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.”
Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names. But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.
One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more: pearl button making.
Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from. How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats. Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.
At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels. As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers. They were large towns, too. In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.
Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River. They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls. Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.
Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900. In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas. Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush. A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:
Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . . The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats. Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement. New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities. Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.
The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants. He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.
Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati. When the Southern boom died down, the hunt for pearls came north. The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony. “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells. The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day. Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”
“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909. Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250. Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”
Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks. Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York. A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week. But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up. For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.
Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes. A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.
At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels. “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each. Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold. He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.
Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons. The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.” Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887. Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone. About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.
John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi. In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds. Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species. In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge: Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.
Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904. Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.
Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job. Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers. Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry. Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up. Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes. Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:
A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped. A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained. Her condition was considered critical.
Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around. The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down. The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.
In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years. A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams. (Factory workers often lost eyes.) “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote. “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation. Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles. When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.” Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21. A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.
Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast. Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II. Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s. Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup. Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.
Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II. The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia on the Illinois River, closed in 1948. Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.
“Nestled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, lies a land of fantasy. . . where it’s Christmas every day.”
Indiana has its fair share of uniquely named towns – Gnaw Bone, Popcorn, Pinhook, Needmore, and Pumpkin Center to name a few. But perhaps the most well-known idiosyncratic place name is Santa Claus in Spencer County, Indiana.
So, how did we get this intriguing sobriquet? Before we get there, we should cover some of the history of the area. The Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes first stewarded the land that later became Spencer County. At the turn of the 19th century, many of these tribes joined Tecumseh’s confederation to oppose white encroachment. However, both U.S. policy and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803 and the Treaty of Vincennes in 1804 opened the land to white settlement. Crossing over from Kentucky, white settlers established permanent homes by 1810 in the Indiana territory near Rockport on the Ohio River, 17 miles southwest of modern-day Santa Claus. But by the mid-nineteenth century when settlers decided to incorporate their new town, they did not originally pay such homage to the Christmas holiday.
As with many place names, the origin of the name Santa Claus is mostly the stuff of legend. The Indiana State University Folklore Archive has preserved three versions of the story behind the name Santa Claus. Below is one example:
Several families settled in the area and decided that they should have a name for their community. They decided on Santa Fe. They applied for a post office to make it official. On Christmas of 1855, everyone was greatly excited at the thought of going to their own brand new post office for their Christmas cards and gifts instead of having to ride to Dale. Unfortunately, a large white envelope with important seals arrived the day before Christmas to reveal that a town in Indiana already was named Santa Fe. Determined to get their post office just as quickly as possible, the citizens of Santa Fe decided to discuss the matter that very night, Christmas Eve. While they were signing, the whole world outdoors became filled with an intense, blinding light, and a little boy came rushing in. ‘The Star, the Christmas star is falling! Everyone rushed out just in time to see a flaming mass shooting down from the heavens and crash into a low distant hill. They considered it an omen of good fortune. Returning to the meeting, it seemed to most natural thing for all the folk to agree that the name Santa Fe should be changed to Santa Claus.
This account is certainly embellished to some extent, seeing as the “Christmas Star” (which appears in the sky every twenty years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the winter sky) made its last appearance in 2020 and did not, in fact, fall from the sky in 1855. However, it gives us an idea of why Santa Claus citizens themselves believe to be their origin story.
However it happened, the townsfolk eventually decided on Santa Claus as a replacement name, and the Santa Claus post office was officially established on May 21, 1856.
For years, however, the strangely named town was just that – a town with a strange name. It wasn’t until Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin began answering letters written to Saint Nick in the early 20th century that the town began truly embracing its merry moniker. It’s unclear when or why letters to the man at the North Pole began arriving at the Santa Claus, Indiana post office, but in 1914 Martin began writing back, and the tradition only grew from there.
Mail clerks around the country began rerouting letters simply addressed “Santa Claus” to the Indiana town for Martin to handle. Parents began writing notes with enclosed letters or packages to be stamped with the Santa Claus postmark and sent back, making the letters and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning that much more authentic.
By 1928, Martin and his clerks were, not unlike Santa and his elves, handling thousands of letters every holiday season and were garnering enough attention to catch the eye of Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Before Ripley’s was an after school tv show and before it was a coffee table book you bought at your school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair, it was a syndicated newspaper panel that shared interesting tidbits and oddities from around the world. And on January 7, 1930, the oddity in question was none other than Santa Claus, Indiana.
It was a brief mention, but it was enough. The next Christmas, Martin reported that the number of parcels and letters coming through his post office had grown exponentially, adding:
I guess my name ought to be Santa Claus, because I have to pay out of my own pocket for handling all this mail. I’ve hired six clerks to help out and I recon it’s going to cost $200. But it advertises the town and besides lots of folks from all around come out to the store to see us sending out the mail.
With great fame comes great scrutiny, or at least it did in this case. By 1931, the Associated Press reported that officials in Washington were considering changing the name of the town as the stress put on the postal system during the holiday season was becoming too much to handle. Christmas lovers across the country bemoaned the potential loss, but none so loudly as the citizens of Santa Claus, who contacted their U.S. Senator James Watson and U.S. Representative John Boehne, of Indiana.
Watson and Boehne got to work for their constituents. Representative Boehne notified the USPS that the entire Indiana delegation would oppose the name change if it were to go forward. Senator Watson took a more direct route and went straight to Postmaster General Walter Brown to assure him that, “The people won’t want it changed. “ “The name must not be changed nor the office abolished.”
In the end, of course, the citizens were able to preserve their beloved town’s name, and the tradition continued to grow.
Entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the Christmas spirit, began to take notice of the small town. In 1935, Vincennes speculator Milt Harris founded the business called Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated. Harris erected Santa’s Candy Castle, the first tourist attraction in town. Built to look like a fairy castle and filled with candy from project sponsor Curtiss Candy Company, the Candy Castle was the centerpiece of what Harris dubbed Santa Claus Town, a little holiday village of sorts made up of his business ventures. The castle would eventually be joined by Santa’s Workshop and a toy village.
Across town, a different, similarly named business, Santa Claus, Incorporated, brainchild of Chicago businessman Carl Barrett, built another Yuletide monument, a 22-foot tall statue of Santa Claus purportedly made of solid granite. This colossal Kris Kringle was the start of a second Christmas themed landmark, this one called Santa Claus Park. All of this in a town of fewer than 100 people.
Both attractions were dedicated during the Christmas season of 1935, but all the holiday spirit in the world wasn’t enough to keep the peace between Harris and Barrett.
By 1935, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was home to two organizations – Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Carl Barrett, and Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Milt Harris. Barrett and Santa Claus, Incorporated were developing Santa Claus Park, which featured the 22-foot Santa Claus statue. Harris and his company were developing Santa Claus Town, featuring Santa’s Candy Castle. Barrett filed suit against Harris, alleging that the latter had no right to use a name so similar to its own. Meanwhile, Harris filed suit against Barrett because Barrett had bought and was building Santa Claus Park on land that had been leased to Harris by the previous owner.
A judge put an injunction on Santa Claus Park, meaning Barrett could not move forward with development. Eventually, this tongue twister of a case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 1940 that both companies could keep using their names and overturned the injunction, meaning that the plans for Santa Claus Park could move forward, regardless of Harris’s lease.
However, the protracted legal battle, combined with wartime rationing, which impacted tourism due to gasoline and tire shortages, took a toll on both attractions. By 1943, cracks ran through the base of the giant Santa Statue and the Candy Castle had closed its doors.
