The Plight of Desertion: Jewish Families at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Immigrants, Ellis Island, 1907, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The turn of the twentieth century was marked by record rates of family desertion in the United States, especially among eastern European Jewish immigrant families. A family was considered deserted if the male head of household withheld his wages or if he were to leave and no longer offer monetary support.[i] Jewish women who were deserted by their husbands were left in a particularly vulnerable and liminal state; they were neither widowed nor wed, yet Jewish law dictated that they were bound to their spouse until a divorce could be obtained.[ii]

Rates of family desertion, or the act of a primary caregiver leaving their family without providing support, have been shown to significantly rise in times of mass migration, which made it a pressing issue as over two million eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.[iii] While it is not known how many women were victims of desertion during this migration period, data from Jewish philanthropic organizations suggest it affected a large number  of women.[iv] Between 1900 and 1922, approximately 15% of aid distributed by Jewish charitable agencies in the United States was granted to deserted women and their families, most of which was granted to Jewish women and families due to their large migration numbers.[v]

The Struggles of Immigration

The pattern of Jewish migration was typically that of a family migration, though families were often disrupted throughout the process.[vi] The head of the household, who was generally the husband, would emigrate alone, later to be joined by their kin. The men would arrive in their new country, settle down, find a job, and build up the necessary funds to bring the remaining relatives to join them, typically in two to three years’ time.[vii] This separation placed great stress on families.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1904, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Upon arriving to the United States, the search for employment, long working hours, health issues, and poor living conditions took a heavy toll on immigrants. On top of these stressors, many Jewish immigrants did not know how to read or write, and therefore had to rely on the aid of others if they wished to write home. These limitations made contacting relatives difficult, if not impossible. Families were often left with silence for months or years at a time, waiting to hear that their loved one had made it to the United States, and that they were actively working towards a reunion in the New World.[viii]

Following immigration, many families experienced new tensions and challenges within the home, which threatened the stability of family units. Members of families, who were separated during the emigration process, often felt alienated from each other and their relationships became irreparable.[ix] American influences encouraged men to act more aggressively if they wished to thrive in their new capitalist country, while women were expected to behave in more submissive manners than the roles which they had previously assumed, drastically altering family dynamics.[x] Marriages established in eastern Europe were rarely the product of love and were more often based on tradition; after living in the United States for an extended period of time, it was not uncommon for married couples to simply drift apart to the point of incompatibility or to develop romantic relationships with new partners.[xi] Generational conflict, typically related to irreligiousness of children, placed stress on household relationships and generated feelings of shame, humiliation, and disconnectedness.[xii] As a result of the new tensions in their relationships, many men did not seek divorces and, instead, turned towards desertion as a solution. This became such an occurrence that National Desertion Bureau president Walter Liebman labeled the process a “poor man’s divorce.”[xiii]

For some men, however, desertion was an attempt to assist their families. They would leave their families behind to better their conditions and earn funds. By leaving without a word, though it caused much distress, many husbands felt confident that charities would offer assistance. Samuel Sorbel, a lawyer who worked on desertion cases in Indiana in 1908, reported in an August 29th, 1908 Evansville Courier and Press article that deserters often told him: “Well, as long as I was here the charities wouldn’t do anything for them, and I knew that if I went away they would feed the wife and children and keep a roof over their heads.” For these men, desertion felt like a mercy to their loved ones. By leaving their families and seeking employment in a different city, the men could save up money for their return home while local charities supported their families in the meantime. This outcome was preferable to making the difficult choice of whether to pay rent or to put food on the table with an inadequate income. Unfortunately, the aid given to deserted families during the man’s absence was not as grand as many men had hoped; Sorbel stated he had never met a case of desertion that was without destitution.

The Role of Philanthropic Organizations and the National Desertion Bureau

Evansville Courier and Press, August 29, 1908.

Jewish charitable organizations sought to assist deserted women in a number of ways. When working with a deserted family, most organizations hoped to locate missing husbands and reunite them with their families. This process, however, could take months, or even years, to complete. In the meantime, Jewish charitable organizations attempted to assist deserted families through financial and material charity, though the support was generally minimal.[xiv] The relationship between charitable organizations and immigrants—both the husbands and the wives— was tense and, at times, discriminatory and victim-blaming.

Anti-desertion campaigns were typically organized and managed by middle-class men who saw themselves as the protectors of women and children, many of whom were German Jewish Americans.[xv] These reformers had relative control over the public narrative surrounding desertion, spinning deserters as burdens to society. According to a May 12, 1920 Fort Wayne Sentinel article, deserters were “the arch villains of society, the primary cause of all social distress, the perpetrators rather than the victims of all social evils.” These reformers attempted to separate their own male identities from those of deserters by challenging the latter’s manhood, often painting working-class deserters as cowardly, unambitious, and incapable of becoming proper breadwinners for their families. Working-class families never fully adopted the ideal of having a male breadwinner due to their low wages, but this concept was of central importance to the middle-class’s understanding of manhood.[xvi]

Upon seeking external assistance, deserted women became subject to much public scrutiny and judgement. Philanthropic organizations consistently looked to categorize the people to whom they provide aid—a person’s marital status merited how much, if any, assistance should be granted to their case.[xvii] Immigrants who requested aid were studied for shortcomings or plausible blame for their being deserted. Nearly any characteristic or action of a woman could be twisted into rational for her circumstances; some women were criticized for their inability or unwillingness to forgo their traditions and customs to “Americanize” and assimilate to American customs, while others became too indulgent in material consumption and American trends.[xviii]

Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis Relief Card for Mrs. Morris Cohen, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In Indianapolis, the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis provided a great deal of support to deserted families. One such case of support was that for the Cohen family. On August 17, 1914, applied for aid from the JWF of Indianapolis after Morris Cohen deserted her and six of their seven children. Mr. Cohen had left for St. Louis, taking along one of their sons, Isidor. By the time the Federation had made contact with the United Jewish Charities in St. Louis, the two Cohens had relocated once again with no indication of their destination.[xix]

Just over a year later on November 15, 1915, the JWF discovered that Morris and Isidor had moved to in Birmingham, Alabama, where the latter was employed at a department store. Isidor encouraged the family to join the two in Birmingham, but Mrs. Cohen* was hesitant to do so; Morris had habitually moved from city to city the prior fourteen years, thus she questioned the finality of the move. Additionally,  elder children were employed in positions they did not wish to lose, her three youngest children were well settled in school, and one was ill with pneumonia. The Federation contacted Isidor’s employers, Birmingham’s Federation of Jewish Charities, and a local Rabbi to gauge what would be the best action for the Cohen family. Following the correspondence, the JWF of Indianapolis agreed with Mrs. Cohen and believed it would be best for the family to stay in Indianapolis, and for her husband to send monetary support or to return to the city. Records suggest Morris obliged with the latter, and the family did not require further support from the JWF of Indianapolis.[xx]

Philanthropic organizations like the JWF quickly became inundated by the sheer number of women seeking assistance during the spike in immigration in the early 1900s. In 1909, the United Hebrew Charities reported that for every three relief applications received by widows, two were received from deserted women.[xxi] Desertion became such a strain on charitable organizations and state services that Jewish Americans feared, “Mah yomru hagoyim” (What will the gentiles say?”).[xxii] This concern contributed to the development of the United Hebrew Charities’ National Desertion Bureau (NDB) in 1905. The Bureau worked to locate deserters and return them home, or, if a deserter was unwilling to return, to negotiate support on behalf of his family.[xxiii] These negotiations would be finalized in front of a judge in the “Court of Tears,” aptly named due to the emotional distress associated with the hearings.

Gallery of Missing Husbands, printed in the Forward 9 June, 1912, accessed https://www.jewishgen.org/databases/usa/missinghusbands.html.

The NDB corresponded with local charities, organizations, religious institutions, and employers when attempting to locate missing husbands, much like the JWF had done in the case of the Cohen family. The NDB would gather the husband’s name, date of disappearance, physical description, photographs, and additional information that might be of assistance in locating him. Case descriptions and photos were frequently published in Yiddish newspapers in the cities of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Montreal, and Toronto—cities to which deserters often fled. These postings became part of the newspapers’ “Gallery of Missing Husbands,” which pleaded for members of the public to inform the NDB if a deserter was found. These public tips were then used to apprehend the men so a solution could be found to satisfy both him and his family. It served a secondary purpose of attempting to prevent  desertion; the gallery made it clear to men who read the paper that if they were to desert their families, they could be publicly humiliated.[xxiv]

Neglected Children

Indianapolis Orphan’s Asylum, circa 1885, courtesy of the Indiana Album.

Desertion not only took a toll on immigrant wives, but it also deeply affected their children. For every ten families which applied for relief from charitable organizations, one came from a deserted family. Additionally, one of four children committed to orphanages at the time had been deserted by one, or both, of their parents; after desertion, some women felt that giving up their child was the only option as they struggled to provide adequate care and daily necessities.[xxv] Children who remained in the home felt the effects of desertion through parental neglect and the need to work to help the household. These stressors led deserted children to struggle with emotional instability and/or delinquency later in their lives.[xxvi]

This is precisely what happened to the Behrman family Louis Behrman deserted his wife and children in the summer of 1905, leaving them behind in Indianapolis while he took refuge in Chicago. found herself without support from her husband and responsible for ten children, the youngest of which was three years old and the eldest twenty years old. She and two of her children attempted to support the family, making a total of $12.50 a week. Trying to ease the burden on their family, Nathan and Robert Behrman, twelve and eight years old respectively, were caught stealing and begging and were committed to a day nursery for seven months as consequence, adding yet another stressor to the family’s circumstances. The JWF assisted the Behrman family until the husband could be found. Louis Behrman was arrested for contributing to their delinquency, received a fine, and was sentenced to a workhouse. He returned to his family after serving his sentence. Charitable organizations like the JWF of Indianapolis provided much needed services to the struggling families affected by desertion, providing resources, support, and a chance for justice against deserters.[xxvii]

Letter from Stern Brothers Clothiers and Shoers regarding Louis Behrman’s desertion of his family, 1907, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, M0463, Box 264, Folder 26.

A History of Hardship

Early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrants were not alone in their hardships. Desertion and family neglection were an issue for many immigrants, regardless of their origin and background. Catholics, for example, addressed issues of desertion through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but Catholic charities aided deserted families on a case-by-case basis. Jewish charities, on the other hand, identified desertion as a greater social problem in need of fixing and established national connections, including those with charities and businesses across the country, with which to address it. This unique approach stemmed from the fear of American Jews, who believed widespread discussion of family desertion in the Jewish community could encourage new waves of antisemitism.[xxviii]

Despite the fact that immigrants founded the United States, the country has rarely welcomed newcomers with open arms. There is a common misconception in the twenty-first century that European immigrants in the twentieth century became Americans with ease, persevering and prospering in a growing economy. Historically, however, adversities plagued every step of the immigration process, and fear of how these challenges were perceived by the greater public caused much stress in both existing and developing communities. The same can be said of immigrants today. By recognizing this historic trend, America has the opportunity to reduce this burden and provide better support to future immigrants. It is clear through the efforts of organizations like the National Desertion Bureau that creating specialized departments for societal problems can help those in need, and doing so would positively impact both native and foreign-born Americans.

 

* The author was unable to locate the first name of Mrs. Cohen or Mrs. Behrman.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Reena Sigman Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband Who Is In New York City:’ Husband Desertion in the American Jewish Immigrant Community 1900-1926,” Jewish Social Studies 44, no. 1 (1982): 4.

[ii] Anna R. Igra, Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.; Gur Alroey, “‘And I Remained Alone in a Vast Land:’ Women in the Jewish Migration from Eastern Europe,” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 62; Bluma Goldstein, Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 2-6.

[iii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60; Lindsey Mintz, “A Century of Jewish Education in Indianapolis: 1860 to 1960,” Indiana Jewish History 35, no. 1 (2003): 14-15.

[iv] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60.

[v] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5.

[vi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10; Paula E. Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” in Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Paula E. Hyman (London: Routledge, 1998), 346-347.

[vii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10-11; Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 59-60; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347.

[viii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 62; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 348-349.

[ix] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’”59; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[x] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-4.

[xi] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 286-287.

[xii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-5.

[xiii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 43; Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 4.

[xiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 7; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347; Caroline Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress:’ Gender, Benevolence, and the ‘Agunah’ in Regional Perspective,” American Jewish History 97, no. 2 (2013): 166-167.

[xv] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-4; Fridkis, “Desertion,” 289-291.

[xvi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-5.

[xvii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 2, 78-81; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 167.

[xviii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5-6; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 166-167.

[xix] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xx] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40).

[xxi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 1.

[xxii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 15.

[xxiii] Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[xxiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 11; Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 23-26. Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 92-100.

[xxv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.; Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 112-114.

[xxvi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.

[xxvii] Correspondence regarding Louis Behrman, 1905-1912, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 26), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxviii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 9.

 

Jewish Immigrant Assimilation and Labor in the Early Twentieth Century

Women from an Indianapolis citizens class, courtesy of the Neighborhood of Saturdays archive.

Since the early 1800s, Jews have lived and worked in the Hoosier State. Indiana’s Jewish population has fluctuated over time, with  immigration increasing at the turn of the twentieth century. As Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States, many settled in the Midwest, as new factories and businesses sought laborers. In comparison to their treatment in the South, the Midwest was more accepting of immigrants than other parts of the country. On December 22, 1907, the Indianapolis Star reported that upon arriving in Louisiana to look for work, a group of thirty immigrants from southern Europe were “attacked, beaten and robbed” not once, but twice. Such violence in the South was common and, therefore, encouraged immigrants to stay in the North and Midwest.

Jewish identity in America has changed over time. At times of early settlement and migration, Jewish communities were comprised of a variety of cultures, traditions, and practices. Early Jewish immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Germany while immigrants who arrived later included Sephardic Jews from southern Europe and other Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe.[i] In the early twentieth century, as native-born Americans began to scrutinize and resist immigration, established Ashkenazi Jews began to push for the assimilation of Jewish immigrants in attempts to mitigate waves of antisemitism. As part of this initiative, Jewish philanthropic organizations provided the newcomers with aid and employment opportunities, forever changing the cultural landscape of the United States as philanthropic organizations relocated immigrants from New York to cities across the country like Indianapolis, Evansville, and Fort Wayne. While the newcomers were aided by organizations like the Jewish Federation, these same organizations often encouraged the erasure of cultural markers and traditions in an attempt to avoid increasing antisemitism in Indiana.

The “Jewish Question”

The “Jewish Question” was used by writers, philosophers, and theologians beginning in the nineteenth century to argue that a Jewish presence in society was a problem that must be solved. To many supporters of the belief, the “solution” was for Jews to discard their traditions and customs to assimilate into society. Racial antisemites, however, argued that there were no true solutions because Jews were members of a separate, unchangeable race who were incapable of assimilating.

Antisemitism has been encoded in texts throughout history on every continent, in different languages and in different cultures. Its reach is unparalleled both historically and in the present moment as the group is repeatedly depicted as the “other,” removed from society and painted as incapable of true integration.[ii] In an Evansville Journal October 24th, 1923 article, the Ku Klux Klan illustrated this point with the statement:

As a race the Jewish are law-abiding. They are of physically wholesome stock. They are mentally alert. They are a family people. But their homes are not American, but Jewish homes, into which we cannot go and from which they will never emerge for a real intermingling with America.

This statement was published nearly a century after Jews began emigrating to the United States. Yet, in that century, antisemitism in America persisted. In fact, antisemitism spread across the country and developed a strong foothold in this time, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s.[iii] While the experiences of Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century and those in the twentieth century differ, the persistence of antisemitism deeply affected both groups and influenced Jewish settlement trends.

Boston Globe, August 15, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

Early Jewish settlement in the United States began in the 1840s and 1850s, when German Jewish immigrants arrived with the hope of finding new opportunities. Many of these early arrivals became well established as merchants and business owners. These early immigrants experienced less systematic and social prejudice compared to that experienced by later waves of eastern and southern European Jews, who would arrive at the turn of the twentieth century.[iv] German Jewish immigrants frequently rejected the practices and behaviors associated with what they saw as “traditional” Jewish life; for their part, eastern European Jews were typically more invested in Jewish cultural practices, and they were more easily identifiable as members of Orthodox sects, such as the Hasidim. [v]

Incidents of antisemitism and nationalism began to escalate at the turn of the twentieth century as the U.S. experienced  a large influx of eastern European Jews—between the years of 1881 and 1924, roughly 2.5 million eastern European Jews emigrated to the country.[vi]  The September 29th, 1903 issue of the Indianapolis Journal published an article titled “Danger of Immigration,” which featured a sermon from New York Reverend Robert S. MacArthur, in which he cautioned against the influx of foreigners:

The recent marvelous expansion in American life has given a cosmopolitan character. . . . We must, however, teach the old world that it cannot empty its poorhouses and prisons by dumping its paupers, Anarchists and other criminals on American soil. American is worthy the best immigrants.

Jewish Americans feared these kinds of perceptions would grow in the public’s mind and thus took action. Jewish leaders created and expanded organizations and charities to aid Jews upon their arrival in New York. One such Jewish philanthropic organization assisted thousands of immigrants in relocating from New York to over 1,000 cities across the country.[vii] Together with this relocation initiative, community organizations—such as the Indiana Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis—developed assimilation education resources intent on rapidly “Americanizing” the newcomers.

Assimilation, Acculturation, and Americanization

The concepts of “assimilation” and “acculturation” have long been central to discussions of immigration. Their definitions have continued to evolve over time, with historians and social scientists debating what it means to assimilate or acculturate.[viii] The literature on immigration typically defines acculturation as the process whereby a minority group or individual adopts elements of another cultural group and integrates them into their native cultural practices. Assimilation is an outcome of the acculturation process, in which the individual completely adopts the practices and lifestyles of another cultural group while losing those of their culture of origin.[ix]

These concepts became more mainstream at the turn of the twentieth century as the United States saw unprecedented rates of immigration. The country’s discussion was narrowed even further as the idea of “Americanization” emerged. Similar to assimilation, Americanization implied the adoption of “American” behaviors, practices, and values. What specific traits, however, identified a person as distinctly “American” versus “non-American” were difficult to pinpoint.[x]

Letter from Chas Graf, accessed Ancestry.com.

Upon their arrival in the United States, immigrants experienced culture shock in their new surroundings, regardless of their origin. For those who did not have family and friends already established in the country, it was difficult to move away from New York, as they were unfamiliar with the country and transportation systems. Outside of New York, it could be difficult to adhere to Jewish practices; Chas Graff reflected in a July 22nd, 1908 [xi] that it was impossible to find kosher meat anywhere near Logansport, Indiana (photo included). Because Jewish populations were small throughout Indiana, this issue consistently arose during the early twentieth century. Language barriers were an additional challenge, as many immigrants had limited proficiency in English. An Indianapolis Jewish immigrant named William Silberman reflected to the IRO in an undated letter, “I don’t know where to go and don’t master the English.”[xii]

Beginning in the late 1800s and gaining in popularity in the 1900s, an Americanization education movement took hold across the United States with the goal of expediting the assimilation process. A hierarchy of immigrants was established, with the light-skinned, blonde haired so-called “Old Stock” immigrants from northern and western Europe being viewed as superior to the dark-skinned southern and eastern Europeans. The former was considered to be model immigrants, known for their quick assimilation and gentile practices, while the latter were viewed as unrefined, poor-mannered individuals in dire need of education on how to “properly” behave.[xiii]

Labor: Barriers and Opportunities

At the time of this mass migration, the United States’s labor market was drastically changing. Manufacturers moved towards models of mass production, seeking to reduce employee downtime and increase production, and unions began to form to advocate for workers’ rights and workplace condition improvements. Unfortunately, many unions would not accept Jews into their organizations on the basis of not meeting a central criterion: being white.[xiv] While their predecessors, Ashkenazi German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century, were typically better accepted by their neighbors due to their practicing of Reform Judaism, Sephardic Jewish immigrants and Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were more racialized. This racialization reduced opportunities for these groups, limiting what types of jobs and compensation were available to them to a greater extent than their German predecessors.[xv]

Jewish community members began to grow concerned about the gentile public’s perception of Jews changing due to these so-called ghettos. They were concerned that judgement of the new wave of immigrants would affect the livelihoods of the Jewish immigrants who had arrived years prior.[xvi] Journalistic entities were taking notice of the change, frequently publishing stories reflecting on the country’s Jewish presence. On August 8th, 1907, for instance, the Indianapolis News featured a story titled “Wave of Crime Due to Idle Immigrants.” The article suggested that immigrants in New York struggled to find and hold employment in the congested city and, as a result, the unemployed were “attacking children” because they were simply “floating around with nothing to do.” The author suggested immigrants would be of much more useful if they were sent elsewhere and utilized for labor, writing: “Now they are picking pockets, whereas if they were in the South, they would be picking cotton.”

