Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies

The Reno Gang, often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries.

While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all strove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices.

In this  video, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Search historic newspaper pages at  Hoosier State Chronicles  and Chronicling America to read more first drafts of history.

Continue reading “Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies”

“America First:” The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s

This article was originally published, in revised form, on June 20, 2019 at the Hoosier State Chronicles blog.

United States immigration laws reflect a long history of debate over who should be included and excluded in differing visions of American identity. In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act or the Immigration Act of 1924, “a measure which was a legislative expression of the xenophobia, particularly towards eastern and southern European immigrants, that swept America in the decade of the 1920s.”[1] This legislation drastically limited immigration to the United States through a quota system that targeted specific groups for exclusion. While the annual quota for German immigrants was set at over 51,000 people, the quota for Syrian immigrants, for example, was 100 people.[2] Thus, U.S. policy officially distinguished between races and backgrounds of people included or excluded as future Americans. The Ku Klux Klan was crucial to the passage of this legislation, which had dire consequences for those seeking asylum in the U.S. over the following decades in which the quota system remained in place.

Fiery Cross, April 25, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the 1920s, the Klan spread across the United States and especially thrived in Indiana. Historian James Madison explains that the Klan was especially successful at recruiting Hoosiers. As many as one in four white Protestant men born in the state were Klan members by one estimate. And some of these men were in positions of political power. In considering past debates over immigration, it’s worth re-examining the Klan’s stance on the subject. Why? Because the Klan of the 1920s was an influential mainstream movement. And those Hoosiers who put on robes and lit up the night with their fiery crosses were representative of the feelings of much of the population of the state.[3]

The first Klan, which emerged after the Civil War was a Southern terrorist organization led by former Confederate soldiers aimed at suppressing African Americans with intimidation and violence. The Klan that reemerged in the 1920s purposefully evoked the imagery of the Reconstruction Era Klan to instill fear in its “enemies,” but was much different. It was not a band of rogue vigilantes, but a nationwide organization composed of average white, Protestant Americans. It included farmers, bankers, railroad workers, suffragists, ministers, mayors, and governors. The second Klan also largely abandoned violence for civic action. They dressed their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, antisemitic message in patriotism and Christian righteousness. Wearing their white robes and masks, they held picnics and parades, attended church and funerals. For many white Protestant Americans, the Ku Klux Klan was a respectable pastime for the whole family. [4]

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Because the Klan published their newspaper, the Fiery Cross, for several years in Indianapolis, we know a lot about who joined, what exactly they believed and feared about immigration and race, and what they did to prevent people from certain countries from becoming Americans. The Fiery Cross served both as an official mouthpiece of the national organization and as a source for local Klan news. The Indiana State Library also has a large collection of Klan documents. In conversation, these sources paint a clear picture of Klan beliefs and influence on both Indiana and national policy.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Kloran, 1916, United Klans of America Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library. Also accessible digitally at Archive.org.

In an early KKK handbook, called the Kloran, the national organization suggested ten questions that must be answered satisfactorily before “naturalizing” a new member. Most of them asked about the potential member’s allegiance to the U.S. government and Christian principles with questions such as:

Do you esteem the United States of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?

The “ecclesiastical” reference in this question is to the Roman Catholic Church. The Klan claimed that Catholic immigrants to the U.S. served the Pope who headed a conspiracy to undermine American values. Thus they were not loyal American citizens. This anti-Catholic sentiment and rhetoric was especially strong in the Midwestern Klan, as seen in the pages of the Fiery Cross. However, not all of the membership questions veiled their hateful message. One question asked potential members bluntly:

Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?

In their minds, the white supremacy the Klan valued so dearly was presently under attack. Like the earlier Reconstruction Klan, the 1920s Klan viewed African Americans as members of an inferior race. In Indiana, members worried about the mixing of white and black races, especially as young Hoosiers gained access to cars, jazz clubs, and Hollywood movies. [5] In 1922, the Fiery Cross blamed jazz for “inflaming the animal passions of romance-seeking youth.” And in 1924, the newspaper declared, “At this time the whole civilized structure is being threatened by the mixing of the white and black races.” It continued:

It is God’s purpose that the white man should preserve purity of blood and white supremacy in this country. Those who would have it otherwise or show leniency toward the mixing of white and colored races do not deserve the respect of anyone, much less of those who are trying to preserve American institutions, ideals and principles. A mongrel race and a mongrel civilization mean decay and ruin.

Fiery Cross, May 16, 1923, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thus, throughout Klan literature, any reference to Christian virtue or Protestant values, should be understood as being imbued with white supremacy. The Klan believed that God valued people of Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian decent more than people of other backgrounds. And they believed that it was their sacred duty to protect white domination of the U.S. For the Midwestern Klan, the main obstacle to this goal was not African Americans. Many Indiana towns had small numbers of Black residents, and there were plenty of institutionalized practices and laws in place by the 1920s to suppress African Americans. The Klan helped to keep these as standard practice. However, they saw immigrants, mainly Catholics but also Jews, as the main threat to a white, Protestant America. [6]

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

D. C. Stephenson, the recently appointed Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, clearly laid out the organization’s stance on immigration in a September 1923 speech to Hoosier coal miners. The Fiery Cross printed Stephenson’s address in its entirety under the headline “Immigration is Periling America.” First, he distinguished between “old” and “new” immigrants. The old immigrants were the Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian “progenitors of the Republic of America” who brought their strong work ethic and “social, moral, and civic ideals” to the new land. Omitting any mention of native peoples or the contributions of the many other immigrant groups who helped found the United States, Stephenson continued to provide the history of an imagined past created solely by and for white people.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Gathering of Muncie Klan No. 4,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Libraries, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/700

Second, Stephenson plainly identified the enemy of white Protestant America as the “new” immigrants who were arriving in “greater in numbers” than the “old” immigrants.  These “new” immigrants were “from the races of southern and eastern Europe.”

Third, he cited the various ways that the “new immigrant has been shown to be much inferior to the older type and to the native American stock.” By “native American,” Stephenson meant white European people who immigrated in previous generations, not the native Indian peoples who originally called North America home. Using examples based in the (later discredited) pseudo-science of eugenics, Stephenson furthered his argument about the inherent inferiority of  the “new” immigrants.[7] Eugenicists assumed that some traits like mental illness or poverty could be prevented by limiting reproduction of people demonstrating such traits in order to breed a better race of humans.[8]

For Klan leaders, however, the language of eugenics gave them “scientific facts” to present as evidence for the need for blocking immigration. In his speech, Stephenson presented reports from eugenicists claiming that the “new” immigrants were less intelligent and more prone to mental disorders and criminal tendencies. Stephenson cited a report by influential eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, who was essential in shaping both eugenics legislation and immigration restriction. [9] Stephenson used Laughlin’s “elaborate statistics” throughout his speech, claiming:

In reference to feeblemindedness, insanity, crime, epilepsy, tuberculosis and deformity, the older immigrant stocks are vastly sounder than the recent.

and

The countries which ran lowest in crime are those which have contributed most to the elementary foundation of the population of the United States – such as Great Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands . . . Those immigrant groups that run high in crime are from the countries of southern and eastern Europe’

The conclusion he intended his listeners to draw from such reports was that these  people must be excluded from the country. Stephenson stated:

My friends, the significance of authoritative statements like these can hardly be overestimated. Unrestricted immigration would appear to result in a gradual contraction of our native American stock.

Fourth, Stephenson claimed that English, German, and Scandinavian “old immigrants” spread out across the country, establishing farming communities. On the other hand, the “new” immigrants settled only in already congested cities and refused to assimilate. And finally, Stephenson claimed, in these cities, the immigrant was to blame for a decreased standard of living and reduction in wages. He continued:

There is no assimilation to American standards and ideals, in the case of the great majority of the newer immigrants. Masses of human beings of inferior races, ignorant of all the ideals which Americans hold dear, are poured into our factories as so much raw material – and they are not ‘digested.’ The new immigrant comes here as a foreigner and he remains a foreigner – a citizen of a lower class, who, just as the negro, is a constant menace to the standards of civilization which Americans hold dear.

The solution was clear. The powerful Klan, with its millions of members, demanded in 1923 that “the next Congress must adopt a permanent immigration law.” Stephenson concluded his speech to the Indiana coal miners:

So the unchecked importation now of hordes of southern Europeans will bring its inevitable harvest in fearfully deteriorating the character of the American nation of the future. The immigration policy which we adopt today will not produce its vital effects at once; these will come a generation or two later, and the American citizenship, American standards of living and American qualities of manhood and womanhood of that time will be largely dependent upon the character of the racial stock that today we permit to become the percentage of the nation.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Women’s Auxiliary Rally in New Castle, Indiana,” photograph, 1923, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/622.