With the end of the war came new opportunities. In 1946, retired Evansville industrialist and father of nine, Louis Koch, opened Santa Claus Land after being disappointed that the town had little to offer visiting children hoping to catch a glimpse of the jolly man in the red suit. This theme park, reportedly the first amusement park in the world with a specific theme, included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed rides and, of course, Saint Nicholas.
This was no run of the mill Santa Claus, though. Jim Yellig would become, according to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, “one of the most beloved and legendary Santas of all time.” Yellig had donned the red and white suit at the Candy Castle and volunteered to answer letters to Santa for years before becoming the resident Santa at the new park, a position which he held for 38 years. During his tenure as Saint Nick, Yellig heard the Christmas wishes of over one million children.
Throughout “Santa Jim’s” tenure, Santa Claus Land continued to grow, thanks in large part to Louis Koch’s son, Bill Koch, who took over operation of the park soon after its founding. By 1957, the park offered a “miniature circus,” a wax museum, Santa’s Deer Farm, and an outdoor amphitheater. Live entertainment shows, such as a water ski show, started and in the early 1970s rides such as Dasher’s Seahorses, Comet’s Rockets, Blitzen’s Airplanes, and Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round were added. And in 1984, the Koch family expanded from a strictly Christmas-themed park to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections and changed its name to Holiday World. Still in operation today as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the theme park, which features what are considered some of the best wooden roller coasters in the world, welcomes over 1 million people per year.
Today, the town of Santa Claus is more “Christmas-y” than ever. Many of its 2,400 residents live in Christmas Lake Village or Holiday Village on streets with names like Poinsettia Drive, Candy Cane Lane, or Evergreen Plaza. The Candy Castle was renovated and reopened in 2006 and is known for its wide selection of cocoas and its Frozen Hot Chocolate. Carl Barrett’s 22-foot Santa Statue was restored by Holiday World in 2011 and now welcomes tourists from all over the world. Visitors to Holiday World can stay at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Park or Santa’s Lodge. Every Christmas season, the small town comes alive with festivals, parades, and even Christmas fireworks. And, of course, dedicated volunteers still answer children’s letters to Santa, even if they sound a little different than they used to.
Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:
Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport? Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.
Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.
Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]
The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans. Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary). One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]
The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]
For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation. However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters. According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however. Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]
The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]
But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.
Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]
Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers. Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.
This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]
The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]
Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]
Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]
Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.
Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!
[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.
[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.
[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.
[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.
[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.
[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;
[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.
[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.
[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.
[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916? The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshallof Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson. The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes. You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916? If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong. After being the Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.
The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement. As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors. The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections. For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.
According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.
He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.
Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:
Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.
Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:
I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.
To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).
All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.
In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in theJasper Weekly Courier. On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.
His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.
Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.
By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis Newscovered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.
Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”
Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.
During the month of Halloween, it seemed fitting to do a blog about the history of funeral parlors and funeral homes in Indiana. The funeral parlor, or funeral home, became a mainstay of American life in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Before that, most American families held a wake (now called a “viewing”) in their home, in a room often named the parlor. Then, they were either buried on the family homestead or in the cemetery by their church. The Civil War changed that; massive numbers of dead soldiers from across the country prompted new funerary practices, such as embalming and preserving for long trips. After the war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class facilitated further modernization of funerals. It was here that the funeral parlor, or funeral home, became the norm. In this blog, we will share with you how the funeral homes of Indiana’s past often advertised themselves in newspapers and how they developed into the modern, standardized industry that they are today.
Having purchased the Interest of my partner, W. W. McCann, in the undertaking business, situated on south Water street, (Thomas block) I submit my services to the public of this city and county, competent in the business and profession which each and every family have to support sooner or later. My equipments [sic] are of the best, and stock first class, and at reasonable prices, and each one will be treated with only kindness and respect. Death comes to all and the great responsibility of the care is taken from the family in this sad and distressful hour. Hoping that you may feel when you place your confidence in me that it will be for carried out to the letter,
I Remain Your Friend
W. D. MCCLELLAND.
Another ad ran in a 1902 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal. The later ad provided more details on the staff of the funeral parlor. Alongside McClelland’s title as “proprietor” and “licensed embalmer.” He also employed a “lady assistant” (to prepare the bodies of deceased women and girls) and a business assistant named James H. Robbins.
One demographic well documented in Hoosier State Chronicles, in regards to funeral homes and directors, is the African American community. George W. Frierson, originally from Nashville, Tennessee and then Louisville, Kentucky, established a funeral parlor at 632 Indiana Avenue (near the Walker Theatre) in 1907. The first published ad for Frierson’s funeral parlor ran in the January 12, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. About a month later, a new ad ran in the Recorder confirming that Frierson partnered with James B. Garner, an embalmer. Frierson served as the “proprietor” and Garner as the “manager.” Like McClelland back in Crawfordsville, they also had a “lady attendant.” Frierson maintained his funeral parlor until at least 1914, at which point it was located at 642 Indiana Avenue.
While funeral parlor ads generally represented newspaper coverage, pithy anecdotes also made the cut. An interesting story out of Chicago and published in the Richmond Palladium noted that “Eighty women, playing cards for a prize, adjourned their game to an undertaking room and continued playing . . . with several coffins . . . .” The ladies moved to the funeral parlor “after the police had broken up their game at the home of Mrs. Clara Dermot.” It is unclear whether or not the coffins were occupied.
Up in the north, the city of South Bend maintained a few funeral parlors in the early 20th century. Harry L. Yerrick ran a funeral business in the 1910s in South Bend, as sort of a jack-of-all-trades with funerals. In a 1915 ad in the South Bend News-Times, Yerrick declared that “I am as near to you as your telephone” and cited multiple services, including a chapel, an ambulance, and a carriage. Yerrick died in 1920 and Clem C. Whiteman and Forest G. Hay took over the business. Whiteman owned a wholesale grocery company and Hay was the partner given “active charge of the business for the present.” In September of 1920, James H. McGann joined the business as their “licensed embalmer”, holding “one of the highest grades in the state” for his profession. Over the decades, McGann eventually created his own funeral home business while Hay’s also flourished. In 2005, after multiple generations of their respective businesses, they merged to form the McGann-Hay Company. The funeral home is now based in Granger, Indiana. What started as one guy’s profession became a decades-long, family-run business that still operates today.
By the late 1920s, newspapers published more elaborate, detailed funeral home ads to share the services they offered. John A. Patton’s Funeral Home on Boulevard Place ran an ad describing its “thoughtful service” in the February 12, 1927 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. The ad declared:
After the last rites are said over a departed relative, and the family recalls with comforting satisfaction the smooth attentive manner in which everything was executed, then comes a realization of the assuaging helpfulness of the thoughtful funeral director.
It is this faithful service that endears the funeral director in the hearts [of] families and in such manner we have built up our business. Our desire always is to serve in a thoughtful dignified way.
The texts reads like a service itself, with keen attention paid to the grieving families and an emphasis on dignity and thoughtfulness. This wasn’t the only ad from the period like this. When Nannie Harrison reopened her late husband’s funeral parlor in 1929, she published a nearly half-page ad in the Recorder. Pitching it as the “most modern funeral parlor,” Harrison’s ad proclaimed that families “will be satisfied at so complete a service for the benefit of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . .”