Despite their desire to work and establish themselves in America, eastern and southern European immigrants were criticized and critiqued for their presence in the country and questioned for their work ethic. During this mass migration period, newspapers published numerous articles comparing the newcomers to previous immigrants, claiming that their predecessors were more intelligent, hardy, and industrious and “better stock.” This argument has persisted throughout history—every immigration period is met with resistance, and new arrivals are often compared to and classified as inferior to those who arrived years earlier. However, every generation of immigrants is burdened with problems similar to their predecessors. The United States continues to resist immigration today by using the same arguments as were seen in the early twentieth century, questioning the character of new arrivals, debating whether their labor was beneficial to the country, and making declarations that previous immigrants were better suited for life in America. Immigrants have historically been identified as burdens on society unless they were skilled in a trade or willing to work undesirable jobs, which has often led to their exploitation.

Many companies used this period of mass migration to exploit the labor of incoming immigrants, locking them into contracts with unlivable wages. Isaac Benjamin Cohen, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside, immigrated from Monastir in 1906. Upon landing at Ellis Island, Cohen was approached by representatives from a mining company, who offered him a position in Wheeling, West Virginia. Cohen accepted the offer, hoping to save up the money necessary to bring his wife and two daughters to join him in America. The work was laborious, and the wages were so little that after months of working for the company, Cohen was indebted to them and not permitted to leave. He felt that he had no choice but to escape in the night. Upon doing so, he rode a train to Chicago, where he was given word that jobs were available in Indianapolis. The Circle City provided him with better opportunities, allowing him to earn a livable wage and eventually pay for his family’s voyage to the country.[xvii]

The Industrial Removal Office

With the influx of eastern European immigrants arriving in New York, established Jewish Americans, many of them with their origins in western Europe, particularly Germany, feared the growing presence of Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jews and Sephardic southern European Jews in New York would create new waves of antisemitism, which in turn could threaten their own status as respected Americans. Beyond the concerns for their own reputations, Jewish Americans sympathized with immigrants and did not wish to see them exploited. These motivations inspired the creation of the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in 1901.[xviii]  The organization was established to aid Jewish immigrants living in New York, providing transportation and temporary support to those who were willing to resettle in smaller cities across the country.

The IRO framed its mission in terms of how immigrant relocation could benefit cities of the United States by providing needed labor and stimulating local economies. This was not a unique initiative. A handful of Jewish charities had previously attempted to relocate immigrants to agricultural communities in states like Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and the Dakotas. However, these relocation programs were disorganized and typically unsuccessful in terms of long-term placements. The majority of Jewish immigrants had little knowledge about farming, lived in terrible conditions in the settlements, and preferred city life.[xix] The IRO, for its part, played to the immigrants’ strengths, placing them in cities with familiar work and supporting their establishment. It operated in a highly-organized manner and was in communication with many employers, religious leaders, and organizations throughout the country.

Upon seeking aid from the IRO, Jewish laborers were assessed on their character—the organization relocated only those immigrants whom officials deemed to be of respectable character and strong work ethic. The IRO was in constant communication with its own representatives, employers, and Jewish organizations in many major U.S. cities. The New York office received requests for laborers and would do its best to send qualified individuals—whom it called “removals” —to fill the positions. While many immigrants were eager to utilize the services of the IRO, others were hesitant to leave New York or were too frightened to pick up and move once again.[xx]

Map of immigrants relocated through the IRO. Photo via Robert Rockaway, “The Industrial Removal Office,” accessed Tablet Magazine.

The efforts of the IRO brought many Jewish immigrants to Indianapolis and other Indiana towns such as Anderson, Evansville, Logansport, Fort Wayne, and South Bend. The IRO worked with a handful of local businesses to secure employment for removals. Because many of the new arrivals were typically well trained in the garment trades, Kahn Tailoring Company became one of the IRO’s most valuable contacts in Indianapolis.

Kahn Tailoring Company had begun as a small tailor shop in 1886 and had rapidly expanded. As the son of German Jewish immigrants, its founder, Henry Kahn, was sympathetic to the Jewish immigrants arriving in New York. He attempted to assist in their resettlement processes by collaborating with the IRO to hire skilled workers. Kahn Tailoring Company was known for not only hiring new Sephardic immigrants, in particular, but also for providing them with generous benefits and educational opportunities which may have otherwise been unobtainable.

Call for coat makers, Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

After immigrants arrived in their new cities and secured employment, IRO officials would typically provide check-ins to evaluate the success of the removal. If problems arose, the representatives would meet with the immigrant to discuss potential solutions. If a city was deemed an ill fit for the worker, the IRO would assist in relocating him to a different city. Otherwise, the IRO would hand the case off to local Jewish charities, such as the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis, who would provide further assistance. The JWF provided translators to bridge the language barrier of many immigrants, as well as offering legal aid, monetary allowances, and allotments of physical goods, such as coal, groceries, and clothing.[xxi]

Because of the industrial nature of many of the positions filled by the IRO, removals often found themselves in dangerous workplace environments. In the case of Russian immigrant Moses Cohen, within a month of being placed in a job at Connersville, Indiana, he lost his arm to a press machine accident. Cohen had a wife and child in Russia, a child in New York, and four children in Indianapolis to support. The JWF stepped in on Cohen’s behalf to secure him a moderate settlement for the injury and to protect his employment.[xxii] This intervention provided much needed support to the Cohen family, securing Mr. Cohen’s income which may have otherwise been lost due to his permanent injury.

Not every new arrival was satisfied to work in factories, however. Many people emigrated to the United States with the hopes of becoming entrepreneurs and business owners.  For the IRO removals who arrived in Indianapolis without trade skills but with dreams of self-employment, the JWF often provided loans or small allowances and encouraged peddling. In the early twentieth century, the Indianapolis streets were filled with horse-drawn wagons, pushcarts, and market stands. For some, this early peddling led to the development and establishment of full-fledged businesses.[xxiii] This was also an option for those who could no longer handle their jobs. Chas Cassalori immigrated to America in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire. He was employed as a presser at Kahn Tailoring Company in Indianapolis, but he developed severe rheumatism which made it impossible for him to work on his feet. The JWF connected Mr. Cassalori with someone who taught him the shoe trade, which allowed the man to open a shoe store at 529 Massachusetts Avenue.[xxiv]

The IRO continued its relocation efforts until its dissolution in 1922. Changes in U.S. immigration law at this time—particularly the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921—largely cut off the flow of European Jewish immigrants, reducing the need for the Office. Throughout its two decades of work, the organization assisted roughly 80,000 Jews in moving to more than 1,600 communities across the country. These communities continued to grow without the IRO’s direct involvement, as the removals’ kin and friends sought to join them after hearing of their settlement.[xxv] As a result, the IRO’s main correspondence cities developed sizable Jewish communities, rich in culture and history.

For some early twentieth century immigrants, the stress of migration, culture shock, and difficult employment was too much to handle. In July 1906, an Indianapolis man contacted the IRO, stating that a Russian immigrant by the name of Aaron Cohn was “on the verge of insanity from homesickness” and had threatened to end his life because he did not feel he could adapt to life in America.[xxvi] The IRO’s General Manager, David M. Bressler, responded that the Office had unfortunately dealt with numerous immigrants in similar situations, and that this homesickness was a “real disease” that could “be cured only by radical treatment, either by work or by return home.”[xxvii] In response to such situations, the IRO encouraged immigrants to participate in educational programs.

Community Education Initiatives

Cooking class at the Nathan Morris House, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

In an attempt to better support new immigrants, and to prevent a new wave of antisemitism, philanthropic organizations, particularly those run by German Jewish Americans, established initiatives to educate and Americanize eastern European Jews across the country. The mission became central to much of the Jewish philanthropic work at the time; New York’s Harmonie Club, a prestigious German Jewish social club in the U.S., which mirrored the conduct of clubs across the country, used the unofficial slogan of “More polish, less Polish” when advertising their Americanization programs.[xxviii]

Immigrant education in Indianapolis was run by a handful of charities and philanthropic organizations, including the city’s National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the of Indianapolis (JWF)[xxix], and the Workmen’s Circle.[xxx] On October 10, 1909, the Indianapolis Star declared the NCJW to be “among the most important local women’s organizations,” stating: “There is no club in the city that accomplishes more earnest philanthropical work than this council.”

Nathan Morris, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

The NCJW established the Nathan Morris House with the Jewish Federation in 1904, named after a Jewish attorney who tragically perished while trying to save his nephew from a burning house. It served as both a social hub and educational settlement house for immigrants new to Indianapolis, offering classes designed to help their constituents acculturate to American life, particularly through English and American citizenship classes. It also sponsored vocational training and courses in dressmaking, millinery, typing, cooking, and dancing and held events to celebrate their patrons’ works. According to the Indianapolis News on April 28, 1905, the settlement house held a night of entertainment, featuring a play and an exhibit of hats made by its members to demonstrate the skills learned in millinery class, awarding prizes to Nellie Barrett and Ruth Rosenfield for their handiwork. The Nathan Morris House classes were of much interest to locals; the Indianapolis Journal reported on May 8, 1904 that the large number of members and their constant class attendance made it difficult to accommodate new guests.

Children of the Nathan Morris House on an outing to Wonderland Park, Indianapolis Star, June 23, 1907.

Local organizations would use the house’s meeting rooms while working with the settlement house’s patrons, such as the teachers from local kindergarten, whose monthly classes taught immigrant mothers “American child-rearing methods” and to discourage the use of “Old World” habits and patterns.[xxxi] The members had frequent social outings, which increased the settlement house’s visibility and piqued the interest of others in joining. The success of the settlement house created a shortage on space. By the end of 1912, the Jewish Federation purchased a new building with the intention of expanding community services even further. The new community center was named the Communal Building.

In 1913, the Communal Building opened on Indianapolis’s Southside. The Jewish Federation intended for the Communal Building to exist as a resource for all Indianapolis Jews, but the differing needs and interests of well-established Jewish Americans versus those of the newcomer immigrants made this goal difficult to reach. Instead of becoming a central hub to connect the city’s Jewish population, the Communal Building further divided German American Jews from eastern and southern European Jews as the former associated the building with poor, unrefined patrons.[xxxii]

The Southside Communal Building, 1950, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, accessed the Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007).

American Judaism

The Jewish Federation and NCJW constantly struggled to find a balance between integration and the retention of identity. While the philanthropic groups were pushing for immigrants to assimilate to American culture, the organization leaders hoped to preserve their patrons’ connection to Judaism. The leaders of these Jewish education initiatives did not want immigrants to abandon their religion, but instead wanted to create a new, distinctively American Jewish identity; however, they wished to build this identity from Ashkenazi Jewish traditions rather than those of the Sephardim.

The Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917.

The vocalization of the necessity for Jews to assimilate often came from within Jewish communities. Fort Wayne’s Rabbi Aaron Weinstein reflected in a sermon shared in the April 13, 1919 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette that the future of American Judaism should be “moulded by American traditions and American standards of life,” and upheld “by its moral and spiritual outlook all that is highest and best in Americanism.” Pride for the United States was deeply rooted in Americanization programs, as evident from the March 3, 1917 Indianapolis News article featuring foreign children posed with American flags as part of their Americanization education. As a result of this connection, many Jewish immigrants and their families developed a home culture intertwined with Jewish and American characteristics. In a 1981 interview with anthropologist Jack Glazier, former Indianapolis Southside resident Lee Zuckerman shared that she had a number of memories of her mother completing routine tasks, like rocking a cradle or cutting green beans, while reciting the Preamble to the United States Constitution.[xxxiii]

While the Americanization movement was intended to better acclimate immigrants to life in America, it occasionally created turmoil in communities and immigrant homes. As a result of groups like the Jewish Federation and NCJW attempting to rapidly assimilate Jewish immigrants, organization involvement discouraged and effectively erased parts the immigrants’ Sephardic cultural identities. In a May 18, 1981 interview, Vickie Goldstein, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside and daughter of two Sephardic immigrants, stated that she felt like she was part of a “lost generation as far as religion is concerned.”[xxxiv] A similar statement was given by Max Cohen, a member of the same generation and neighborhood as Goldstein. Cohen felt that he was never aware of the richness of his Sephardic culture growing up, only developing a true pride for his heritage and Sephardic traditions as a young adult.[xxxv] In this regard, the rapid assimilation of Sephardic Jews in Indianapolis resulted in a sense of lost culture in second and third generation Jewish Americans.

By erasing cultural markers and traditions of Jewish immigrants in the twentieth century, philanthropic leaders hoped to avoid an increase in antisemitism. Unfortunately, antisemitism has continued to evolve and gain footholds in the United States, threatening the well-being of Jewish people’s lives every day. A 2022 audit by the Anti-Defamation League reported that since the organization began tracking them in 1979, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. The report showed an average of more than seven incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism every day, which is a 34% increase from 2020. It is not only antisemitism that has escalated in recent years. Hate of all kinds— against minorities and immigrants— has been fostered in the United States. According to a 2021 article by the Indy Star, hate crimes in Indiana spiked in 2020 with a 133% increase over 2019, making it the highest number of incidents in two decades. Through the 2016 presidential election, there was a steep increase of 20% in hate crimes against foreign-born minorities.[xxxvi]

The recent dramatic increase of hate crimes in the last decade is a major point of concern. The globalization of prejudice has created a sense of comfort among nationalists and, as a result, hate speech is widely expressed in the public sphere.[xxxvii] Political divides have drastically grown, and extremists have redefined the American freedom of speech as the acceptance of intolerance.[xxxviii] Social media has provided a platform for the formation of hateful spaces, allowing hate to grow through a “radicalization effect,” in which individuals can avoid real-life repercussions for hateful behavior due to online anonymity.[xxxix] Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center work tirelessly to combat this national growth of hate, documenting and exposing hate crimes and seeking justice for targeted victims.[xl]

America has long been dubbed a “nation of immigrants,” yet it has never been a nation truly welcoming of newcomers. Immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century were heavily scrutinized for their foreign characteristics and encouraged to leave behind their “Old World” values if they wished to fit into American society. They were assigned value based on their skills and willingness to work in poor conditions. Despite the passing of a century, immigrants today are burdened with the same barriers as their predecessors. The documentation of early twentieth century immigration experiences provides Americans with the opportunity to learn from the past. Philanthropic organizations urged early Jewish immigrants to rapidly assimilate to their new surroundings in order to avoid new waves of antisemitism. Many immigrants lost their traditions and heritage as a result, yet the antisemitic hate nonetheless persisted. By avoiding this narrative in the future, immigrants have the chance to retain and celebrate their heritage, making America a true nation of immigrants.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Sephardic Jews trace origins to the Iberian Peninsula prior to the Inquisition.  After 1492, some of these Jews were invited by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Beyezid II, to settle in those lands.  The first Sephardic immigrants to Indianapolis arrived from cities that are now in North Macedonia and Greece, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

[ii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 7-21.

[iii] Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 26.

[iv]  Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted: Jewish Immigrants in Early Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 5-6.

[v]  Jack Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005), 6-12.

[vi] Jack Glazier, “‘Transplanted from Kiev to Hoosierdom’: How the Industrial Removal Office Directed Jewish Immigrants to Terre Haute,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, no. 1 (2001): 5.

[vii] Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto, 16-17; Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 29-30.

[viii] Russel A. Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History,” American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (1995): 437.

[ix] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,” 465-467; Robert A. Carlson, “Americanization as an Early Twentieth-Century Adult Education Movement,” History of Education Quarterly 10, no. 4 (1970): 440.

[x] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,”468-470; Carlson, “Americanization,” 444.

[xi] Letter from Chas Graff [translated by IRO], 22 July, 1908, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), Ancestry.com, accessed www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1613/.

[xii] Letter from William Silberman, n.d., U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xiii] Carlson, “Americanization,” 440-441.

[xiv] Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242; Irwin Yellowitz, “Jewish Immigrants and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1920,” American Jewish History 71, no. 2 (1981): 189.

[xv] Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5; Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242.

[xvi] Ibid., 6.

[xvii] Gladys Cohen Nisenbaum, interview by Jack Glazier, January 20, 1981.

[xviii] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 1-3, 13-14; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 2-5, 15-16.

[xix] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 7-8.

[xx] Ibid., 19-20; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5-6.

[xxi] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxii] Cohen, Moses and Simmie. 1912-1916.  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxiii] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463.

[xxiv] Cassalori, Charles “Chas” and Masolto (1913-1918).  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxv] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 27, 32; David Bressler, “Distributing Immigrants Throughout America,” Jewish Tribune, December 18, 1914, 6.

[xxvi] Letter to David M. Bressler from Sol. Kiser, 25 July,1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxvii] Bressler Response to Sol. Kiser, 27 July, 1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxviii] Gerald Sorin, “Mutual Contempt, Mutual Benefit: The Strained Encounter Between German and Eastern European Jews in America, 1880-1920,” American Jewish History 81, no. 1 (1993): 35.

[xxix] This organization was established with the name “Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis.” It is later referred to as the “Jewish Federation of Indianapolis” in documentation, though it is unclear when this name change occurred.

[xxx] Judith E. Endelman, The Jewish Community of Indianapolis, 1849 to the Present (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 71-72.

[xxxi] Endelman, Jewish Community, 93.

[xxxii] Richard Moss, “Creating a Jewish American Identity in Indianapolis: The Jewish Welfare Federation and the Regulation of Leisure, 1920-1934,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007): 46-47.

[xxxiii] Lee Cohen Zuckerman, interview by Jack Glazier, May 4, 1981.

[xxxiv] Vickie Calderon Goldstein, interview by Jack Glazier, May 18,1981.

[xxxv] Max Cohen, interview by Jack Glazier, April 18,1981.

[xxxvi] Jonathan Weisman, (((Semitism))) (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 194-195.

[xxxvii] Goldhagen, The Devil, 163.

[xxxviii] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 21.

[xxxix] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2019), 35; Weisman, (((Semitism))), 107-111, 121.

[xl] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 218.

 

Dissent and Patriotism: The Hungarian Community of Terre Haute during WWI

The renowned historian Howard Zinn called dissent “the highest form of patriotism.” He explained:

In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.[1]

The Hungarian immigrants who came to Terre Haute at the turn of the twentieth century made dissent their first act of patriotism, striking and organizing for equality in the workplace. After the U.S. declared war on Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary in 1917, however, these Hoosiers of Hungarian origin temporarily abandoned this cause for another – demonstrating their loyalty to the United States and becoming citizens. This battle for acceptance was almost as fierce as the violent skirmishes at the nearby coal mines.