Hoosier Klan members were on board with this message, despite the fact that Indiana’s own immigration history proved the racist claims false at every turn. For example, Jews like John Jacob Hays, an Indiana agent for the U.S. government, were among the first of European descent to settle in the Northwest Territory. Jewish Hoosier Samuel Judah settled in Vincennes in 1818 began the first of his five terms in the state legislature in 1827.[10] Black Hoosiers were also among the first to clear and farm Indiana land in communities across the state, building thriving communities like Roberts Settlement by the 1830s.[11] Catholic immigrants to Indiana like Saint Theodora Guerin in 1840 braved the wilderness and prejudice to establish schools and orphanages.[12] And at the same time the Fiery Cross claimed that immigrants were responsible for draining the economy, Terre Haute newspapers praised the Syrian immigrants to their community on the Wabash River for stimulating the local economy.[13] The examples of immigrant contributions to the Hoosier state are endless. But despite the local lessons to be learned, many Hoosiers held on to their prejudices. And the Indiana Klan gave them an outlet.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Initiation and Cross Burning,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographic Collection, Ball State University and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/724

How do we know that the average Hoosier who joined the Klan, actually supported this message of white supremacy? One way Indiana Klan members made their support public and highly visible was through large and elaborate parades. In September 1923, the Fiery Cross reported that between 1,200 and 1,500 Klansmen marched in a “huge parade” through the main streets of Terre Haute. They were led by the Terre Haute No. 7 Klan band. Signs on floats read “Uphold the Constitution” and “America First.” Local police helped handle traffic and a traction company provided “special cars” to transport Klansmen and women to “the Klan grounds, north of the city.” Here there were speakers and new member initiation ceremonies for “several hundred candidates.” While these new Hoosier Klan members took their oaths of allegiance, “a fiery cross was lighted.”

Fiery Cross, May 23, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In July 1923, the Fiery Cross reported on a huge Ku Klux Klan gathering in Kokomo. The city hosted “a throng in excess of any ever before entertained by an Indiana city, not excepting Indianapolis on Speedway day,” with Klan members coming from surrounding states as well. At this meeting Klan leaders announced “the establishment of a stated organization for the Hoosiers” and “charters granted to each and ever county in Indiana” for local Klan “klaverns.” The Fiery Cross continued:

Americanism has engulfed the Hoosier state and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana has been as a tidal wave.

In October 1923, the Fiery Cross claimed 10,000 people turned out for a Klan parade in Bloomington organized by the Monroe County Klan and the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. In November, Klan members held a similar event in Fort Wayne. And the Fiery Cross estimated that 100,000 would attend the night parade of Klansmen in May 1924 in Indianapolis, marching from the State Fairgrounds, to  Monument Circle, led by Klan bands and drum corp.

Fiery Cross, June 27, 1924, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan grew their membership in other ways too. Donning robes and masks, they marched into churches and made donations to grateful ministers. They held picnics and social events. They showed Klan propaganda movies.[14] Klan bands recorded albums and Indianapolis even had a KKK  record store, the American Record Shop. Members advocated for prohibition of alcohol and supported prayer in school, issues that especially interested women. Thus, the number of women’s Klan groups increased across the state as well.

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Not all Klan members hid behind costumes. Many felt comfortable taking off their hoods in pictures or running an ad for their business in the Fiery Cross. While some business owners advertised in order to avoid boycott, others proudly proclaimed that their business was “100 per cent American” or incorporated the letters “KKK” into the ad.

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Fiery Cross, February 23, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Some mainstream newspapers, such as the Indianapolis Times, were harsh critics of the Klan. But others ran ads for Klan gatherings or speakers on “the principles of 100 per cent Americanism.” Some mainstream newspapers may have even ran more subtle versions of the “100 Per Cent” ads for businesses sympathetic to the Klan that ran regularly in the Fiery Cross.

Greencastle Herald, September 21 [left] and November 17, 1923 [right], Hoosier State Chronicles.
These efforts to build membership, influence, and solidarity were successful in Indiana and across much of the country. By 1924, the Klan was a powerful force. They gave white Protestants an organization dedicated to defending the perceived threat to their political and cultural dominance. The more enthusiastic Klansmen used intimidation techniques such as burning crosses on front lawns or stopping cars to search for illegal alcohol.[15] However, they mainly focused their intimidation into written and verbal attacks on immigrants using stereotyping, dehumanizing language, and eugenic pseudo-science. Cloaking their hateful message in patriotism and virtue made it palatable to many.

Cartoon from Denver Post reprinted in Fiery Cross, May 9, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles had real world consequences. To many Indiana politicians, the people had spoken. The Indiana Republican Party was the most sympathetic, but there were Democratic supporters as well. Most politicians were complicit in their failure to denounce the Klan for fear of losing votes, as opposed to any direct participation in the organization. But the Klan did influence Indiana elections. Stephenson openly revealed that the Klan would distribute sample ballots to members with candidates who were favorable to the organization clearly marked.[16] Several candidates won seats directly because the Klan proclaimed their support. Others sympathetic to the Klan won offices perhaps because the Klan had disseminated so much propaganda that voters did not know what to believe. As the Klan accused opposing candidates of various indiscretions, voters may have become confused and apathetic.[17] Regardless of how it was gained, directly or indirectly, their influence prevailed for some time. In fact, Stephenson released the names of several politicians who were Klansmen themselves, including John L. Duvall, the Mayor of Indianapolis, and Ed Jackson, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

Indiana’s congressmen who neither joined nor denounced the Klan still furthered the organization’s “America first” agenda. For example, as governor, Samuel Ralston proved to be a fairly progressive-minded democrat, advocating for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and workman’s compensation. When he was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1922, he tried to avoid talking about the Klan altogether. Like most moderate Hoosier politicians Ralston was not a Klan member, but he also he never publicly denounced the organization.[18] However, when the Senate voted on the Immigration Act of 1924, Ralston voted in favor of restriction as did his counterpart James Watson.[19] All of Indiana’s representatives had also voted in favor of the bill.[20] President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law May 24, 1924. The President told Congress, “America must be kept American.”[21]

The Immigration Act of 1924 and its quota system remained in effect until 1952. The legislation had dire consequences in the 1930s for the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who applied to the United States for immigration visas. Jews were specifically targeted in the legislation as undesirable candidates for refuge and only a handful were admitted. As newspapers reported on the escalating violence and injustices perpetrated by the Nazis, some Americans called for a loosening of the restrictions. However, while the Klan may have disappeared by the 1930s, the nativist and xenophobic attitude of many Americans remained the same as it had been when they wore masks and robes. Fortune magazine took a large poll in 1938 and found that only 5% of Americans wanted to allow “political refugees to come into the United States.”[22] Even a bill requesting a temporary easing of the quotas to rescue child refugees of Nazi terror failed in the Senate. The persecuted Jews of Europe would not find refuge in the United States. Many of those denied entry were murdered in the Holocaust.[23]

With each new shift in demographics throughout American history, certain groups have feared losses of power or wealth. However, those groups who rally around nativism and hate, as powerful as they might grow for a time, lose out to the more powerful vision of America as a leader in justice and democracy. Eventually, eugenics was discounted and its practice outlawed, the quota system overturned, and the Klan was made a laughing stock. Even so, the Klan’s vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers beneath the surface of American politics. Vigilant Hoosiers are needed to make sure that never again will we “fear difference and demand a conformity that contradict[s] . . . the state’s best traditions.”[24] According to UCLA’s Re-Imagining Migration project, we live in an age of mass migration and immigration. When we understand that migration is “a shared condition of our past, present, and future” we can “develop the knowledge, empathy and mindsets that sustain inclusive and welcoming communities.”

Update: The Midwest History Association keynote by James Madison cited below is now available to watch: https://www.c-span.org/video/?460982-1/ku-klux-klan-1920s-midwest

Notes

[1] United States House of Representatives, “Historical Highlights: The Immigration Act of 1924,” History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/The-Immigration-Act-of-1924/.
[2]  American Social History Project at City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University “Who Was Shut Out? Immigration Quotas, 1925-1927,” History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/expansion.html.
[3] James Madison, “Flappers and Klansmen Challenge Traditions: The 1920s,” in Hoosiers (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014), 234-253; James Madison, “Who’s an American? The Rise and Fall of the Klan in the Midwest,” Plenary Address, Fifth Annual Midwestern History Conference, Grand Valley State University, May 31, 2019. In his 2019 address, Madison clearly stated that the 1920s Klan was a mainstream movement at the center, not margins, of the nation’s history.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7]PBS, “Eugenics Movement Reaches Its Height,” A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dh23eu.html.
[8] Indiana Historical Bureau, “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/524.htm. The pseudo-science of eugenics led to mass sterilization in Indiana and elsewhere before it was determined to be a violation of human rights by state and federal courts [
[9] University of Missouri, “Harry Laughlin: Workhorse of the American Eugenics Movement,” Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade: 1870-1940, University of Missouri Special Collections and Rare Books, https://library.missouri.edu/exhibits/eugenics/laughlin.htm; Andrea Den Hoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” New Yorker, April 27, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement.
Laughlin’s influence was lasting. He later praised Hitler for understanding that the “central mission of all politics is race hygiene.” The Reichstag modeled their eugenics laws after Laughlin’s model and the American eugenicist continued to give support for the Third Reich throughout his life.
[10] American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Indiana Jewish History,” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/indiana-jewish-history.
[11] Stephen A. Vincent, “History,” Roberts Settlement, http://www.robertssettlement.org/history.html.
[12] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Saint Theodora Guerin,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4330.htm.
[13] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Little Syria on the Wabash,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4404.htm.
[14] Madison, Plenary Address, 2019.
[15] Madison, Hoosiers, 247.
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? Samuel Ralston Denies Klan Affiliation, Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, July 17, 2018, https://blog.history.in.gov/samuel-ralston-denies-klan-affiliation/
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/immigration-quotas/.
[17] Madison, Hoosiers, 253.
[18] Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? 2018.
[19] Senate Vote #126 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995 . . .  A Bill to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/s126.
[20] House Vote #90 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to the Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995, to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States,” https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/h90.
[21] University of Virginia, “Harding, Coolidge, and Immigration,” July 6, 2016, Miller Center, https://millercenter.org/issues-policy/us-domestic-policy/harding-coolidge-and-immigration.
[22] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/we-remember/.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Madison, Hoosiers, 238.

