publication in the Weekly View.
Was a Hoosier the inspiration behind the book that sold more copies in the 19th century than any other book except the Bible—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly? It’s a distinct possibility. Stowe penned the novel during a fearful time in America for persons of color. Fleeing intolerable conditions wrought by enslavement, many risked a perilous journey to the North. This was America after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that residents of free states return fleeing slaves to their masters or face imprisonment or fines. The country was at odds over the issue of slavery and as to the responsibility of individuals in protecting the peculiar institution. It appeared America was edging ever closer to being torn in two.
Moved by these events, young abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe put pen to paper and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hoping to appeal to the heart and conscience of the nation. The National Era serialized the narrative, with the first of forty chapters appearing on June 5, 1851. A year later it was published in book form and quickly became the most widely-read book in the U.S., selling 300,000 copies in 1852 alone. Stowe’s realistic depiction of American slavery through the character of “Uncle Tom” mobilized support for abolition, particularly in the North.
Playwrights adapted the popular story for the stage, but in doing so distorted Stowe’s original depiction of Tom in order to attract bigger audiences. Readers encountered a benevolent, but deeply convicted character, who would rather lose his life than reveal the location of two enslaved women hiding from their abusive master. The stage version depicts Tom as a doddering, ignorant man, so eager to please his master that he would sell out fellow persons of color. Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, notes that because of the “perversion” of Stowe’s portrayal, today “in many African American communities ‘Uncle Tom’ is a slur used to disparage a black person who is humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people.” Despite the modern implications of the term “Uncle Tom,” the Antebellum stage productions further propelled Americans to take action against the plight of enslaved people in the mid-19th century.
While Stowe acknowledged that the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from an 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, she’d had personal interactions with former slaves who she had met while living in Cincinnati. She was also familiar with Quaker settlements, which “have always been refuges for the oppressed and outlawed slave.”  In a companion book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe documented “the truth of the work,”  writing that the novel was “a collection and arrangement of real incidents . . . grouped together . . . in the same manner that the mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture.” 
Although Stowe does not mention him by name, Indianapolis residents and newspapers credited a local man with influencing her book: Thomas “Uncle Tom” Magruder. Tom had been enslaved by the Noble family. Dr. Thomas Noble gave up his medical practice and became a planter in Frederick County, Virginia when his brother gave him a plantation sometime after 1782. Tom Magruder was probably one of the slaves on this plantation who, in 1795, were forced to move with Dr. Noble to Boone County, Kentucky, where he established “Bellevue” farm.
Tom managed the farm during his enslavement until 1830, when both Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Noble had passed away. He was “permitted to go free”  and he moved his family to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, likely to a free slave settlement. In 1831, Dr. Noble’s son, Indiana Governor Noah Noble, brought the aged Tom and his wife, Sarah, to Indianapolis. There, he had a cabin built for them on a portion of a large tract of land that he had acquired east of the city. The dwelling that became known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was located on the northeast corner of Noble (now College Avenue) and Market Street. Eventually Tom and Sarah Magruder’s daughter, Louisa Magruder, and granddaughter Martha, known as “Topsy,” joined the household. Tom was a member of Roberts Park Methodist Church and was an “enthusiastic worshipper—his ‘amens,’ ‘hallelujahs,’ and ‘glorys’ being . . . frequent and fervent.” 
Living a few blocks from Tom at the southwest corner of Ohio and New Jersey in the 1840s was Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, white pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church.  He was “a constant visitor of Uncle Tom’s, well acquainted with his history, and a sincere admirer of his virtues.”  Like the main character in Stowe’s novel, Tom Magruder was a “very religious old Negro;”  of commanding appearance, his “open, gentle, manly countenance made him warm friends of all persons, white and black, who became acquainted with him.” 
It is known that Rev. Beecher mentioned the venerable gentleman in a sermon, which may have been when he preached on slavery on May 34, 1846.  Harriet Beecher Stowe visited her brother in Indianapolis that summer and may have accompanied him on one of his frequent visits to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It is possible that she left the city with the future title of her novel and its main character in mind. It is likely that the names of the Magruder sons—Moses and Peter—and the name of their granddaughter Topsy remained with Stowe to later find their way into her tale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 
Tom Magruder died on February 22, 1857 at about 110 years old. He was buried in the Noble family lot at the city’s Greenlawn Cemetery. At the time of his death, there was a universal belief in Indianapolis that “there are some circumstances which give it an air of probability”  that “Old Tom” is “Stowe’s celebrated hero.”  Among other things, “‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’ . . . was a familiar phrase here long before Mrs. Stowe immortalized it.”  Local papers “stood up for the claim”  in the immediate years after Tom’s death. The Daily Citizen wrote in April 1858, “It is believed here that Thomas Magruder . . . was the ‘veritable Uncle Tom,’”  and the Indianapolis News in March 1875 bluntly stated, “[Josiah Henson] is a fraud. The original Uncle Tom lived in this city and his old cabin was near the corner of Market and Noble Street.” 
In his 1910 book Greater Indianapolis, historian Jacob Piatt Dunn thought it unlikely that Tom Magruder would ever be confirmed as the inspiration behind Stowe’s legendary fictional character. However, he noted that “it is passing strange that none of the numerous friends and admirers of the Beechers in this city received any denial of it, which would necessarily have broken the uniform faith in the tradition.”  What Dunn was certain about is that nearly everyone in Indianapolis at the time knew Tom Magruder, “‘for he was noted as an exemplary and religious man and was generally respected.'” 
 Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (John P. Jewett & Co, Boston, 1858), Part I, Chapter XIII: The Quakers, p. 54.
Humorist Will Cuppy’s witticisms tended toward, as his biographer Wes Gehring put it, “dark comedy that flirts with nihilism.” Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, published posthumously in 1950, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list and enjoyed eighteen reprints in hardback. Decline and Fall typified Cuppy’s life’s work, which satirized human nature and utilized footnotes to great comedic effect. He spent sixteen years researching the historic figures featured in Decline and Fall, but, after years of battling depression, passed away before its publication.
The Auburn, Indiana native spent a lot of time on his grandmother’s South Whitley farm. There, he developed a love of animals and a curiosity about life. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Cuppy found himself wondering if fish think—and no one he knew was curious enough to similarly wonder or care if indeed fish do think. In search of more inquisitive conversationalists, Cuppy moved out of Indiana as soon as he could. Upon graduation from Auburn High School, Cuppy departed for the University of Chicago where he would spend the next twelve years taking a wide array of courses. He completed his B.A. in philosophy and planned to get his Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature.
While at university, Cuppy worked for the school paper. As a result, the University of Chicago Press hired Cuppy to “create some old fraternity traditions for what was then a relatively new college” to give the school more of an old east coast university feel. This assignment evolved into Cuppy’s first book, Maroon Tales, published in 1910. Eventually, Cuppy’s college friend Burton Rascoe invited him out to New York City, where Rascoe was an editor and literary critic for the New York Tribune. After agreeing to move to New York City, Cuppy decided to get his M.A. in literature and leave the University of Chicago rather than complete his Ph.D. He was ready to move on.
In 1921, Cuppy moved into a tarpaper and tin shack on Jones’ Island in New York. Suffering from hypersensitivity to sound, Cuppy wished to escape the noise of the city. He lived on the island year-round for eight years, with occasional visits to the city for supplies. The men of the Coast Guard station a few hundred feet down the beach befriended him and shared food, as well as fixed his typewriter. Cuppy called his beach home Tottering-on-the-Brink, giving insight into his mental health. But despite his seclusion, Cuppy’s career progressed. By 1922, he was writing occasionally for the New York Tribune, and in 1926 he joined the staff there as a book reviewer (by which time the Tribune had become the New York Herald Tribune).
Then, in 1929, Cuppy had to leave his shack because New York designated the area to become a state park, although he received permission to visit his hermitage for irregular vacations. Cuppy moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, but even after he left his residence at Jones’ Island he would sometimes be referred to—and refer to himself—as a hermit because he continued to maintain an isolated lifestyle. Predictably, Cuppy found it difficult to stand the noise of the humming city. He tended to sleep during the day and work during the night to minimize his exposure to the cacophonous sounds. When it all got to be too much, Cuppy would blow on noisemaker as hard as he could out an open window.
Cuppy published a book about his experience living on Jones’ Island in 1929, How to Be a Hermit (Or A Bachelor Keeps House). The book was a best-seller—reprinted six times in six months—and put Cuppy on the map as a humorist and author. In traditional Cuppy fashion, he quipped “I hear there’s a movement among them [architects] to use my bungalow as a textbook example of what’s wrong with their business. The sooner the better—that will give the dome of St. Paul’s a rest.” And then there was this telling jest:
Coffee! With the first nip of the godlike brew I decide not to jump off the roof until things get worse—I’ll give them another week or so.
Cuppy followed up Hermit with How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931.
The 1930s were a busy time for Cuppy. In 1930, he tried to establish himself as a comic lecturer; however, after a brief stint of talks, it appeared the venture did not work out. A few years later Cuppy hosted a short-lived radio program on NBC called “Just Relax.” It proved too difficult to sustain a radio program with Cuppy’s singular brand of comedy and socially anxious tendencies—radio executives simply told him he wasn’t funny. Though his program didn’t last, Cuppy continued to appear in radio broadcasts sporadically through the years. He went on the radio to promote his next book, How to Become Extinct (1941).
Numerous reviews of mystery and crime novels had garnered Cuppy the distinction of being “America’s mystery story expert” as early as 1935. It was earned—in the course of his career Cuppy published around 4,000 book reviews. He secretly admitted that his heart wasn’t in it and he’d never particularly enjoyed the mystery and detective genre, but reviewing these books in his New York Herald Tribune column “Mystery and Adventure” was Cuppy’s steadiest income stream over the years. Nevertheless, in the 1940s Cuppy used his genre expertise to edit three anthologies of mystery and crime fiction. His freelance writing also picked up in this decade. National publications like McCall’s Magazine, The New Yorker, College Humor, For Men, and The Saturday Evening Post printed Cuppy’s essays that would later be compiled in his books, like How to Attract the Wombat (1949).