This trend continued into the 1930s. The Willis Mortuary in Indianapolis published an ad in a 1936 issue of the Recorder that called it their “honor to serve you in your hour of bereavement” and “endeavor[ed] to live up to your greatest expectations.” Nearly a decade after the illustrious grand reopening of the Harrison funeral parlor, brothers Plummer and Carey Jacobs opened up their Indianapolis Funeral Home on October 30, 1938. Two days before, they took out a whole-page ad in the Recorder to inform the public of their formal opening, including a full program of events and photographs of their new facilities. A few days later, the Recorderran an unsolicited article about the Jacobs Brothers Funeral Home grand opening. “Marking another milestone in the increasingly brilliant parade of business activities among colored persons,” the Recorder reported, “thousands of persons swarms the new eastside funeral home of Jacobs Brothers in an unbroken stream Sunday.” They further added that the “general comment is that this is finest funeral home in the city for our people.” The Jacobs brothers had joined a long, historic line of groundbreaking, African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis.
As the 1940s went along, not only did funeral home ads get more detailed, but the funeral home section did as well. A 1949 issue in the Indianapolis Recorder dedicated an entire newspaper column to fully detailed and illustrated funeral home ads, for such businesses as the Willis Mortuary, King & King Funeral Home, and the aforementioned Jacobs brothers. However, some papers, like the Sullivan Daily Times, stuck to a more simple approach to funeral homes, with one, non-detailed ad for the McHugh funeral home and a smaller ad for M. J. Aikin & Son.
Speaking of the King & King funeral home, one of their more unique ads ran in the winter of 1951. King & King released a full-page ad on December 22 wishing the community a Merry Christmas. It came with a holiday message, much akin to a greeting card, and advertised the funeral home at the bottom, emphasizing their “Ambulance Service.” Now, if this strikes the reader as odd, other funeral homes engaged in this practice. As an example, a December 1963 ad in the Wolcott Beacon from the Foster Funeral Home wished readers a happy new year. They didn’t, however, advertise their ambulance service.
The 1960s brought further experimentation to funeral home ads in newspapers. A rather clever ad in the Greencastle Daily Banner displayed the Whitaker Funeral home, who used their ad space to share with readers a short fable. “Experience is a bad teacher,” the story declared in its final line, “she gives the test first; the lesson afterwards.” Using ad space to share an amusing homily while advertising a funeral business appears inappropriate, but it actually elicits from readers a humble, personal connection that personifies the best in advertising.
Ads and business articles about funeral homes comprise the majority of coverage in newspapers, but occasional editorials surfaced as well. In the April 21, 1972 issue of the Jewish Post, Rabbi Maurice Davis wrote a heavily critical editorial concerning a funeral practice, not of the directors, but of the visitors. Entitled, “Visiting at Funeral Parlor as Un-Jewish as They Come,” Rabbi Davis lambasted the practice of a “wake” the night before a funeral, arguing that the “pre-funeral chapel visitation” goes against Jewish traditions of shiva (meeting with the family at their home after the funeral) and violates the mourners’ rights to privacy. “I only wish,” Rabbi Davis wrote, “that more of our people would know the origin, and move away from the practice of this distasteful custom.” The wake has continued to be a common practice at funerals since Davis’s time, but his editorial educates readers on traditional Jewish funeral practices.
Circling back to advertising, funeral homes often used their newspaper space to celebrate their anniversary as a business. The Hopkins Funeral Home put out an ad in the Greencastle Banner Graphic in 1973 celebrating their 20th anniversary. “We are proud of the reputation for dependability that we have in servicing Putnam County for 20 years. Feel confident in turning to us in your hour of need,” the full-page ad lauded.
Ads from the 1980s and 90s highlighted the benefits of pre-arranging funerals, an expanding practice during the last 30 years. Summers Funeral Chapels published an ad in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1989 selling the benefits of pre-arranged funerals, noting that “making arrangements ahead of time has become the smart thing to do.” The Meridian Hills Mortuary sent out an ad in a 1994 issue of the Jewish Post that also advocated for pre-arranged funerals. “Arranging a Funeral in advance of need is becoming more and more a choice of those who wish to relieve their family of the burden of making those arrangements at a time of emotional stress,” the ad stressed. This trend continued into the 2000s as well, with the Stuart Mortuary and the Washington Park North Cemetery and Funeral Center urging patrons to consider a pre-arranged funeral plan.
For over 120 years, funeral homes and funeral directors have gone from a small, burgeoning family enterprise to big business. Nevertheless, the focus on dignity, customer service, and the importance of family continued in the pages of newspaper ads. Whether it was Isaac Ball and the IFDA re-configuring an industry or modern funeral homes pitching pre-arranged funeral plans, the emphasis on being a caretaker for the bereaved has never wavered. Death is a sore topic of discussion; people fear it and often ignore it altogether. Yet, it’s as much as a part of life as a birth, a graduation, or a wedding. It also helps us understand how we live, as a culture. Funerals changed as America, and Indiana, changed; they evolved from mostly rural and familial affairs into urban and professionalized practices. In sharing this history, as it unfolds in the pages of newspapers, we understand a crucial part of Hoosier life over the last century.
During his long and storied career, Indianapolis-based investigative journalist William H. “Billy” Blodgett exhibited a penchant for exposing local corruption and unlawful business practices. One not entirely aboveboard business in particular caught his attention in the 1890s.
Of these companies, the Allen Manufacturing Company garnered moderate success but attracted controversy. Founded in 1894 and later incorporated in 1895 by David F. Allen, David A. Coulter, James Murdock, and William B. Hutchinson, Allen Manufacturing maintained a peculiar corporate structure and political affiliation with the Democratic party. In some respects, you could have called the company a “Government-Sponsored Enterprise,” wherein the products made were sold in the marketplace but the labor and capital costs were funneled through government institutions. This is especially true of its labor force, comprised exclusively of prisoners from the State prison north in Michigan City. As reported by the Indianapolis News, “the convicts who work in the factory are to be paid 42 cents a day. Mr. French [the prison’s warden] says that 150 men will be employed in the factory.”
Before Blodgett’s investigative reporting on the company, the Indianapolis Journal published a pointed critique of Allen Manufacturing’s labor force. The piece referred to the venture as a “blow to honest labor” and argued that the lack of skilled bicycle makers will “glut the market with cheap wheels.” The article emphasized this point in a further passage:
At the price paid [for labor] the company will have a great advantage over the manufacturers of Indiana, and their employees will, of course, share in the loss by reason, if not through cheapened wages, then of less opportunity for work. The new venture is not likely to decrease their hostility to the prison labor system and the Democratic party of Indiana.
Another piece in the Indianapolis News, possibly written by Blodgett, also criticized the company’s deep ties to political operatives, and in particular, founder David F. Allen. Allen was serving on the State Board of Tax Commissioners when the company was founded (but not incorporated), and if he didn’t leave the Board, he would be violating section 2,049 of the Indiana legal code. In other words, Allen and his business partners kept the public existence of the company private for nearly a year, incorporating on March 14, 1895, so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
While Allen Manufacturing was still an unincorporated entity, it struck a deal with the Indiana prison north in October 1894 to employ 150 prisoners at forty cents a day (lower than forty-two cents, as mentioned in the papers) for the next five years. The agreement was then amended in 1896 to remove twenty-five workers from the contract for another project. Again, this is a private consortium of well-connected political operatives setting up a business to take advantage of the state’s prison labor system .