How Gary American Editor Edwina Whitlock Crusaded for Equality

Edwina Whitlock, circa 1940s, found in Edward Ball’s The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 320, accessed Internet Archive.

Gary American editor Edwina H. Whitlock wrote in the California Eagle in 1961, “I might perhaps be forgiven for posing as a political authority, but those who know Indiana must acknowledge that basketball and politics are monkeys on the backs of every Hoosier.”[1] The life of Edwina Whitlock, the first and only female editor of the Gary American, is a story that evokes critical insights into the most influential periods in Black history and showcases Black women’s dedication to the long Civil Rights Movement. Whitlock illuminated the rise of the “Black bourgeoisie” and their advocacy for equal rights between the 1920s and into the 1980s, herself having grown up among the small community of Black elites in Charleston, South Carolina. She witnessed the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance through her adopted father, strove to emulate W.E.B. DuBois’s ideals regarding Black excellence, and utilized her class privilege to advocate for civil rights and equality through journalism and activism.

The Early Life of Edwina (Harleston) Whitlock

The Black side of the Harleston family held deep roots within the American South, which defined early on by issues of race and class. Edwina Harleston Whitlock’s ancestors were enslaved. Her maternal great-grandmother Kate Wilson lived in bondage and bore eight of the plantation owner’s children. Harleston never married, and upon his death in 1835, the mixed-race Harleston children, who were denied their inheritance, were pushed back into Black society, and refused inheritance from white relatives. Despite these circumstances, the Harleston’s blossomed in the Jim Crow South, utilizing their status as “mixed-race” in order to toe the line of segregation to make a name for themselves.[2] Together, the family integrated into the small, middle-class population of Black Elites in Charleston, South Carolina.

Gussie Harleston in 1924, photographed by her adoptive mother Elise Forrest Harleston, found in Edward Ball’s The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 318, accessed Internet Archive.

Originally named Gussie Harleston, Edwina was born in Charleston on September 28, 1916, to Kate Wilson’s grandson, Robert O. Harleston and his wife, Marie Forrest. When she was just two and half years old, Edwina and her sister Slyvia were sent to live with their uncle, Edwin A. “Teddy” Harleston, after their parent’s contracted tuberculosis.[3] However, after the passing of both their parents, the girls were adopted by Teddy and Elise so they could raise them as their own. Teddy Harleston proved to be an inspiring innovator to the girls. As a young boy at the Avery Normal Institute, Teddy developed an interest in painting portraiture and scenes associated with Southern Black culture, which would define his career for the remainder of his life. He went on to attend Atlanta University, where he studied under Black sociologist and activist W.E.B Du Bois.[4] Du Bois and Harleston became life-long friends, and he encouraged Teddy to use his elite social standing to precipitate equality.

Du Bois’s influence permeated the Harleston family. Later in adulthood, Edwina Harleston describes that the family reared their children according to Du Bois’s theory of the “talented tenth,” a concept that emphasized the necessity of higher education to develop the leadership skills among the “most able 10 percent of Black Americans.”[5] They also instilled a work ethic in their children, reflecting Booker T. Washington’s theory that “African-Americans must concentrate on educating themselves, learning useful trades, and investing in their own business.”[6] She contributed her success to these two ideologies, and what ultimately led to Harleston’s academic drive and early involvement in journalism and newspapers.

The Herald Sun, November 4, 2001, accessed Newspapers.com.

As a young girl, Gussie’s uncle, Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins, ensured that she was always working in some capacity at the orphanage that he ran in Charleston with his wife, Eloise “Ella” Harleston. She recalls that she had a choice: work on the orphanage farm and dig sweet potatoes, or work on the orphanage’s newsletter, The Messenger. She wrote local updates, which spearheaded her interest in journalism.[7] Harleston began calling up different people and groups– churches, community leaders, and businessmen – to ask them questions about their daily activities so she could write up reports regarding what was going on around town. Tragedy struck in 1931, when Edwin “Teddy” Harleston passed away at the young age of forty-nine.[8]  To honor these men, fifteen-year-old Gussie Harleston changed her first name to Edwina.

As a high school student, Edwina Harleston remained a veteran writer for The Messenger.[9] During the height of the Great Depression, Harleston’s familial wealth offered her the rare opportunity to attend a university.  In 1934, she went on to attend Talladega College, an HBCU, where nearly “all of the students came from light-skinned African American families in urban centers.”[10] Historian Joy Ann Williamson-Lott explained that, for many Black Americans at this time, advanced study at Black institutions remained rare. However, these environments provided a rich opportunity for Black scholars to educate themselves. Edwina was a part of an emerging generation of educated Black Americans, dubbed “The New Negro,” which celebrated Black history, life, and culture through educational advancement.[11] She majored in English literature, taking classes in Chaucer and Shakespeare, while becoming president of her sorority Delta Sigma Theta. She maintained an active social life in school, even forming a secret society with other young women called Sacred Order of Ancient Pigs (SOAP), where the members got together on slow school nights to
gossip.[12]

F.B. Ransom Family Portrait, circa 1935. A’Lelia is on the far left, standing next to her father, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

It was through this group that Harleston met A’Lelia Ransom, daughter of Indianapolis lawyer Freeman Briley Ransom (better known as F.B.).[13] Ransom’s father served as legal counsel to Madame C. J. Walker and her company. A’Lelia and Edwina became great friends, making their own secret club called “Ain’t-Got-Nothing Club.” Every week, A’Lelia’s father would send the girls newspaper clippings from Indianapolis, along with a dollar or two, and they would read the news and spend A’Lelia’s allowance.[14] A’Lelia Ransom would later become the last president of Walker Manufacturing in 1953.[15]

Harleston graduated from Talladega in 1939 and upon her mother’s suggestion applied to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. By the fall of 1940, after spending her whole life in the South, she moved to Chicago to attend graduate school, working towards a master’s degree in journalism. Harleston reveals that this was her first time encountering real racism:

In Charleston, I had been sheltered from it, because the white world and the black world were parallel, never touching. Then I got to Northwestern, the so-called great Methodist Institution. Two things happened that surprised me. The star football player, who was black, was meeting the requirements of his major, but he was not allowed to swim in the university pool. . . . There was also the policy of this supposedly religious university that prevented black students from living in the dormitories on campus. . . . Once I was studying for finals with a friend who wasn’t black. I was invited to her dorm room, but at midnight was told by the matron I had to leave because I was colored. I was frightened and furious and had to stumble back across the railroad tracks to my room at the minister’s house.[16]

Northern racism became a constant obstacle and prominent topic of discussion in her work as a female journalist.

While working towards her master’s degree, Harleston worked as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Defender and the Negro Digest.  Her experience in writing for newspapers would play a critical role in the next seventeen years of her life. After meeting Henry Oliver Whitlock at Northwestern, the couple married in April of 1945 and Whitlock found herself moving to the booming, deeply segregated City of Gary, Indiana. A year earlier, Henry had taken over operations of his father’s newspaper, the Gary American – one of the largest Black newspapers in Northwest Indiana. By 1947, Edwina Whitlock would appear on the masthead as Lead Editor as the couple oversaw the dissemination of the publication.

The Gary American: Northwest Indiana’s Early Guardian of Northern Equality

Map of Gary, Indiana in 1929, Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Forty-five minutes from the southside of Chicago and situated next the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan, the United States Steel Company built Gary’s foundations in 1906. Other businesses followed suit. Between 1910 and 1920, Gary’s population jumped from 16,802 to over 55,000.[17] Gary garnered attention, earning the nickname the “Magic City,” as Eastern and Southern Europeans flocked to the area for industrial jobs. However, World War I largely disrupted European migration, and steel companies turned to the Southern portion of the U.S. for labor. The resulting Great Migration drew Black Southerners to Gary’s mills, where they were paid disproportionately low wages.[18]

The influx of Black residents in Gary did not go unnoticed by whites, especially those returning home from World War I to find their jobs had been “taken over” by Black Southerners. In fact, 1920s Indiana was a hotbed for Ku Klux Klan activity, with approximately 300,000 members.[19] Valparaiso, Indiana – only 30 minutes from Gary – became a center for Klan activity in the Northwest region, with the Klan nearly purchasing Valparaiso University (then Valparaiso College). Racism and terror within the region, coupled with the growing Black population, culminated in the creation of the Gary’s own Black newspaper. The publication would disseminate Black news and highlight instances of inequality that did not appear in mainstream publications. In 1927, Arthur B. Whitlock, David E. Taylor, and Chauncey Townsend headed the formation of the Gary American Publishing Company. On November 10, 1927, the Gary Colored American began as a weekly African American paper, publishing its first issue with Townsend as editor and Whitlock as manager.

Postcard Roosevelt High School, Gary, Indiana, circa 1949, accessed the Indiana Album.