In a reflection that brings to mind Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cuppy was fond of saying:
I’m billed as a humorist, but of course I’m a tragedian at heart.
One gets the sense from reading Cuppy’s material that he used humor as a coping mechanism. Quoting Cuppy, Gehring wrote that the dark humorist “believed humor sprang from ‘rage, hay fever, overdue rent, and miscellaneous hell.’” You could say that, like his humor, Cuppy’s life was tragic. Though he had long suffered from depression, multiple sources noted Cuppy’s declining health in mid-1949. Then, threatened with eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment and reeling from the end of a decades-long friendship, Cuppy followed through on decades of casual talk about self-harm. He died on September 19, 1949, due to suicide. He was buried in Auburn, Indiana’s Evergreen Cemetery.
After Cuppy died, his editor, Fred Feldkamp, took on the task of assembling Cuppy’s numerous notes into The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy took his research seriously, and this is where Cuppy’s extensive education shined through. He would spend months researching a single short essay, reading everything he could find on the topic and amassing sometimes hundreds of notecards on each subject. Having worked on Decline and Fall for a whopping sixteen years before his death, Cuppy had collected many boxes of notecards filled with research. Decline and Fall was an immediatesuccess when it was published in 1950. Locally, the Indianapolis News named it one of the best humor books of the year, and listed it as the top best-seller in Indianapolis in non-fiction for the year. In 1951, Feldkamp used more of Cuppy’s notes to edit and publish How to Get from January to December; it was the final publication in Cuppy’s name.
Cuppy’s style was characterized by a satirical take on nature and historical figures. Footnotes were his comedic specialty—they were such a successful trademark that he was sometimes hired to add his touch of footnote flair to the works of fellow humorists. In Decline and Fall there is one footnote in particular which is emblematic of Cuppy’s unique dark humor: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” Before the publication of Decline and Fall, Cuppy was frequently asked why he always wrote about animals—when would he write about people? But, of course, he had been lampooning humanity all along.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in the last decade of his life, Cuppy befriended William Stieg, the man who would go on to create the character Shrek in his 1990 children’s book by the same name. A young cartoonist, Stieg was hired to illustrate How to Become Extinct and Decline and Fall. Cuppy and Stieg struck up an extensive correspondence, and Cuppy influenced Stieg’s style. The notion of a humorous curmudgeon living in isolation and drawn out into the world by both necessity and outgoing friends strikes a familiar chord that echoes in Shrek.
Cuppy was a famous humorist in his time, and the acclaim of his better-known comedy contemporaries, like P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, certainly helped to heighten his renown. When Decline and Fall came out, a reviewer for the New York Times insisted that “certain people, at least, thought [Cuppy] among the funniest men writing in English.” Beyond his work as a humorist, Cuppy’s career as a literary critic had been impactful; the managing editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he had “given up reading whodunits” after Cuppy’s death because he didn’t trust any other critic to guide his mystery selections. The sadly serious humorist is less widely known today, but his quips seem more relevant than ever.
Be sure to see Will Cuppy’s state historical marker at the site of his childhood home in Auburn after it is unveiled in August.
Wes D. Gehring, Will Cuppy, American Satirist: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013).
Norris W. Yates, “Will Cuppy: The Wise Fool as Pedant,” in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964).
Al Castle, “Naturalist Humor in Will Cuppy’s How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” Studies in American Humor, 2, 3 (1984): 330-336.
Visit the ultra-sleek website of the industrial design firm TEAGUE and you will see the echoes of company founder and namesake Walter Dorwin Teague. TEAGUE touts “we design experiences for people and things in motion.” This could easily have been declared in 1939 when Teague applied his experience as an industrial designer to the New York World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow.”
Walter Dorwin Teague’s story starts in the house of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in Decatur, Indiana. Here, Walter was born on December 18, 1883, the youngest of six children to Reverend M.A. Teague and Hettie Teague. By late 1889, the family had settled in Pendleton, where Teague graduated high school in 1902. Teague credits his time in Pendleton, and particularly a book on the history of architecture from the Pendleton High School library, with setting him on the path that would eventually lead him to become a dominant force in American industrial design.
Soon after his graduation, Teague moved to New York City to study at The Art Students League of New York. However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Teague discovered his life’s passion: industrial design. He was early to the game – in the decade after Teague scored his first major contract with Eastman Kodak in 1928, mentions of the phrase “industrial designer” in printed material increased 40 fold. Many sources consider Walter Dorwin Teague to be one of the five founders of industrial design in the United States, along with Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes.
In the decade after his first contract with Kodak, Teague designed for the likes of Boeing, Texaco, the Marmon Motor Company, and Ford Motor Company. He built lasting business relationships with many of these companies, and in some cases those relationships went beyond the designing of products. In the early 1930s, Henry Ford turned to Walter Dorwin Teague to design a cutting-edge exhibit hall for the 1934 re-opening of the Chicago World’s Fair, themed “Century of Progress.” The exhibition featured a wide array of elements, including a museum, industrial barn, and gardens tied together by–what else–design.
According to historian Roland Marchand, the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress:
ushered in a period of striking convergence between an increasing corporate sensitivity to public relations and the applications of designers’ expertise to display strategies. More than ever before, the great fairs became arenas for the public dramatization of corporate identities.
Gone were the sales-driven exhibits of the past, in which company representatives pitched the latest and greatest Ford products. With Teague at the helm, salesmen were replaced by young, affable college students. Product demonstrations were replaced by art, dioramas, and museums. Pressure to buywas replaced with entertainment, as well as information about the concepts behind and benefits of featured products. These innovations made the exhibit a hit of the fair and Walter Dorwin Teague a highly sought after exhibition hall designer.
In the wake of the successful Ford project, Teague designed exhibits for a number of regional fairs. He designed for Ford in San Diego (1935), Dallas (1936) and Cleveland (1936), and for Du Pont and Texaco in Dallas (1936). These smaller exhibits were a trial of sorts for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which would become Teague’s crowning achievement in the realm of exhibit design.
For the New York World’s Fair, which was themed “The World of Tomorrow,” Teague designed the exhibition halls for heavy-hitters like Ford, U.S. Steel, Du Pont, National Cash Register (NCR), Consolidated Edison Company, Eastman Kodak, A.B. Dick, Bryany Heater Company, and parts of the United States Government Building. In addition, Teague served on the official Design Board, the lone industrial designer among a group of architects.
One might assume that with so much on his plate, Teague would have moved towards a more hands-off approach at the 1939 fair.However, he was deeply involved in the conceptualization process.While on previous projects he had simply put the finishing touches on an already developed idea or perhaps added design elements around an existing exhibit plan, by 1939, Teague was involved in “the fundamental work of determining what [the] exhibit should be.” Employing lessons learned at the 1934 Century of Progress, Teague determined that exhibits should include animation and audience participation whenever possible. He and his team also began using phrases such as “visual dramatization” and “industrial showmanship” to describe their work. The resulting 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibits reflected the evolution of his design approach.
Du Pont, the company responsible for developments such as Kevlar, Teflon, neoprene, and Freon, had high expectations for their exhibit. In the November 1938 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, the company promised, “a panorama of man’s triumphs over his environment, of the progress he has made in building a new nation and a new civilization, of the hopes and plans he has for creating a better world in the future” and to illustrate “chemistry’s part in making the United States more self-sufficient.”
The resulting exhibition building, featuring a 120-foot “Tower of Research” inspired by test tubes, literally towered over passersby. The essential element of animation was incorporated through lights and bubbles that flowed through the test tubes and brought the structure to life. Inside the building were a variety of displays that highlighted the role of chemistry in the modern world–and painted a picture of what the “World of Tomorrow” could look like with further investments in the sciences. Displays followed the production process from raw materials to laboratory testing, and finally to manufacturing. Still other exhibits featured technicians weaving rayon, making cellophane, and demonstrating various techniques used in producing Du Pont materials. From the Tower of Research to fully functional displays to a plethora of dioramas, every aspect of Teague’s design employed the tenets of visual dramatization, industrial showmanship, and educational entertainment.
The same tenets were present in Teague’s development of the Ford building. Whereas a tower drew visitor’s eyes towards the Du Pont building, a metallic sculpture of the Roman god Mercury–symbolizing “fleet, effortless travel”–attracted exhibit-goers. Inside the exhibition hall, a 70-foot-high moving mural made of automobile parts, planned by Teague and designed by Henry Billings, welcomed visitors to the Ford building. The theme, “From Earth to Ford V-8,” was depicted in the “Cycle of Production,” a massive revolving wedding cake-like structure with three tiers. On the bottom tier, small animated figures harvested raw materials such as cotton, wool, and wood. On the next tier, figures processed those raw materials into cloth and boards. Finally, on the top tier, those products were incorporated into the final product – the wildly popular 1939 Ford V-8, a finished version of which adorned the top of the turntable. Surrounding the “Cycle of Production” were live demonstrations of the production process depicted in the display.
Even more so than in the Du Pont exhibition, Teague incorporated a plethora of entertainment elements into the Ford pavilion. The same figures from the Cycle of Production were featured in a Technicolor film, telling the story of Ford production. Visitors watched the history of transportation unfold in the form of a live musical drama and ballet. They also watched race car drivers demonstrating the abilities of Ford cars on an outdoor track. Teague united these seemingly disparate parts through design to tell the story of Ford’s impact on the world–whether that be in job creation, technological advancement, or simply as an amusing diversion.