At least the prisoners made a quality product. While I couldn’t find photographs of the bicycles, they were apparently made well enough to appear in a state-wide bicycle exhibition on January 28, 1896 at the Indianapolis Y.M.C.A. According to the Indianapolis Journal, the Allen Manufacturing Company displayed its bicycles with 14 other firms and the show also displayed artwork by T.C. Steele, among others. Allen Manufacturing also acquired the Meteor Bicycle Company, a nationally recognized firm located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and began manufacturing bikes under the name from 1896 to 1898. While the public face of their company seemed bright, its internal workings quickly began to unravel.
By 1897, Allen Manufacturing’s financial problems began bubbling to the surface. After the release of twenty-five prisoners from their contract at Indiana state prison north, its labor force wasn’t big enough to keep up with an order for 2,000 bicycles wheels. From there, the company ran up debts that were nearly impossible to reverse, taking out a mortgage to offset their losses. As reported by the Indianapolis News:
Edward Hawkins, of this city [Indianapolis], who has been appointed trustee under the mortgage, returned to-day from a meeting of the officers and directors of the company at Michigan City. The company, he says, found itself unable to pay its paper due, and executed a mortgage on the plant for the benefit of the banks that hold the paper.
Even though it paid off $6,500 owed to the state in October of 1897, Allen’s troubles continued. Hawkins was removed as mortgage trustee, more and more creditors were filing claims, and two court-appointed receivers stepped in to try to clean up the mess.
This is where Billy Blodgett’s articles began to shed light on the corruption. In January of 1898, Blodgett began a series of hard-hitting exposes in the Indianapolis News against Allen Manufacturing, writing of alleged abuses of state power, graft, and fraud. His first article, published on January 13, 1898, alleged that whole train-cars of bicycles were purchased by individual owners of the company, such as D. F. Allen and D. A. Coulter, and then shuffled around the assets for accounting purposes. Specifically, Allen purchased “$4,000 worth of bicycles,” transferred ownership to his son, and then “applied [the amount] on notes given to the Merchants’ National Bank of Lafayette.” The article also reaffirmed what many had suggested since the company’s founding. Namely, its public incorporation was made after key leaders removed themselves from conflicts of interest yet acted as an incorporated entity when it negotiated its labor contract with the prison.
The next day, Blodgett published the next installment, writing of the company’s alleged fraud in connection to its stocks. The Chicago firm Morgan & Wright, who purchased the company’s manufacturing plant during its initial financial woes, alleged that Allen Manufacturing had used backdoor loans from the Merchant’s National Bank of Lafayette in order to inflate its asset value. “In other words,” Blodgett wrote, “Morgan & Wright will try to show [in court] that the total amount of money paid for the stock was $300,” rather than the $4,000 or $5,000 the company claimed.
Blodgett also reported another fascinating case of company misdirection. On October 15, 1897, LaPorte County Judge William B. Biddle ordered the company to stop selling any products and hand the reins over to receiver Alonzo Nichols. This order was ignored by Henry Schwager, another receiver appointed to the company in Michigan City. Biddle retaliated on November 23, issuing an order against the company at large and reaffirmed his previous decision. What came next is shocking:
. . . Sheriff McCormick went to Michigan City to take possession of the property. When he got there, he found the building of the Allen Manufacturing Company locked up, and he could not get in to make the levy, without using force. He was warned not to do this, so the sheriff and his deputies stood around on the outside of the prison, and as the carloads of property came out they seized them. He found the property at different points, and turned it all over to Nichols as receiver.
In other words, Sheriff N. D. McCormick and his deputies had to wait until the company didn’t think the authorities were looking before they could seize the goods. Even in the face of court orders, the Allen Manufacturing Company still tried to do things its own way, to disastrous results.
Billy Blodgett’s final big piece on Allen Manufacturing appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 15, 1898. In it, Blodgett tries to track down and interview company big-wigs David Coulter and David Allen. Blodgett wrote of Coulter that, “He is pleasant and affable, courteous and polite, but I might as well have talked to the Sphynx in Egypt, so far as getting any information from him.” Over the course of a short, frosty conversation between Blodgett and Coulter, the businessman declined to speak about any of the charges leveled against him and maintained his innocence. When Blodgett pressed him on some of the specific charges of defrauding investors, his “demeanor demonstrated that the interview was at an end. . . .”
As for Allen, he was unable to interview the man directly but spoke to one of his colleagues. Blodgett chronicled the exchange:
A few weeks ago Mr. Allen met this friend and said to him:
“You remember the evening you asked me to dinner with you in Chicago?”
“Yes, I remember.it distinctly.”
“Well, that failure to take dinner with you has cost me $5,000, and may cost me more.”
The friend understood from this that if Allen had not gone to the meeting at which the company was formed he would have been money ahead. This friend gives it as his opinion that every member of the Allen Manufacturing Company lost from $3,000 to $5,000 each.
In one corner, you have Coulter trying to hold things together and denying changes against him and Allen in the other allegedly remarking on how he and many others lost money. This inconsistency in the press didn’t help to make the public or the company’s shareholders feel any better about the situation.
Blodgett did write a follow up article in 1901, noting that Indiana state prison north Warden Shideler resigned over allegations that he was a stockholder in the company at the time he was serving as Warden. It also indicated that labor contract developed by Allen, Coulter and others in 1894 was binding until 1904, with other companies stepping in to fill the void left by the demise of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Newspaper evidence suggests that Allen, Coulter, and many of the other big players never faced serious charges and that the company’s multiple lawsuits distracted from the other allegations leveled against them. Allen himself would eventually pursue other political offices, including Indiana Secretary of State, as well as serve in the Spanish-American War. He died in 1911, with the failure of his company firmly behind him.
So what do we make of the Allen Manufacturing Company? In some ways, you can look at it as a quasi-private, quasi-public boondoggle, destined to fail. In other ways, you can look at it as a company created to enrich its leadership by taking advantage of sub-contracted labor. However, these may be the symptoms of a larger malady. The major take-away from this episode was that a rapidly changing industrial economy and a national fad in bicycles spurred a slapdash attempt to create a company that benefited from public connections. Furthermore, the episode highlights how determined and detailed journalism helps to keep the public and private sectors of society accountable, both to citizens and shareholders. While some of the key players never faced accountability, Blodgett’s success in investigating Allen Manufacturing’s corruption nevertheless exemplified how an individual citizen, and a free press, can check some of our more abject motivations.
Many companies choose a face for their brand and then build a mythology around it. For example, the Converted Rice Company marketed their new parboiled, vacuum-dried rice as the homey-sounding “Uncle Ben’s Rice.” The company used the racially charged nomenclature “uncle” and an image of a distinguished-looking African American man to imply that the product would be like a friendly servant for the housewife. The company has claimed at various times that “Uncle Ben” was a respected rice grower or a hotel maitre d’, but more likely he never existed — much like Mr. Clean, Sara Lee, or Mr. Goodwrench.
While there are plenty of questions surrounding his origin story, the man called “Dr. Scholl,” was not only the founder of one of the most famous companies in the world and the inventor of many of its products, but he was a master of the world of advertising — changing the business in innovative ways. Scholl may (or may not) have been a quack doctor, but he was a crackerjack businessman.
William Mathais Scholl was born on a farm in Kankakee, LaPorte County, Indiana in 1882.* According to the 1900 census, William spent his youth working as a laborer on his parents’ farm, along with many other siblings. Sometime around 1900, Scholl moved to Chicago and found a job as a salesman at the popular Ruppert’s Shoe Store on Madison Street. Here, he encountered a variety of foot problems faced by his customers and became interested in podiatry. That same year, secondary sources claim, he enrolled in medical school at Loyola University. This has been hotly debated.