In its first year of publication, the Gary Colored American led reports on the 1927 Emerson School walkout, when white students and parents protested the integration of six Black students into the school. As a result, the school board decided to reinforce existing de facto segregation, transferring the children out of Emerson, and agreeing to build Roosevelt High School, an all-Black school in the Midtown neighborhood. Gary’s Black population remained divided on this issue, with some advocating for total desegregation and others celebrating the decision to create a new school. The Gary Colored American advocated for the construction of Roosevelt High School to serve Gary’s African American children, citing it as an achievement for Black excellence. [20]

In 1928, the Gary Colored American changed its name to the Gary American, quickly becoming one the city’s most prominent Black newspapers, paving the way for publications like the Gary Crusader. While initial circulation numbers are unavailable, in 1928, the Gary American claimed a readership of nearly 2,000 readers. In 1929, its masthead asserted that the Gary American was an “independent paper” devoted to Black interests in Northern Indiana.[21]  The paper columns reflected the upsurge of white supremacy in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in Jim Crow terrorism that plagued Black communities across the U.S. In 1934, the front page of the Gary American showcased an extensive article about the NAACP’s report that approximately 28 known lynchings occurred the previous year in the U.S. This marked nearly a 200% increase in white terror from 1932 to 1933.[22] By the end of that year, the Gary American published a message to readers, stating, “the Negroes of Gary can look only to The Gary American, their own and only newspaper, for all the news primarily of interest to them and concerning their activities,” claiming that they were the servant of Gary’s Negroes during this tumultuous time period.[23]

Editor Arthur Whitlock left the company in 1938 and attorney F. Louis Sperling was elected editor and acting manager. His legal influence filtered through the Gary American as a plethora of articles featured race and legal rulings within in the U.S. criminal justice system. The Gary American drew attention to a Richmond Times-dispatch editorial in 1937 about the federal Anti-Lynching Bill of 1937:

Now that the rest of the week is apparently available for debating the anti-lynching bill, is it too much to hope that the Southern senators will discuss this measure on its merits, instead of consuming days in flamboyant and bombastic posturing, in apostrophies to the fair name of Southern womanhood, in hysterical outbursts concerning the future of Southern civilization? [24]

The bill passed in the House of Representatives, but was held up in the Senate during a filibuster, where First Lady Elanor Roosevelt sat in the Senate Gallery to silently protest those participating in the blockade. Ultimately, the Anti-Lynching Bill failed to pass in the Senate, despite the Gallup poll revealing that nearly three in four Americans (72%) supported anti-lynching legislations and called for it to become a federal crime.[25]

Additionally, in 1938, Editor Sperling released an open letter to Indiana Governor M. Clifford Townsend on the front page of the paper to draw his attention to corruption that was happening within the city. Sperling claimed that a public official, who was responsible for distributing “hundreds of thousands of dollars of the taxpayers’ money” to majority Black families receiving government assistance, was withholding funds to coerce them to vote for her candidate for mayor, Dr. Robert Doty, and for her trustee candidate, P. D. Wells. Sperling wrote, “and what is much worse, [she] has entered into a deliberate campaign to intimidate both colored and white voters of this city who are already on relief rolls, telling them that they will have to support her ‘program’ or be they will be cut off relief rolls.”[26]

Champion of Local Activism and the Civil Rights Movement

Henry O. Whitlock and Edwina Whitlock, with their son Henry Whitlock Jr., posing next to the 1949 Christmas Release of the Gary American, found in Edward Ball’s The Sweet Hell Inside, p. 322, accessed Internet Archive.

In the following decade, the Whitlock’s returned to the Gary American. Arthur’s son, Henry O. Whitlock, became manager in 1944 and his wife, Edwina, becoming editor in 1947. She was a mother and teacher at Froebel High School by day and a journalist by night. The family thrived under the post-war conditions that encouraged a growing middle-class, so much so that they hired a live-in nanny for their children and bought a vacation home in South Haven, Michigan.[27] She saw herself a part of the elusive “Black Bourgeoisie,” which highlighted the white American ideals – Black men worked professional jobs, while the women kept the home with the children. Along with running the Gary American, Henry Whitlock worked as an investigator in the Lake County prosecutor’s office.[28]  Following in her adoptive father’s footsteps, Edwina exceeded the realities of Black life, promoting the middle-class lifestyle that many Black Americans lacked, because they did not share her fair skin or generational wealth. But the Gary American gave her unlimited access to disseminate her own ideas about family, Black excellence, and how in Gary’s Black community could fight for self-determination.

During the burgeoning Civil Rights Era, the Gary American focused on issues like discriminatory education funding, the creation of Gary’s first Black Taxicab Company, and the local boycott against Kroger Stores for refusing to hire minority employees.[29] Whitlock published her own column, First Person Singular, for many years. Her editorial topics varied, ranging from marriage and childrearing issues to discussions of race and education. One editorial, appearing in October of 1948, discussed her husband’s opinion that “women dress for other women.” She challenged her readers to question their own partners on the matter to determine if purchasing clothing was self-indulgent as society moved away from the wartime economy and the rationing system.[30] Another editorial, appearing in 1946, was simpler and to the point, “No brains, no hearts – is it any wonder that the Ku Kluxers are also stooges? Right now, they’re stooges for a few racketeers who are clipping them for ten spots or so for the privilege of going around with pillowcases on their heads.”[31] She tackled both the complexities of womanhood and race, offering an intersectional lens to the history of the growing Black population in Gary.

Following World War II, more Black Americans moved to the city, and as a result, they were forced into the central, downtown district, but the city’s boarders grew too slowly to keep up with the expanding population. Rents increased as investments in building repairs dropped, and landlords became virtually unresponsive to Black tenants. By 1940, the U.S. Census reported that only thirty percent of Black families lived in one-family homes, and the remainder lived in apartment houses or small homes converted into apartments, with multiple families living under one unit.[32] Additionally, the Gary Housing Authority – despite its role in maintaining segregated neighborhoods – reported that in 1950, 11,582 families were living in substandard homes or slums, approximately 1,000 more than existed ten years prior to the GHA organizing.[33]

In 1949, she gave birth to the first of four children, whom she raised during her editorial career.  That summer, Whitlock addressed her concerns about congestion of the Central District and the strains it imposed on families via poor living conditions and warned about the urge to fall into consumerism rather than focusing on the preservation of the natural world. Her solution was simple – Whitlock proposed an eight-day living week and a thirty-hour work week. She suggested supermarkets offer prepared meals so breadwinners could save money on groceries and utilize the funds for the necessities, like owning a home. Whitlock saw the value in equal payment for all laborers, Black or white, and advocated for the spreading of wealth to relieve the crowded living quarters of the Gary’s Central District. These statements were made during the height of the McCarthy-era, in which rampant persecution of left-wing individuals took center stage of the American political scene. Whitlock did not care. “I sound like a Communist, you say? Well, if Communism means subscribing to a theory that every man’s labor is worth as much as every other man’s,” Whitlock wrote, “having the conviction that the color of a man’s skin should be no deterrent in selecting a place to live – then, come on Revolution. H. O., hand me your shotgun.”[34]

Towards the end of the 1950s, white residents fled to suburban areas like Merrillville due to the city’s increased Black population. Middle-class white families moved away from Gary’s downtown metropolitan center, depleting it of a tax base which thrusted Gary into a state of decline. Black residents, however, were barred from following suit. Once again, housing was featured prominently in Whitlock’s editorials. In 1959, Whitlock discusses her opinions on housing, and the refusal of banks to provide loans to Black locals. Edwina wrote:

Chatted a while today with one of the leading mortgage brokers and I suggested that he and his cohorts could clean up this whole mess with one broad sweep. Instead of refusing to lend money to Negroes who seek better accommodations for themselves by moving to late fringe areas, they should refuse to loan money to the whites who try to run away. If a white family has decent housing in a decent community and the broker suspects that they’re trying to run away from their colored neighbors just let the family do their own financing.[35]

As Edwina pointed out, Black residents struggled to secure access to well-built homes and a welcoming community. However, segregated housing projects were not new – the development could be seen in Gary during the 1930s, and the Gary Housing Authority, established in 1939, continued to segregate residents by placing Black families in the central district, and white families outside of the downtown area.