Hungarian Family at Ellis Island, photograph, n.d., Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, statueofliberty.org.

Escaping impoverished conditions in Hungary, over a million Hungarians immigrated to the United States between 1870 and 1920, according to one study.[2] By 1910, over 14,000 Hungarian immigrants settled in Indiana with 452 in Vigo County, creating a vibrant community in Terre Haute.[3] The language barrier combined with local mistrust of Eastern European immigrants meant that their job options were limited. But industry in the city was booming, creating a demand for workers willing to take on the difficult and dangerous jobs in coal mining, manufacturing, and railroads.[4] Newspapers across the country are full of stories of workers killed in factory explosions or coal mine cave-ins.[5] Few companies had adequate safety regulations and none had insurance. So, the newcomers took care of each other.

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 18, 1916, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1909, they formed the First Terre Haute Hungarian Sick and Death Benefit Society, a self-funded insurance group (also known as the Verhovay Society).[6] The approximately 200 members paid regular dues with the funds going to the families of members when they were killed or injured at work.[7] Hungarian immigrants were willing to take the risk, hoping to improve the lives of their families. However, in addition to the dangers, companies were also paying the immigrants lower wages. These were people eager to become citizens of the United States – a country that promised “all men are created equal,” according to the Declaration of Independence.[8] This disparity in pay did not reflect the proclaimed values of their new country. In response, the Hungarian immigrant workers joined labor unions and Socialist Party organizations and went on strike for better wages.[9] Between 1905 and 1910, Hungarian immigrants participated in seventy-seven of the 113 strikes that occurred nationwide, according to one study.[10]

“Coal Miners,” photograph, n.d., Sullivan County Historical Society, Indiana Memory.

However, in the spring of 1909, they were violently suppressed. Several men of Hungarian origin worked at the nearby Bogle coal mine where they lived in camps. For several weeks they had clashed with the American-born workers. While there are plenty of newspaper articles covering the clashes, it’s unclear what generated the feuds.[11] Looking at other similar events across the country, it is likely that the immigrant workers were pushing for equal pay, while the American workers resented them for working for low wages, inhibiting their own ability to demand higher compensation. Many companies would gladly replace a higher American wage with a lower immigrant one.[12] Unfortunately for both groups of workers, deep-seated xenophobia prevented the two groups from uniting and demanding fair pay for all. Instead, they turned on each other. On March 31, the Associated Press reported that the American coal miners had driven the Hungarian immigrant workers from the Bogle mine after “a gun fight . . . in which eleven persons were wounded.”[13] The Hungarians would have to tend to their wounded and seek jobs elsewhere.

Indiana Socialist Bulletin, July 1, 1913, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Some of the Hungarian workers who remained in Terre Haute organized a local branch of the Indiana Socialist Party and attended meetings on workers’ rights.[14] But in 1914, the outbreak of war in Europe would curtail all such patriotic dissent. The newcomers would demonstrate a new kind of patriotism and their organizations and leadership quickly shifted their goals and tactics. The nationalism surrounding WWI required them to display their unquestioned allegiance to the United States in a public, performative manner. Following the activities of local Hungarian organizations and leaders in the Terre Haute Daily Tribune, it’s clear that the newcomers felt their main goal was to convince their neighbors that they were Americans first and foremost and Hungarians only culturally. In the pages of the Daily Tribune, they publicly disavowed their allegiance to the ruler of Austria-Hungary and made clear that they disagreed with the crown’s position in the war.[15]

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, December 20, 1914, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Verhovay Society also took on additional duties during WWI. They hosted English classes and events, displaying their patriotism by flying large American flags at their meetings and picnics.[16] Most importantly, many Hungarian-born Terre Haute residents pursued citizenship.  As soon as they met the residential requirements, they applied for first papers. At this time, in Indiana (and thirty-nine other states) immigrants with first papers could vote in all elections.[17] They would then study English, American history, and the workings of the U.S. government in preparation for their citizenship tests. The Daily Tribune regularly reported on their citizenship applications.[18]

New York Times, December 8, 1917, 1, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1917/12/08/issue.html

These citizenship efforts became more important after the U.S. entered the global conflict, first declaring war on Germany, and then, in December 1917, on its ally Austria-Hungary. The U.S. federal government then declared Hungarian immigrants who had not yet achieved full citizenship to be “enemy aliens.” According to the National Archives:

The Federal Government instituted enemy alien control programs during wartime. This generally subjected aliens to additional regulations, increased scrutiny, and required registration and/or internment.[19]

Nationalism flared and immigrants, especially those from Germany and Austria-Hungary, felt the repercussions – often through the loss of rights. Indiana schools stopped teaching German, while German-language newspapers in Terre Haute and across the state folded.[20] Hoosiers consumed propaganda vilifying Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war included regulations for “alien enemies,” including barring firearm ownership and allowing for arrest and detainment for the duration of the war.[21] This was not an idle threat.

“Shop Mule,” photograph, n.d., Wisconsin Historical Society.

Many of the Hungarian immigrants to Terre Haute worked for Terre Haute Malleable & Manufacturing Company (incorporated in 1906) and settled in the neighborhood near the plant.[22] In June 1918, Terre Haute police arrested Austrian-born Malleable employee John Precpep. The Daily Tribune reported that he was charged with being “a suspected dangerous alien enemy” and would be “interned for the duration of the war.”[23] He was also made to turn over his property and the $1,000 he had in the bank. He was reported  to have bought no Liberty Bonds and to have “encouraged foreign born citizens to evade the draft law.” [24] It’s not clear who made these reports – neighbors or coworkers perhaps. But it is clear that one’s reputation as a loyal, patriotic American – one who bought war bonds and registered for the draft – mattered. But even enlisting in the U.S. Army didn’t necessarily protect one from suspicion.

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, January 31, 1918, 11, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hungarian Terre Haute resident James Kovac enlisted in the U.S. Army and proudly carried his registration card with him around town. He also went to a second hand store and bought himself an army coat and bayonet “so that the government would not have to furnish him one when he enlisted.”[25] Wearing his hand-me-down uniform with pride, Kovac attended a dance at a local establishment at 15th and Beech Streets. When the tavern owner identified Kovac as Hungarian, he called the police. Kovac was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Local courts determined that he got his “army uniform too soon” and sentenced him to 100 days in jail, despite his eagerness to serve his new country.[26] So if enlisting wasn’t the ultimate expression of loyalty, what was? How could immigrants of Hungarian origin display their patriotism to neighbors and coworkers and avoid reprisals for failing to do so?

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 9, 1917, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Leading Terre Haute citizens of Hungarian origin organized highly visible displays of patriotism, which the local newspaper reported on approvingly. In June 1917, the Verhovay Society, led by Alexander Steele, “held a flag dedication” at the organization’s “picnic grounds” at Twenty-Second and Linden Streets (today the site of Hungarian Hall).[27] The Daily Tribune reported that “the affair was one of the biggest celebrations ever held by foreign organizations.”[28] In addition to the hundreds of local Verhovay members, Clinton (Vermillion County) also sent a delegation of 300 members. In addition to prominent members of the Hungarian community, the mayor of Terre Haute, the reverend of St. Ann’s Church, and the captain of a local military company also attended. During the ceremony the Society officially adopted the American flag and vowed to carry it “at all public demonstrations hereafter.”[29]

In June 1918, Alexander Steele led another display, this time “a patriotic parade” and an assembly at the Terre Haute Post Office where the resident of Hungarian origin would “renew their oaths of loyalty to this country under the American flag.”[30]  They also announced that they would be forming a Hungarian Loyalty League. Just a month later, the League marched in the Fourth of July parade. The Daily Tribune reported that the 160 members who marched carried a large American flag and “were repeatedly cheered along the line of the march.”[31] Later that month, they held their largest and most visible event yet.

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, July 30, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On July 27, 1918, 250 members of Terre Haute’s Hungarian Loyalty League swore a public “oath of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes.”[32] This act was accompanied by hundreds more supporters marching in a patriotic parade from Ninth and Ohio Streets to the post office. Symbolizing the approval of the community and the sanction of local officials, the parade was headed by “a platoon of police.”[33] They were followed by “a party of mounted Hungarians and then came the First Regiment band.”[34] At least 200 Hungarian men marched as did an uncounted number of women and children, followed by decorated automobiles. They carried American flags and banners reading “Help Win the War,” “We Are Ready to Give Our All of America,” and “Hungarians by Birth, Americans by Choice.”[35] The Daily Tribune reported that the parade was directed by League President Alexander Steele, the local Postmaster John J. Cleary, and the Terre Haute mayor Charles R. Hunter. The newspaper noted approvingly:

Mr. Steele deserves great credit for the rousing display of patriotism shown by himself and his countrymen and their loyal support of the stars and stripes.[36]

After swearing the oath, Terre Haute residents gave them “a rousing cheer.” The party then “adjourned to their hall” (likely a precursor of the current Hungarian Hall) at 22nd and Linden.[37] There they celebrated with a banquet, dancing, and speechmaking.

Terre Haute News, October 12, 2009, tribstar.com.

Despite such performances of patriotism, Indiana soon moved to end the right of immigrants to vote on first papers and authorities broke up meetings of “foreign born . . . bolshevik agitators” as Hoosiers succumbed to the fear and nationalism of the First Red Scare.[38] Ku Klux Klan membership grew dramatically in the early 1920s and Indiana’s representatives in Congress voted for the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which effectively ended immigration from Eastern Europe.[39] But even in this cultural climate, the Hungarian community of Terre Haute thrived. They continued to pursue citizenship and improve their English, opening up more occupational opportunities for themselves and their children. They saved money and opened small shops, including a number of grocery stores. There are many examples of this trajectory, including that of Frank and Julia Koos.

Terre Haute Tribune Star, March 7, 2023, tribstar.com.

Ferencz Koos and Julianna Majoros immigrated through Ellis Island in 1907 and 1910, respectively. They married, Americanized their names, moved to North Carolina, and then Indiana. By the early 1920s, they had made Terre Haute their home. Frank worked as a miner and a farmer and the couple saved their money. By 1925, they had opened a small grocery store at 2401 Maple Ave in the Hungarian neighborhood. While the business was named Frank Koos Grocery & Meats, the city directories and census records show that Julia managed the day to day operations while Frank continued working in coal mines. Later in life, when the store was comfortably established, they shared the running the shop as well as a small farm.[40]

The site where Koos’s store once stood is the perfect location to place a historical marker with this family’s story symbolizing the experiences of many in the city’s Hungarian community. Thanks to a successful marker application by the Koos’s granddaughter Laura Loudermilk, and the work of IHB staff, a state historical marker will be dedicated later this year. The text will read:

Side One

Hungarians seeking economic opportunities settled in Terre Haute at the start of the 20th century and created a vibrant community. Many worked for coal mines, railroads, and manufacturing industries. In response to dangerous conditions and low wages, they joined unions and, in 1909, founded the Hungarian Sick and Death Benefit Society, a self-funded insurance group.

Side Two

Despite facing prejudice during WWI, many Hungarian immigrants enlisted in the military, formed patriotic groups, and gained citizenship. They also established businesses, including Frank and Julia Koos who opened a grocery store here in the 1920s. Nearby Hungarian Hall hosted celebrations, elections, and union meetings, and continues to preserve Hungarian traditions.

The marker will stand as a reminder that these Hungarian immigrants, once designated “alien enemies,” improved their community and local economy, served their new country in times of war, and made Terre Haute a more vibrant and diverse city. Immigrants revitalize local economies and make communities stronger, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). [41] The story of the contributions made by Terre Haute’s Hungarian community is a good reminder for us today as newcomers from other countries look to make Indiana their new home.

Further Contextual Reading:

Susan Papp and Joe Esterhaus, Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (Cleveland State University, 2010), electronic edition accessed Press Books at the Michael Schwartz Library, https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/hungarian-americans-and-their-communities-of-cleveland/.

Notes:

[1] Howard Zinn interviewed by Sharon Basco, July 3, 2002, HowardZinn.org.

[2] Leslie Konnyu, Hungarians in the U.S.A.: An Immigration Study (St. Louis, MO: American Hungarian Review), 1967, 22, Archive.org.

[3]”Foreigners in Indiana,” Bedford Weekly Mail, May 17, 1907, 3, Newspapers.com; Department of Commerce and Labor, Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910: Statistics for Indiana (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), 598, 614, census.gov.

[4] Table: “Fatal Accidents in Vigo County,” and Table: “Serious Accidents in Vigo County,” in “Summary of Accidents, 1913,” Second Annual Report of the State Bureau of Inspection (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1914), 404-06, HathiTrust.

[5]“Dead Hungarians,” Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, April 4, 1891, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Many Killed by Bursting Boilers,” Pittsburg Press, December 20, 1901, 1, Newspapers.com; “Fifty Bodies Still in Mine,” Miners Journal, January 29, 1904, 1, Newspapers.com; Beverly N. Sparks, “Brave Rescuers at the Darr Mine Face to Face with Awful Death” and C. H. Gillespie, “Disaster Blamed on Company,” Pittsburg Press, December 22, 1907, 1, Newspapers.com; “Nine More Bodies Taken from Monongah Mines Making the Total Recovered 52,” Daily Telegram, December 9, 1907, 1, Newspapers.com.

[6] R. L. Polk and Co’s Terre Haute City Directory 1912-1913 (Terre Haute: Moore-Langen Printing Co., 1912), 66, AncestryLibrary.com; R. L. Polk and Co’s Terre Haute City Directory 1915-1916 (Terre Haute: Moore-Langen Printing Co., 1915), 222, AncestryLibrary.com; “Notes of Local Lodges,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, December 14, 1914, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Hungarians Elect,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, December 7, 1915, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Hungarian Benefit Society Enjoys Outing,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 18, 1916, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[7] “Hungarian Aid Society Elects,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, December 20, 1914, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] Declaration of Independence, transcription, July 4, 1776, Founding Documents, National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

[9] “Hungarian Branches,” Indiana Socialist Party Bulletin, July 1, 1913, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Federal Authorities Probe Clinton Case,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 14, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Now on Trail of East Chicago Reds,” Indianapolis News, October 13, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Issues Injunction Against Molders,” Indianapolis Star, Mary 26, 1923, 5, Newspapers.com; “Labor Troubles Ripe in Three Indiana Cities,” Hammond Times, August 17, 1935, 6, Newspapers.com.

[10] Miklos Szantho, Magyarok a Nagyvilágban (Budapest: Kossuth Könyvkiadó, 1970), 66 in Susan Papp and Joe Esterhaus, Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (Cleveland State University, 2010), electronic edition accessed Press Books at the Michael Schwartz Library, https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/hungarian-americans-and-their-communities-of-cleveland/.

[11] “Eleven Wounded,” Daily Press (Newport News, VA), March 31, 1909, 1, Chronicling America, Library of Congress; “Mine Is Threatened,” Winchester News (KY), March 31, 1909, 5, Chronicling America, Library of Congress; “Threatened War between Miners Not So Critical,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, March 31, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[12] “The Great Immigration,” Section II: Hungarians in America in Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland,  pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu.

[13]”Eleven Wounded,” Daily Press (Newport News, VA), March 31, 1909, 1, Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

[14] Hungarian Branches,” Indiana Socialist Party Bulletin, July 1, 1913, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles; Partial Transcript of Interview with Frank Koos, 1968, Private Collection of Laura Beth Loudermilk, copy in IHB marker file.

[15] “Hungarian Position in War in Europe,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, August 21, 1914, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “Hungarian Benefit Society Enjoys Outing,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 18, 1916, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; Curt Bridwell, “What Terre Hauteans Read in the Newspapers of 40 Years Ago,” Terre Haute Tribune, December 11, 1949, Newspapers.com.

[17] “Naturalization Records,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/naturalization.

[18] “New Citizens Are Sworn In,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, November 15, 1914, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Citizenship Applications of Four Are Turned Down, Terre Haute Daily Tribune, November 14, 1915, 21, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Four File Declarations,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, April 17, 1917, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Seeks Citizenship,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, May 24, 1917, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “Enemy Alien Records,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/enemy-aliens.

[20] Indiana Historical Bureau, German Newspapers’ Demise, state historical marker #49.2017.2, in.gov.history.

[21] “World War I Enemy Alien Records,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/enemy-aliens/ww1.

[22] “Incorporation” Indiana Tribune, August 4, 1906, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Wanted,” Indianapolis News, December 22, 1906, 19, Newspapers.com.

[23] “Will Intern Austrian for War’s Duration,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 25, 1918, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Gets Army Uniform Too Soon, Says Court, Terre Haute Daily Tribune, 11, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Hungarians Dedicate the American Flag,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 9, 1917, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Hungarians Raise Flag,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 6, 1918, 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[31] “Bulgarians Are Loyal,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, July 5, 1918, 18, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[32] “Loyal Hungarians Pledge Allegiance,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, July 28, 1918, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Federal Authorities Probe Clinton Case,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, June 14, 1919, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “No Alien Enemy Voters,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, October 13, 1918, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[39] Jill Weiss Simins, “‘America First:’ The Indiana Ku Klux Klan and Immigration Policy in the 1920s,” Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences 25, Issue 1 (Fall 2020), Oakland City University.

[40] Passenger Record: Ferencz Koos, May 1, 1907 Arrival Date, Ellis Island Passenger Records, ellisislandrecords.org; Passenger Record: Julianna Majoros, December 3, 1910 Arrival Date, Ellis Island Passenger Records, ellisislandrecords.org; Fourteenth Census of the United States, Burgaw Township, North Carolina, January 26, 1920, 17A, Lines 39-40, Bureau of the Census, National Archives and Records Administration,  AncestryLibrary.com; Polk’s Terre Haute City Directory 1922 (Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., Publishers, 1922), 403, AncestryLibrary.com; Polk’s Terre Haute City Directory 1924 (Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., Publishers, 1924), 423, AncestryLibrary.com; Polk’s Terre Haute City Directory 1925 (Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., Publishers, 1925), 334, AncestryLibrary.com; Frank Koos Grocery and Meats, photograph, n.d. [circa 1929], Private Collection of Laura Beth Loudermilk, copy in IHB marker file; Fifteenth Census of the United States, Ward 7, Terre Haute, Vigo County, April 8, 1930, 4A Lines 44-45, Bureau of the Census, National Archives and Records Administration, AncestryLibrary.com; Sixteenth Census of the United States, Ward 7, Terre Haute, Vigo County, April 2, 1940, 1B, Lines 64-64, Bureau of the Census, National Archives and Records Administration, AncestryLibrary.com;  Polk’s Terre Haute City Directory 1947 (St. Louis: R. L. Polk & Co., Publishers, 1947), 269, AncestryLibrary.com; Partial Transcript of Interview with Frank Koos, 1968, Private Collection of Laura Beth Loudermilk, copy in IHB marker file.

[41] National Academy of Sciences, “Integration of Immigrants into American Society” (Washington, D.C.: NAS Press, 2015), https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/21746/chapter/1.

The Agitator: Theodore Luesse Takes On the Great Depression

Evansville Journal, July 21, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As they awaited the fate of Minor Moon, a legion of anxious men spilled down the stairs of the municipal courtroom, prodded by a “double chain” of Indianapolis patrolmen. Judge Paul C. Wetter had decided: Moon, a Black resident, would pay $50 for trespassing—an almost unfathomable fine for November 25, 1930, especially for a man recently evicted from his home at 409 West North Street. With this sentencing, Theodore Luesse—a white strike-leader in his mid-20s—cried from the front of the court room, “Comrades are we going to stand for this miscarriage of justice?”[1]

His comrades, still lining the stairs, responded, “We want justice!” They rushed back into the courtroom, where they exchanged blows with police officers. The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported, “The raging fighters smashed through the doorways into the corridors. Clubs rose and fell and fists were swung. Everyone was yelling.”[2] Luesse’s comrades, unemployed men attracted by the promise of Communism, eventually fled, leaving Luesse and organizer R.M. Spillman among the “avalanche of blue coats.” Police swiftly escorted Luesse and Spillman to jail, where, from their cells, they cried “injustice!” and “downtrodden proletariat!”