Despite investigations beginning in the 1920s and continuing today, it is still unclear if Scholl graduated with a medical degree around 1904 as he claimed. The Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine in Chicago supports the Scholl Museum which is dedicated to memorializing his achievements and authoritatively refers to him as “Dr. William Mathias Scholl.” However, the records of the American Medical Association tell a different story. According to Robert McClory’s investigative piece for the Chicago Reader in 1994:
“Visit the recently opened Scholl Museum . . . and you’ll find the doctor and his achievements raised to almost mythic levels . . . But check through the old AMA records and you’ll read about a man whose credentials are ‘entirely irregular,’ whose methods smack ‘strongly of quackery,’ and whose products ‘cannot be recommended’.”
There are also questions about his state medical license, as well as a later degree he claimed from the Chicago Medical College, an institution described by the American Medical Association as “low grade.” The AMA described Scholl’s “whole record” as “entirely irregular.”
Dr. Scholl, or “Dr.” Scholl, built an empire which has made his name recognizable all over the world. Degree in hand or not, at the turn of the twentieth century, young Scholl was busy inventing various devices intended to alleviate foot pain. One such device was the “Foot-Eazer,” which was a hit with the Ruppert’s Shoe Store customers. Supposedly one customer offered him several thousand dollars to start his business. He declined the offer, but was inspired to start his own business.
In 1904, Scholl set up shop in a small office in a building at 283-285 E. Madison Street in Chicago – the first location of the Scholl Manufacturing Company. By the next year, he began innovating new advertising techniques. Scholl would purportedly travel to various shoe stores, ask for the manager, and take out a human foot skeleton and put it on the counter. He used the foot to show how complicated and delicate all of the tiny bones are that hold so much weight and take so much abuse. He would demonstrate how supportive and comfortable his products worked.
Whether or not his products worked, his strategy of marketing directly to the store manager did. In addition to charging for the construction of the product, he also charged for consultations and fittings. Business boomed and in 1907 he moved into five rooms in a building on Schiller Street which had been abandoned by Western Wheel Works, a bicycle company. Almost immediately, he purchased the building and expanded the factory until it took up the entire block. The building stands and is in use as the Cobbler Square apartment complex — a nod to it’s former use.
By 1908, Scholl was using advertisements in trade journals to continue marketing his products directly to shoe store owners and managers. His approach at this point was to set up a booth at various fairs and train these prospective clients on how to talk about the Foot-Eazer “from a scientific prospective.” The ad below addresses these shoe store managers with several lofty promises about the Foot-Eazer:
“It will pay you well to be an expert in correcting foot troubles. . . you can sell a pair to one customer out of every three. Your profit is a dollar a pair – if you have 3000 customers that’s a thousand dollars for you . . .You will understand the science of it the moment you see it . . . as I have been allowed sweeping patents on it no one else can make anything like it.”
Scholl explained to this clients that his product was backed by “science,” would make them rich, and he was the only one who could provide it.
By 1909 he was recruiting teams of salespeople to approach the store owners for him. He set up a correspondence course to teach them the anatomy of the foot and the “science” behind his products. The course was called “Practipedics” and was described as “The Science of Giving Foot Comfort and Correcting the Cause of Foot and Shoe Troubles Based on the Experience, Inventions and Methods of Dr. William M. Scholl.” The ads from this period show that he was marketing these classes and sales opportunities to both men and women, an interesting approach for a time when few women worked outside the home. The ad below shows a woman studying the Foot-Eazer and promises that “This Alone Should Pay Your Rent.”
From here, Scholl’s business expanded even more quickly. By the time the U.S. entered World War One, Scholl was marketing to three different audiences — managers and owners of shoe stores, retail customers, and potential sales recruits — all through extensive advertising. Hoosier State Chronicles has a wealth of examples of ads for Scholl’s products, for stores selling them, and even for the Practipedics course. Indiana shoe stores often advertised special days where Scholl’s salespeople, presented as medical experts in foot care, would be at the store for personal fittings. In a 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, the New York Store advertised their latest shoe styles and noted that they carried “A Complete Line of Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Appliances.” In 1920, the South Bend Shoe Company advertised in the South Bend News-Tribune: “Foot Expert Here . . . A specialist from Chicago loaned to this store by Dr. Wm. M. Scholl the recognized foot authority.” This “expert” was most likely trained via correspondence course or week-long class and almost certainly never met Scholl.
Sometimes all three of Scholl’s audiences were targeted in one message, such as in the advertisement below from the Indianapolis News. First, the ad promises foot comfort to the average reader and pedestrian and explains to them the product while emphasizing the availability of “medically” trained dealers. Second, it advertises Marott’s Shoe Shop on East Washington who’s owners will have to stock up on Scholl’s products and provide the “foot expert.” Finally, the ad explains to the shoe dealers and other potential Scholl’s salespeople how to register for the next Scholl’s training course in Indianapolis. Additionally, Marrott’s Shoe Shop was a “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” which was supposed to consistently staff such “trained” foot experts — not just for special events. In Marrott’s advertisement which ran below the Scholl’s advertisement, the store claims that “Dr Scholl’s Foot Appliances are handled exclusively in Indianapolis by Marott’s Shoe Shop.” However, a search of Hoosier State Chronicles shows several other Indianapolis stores schilling for Scholl — including the New York Store from the advertisement above.
Another Indiana “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” was the Lion Store in Hammond. They were one of many stores around the country to participate in Scholl’s marketing plan for “Foot Comfort Week.” They advertised their participation and “foot expert” in the Hammond Times on June 12, 1917. Even general clothing stores participated in the marketing scheme. On June 21, 1917, the E. C. Minas Company, which called itself “Hammond’s Greatest Department Store,” advertised “Foot Comfort Week” in the Hammond Times which the ad claimed was happening “throughout the continent.” They noted that their store carried “the complete line” of Scholl’s appliances and “experts at fitting them to individual needs.” Later ads for the week-long event had more outrageous marketing schemes such advertisements for “Prettiest Foot” contests. Search Hoosier State Chronicles for more.
By the end of the war, Scholl’s company was established across the U.S, Europe, Egypt, and even Australia. He had also established a Podiatry College and written a text book. However, medical doctors working in the field were quick to criticize Scholl’s entangled business and medical operations and began to publicly question his qualifications. In 1923, the National Association of Chiropodists passed a resolution condemning Scholl’s work and banning him from advertising in their publications. Again, Robert McClory’s investigative article is the best source for more information on the controversy stirred up around Scholl’s standing in the medical community.
Scholl was not slowed down by the nay-saying in the least. He continued to invent, patent foot products, and open new stores around the world. According to McClory:
“In his lifetime Scholl would create more than 1,000 patented ointments, sprays, cushions, pads, supports, shields, springs and other mechanical and chemical gizmos for the feet. Eventually the Scholl empire would include more than 400 outlet stores and employ some 6,000 people worldwide.”
According to a short essay by Fred Cavinder in Forgotten Hoosiers (2009), during World War II, the Scholl plant in England made surgical and hospital equipment while the Chicago plant converted to the manufacture of military equipment. Cavinder writes, “As Word War II ended, Dr. Scholl invented the compact display fixture with the familiar blue and yellow colors.”
Scholl remained connected to the northwest region of Indiana throughout his life. He resided primarily in a single rented room at the downtown Chicago Illinois Athletic Club. However, later in life he purchased a home in Michigan City, Indiana, where he had moved his side business, Arno Adhesive Tapes. This company made all of the plaster and tape for the Dr. Scholl products. In the 1960s, Arno also expanded greatly and Scholl, now in his seventies, remained just as active in its management.