The features seen in these two exhibition buildings could be found to varying degrees in Teague’s other designs at the fair. The U.S. Steel building consisted of a 66-foot-high stainless steel hemisphere, an early example of a building designed to highlight, rather than mask, its steel structural supports. The National Cash Register exhibit was perhaps the least innovative, yet most striking of Teague’s 1939 World’s Fair designs–it was simply a gigantic, working cash register which displayed the fair attendance numbers. Inside, various models of NCR registers were shown being used in exotic locals around the world. For Consolidated Edison’s “The City of Light” display, Teague recreated New York City by building 4,000 scale buildings. The diorama came to life to depict a day in the city–the printing press of the Brooklyn Eagle whirred, a family lounged on a porch listening to the radio, and a six-car subway sped through the display. These innovative features developed by the industrious Hoosier and his design firm would be the central design elements in exhibition halls for decades to come.
Walter Dorwin Teague is best remembered as the “Dean of Industrial Design.” His impact on corporate exhibitions has largely been forgotten with the diminishing role of exhibits in modern life. But at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the impact of this industrious Hoosier was impossible to ignore.
Today, we expect presidential candidates to come to us. They speak on the capitol steps, at memorials, and in high school gyms. They shake hands, meet local leaders, and in Indiana at least, make sure they’re seen eating a homemade pie or pork tenderloin of local renown. Beyond these appearances, however, campaign ads, emails, and social media posts bring candidates into our living rooms, our inboxes, and our daily lives.
This was not always the case, however. In fact, for much of U.S. history, such active campaigning was seen as power hungry, uncouth, and beneath the dignity of the office. While they didn’t hit the campaign trail, the candidates were still working hard to win over voters with events and promotional material. If we start our story in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1888 and close it twenty years later in Brook, Indiana, we see a sea change in Republican Party campaign tactics. And believe it or not, our modern barrage of presidential politicking owes a lot to the 1908 presidential campaign of William Howard Taft.
Republican Politics from the Front Porch
During the 1888 presidential campaign, Hoosier candidate Benjamin Harrison and incumbent President Grover Cleveland mostly stayed home. That’s not to say they weren’t politicking. Harrison ran a “front porch” campaign, speaking to crowds that gathered at his Indianapolis home and the reporters he invited to cover the event. Political organizations produced “posters, political cartoons, speeches, rallies, parades, brass bands, and torchlight demonstrations” in support of their candidates (Miller Center). And while Harrison stayed in Indianapolis, his supporters took the campaign on the road for him with a memorable publicity stunt. Inspired by a gimmick used for his grandfather William Henry Harrison‘s successful 1840 campaign, a Maryland supporter built a steel and canvas ball and rolled it 5,000 miles across the country to Benjamin Harrison’s home. In an attempt to draw comparisons between the two Harrisons, the campaign slogan became, inevitably, “Keep the Ball Rolling.” Harrison won the presidency, losing the popular vote, but carrying the electoral college. During the rematch in 1892, Cleveland declined to campaign out of respect for Harrison’s wife’s illness and Harrison made only a few public appearances. However, the Republican Party only tenuously backed Harrison because of “his failure to resolve three national issues,” and Cleveland won easily in 1892. (more here: Miller Center).
In 1896, the Democrats, with the support of the Populist Party, ran former U.S. Representative William Jennings Bryan for president. (Remember him; he’ll be back later). Bryan was a dynamic speaker and hit the campaign trail with enthusiasm, covering 18,000 miles in three months. Still, the Republican candidate and former Governor of Ohio William McKinley stayed home. Having raised four million dollars mainly from business and banking interests, the party organization dumped money into the printing and distribution of campaign pamphlets. Meanwhile, McKinley delivered 350 speeches to 750,000 people – all from his front porch- resulting in his election. McKinley won easily again in 1900, bringing New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt with him to the White House as his vice president. (Miller Center)
After McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt served out McKinley’s presidential term and was the clear choice of the Republican Party to run in 1904. (Roosevelt picked Indiana Senator Charles W. Fairbanks as his running mate.) The Democrats selected New York Supreme Court Judge Alton B. Parker as a safe choice for presidential candidate, appealing to those who opposed TR’s progressive domestic politics and expanding foreign agenda. Parker refrained from campaigning as was the norm, but heavily criticized his opponent in the press. TR made a thirty day tour of Western states after his nomination was announced, but also refrained from actively campaigning for election. By the summer of 1904 he began speaking from his Sagamore Hill front porch at Oyster Bay, New York. Like McKinley, large campaign donations helped TR secure the presidential office. (Miller Center)
Taft V. Bryan: The Game Changer
William Howard Taft doesn’t get a lot of love as a president. He was indecisive, easily railroaded by Congress, and never wanted the office as badly as his wife or TR wanted it for him. However, the strategy crafted by Taft and his advisers to win the 1908 election was brilliant and the fierce showdown of the two major party candidates changed campaigning forever. And for the Republicans, it started just outside tiny Brook, Indiana.
Taft was TR’s handpicked successor to the presidency and thus had the backing of a beloved president and the powerful Republican political machine. He easily won the nomination at the June 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago. However, Taft had an image problem – one that could lose him the essential votes of farmers, laborers, and African Americans. As an U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, he made several anti-labor decisions. In 1894, Taft had ruled against the railroad workers of the Chicago Pullman Strike. Taft’s Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan, (remember him?) on the other hand, was a Populist who appealed to laborers and farmers by promising to protect their interest from the Republicans, who were backed by exploitative big business.
During the 1908 campaign, Bryan, now on his third presidential run, again stormed the U.S. like an evangelist, talking directly to the people and criticizing Taft’s anti-labor record. This time, it seemed, the Republican candidate was not going to be able to stay home. Taft needed to defend his record, assure workers that the Republican Party backed their interests, and smile and shake as many hands as possible.
Bryan should really get credit for launching the whistle stop campaigning that became standard practice. He had been touring the country for some time advocating for the silver standard. However, it wasn’t until Taft began actively campaigning on the road – in order to rehabilitate his image and make himself likable to voters, as opposed to simply spreading an educational message – that we get the kind of spectacle politics we recognize today. [Bourdon, 115-6.]
The campaign was strikingly modern in other ways too. Speeches by presidential candidates were traditionally quite long – an hour of expounding on the party platform was not unusual. However, Taft kept it short, speaking for thirty minutes at major events, but sometimes spending only five minutes joking with crowds on train platforms. Bryan, known for lengthy rhetoric, was not to be outdone. He recorded a series of two minute speeches on a wax cylinder for Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company. Of course, Taft then had to do the same. Thus, we get the modern sound bite. [Listen here: NPR]
George Ade: Reluctant Republican Ringleader
Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Republican Party was in danger of being torn apart over temperance (prohibition versus local option). Leaders thought that a visit from a national candidate could unify the party at least for long enough to push through a Republican state ticket. Charles S. Hernly, Chairman of Indiana’s State Republican Committee, could see that the base needed a flamboyant event to generate enthusiasm for the Party. Recalling a promising conversation from the previous spring, he formed a plan. It involved George Ade, a native of Newton County, a beloved Indiana author, and a dabbler in local politics.
By this time, Ade had achieved financial success as the writer of clever and observant fictional stories for books and newspapers. He gained fame as the wit behind several popular comedic Broadway plays. Ade was known for using humor and rustic, slangy language and was often compared to Mark Twain. He had done well for himself and wisely trusted his brother William to invest his money in real estate.
In 1902, William secured 417 acres near the small town of Brook for his brother to build a cottage as a writer’s retreat. George named the estate “Hazelden.” By 1904, when he began to stay at Hazelden more regularly, “it had grown into an Elizabethan manor house . . . complete with cow barn, greenhouse, caretaker’s cottage, dance pavilion, several smaller outbuildings, swimming pool, softball diamond, and forty foot water tower,” plus extravagant landscaped gardens. (Indiana Magazine of History)
When Ade awoke at Hazelden the morning of August 20, 1908 and settled in to read the day’s Indianapolis Star, he received somewhat of a shock. The front page headline read, “Ade’s Farm Rally Will be Big Event.” Ade later wrote that he recalled a casual conversation with Chairman Charles Hernly about the possibility of a political picnic. However, they had not had formally planned any kind of function, let alone one that Hernly described to reporters as “the biggest Republican event Indiana will see this campaign.”
Hernly had colorfully expounded on the day’s details for reporters. He listed the names of prominent state and national politicians who would likely speak, “all the big guns,” and promised a meal of “roast beef, potatoes, bread and butter and coffee” for the Midwestern farmers who were invited to attend. Hernly emphasized that Ade was “enthusiastic in his support of the Republican ticket,” and the reader assumed, the event to take place at his estate. “The only thing that is bothering Mr. Ade is the fact that it is going to take forty of his best beef cattle to satisfy the hunger of the crowd,” Hernly claimed.
Ade was now in an impossible position. He would have liked to “have headed off the barbecue idea,” but was also an enthusiastic Republican who wanted to help his party. [Indiana Magazine of History] He had served as a visible delegate to the Republican National Convention where Taft was nominated – a fact that made headlines even in the New York Times – and as a member of the notification committee that formally told Taft of his nomination. Ade was a respected figurehead for the party. If he were to refuse to host this now public event, he risked further demoralizing the already troubled Indiana Republican Party. If Hernly meant to force Ade’s hand, it worked. The “biggest Republican rally of the coming campaign” would be held in George Ade’s backyard.
The Taft Special to Ade Station
Through the summer Taft was hanging back, assessing the political climate, trying to determine how best to campaign. By September 1908, however, it was clear that he was going to have to defend his labor record from Bryan’s attacks. Taft needed to align himself with the more progressive agenda of the Republican Party as announced at the June convention. He had also been briefed on the tenuous situation in Indiana and knew he needed to appeal directly to Hoosier farmers if he wanted to win the state. The rally planned at Ade’s farm was an opportunity the candidate could not pass up. Taft accepted the invitation sent to him by Chairman Hernly.