The Gary American also took a vested interest in the desegregation of the city’s parks, particularly Marquette Beach. Federal programs during the Depression years expanded Gary’s Park system and as a result, U.S. Steel provided the city with a lake-front area. The WPA transformed it into a large park, equipped with a beach, picnic area, and a pavilion. Early editorials reveal how Whitlock felt about lack of community beaches, saying: “But to be continually denied even the elementary right to take a dip in Lake Michigan without having to travel 15 miles to do so, strikes me as being a pretty rotten deal.”[36] In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city took it’s time when it came to the construction of the new de-segregated section of the beachfront, and many Black residents grew frustrated. Whitlock offered another revolutionary solution: staging a sit-in picnic right on the whites-only beaches. “Getting a few heads bashed in would only be a small price to pay,” Whitlock urged, “for providing our youngsters with an example of forthright action on the part of real men and women.”[37]

Even after Marquette Beach came to fruition, white beachgoers used harassment and violence to keep the sand segregated. However, forced integration occurred only after an uproar in the late 1950s.[38] In fact, Marquette Beach had been a center of white terrorism against local Black beachgoers, with the Gary American reporting in 1949 that a peaceful protest for integration, known as “Beachhead for Democracy,” turned violent when “white hoodlums” hurled bricks, bats, and pipes against vehicles of those who were attending the protest. Police arrived twenty minutes later, closing the beach to demonstrators, which caused the white attackers to disperse.[39] However, the Gary American reported that the protest fueled KKK activity for the next three nights – with white residents burning crosses on the shores of Marquette beach, attacking the homes of “ring leaders” with rocks, bricks, and firing holes into windows with guns, even leaving notes telling residents to leave town.[40]

The protests led to the desegregation of Marquette Beach Marquette Beach remained a contentious site. In the summer of 1961, the Gary American produced extensive coverage over the beating of 21-year-old Murray W. Richards. On Memorial Day, Richards and three female friends were enjoying their time at the beach, when fifteen to twenty drunk white men approached the group and demanded that Murray and his friends leave the beach. After refusing, they attacked Richards unprovoked, hitting him in the jaw with a beer bottle, bashing his face with a baseball bat, and striking him with 2×4 plank. One of the young ladies was dragged toward the water under the threat that the gang of men would drown her. Richards explained to the American that “he feared they would carry out their threat to kill him if he were to fall down.” It was revealed that Richards saw one policeman, Officer George Stimple, standing by his squad car, watching the attack, but did nothing to stop it, even after being informed of what was happening by a young white girl.

Richards was left with lacerations on both ears and his scalp, fractures in his jaw and skull, and multiple contusions on his face, arms, chest and back which needed stitches.[41] Only one of his attackers was taken into custody and prosecuted. The beating fueled unrest across Gary, with the paper reporting that more than 500 citizens packed the Council Chambers on June 6, protesting the inaction of Officer Stimple. Charles Ross, First Vice President of the NAACP, stated that the police department had consciously and deliberately refused to provide the minimum protect to Gary’s Black citizens.[42] The protest led to an investigation into Officer Stimple, but on July 7, the Gary American reported that, after a five-hour hearing, Stimple was found innocent by the civil service commission on the charges that he failed to aid Murray Richards. Commission secretary Thomas G. Kennedy claimed, “The evidence presented in support of the charges was inconclusive.”[43] A little over a month later, the Gary American reported on another white attack against Black citizens at Marquette.[44]

Exposing and challenging racism in Northwest Indiana became the goal for Whitlock and her husband. In an interview with Edward Ball, an American author who focuses on history and biography, she recalled just how influential the Gary American was when it came to dismantling segregation in her community:

The American was a local paper, and we fought to get black bus drivers in Gary, when there were none. We fought the electric utility to hire black women because they didn’t have any. Henry’s father, who started the paper, was on the board of the Urban League, and tried to get certain jobs in the steel mills opened to Negroes, because not all of them were. All our circle and all our friends belonged to the NAACP and attended annual meetings.[45]

The Gary American never reached the status of the Chicago Defender, which was in production less than an hour away, but its influence within The Region was wholly felt.

Living History

Henry Whitlock died on May 5, 1960, and the Gary American announced his death on May 13, saying “Henry Oliver Whitlock . . . gave his all to the community. He was for modern, efficient government. He was for the complete integration of Negroes into all facets of American life.”[46] Edwina continued to run the Gary American by herself until February of 1961, when she sold the publication to Edward “Doc” James and James T. Harris, Jr. The Gary American continued to operate until the 1990s, and even expanded its publication beyond Gary into East Chicago/Indiana Harbor.[47]

That same year, Whitlock moved south of Los Angeles with her four children on the edge of Watts, a predominately Black neighborhood that had been isolated from white California. The area faced intense poverty and inequality. Whitlock took on a job in public relations at Watts Savings & Loans. But in August of 1965, Whitlock found her family thrusted into turmoil when the Watts Uprising gripped the neighborhood. Stepbrothers Marquette and Ronald Frye were pulled over right outside their house by a white California Highway Patrol officer while driving their mother’s car, where Marquette was arrested after failing a sobriety test. Back up was called from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and a crowd of Black locals formed and watched the arrest unfold, causing one officer to pull his gun out. As a result, Frye’s mother, who witnessed the event unfold outside her house, went to defend her son. All three were arrested, enraging the residents of Watts, who took to the streets to protest police profiling and the conditions of their neighborhood.[48]

Getty Image, courtesy of “Looking Back on the Watts Riots, 55 Years Later: In Photos,” WSLS, accessed https://www.wsls.com/features/2020/08/11/looking-back-on-the-watts-riots-55-years-later-in-photos/.

Between August 11 and 16, Black residents engaged in a massive protest, confronting the LAPD and taking items from local stores to acquire the goods they were often unable to afford due to pay disparities. In the end, the United States dispatched in 14,000 National Guard troops to Watts, forcing protesters back into their homes. The movement took thirty-four lives and led to over 4,000 arrests. For Whitlock, however, the uprising only motivated her get back into the community, and she quit her banking job to train as a social worker. She told biographer Edward Ball, “I studied for the ‘War on Poverty,’ which is what the Lyndon Johnson administration called it. I guess I was one of those advanced soldiers in the war . . . they were idealists, and we all believed in what President Johnson promised about finding jobs for Blacks.”[49] After passing the civil service exam, Whitlock became a social worker, traveling throughout the city into both Black and white neighborhoods to help families less privileged than her.  Along with her new career, she continued her work in journalism with articles appearing in publications like the California Eagle.[50]

By the end of Whitlock’s life, encountered her long-lost cousin, white author Edward Ball, that she finally got the opportunity to tell the world about her family’s contributions to Black history.[51] After an extensive interview process, combing through letters and photographs and outlining her family lore, Ball and Edwina worked together to publish The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South in 2001. One year later, Edwina passed away Atlanta, Georgia in November of 2002, at the age of eight-six.[52] Edwina Whitlock’s dedication to highlighting issues of inequality illuminates many of the forgotten Black women at the heart of the long Civil Rights Movement. Through her work as a journalist and her continuous involvement in her community, she utilized her own privilege to promote and sustain equality. The Gary American will soon be digitized and incorporated into the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database and IHB’s own Hoosier State Chronicles, to give historians the chance to uncover Northwest Indiana’s often discounted, but rich Black history and unveil more stories like Edwina Harleston Whitlock’s.

 

Notes:

[1] Edwina H. Whitlock, “Gary, Ind., Negroes Help Run City Gov’t,” California Eagle, October 19, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] William’s and Kate’s son, Edwin G. “Captain” Harleston proved to be an American pioneer, establishing a successful funeral business that allowed his five children to thrive. His son, Edwin A. “Teddy” Harleston, became a successful painter and renowned portraitist. Another son ran an orphanage, whose young Black children became musical prodigies in the group Jenkins Orphanage Band.

[3] Robert Harleston and Edwin A. “Teddy” Harleston were two of Edwin “Captain” Harleston’s seven children. Captain Harleston was Kate Wilson’s fifth child with white plantation owner, William Harleston. In Charleston, Captain ran a profitable funeral business that serviced the Black community.

[4] E. Rudwick, “W.E.B. Du Bois,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed Brtannica.com.

[5] Edward Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, 297, accessed Internet Archive.

[6] “Booker T. Washington,” Teach Democracy, accessed crf-usa.org; Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 297.

[7] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 297- 298.

[8] Teddy’s father, Captain Harleston, died in April of 1931, after catching pneumonia. A few days after his father’s funeral, Teddy caught pneumonia as well. Later in her life, Edwina recounted to Edward Ball that the doctor reported that Teddy had a good chance of recovery. However, the grief of losing his father superseded his will to fight the infection. Teddy Harleston passed one month later, on May 10th, 1931; [8] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 286-287, accessed Internet Archive

[9] Edwina was also a singer in the Avery glee club and president of her high school class; Ibid, 298.

[10] Ibid, 303.

[11] Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, Jim Crow Campus: Higher Education and the Struggle for a New Southern Social Order (New York: Teachers College Press, 2018), p. 21-22, accessed Google Books.

[12] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 308.

[13] “Freeman Briley Ransom,” Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, accessed indyencyclopedia.org.

[14] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 308-309.

[15] Douglas Martin, “A’Lelia Nelson, 92, President Of a Black Cosmetics Company,” The New York Times, February 14, 2001, accessed The New York Times; “Mrs. Nelson Heads Madam Walker Firm,” The Indianapolis News, February 10, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

[16] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 319-320.

[17] “Indiana City/Town Census Counts, 1900 to 2020,” StatsIndiana: Indiana’s Public Data Utility, accessed https://www.stats.indiana.edu/population/PopTotals/historic_counts_cities.asp; Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 328.

[18] Neil Bretten and Raymond A. Mohl, “The Evolution of Racism in an Industrial City, 1906-1940: A Case Study of Gary Indiana,” The Journal of Negro History, 59, no. 1 (Jan 1974): 52, accessed https://doi.org/10.2307/2717140.

[19] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 328.

[20] “Lay Foundation For First Unit to Roosevelt School, New Addition Will Be Ready Late in 1930,” The Gary American, July 2, 1929.

[21] The Gary American, April 5, 1929.

[22] “28 People Lynched in 1933, Says NAACP; One Freed by Jury,” The Gary American, January 5, 1934.

[23] “The Gary American Message,” The Gary American, November 30, 1934.

[24] Editorial: “Debating the Lynching Bill,” The Gary American, November 26, 1937.