This would be one of dozens of arrests of Luesse for his role in agitating for better living and working conditions during the Great Depression. His actions would eventually culminate in a sentence at the notorious State Penal Farm in Putnamville, known as the “Black Hole of Indiana.” From this bleak environment, Luesse ran for governor on the Communist ticket. While the gubernatorial campaign inevitably failed, calls for Luesse’s release from imprisonment, for what many decried as simply exercising his “freedom of speech,” endeared widespread public support, including from Indianapolis businessmen like Franklin Vonnegut and clergy like Dr. Frank S. C. Wicks, as well as non-partisan groups like the ACLU.[3] His sentence also, to the dismay of judicial and government officials, increased Hoosiers’ interest in Communist ideals and ignited a series of social protests.


Much of Luesse’s inimitable life can be pieced together by pairing his 1995 recollections How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story* with U.S. Census records and newspaper articles, which typically corroborate his memories. The future firebrand, born in 1905 in Batesville to German immigrants, experienced hardship nearly from birth. When his mother died shortly after his first birthday, his father, likely grief-stricken and needing to provide for the family, moved to Indianapolis, where he varnished furniture in a factory. Theodore’s sisters were sent to an orphanage, and Theodore moved in with his aunt on a Batesville farm.[4] The family reunited a few years later, when his father brought his children to the capital city. There, Theodore recalled his father returning from work “full of sweat,” having undertaken grueling labor for pennies. Young Theodore tried to supplement this income with various jobs, like delivering newspapers and selling errant pieces of iron and rags.

The Luesse family, with Theodore in his father’s arms, courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): cover.

This struggle likely informed Luesse’s later work as an organizer, as did attending local political meetings with his father. His experiences certainly cultivated in him a deep empathy for the disenfranchised, which manifested in middle school, when he protested the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras.[5] Having exploited Honduran plantations for years, the U.S. sought to protect its profits after Hondurans denied access to them. Luesse was taught that the Marines were sent under the guise of protecting locals from “gangsters and guerrillas.” However, he challenged this narrative, telling teachers at his Catholic school that Hondurans were “fathers and mothers just like our fathers and mothers.” He recalled the nuns ridiculing his protestations. This incident, combined with their corporeal punishment, caused him to drop out of school.

In his early-teen years, Luesse found work as a messenger. He hauled boxes from “five and tens” and department stores, recalling, “Oh it was a big wagon with big horses and I was so proud of being able to drive that thing right in the heart of Indianapolis just going down the streets and hearing the automobiles and trucks and everything.”[6] According to Luesse, he then got a job at Western Union, where he led his first strike, demanding “equal work for equal pay, although we didn’t call it that.” He led fellow employees under the age of 16 to demand wages equal to that of older teenagers. Here, he demonstrated his signature mixture of intimidation and organizational prowess, threatening and sometimes employing physical harm against anyone who refused to strike. The tactic proved successful in raising wages.

He then leveraged his job as a newsboy to work for social justice in the 1920s. He and some coworkers obtained an anti-Ku Klux Klan paper published in Chicago called The Intolerance.[7] They distributed copies at  Jewish synagogues, Catholic churches, and churches in Black neighborhoods in Indianapolis, hoping to combat the rhetoric and ideals espoused in the Klan’s Fiery Cross paper. According to Luesse, publicizing information about the hate group helped pressure public officials into stemming the Klan’s influence in government.

Curtisville Bottom, Great Depression shantytown located along the west bank of the White River from Oliver Street to Washington Street, May 1935, courtesy of Indy Star, accessed Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

Around 1930, Luesse joined the Communist Party, learning about local cases of unemployment and evictions through the party’s paper. Giving up a house-painting job, Luesse focused solely on combatting the deprivations wrought by the early months of the Great Depression.[8] He organized “flying squadrons,” groups of men who traveled to welfare and unemployment offices to ensure that the agencies were meeting people’s needs. He and his comrades also distributed copies of the communist paper and delivered speeches at Indianapolis factories. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Luesse visited the Kingan meat packing plant, informing workers about evictions around the city, arguing that, “If they can throw her out, they’ll throw us out tomorrow.” Such speeches attracted a crowd of onlookers, some of whom joined organizers in a parade to houses from which residents were being evicted. They hauled furniture back into renters’ homes, relying on a “security squad” comprised of military veterans, to intimidate police if they tried to intervene.

Luesse helped organize the Communist-based Unemployment Council of Indianapolis because the jobless had received “very little help from these organizations like the Socialist Party, the Workman’s Circle, and the Death Benefit Society. They were evolutionary and we were revolutionary. The Socialist Party believed that you could get everything on a ballot.”[9] The Unemployment Council, however, embraced public demonstrations and confrontations with public officials. Luesse contended that these were necessary in early 1931, as the socioeconomic privilege of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers shielded them from the realities of daily life for the unemployed. He noted, “They didn’t know about people having to pull things out of swill cans to eat, how people had to steal food to eat or things to live, how they had to burn up furniture in order to keep warm.”[10]

Citizens tried on one of the 2,500 pairs of shoes at the Indianapolis Salvation Army, donated by the city’s children via the Circle Theater, courtesy of the Indianapolis Times, November 24, 1930, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations during the early years of the Depression. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, Governor Harry G. Leslie and Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan refused to authorize relief bonds.[11] In fact, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'”[12] Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to preeminent Indiana historian James H. Madison.[13]


As inaction pitched Hoosiers further into destitution, their public protestations intensified. On January 6, 1931, the Indianapolis Times reported that Luesse and Council members led hundreds of unemployed men, about 60% of whom were Black, to the statehouse.[14] They failed in their attempt to meet Governor Leslie, whom they’d hoped would reconsider his stance on relief and housing. After this, Luesse led the men, desperately in need of warmth, to Tomlinson Hall. The group hoped that they could possibly find work there, as Tomlinson housed the Office of the Unemployed. Leading the delegation with Luesse was J.C. Moon (possibly a relative of Minor), dressed “fantastically in a dark blue uniform resembling that of hotel bellboys, and his head was topped by a scarlet fez hat with a flowing tassel.”[15]

Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 77, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

As the marchers approached the building, they sustained momentum by chanting “When we see a cop we use him for a mop.”[16] They immediately encountered a police squadron at Tomlinson Hall, which culminated in a clash like that in the municipal courtroom. Banners bearing slogans like “Deliver Us From Starvation” and “To Hell With Your Lousy Charities” soon littered Delaware and Market Streets as some marchers fled and others attempted to occupy Tomlinson.[17] According to Luesse, police officers threw him on top of the gatherers and “motioned for the streetcars and automobiles to cut through the crowd.” After sustaining a blow to the nose, police again hauled him to jail. “My twenty-eighth ride!” he proclaimed.

Such conflicts demonstrated the painful dichotomy between the urgency of citizens’ needs and the inadequacy or unwillingness of governmental and societal structures to meet them. The fraught circumstances are likely why some lawyers continued to aid Luesse and why Judge Paul Wetter was fairly lenient in his punishment of him. In a serendipitous twist, Luesse had dated Wetter’s sister, establishing a friendly rapport with the future judge.[18] During their many courtroom encounters, Luesse and Judge Wetter exchanged perspectives, both seemingly perplexed by the other’s stance. Judge Wetter wanted to know why Luesse engaged in such provocation, and Luesse asked why Judge Wetter sentenced Hoosiers the way he did. Luesse recalled telling the judge:

‘There was this here old man that stole a pig and you put him one hundred and thirty days on the rock pile [penal farm]. You didn’t ask him why he stole the pig. You didn’t ask him about anything, but because of the fact that the law says that he should go to jail for one hundred and thirty days for stealing a pig you sent him. . . Now he’s got four breadsnappers at home. . . . he stole that pig in order to feed those children.’ (p. 47)

Luesse added, “You live in a world of hypocrisy. You go to church. . . . I’m up to here with all your bullsh*t, all your people’s bullsh*t, the priest’s and bishop’s and pope’s and everybody else.'” Apparently he earned Judge Wetter’s begrudging respect because, according to Luesse, Wetter ordered the turnkey to release him.[19] Just one month later, Luesse came again before Judge Wetter for having made “inflammatory speeches to a crowd assembled at a soup kitchen.”[20] Rather than fining or sentencing Luesse, Judge Wetter ordered him to report to City Hall for work digging ditches the following day.

Picture
The Unemployed Workers’ Movement Anti-Eviction Committee protesting the eviction of a women and her family of 5 children in Norfolk St, Ponsonby, Auckland, 1931, accessed The Great Depression Riots of 1932.

Luesse employed another tactic to draw attention to the plight of Hoosier families. In How I Got Out of Jail, he described a “Mrs. Allen,” whose husband was unable to work due to tuberculosis. Having four children to care for, Mrs. Allen walked two to three miles to the welfare office for “gold soup,” so called because of the carrots that floated to the top of the broth.[21] She supplemented this paltry meal with rotten vegetables gathered from around the city. Luesse noted:

She was a fighter in every capacity and I loved that. So she was being evicted from her place and I convinced her that we were gonna get her a house. . . . We’re gonna have a big demonstration on the state house lawn and we’re going to have a house built there.

After Mrs. Allen agreed to this plan, Luesse and his comrades transported a dilapidated house to the statehouse grounds and distributed leaflets encouraging people to come “see how the unemployed has to live.” Two sides of the shanty were without walls, so for four days people observed Mrs. Allen care for her children and complete routine tasks with meager resources. Based on the publicity generated by the demonstration, Luesse was able to secure permanent housing for the Allen family.[22]

Throughout the spring, Luesse returned to jail several times for halting evictions and leading public demonstrations. His luck ran out after his thirty-fourth arrest, for which he interfered with the “eviction of a destitute Negro family,” and finally faced legal consequences. [23] Judge Frank P. Baker sentenced Luesse to one year at a penal farm in Putnamville, stating “‘no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Any such man is a menace to society. I believe this man has tried to stir up resistance against the law and crate disrespect for it, which in turn might lead to dangerous riots.'”[24]


“Oh, Goddman, that was a hell of a place,” Luesse recalled about the jail.[25] In a sweltering quarry, he worked alongside men incarcerated for a spectrum of transgressions, including drunkenness, theft, and “social crimes”—meaning imprisonment for the crime of simply being a person of color. One man reportedly died because of the brutal work environment, a tragedy Luesse tried to expose by tying a letter to a kite.[26] For this attempt, he was placed in “the hole” for twenty days, where guards handcuffed and hung him out on a door for hours. Such allegations were confirmed by former prisoners, who presented Governor Leslie with affidavits testifying to such treatment.[27] Glenn Emmett Mulford wrote that after Luesse was released from solitary confinement, he “‘looked sick, worn-out and was bleeding from the nose.'” According to the Garrett Clipper, Governor Leslie dismissed the claims, declaring that Luesse was treated with “‘exceptional kindness.'”

The support Luesse engendered via his activism endured throughout his incarceration, as downtrodden Hoosiers continually demanded his release. In fact, the Evansville Press noted that his “case caused nationwide protests.”[28] At the end of November 1931, hunger marchers en route to Washington, D.C. stopped at the Putnamville prison farm, demanding to see Luesse.[29] Rebuffed, the automobile detachment continued on to Indianapolis, where they attempted to confront Governor Leslie about Luesse’s release and about authorizing war funds for the unemployed. By the spring of 1932, prominent Indianapolis clergymen and business leaders signed a petition for the Hoosier Communist’s release.[30] Indianapolis citizen Samuel Nathanson appealed to the governor after Luesse—who happened to be born with the unique “No. 1 count”—donated pints of blood to his sick daughter in an attempt to save her life.[31] Although Nathanson “was not in sympathy with Luesse’s political and economic beliefs,” he felt that Luesse’s punishment did not fit the crime, and that his generosity demonstrated his fitness as a citizen. He went so far as to offer Luesse a job at The Store Without a Name, for which he was manager.

“News of the Day as the Pictures Record It,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

After these efforts failed, local women led the charge to free Luesse. In April, they organized a protest of about one hundred supporters at the statehouse and defied police orders to relocate to Military Park. The Lake County Times reported that police had to forcefully remove a number of women “after they had climbed to the top of ornamental urns and had harangued their male companions to remain.”[32] Among the three arrested and charged with “inciting to riot and resisting arrest,” was a “Mrs. Fay Allen.” Described by the Indianapolis Star as a “mother of four children,” she was likely the same woman aided by the home demonstration organized on the statehouse grounds.[33] She appeared to take up the mantle for Luesse while he was behind bars, as she was arrested again the following month for “inciting a riot and interfering with legal process” during an eviction.[34] In July, a similar protest materialized at the statehouse, this time organized by unemployed men from The Region, who sought relief measures and the release of Luesse.[35] Hammond spokesman Wenzel Stocker told legislators that “‘mass starvation and suicide'” would occur in Gary if relief funds were not issued.

Given the apparent futility of such demonstrations, organizers hoped to effect change through electoral politics. In 1932, the Communist Party nominated Fay Allen for Secretary of State, Stocker for Lieutenant Governor, and Theodore Luesse, still serving time at the penal farm, for governor.[36] Luesse reported that some guards were sympathetic to his ideology and even supported his gubernatorial run. The candidates earned the public’s sympathy and respect, but not their electoral support, as born out by the 1932 returns. All three Communist candidates came in sixth out of seventh place, earning just over ninety votes each.[37]

Despite the loss, Luesse and his comrades increased interest among Hoosiers in the Communist Party, which as editorialist Paul B. Sallee noted in 1935, “could not develop a membership sufficient to muster a corporal’s guard.”[38] However, Luesse’s imprisonment—a veritable “miscarriage of law”—and the suppression of free speech wrought by his incarceration helped the Party grow by “leaps and bounds.” Sallee alleged that if the two major parties denied Hoosiers their “political rights and civil liberties . . . it is clear to any intelligent person that the people will throw off such restraint by any method.” While Hoosier voters did not forsake the two major parties, they did signal the desire for change by electing the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, Paul V. McNutt. Indiana’s new head of state had apparently been sympathetic to Luesse’s plight and in March of 1933 released him from Putnamville.[39]


Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 71, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

“Assured that Luesse would leave the state” upon his release, Gov. McNutt likely breathed a sigh of relief. Although progressive in his politics, McNutt surely preferred not having to contend with Luesse’s agitation.[40] But Luesse, dogmatic as ever, returned to Indianapolis the day after he left the penal farm. He stood on the courthouse steps before an audience of 200 women and men, most of whom the paper noted were African Americans, and “urged concentrated action of his followers against governmental officials to force them to favor demands of workers and the unemployed.”[41] Upon request, he made similar speeches in cities like Evansville, Munster, and Hammond in the following months.[42] According to Luesse, after his incarceration he worked with Indiana volunteers to organize a C.I.O. branch, made possible by passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act.[43] In August of 1933, while preparing to speak to a crowd of unemployed residents in Marion, he was arrested and transported to the Grant County jail, where a mob forcibly removed and lynched two young Black men in 1930.[44]

It appears that Governor McNutt could breathe a bit easier by 1935, as Luesse had transferred his organizational talent to other midwestern cities, like Belleville, Illinois.[45] Some time after leaving Indiana, Luesse assumed the alias “Jim Moore” and worked as a machinist. Shedding his association with the Hoosier state, he resided in St. Louis for a time, channeling his revolutionary spirit into protesting the Vietnam War.[46] After decades of activism, Moore joined his son, Stan, in San Francisco around 1967. They circulated 50,000 leaflets throughout the Bay Area, “telling the workers to organize stoppage of work for five minutes, ten minutes or any amount as a memorial to the people that died” in the war. After permanently relocating to the West Coast, Moore fought for equal representation in law enforcement and county government.[47] In the late 1980s, he served as a U.S. delegate to the World Peace Convention in Denmark, relying on young peers to help him travel to Copenhagen, as a lifetime of activism had worn down his body.[48]

Image of Luesse/Moore courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): inside cover.

Moore appeared to have tempered his radical impulses later in life, telling interviewer Claire Burch in 1995, “We’ve got enough anarchy! We don’t need no more anarchy. We need organization. We need discipline. We need to be moved to do things in order to be able to get legislation passed.”[49] Despite a philosophical shift, the nonagenarian continued to work for societal change.  An average weekend for Moore meant rising at 7 o’clock, getting in some light exercise (mindful of his pacemaker), and walking over to the local hospital cafeteria for breakfast before folding copies of The People’s World. He then distributed them at the University of California, Berkley and in boxes throughout the city. Some Saturdays he breakfasted with college students to “talk over what is necessary for them to do” and on Sundays attended Humanist meetings or American-Soviet Friendship Society gatherings.[50] He ran a petition drive to convince the Montgomery Ward Company to donate one of its buildings to the City of Oakland, so it could be repurposed as a trade skill training center or housing for those experiencing homelessness.[51] Moore distributed leaflets at local welfare and unemployment offices and attended Bay Area demonstrations almost until his death.[52]


With characteristic resolve, Moore achieved his goal to reach the age of 100, passing away in 2005 just two weeks after the milestone birthday. Despite playing a large role in Indiana’s labor tradition and making an indelible impact on his native state during the Depression, he has largely been forgotten. Crusaders such as himself helped centralize Indiana government and cultivate a new generation of organizers, who demanded more from their government during those tumultuous years.

While some Hoosier leaders disapproved of Luesse’s resistance, it helped catalyze necessary change during unprecedented circumstances. After all, the New Deal was not a foregone conclusion and many state lawmakers were slow to recognize the scope of constituents’ needs. Luesse’s many public protests and his vociferous criticism of Governor Leslie’s inaction infused some Hoosiers with the spirit of reform. Primed for change, voters decided not to elect Gov. Leslie to a second term, instead electing progressive candidate Paul V. McNutt in 1933. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, Gov. McNutt’s “liberal social-welfare programs . . . marked a significant shift in the direction of assistance to those in need” and created a “more centralized, modernized, and professional welfare system.”[53]

Luesse’s unflinching demand for accountability and relief measures may resonate with modern Americans, as they grapple with the current spike in inflation, swelling gas prices, the mounting student loan debt crisis, and pandemic-related housing displacement. Certainly, those who support a social safety net relate to Theodore Luesse’s belief that:

Everybody has the right to live just because they are alive, and in order to live, a person has to have food, clothing and shelter, health and education. When he doesn’t receive that by his own ingenuity it is necessary for the government to help him. That is why we have governments—to help those people who cannot help themselves, not just to make rules and regulations.[54]


* According to this publication, he eventually went by the alias “Jim Moore,” but it is unclear when or why he did so. It appears he employed this moniker after leaving Indiana, so he will be referred to as “Theodore Luesse” during the time he lived there.

Notes:

[1] “Indianapolis Police Battle Riotous Crowd of Radicals,” (Lafayette) Journal and Courier, November 25, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “Theodore Luesse,” 1910 United States Federal Census, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995), p. 5-6.

[5] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 5-6; Obituary, “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, January 7, 2005, accessed Peoplesworld.org.