On September 16, the Taft campaign announced the tour itinerary. The candidate would leave Cincinnati the morning of September 23 to travel though Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas over several weeks. The New York Times reported:
Judge Taft’s first address on his Western speaking tour will be made at Brook, Ind., on Sept. 23. It will be at a big Republican rally on the farm of George Ade, the Hoosier humorist and politician.
Notably, the newspaper reported that Taft would be following the route that William Jennings Bryan had undertaken in his campaign.
The morning of September 23, Taft and his staff boarded a five car train dubbed “The Taft Special” and headed for Indiana. The train stopped briefly in Indianapolis, where Taft shook hands with local politicians and waved to the approximately 200 people gathered to greet him. He joked with the crowd, forgoing a formal speech. The Taft Special stopped again briefly in Lafayette and switched tracks at Sheff before arriving at Ade station just west of Brook. Ade and a welcome committee arrived in a six car caravan to take Taft, staff, and guests to Hazelden.
As the caravan drove through Brook, a large sign made of evergreen reading “Welcome” framed in marigolds and goldenrod greeted them. “Triumphal arches” also made of evergreen spanned the main street and supported large pictures of Taft and the other Republican candidates. Newspapers around the country described the scene in detail. The New York Times reported:
All forenoon, from miles around the countryside, buggies, family carryalls, hay racks, and farm vehicles of every description crowded the roads leading to Hazelden, the country home of George Ade. When the candidate, seated in the humorist’s automobile, reached the farm he was driven through a veritable gauntlet of vehicles hitched to telephone poles, fence posts, trees, or anything else calculated to restrain the horses.
The Indianapolis News described the scene that greeted Taft upon his arrival at Ade’s estate:
Before the arrival of the Taft party there was a concert by the Brook Band and later by the Purdue Military band, followed by short speeches from some of the local statesmen. At noon the Second Regiment Band, of Chicago, gave a great display of daylight Japanese fireworks. When the Taft party appeared in sight down the road, a dozen bombs were hurled in the air —the explosions resembled a salute by a gun squad and the air was filled with smoke as if from a battle.
The spectacle of this political theater was not lost on the Indianapolis News. The newspaper referred to the rally as a clever “stunt” and a “big play” put on by Ade. It continued to draw comparisons between the playwright’s craft and the political event:
The frameup of Ade’s latest act was all that could be desired. It was elaborately staged, and the scenery was all that nature could do for one of the prettiest places in northern Indiana, and the actors were of a pedigree out of the ordinary.
Upon arrival, the official party had lunch in the Ade home while the crowd purchased “full dinner pails,” a reference to the 1900 Republican slogan that appealed to the labor vote and helped William McKinley defeat William Jennings Bryan. At 1:15 p.m., Ade and Taft appeared on the decorated speaker’s platform. Ade introduced the candidate, and Taft officially kicked off his campaign.
Taft had not only remembered Ade from the notification committee, he was a fan of the writer’s work, “The Sultan of Sulu,” which was set in the Philippines. Taft had presided over the U.S. commission overseeing the new U.S. protectorate of Philippines under McKinley and spent a great deal of time there. National newspapers reported that Taft referred to Ade as “the Indiana Sultan of Sulu” and stated that “the Philippine original had no advantage over Ade.” Then, Taft got down to brass tacks.
He looked out at the faces of the farmers, the constituents that brought him to Indiana, and addressed them directly. He wanted this point to hit home, stating:
I was told if I came here I should have the privilege of meeting 10,000 farmers of the State of Harrison and [former Indiana Governor Oliver P.] Morton, and I seized the opportunity to break my journey to Chicago to look into your faces and to ask you the question whether your experience as farmers with Mr. Bryan and your recollection of his course since 1892 is such as to command him to you as the person into whose hands you wish to put the executive power over the destinies of this nation for four years.
In other words, Taft implied: I came here to talk to you directly and honestly, unlike Bryan, who didn’t stop between big cities and doesn’t have your interests in mind. Taft continued to attack Bryan’s record in the House as a supporter of tariff bills that hurt the working man and policies that prevented democratic discussion of amendments to such legislation. And, Taft continued, when these tariffs negatively affected the economy, what did Bryan do to fix it? Taft claimed that Bryan toured around the country advocating for the silver standard and ignored the needs of “the farmers of the country, who were groaning under a very heavy weight of obligations.” Thankfully, Taft continued, Bryan was defeated and gold remained the standard, something that helped the farmers return to prosperity. [More here on gold versus silver standard, if that’s your thing.]
Taft then espoused the progressive policies of the Republican administration that had directly improved farmers’ lives. He especially focused on the administration’s introduction of free rural mail delivery, which helped to connect farmers to new ideas, keep them up-to-date on news, and reduce the feeling of isolation from which many rural people suffered.
Taft’s direct appeal to the farmers worked. The Brook Reporter could scarcely believe that “Mr. Taft would notice a small town like Brook.” The Indianapolis News ran the headline: “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade.” In November, Hoosier farmers went to the polls. And while the split in the Indiana Republican Party proved fatal to the state ticket, Hoosiers chose Taft by over 10,000 votes. Taft was inaugurated March 4, 1909 as the twenty-seventh President of the United States.
Taft’s Indiana stop marked a sea change in campaign strategy. At Hazleden, Taft introduced the political tactics into his repertoire that he would hone through the rest of his tour and helped win him the election. He promoted the Republican platform as a progressive agenda that would benefit farmers and laborers. He crafted a likable, jovial, and personable image by speaking casually and humorously with crowds, while still seriously addressing their concerns. He went on the offense against his opponent in a manner the Baltimore Sun called “aggressive,” stopping in many places where Bryan had recently spoken in order to rebut his opponent’s statements. And perhaps, most importantly, he shook hands and flashed that unbeatable Taft smile at as many voters as his schedule would allow. Through sheer spectacle and tenacity, the man who had squashed labor strikes as a judge was now the candidate of the working man. A little support from Teddy didn’t hurt either, but Taft’s tour of the Midwest shaped him as a speaker and directly led to his election. And the 1908 election became the first where the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigned actively – an irreversible break with convention, as we see each election season through social media, a steady stream of ads, and even late night shows. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the ol’ front porch.
Newspapers on the Rally
“George Ade’s Rally at Hazelden Farm,” Indianapolis News, September 23, 1908, 1; “George Ade As Sultan,” Buffalo Mourning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, September 24, 1908, 3; “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade,” Indianapolis News, September 24, 1908, 4; “Taft Appeals To Labor,” Baltimore Sun, September 24, 1908, 2; “Taft Defends His Record On Labor,” New York Times, September 24, 1908, 3, accessed TimesMachine; “Taft at Brook,” Brook Reporter, September 25, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
Peri E. Arnold, “William Taft,” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, https://millercenter.org/president/taft.
Jeffrey Bourdon, “‘Just Call Me Bill:’ William Taft Brings Spectacle Politics to the Midwest,” Studies in Midwestern History 2, no. 10 (October 2016): 113-138, accessed Grand Valley State University.
Howard F. McMains, “The Road to George Ade’s Farm: Origins of Taft’s First Campaign Rally, September, 1908,” Indiana Magazine of History 67, no. 4 (December 1971): 318-334, accessed Indiana University.
Music has long played a vital role in not only American history but also American activism. Slave spirituals were key to enduring the brutality of slave life and provided not only relief but also coded communication. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” Similarly, music has been instrumental in a variety of modern 20th century movements such as the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement and feminist anthems of the Women’s Movement. All movements have their anthems. But what about when it comes to our actual national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”?
It seems unlikely that during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would later become our national anthem, he could have foreseen the controversy over the song that would occur centuries later. Certainly, he could not have predicted black football players taking a knee during his now musical poem prior to a professional football game, for one, because Key could not envision an America where black people lived free. While he viewed slavery as sinful (despite owning slaves himself at various points in his life), he was an anti-abolitionist who also at times upheld slaveholder rights. He personally supported the idea of black people “returning to Africa” if they were freed from slavery.
His poem, set to the tune of an English drinking song, has been rife with controversy from the beginning. Many critics thought it too militaristic, too long, or even too hard to sing or to remember the complicated lyrics. It did not become the official anthem until 1931 during President Herbert Hoover’s tenure and there were many outspoken critics of the choice at the time and since (“America the Beautiful” has always been a fan favorite). But enough about Key.
In recent years, and regardless of how one feels about it, it is clear that our national anthem has been at the center of controversy in terms of its meaning and our reactions to it. The anthem is, for some, a sacrosanct representation of America and to question it, to kneel during it, has become an act of such disrespect as to dominate national dialogue for years. But clearly questions remain regarding the idea of ownership and interpretation of the anthem. If indeed the anthem belongs to Americans and represents us as a unit, how do we come to a common consensus in regards to it? Do we even need to? If so, which Americans get to determine our anthem’s meaning and how we should respond to it? Who gets to embody Americanism and Americanness, and who gets to make the decision about how we display our patriotism or call our country to be its best self?
These questions lead to a much less publicized yet incredibly important event that occurred in Indianapolis during the Gay Pride celebration called “Celebration on the Circle,” held at Monument Circle on Saturday June 29, 1991. The gay community had been steadily growing and becoming more open in Indianapolis during the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, it was still dangerous in many ways to live openly as a gay man or lesbian in the Midwest at the time. The vibrant gay bar scene and activism of the city were working on changing that by the early 1990s, but it was a long row to hoe, one that has not fully been completed across the state of Indiana.
One important development, among many, of Indianapolis becoming a more welcoming community to LGBTQ folks was the founding and then performances of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus. The Men’s Chorus was a gay men’s chorus founded by the non-profit Crossroads Performing Arts, Inc. Crossroads, whose steering committee was originally under the direction of Jim Luce, had been working since January 1990 to lay the groundwork for the Men’s Chorus with future goals to establish a Women’s Chorus and an instrumental group. Recruitment for the Men’s Chorus began in earnest by the end of March 1990, and the founding choral director, Michael Hayden, who was a music professor at Butler University, was hired in August 1990. Vocal auditions were held in late September and early October, and the Men’s Chorus began practicing in earnest on October 14. The group planned to formally debut in spring 1991, which they did at the historic Madame Walker Theater on Saturday June 8.