[25] Justin McCarthy, “Gallup Vault: 72% Support for Anti-Lynching Bill in 1937,” May 11, 2018, accessed Gallup News.

[26] “An Open Letter to Hon. M. Clifford Townsend Governor of Indiana,” The Gary American, April 8, 1938.

[27] Ibid, 331.

[28] “Heart Attack Claims Publisher,” The Times, May 5, 1960, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] “Pass Up Roosevelt High: Negro School to get No Funds for Facilities,” The Gary American, September 29, 1944; “Negro Taxi-Cab Company in Operation with 3 Cabs, Fleet of Five Cars Expected to be in Service Next Week,” The Gary American, November 23, 1945; “Continue Boycott of Kroger Stores, Attempts to Arbitrate Fail,” The Gary American, October 3, 1958.

[30] Edwina Whitlock, “First Person Singular,” The Gary American, October 8, 1948.

[31] Whitlock, “First Person Singular,” The Gary American, July 26, 1946.

[32] Bretten and Mohl, “The Evolution of Racism,” 59.

[33] Gary Housing Authority, The First Twenty Years: Report of the Gary Housing Authority, 1939-1959, n.d., 14, accessed HathiTrust.

[34] Whitlock, “First Person Singular,” The Gary American, July 1, 1949.

[35] Edwina Whitlock, “First Person Singular,” The Gary American, December 24, 1959.

[36] Whitlock, “First Person Singular,” The Gary American, July 19, 1946.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Gary Housing Authority, The First Twenty Years, 56.

[39] The Gary Post Tribune stated that the demonstration at Marquette Beach seemed “pointless” as there were no legal restrictions against Blacks utilizing the facilities there. This is just one example of the stark differences between white reporting and Black reporting within the city; The Terre Haute Star, August 31, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

[40] “Beach Project Leads to Violence: KKK Becomes Active,” The Gary American, September 4, 1949.

[41] “Youth Brutally Beaten at Marquette Beach, Girls Scream for Help as Police Stand By,” The Gary American, June 2, 1961.

[42] “500 Jam-Pack Council; Protest Actions of Police,” The Gary American, June 9, 1961.

[43] “Stimple Found Not Guilty,” The Gary American, July 7, 1961.

[44] “Hoodlums Attack Again At Marquette Park,” The Gary American, August 11, 1961.

[45] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 329-330.

[46] “The Death of Henry Whitlock,” The Gary American, May 13, 1960.

[47] “An Open Letter to 9,000 People,” The Gary American, March 24, 1961.

[48] Casey Nichols, Watts Riot (August 1965), published October, 23, 2007, accessed BlackPast.org.

[49] Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside, 338.

[50] “President John Kennedy, Gov. Pat Brown Electrify 600 Attending Links Inc., Affair,” California Eagle, November 23, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.

[51] Whitlock’s experience as a journalist spurred a desire to document her rich family history. In 1970, after her daughter Sylvia wrote a term paper on Teddy Harleston, Edwina’s interest in genealogy was re-ignited.  She spent years going through the large collection of the Harleston family papers, photographs, and letters. While researching, she attended lectures at institutions like Mann-Simons Cottage to talk about her adoptive mother, Elise Forrest Harleston, one of the first Black female photographers in the US.  Whitlock’s goal, however, was to publish her family history.

[52] “Whitlock,” The Atlanta Constitution, November 22, 2002, accessed Newspapers.com.

Foster the People: How One Entrepreneur Cultivated a More Equitable Indianapolis

Andrew Foster, Crispus Attucks High School, January 1, 1938, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, accessed digitalindy.org.

“Someone once suggested that the black man pull himself up by his bootstraps.”

“The black man agreed that it was a good idea, but he wasn’t exactly sure of how to go about it. First of all, he had no boots, and secondly, he considered himself lucky to be wearing shoes.”

Andrew “Bo” Foster perhaps related to the figurative Black man described by Skip Hess in his 1968 Indianapolis News article.[1] Foster’s adolescence was marked by hardship and instability. Despite this, he became a prominent entrepreneur and civic leader in Indianapolis. Not only did he manage to procure “boots,” but went on to ensure that others in the community had a pair. In doing so, he created opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

According to his grandson, Charles Foster Jolivette, Foster was born along an alley near Riley Towers in 1919.[2] His father, Edward, died when Foster was a young child. For reasons that are unclear, he was not raised primarily by his mother, Eva. When not staying with father figure William W. Hyde, a local Black attorney, he spent his childhood in the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children, which had a history of corporal punishment and unsanitary conditions.[3] Nevertheless, Foster kept up with his education, graduating from Crispus Attucks High School in 1938.[4]

Foster during World War II, courtesy of the Foster family.

The Indianapolis News reported that after graduation he “hauled scrap iron on a tonnage basis.”[5] Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Foster was sent to Camp Wolters, an infantry replacement training center in Texas.[6] By 1943, he had graduated as a second lieutenant from officer candidate school at Camp Hood and went on to serve on a tank destroyer unit.

After Foster’s service, he established a lucrative Indianapolis trucking company, enabling him to open and manage several businesses that served Black patrons in the segregated city.[7] His work ethic was second to none, as he worked most holidays, and reportedly said “You must be willing to work 26 hours a day if you want to be in business.”[8] Reflecting on his prolific career in 1983, Foster told the Indianapolis Recorder that he had no formal training, “just high school, the Army and common sense. I came out of the Army and started hauling trash. I saw a need for a black hotel, then added a motel three years later in order to survive.”[9]

Postcard, Evan Finch Collection, accessed Indiana Album.

By 1949, he opened Foster Hotel and the Guest House at North Illinois Street.[10] Both were listed in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which published the names of safe, welcoming businesses and accommodations across the country.[11] At a time when Black Americans were turned away from hotels, Foster’s were one of the only in Indianapolis to serve them. In addition to Foster Hotel and Guest House, he opened the Manor House, Motor Lodge, Carrollton Hotel, and private rooming houses.[12] These businesses accommodated tourists, “permanent guests,” and famed customers, such as Muhammad Ali, LaWanda Page, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, and Redd Foxx.[13] Unless these celebrities had friends or family in the city, they all stayed at a Foster establishment.

Patrons praised the facilities for their cleanliness, modern features, and hospitable staff. Foster opted against “frills” because “Negroes travel on a pretty tight budget” and he chose not to build a pool because of the liability insurance fees.[14] The Recorder attributed his “steady rise in the scale of fortune” to his “integrity, foresight, business acumen and high sense of fair play in his dealing with others.”[15] His bachelor pad reflected this burgeoning fortune. According to a 1954 Jet magazine profile, it was outfitted with “walls of black glass, a full-mirrored ceiling, monogrammed glass-enclosed tub and shower, and double lavatories in pink. The floor is pink and black marble and Foster had a lifelike nude painted on one wall.”[16]

Women dancing at Pearl’s Lounge, courtesy of the Foster family.

In addition to financial success, Foster founded his businesses to meet the need for a communal space in which to socialize, politically organize, and host civic and philanthropic events. According to the Recorder, Foster “saw blacks holding meetings at white-owned establishments ‘where they couldn’t always speak their peace’” and sought to provide a venue where they could.[17] Pearl’s Lounge, opened by 1970, did just that. Named for his wife, whom he married in 1962, the cocktail lounge at 118 West McLean Place (adjoining Foster Hotel). Foster later told the Recorder, “‘Many a black group has gotten its start here.”[18]

The Recorder considered the new addition “just about the most beautiful eating and drinking emporium in the Hoosier capital,” praising its “dim lighted lovers’ rooms of oriental design” and “beautiful mahogany bar with electronic stereo component for continuous music.” In a word, Pearl’s was “fantabulous.”[19]

Voting drive outside of Pearl’s, courtesy of the Foster family.

Pearl’s banquet hall and ballroom facilitated numerous events. These included a fashion show, voter registration program, and IU alumni meeting regarding how to best serve Black students. Pearl’s also hosted numerous NAACP events, including a businessmen’s luncheon, at which executive director Roy Wilkins spoke in favor of busing as a means to educational equality.[20] Pearl’s also served as a venue for furthering race relations. For example, the Recorder reported in 1975, “In their first major attempt to acquaint the owners, coaches and players with the black community, the Indiana Pacers will host a reception and a buffet dinner” at the lounge.[21]

Robert Briggs (far left), Huerta Tribble (fourth from left), Richard Lugar (fifth from the left), Andrew Foster (sixth from the left, Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0303/id/409/rec/3.

Pearl’s lounge hosted numerous political campaign events and debates—including those of Mayor William Hudnut, Judge Rufus C. Kuykendall, Senator Julia Carson, and Senator Richard Lugar.[22] It accommodated events for groups across the political spectrum, including Indiana Black Republican Council meetings and a Socialist Workers Party rally.[23]


Indianapolis Star, February 17, 1970, 26, accessed Newspapers.com.

Foster not only uplifted the community through his businesses, but also as president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Business League (NBL) in the 1960s and 70s. Through the NBL—described as the “chamber of commerce of Negro enterprise” and a “type of professional group therapy”—Foster mentored Black business owners.[24] He helped them obtain grants and matched minority-owned businesses with “established corporate buyers.” Under Foster’s leadership, the NBL worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket to provide entrepreneurs with seminars about topics like accounting trends and business law.