[6]  “Theodore Luesse,” Indianapolis, Indiana City Directory, 1920, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Hayes Body Strike Ends in Wage Pact,” Indianapolis Times, April 18, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 10-11, 13, 26-34.

[7] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 106-107.

[8] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 32-34.

[9] “To Protest Eviction of Tenants,” Indianapolis News, January 5, 1931, 23, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from How I Got Out of Jail, p. 109.

[10] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[11] Bradford Sample, “A Truly Midwestern City: Indianapolis on the Eve of the Great Depression,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, iss. 2 (June 2001), accessed IUScholarWorks Journal.

[12] United Press, “Leslie Again Blocks Session: Refuses Plea that He Call Legislature,” Evansville Press, March 26, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] James H. Madison, Indiana Through Tradition and Change: A History of the Hoosier State and Its People, 1920-1945 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982), p. 109.

[14] Quote from “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, January 6, 1931, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Communist Agitators Arrested,” Late County Times, January 6, 1931, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[16] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 43-44.

[17] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[18] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 45.

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

[20] “Court Provides Jobs for Orators,” (Lafayette, IN) Journal and Courier, February 6, 1931, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21]  How I Got Out of Jail, p. 41-42, 156.

[22] Ibid., p. 41-42.

[23] “Alleged Red Held Again,” Indianapolis News, April 24, 1931, 37, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hunger Marchers are Home Bound,” Late County Times, May 5, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Trio Arrested at Capital Released,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, May 5, 1931, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Radical Chief Gets Sentence on State Farm,” Kokomo Tribune, May 23, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 48.

[26] Ibid., p. 50-51.

[27] “Leslie Denies ‘Red’ Has Been Abused at Penal Farm,” Garrett Clipper, May 26, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] “Marchers Denied Visit with Luesse at State Penal Farm by Warden,” Kokomo Tribune, November 30, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[30] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Governor Refuses to Release Luesse,” Palladium-Item, October 4, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 57.

[31] “Luesse Gave Blood for Little Girl; Father Asks Release, Promises Job,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1932, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Quote from “Mob of Reds are Led by Women,” Late County Times, April 25, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] “2 Women, 1 Man Held as Rioters,” Indianapolis Star, April 26, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[34] “Two Held at Eviction,” Indianapolis News, May 13, 1932, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[35] “Jobless Army Asks Indiana Legislature for Relief Funds,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1932, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[36] “May Day is Celebrated at Two Meetings Here,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hammond Man is Named for State Office,” Late County Times, September 21, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Townsend for Senate,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1932, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[37] South Bend Tribune, November 10, 1932, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[38] Paul B. Sallee, “The Message Center: ‘Red Scare’ Law Held Communist Aid,” Indianapolis Times, March 15, 1935, 32, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[39] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, March 5, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[40] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[41] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, 9.

[42] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Prepare for Luesse Meeting,” Late County Times, March 20, 1933, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[43] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 62.

[44] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Freed from Grant County Jail,” Indianapolis Star, August 8, 1933, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[45] “Sewage Plant and Richland Creek Project Placed on List,” Belleville [Illinois] Daily News-Democrat, February 5, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 72, 85.

[46] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 85, 190.

[47] Ibid., p. 151, 182.

[48] Ibid., p. 129-130.

[49] Ibid., p. 184.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] Ibid., p. 180.

[52] “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, 2005.

[53] Linda C. Gugin, “Paul V. McNutt: January 9, 1933-January 11, 1937,” in eds., Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, The Governors of Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2006), p. 296.

[54] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 146.

The Guardian Angel and the Hoosier Senator: The Political Alliance of Mother Jones and John W. Kern

During the peak of labor struggles in the early 20th century, almost no figure was as recognized and loved by workers than Mary “Mother” Jones. An Irish immigrant who dedicated her life to cause of labor, Jones was described by the Evansville Courier as “probably the most widely known woman labor leader in the United States.” During her decades in the struggle, Mother Jones traveled all around the country organizing coal miners for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), catching the ire of mine owners and the political leaders that supported them. However, one member of the political establishment that Jones not only liked but even campaigned for was Democratic Indiana Senator John W. Kern. A dedicated defender of organized labor himself, Kern used his power in the U.S. Senate to advocate for Jones’s release in the summer of 1913 while she was imprisoned for organizing coal miners. Years later, she campaigned on his behalf, reminding labor that Kern stood up for her when very few public leaders would. Their political partnership stands out as one of the most unique pairings during America’s Progressive Age.

Contrasting Journeys, Converging Missions

While Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claimed to be born on May 1, 1830, she was likely born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland to Richard and Ellen Harris. Details about Mother Jones’s birth and childhood are scant. “My people were poor,” Mother Jones wrote in her autobiography, “For generations they had fought for Ireland ‘s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle.” When she was a teenager, Jones and her family emigrated to Canada. “His [Richard Harris’s] work as a laborer with railway construction crews took him to Toronto, Canada,” Jones wrote years later, noting “Here I was brought up but always as the child of an American citizen. Of that citizenship I have ever been proud.” The exact date of their departure to America is unclear, but as biographer Elliot J. Gorn writes, “by the early 1850s, they had saved enough for Ellen and the children to set sail for North America. The family was soon established in Toronto, with Richard Harris, approaching fifty, working on the rapidly growing Canadian railroads.”

Mother Jones, 1915. Library of Congress.

Her early education equipped her with skills she would use for decades as a labor organizer. “After finishing the common schools,” she recalled later, “I attended the [Toronto] Normal school with the intention of becoming a teacher. Dress-making too, I learned proficiently. My first position was teaching in a convent in Monroe, Michigan. Later, I came to Chicago and opened a dressmaking establishment. I preferred sewing to bossing little children.” Biographer Elliott J. Gorn corroborates most of this, writing, “Mary learned the skills of dressmaking, but she was intent on another career. Late in 1857, at age twenty, she obtained a certificate from the priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral attesting to her good moral character. With this credential, she took the examinations for admission to the Toronto Normal School, passed, and enrolled in November 1857. She never graduated, but she attended classes through the spring of 1858, getting more than enough training to secure a teaching position.”

She eventually made her way to Memphis, Tennessee, resuming her career as a teacher. It was here that she met and married her husband, George Jones, in 1861. Unfortunately, their lives together were cut short, with tragedy forever reshaping her life and work. In 1867, her husband and four children died in a yellow fever epidemic. She shared her perspective on this in an August 24, 1925 article for the Evansville Press, which was subsequently published in her autobiography:

In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept Memphis. Its victims were mainly among the poor and the workers. . . . One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as was mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart.

After their deaths, she returned to Chicago and set up a clothing business, which was lost in the Great Fire of 1871. “The fire made thousands homeless,” Jones wrote in the Press, “We stayed all night and the next day without food on the lake front, often going into the lake to keep cool. Old St. Mary’s church at Wabash Avenue and Peck Court was thrown open to the refugees and there I camped until I could find a place to go.”

Evansville Press, August 24, 1925. Newspapers.com.

These tragedies caused her to abscond traditionally-female jobs, likely in the search for meaning, and instead she espoused the cause of labor—a consequential role she would play for the rest of her life. “From the time of the Chicago fire,” she declared in the Evansville Press, “I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle [,] and I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived.” She spent the next fifty years of her life dedicated to improving the lives of workers all over the United States.

Mother Jones in 1902. Library of Congress.

John W. Kern’s life was very different from that of Mother Jones. Born on December 20, 1849 in Howard County, Indiana, Kern belonged to a solidly middle-class family. His father was a doctor who moved the family to Iowa for a time before moving back to a permanent residence in Howard County. It was in these early years, according to biographer Peter J. Sehlinger, that Kern developed a “strong predilection for politics and education,” likely as a result of his father, who was an “outspoken Democrat and an avid reader who subscribed to magazines and constantly enlarged his varied library collection.” At the age of fifteen, Kern earned his teaching license in Howard County and served as a schoolmaster to save up money for his education in law.

John Kern, 1909. IUPUI Image Collection, Indiana Memory.

Kern graduated from the University of Michigan in 1869 and settled in Kokomo to establish his law practice and start a family. A year later, he ran for public office for the first time, as a Democratic candidate for the Indiana General Assembly, a race he lost. Despite his defeat, it gave Kern clout with the local political establishment and led to his first public office, that of Kokomo’s municipal attorney, a position he held from 1871-1884. He won his first election in 1884, becoming the reporter for the Indiana Supreme Court, serving in this capacity for four years until he lost reelection in 1888. The move to Indianapolis during his years as court reporter continued to grow his stature, and in 1892, Kern was finally elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a state senator. During his time in the Indiana State Senate he became known for his advocacy of organized labor. He worked tirelessly to pass a slew of bills that championed workers, from a right-to-organize law, a worker’s compensation law, and a child labor law. While not a socialist in the Debsian mold, Kern was a progressive who believed that democratic institutions should curb the excesses of capitalism. As he was quoted saying by biographer Peter Sehlinger, “For years and years and years organized capital was fostered and fed by favorable legislation, until it grew defiant and insolent . . . . As a result labor organized that it might live.”

Presidential campaign poster of William Jennings Bryan and John W. Kern, 1908. Library of Congress.

Despite his growing political profile, Kern lost several statewide and national races. He unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Indiana in 1900 and 1904 and was Willian Jennings Bryan’s running mate in the 1908 presidential election, losing to William Howard Taft and the Republicans. This all changed when the Democrats gained control of the Indiana General Assembly in 1910 and swiftly chose him as the next U.S. Senator from Indiana. (This was before the direct election of senators by voters was added to the U.S. Constitution.) During his years in the Senate, Kern governed as a solid Wilsonian progressive who continued to earn the respect of organized labor as one of their staunchest advocates. He continued to fight against child labor, pressing for the passage of state and federal child labor laws. In 1913, he was elected by the Senate as majority leader; in this role he left his most enduring legacy. He brought the role of Senate majority leader into the modern era, working closely with President Woodrow Wilson to pass a wide range of laws, including the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act, to name a few. Not until Lyndon B. Johnson (also a Democrat) held the role in the 1950s did a majority leader occupy such an outsized role in the Senate.

John W. Kern during his time as Senate Majority Leader, 1916. Library of Congress.

Jones, Kern, and Life in the Mines

Life as a worker in the coal mines was treacherous. Injuries and deaths of miners in Evansville, to name only one city, were chronicled in the papers of its local newspapers for decades. Frank Hudson, a 19-year-old miner who worked at the Diamond Coal Company’s mines in Evansville, was “crushed to death” by “a heavy piece of soapstone” near a worksite entrance in 1888, as reported by the Evansville Courier. In 1897, a miner named William Delgeman was nearly killed at the Diamond coal mine by a premature blast explosion, leaving him with a broken arm and severe burns, the local newspapers Courier and Journal noted. The Courier reported a massive explosion in 1898 that “hurled backward” worker Daniel Breidenbach and “burned both arms from the elbows to the tips of his fingers and also burned his face and the back of his neck.” In 1902, the Journal reported that when Mother Jones was attending the annual UMWA convention in Indianapolis, one coal worker, William Cox, died of injuries sustained when slate fell on him. Three other workers were injured in similar circumstances. Over 20 years later, on November 9, 1921, miner Ben Harper died in the hospital after severe burns from an explosion, as noted by the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram.

Evansville Journal, July 19, 1902. Newspapers.com.

Due to the horrific circumstances in Indiana and elsewhere, workers began to organize, and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was founded in 1890. Mother Jones described this organizing work in her autobiography: “The United Mine Workers decided to organize these fields and work for human conditions for human beings. Organizers were put to work. Whenever the spirit of the men in the mines grew strong enough a strike was called.” She worked for the UMWA off and on for over 30 years, speaking at their annual conventions in Indianapolis, organizing workers nationwide, and helping to resolve internal disputes.

Mother Jones organizing workers at Holly Grove, West Virginia, 1903. UMWA.

In addition to Indiana, Mother Jones spent a lot of her time organizing in West Virginia, where she was imprisoned during a strike action in 1912. She was left in horrific conditions for months, cramped in a small cell with very little sunlight or adequate food. As the Indiana Socialist reported on May 24, 1913, “the climax of this new form of government [what the Indiana Socialist called, as they it saw it, corporate control of government] came the dastardly arrest of ‘Mother’ Jones on the charge of murder. [Jones, along with 48 labor organizers, were charged with “conspiracy to murder” for the death of Fred Bobbett, who died during a labor uprising.] for The mockery of it was sickening. She has fought the good fight against the murder of little children in the mines of enlightened States.” She appealed to public officials about her imprisonment and the conditions the miners faced.

Indiana Socialist, May 10, 1913. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The national leader who defended her more than nearly anyone else was Senator John W. Kern. Upon learning of the conditions that she and others imprisoned experienced, Senator Kern opened an inquiry into the mines of West Virginia and read a telegram from Mother Jones on the Senate floor. Jones recounted this telegram in her autobiography:

From out the military prison walls of Pratt, West Virginia, where I have walked over my eighty-fourth milestone in history, I send you the groans and tears and heartaches of men, women and children as I have heard them in this state. From out these prison walls, I plead with you for the honor of the nation, to push that investigation, and the children yet unborn will rise and call you blessed.

He received swift backlash for his actions by his West Virginian colleagues in the Senate, who tried to block Kern’s resolution that called for investigations into the mines and their owners. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “Senators Goff and Chilton of West Virginia bitterly resisted the adoption of the Kern resolution today and a verbal duel took place in the Senate chamber which was little short of sensational.” The men from West Virginia were no match for the Senate Majority Leader, however, and on May 27, 1913, the Senate adopted Kern’s resolution and a “broad investigation” was opened in the Senate on the conditions of the coal mines in West Virginia, the Indianapolis News reported. Three days earlier, on May 24, Mother Jones was released from jail, according to the Appeal to Reason.

Indianapolis News, May 28, 1913. Newspapers.com.

Three years after the events in West Virginia, in her speech at the UMWA convention on January 20, 1916, she applauded Kern for his efforts to help her get out of jail. “I presume I would still be in jail in West Virginia if Senator Kern had not taken the matter up,” she declared to the delegates, adding “I want to say to you that every working man in the nation owes a debt to Senator Kern.” She then campaigned vigorously for Kern’s reelection to the Senate and Wilson’s reelection to the presidency. in 1916, stumping in front of 10,000 people in Evansville at the annual Labor Day picnic. As historian Elliott J. Gorn wrote of her Evansville speech, “she declared her socialist beliefs but endorsed Woodrow Wilson for reelection, saying, ‘Socialism is a long way off; I want something right now!’” She also called for a six-hour workday, declaring, “With modern machinery all the work of the world could be done in six hours a day. . . . The worker would have time to improve his mind and body.” Regarding Kern and his efforts to get her out of jail in 1913, Jones said “the miners owe Senator Kern a debt which they can never repay.” Even though Jones campaigned for Kern hard, he lost reelection in 1916 and retired from politics due to ill-health.

Evansville Press, September 4, 1916. Newspapers.com.

Impacts

On November 30, 1930, Mary “Mother” Jones died at the age of 92 or 93 (despite her claim that she was 100) at her home in Silver Springs, Maryland. Indiana newspapers published Numerous obituaries and tributes. William Green, the head of the American Federation of Labor, said in the Indianapolis Times, “in the death of Mother Jones a unique and picturesque figure has been removed from the ranks of labor . . . . The loss sustained cannot be measured and the services rendered will never be surpassed or excelled.” As Bruce Catton wrote for the Evansville Press, “the workingman these days get a far better break than he did when Mother Jones first entered the arena; and a part of this improvement, at least, is due to Mother Jones herself.” As she requested in 1928, Jones was buried at the United Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, next to miners who gave their lives to the cause of labor. The Indianapolis Times described her funeral train’s procession into Mt. Olive: “A crowd of almost five thousand persons, many of them miners, stood silently Thursday night as the body of Mother Jones was taken from a train which had brought it from Washington. . . . All along the route from the east homage was paid at every stop to the memory of Mother Jones. Miners in many towns placed wreaths upon her coffin.”

Evansville Press, December 1, 1930. Newspapers.com.

John W. Kern died of tuberculosis on August 17, 1917 at a sanitarium in North Carolina. As biographer Peter J. Sehlinger wrote, Kern “died while working on a Labor Day speech he was preparing for delivery in Indianapolis.” Even to the very end, he organized for labor causes. Tributes to the fallen senator poured in from friends and colleagues. Claude Bowers, his personal secretary and future U.S. Ambassador to Chile, said to the Indianapolis News, “Senator Kern sacrificed his life in the service of his country, and when the history of the first of President Wilson’s administration is written and the inner facts are disclosed the greatness of the man will be established.” Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich also said to the News, “As a statesman he was close to the people and ever sought to represent the best interests of his constituents as he saw them. His death is a loss to the entire state and nation.” William Jennings Bryan, who selected Kern as his running mate for the presidency in 1908, said of the senator, “I never knew a man who had my confidence more completely nor my affection more fully than did this, my departed friend.” He was laid to rest at the family homestead in Hollins, Virginia.

Indianapolis News – August 18, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The political partnership between Mother Jones and John W. Kern represented two sides of the democratic coin, with Jones the rabble-rousing labor organizer who worked from the bottom up and Kern the Senate majority leader pushing for reform from the top down. Each had a vital role to play in the Progressive Era, a time of massive social, political, and economic change, and their pairing represented a real shift in attitudes regarding organized labor and labor organizers. Mother Jones understood and reflected on this years later in her autobiography, saying of Kern (whom she mistakenly refers to as “Kearns”):

The working men had much to thank Senator Kearns [sic] for. He was a great man, standing for justice and the square deal. Yet, to the shame of the workers of Indiana, when he came up for re-election they elected a man named Watson, a deadly foe of progress. [The man who defeated Kern was Republican Harry New, not a man named Watson.] I felt his defeat keenly, felt the ingratitude of the workers. It was through his influence that prison doors had opened, that unspeakable conditions were brought to light. I have felt that the disappointment of his defeat brought on his illness and ended the brave, heroic life of one of labor’s few friends.

Kern’s friendship with labor represented his long-held view of democracy, which stemmed from a Jeffersonian antipathy towards wealth, position, and privilege. He deeply believed that Americans were better off, and capitalism was better off, when the balance between capital and labor was more equal. In his alliance with Mother Jones and organized labor, John W. Kern embodied his own commitment to a freer and more equitable society.

“We Like to See You Smile:” The Story of Hook’s Drug Stores

 

Terre Haute Tribune, November 6, 1958. Newspapers.com.

This splashy 1958 advertisement printed in the pages of the Terre Haute Tribune speaks to public health issues that remain relevant today, as shown by philanthropic entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s new Cost Plus Drugs company. When John A Hook established his first drug store in 1900, he “felt a need for a drugstore to fill the medical needs of his community at fair prices, [and] he put his integrity into the filling of his prescriptions.” Over five decades later, as John Hook’s small chain of stores expanded into a statewide brand, the company’s commitment to “filling the medical needs of the community” never wavered. In addition to offering affordable health care, the company advanced racial equality and worked to prevent drug abuse, proving that Hook’s was more than just a pharmacy.

Origins

While Hook’s was a state-wide brand by the 1950s, its beginnings in the German American community of Indianapolis were far humbler. John August Hook was born on December 17, 1880, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents, August J. Hook and Margaret Hook, were both German immigrants who came to the United States in 1869, looking for a better life. His father was a beer brewer, who first laid down roots in Cincinnati before moving the family to Indianapolis by 1891. At the age of 19, John A. Hook knew exactly what his profession would be—pharmaceuticals. He graduated from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy on June 9, 1900, the Indianapolis News reported. There, he earned three medals for his academic work, including “a gold medal for highest general average, a gold medal for highest materia medica, and silver medal for chemistry.” As a wunderkind of pharmacological science, Hook was eager to start serving his adopted community of Indianapolis.