Scholl died in 1968 and is buried in Pine Lake Cemetery in La Porte Indiana. His family sold the Scholl’s brand to a large pharmaceutical company in 1979 and it remains successful to this day. So whether we remember him as “Dr.” or Dr. Scholl, he created an empire, changed an industry, and invented new ways to market and advertise. Search Hoosier State Chronicles for the many more advertisements.
* The 1900 census gives his birth year as 1884, but all other records including passport applications, WWI draft card, and death records cite 1882 as the correct year.
For further information, especially on the controversy surrounding Scholl’s medical qualifications see:
Robert McClory, “Best Foot Forward,” Chicago Reader, January 13, 1994, accessed ChicagoReader.com
This post is dedicated to Tom Flynn—freethinker, friend, and keeper of the Ingersoll flame.
On July 22, 1899, Hoosier Eugene Victor Debs, a radical labor organizer and the future socialist party candidate for president, published a tribute to one of his biggest influences and close friends—the orator and freethinkerRobert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic” for his decades-long public critique of organized religion, Ingersoll became the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States, a movement dedicated to secularism that began after the Civil War and ended around World War I. His death on July 21, 1899, at the age of 65, left an irreplaceable void in the hearts of many who saw Ingersoll as the leader of a new rationalist awakening in America.
For 23 years it has been my privilege to know Colonel Ingersoll, and the announcement of his sudden death is so touching and shocking to me that I can hardly bring myself to realize the awful calamity. Like thousands of others who personally knew Colonel Ingersoll, I loved him as if he had been my elder brother. He was, without doubt, the most lovable character, the tenderest and greatest soul I have ever known.
He also noted the amount of charity work Ingersoll did, both for organizations and for individuals, such as a woman he aided after the financial collapse of her father and abandonment by her church. “Such incidents of kindness to the distressed and help to the needy,” Debs observed, “might be multiplied indefinitely, for Colonel Ingersoll’s whole life was replete with them and they constitute a religion compared with which all creeds and dogmas become meaningless and empty phrases.”
Later, on January 17, 1900, Debs wrote to Ingersoll’s publisher C.P. Farrell that “I have never loved another mortal as I have loved Robert Ingersoll, and I never shall another.” While this language may seem a bit saccharine for us today, Debs meant every word of it. From his initial meetings with Ingersoll as a young man in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Great Agnostic’s defense of him during the Pullman railroad workers strike of 1894, Eugene Debs always felt a deep kinship with the heretical orator. While they took different spiritual tracks—with Ingersoll a dedicated agnostic and Debs a social-gospel Christian—both saw the importance of caring for others in this life, despite what might come after, and believed in the power of human reason as a vehicle for transcending outmoded superstitions. Debs learned the power of effective oratory from Ingersoll, routinely citing him as one of his biggest rhetorical influences. Ingersoll also had views on labor and capital that went far beyond the traditional liberalism of his day, something that likely played a role in the radicalization of Debs. As such, their unique friendship left a lasting imprint on American life during the turn of the twentieth century.
They first met in the spring of 1878, after Debs invited Ingersoll to give a lecture to the Occidental Literary Club in Terre Haute, an organization that the former helped organize. The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette reported on May 2, 1878 that Ingersoll’s oration the previous evening was on the “religion of the past, present, and future” and noted that “Mr. Ingersoll was introduced by Mr. E. V. Debs, in well chosen and well delivered words.” Years later, in his “Recollections on Ingersoll” (1917), Debs reflected on his first encounter with the legendary orator. In fact, the lecture that Ingersoll gave that evening, according to Debs, was one of his most important, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In it, Ingersoll excoriates those who held humanity in the bondage of superstition and called for freedom of intellectual development. As he declared, “This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself. Keep your mind open to the influences of nature. Receive new thoughts with hospitality. Let us advance.” Debs was amazed by this speech. Writing decades later, “Never until that night had I heard real oratory; never before had I listened enthralled to such a flow of genuine eloquence.” Ingersoll’s words, which “pleaded for every right and protested against every wrong,” galvanized the budding orator and political activist.
Also in 1878, Ingersoll used his considerable speaking talents towards another issue of grave importance: the condition of labor. While it would be too much to say that Ingersoll was a socialist like Debs, he was nevertheless a socially-conscious liberal Republican who understood the inequities between workers and owners in a capitalist society. In a speech entitled “Hard Times and the Way Out,” delivered in Boston, Massachusetts on October 20, 1878, Ingersoll laid out his views on the subject. While he reiterated his belief that “there is no conflict, and can be no conflict, in the United States between capital and labor,” he nevertheless chastised the capitalists who would impugn the dignity and quality of life of their laborers. “The man who wants others to work to such an extent that their lives are burdens, is utterly heartless,” he bellowed to the crowd in Boston. He also called for the use of improved technology to lower the overall workday. Additionally, in a passage that could’ve been composed by Eugene V. Debs decades later, Ingersoll declared:
I sympathize with every honest effort made by the children of labor to improve their condition. That is a poorly governed country in which those who do the most have the least. There is something wrong when men are obliged to beg for leave to toil. We are not yet a civilized people; when we are, pauperism and crime will vanish from our land.
Years later, in 1894, Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) led a massive labor strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the outskirts of Chicago. Approximately 2,000 employees walked off the job in May, demanding an end to the 33 1/3% pay cut they took the year prior. When the strikes escalated into violence, largely due to the aggressive tactics of the Chicago police, the United States Court in Chicago filed an injunction against Debs and the ARU. The injunction claimed that Debs, as head of the ARU, violated federal law by “block[ing] the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. Debs was later arrested for his actions, using legendary civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow for his defense. Some speculated at the time that Robert Ingersoll, himself a lawyer, would defend Debs in court, but that never came to pass. Instead, Ingersoll defended Debs in the court of public opinion, when the press reported his previous treatment for alcoholism in an effort to discredit his cause.
An article in the July 9, 1894 issue of the Jersey City News reported that Dr. Thomas S. Robertson treated Debs in 1892 for “neurasthenia” and “dipsomania,” terms used in the era to describe anxiety due to spinal cord injury and alcoholism, respectively. To help his friend, Ingersoll had written a letter of introduction for Debs to Dr. Robertson, as he had used the physician’s services before. The article quotes Dr. Robertson at length, who claimed that Debs suffered from exhaustion, which had been exacerbated by drinking, but he had improved in the two years since. When asked if Debs was of sound mind, Dr. Robertson said, “in ordinary times, yes, but he is likely to be carried away by excitement and enthusiasm.” In essence, Debs suffered from what today we might call stress-induced anxiety, which became more pronounced by substance abuse. However, it is important to note that charges of alcoholism were common in this era, and Debs might have exhibited symptoms of it without ever being intoxicated.
Sensing the intention of the press with this story, Ingersoll released a statement to the Philadelphia Observer, later reprinted in the Unionville, Nevada Silver State on August 27, 1894. In it, he stood up for his friend and the causes he fought for. “I have known Mr. Debs for about twelve years,” Ingersoll said, and “I believe, [he] is a perfectly sincere man—very enthusiastic in the cause of labor—and his sympathies are all with the workingman.” When asked about Debs’s drinking, Ingersoll pushed back on the claims, saying “I never met him when he appeared to be under the influence of stimulants. He was always in good health and in full possession of his faculties.” He also commented on the attempts at scandal in the newspapers, adding that his “testimony is important in view of gossip and denunciation that everywhere attend the public mention of the strike leader.” In one of Debs’ darkest hours, when his character and cause came under fire, Ingersoll publicly defended his friend and challenged the claims made against him. Such was the nature of their bond.