Of this work, Foster said “We’re living in a new day and working with a new Negro who is more professionally and economically mature . . .  Negro businessmen today realize that they can not stand a chance individually. They must unite and mobilize their resources for a stronger voice and larger economic base.”[25] He also worked to increase capital for minorities by co-founding the Midwest National Bank in 1972. The bank publicly objected to redlining practices, issued “inner-city” loans, and appointed women to several leadership positions.[26]


Despite cultivating a small empire and a reputation as a civic-minded leader, Foster’s proverbial boots were nearly confiscated. In 1974, he was arrested for allegedly operating an interstate heroin ring.[27] His arrest followed a “‘super secret'” investigation conducted by the FDA and Indianapolis Police Department narcotic squad, which purported that he violated the Indiana Controlled Substances Act. The following year, the Indianapolis Star reported that a Marion County grand jury exonerated Foster, claiming in an eight-page report that his arrest was “‘politically motivated.'”[28] The report concluded that he was arrested because two informants were promised leniency in other cases against them if they would implicate Foster. Jurors opined, “‘We believe Andrew Foster has personally suffered a great deal as a result of these indictments.'”

Foster elaborated on this suffering. He told the Indianapolis Star that his wife was afraid to stay at home, fearing that the allegations would induce individuals in the drug trade to “‘kidnap one of our children or break into our home to rob us.'”[29] Another ramification of the indictment was Foster’s resignation from the board of the Midwest National Bank. He told the Star, “‘I was a successful black businessman and the younger blacks could look up to me and see a model for success,'” but after the arrest and prosecutors’ statements “some of the younger blacks felt I was discredited.'”[30] In his pursuit of accountability, Foster filed suit against Marion County Prosecutor Noble Pearcy and Chief Trial Deputy Leroy New for defamation.[31] Over the course of years and various appeals, the state ruled against Foster, concluding that “‘the prosecutor and his assistant were immune from being sued for anything they said in their official capacity.'”[32] The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state.

Broadcasters Hall of Famer Amos Brown (right) celebrating “Bo Foster’s Day” with Bo (seated) in 1982, courtesy of the Foster family.

The arrest ultimately failed to tarnish his reputation, which he went to various length to defend, including voluntarily taking a lie detector test.[33] He certainly felt a sense of gratification when hundreds gathered to celebrate “Bo Foster Day” on August 24, 1982.[34] At the event, the Marion County Sherriff’s Department presented him with a plaque, and Joe Slash, the city’s first Black deputy mayor, presented him with a letter from Mayor William Hudnut. Foster was also bestowed with the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash, which Governor Robert Orr awarded in recognition of his civic contributions.[35] The Indianapolis Recorder profiled the event and predicted “In the years to come the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Foster will remember him as a man who contributed endlessly to the well being of the Hoosier state and of his admiring contemporaries . . . a man who lived the American Dream.”[36]

Foster’s relatives at the 2023 historical marker dedication, former site of Foster Motor Lodge and Pearl’s Lounge, photo taken by author.

Andrew “Bo” Foster passed away in 1987, having increased capital and equity for Indianapolis’s Black community.[37] In the 1990s, Foster Motor Lodge and adjoining Pearl’s Lounge were demolished.[38] Fittingly, the site was replaced with the Hamilton Center, a non-profit mental health organization. This would be the location of a historical marker installed in 2023 to commemorate Foster. His family shares his sense of stewardship. His grandson, Charles, applied for the marker and manages a robust Instagram account documenting Foster’s life to ensure his legacy endures.

The marker dedication was a joyous occasion, one that resembled a family reunion. Relatives flew from across the country to commemorate the patriarch and learn about the Indianapolis of his time. Also in attendance was Joe Slash, who was effusive in his praise of Foster and his enduring impact. He and family members passed around a microphone, sharing memories and anecdotes that affirmed the Recorder‘s prediction.

Notes:

[1] Skip Hess, “No ‘Bootstraps,’ So NBL Evolves,” Indianapolis News, June 27, 1968, 56, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account, managed by Charles Foster Jolivette. The account includes several primary sources, including newspaper clippings and images.

[3] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[4] Photograph, Andrew Foster, January 1, 1938, Crispus Attucks High School Collection, accessed Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections; Photograph, Crispus Attucks Alumni, December 9, 1983, accessed Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections.

[5] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] “Andrew Daniel Foster,” U.S. World War II Draft Cards, Young Men, 1940-1947, Registration Date: October 16, 1940, accessed Ancestry Library; “Service Roll: Inductions and Enlistments into U. S. Forces,” Indianapolis News, October 21, 1941, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1943, 22, accessed Newspapers.com; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24.

[7] The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.com; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “Andrew Foster,” 1950 United States Federal Census, accessed Ancestry Library; George Vecsey, “For Many, It was Just Another Weekend,” New York Times, February 15, 1971, 13, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com; Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[9] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[10] Indianapolis Recorder, February 5, 1949, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “’House of Strangers’ at Walker Sunday,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 8, 1949, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] “Indianapolis,” The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: The Guide to Travel and Vacations (1955 Edition): 20, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; “Indianapolis,” Travelers’ Greek Book (New York City: Victor H. Green & Co., 1966-1967): 24, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; Alexandria Burris, “How the ‘Great Book’ Helped Black Motorists Travel across Indiana,” IndyStar, February 16, 2022, accessed indystar.com. (Foster Hotel and Guest House were printed in issues from 1955 to 1977).

[12] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Recorder, August 13, 1955, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 29, 1963, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Ad, Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1967, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[13] Ad, “Welcome Permanent Guest,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 6, 1954, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 24, 1966, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[14] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] Jet (November 11, 19540): 46, submitted by marker applicant.

[17] “Marriage Licenses,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1962, 30, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Pearl’s Cocktail Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 9, 1970, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[19] Indianapolis Recorder, October 17, 1970, submitted by marker applicant.

[20] Renee Ferguson, “NAACP Leader Denounces Bills Prohibiting Busing,” Indianapolis News, February 23, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women’s Luncheon Every Monday at Pearl’s Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 17, 1974, 5, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Indianapolis Recorder, October 9, 1976, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Let’s Go: Leisure Time Calendar,” Indianapolis Star, February 27, 1983, 83, accessed Newspapers.com; “Special Notices,” Indianapolis News, October 26, 1984, 33, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Pacers Get-Acquainted Buffet at Pearl’s Nov. 3,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 25, 1975, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; “One Man in Life,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 6, 1973, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Group Raises $67,075 for Lugar Campaign,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1974, 20, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hudnut, GOP Mayoral Candidate, Plans Active Recruitment Program for Blacks,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 4, 1975, 1, 17, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Black Republicans Cite Kuykendall, Ms. Holland,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 28, 1976, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “C. Delores Tucker Arranges Series of Weekend Talks,” Indianapolis Star, October 10, 1976, 86, accessed Newspapers.com; William J. Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, September 15, 1984, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[23] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] Pat W. Stewart, “Operation Breadbasket Ministers Outline Broad Program for Action in the City,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 30, 1967, 1, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; John H. Lyst, “Negro Firms to Get Push,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1968, 73, accessed Newspapers.com; L. J. Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1968, 78, accessed Newspapers.com; “Opportunity Fair to Aid Minorities,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1970, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, 78.

[26] Robert Corya, “80,000 Shares OK’d for Newest City Bank,” Indianapolis News, April 20, 1971, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “New Midwest National Bank Gets Approval to Sell Common Stock,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1971, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “The Best Kept Secret in Town: Midwest National Bank,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 28, 1981, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[27] “Health Board Member Among 7 Arrested on Drug Indictments,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1974, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] Joseph Gelarden, “Jury Calls Indictment ‘Politics,'” Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1975, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Judge is Ordered to Consider Suit,” The Herald [Jasper, MI], June 21, 1978, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] “From Libel Suit: Court,” The Times [Munster, IN], April 4, 1979, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “High Court Denies Hoosier’s Appeal,” Daily Reporter [Greenfield, IN], April 15, 1980, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[34] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 1, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[35] William “Skinny” Alexander, “Time for Talk,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[36] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1, 8.

[37] “Andrew Daniel Foster, Sr.,” Indiana State Board of Health Medical Certificate of Death, June 23, 1987, Indiana, U.S., Death Certificates, 1899-2011, accessed Ancestry Library; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.

[38] Mary Francis, “McLean Place was Truly Foster’s Place, and Now It’s Official,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1994, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Howard M. Smulevitz, “New Mental Health Center will Stand on Site of Historic Lounge and Lodge,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1996, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Where Are My People To Go?:” The West Baden “Race War”

Bellmen at the French Lick Hotel, accessed IndyStar.

Embroidered with resorts and mineral springs, French Lick Valley served as a veritable playground for Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Hotels in West Baden and French Lick offered all the creature comforts money could buy. One could luxuriate in mud baths, bird watch from marbled verandas, and be moved to tears at an opera house. When nestled in the hills of southwestern Indiana, daily responsibilities were but a glint in the rearview mirror. But for some, the Valley was a hotbed of violence and intimidation. In early June 1902, “Friends” penned a letter informing Black waiters, “There is 35 sticks of 45 per cent dynamite in hiding now to blow you up and there is also ammunition at the same place. Every house in West Baden, French Lick, Hillham and in the valley that has colored people in them will be blown up.”[1]

The letter reported that fifty-six locals had gathered in the countryside, plotting to drive out the region’s Black population. The conspirators were likely the same individuals who had recently installed a sign in West Baden bearing “the proverbial skull and cross bones” associated with sundown towns.[2] According to Lin Wagner, director emeritus of the French Lick West Baden Museum, “’The hotels were building and booming in the late 1800s, the south was undergoing reconstruction and a lot of blacks were moving north. West Baden Springs Hotel owner Lee W. Sinclair brought workers up from the south to work as nannies, bellmen, maids, porters and waiters; vital to the day to day operations and success of his West Baden resort.'”[3] As the Black community grew, the “laboring classes among the white people” conspired to dispel its workforce.