John A. Hook in 1926. Indiana Album.

Shortly after graduating, Hook purchased a “Deutsche Apotheke” at 1101 South East Street from Louis Mattill, according to the Indiana Tribüne. Mattill had established the apothecary with his brother John as early as 1890 and nine years later John A. Hook bought out the company. As the son of German immigrants, Hook saw it as vital that he serve that community, which had greatly expanded in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, a part of the over 19,000 immigrants in the city by 1890.

Indianapolis Times, October 24, 1940. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While formative years at South East Street were successful, it wasn’t until he partnered with the enterprising Edward F. Roesch, who he hired in 1905 to manage a second store, that Hook’s business spread across Indianapolis.

Edward F. Roesch. Newspapers.com.

The Early Years

Within 20 years, Hook and Roesch grew their drug store chain to over fourteen locations, and by the end of the 1920s, to forty-one. One essential component of this growth was prioritizing the design of new stores. It was here that Hook and Roesch partnered up with another legendary Indianapolis business, the architectural firm of Vonnegut, Bohn, & Mueller. Architects Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. (the father of acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.), Arthur Bohn, and Otto N. Mueller designed numerous drug stores for the company, either with completely new buildings or remodels of buildings that Hook’s Drugs previously purchased.

Hook’s Drugs at the Occidental Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1929. Indiana Album.

This partnership started as early as 1920, when Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller redesigned a saloon into a Hook’s drug store at Washington and Senate in Indianapolis. The next year, the firm remodeled a former storeroom at Pennsylvania and Washington.

Hook’s Drug Store in Illinois Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1935. Indiana Album.

Despite the upheaval of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Hook’s continued to expand, with the help of Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller. The Indianapolis Star reported on April 15, 1935 that the architectural firm was “making alterations to the new Hook drug store at the southeast corner of Illinois and Ohio streets. In addition, this company is preparing plans for alterations to the Hook Drug Company store to be located at the northwest corner of Illinois and Market streets.” The Star in its October 24, 1937 edition ran an extensive article on Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller’s plans for a Hook drug store in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis. “Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller are the architects and have given every thought and consideration to the comfort of the customer,” wrote the Star, “such as soundproof ceiling, lighting, and attractive floor design.” In 1939, Hook’s commissioned Vonnegut & Bohn to a store at the northwest corner of Meridian and 22nd Street, which John Hook told the Times would be “one of our most outstanding stores and will be the last word in store design and equipment.” The thriving partnership between Hook’s and Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller lasted for nearly 20 years, with the latter’s innovative and attractive designs aiding the growth of the drug store chain.

Astounding Growth

With John Hook’s death in 1943 and Edward F. Roesch’s subsequent death in a car accident, their sons, August F. “Bud” Hook and Edward J. F. Roesch, took over the family business, as president and vice president, respectively. Their combined leadership led to a profound expansion of the business. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “under the joint leadership of the two men the chain grew from an Indianapolis operation to a state-wide chain of stores.” In 1958, Hook’s operated 50-plus stores throughout Indiana with more than 1,000 employees. The company expanded its stores to “80 communities” by 1973, according to the Nappanee Advance-News.

August F. “Bud” Hook, President of Hook Drugs, Inc., 1964. Indiana Memory.

This growth was not without its controversies. The employees of the Hook’s store in the Marwood neighborhood of Indianapolis ran a paid editorial in the Jewish Post on January 16, 1976, criticizing the company’s labor practices and its attempts to block unionization efforts. One hundred and fifty salesclerks of Hook’s “mann[ed] picket lines at many of the stores throughout Marion and Johnson Counties,” the editorial noted. It alleged that workers voted to be represented by the Retail Clerk’s Union-Local 725, and despite this vote’s certification by the local labor board, Hook’s “ignored this vote and refused to bargain” with them. It also accused Hook’s of hiring replacement labor and launching a public relations campaign against the strikers. The editorial declared “We ask that we be treated fairly and with respect by the Hook’s Drug Company . . . and that negotiations in good faith begin at once.” It is unclear whether the unionization effort was successful.

Hook’s Drugs at the Project A Shopping Center, Indianapolis, c. 1960. Indiana Memory.

Despite these issues, Hook’s established itself by 1982 as one of the nation’s oldest chain drug store corporations, ranking 14th nationally in number of sales units and exceeding $260 million annually. The Illinoisan also noted that 30% of the firm’s business came from the prescription department, which was “nearly twice the national average.” With over 260 stores in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (its expansion outside of Indiana a result of the merger with SupeRx in 1986), Hook’s had become one of the largest drug store chains in the Midwest by the time it celebrated its 90th year of business in 1990.

A woman in front of Hook’s Drugs at New Castle Plaza, New Castle, Indiana, 1974. Wikimedia Commons.

The Innovative Community Leader

While labor disputes occurred during the company’s history, Hook’s nevertheless demonstrated a commitment to equal rights in Indianapolis. The firm desegregated its lunch counters at all locations in 1947, years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder carried coverage of Hook Drugs’ desegregation of their lunch counters, which the Indianapolis Civil Rights Committee fought tirelessly to achieve. As the Recorder noted, “committee members will continue going into various Hook’s stores in order to make certain that the new policy is put into practice.” Alongside equal access to its stores, the company promoted equal employment opportunities. In 1965, the Recorder wrote that Hook’s President Bud Hook served on a committee modeled after California’s Chamber of Commerce for Employment Opportunity. The committee’s goals included ensuring maximum employment of minority groups, improving communication “to make known employment need and opportunities,” and assisting other organizations in improving their minority employment programs.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 15, 1947. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1969, Hook’s put these recommendations into practice in Indianapolis, increasing minority management to 10%. This had a direct impact on the community, as Black manager W. Howard Bell implemented the innovative “Santa Claus Comes to the Ghetto” sales initiative, which “aimed at giving customers a chance to obtain some items at reduced cost without waiting for the after-Christmas discount.” By 1972, Bell would own four drugstores of his own. Hook’s also promoted Black staff to corporate positions. In 1973, the firm appointed Ray Crowe, acclaimed athlete, coach, and politician, to store employment supervisor in the personnel department, as noted by the Indianapolis Recorder.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 20, 1969. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, December 8, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also promoted broader public health initiatives. Starting in the late 1960s, Hook’s implemented a protected packaging program, developing a child-proof, lock-on cap and amber colored bottles that protected medicine from sunlight. Both were offered to customers at no extra charge. Hook’s advertisements in newspapers, including the Rushville Republican, Alexandria Times-Tribune, and the Indianapolis Star, attest to the “protection in packaging” program. Additionally, Hook’s provided a “poison counterdose chart” that “could prevent serious injury or even save a life should accidental poisoning occur in your home,” as printed in the Indianapolis Star.

Rushville Republican, May 20, 1969. Newspapers.com.

Alongside drug safety, Hook’s was active in drug misuse/abuse prevention and education, which is more crucial than ever as drug abuse is at epidemic levels. Pharmacists routinely spoke to community organizations and received training from the Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse Foundation and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. As the Indianapolis Star reported in 1971, “Many Hook’s pharmacists serving in stores and in administrative positions have given countless talks to schools, churches, and other social action groups” about drug abuse and its prevention.

Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1971. Newspapers.com.

In 1980, Hook’s sponsored a state-wide poison control initiative that “include[d] a $40,000 grant. . . to establish a statewide network of regional hospital emergency treatment centers to provide close at hand emergency treatment throughout the state,” as noted in the Nappanee Advance-News. The next year, Hook’s co-sponsored a 10-week “anti-drug abuse public service campaign” entitled “It Takes Guts to Say No.” Hook’s Executive Vice President Newell Hall said of the initiative to the Indianapolis Recorder, “as a corporation we are committed to providing professional prescription service to our communities and feel it is our duty to inform the public about the hazards of substance abuse.”

Nappanee Advance-News, March 26, 1980. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also distributed informative brochures to customers about symptoms of drug abuse and what parents can do if they suspect their children of abusing drugs. James M. Rogers, Hook’s vice president of public relations, told the Banner, “Our brochure offers facts and common-sense information for parents and children alike. If prevention doesn’t work, early detection is critical.” Hook’s “Parent Guide to Drug Abuse” pamphlets were available for free in all their stores.

Knightstown Banner, August 22, 1984. Newspapers.com.

While not always progressive on labor issues, Hook’s advancements of civil rights, innovative packaging programs, and drug abuse and prevention initiatives solidified the company as a trusted community leader for decades.

Hook’s Legacy

The end of Hook’s Drugs came like the end of so many businesses during the 1980s and 1990s: through corporate mergers. In 1985, Hook Drugs, Inc. merged with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, which was the “second largest supermarket chain,” according to the Nappanee Advance-News. This merger would end in 1986, when Hook’s and the SupeRx drug store chain, both owned by Kroger, split off into their own firm, Hook-SupeRx, Inc.

A Hook’s Drugs location in Indianapolis, 1990s. Indiana Historical Society.

On April 4, 1994, Revco, a drugstore chain based out of Twinsburg, Ohio, announced its plan to buy Hook-SupeRx, Inc. for an estimated $600 million. The merger was finalized in July of that year. Unfortunately, this consolidation came with job cuts and store closures.

Richmond Palladium-Item, August 24, 1994. Newspapers.com.

Less than three years later, on February 7, 1997, Rhode-Island based CVS purchased Revco at a cost at $2.8 billion, according to the Indianapolis News, and with it, phased out the use of the Hook’s brand. While the legendary name is gone, many former Hook’s locations still operate today under the CVS banner.

Indianapolis News, February 7, 1997. Newspapers.com.

Although no longer being in business, the company’s history is tangible at the Hook’s Drug Store Museum, which opened at the 1966 Indiana State Fair. Originally a three-month exhibition, it eventually became a permanent attraction. The museum recreates what a Hook’s drug store was like in the early 1900s and remains in operation today at its original location at the fairgrounds. Reflecting on its success years later, journalist Judy observed, “the Hook’s Historical Drugstore and Pharmacy Museum has become a national acclaimed tourist attraction. It has garnered many awards from both pharmaceutical and historical organizations, and millions of individuals have visited from every state and many foreign countries.”

Hook’s Historical Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Memory.

In its 90-plus years, Hook’s Drugs went from one building in Fountain Square to one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, with over 380 locations and millions in sales. While the company faltered on labor issues, Hook’s commitment to civil rights and drug abuse prevention made the brand synonymous with fairness, kindness, and the personal touch. As the collective memory of Hook’s fades, it is important to recognize its special place in the history of Indiana businesses. Also, we must remember its motto from years ago, words that rang through its many ads and embodied its ethos— “We like to see you smile!”

Myth of the Mexican Monolith: Experiences of Bracero, Migrant, and U.S. Workers of Mexican Origin at Sechler’s Pickles Inc. Part One

Immigrants have long helped to create a healthier U.S. economy. The work of respected historians and economists has repeatedly dispelled the xenophobic myth that immigrants “steal American jobs.” Instead, immigrants (both those who arrive through documented and undocumented venues) increase the earning potential for all Americans. Pia Orrenius, Vice President and Senior Economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and Fellow at the John Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, explains:

Immigration fuels the economy. When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives . . . In addition to the immigration surplus, immigrants grease the wheels of the labor market by flowing into industries and areas where there is a relative need for workers — where bottlenecks or shortages might otherwise damp growth. [1]

This was especially true of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only did they help stimulate the United States economy, but they were willing to move into areas like rural Indiana where farmers needed extra help at harvest time. And several Indiana businesses can attribute their success during the lean years of the Great Depression and the labor shortages of the Second World War to the contributions of workers of Mexican origin. [2]

Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., just outside the town of St. Joe in DeKalb County has become a successful company and nationally recognized brand over their last century of operations. In addition to the hard work, vision, and savvy of its founders, Ralph and Anne Sechler, the company attributes much of its success to the workers who helped them meet increasing demand over the years. Since the 1940s, many of these laborers have come from Mexico or have had Mexican ancestry. But within that group, there is much more diversity than newspapers and other sources have recognized. As immigration continues to diversify today, this nuance is worth understanding better. [3]

Sarah Miller, “Cool As A Cucumber at Sechler’s Pickles,” My Indiana Home, May 13, 2014, https://my-indiana-home.com/food/sechlers-pickles-preserves-tradition/

Some of these workers were U.S. citizens whose parents were born in Mexico, such as Carmen (Morales) Ortiz, who was born in Kansas. Some were born in Mexico and became U.S. citizens through naturalization, including Carmen’s husband Floyd Ortiz, who was a U.S. citizen for decades before starting at Sechler’s. Others, including Aurelio Rivera, were Mexican citizens who came to Indiana at the behest of the U.S. government via the Bracero Program to help meet increased wartime food production demands. And still others, such as Rosalio and Paula Luna, were migrant workers, travelling with the harvests through the Midwest, sometimes returning to Mexico to help family there.  Despite their varied backgrounds, contemporary sources, especially newspapers, often treated these individuals as a monolith. Thus, it can be difficult to record an accurate history of workers of Mexican origin and their experiences in Indiana. An exploration of this Hoosier pickle company, however, provides a glimpse into workers lives in a way that adds richness to the story of our state.

This post, the first of two, will look at the experiences of two U.S. citizens of Mexican origin at Sechler’s Pickles, Carmen and Floyd Ortiz. Notably, this study suffers from a lack of sources created by the Ortizes themselves. To address this hole in the record, I have juxtaposed newspapers, government records, contextual sources, and family and corporate histories. In doing so, this post also serves as a lesson in the importance of comparing sources created from different perspectives and how that creates more accurate history. This balance is especially important in telling the history of marginalized groups. Personal stories of the Ortizes and vital records, such as census and immigration papers, help to counter biased newspaper accounts given by Indiana newspapers. The rhetoric of these newspapers also provides insight into Hoosier opinions on immigration and how perspectives about Mexican immigrants changed depending on external forces such as the Great Depression and WWII. And finally, this concentrated study reinforces the fact that many immigrants arrived here because Hoosier farmers and the U.S. government asked them to, establishing the migration patterns that continue to shape the state and nation. The stories of the workers and their families at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., are part of the story of Indiana and a diversifying United States. Additionally, this story of how Sechlers got started, how the Ortizes arrived at Sechler’s Pickeles, and how these families formed a relationship that would last for generations is in interesting look into the lesser-explored agricultural history of the state.

Sechler’s Pickles

Ralph E. Sechler was born in 1894 in St. Joe, DeKalb County. He attended St. Joe and then Butler High School, graduating circa 1912. He taught at a local high school for three years and worked summers at a “pickle receiving and salting station in St. Joe” ran by the D.M. Sears Company of Fort Wayne. In 1915, he entered Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute where he thrived. He played basketball, managed the track team, and served as secretary of the Daedalian Literary Society through which he participated in debates and delivered speeches. [4]

Indiana State Normal School, Program of Commencement Week, Terre Haute, Indiana, 1916, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com.

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Ralph registered with the U.S. Army. When his name came up for service, he was one of only eighteen (out of 781 names) who did not attempt to claim an exemption. Before he left home for the war, he married Anna Florence Martindale, a Greenfield native two years his senior. [3]

Greenfield High School, The Elevenite, 1911, 18, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com.

Anna was just as sharp as Ralph and worked as a teacher at Seymour High School during her new husband’s absence. In September 1917, Ralph left for Camp Taylor in Louisville. His superiors quickly noticed his intelligence and aptitude for teaching. In October, the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that “Ralph Sechler, another St. Joe boy, is still at Camp Taylor, engaged four nights in the week teaching night school for the benefit of Uncle Sam’s boys who have not learned to read and write.” [4] He was commissioned Second Lieutenant but did not serve overseas because of the Army’s need for competent teachers at the officer’s training camp.

“Ralph Sechler,” Registration Card, DeKalb County, Indiana, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com

After his discharge from the Army in 1919, he went back to work for the D.M. Sears Company and was soon put in charge of approximately a dozen “receiving stations,” where farmers brought their produce to be processed. Between 1920 and 1923, he transitioned from managing these stations to leasing them and securing his own contracts with local cucumber growers. Soon Ralph and Anne Sechler had established their own pickle processing business at their home and farm just north of St. Joe. By 1925, local grocery stores carried “St. Joe Valley” pickles and by 1930, they were popular in local restaurants as well. [5]

Ralph and Anna Sechler Home, St. Joe, DeKalb County, Indiana, photograph, accessed “Touring the Sechler’s Pickle Factory,” Midwest Wanderer, October 25, 2016, https://midwestwanderer.com/sechlers-pickles/

The Sechlers employed creative strategies to stay afloat during the Great Depression. As one would expect, they worked with local cucumber growers, processing this produce into pickles. But they also worked with Chicago processors, purchasing goods to resell to Hoosier grocery stores and restaurants, and thus besting other businesses with the variety they could offer. They also brought barrels of pickles to homebound locals who would jar the goods. These neighbors worked for low wages, but also received income they would otherwise have not been able to access. [6]

South Bend Tribune, July 31, 1925, 30, Newspapers.com

Around 1933, Ralph and Anne turned their barn into a pickle processing factory and a driver began making deliveries to businesses in a new truck marked “St. Joe Valley Pickles.” In 1937, the Sechlers made major improvements to the processing facility, hooking up a steam engine to the threshing machines and pickling tanks and increasing production. Early on a late October morning in 1937, the Sechlers’ pickle processing center, which they had built in their barn, burned down. By the following Monday, workers were already building a new, larger facility. This larger facility helped the company grow; the following year, the company also purchased more delivery trucks. [7]

Waterloo Press, October 21, 1937, 1, Newspapers.com.

Over the following decade, Sechler’s added more varieties of products. One Indiana grocery store advertised in 1944: “St. Joe Valley sweet pickles, raisin crispies, sweet relish, sweet chips, sweet mixed dills, sweet orange marmalade, jellies, Apple butter, strained honey.” Thus, by the time the U.S. increased agricultural production for the war effort and the Bracero Program was in full swing, Sechler’s Pickles was a thriving Indiana business employing a number of local growers, packers, and delivery drivers and serving stores and restaurants across the state. [8]

Tina Bobilya, “Learn How Pickles Are Made on This Free Pickle Factory Tour,” Visit Indiana, May 7, 2019, https://www.visitindiana.com/blog/post/pickle-factory-tour/.

The Ortiz Family

Floyd Ortiz was born circa 1903 to John and Isabelle Gutierez-Ortiz in Salamanca in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. [9]  While today, Salamanca is a thriving manufacturing city with a renowned university, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the area was not economically or politically stable. President Porfirio Díaz made some economic improvements, increasing the mining output of the region, but it was mainly already wealthy people who benefited. His tax breaks for the rich and “unwillingness to recognize minority rights” of the indigenous people of the region led to a revolt against the administration in 1910. [10] In 1911, a coalition led by Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza ousted President Díaz and replaced him with Francisco Madero. However, battles between federal and rebel factions continued for years, destabilizing the region and making it hard for average citizens to make a living. Floyd Ortiz, like many others from Guanajuato, likely came to the United States as “displaced refugees fleeing the political upheaval and violence” of the 1910 revolution.[11]

Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929; NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85; Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration., accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

In 1919, Floyd Ortiz arrived in the United States at Laredo, Texas, where he received documentation for “lawful entry” into the country. He was just 16 years old. [12] Within four years, in 1923, Ortiz became a naturalized U.S. citizen. [13] Just one year later, the U.S. shut the door to refugees with the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), the result of xenophobic ideas and no small amount of lobbying by the Ku Klux Klan. And while Mexican immigration was exempted from this exclusionary immigration act – for reasons we’ll examine further in part two – Mexican immigrants were not exempt from prejudices of pseudoscientific thinking influenced by eugenics and general racism and bigotry. They often endured low wages, poor living conditions, and hard labor to make a life in the United States. [14]

Marjory Collins, “Mexican Agricultural Laborer Topping Sugar Beets,” photograph, 1944, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/resource/fsa.8d29109/.