While Robert Ingersoll certainly influenced Debs on the importance of oratory and the cause of labor, he also left a profound intellectual influence on the future socialist. Early in his life, Debs developed an iconoclastic view of religion, which primed him for a rewarding relationship with Ingersoll. In conversations with Larry Karsner, published in book form in 1922, Debs reflected on the event that made him weary of organized religion. At the age of 15, Debs attended a sermon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Terre Haute. The priest’s vivid descriptions of hell, with a “thousand demons and devils with horns and bristling tails, clutching pitchforks, steeped in brimstone,” completely soured him on institutionalized Christianity. “I left that church with rich and royal hatred of the priest as a person, and a loathing for the church as an institution,” Debs said, “and I vowed that I would never go inside a church again.” Furthermore, when asked by Karsner if he was a disbeliever at that time, Debs replied, “Oh yes, a strong one.”
He furthered his views on hell in a February 19, 1880 article in the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette. “I do not believe in hell as a place of torment or punishment after death,” he wrote, “. . . the hell of popular conception exists solely in the imagination.” He further argues that while the idea of hell may have served a beneficial function in the past, “as soon, however, as people become good enough to be just and honorable for the simple satisfaction it affords them, and avoid evil for the same reason, then there is no further necessity of hell.” With these words, Debs actually echoed much of what Ingersoll said on the subject in an 1878 lecture. “The idea of a hell,” Ingersoll noted, “was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous, to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell.”
While the doctrine of hell and the strictures of the church left Debs cold, he nevertheless adopted a liberal, nondenominational form of Christianity later in his life, one molded by his exposure to Ingersoll and freethought. In a 1917 article entitled “Jesus the Supreme Leader,” published in the Call Magazine and later reprinted in pamphlet form, Debs shared his thoughts on the prophet from Nazareth. Debs saw Christ not as a distant, ethereal presence, but rather as a revolutionary figure whose own humanity made him divine. “Jesus was not divine because he was less human than his fellow-men,” he wrote, “but for the opposite reason, that he was supremely human, and it is this of which his divinity consists, the fullness and perfection of him as an intellectual, moral and spiritual human being.” He placed Jesus in the same pantheon of transformative figures as abolitionist John Brown, President Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Karl Marx.
For Debs, Christ’s appeal to “love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” was the same in spirit as Marx’s famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” Both statements are about solidarity—of people coming together, helping one another, and fighting for a better world. In this sense, Debs interpreted Christ like many humanists and non-sectarian Christians do today—as a deeply human figure that preached love, peace, and harmony with others.
While Debs and Ingersoll did not share the exact same views on Christianity, they did share a commitment to secularism, tolerance, freethought, and social justice. Debs would parlay his knowledge from Ingersoll and others into a successful political career, running five times on the socialist party ticket and earning nearly a million votes in 1920 while imprisoned for speaking out against America’s involvement in WWI. As Ingersoll was the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought,” Debs was the leader of the “Golden Age of American Socialism,” with thousands attending his speeches and joining socialist organizations. Despite their friendship being tragically cut short by Robert Ingersoll’s death in 1899, Debs honored the legacy of the Great Agnostic for the rest of his life. Writing in his “Recollections of Ingersoll” in 1917, Debs said:
He was absolutely true to the highest principles of his exalted character and to the loftiest aspirations of his own unfettered soul. He bore the crudest misrepresentation, the foulest abuse, the vilest calumny, and the most heartless persecution without resentment or complaint. He measured up to his true stature in every hour of trial, he served with fidelity and without compromise to the last hour of his noble life, he paid in full the price of his unswerving integrity to his own soul, and each passing century to come will add fresh luster to his immortal fame.
In studying their lives and their friendship, one might say these words for Robert Green Ingersoll could equally apply to Eugene Victor Debs.
Helen Corey was perhaps the most noteworthy Arab American leader in central Indiana during the 1960s and 1970s. More than four decades before Mitch Daniels became Indiana governor, she was the first Arab American to hold a statewide elected office. It is a travesty that she has not received the attention that her accomplishments demand.
Born 1923 in Canton, Ohio, her Syrian parents, Maheeba (“Mabel”) and Mkhyal (“Mike”) Corey, were originally from the Damascus area. Her parents belonged to the generation of immigrants who arrived in the United States during what Mark Twain referred to as the Gilded Age. The country was booming economically, and employers were in desperate need of labor. Helen Corey’s family, like others, sought these opportunities. Like many Armenians and Turks, Corey’s Syrian parents were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean before World War I. Thousands of Ottoman citizens settled in Indiana, especially in Michigan City, South Bend, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute. The Indianapolis News noted in 1907 that these ethnic groups “have all made contributions to America’s making, though as a rule they have not been so welcome as other races.”
As a second-generation immigrant, Helen was raised to embrace both Arab and American cultures, as well as the family’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian roots. “When my sister, brother, and I were children,” she wrote, “our parents sent us to the Orthodox church hall following grade school classes where we learned to read and write the [Arabic] language from Arabic scholars Yusuf (Joseph) Sabb and Hunna (John) Shaheen. Our first lesson taught us that this was one of the richest languages in the world.” When the family was around Arabic-speaking friends, they used Arabic names and titles. Brother Albert was Abdullah. Her father was “Boo Abdullah [the father of Albert]” and her mother was addressed by the title, “Im Abdullah [the mother of Albert].”
She recalled in her 1962 The Art of Syrian Cookery:
When we lived in Canton, Ohio, as children, my sister, brother, and I used to get a great deal of pleasure watching my father and his friends take turns smoking the narghileh (Turkish water pipe) as they relaxed during the evenings, exchanging stories of their journey to this country. The narghileh had the sound of bubbling water and an incense aroma filled the house from the Persian tobacco that was used. Our narghileh was made of beautiful cut glass with an oriental brass stem, and the smoking pipe that was attached had an almost cobra look with its many variegated colors. . . The guests were served Turkish coffee and the hostess was ready to play the part of fortuneteller. The cups were inverted and left to stand so that the coffee sediment formed a pattern on the inside of the cup. Then the cups were turned up again and the hostess interpreted the future of each guest from the pattern in his cup.
Around 1947, the Corey family moved to Terre Haute, the home of a sizeable Arab American community. It was called “Little Syria.” Its proximity to the Wabash River facilitated the peddling of wares in Illinois and Kentucky. Historian Robert Hunter wrote that it was a “partial reconstruction of the one that existed in Ayn al-Shaara,” a village located not far from the city of Damascus. According to William Nasser, Indiana’s “father of cardiology” and the founder of the St. Vincent Hospital heart surgery program, Arab American youth faced discrimination in Terre Haute, where he was forced to ride in the back of the bus. Syrians were also barred from joining the country club. For these reasons, as Helen Corey noted in an interview with Robert Hunter, “in the 1920s and 1930s, Syrians did not have a prominent role in civic affairs and leadership of Terre Haute.” She and other second-generation immigrants opened the doors of opportunity for other Arab Americans. Corey’s political career began in 1948 when she worked as the secretary to the city’s longest serving mayor, Ralph Tucker. She would hold that position until 1961.