Crossroads’ mission was to “strengthen the spirit of pride within the gay/lesbian community, to build bridges of understanding with all people of Indiana, and to enable its audiences and the general public to perceive the gay/lesbian community and its members in a positive way.” It is not surprising then, that the newly formed Men’s Chorus was slated to perform at the Gay Pride celebration in Indianapolis in late June 1991, as part of their debut season. This was only the second Gay Pride event held at Monument Circle. Gay Pride events, hosted by various organizations such as Justice, Inc., had been held in the city in the past, but throughout the 1980s they were semi-closeted, meaning they were held in a hotel, bar or rented space that was not actually out in the public—it was deemed too dangerous to be that open. In 1988, however, the Pride celebration expanded with a festival held at the more public Indianapolis Sports Center. Approximately 175 people attended, and by the very next year, when the event moved to Westlake Park, the number had dramatically risen to 1,000.
Yet, the gay community still had real cause for concern, particularly as they began celebrating more openly and in highly visible spaces. In 1990, the Pride festivities continued to expand and moved to Monument Circle for an event dubbed “Celebration on the Circle.” Virulent anti-gay protesters from a variety of Indianapolis churches wanted to intimidate them off the streets and back into the closets. According to the Indianapolis Star, approximately 100 protesters were on the scene, “many of whom wore gas masks and shouted insults as they walked around Monument Circle.” One anti-gay demonstrator explained why they were at the Circle: “We are all Christians who are here because we don’t approve of what these people are doing, trying to turn Indianapolis into another gay capital like San Francisco…I find it objectionable that they want to take their unholy, unacceptable lifestyle to the center of the city.” Indeed, the Indianapolis Star described the rally as “a confrontation with fundamentalist anger.”
The climate was just as hostile or perhaps even more so for the second Pride event at the Circle. First off, in April 1991, city officials denied Justice, Inc. permission to hold the Pride rally at Monument Circle, and cited a temporary policy limiting “traffic disruption and police overtime as the reasons.” The Indiana Civil Liberties Union quickly planned to challenge the decision in court. Within weeks, Safety Director Joseph J. Shelton relented, stating, “The thing that really changed my mind about it is the fact that regardless of what we say or what we do, the outright appearance was that we were only imposing this restriction on this group… just because of the gay and lesbian organization.” After organizers were given the green light to host their event at the Circle, Pride attendees, including the Men’s Chorus singers, were still not exactly sure how they would be received by their own city and its citizens.
Hayden recalled having conversations with the singers about whether they wanted to perform at the Pride event and how the chorus wanted to be sensitive to its members’ differing levels of comfort. They were right to have concerns. Religious protesters, even angrier than at last year’s events, were in the mood for blood. And they arrived with baseball bats. Jim Luce wryly observed, “Because Jesus would have a baseball bat, right?”
Hayden and the Men’s Chorus, including Luce, walked into a hostile scene. As the 1991 Gay Pride event was getting ready to kick-off, approximately 40 protesters stormed the stage. Lt. Tom Bruno, of the Indianapolis Police Department’s traffic unit, described the protesters as being armed with “an attitude of confrontation.” As tensions mounted, John Aleshire, a spectator at Pride who later went on to chair the board of Crossroads Performing Arts, was unsettled by what was taking place before his eyes. He was both fearful of what was to come and felt helpless to stop it.
Right as the fundamentalist protesters and rally attendees including the Men’s Chorus, who had by then made their way onstage, seemed ready to clash, Michael Hayden, the chorus director, made a split-second decision. He somehow had the knowledge and foresight to choose the only song that could defuse the tension and make the bat-wielding Christians stop in their tracks. He looked at his men and said, “Sing the national anthem. Right now.” Pride attendees encircled the unwelcome protesters on the stage and assailed them with music. According to the Indianapolis Star, “it was a tense moment,” but as Aleshire recalled, “something magical happened.”
As the Men’s Chorus armed themselves with their voices, the protesters were taken aback. Luce described the scene: “It was fascinating to watch that group of people actively hating us while we were singing the National Anthem. I mean they actively hated us.” One onlooker later wrote, “Those who had wrapped their religion in Old Glory were hearing those ‘sissies’, ‘faggots’, and ‘moral degenerates’ demonstrating that the ugly protesters held no monopoly when it came to expressing their love of country.” And as Hayden queried, “What could they say? How could they protest America’s national anthem? There’s no way.”
Hayden in that moment understood what was at stake here: not only their right to be out in public as gay men and women, but their very Americanism. Hayden recalled thinking, “We’re Americans too. Shut up. We’re going to own this just like you. That flag represents us as well.” And the fundamentalists faced a choice as the notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” descended upon them: put their hands over their hearts as they had been taught that all loyal Americans should do when they hear our national anthem or charge full-force ahead at another group of patriotic Americans, nee Hoosiers, utilizing their right to celebrate in a public space. The protesters ultimately stopped and paid their respects to the anthem, and it was just enough pause to dull the escalating tension. In Hayden’s words, “We had sung them off the monument steps.”
After the protesters exited the stage, events were able to carry on without further disruption. No arrests were made and no violence occurred. Attendees were proud of how the Pride event transpired, but fear of being so openly exposed continued to permeate throughout the day.
Activists, particularly those with ties to the Men’s Chorus, remember with pride how they sang down the hatred using their own patriotism. Hayden described the Men’s Chorus singers as being these relatively young “homegrown” men, Hoosiers in their 20s and 30s who were “from these great families from Indiana.” And after the situation was defused, they started cheering and hugging each other, and processing what they had just done. The following month, Hayden wrote to his chorus to reflect on their experiences: “Seeing a man carry a ball bat or standing on the steps with them shouting in our faces just trying to enlist us to violence … and then this mighty male instrument opening its mouth and singing these ‘Christians’ right off the steps! Goliath has never seen a stronger David. I have never felt so proud to be gay, a musician, and what we know to be a true Christian in my entire life.”
Decades later, Hayden could still recall the emotions, power, and importance of what transpired that summer day. He reminisced, “We all felt it, and we knew we had done that with our voices and our national anthem.” Aleshire confirmed these feelings, “It proved to me, once again, that music is one of the most powerful forces to bring down walls and build bridges in their stead.”
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself, Edited with an Introduction by David W. Blight, (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2002).
Lester “Marvelo” Lake was born in 1904 in the small town of New Trenton, Indiana, where his father owned a local dry goods store. It was in that store that Lake met a man who would change his life. The man remains unnamed in the story told to a reporter, but Lake recalled “Then came . . . an old timer that kindly showed me some tricks and very nicely ruined me forever.” Magic came to be not only a passion for the outgoing and entertaining young Hoosier. It would become his profession.
Lake’s magic career spanned from 1925 to 1960. He performed shows in theaters, parks, and nightclubs from California to Louisiana, as well as abroad in Europe and Cuba. The changes in his career reflected closely the changes in the entertainment industry. Early in his career, during the tail end of the “Golden Age of Amusement Parks,” Lake was contracted to perform multiple daily shows at Forest Park in Dayton, Ohio. As the Great Depression set in, Lake began travelling more frequently for work, going wherever he could get a gig – mostly in small theatres and nightclubs. However, Lake’s importance comes not from his performances but from his many inventions.
Lake is credited with either inventing or improving upon 300 tricks and illusions during his career. First independently, and later in conjunction with Abbott’s Magic Co. of Colon, Michigan, Lake invented and sold versions of popular illusions such as the Indian rope trick, 3-card monte, and a sword-box. Some of his most notable developments were his spectacular outdoor performance pieces – Boiled Alive and Burned Alive, as well as the Lester Lake Guillotine.
Outdoor venues such as amusement parks were the perfect venues for spectacular illusions. Lake’s first large scale outdoor illusion was Buried Alive, versions of which had been performed by the likes of Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. After gaining some notoriety for his performance of Buried Alive, he began performing a new illusion of his own creation – Boiled Alive. The illusion is described in the Dayton Daily News:
“Permitting himself to be bound with chains and shackled, he jumps into a tank of blazing fluid, emerging a few moments later free of all his bounds and seemingly without being any the worse for his experience. That there is not fraud in the manner in which he permits himself to be bound and shackled, he permits personal inspection of his bonds by anyone so desiring, before leaping into the tank.”
Later, Lake described some of the mechanics of the illusion in a magic magazine called The Sphinx:
“Suggested measurements for the props for this effect are a platform five feet wide, twelve feet long, which is raised twelve feet from the ground on four uprights or substantial posts. The platform needs to be braced and to have a trap door in the center four feet by four feet. This trap door has two doors opening down and a release connected with a rope which runs to the edge of the platform and hangs down . . . Around the base of the tank is laid light kindling and brush wood and excelsior . . . I filled the tank practically to the top and poured a quart of gasoline on top of the after . . . After the performer has released himself from the shackles in the water, he stays down as long as he is able in order to heighted the effect.”
Perhaps due to all of the equipment involved in the production of this illusion, reports of Lake performing it are confined to his time at Forest Park. His next large scale spectacular illusion would become much more wid espread.
On Monday, July 1, 1929, Lester Lake unveiled his newest act – Burned Alive. The set-up of the performance was described in The Sphinx:
“A platform was built and covered with sand. Coal oil was poured around and papers scattered about and in the center was a box of zinc construction. Lake was put into it and the lid clamped down. Then someone set4 the oil on fire. The mass burned for seven and one-half minutes, after which Lake was removed from the box, hot but unburned.”
Newspapers reported that there were some adjustments to be made for future performances, noting:
At Monday night’s performance the oven in which Lake allows himself to be placed became ‘a little too hot.’ He emerged from it as per schedule, but a little too warm under the collar. A fire that is not too hot has been ordered by Lake for future performances.