Carmen Morales was born circa 1908 in Kansas to parents of Mexican origin. Throughout her life, newspapers and even official government sources recorded her as “Mexican,” despite the fact that she was a native born U.S. citizen. We don’t know much about her family’s path to Indiana, but by the mid-1920s Carmen was “employed in beet work” in central Indiana and her mother and step father were living in northwest Indiana. [15] Perhaps she met Floyd Ortiz through work because he was also working the beet harvests in Tipton and Madison Counties. Or perhaps they met through family, friends, or church events, as later records show they were both devout Catholics.

Tipton Daily Tribune, December 28, 1927, 6, Newspapers.com

In 1927, Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, got married at the county clerk’s office in Tipton, Indiana. We’re lucky to have local newspaper coverage to supply some details of the day. However, the reporter for the Tipton Daily Tribune treated the event not as a wedding between two U.S. citizens living in Indiana but as an oddity, exaggerating the “foreignness” of the couple. The newspaper’s account of this “out of the ordinary” wedding focused on the Mexican heritage of the couple and their parents. [16]

The Tipton Daily Tribune called Floyd a “native born Mexican” and described Carmen as “full blooded Mexican, but who was born in the state of Kansas.” In other words, while Carmen was a United States citizen, the newspaper reporter still considered her Mexican. Despite Floyd’s almost ten years in the United States and his 1923 naturalization, and despite Carmen’s status as a native-born U.S. citizen, the 1927 newspaper article could only see their race and that construct made them Mexican and not American. The reporter further underscored the couple’s “foreignness” by detailing that their parents were both from Mexico. While both sets of parents were indeed born in Mexico, they were also Hoosiers by this point. The groom’s parents lived in Geneva, Indiana, and the bride’s mother and stepfather lived in Francisville, Indiana. Further research would be needed to determine if the parents were naturalized citizens, but it is likely they had also been in the United States for some time considering Carmen’s stepfather went by “John” as opposed to a “Juan” or another Spanish name. Without considering the citizenship information offered by the census and immigration agencies, one would come away from reading the newspaper article believing that two “Mexicans Married” as opposed to two U.S. citizens with families of Mexican origin. This theme of juxtaposing sources will continue to be important as we dig deeper into the story of workers of Mexican origin at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc. [17]

Why is it important to clarify that Floyd and Carmen are U.S. citizens? Because at the time, and even today, many treat all workers of Mexican origin as a monolith, usually assuming that they are Mexican citizens and migrant workers coming to the U.S. to make money at harvest time and then return to Mexico. This is, in fact, an assumption that allowed Mexico to avoid immigration restrictions that impacted other groups in the 1920s. However, Mexican immigrants and migrants of Mexican origin are not a monolithic group; there are a range of reasons people left Mexico and either returned home or stayed in the United States to brave the road to citizenship. Every Hoosier has their own family immigration story, creating a rich and diverse state history. Families of Mexican origin are not different. The array of migration experiences is as diverse as Hoosiers of Potawatomi, German, African, or Serbian heritage.

“Weeding Sugar Beet Fields Near Brighton,” photograph, 1959, Denver Public Library Special Collections, accessed Digital Public Library of America.

The Ortiz Family at Sechler’s Pickles

After Floyd and Carmen worked the beet harvests in Tipton and Madison Counties and got married in Adams County, Indiana, they moved to Paulding County, Ohio. The 1930 census listed Floyd as a “beet worker” here as well, while listing Carmen’s occupation as “none,” likely because she had recently given birth to their first daughter, Mary. Their family grew quickly and by 1940, the census reported that Floyd and Carmen were the parents of eight children. Times must have been very difficult; though the census reported that both Floyd and Carmen were beet workers, Floyd had been out of work for unknown reasons for thirty weeks. [18]

“Mexican Laborers Weed Sugar Beet Field,” photograph, 1943, Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, https://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/mexican-laborers-weed-sugar-beet-field..

By 1944, however, Floyd was at work at the Paulding Sugar Beet Co. The company contacted Sechler’s Pickles about growing and processing beets for them and offered to send “a real good family,” as well as housing for them, in exchange for Sechler’s help with production. The Ortizes and the Sechlers accepted the arrangement. By this point, Floyd and Carmen had fourteen children and they moved the family to DeKalb County. Floyd and several of the children went to work for Sechler’s. The younger children worked in the field picking produce and then, after they turned sixteen, they worked in the processing factory. [19]

We don’t know too much about their life in DeKalb County except that they were able to take care of their family and save money, as eventually they purchased their own 80-acre farm just east of St. Joe on the Ohio border. Frank Sechler, son of Ralph and manager of the company by this point, speculated that the Ortizes picked the location because of it’s proximity to their church. Frank recalled Floyd’s devout faith:

I seldom walked up to Floyd in the field but what he didn’t reach in his pocket and pull out a stone he had just found, which would have a figure of Christ, a cross, or some other religious item on it. Sometimes I had a little trouble discerning it, but he would convince me!!!  [20]

By the 1960s, Floyd and Carmen Ortiz were living in Hicksville, Ohio where Floyd died in 1973. Several family members, including daughter Dorothy Chew, daughter-in-law Betty Ortiz, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren continued the Ortiz family connection with Sechler’s, working in the fields and factory. [21] In fact, the Ortiz family helped to fund the state historical marker for Sechler’s Pickles that will be installed this fall 2022. The text will read:

Ralph and Anne Sechler  established Sechler’s Pickles (first named St. Joe Valley)  on their homestead here in the 1920s.  Despite the Great Depression, they grew the business, selling many varieties of pickles to local restaurants  and building a larger processing facility in 1937.  By the early 1950s, grocery stores across Indiana and Ohio carried Sechler’s Pickles.

Workers of Mexican origin, including Braceros who arrived in the 1940s to aid the U.S. war effort, were essential to the Sechlers’ success.  Several of these families remained with the company for decades.  A network of salesmen, mail orders, church fundraisers, and partnerships with well-known companies made Sechler’s Pickles a respected and nationally recognized brand. [22]

Tina Bobilya, “Learn How Pickles Are Made on This Free Pickle Factory Tour,” Visit Indiana, May 7, 2019, https://www.visitindiana.com/blog/post/pickle-factory-tour/.

In addition to the Ortizes, Sechler’s Pickles, Inc. also employed Mexican migrant workers and dozens of Braceros. The experiences of workers who were Mexican citizens in Indiana were much different than that of the Ortiz family’s experiences as U.S. citizens. In Part Two of this post, we’ll examine the work and lives of Mexican migrant and Bracero workers at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., their reception by their Hoosier neighbors, and how they were portrayed in Indiana newspapers. Check back for:

“Rancho Allegre:” Experiences of Bracero, Migrant, and U.S. Workers of Mexican Origin at Sechler’s Pickles Inc. Part Two.

Notes

Newspaper articles accessed Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] Pia Orrenius, “Benefits of Immigration Outweigh the Costs,” The Catalyst, Spring 2016, Issue 2, George W. Bush Institute, https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/north-american-century/benefits-of-immigration-outweigh-costs.html.
[2] Ibid.; Jorge Durand, Douglas S. Massey, and Emilio A. Parrado, “The New Era of Mexican Migration to the United States,” Rethinking History and the Nation State: Mexico and the United States, A Special Issue of the Journal of American History 86, No. 2 (September 1999): 518-536, accessed Organization of American Historians.
[3] Frank Sechler, History of Sechler Pickles, 1921-1996, Willennar Genealogy Center, Eckhart Public Library, copy in marker file. According to the corporate history written by founder Ralph Sechler’s son Frank Sechler, “Hispanics were very much a part of our operations, both in the field and in the plant.” This source is consulted throughout the post and compared with the other sources listed in the notes below.
[4] Ralph E. Sechler, Medical Certificate of Death, Indiana State Board of Health, December 12, 1962, Indiana Archives and Records Administration, Roll 19, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Grave of Ralph E. Sechler [photograph], Riverside Cemetery, Saint Joe, DeKalb County, Indiana, accessed Find-A-Grave; Butler High School Yearbook, 1912, p. 16, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Juniors and Sophs Wine in Normal Series,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, November 13, 1915, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Edgar L. Morphet, “Freshies Finish Last,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute], December 2, 1915, 11, Hoosier State Chronicles; Indiana State Normal School, Program of Commencement Week, Terre Haute, Indiana, 1916, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com; “Literary Society Meets,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute], October 4, 1916, 12, Hoosier State Chronicles; “State Normal Presents Baseball Players with Letters,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute}, June 11, 1917, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[5] “Ralph Sechler,” Registration Card, DeKalb County, Indiana, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “DeKalb County Fails to Get Quota of Eighty-Eight,” Fort Wayne News, August 9, 1917, 1; “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 14, 1917, 11.
[6] “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Daily News, September 20, 1917, 11; “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 29, 1917, 3; “Will Visit Camp Taylor,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 26, 1918, 11; “Newsy Paragraphs,” (Seymour) Tribune, September 12, 1918, 3; “Newsy Paragraphs,” (Seymour) Tribune, June 10, 1919, 8.
[7] “St. Joe News,” March 11, 1920, newspaper clipping, in Frank Sechler, History of Sechler Pickles, 1921-1996, 3, Willennar Genealogy Center, Eckhart Public Library, copy in marker file; Fort Wayne City and Allen County Directory, 1922 (Fort Wayne: R. L. Polk & Co. Publishers), 924, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Local and General,” Waterloo Press (DeKalb Co.), August 30, 1923, 5; Advertisement, South Bend Tribune, July 31, 1925, 30; Garrett Clipper, October 4, 1926, 7; Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Concord, De Kalb, Indiana; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0003, FHL microfilm: 2340320, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Advertisement, South Bend Tribune, May 23, 1930, 36; Sechler, 4.
[8] Sechler, 10-11.
[9] “Thousands See Great Parade at County Fair,” Garrett Clipper, October 8, 1934, 2; “Pickle Plant at St. Joe Consumed,” Waterloo Press, October 21, 1937, 1; “Personal,” Garrett Clipper, November 1, 1937, 2; Sechler, 11-12.
[10] Advertisement, Daily Reporter (Greenfield), May 12, 1944, 5.
[11] Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929, NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85, Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, Marriage Registration, August 27, 1903, Tipton, Indiana, 88, Indiana Marriages 1810-2001, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[12] Victor Garcia and Laura Gonzalez Martinez, “Guanajuatense and Other Mexican Immigrants in the United States: New Communities in Non-Metropolitan and Agricultural Regions,” JSRI Research Report #47, Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 1999, accessed https://jsri.msu.edu/upload/working-papers/wp47.pdf.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929, NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85, Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[15] Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Jackson Township, Paulding County, Ohio, Page: 6B, Enumeration District: 0018, FHL microfilm: 2341594, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “Braceros in the Corn Belt Part Two: Ambassadors of Goodwill,” Indiana History Blog, March 13, 2019, https://blog.history.in.gov/braceros-in-the-corn-belt-part-two/.
[17] Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, Marriage Registration, August 27, 1903, Tipton, Indiana, 88, Indiana Marriages 1810-2001, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Mexicans Married,” Tipton Daily Tribune, December 28, 1927, 6.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Jackson Township, Paulding County, Ohio, Page: 6B, Enumeration District: 0018, FHL microfilm: 2341594, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[20] Ibid; Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Blackcreek Township, Mercer County, Ohio, Page: 11A, Enumeration District: 54-1, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[21] Sechler, 26.
[22] Ibid.
[23] “Former Decatur Resident Dies,” Decatur Daily Democrat, October 8, 1973, 1.
[24] Learn more about the Indiana Historical Bureau and the state historical marker program: in.gov/history.

 

Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attending Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Royal Lunch

Moy Kee was undoubtedly “One of the happiest persons in Indianapolis,” according to The Indianapolis News on May 26, 1904. It appears he was also one of the busiest. Moy Kee and his wife, Chin Fung, were preparing to host royalty. Chinese Prince Pu Lun, rumored heir to the Qing Dynasty imperial throne, was visiting America and agreed to have lunch at Moy Kee’s chop suey restaurant in Indianapolis before he departed from the city. According to news reports, Moy Kee’s house was “thrown into raptures over the honor,” as he, his wife, and servants frantically cleaned the restaurant, prepared their best ingredients, and laid out the finest decorations they had for the prince.

On May 27 at 1 o’clock the prince, Indianapolis Mayor John Holtzman, business tycoon and future Senator William Fortune, esteemed poet James Whitcomb Riley, and other notable guests bore witness to Moy Kee’s late night labors. Outside of the restaurant, traditional Chinese lamps were strung with brightly colored ribbons. The American and Chinese flag flew side by side. A May 28 Indianapolis News article described the interior of the building as:

Oriental rugs were spread from the street to a teakwood table, where were placed two beautiful inlaid chairs covered with crimson satin draperies. The carved table stood on beautiful rugs, and upon it were placed burning incense, chop suey, and Chinese wine.

The first course consisted of the restaurant’s signature chop suey paired with American beer. Ice cream and tea were served for the second course, and the luncheon ended with traditional Chinese wine. Upon departing, Chin Fung presented the prince with a hand-knitted scarf and Moy Kee gifted him a bouquet of flowers. The prince gave the Moy family a silk scarf bearing his name and, upon leaving, informed Moy Kee that he would elevate him to Mandarin of the Fifth Rank, a prestigious Chinese status that would allow Moy to entertain and be entertained by royalty, wear special regalia, and hold a certificate denoting his prestige. This honor was monumental for a Chinese immigrant like Moy and a status that many of the wealthiest men in China failed to achieve.

As discussed in part one of this series, Moy Kee was granted an American citizenship in 1897 and then rose to prominence in Indianapolis by becoming the unofficial leader for the small Chinese community in the city. Part two follows the rest of Moy’s life as he entertained Prince Pu Lun, achieved even more wealth and status in both China and America, and then struggled to retain that prominence later in life.

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attend Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Prince Pu Lun and the St. Louis World Exposition

During the early 1900s the Qing dynasty’s isolationist policies started thawing, and the nation began entering foreign affairs. This new administrative goal was evident when the government opted to not only participate in the St. Louis World’s Fair (China had declined to participate in the Chicago World Fair eleven years prior) but to appoint the nephew of the emperor, Prince Pu Lun, as the official fair commissioner. Pu Lun’s visit generated positive media coverage that helped warm American attitudes towards the Chinese. Domestically, Americans were fearful of “The Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants, whom many believed were impossible to assimilate into “The American Melting Pot.” Some accused the Chinese of flooding the labor market and stealing jobs from white Americans. Abroad, Americans believed the Chinese Empire was backwards and culturally stagnant. Rising racist attitudes towards the Chinese culminated in President Chester A. Arthur signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The Chinese Pavilion [large pagoda], Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Mo., circa 1904, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Twenty-two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, China sought to dispel these stereotypes at the World Fair and built one of the most lavish exhibits in the entire event. The government spent a reported $500,000 (approximately $14.5 million by today’s standards) on their pavilion, with its highlight being a near exact replication of Prince Pu Lun’s summer palace. This visit expanded beyond St. Louis, and during his travels the prince visited several countries and American states, including Indianapolis. While visiting, the prince strengthened Chinese diplomatic relations and learned about other systems of government, education, technology, and culture. He would bring this newfound knowledge back to China to improve their own institutions. In America, he also reviewed the welfare of Chinese immigrants and success of Chinese business. The prince may have even forged business relations between China and successful merchants like Moy Kee.

Prince Pu Lun in Indianapolis

Prince Pu Lun arrived at Union Station in Indianapolis on May 18 for a ten-day tour of the Hoosier State. His schedule moved at a breakneck pace, with the press breathlessly reporting on his every move. Some highlights of the visit include the prince visiting the Columbia Club, meeting James Whitcomb Riley, touring Purdue University, and attending a commencement at May Wright Sewall’s Classical School for Girls.  Moy Kee had been anticipating Pu Lun’s visit for months now and tried to be as involved as possible. He was among the crowd of Chinese gathered to welcome the prince at Union Station. Afterwards, Moy attended a welcome reception held at the Statehouse where he presented the prince with a bouquet. Moy Kee and Chin Fung again met with the prince two days later, this time at the Local Council of Women’s reception. Technically, only Chin Fung was invited to this reception, but Moy Kee insisted on going, stating his wife needed an “escort.” Afterwards, Moy was granted a short audience with the Pu Lun at his hotel. While the specifics of the meeting were not discussed, the prince was likely interested in seeing how Moy Kee and other immigrants were faring in Indianapolis and may have developed a business relationship with Moy Kee.

The next few days there seems to have been little interaction between Moy and Prince Pu Lun as he traveled to Lafayette to tour the campus of Purdue University. During that time, Moy lobbied for the opportunity to host Prince Pu Lun one last time before his departure. He begged William Fortune that the prince grant him one more audience and “that he might stay for five minutes, a minute, or the least fraction of a minute.”  Upon hearing the request, the prince decided to not only call upon Moy but to visit his chop suey restaurant and lunch with the Moy family.

The lunch was brief but pleasant and provided Moy with a critical opportunity to leave a lasting impression on Prince Pu Lun and his Hoosier hosts. The three-course meal combined American cuisine such as ice cream and beer with traditional Chinese chop suey and freshly brewed tea. This interesting fusion of food and drink reflected Moy’s unique background as both a Chinese and American citizen and ensured all the guests received a dish or drink that they enjoyed. When the Prince recommended Moy Kee for the fifth rank, it seems that Moy was genuinely surprised and delighted. He profusely thanked the prince for the honor and bowed multiple times to show his appreciation. After exchanging gifts and pleasantries, Prince Pu Lun departed the restaurant. He climbed the Soldiers and Sailors monument and said his goodbyes to his hosts Mayor Holtzman and William Fortune before traveling to Union Station and departing for Buffalo, New York.

Moy Kee with wife Chin Fung and two toddlers (possibly grandchildren), courtesy of The Indiana Album.
Moy Kee is Named Mayor of Indianapolis’s Chinatown

While the prince’s visit lasted only ten days, it had a great impact on the Indianapolis’ Chinese community and Moy Kee. On the prince’s return trip from New York, he briefly stopped at Union Station. Moy Kee waited for his arrival and presented him with a handcrafted emblem he had commissioned as a thank you for granting him an audience. The emblem was a jeweled American flag with a Chinese dragon styled on its face. In the dragons’ fangs, it held a three-carat diamond. All in all, the emblem was rumored to cost 700 dollars, the equivalent of nearly $20,000 today. Newspapers reported that the prince and Moy chatted like “old friends” at the station. According to the Indianapolis News, in late July, Prince Pu Lun fulfilled his promise of elevating Moy Kee to fifth rank. Moy received a blue-bordered certificate embossed with the imperial seal that read:

This is to certify that, by the order of his imperial highness, Prince Pu Lun, Moy Kee, Indianapolis, ind., U. S. A., is hereby appointed mayor of Chinese. He is directed to attend to all the business of our people truthfully, honorably and honestly. To Moy Kee is hereby given the fifth rank and right to wear the crystal button.