This job provided her a platform and the connections needed to become active in the Indiana Democratic Party. In 1956, Corey directed the speaker’s bureau of the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee, and in 1959, she was voted Indiana’s Outstanding Young Democratic Woman. On October 25, 1960, she was part of Vigo County’s welcoming committee for then Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. President. As a Young Democratic National Committeewoman, she was chosen to greet the “Kennedy Caravan” as it motored its way through Indiana and Illinois. She was also elected Indiana’s Young Democrat National Committeewoman and represented the state at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Helen Corey was going places. In 1961, she became director of the Bureau of Women and Children in the Indiana Division of Labor. She offered written guidance to Indiana employers on child labor laws and women’s issues in the workplace. She consulted with members of the Indiana General Assembly.
It almost unbelievable that, as she was working hard for the state and the Democratic Party, she also found the time to pen one of the most influential cookbooks on Syrian food ever written in English.
Published by New York’s Doubleday Press in its series on global cuisines, The Art of Syrian Cookery (1962) stayed in print for decades. By the middle of 1965, it had sold 17,000 copies. Its influence could be felt across North America, and it was perhaps the most successful book in its category until the publication of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Even then, its many fans kept it as an essential reference in their kitchen. Food writers from Los Angeles to Miami mentioned it in their columns. Syrians and other Arabs checked it out from their local public libraries. One Arab American in Morgan City, Louisiana, said that “it was as near as mama’s cooking as anything I have ever read.” In 1982, a well-known Lebanese cook in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, explained that though her grandmother taught to her cook, she also relied on The Art of Syrian Cookery.
The book was dedicated to Corey’s mother, Maheeba, who not only shared the technical aspects of how to make such food, but taught Helen and her sister, Kate, about the cultural, religious, and social meanings and functions of everything from araq (anise-flavored brandy) to zalabee (doughnuts). This was food meant to be shared with others on important occasions in the old country and in the new. Corey explained, for example, what dishes are traditionally offered at wedding receptions and during Arab Orthodox Christian celebrations of Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany.
If it had been published today, this nostalgic food memoir might have launched the career of the charismatic and hard-working Helen Corey as a celebrity chef. But it appeared one year before Julia Child made her debut on public television, and most upscale restaurants hired only male chefs at the time.
Cooking had to remain a side gig.
Fortunately, Helen Corey’s political career blossomed at the very same moment that the book was published. In 1963, she was appointed executive secretary of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. The next year, she won the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for office and then Indiana voters elected Corey the 23rd Reporter of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts. She received 1,110,390 votes, enough to unseat incumbent Reporter Virginia Caylor, who got 920,168 votes.
As Reporter, Helen Corey’s job was to edit, publish, and distribute all of the judicial rulings of the Supreme and Appellate Courts and distribute them to law libraries, universities, and law offices. She worked with just two staff members in the Capitol’s Room 416, where Benjamin Harrison once had his office. The significance of Corey’s election as the first Arab American office holder in Indiana was not lost on the U.S. Department of State, which featured her in its Life in America series distributed abroad.
Helen Corey constantly encouraged women to become politically active. In 1965, for example, she was a featured speaker at the Marion County Democratic women’s weekend retreat to French Lick. She addressed the Indiana Federation of Democratic Women in 1967.
That year, she was making $12,500 in her post. The job also came with an official parking spot at the Capitol, but when Corey was assigned spot no. 21 instead of spot no. 22, Republican Clerk Kendal Mathews went berserk. He complained to the governor and the motor vehicles commissioner about it, and he parked in Corey’s spot, even though the parking attendant told him not to. The Indianapolis Star dubbed the incident “Coreyography.” Corey said the whole thing was ridiculous.
This was not the only time her gender became an issue. She was often asked why she wasn’t married, and she gave the answer that one had to give at the time: she believed that women should be married, but that they could have a career, too. Her good looks were also frequently addressed in public; the Indianapolis News referred to her as a “model” and a “pixie politician.”
When Helen Corey stood for reelection in 1968, she campaigned hard, giving four speeches a day and traveling over 3,000 miles throughout the state to ask for Hoosiers’ votes. But with the exception of Democratic U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, Republicans dominated statewide offices that year. Helen Corey’s opponent, Marilou Wertzler, got 1,067,357 votes. Corey received 925,616.
After leaving office, Corey remained active with Democratic women’s causes, but by the middle 1970s she turned her attention, at least in part, to political organizing on behalf of Arab American causes. Arab issues were front and center in U.S. public life at the time. For example, in 1973, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped selling oil to nations that supported Israel in its dispute with Egypt. This embargo caused fuel shortages in the United States. Despite the fact that OPEC included non-Arab countries such as Iran and Venezuela–not to mention the fact that most Arab countries are not large oil producers–Arabs in general were blamed for making Americans wait in lines at gas stations. Prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans increased. The social acceptance that Arab-descended Americans had achieved was at risk.
Second- and third-generation Arab Americans established the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) to lobby national legislators on the foreign issues that affected their lives and livelihoods. One of its programs was “A Day on the Hill,” during which Arab Americans from each state would travel to Washington to meet with their members of Congress. Helen Corey was an obvious choice to coordinate the effort in Indiana. Working with George Halaby, Zeldia Hanna, Vicki Mesalam, and Faye Williams, she kicked off the Central Indiana NAAA chapter’s effort to gain members with a huge hafli (party) at the Stouffer Hotel in 1975. It featured Arab dancing, music, and food.
Over time, the membership of the NAAA decreased as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee became the largest Arab American national organization. But Helen Corey and other Arab Hoosiers still fought anti-Arab prejudice. In 1990 future Vice President Mike Pence, then a candidate for the U.S. Congress, ran a campaign ad in which a white actor donned Arab head gear, a black robe, dark sunglasses, and used a fake Arab accent to intimate that Democrats were unwitting collaborators of the country’s Arab enemies. Helen Corey spoke out. “It’s degrading a culture,” she said, explaining that the use of racial stereotyping would drive many voters away. (Pence defended the ad.)
In the final decades of the 1900s, Helen Corey did not focus as much on explicit political organizing as she did on culinary diplomacy. A leading authority on Syrian and Lebanese food and cooking, Helen Corey used food not only to bridge ethnic differences among Americans but also to educate Americans about her Antiochian Orthodox Christian faith. In 1990, she self-published her second cookbook, Food from Biblical Lands, and made a 70-minute documentary to promote it. In 2004, she published Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking. These books repeated some of the original recipes from the 1962 classic, but also incorporated new dishes from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestine. There were also new stories of Helen Corey’s travels in Syria and new pictures of her family members, including one of her mother’s 100th birthday party.
Corey loved to share that heritage with her nieces. Robert Hunter wrote that Corey preserved and passed on “a big collection of folk stories, songs, and poems, most of which she got from her mother.” Corey told Hunter that “much has been lost,” but she insisted that “a lot has remained… a ‘Syrianness,’ a sense of who you are and wanting to hold onto it even though you do not have much actual knowledge.”
During her long career, Helen Corey gained recognition and respect for her people, for her culture, and for herself. She is an unsung figure of Arab American and Indiana history whose life is just waiting for greater illumination.
Jay Brodzeller was the chief researcher of this post. Three of Helen Corey’s nieces, Cathy Azar, Sandy Kassis, and Char Wade, provided invaluable assistance.Thanks, as well, to Joan Bey, Matt Holdzkom, Mina Khoury, Rev. Joseph Olas, Father Paul Fuller, Julie Slaymaker, and Father Anthony Yazge.
“Armenians and Syrians,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.