Lake denied all accusations of utilizing an oxygen tank during his performances. He explained in interviews that he employed “self-hypnosis,” a type of meditation, in both his Burned Alive and Buried Alive Acts. After being closed in the coffin (a wooden coffin was used for Buried Alive and a metal coffin was used for Burned Alive), Lake would enter a “catatonic state,” allowing him to survive on a limited amount of oxygen and withstand the high temperatures.
Lester Lake Guillotine
Probably Lake’s most recognizable illusion, the Lester Lake Guillotine, improved upon past beheading illusions. The history of decapitation illusions can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Lake’s version of the ancient trick was different in that it was portable. Weighing about 30 lbs. and transported in a briefcase-like package, the Lester Lake Guillotine was much more feasible for a travelling show and small stage than its large, cumbersome forbearers.
Unlike the Boiled Alive and Burned Alive illusions, Lake manufactured and sold the Lester Lake Guillotine, which caused him to be tight lipped on the exact construction. It is clear that, like most decapitation apparatuses that came after it, the Lester Lake Guillotine employed two blades – one above the head and one below the head – and stopper blocks hidden within the neck stock piece to stop the upper blade just before it reached the neck of the “victim.”
Lake manufactured his guillotines independently from 1931 until 1934, when he began working in conjunction with Abbott’s Magic Co. From that time on, the device became more frequently referred to as the “Head Chopper.” Later, Lake produced many similar products for the company, including The Chopper (a smaller, even more portable version of the Guillotine) and The Disecto Illusion (shown below).
Lester Lake’s contributions to the world of magic are enduring. In the years after his 1977 death, magicians continued to perform and improve illusions pioneered by “Marvelo.”
In an era when African Americans, especially women, were often professionally sidelined, Vivian Carter forced herself onto the field. Through her ingenuity and personal popularity, the musical “matriarch” became a business owner and record producer. Her company, Vee Jay Records, recorded and popularized many successful musicians of the mid-20th century, ranging from Rhythm-and-Blues to Pop Rock, Doo-Wop, Gospel, Soul, and Jazz artists. Although music had been strictly segregated along racial lines, Vee Jay introduced both black and white artists to mixed crowds of local teenagers first, and then to a national audience between 1953 and 1966. The company released recordings of some of the nation’s most prolific musicians, including Little Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Four Seasons.
Born in 1921 in Tunica, Mississippi, Vivian Carter moved with her brother and parents to Gary at age 6. As a child and teenager, she was competitive, outgoing, and self-confident. These qualities helped her win a 1948 contest for the “best girl disc jockey in Chicago,” which was the beginning of Vivian’s radio career. Eventually, Vivian had a five-hour nightly radio program in Gary, called “Livin’ With Vivian,” referring to female listeners as “Powder Puffs” and male callers “Sponges.” The “hostest who brings you the mostest” played music by black artists and much of what she played was not available on commercial records. Since Vivian owned a record store in the heart of Gary, along with her future husband Jimmy Bracken, she knew that recordings of this music would sell.
Teenagers of all races from several Calumet Region schools would gather after school to watch Vivian through the glass store window while loudspeakers broadcast her favorite Rhythm and Blues recordings, as recalled by Jerry Locasto, a future radio executive who was one of those kids. While the records played, Vivian would come out and mingle with the kids to find out what they liked or disliked about each one. Kids could request songs, and she would play them. In 1953, Vivian and Jimmy started their own record label, called Vee Jay Records from the initials of “Vivian” and “Jimmy,” to record the music of local black artists.
Their first group was the Spaniels, a group of crooners from Gary Roosevelt High School, Vivian’s alma mater. The boys walked into the record shop after winning a talent contest at school, to ask if Vivian knew how they could get a recording made. Vivian listened to the group, then gave the impoverished boys a place to practice – her mother’s garage –and arranged to record them at Chance Records, a studio in Chicago. She later bought suits for their publicity photos and a station wagon for their travels.
Best Years of Vee Jay Records
The Spaniels’ first record, “Baby, It’s You” reached #10 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Then the Spaniels hit #5 with their second record, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” The record “crossed over” from the Race Records category to become a hit with white purchasers as well. But Vivian was disappointed when the McGuire Sisters, a “white girl trio,” sold more copies with their “cover” of the same song. She asked her brother, Calvin, to put more of a white-sounding background on the future records, to appeal to broader audiences. And the young company learned to print and register publishing rights to all their performers’ original songs, so they still made money when other performers covered them.
In 1954, Vee Jay moved to Chicago and eventually opened on Michigan Avenue’s “Record Row.” Vivian, Calvin, and her husband Jimmy remained the heads of the company. But according to Bob Kostanczuk of the Gary Post-Tribune, Vivian was always “viewed as the company’s matriarch and driving force.” They hired the knowledgeable Ewart Abner, accountant for the former Chance Records, after Chance went out of business. Abner started as manager and eventually worked his way up to president.
In the next ten years, Vee Jay Records released successful recordings of black and white performers, including hits like The Four Seasons’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Dells “Oh, What a Night,” and The Beatles’s “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout.” Since radio stations wouldn’t play several records from one company label in the same time slot, Vee Jay also recorded under the labels Falcon, Conrad, Tollie, and Abner, from the middle names of the company’s principals. Vee Jay opened a Los Angeles studio, and Vivian and Jimmy soon drove around in luxury convertibles and fur coats.
The Beginning of the End
Vee Jay’s best (and worst) luck came in 1962 when they tried to buy distribution rights for Australian singer Frank Ifield’s European hit single “I Remember You.” The Gary Post-Tribune on August 23, 1998, noted that the British agent insisted they also take a quartet named The Beatles, unknown at that time in the United States. Vee Jay released several Beatles singles and their first U. S. album, to lukewarm success until the group appeared on the nationwide Ed Sullivan Show.
Then Beatles’ sales skyrocketed. Capitol Records, who had earlier turned down the Beatles, started filing lawsuits against Vee Jay to get the group back, as reported by Mike Callahan in “The Vee Jay Story” in Goldmine (May 1981). The cost of defending the lawsuits, in addition to Ewart Abner’s poor financial management and gambling habit, wiped out Vee Jay’s money and credit, and put the company out of business.
In a life story that Vivian called “rags to riches to rags,” Vivian and Jimmy lost everything, even their little record store, and divorced. Jimmy died and Vivian worked days at the county trustee’s office and hosted a late-night radio program in Gary from 1967 to 1982. According to Dr. James B. Lane’s Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History article, when her best friend from high school, Yjean Chambers, asked how Vivian felt about the spectacular rise and fall of her recording business, Vivian replied that she had “learned too late the art of looking over the shoulder of those who work for you.” Then Vivian added, “But I don’t miss a thing. That’s all behind me now.”
After several years of illness, Vivian died of complications from diabetes and hypertension in 1989. Lane says one of Vivian’s last visitors was James “Pookie” Hudson, her first recording artist, who sang Vivian to sleep with his hit song, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”
People from Florida are called Floridians. People from Maine are called Mainers. People from Washington are called Washingtonians. And people from Indiana are called…Hoosiers?
One of the most common questions we’re asked at the Indiana Historical Bureau is “What is a Hoosier,” and that’s often followed by “Where did that word come from?” As it turns out, people have been asking just that question for nearly two centuries.
Hoosier, now spelled ubiquitously “H-O-O-S-I-E-R,” as well as several other phonetical versions, can be traced back to the American South, where it was used as a derogatory term for uneducated, uncouth people. But just when the word began to be used specifically to refer to people from Indiana is hard to know.
According to Indiana University Archives, the earliest known written use of the word can be found in a letter dated February 11, 1831. In the letter, written by G.L. Murdock to General John Tipton, Murdock replied to an advertisement and offered to deliver goods by steamboat to Logansport, Cass County. In closing, he mentioned, “Our boat will be named the Indiana Hoosier.” The earliest known printed instance of “Hoosier” can be found in a letter-to-the-editor of the Vincennes Gazette, just eight days after the Murdock letter was penned. In the letter, the author, who identified themselves as Rackoon, noted the increasing population of Indiana, saying,
The ‘Hoosher’ country is coming out, and the day is not far distant, when some states which have hitherto looked upon us as a kind of outlandish, half-civilized race, will have to follow in our train. Let the ‘Half-horse, half-alligator’… country look to it.
It is pretty obvious by the lack of explanation that the authors of both of those passages expected that their readers would already be familiar with the word “Hoosier,” so it’s safe to assume that the word was in use, at least locally, before 1831. Throughout the early 1830s, usage increased significantly, but was still mostly found only in traveler’s accounts and local documents. That changed with the publishing of former state Representative John Finley’s poem “The Hoosher’s Nest” in 1833. The version of a Hoosier found in the following excerpt lacks the negative connotations associated with the original usage in the southern United States:
The emigrant is soon located-
In Hoosher life initiated:
Erects a cabin in the woods,
Wherein he stows his household goods.
Erelong the cabin disappears,
A spacious mansion next he rears;
His fields seem widening by stealth,
An index of increasing wealth;
and when the hives of Hooshers swarm,
To each is given a noble farm.
Gone is the uneducated, uncouth backcountry man. He is replaced by an industrious farmer who is moving up in the world. It is likely that the moniker was first used as an insult towards people from Indiana, but they appropriated it and made it their own, much as colonial Americans had done with the term “Yankee” in the 1700s.
The publishing of “The Hoosher’s Nest” cemented the use of the word on a national scale, as it was picked up by other papers and published far and wide. It was not long before the first article to examine the origins of this most “singular” term appeared. Just ten months after “The Hooshers’ Nest” was published, the Cincinnati Republican ran a piece simply titled “Hooshier.”
The appellation of Hooshier has been used in many of the Western States, for several years, to designate, in a good natural way, an inhabitant of our sister state of Indiana. Ex- Governor Ray has lately started a newspaper in Indiana, which he names “The Hoshier” [sic]. Many of our ingenious native philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to explain this somewhat singular term.