The certificate is the first time Moy Kee is referred to as “Mayor” of the Chinese population in Indianapolis. While the term “Mayor of the Chinese” was an unofficial title that held no political power, the Chinese government often named a prominent leader of an immigrant community as the mayor. These leaders were expected to represent the Chinese people and act as an informal liaison between the Chinese government and American government. For the Chinese people itself, it also solidified the social hierarchy to be followed. For Moy, the title “Mayor” recognized his leadership within the American community while the fifth rank designation solidified his significance within Chinese society.

From that point onward, Moy constantly referenced his ties to Prince Pu Lun and his fifth rank designation. Later that fall, Moy attended the St. Louis Fair and spoke at the China Pavilion while publicly donning the robes and regalia that denoted him as fifth rank. At home, Moy conducted pricy home renovations and began ordering lavish items to decorate his home in a fashion that “befit his gentleman rank.” In 1906, Moy Kee traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met with Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks. He even had an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. Without a doubt, in the immediate years after Prince Pu Lun’s visit, Moy had reached the zenith of his power. He had successfully clawed his way up the social ladder of both Chinese and American society. Now, a much more difficult task presented itself to Moy Kee, retaining his hard-earned influence and social standing.

Moy Kee’s Fall from Prominence

Moy Kee once again received an imperial letter in October of 1907, but, unlike the last imperial letter Moy received, this one contained unwelcome news. It informed Moy that he had been stripped of his rank as Mandarin of the Fifth Degree and his status as the mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese had been revoked. The succinct announcement refused to elaborate on why Moy’s statuses had been rescinded and led to widespread speculation.  Moy believed fellow Chinese in Indianapolis engineered his downfall. This paranoia stemmed from his role in 1902 as an interpreter in the murder trial of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. Some accused Moy of siding with the police and courts over the Chinese community. Newspapers speculated that the revocation was caused by accusations that Moy had raised relief funds for Chinese earthquake victims but had never donated them. It may have also been a result of shifting political powers in an increasingly unstable Chinese royal dynasty, which would collapse in 1911. Regardless of the reason, Moy was unable to protest the Chinese delegation’s decision. He and his wife had already arranged to set sail for Canton, China on October 21st to visit family and friends in a year-long visit. They decided to proceed with their trip, but Moy publicly expressed his disappointment that he would not be returning to China with his fifth rank status.

A year later, in March of 1909, Moy Kee and Chin Fung returned to America. However, after landing in Tacoma, Washington Moy’s citizenship papers were not accepted, and the couple was taken into custody. The Moy family was arrested because the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese from entering the country and officers believed Moy’s citizenship papers were not legitimate. During questioning by immigration officers, Moy allegedly declared himself to be a “citizen of Indianapolis, the best city in the country.” The couple was detained for over a month in deplorable conditions. Several times, it seemed that they were going to be deported back to China. Multiple figures in the Indianapolis community vouched for the Moy family’s right to reenter and the Indianapolis Star published several scathing stories criticizing the Seattle immigration office for detaining him despite his citizenship. Finally, on April 18, Moy was released and allowed to return to Indiana where he resumed operation of his chop suey restaurant. The month they spent in detention was a bleak reminder that outside of Indianapolis, their family and other Chinese were not welcome in America.

The Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.
The Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

More trials awaited the Moy family in 1911. This time the bearer of bad news was the federal government. On August 4, Moy was informed that a petition asking for his citizenship to be revoked by the federal courts had been filed on the basis of his naturalization being awarded “wrongfully and without right,” fourteen years prior. According to an August 5 Indianapolis Star when Moy heard this news in his restaurant, he:

Dropped a dish which he had had in his hand and stared for several moments in silence. A look of anguish clouded his customarily smiling countenance. It was one of the saddest moments of his life. It was with difficulty that he spoke. ‘It’s no use to buck Uncle Sam… I’ll not fight it. If they don’t want me to be an American… it’s no use to fight them- I haven’t enough money to do that, even if I wanted to. It’s too bad.’ Then Moy fell silent. He would say no more.

Moy Kee was over sixty-three years old and the dogged vigor and determination to retain his citizenship, something he had lobbied tirelessly for as a young man, had faded. However, the Indianapolis community still stood by the former Chinese mayor, with local newspapers universally criticizing the investigation. Mayor Samuel L. Shank even wrote a letter to President Taft imploring him to allow Moy to retain his citizenship, calling him one of Indianapolis’s finest citizens. The letter fell on deaf ears and on October 9, 1911, Moy lost his beloved American citizenship.

The Indianapolis Star, August 5, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com.

Moy was not deported by the federal government and allowed to live and work in Indianapolis. While he was generally treated the same by Indianapolis residents, he now could no longer claim equal footing with Americans and was at constant risk for deportation. Symbolically, the federal courts had sent a message that there would be no exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act and, subsequently, that all Chinese remained unwelcome in America. For the next three years, Moy lived his life in Indianapolis much the same as he had lived before. He operated his restaurant, threw Chinese New Year parties, and remained a cornerstone of Indianapolis’ Chinese community. Newspapers noted that Moy still viewed himself as an American and outside his restaurant still hung a Chinese and an American flag, flying side by side.

In January of 1914, while eating dinner, Moy Ah Kee suffered a sudden heart attack and died on the floor of his Washington Street restaurant, the same place where he had hosted Prince Pu Lun seven years earlier. After putting the family’s affairs in order, the widowed Chin Fung set sail to China with Moy’s body, where she intended to bury him with his ancestors and live the remainder of her life. In his obituary, The Indianapolis Star recounted his life story and noted that he was one of the most prominent businessmen in the state with an estimated fortune of $25,000 (over $722,000 in today’s currency). The Star ended a two-decade partnership with the Chinese businessman by stating: “He was regarded as the prominent local source of information on questions relating to Chinese affairs and often was consulted by officials and newspaper writers of the city, among whom he had many friends.”

Conclusion
Portrait of Moy Kee and his wife, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1900, courtesy of The Indiana Album.

In 1943, twenty-six years after Moy Kee’s death, the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to signify diplomatic ties between the US and China during World War Two. However, the new immigration quota enacted allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The strict immigration quotas remained in place for Chinese until 1965, when the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended ethnic quotas. Instead, the United States began admitting immigrants based on education, employable skill, or the need for asylum. While this prevents blanket bans against entire ethnic groups or nationalities, these new admission standards create significant barriers for working-class immigrants, and American immigration policy remains hotly debated today.

This revised protocol led to an influx of highly educated and skilled Asians and, with this new population, the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” arose. This characterization of East Asians, which generalizes them as smart, affluent, and hard-working, would have been unrecognizable to Moy Kee and other Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. While on the surface this stereotype is complimentary, it is still a negative and egregious overgeneralization of a diverse ethnic group and masks the sordid history of discrimination against Chinese people by the United States. After a series of Asian hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is once again grappling with the impact of both modern and historical discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

Moy Kee’s life serves as a staunch reminder of some of those inequities and how they consumed the entirety of America, not just the bio-coastal states, for well over a century.  An entrepreneur and businessman, Moy rose to prominence socially and fiscally in a way that was unimaginable to most immigrants. His life reached its zenith when he was granted the Chinese title of the fifth rank while also maintaining dual Chinese American citizenship. However, as Moy Kee put it himself, there was no use “fighting Uncle Sam” and he was stripped of both his fifth rank and citizenship late in life, a sad reflection of America’s political and social landscape during his life.

Ultimately, Moy Kee’s life provides an insightful window into the lives of Chinese immigrants in the Indianapolis community and showcases a story of resilience and fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. As America continues to confront its tragic past and conflicted present regarding its treatment of Asian Americans and immigrants as whole, hopefully the national dialogue remembers the story of Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants who were wrongly barred entry to America and denied citizenship due to their race and the prejudiced stereotypes that were perpetuated about their people.

Moy Kee Part I: The “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community

Moy Key, courtesy of Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
A Disturbing Question

In 1901, The San Francisco Call urged the renewal of The Chinese Exclusion Act, the only legislation in American history that wholly banned the immigration of a specific ethnic group.  The Call emphatically supported this renewal stating that America ought to be doing everything in its power to “prevent the threatened invasion of Mongol hordes.” Sentiments like this were not uncommon. Racist cartoons, articles calling for Congress to defend America from the “Yellow Peril,” and state conventions or resolutions urging the renewal of the Exclusion Act were a dime a dozen in 1901. That same year, The Indianapolis News ran a very different story. This article criticized the Exclusion Act and threw its support behind Moy Kee, a Chinese immigrant and resident of Indianapolis, as he sought a federal government job, from which Chinese immigrants had been barred. The Indianapolis News noted on March 8, 1901:

Moy Jin Kee, Chinese Merchant and caterer at 211 Indiana avenue, is about to renew with the Government a disturbing question as to the effect of the Garry alien law passed by Congress . . . He has lived in this country over forty years, speaks excellent English . . . he was brought to this country from Canton when a mere child . . . Mr. Moy is an earnest seeker after appointment.

While Moy Kee never received a federal appointment, the Indianapolis community would prove to be staunch supporters of Moy Kee. The Marion County Circuit Court granted Moy his citizenship when federal law forbade it. Newspapers sold Moy ad space for his chop suey restaurant and frequently approached him for interviews. Later, when his citizenship was challenged by the federal government, Indianapolis Mayor Samuel L. Shank personally wrote a letter to President Taft defending Moy as “universally regarded as being one of the city’s best citizens.” These actions across the Indianapolis community demonstrate the level of prominence Moy Kee had attained in Indianapolis during a time when anti-Chinese attitudes in America were at an all-time high. This blog will outline the arduous path Moy traveled to obtain his American citizenship and how he used his personal assets to carve out a place in both the Chinese immigrant and Indianapolis community.

The Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Moy Kee Seeks American Citizenship

Moy Kee immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s as a young boy from Guangdong Province in China. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, his family came to America seeking work and an escape from the political turmoil plaguing China. However, rather than wishing to build wealth and return to China in calmer times like most Chinese immigrants, Moy wanted to stay in America for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he also wanted to become an American citizen. To better assimilate with his new home, Moy converted to Christianity and attained fluency in English. In 1878 he moved to New York and ran a business selling imported Chinese goods. He also became involved in Christian ministry and began proselytizing the New York Chinese community. However, Moy was accused of stealing from one of his employers and jailed. While there are no records of a trial, Moy decided to shed his tarnished reputation by seeking a fresh start in Chicago. Critically, before Moy left New York he filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, the first step of the naturalization process. This would prove to be a watershed moment in Moy’s quest for citizenship because two years later the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is notably the only legislation in American history that provides an absolute ban on immigration against a specific ethnic group. It instated a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration, enacted severe restrictions on current immigrants – now at constant risk for deportation – and effectively blocked all Chinese from American citizenship. In 1892 the Exclusion Act was renewed for another decade via the Geary Act and then in 1902 it would become permanent legislation.

The Magic Washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese Must Go, printed circa 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiments that spurred it would become a constant source of disruption and conflict in Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants’ lives. In Chicago, Moy Kee opened a Chinese tea shop and began his protracted battle for his citizenship. In the community, he helped organize the Chicago Chinese Club, a political group aimed at bettering the lives of the Chicago Chinese and protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Individually, Moy spent years lobbying the local courts, arguing that because he filed his intent to become a citizen two years before the ratification of the Exclusion Act, the law did not apply to him, and therefore he was eligible for citizenship. Year after year the Chicago courts rejected his argument and Moy remained, legally at least, a stranger in his own home.

Moy’s legal luck changed in 1897 when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, setting up a litmus test of Indiana’s proverbial “Hoosier Hospitality.” In Moy’s case at least, Hoosier Hospitality rang true and on October 18th, 1897, eighteen years after Moy had begun the naturalization process (By comparison, the naturalization process today lasts on average 12-16 months), the Marion County Court granted him his coveted American citizenship.

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

While Moy Kee may have obtained his citizenship, his work to be accepted by the Indianapolis community was far from complete. Moy settled down in Indy and eventually opened a Chop Suey and Chinese restaurant at 506 East Washington Street. A sign hung outside his restaurant advertising it as “Moy Kee & Co. Chinese Restaurant,” though the papers frequently referred to it as “Mr. Moy’s Chop Suey House.” He intentionally began inserting himself into as many community functions as possible. There are news articles of Moy hosting large Chinese New Year’s parties, playing Chinese instruments at school functions, inviting local politicians to dine at his restaurant, and selling Chinese palm readings for fifty cents. He even planned to open a Chinese language school, though his idea never came to fruition. Entrepreneurial and outgoing, it seems Moy was willing to try everything at least once.

However, as diverse his activities may have seemed they always shared one common thread. All his actions served to further integrate himself into the Indianapolis community and they all hearkened back to his Chinese roots. In this way, Moy used his heritage as a source of novelty and entertainment for the community. Rather than divorce himself from his culture to “mix in” with the great American Melting Pot, he successfully mobilized his Chinese heritage as a vehicle for his accumulation of wealth and social standing in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 25, 1900, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Compared to coastal states like Californian, Indianapolis had a small Chinese immigrant population. The 1910 Census estimates that only 273 Chinese lived in Indiana and, in Indianapolis specifically, the Indianapolis News, reported that the Chinese had a “local colony” of about 40 or so immigrants including Moy Kee. The miniscule population of Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis may have contributed to the city’s relative receptivity to the Chinese when compared to states with significant Chinese communities. Furthermore, the low population explains why Indianapolis never developed a centralized locale or “Chinatown” like New York or Chicago did. There simply were not enough Chinese to do so. Instead, the Chinese immigrants clustered around Indiana Avenue, a historic strip of downtown Indianapolis that was known primarily for housing a vibrant African American community. The decentralized nature of the Chinese community provided Moy Kee with the perfect opportunity to rise to power as the Chinese representative to the city and, in doing so, ensure his place in Indianapolis.

Moy Kee both stood for and apart from the Indianapolis Chinese community. This allowed him to rise to prominence in a fashion unfathomable for the average immigrant. For one, the census records list his wife Chin Fung as being the only Chinese woman to live in Indianapolis in the late 1890’s. Compared to other Chinese men who had to balance both work and domestic duties alone, Moy Kee’s wife helped him around the restaurant, entertaining guests and managing the house when Moy was away. Chin Fung’s extra support allowed Moy to be more experimental as he could divert attention to other tasks besides running his restaurant and house. Furthermore, as the only Chinese woman in the city, Chin Fung received attention from the news media, who described her as a graceful and poised woman and were fascinated by her traditionally bound feet, which caused a peculiar gait.

Second, Moy Kee separated himself from other Chinese in the community by owning a successful restaurant. He was wealthier than the average Hoosier and even employed his own servants to help run the household and restaurant. This contrasted with most Chinese men, who were stymied by language barriers and Sinophobia and, as a result, toiled in stagnant, low-level service industries such as laundry, cleaning, or construction. With paltry salaries that almost all were sent back to impoverished family in China, this left little wealth for the average Chinese immigrant and, as a result, they often lived hovering just above the poverty line. In contrast, Moy’s wealth allowed him to return home to China fairly frequently and keep in touch with relatives. He even was able to travel to China to marry Chin Fung before bringing her back to America. Moy’s wealth also enabled him to import several Chinese goods for his restaurant including traditional decorations, ebony wood, ivory China table sets, and unusual foods that attracted both Chinese and non-Chinese customers alike.

The Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Moy’s most valuable asset in his rise to prominence was his ability to speak fluent English. This fluency cemented him as the unofficial spokesperson of the Indianapolis Chinese community, and he took full advantage of it. He spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the local newspapers by buying ad space for his restaurant and happily providing interviews and engaging stories about his many endeavors. When reporters wanted to cover a story about the Chinese community, they contacted Moy. This working relationship was a major factor in the divergent coverage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Indianapolis compared to other cities. Most articles about Moy or the community positively portray the Chinese and avoid fear-mongering headlines about “the oriental wave,” or “yellow peril.” Indianapolis was not immune to xenophobic sentiments (Among other questionable coverage, The Indianapolis Morning Star accused Chinese royalty of visiting America to recruit American soldiers for the imperial army and The Indianapolis Journal often referred to the Chinese as “coolies”) but, compared to newspapers in California or other states, negative rhetoric was relatively muted.

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

In 1902, Moy Kee’s ambition to integrate with the Indianapolis community would put him at odds with the city’s Chinese population. In May, the small community would be rocked by the gruesome murder of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. The police immediately arrested Chin Hee, an immigrant who had just moved from Chicago and was employed by Doc Lung. This caused a major rift within the Chinese community, and they fragmented into two groups: Those who protested Chin Hee’s innocence and those who believed Chin Hee committed the murder. Moy Kee found himself in the crossfire of this rift when he began translating for the police and later grand jury and courts in the murder case. Many in the community felt that Moy Kee was betraying them by working as the government’s translator, the same institution that denied them citizenship and deported their people on a regular basis. The situation escalated to the point that Moy started receiving death threats attempting to coerce him into ending his translations for the government.

Despite the threats to his life, Moy Kee persisted, and the Grand Jury ultimately convicted three perpetrators, none of them Chinese, for the crime. The role he played in the court trial benefitted his relationships with the local government and police. He also received more media attention than he ever had before, further elevating his position in Indianapolis. However, this acceptance by local institutions came at the expense of Moy’s relationships with his fellow Chinese. Already separated from them due to his affluence and privileged status as an American citizen, working with the police led to some in community questioning whether Moy was loyal to the Chinese or the Americans. Rumors swirled and some whispered that E. Lung, the leader of the faction that defended Chin Hee, might be a better fit as the Chinese people’s representative. Subsequently, Moy would become increasingly paranoid about being ousted by the Chinese community as their unnamed leader. Later in life, when he was stripped of his high Chinese rank, he would immediately accuse fellow Chinese of engineering his social downfall.

Conclusion

By 1904, Moy Kee was undoubtedly the most prominent Chinese figure in Indianapolis and, despite a factionalized Chinese community, he was still recognized as the de facto leader. Better yet, Moy Kee had a home in Indianapolis that accepted him as both an American citizen and Hoosier. For a Chinese man to achieve this position was an incredible feat. Moy had hopscotched across the country, testified in multiple courts, accumulated a massive amount of wealth, and overcame duplicitous stereotypes to earn his citizenship and social standing. In many ways, it felt like Moy and his wife had achieved everything an immigrant to the United States could dream of.

However, no one could have predicted the actions of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900’s. A royal family infamous for their strict isolationism and rejection of Western diplomacy, they shocked the world by announcing that they would be participating in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Not only that, but they were appointing Prince Pu Lun, nephew of the emperor, as head of the Chinese fair commission. Critically for Moy, the Prince announced he would spend months before and after the fair touring America, including a ten-day visit to Indianapolis.

In the next installment, follow Prince Pu Lun’s royal visit to Indianapolis where he caused much fanfare. Additionally, we explore Moy Kee’s role in Pu Lun’s visit as he vies for an audience with the prince and eventually precipitates his “coronation” as the official Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese.

For further reading, see:

“Chinese,” The Polis Center, accessed May 2022, courtesy of IUPUI.edu.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

“Wants a Federal Place: Moy Jin Kee Raises a Disturbing Question,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | From Drifter to CEO: The Remarkable Life of Henry C. Ulen

The life of Hoosier industrialist Henry Ulen seems like a movie—a person of little education and resources who uses his raw talents and savvy to build a massive business empire, who then comes back to his hometown to share the fruits of his success. Perhaps it was his years drifting from town to town on the railroads as a young man that inspired a sense of community, of needing a place to call one’s own. As such, his business ventures were all about providing places with the tools they needed to build communities and wealth of their own. And today, over 120 people still call the town of Ulen home, with the golf course still serving as a hub that brings the community together. The life, work, and charity of Henry C. Ulen exemplified the true meaning of “Hoosier Hospitality.”

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