It goes on to list two unsatisfactory explanations of the etymology of the word before getting to the “real” root of the word.
The word Hooshier is indebted for its existence to that once numerous and unique, but now extinct class of mortals called the Ohio Boatmen. — In its original acceptation it was equivalent to “Ripstaver,” “Bulger,” “Ring-tailroarer,” and a hundred others, equally expressive, but which have never attained to such a respectable standing as itself. By some caprice which can never be explained, the appellation Hooshier became confined solely to such boatmen as had their homes upon the Indiana shore, and from them it was gradually applied to all the Indianians, who acknowledge it as good naturedly as the appellation of Yankee — Whatever may have been the original acceptation of Hooshier this we know, that the people to whom it is now applied are amongst the bravest, most intelligent, most enterprising, most magnanimous, and most democratic of the Great West, and should we ever feel disposed to quit the state in which we are now sojourning, our own noble Ohio, it will be to enroll ourselves as adopted citizens in the land of the “HOOSHIER.”
Again, this examination lacks any negative connotation with the word. Instead, it highlights the virtues of being a Hoosier. The next serious look into the word comes from historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who wrote and rewrote his article entitled “The Word Hoosier” to near perfection – in fact, the eventual monograph that came from his articles, published in 1907, is still seen as one of the most thorough and accurate studies on the topic. It’s not often that such academic treatises stand the test of time.
Even after putting years of work into his article, Dunn concluded that we do not know exactly from where the word “Hoosier” derived, but dismissed many of the existing explanations as utterly ridiculous. He did, however, put forward three options regarding its origins.
First, he theorized that the word migrated up from the South as a slang term used for uncouth countrymen – this is the theory backed by the most evidence and seems to be the one Dunn favored, as he included a multitude of examples of this usage in the book. Second, he proposed an English root to the word. Similar terms can be found in early English dictionaries, such as “hoose,” “hoors,” and “hoozy,” that could conceivably have been corrupted into “Hoosier.” His third proposal sounds rather improbable on the surface. He conjectured that “Hoosier” came to America from India by way of England. According to Dunn, the Indian word “huzur” is “a respectful form of address to persons of rank or superiority.” He admitted that it seemed like quite a stretch but gave some examples of other words, such as “Khaki,” that made the same etomological journey.
But as soon as he finished reciting these possibilities he was quick to assure readers that he was not claiming these to be definitive answers, merely possibilities, saying, “It is not my purpose to urge that any one of these suggested possibilities of derivation is preferable to the other, or to assert that there may not be other and more rational ones.” The one thing he was sure about was that the word existed before it was used to describe a native Indianan.
Although many people have discussed, debated, and disputed the true origin of the word “Hoosier” in the years since Dunn’s 1907 essay, the only work to rival that of Dunn’s is Jeffrey Graf’s article “The Word ‘Hoosier,’” written for the Herman B Wells Library at Indiana University. He examines Dunn’s work, as well as that of other scholars who followed in Dunn’s footsteps. Graf’s 100+ page article is as thorough as it gets.
Not much has been added to the academic discourse in the last 100 years. It seems like most subsequent scholars begin with the goal of finishing the work Dunn started, covering the same ground he did, then throwing their hands in the air in frustration. One thing they have in common is a list of the various and sundry theories proposed throughout the years and we would be remiss not to cover at least a few of the more colorful origin stories to come about.
Frontier Indiana was a rough place that produced rough people. Rough but strong. Some of those rough, strong people found that the daily work of cutting down trees, farming, building houses with their hands, and chopping fire wood didn’t do quite enough to prove their strength to their fellow man. So they fought. They fought at house-raisings and log-rollings. They fought in the fields and in the woods. Those who were particularly adept at this so-called “wrastlin” were referred to as hushers, for they could quell their opponents into silence. One such husher found himself in New Orleans working as a boatmen when he felt the urge to demonstrate his rather remarkable strength. So, he fought not just one, but four men at once. And he bested them all. In his enthusiasm, he sprang up, shouting “I’m a Hussher!” But with his accent, it came out sounding more like “I’m a Hoosier!” The episode was picked up by some of the New Orleans newspapers and the “Hoosier” pronunciation came to refer to all boatmen from Indiana, and later all people from Indiana.
With just 65,000 people living in 23 million acres of Indiana, many people saw Indiana as a land of opportunity in the early years of the state. The opportunity to own land, to make a decent living, and to start over drew people to the state. Families made their way from all parts of the country to settle on the fertile soil of Indiana. And as they traveled the roughhewn roads, those families would sometimes come across a lone cabin in the wilderness. Weather they were looking for shelter, company, or both, often they would approach the cabin with a shout of “Who’s here?” to let the occupants know someone was coming. At this, the door would be opened and the guests welcomed. This scene played out again and again throughout the southern part of the state. Eventually, “Who’s here?” slowly morphed into “Whosere” and later to “Hoosier.” In the course of time, “Hoosier” came to describe all people from Indiana.
This theory comes to us from the Hoosier poet himself, James Whitcomb Riley. His version of the story includes the same stereotype of rough frontiersmen fond of fighting as did the “Hussher” theory. These settlers often congregated in taverns to share news and maybe a drink or two. When they got into their cups a bit, they always fell to fighting, often so violently that participants lost bits of their noses and ears. The morning after these ferocious rows, the barkeep would walk through the bar room and, seeing a stray ear on the floor, push it aside with his foot with a careless “Who’s ear?” This became so commonplace that it slowly morphed into “Whose year” and then to “Hoosier,” much like “Who’s here” supposedly did.
It seems like infinite theories exist, each more amusing than the last, all claiming to be the origin of the word Hoosier. All of them have one thing in common – they’re almost certainly apocryphal. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know with any certainty exactly where the word “Hoosier” originated. However, from the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” to the Indiana University Hoosiers, to the 4,500 businesses with the word “Hoosier” in their names in the state, it is safe to say that there are no Indianans in Indiana–only Hoosiers.
Before social media instantly familiarized people with new cultures, Bertita Harding endowed Americans, and specifically Hoosiers, in the 1930s and 40s with illuminating accounts of Europe’s and South America’s rich, sometimes volatile past and present. The Hungarian author spoke five languages, interviewed dictators, and witnessed the gleam of royal jewels. Her experiences compelled her to author more than a dozen lucrative books, mostly biographies. Indianapolis firm Bobbs-Merrill published most of her books. Bertita brought a fresh approach to biography, giving depth to royal figures, illuminating their motives, and endowing them with humanity. Her life was as interesting and tragic as the royal figures about which she so aptly wrote.
The “adopted Hoosier” was born in Hungary and moved to Mexico when her father was solicited to work as an engineer in Mexico City. As a child, she grew intrigued with the story of ill-fated Carlotta and Maximilian, Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The story is worthy of a Shakespearean quarto:
Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph accepted the offer of the Mexican throne in 1863, having been assured that the Mexican people voted for his governance. However, he was installed into power through the collusion of Mexican conservatives and the French emperor, against the wishes of many Mexicans. He and his beloved wife Carlotta traveled to Mexico, where the liberal-minded emperor tried to rule with “paternal benevolence,” working to abolish the peonage system. When French troops pulled out of Mexico, and former Mexican president Benito Juarez returned, Carlotta fled to Europe to fruitlessly plead for support of her husband. Unwilling to abandon the impoverished people he had advocated for, Maximilian refused to abdicate the throne. He was executed near Queretaro, devastating his wife who remained in Europe. She fell into a debilitating depression and never recovered, refusing to acknowledge his death.
Bertita’s house was adjacent to the city’s Chapultepec castle, where the royal couple lived. The Indianapolis Star noted that “Each night as she went to bed she saw from her nursery window a light gleaming on the terrace of the somber castle, and she learned that there the beautiful Empress and her imperial husband had walked on starry nights.”
In 1909, Bertita, along with her mother and two brothers, journeyed to Vienna with a “mysterious black trunk.” Emperor Maximilian’s brother Frans-Joseph received the trunk, revealing to Bertita’s mother the jewels and insignia worn by the tragic royal couple. For returning the goods to the House of Hapsburg, Frans-Joseph bestowed Bertita’s mother with the signum laudis award for service to the crown. Bertita’s brushes with royalty proved to be the inspiration for many of her works.
Bertita traveled to the United States for school, training to be a pianist at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her husband Jack Harding. The couple moved to Indianapolis, where he worked as an executive at Harding Advertising Company. Eventually, the pair applied their literary gifts to writing film scripts in Hollywood. The Indianapolis News recalled in 1957, that Bertita “espoused the role of a young Hoosier wife and blithely entered local activities . . . She had a rare gift for being folksy and fabulous, cozy and continental at the same time.” Here, they participated in the Lambs Club, Athenaeum, and Players Club.
In a 1958 Anderson Herald article, Bertita stated that after her children were killed in an accident her husband encouraged her to write, an endeavor she found more convenient than practicing the piano. She mused “‘I’ve put a cake in the oven and gone over in my desk to write. If the cake burned, the chapter turned out to be a masterpiece. If the chapter was bad, the cake was delicious. And many times both turned out just right.'”
In 1934, Bobbs-Merrill published her literary jewel, Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlotta of Mexico. At a talk for the Women’s Club in Richmond, Indiana in 1934, Harding stated that as a little girl in Mexico City she interrogated former ladies-in-waiting for the royal couple about their fates. The adopted Hoosier added “I could visualize how they felt-transplanted Europeans, somewhat bewildered.” Harding penned the impeccably-researched biography in her Indianapolis apartment, writing methodically from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She recalled “As I wrote the book sometimes I would laugh at my own jokes, and sometimes I would cry with sympathy for them, and I loved to think my own book could arouse such sympathy in myself.”
With the success of Phantom Crown, Harding cemented her place in the Hoosier literary canon, residing among a prolific list of Indiana poets, playwrights, novelists, travel writers, and journalists. These included novelist Booth Tarkington, author Gene Stratton-Porter, and poet James Whitcomb Riley. The book she described as “manifest destiny” created a demand for Bertita’s unique perspective. She went on the lecture circuit, speaking to clubs around the country about her experiences. The Muncie Evening Press noted in 1935 that with these lectures she took audiences on a vivid tour through Mexico and Europe, showing them “‘the small out-of-the way, pieces of art and works of beauty to be found in such travel.'” Listeners traveled down the Danube into Hungary and then Vienna, where they experienced picturesque domes and woodcarvings, before arriving at French convents. Of Germany, she remarked it “‘is too far advanced, with far too much intellect as well as sentiment, to provide the obscure forms of art . . . Their great capacity is for work.'”
By 1939, the story of the ill-fated lovers proved so popular that Warner Brothers adapted Harding’s book into a film called “Juarez,” starring Bette Davis. According to the Indianapolis News, Harding threatened to sue the studio for failing to give her screen credit, but the parties came to an agreement and Harding described “Juarez” as a “‘beautiful picture.'” Harding noted that the film’s theme had been adapted to “fit modern conditions” and that, during a time of Hitler-led German aggression, Warner Brothers was advocating for “America and the Constitution right now, so ‘Juarez’ just had to fit in.” Harding contended that “Juarez” was obviously made in the vein of anti-fascist film Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
Harding followed Phantom Crown with additional biographies about theHouse of Hapsburg, such as Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz-Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria and Imperial Twilight: The Story of Karl and Zita of Hungary. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African-American newspaper, praised Harding’s writing, noting “Stiff, regal figures become understandable, human-beings. Royal mazes are unraveled. Motives for strange actions grow lucid.” The newspaper added that “A flawless instinct for drama makes the utmost of every event without the slightest strain.”
Harding’s life and books seemed to place her on the perimeter of political and military upheaval. In October 1940, she traveled to Brazil to gather material for a forthcoming book. By this time, Nazi Germany had captured France, and the Allied Powers feared that Brazil, which had been fairly politically neutral, could be susceptible to Nazi attack. Harding interviewed Brazilian dictator President Getulio Vargas, concluding that although Vargas was a dictator, Brazilians would never permit a European dictatorship. According to the Indianapolis Star, Harding asserted “I am convinced that, for reasons both sentimental and practical, Brazilians would resist any attempt to give either Naziism or Fascism a foothold in their country.'”
By 1944, Bertita and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Jack Harding, an executive officer of public relations, were fully entrenched in the war effort. That year, the Indianapolis News reported on Jack’s work in England, noting that as an intelligence officer he briefed and interrogated combat crews and laid out the operational plan for air force public relations for the D-Day invasion. In a letter published by the Indianapolis News, the lieutenant colonel illuminated for Americans the sacrifices made by soldiers in France on D-Day.
He wrote stirringly “it is still true that aircraft, artillery, warships and other auxiliary arms all radiate from a common center, one little man with one little gun. This day belongs to the infantryman, may God protect him.” Following the pivotal invasion, Jack accompanied war correspondents on a journey through France. They witnessed the fall of Cherbourg, where “Street fighting, snipers, artillery attacks, as well as a ride through crossfire, added up to part of the night’s work.” While her husband wrote about “those kids of ours,” Bertita helped sell war bonds through a literary group.
She continued to do what she did best–write about royal exiles. Harding published Lost Waltz in 1944, centering around Austria’s Leopold Salvator and his family of ten. The Indianapolis News praised her ability to “place for us these Hapsburgs in the broad movement of our own eventful times, her unusual ability to recreate past scenes and make them live again with the verve and sparkle of fiction, though she never deviates from sober fact.” Other books written by Harding after the war include Magic Fire: Scenes around Richard Wagner and The Land Columbus Loved: The Dominican Republic.
After the death of her beloved first husband, she married Count Josef Radetsky in Vienna in 1957, an ancestor of Austrian nobility. The Indianapolis News reported that the Count’s family estates had been “reduced to poverty” when Communists seized Czechoslovakia in 1948 and that he was working as a taxi driver in Vienna when he met Harding. By 1958, Bertita had made such a name for herself that the Orlando Executives Club nominated her to speak, among other nominees such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1958, her life took another somber twist when a Vienna court found Radetsky guilty of trying to defraud her, sentencing him to eighteen months in an Austrian prison.
Adamant that “age cannot wither you,” Bertita began work on a book about German musician Clara Schumann, which Bobbs-Merrill published in 1961. Bertita passed away in Mexico in 1971, having fulfilled her 1935 dictum that “‘Life comes before letters . . . If life results in writing, that is good: but writing without living is worthless.”
Indianapolis author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would have turned 95 on November 11, 2017, just five years shy of his centennial. Few people on this earth have had a birthday of such significance; a World War veteran himself, Kurt was born on the 4th anniversary of Armistice Day. The writer who was once described as “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion,” was born into an incredibly prominent Indianapolis family. His great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, founded Vonnegut Hardware Store and was a major civic leader. His grandfather and father were both prominent architects, responsible for the former All Souls Unitarian Church on Alabama Street, the Athenaeum, the clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian, and many more Indianapolis landmarks. (Visit the Vonnegut Library and pick up a copy of our Vonnegut Walking Tour pamphlets).
Kurt was raised in luxury at 4401 North Illinois Street, a house designed by his father Kurt Vonnegut Sr. in 1922. According to Indianapolis Monthly, “original details like a stained-glass window with the initials ‘KV’ and Rookwood tile in the dining room” still remain. Kurt Jr. spent summer vacations at Lake Maxinkuckee, located in Culver, Marshall County. The Vonnegut family owned a cottage at the lake, where, according to the Culver-Union Township Library, Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson conceived of the idea for his The House of a Thousand Candles.
Reportedly, Kurt noted in an Architectural Digest article:
“…I made my first mental maps of the world, when I was a little child in the summertime, on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, which is in northern Indiana, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, where we lived in the wintertime. Maxinkuckee is five miles long and two and a half miles across at its widest. Its shores are a closed loop. No matter where I was on its circumference, all I had to do was keep walking in one direction to find my way home again. What a confident Marco Polo I could be when setting out for a day’s adventures!”
Kurt’s parents lost a significant amount of money during the Great Depression, resulting in Kurt leaving his private gradeschool and attending James Whitcomb Riley School, named after the Hoosier poet. He received an excellent education at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Here, he badly played clarinet in the jazz band, served on the school newspaper and, upon graduation, was offered a job with the Indianapolis Times. His father and brother talked him out of accepting it, saying he would never make a living as a writer.
According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis’s schools started him on the path to a writing career. . . . His duties with the newspaper, then one of the few daily high school newspapers in the country, offered Vonnegut a unique opportunity to write for a large audience – his fellow students. It was an experience he described as being ‘fun and easy.’” Kurt noted, “‘that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.’ In his case that something was writing.” He also admired Indianapolis’s system of free libraries, many established by business magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Kurt ended up attending five total colleges, receiving zero degrees for the majority of his life, and ending up in World War II. It’s no coincidence that he spent his life writing about the unintended consequences of good intentions! Captured at the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden, he survived the bombing that killed (by modern day estimates) 25,000 people, while held in a meat locker called Slaughterhouse-Five. He survived the war, though stricken with combat trauma, and returned here to marry his school sweetheart Jane Cox. After they moved to Chicago, he would not return to Indianapolis to live, although he visited with some frequency. Suffice it to say, the Hoosier city was where he learned the arts and humanities and loved his family dearly. It was a place of tragedy as well, as his family had lost their wealth and his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day Eve in 1944. He had to move on.
Kurt spent the next twenty-four years writing what many would call one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five. The semi-autobiographical satire of his experiences during World War II was released at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. With this novel, Kurt became quite famous, at the age of 46. His books, short stories, essays, and artwork have provided comfort to those who have grown weary of a world of war and poverty.
Kurt’s work affected me profoundly, first reading Breakfast of Champions as an undergraduate. I continued to read Kurt Vonnegut constantly, throughout life’s trials and triumphs, always finding very coherent and succinct sentences that seemed to address exactly how I was feeling about the world at the moment. As an individual growing up in Indiana, I loved how my home state featured as a character in nearly all of his work, from the beautiful, heart wrenching final scene in the novel The Sirens of Titan, to the hilarious airplane conversation in Cat’s Cradle, to the economically downtrodden fictional town of Rosewater, Indiana in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to the planet Tralfamadore from Slaughterhouse-Five (I personally think he took it from Trafalgar, Indiana. While I have no proof, his father did spent the last two years of his life living in Brown County, not very far away)!
So it was the honor of a lifetime in 2011 to join the staff of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in downtown Indianapolis. Throughout the years we have tirelessly drawn attention to issues Kurt Vonnegut cared about, the struggle against censorship, the war on poverty, the desire to live in a more peaceful and humane world, campaigning to help veterans heal from the wounds of war through the arts and humanities. These pursuits are inspired by a man who wrote about these issues for eighty-four years, until a fall outside his Manhattan brownstone “scrambled his precious egg,” as his son Mark Vonnegut described it. To me, Kurt Vonnegut is not gone, he is alive in the minds of our visitors, who themselves all have interesting stories about how they came to the work of Mr. Vonnegut, or are simply curious to learn more. Time being flexible is an idea Kurt himself seemed to espouse in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
In 2017, the Year of Vonnegut, we focused on the issue of Common Decency. Our 2018 programming will focus on the theme Lonesome No More, which we took from Kurt’s criminally underrated 1976 novel Slapstick, in which he runs for President under that slogan, in attempt to defeat the disease of loneliness. We’re going to give it our best shot, I humbly request that you join us!
Edited and co-researched by Nicole Poletika, Research & Digital Content Editor at the Indiana Historical Bureau.