Pluto Spring interior, French Lick Springs, Indiana, circa 1910, courtesy Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

Between 1902 and 1908, newspapers reported on an emergent “race war” in the French Lick Valley. Just days after the letter was dispatched to Black waiters, as well as the property owners who rented to them, Secret Service officials descended on the area.[4] They warned the conspirators, who had appointed themselves the “Committee of Regulators,” that if they were caught with firearms they would be jailed for “inciting a riot.” And while “Uncle Sam” had taken “a Hand,” as the Huntington Weekly Herald phrased it, it is unclear if any of the “ringleaders” actually faced arrest or imprisonment.[5]

Punitive lip service was more likely, as Deputy U.S. Marshall John Ballard reportedly feared arrests would make the situation more volatile. In analyzing the “race war,” historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “although there were no statutory laws forbidding black settlement,” it was “enforced not only by public opinion but also by sheriffs and other local officers, that decreed blacks could not settle in the town or stay overnight.” This aligns with the Bedford Weekly Mail‘s report that “several of the most objectionable” Black residents complied with a “quiet” order to leave the area during the conflict.[6]

Referencing the events in West Baden and similar occurrences in “several towns along the line of the Monon railroad,” Rev. Edward Gilliam wrote to the editor of the Indianapolis News, asking “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?”[7] He argued that these conflicts represented the larger struggle for Black people to support themselves in post-Reconstruction America. Rev. Gilliam wrote, “With factory doors, mercantile opportunities and other avenues of earning a livelihood closed against us,” it was particularly shameful to “be notified that we shall be permitted to choose our fields of labor only upon the approval and consent of a lot of men who defy the laws of the country.” He begged the question “is it not time for those who favor fair play to all men to speak out and emphatically say that Indiana shall not be disgraced  by such unlawful proceedings?” Black Americans were barred from employment and subsequently condemned for their destitution.

Group photo at West Baden Springs Hotel, 1906, Bretzman Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

Just after midnight on June 5, 1908, sections of the Valley illuminated with gunfire. A few hours later, the sound of explosions plucked dozens of waiters from slumber at the Jersey European Hotel. “Frightened so badly that they could scarcely speak,” they rushed into the street as sticks of dynamite hammered the west side of the building.[8] Many boarders at the Jersey European—operated by Black proprietor Charles “Champ” Rice—were Black employees of the West Baden Springs Hotel.[9] While no one was physically harmed, the blast damaged the structure and succeeded in driving many residents from the area.

Journalists speculated about the perpetrators’ motive, but generally concurred that the violence was intended as retribution for the dismissal of white waitresses for the West Baden Springs Hotel, known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”[10] Reportedly, hotel manager Lee Sinclair had recently fired about forty waitresses and replaced them with Black men from Louisville.[11] According to Thornbrough, “Just as custom and prejudice, rather than law, assigned blacks to certain residential areas, so custom and prejudice decreed that only certain kinds of employment were open to ‘colored persons’—usually seasonal jobs that whites disdained.” U.S. Census reports at the time noted the majority of Black men worked as servants and porters.

Richmond Palladium (Daily), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sinclair justified his decision to replace the waitstaff as “trying to better moral conditions.” However, an anonymous writer informed the Indianapolis News that Sinclair was induced by the “jealousy of a woman for the waitresses. She has been trying to make this change for the last year.”[12] It is unclear if the woman was part of hotel staff or had a personal relationship with Sinclair. Regardless of its impetus, the resultant hostility caused many of the waiters and residents to flee the area.[13] On the precipice of a “race war,” Marshall John Ballard returned to West Baden, seeking to identify those who initiated the attacks. He was generally met with silence, especially from fearful Black residents who had chosen to remain in the Valley. A night watchman also had little to offer, as he reportedly fled in search of law enforcement when the shots began ringing.

Tensions were so heightened that the Brazil Daily Times predicted the state militia would be dispatched.[14] The Muncie Evening Press echoed, “Other attacks upon the place are feared unless police protection is furnished in this place. The community has always been opposed to negroes.”[15] Nevertheless, John Felker, owner of a building that housed the displaced individuals, refused to expel them, “even if the alternative is leveling the building to the ground with dynamite.”[16]

Perhaps the war would not be so easily won. The violence seemed to disperse as quickly as it emerged, or at least reports of it ceased to appear in newspapers. And while many Black residents fled, refugees in their own country, others stayed and nurtured the remaining community. In 1909, Rev. Chas. Hunter wrote to the Indianapolis Recorder about the burgeoning Black-owned businesses in the French Lick Valley.[17] He noted that members of the “superior class,” like hotel porter S.C. Pitman and news dealer H.L. Babbage, lived in “good houses, furnished up-to-date.” W.O. Martin owned a tailoring business and Mrs. W.L. Alexander and Mrs. W. M. Scott did “a fine business” as dress makers. James Gibbs, “well known in Indianapolis,” excelled as head waiter at French Lick Springs Hotel. Rev. Hunter concluded his letter to the editor by quipping “my old friend Wiggington plays the ‘devil’ as usual'” in his role as the French Lick Springs Hotel’s mascot, Pluto Water.

Yarmouth Wiggington dressed as the hotel’s Pluto Water mascot, ca. 1910, accessed Indiana Album.

Rev. Hunter’s editorial resonated with a Recorder subscriber, who added in the following issue that George Jones operated a dry cleaning business and tailoring establishment, both of which did “a very heavy summer business.”[18] George’s wife, Myldred, started a music class, hoping to teach “her former pupils and also people musically interested.”

Recreation and the humanities kept pace with business endeavors in the Valley’s Black community. Members of the Ladies Culture Club met that spring to discuss issues of peace. They listened as Mrs. W.O. Martin delivered a talk “On why should we hustle for a living.”[19] Young residents organized a literary society to explore matters of art and culture. In April 1909, the First Baptist Church was dedicated. Hugh Rice and J.P. Cook presented tithes on behalf of their fellow waiters at the West Baden and French Lick hotels.[20] After church, one could watch the West Baden Sprudels (managed by hotel proprietor Champ Rice) play the French Lick Plutos.

Postcard collected by Kevin Pope, showing the Sprudels ca. 1910-1913, courtesy Gary Ashwill, accessed Agate Type.

Rice’s Jersey European Hotel withstood the Summer of 1908. In ads printed in The New York Age in 1912, he promised those “in bad health” the benefits of the Jersey’s spring waters for just $1.00 per day.[21] Indeed, those who hailed from the Big Apple took him up on the offer, as well as those from cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Cleveland, and Chattanooga. Providing the Jersey European with competition, the Waddy Hotel opened in 1913. It served Black patrons like noted Indianapolis journalist Lillian Thomas Fox and, years later, famed boxer Joe Louis.

Black communities and institutions continued to grow in Indiana cities during the Progressive Era. In trying to make a livelihood, Black Americans had to contend with displacement, vandalism, violence, and eventually the organized efforts of the Klan. By 1923, fiery crosses stretched across Southern Indiana’s “little valley,” as 100 members were initiated into the hate group.[22] Despite the shadow cast by Jim Crow discrimination, Black Americans continued to answer the questions “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?” through community-building and fellowship.

 

Sources:

[1] “Race Troubles Imminent,” The Daily Mail (Bedford, IN), June 17, 1902, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] The Huntingburgh Independent (IN), June 21, 1902, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Dawn Mitchell, “Revival at the Last African American Church in West Baden,” IndyStar, September 19, 2018, accessed IndyStar.com.

[4] “Government Takes a Hand,” Fort Wayne News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, June 27, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[5] “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, 6.

[6] Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 2000), 3.

[7] “The Negro in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] Quote from “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, 1; “Dynamite Explosion Frightens Negroes,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; “Race War at West Baden,” Greencastle Herald, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] Bedford Daily Mail, June 2, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Change to Male Waiters,” Indianapolis News, June 3, 1908, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, p. 6.

[12] “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; Letter-to-the-Editor, X, “West Baden Waitresses,” Indianapolis News, June 12, 1908, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1; “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, June 6, 1908, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Riot Quiets Down,” Brazil Daily Times, June 6, 1908, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1.

[16] “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, 15.

[17] Letter-to-the-Editor, Rev. Chas. Hunter, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 16, 1909, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] A Subscriber, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 23, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 10, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] “Jersey European Hotel, West Baden, Ind.,” New York Age, August 8, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Jersey European Hotel & Baths,” New York Age, October 3, 1912, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[22] “French Lick Shows Interest,” Fiery Cross, April 6, 1923, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “French Lick, Ind., Has Klan Ceremony,” Fiery Cross, July 6, 1923, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Gas Boom, Sex Work, and Muncie’s Urban Economy

“Muncie, Indiana: The Natural Gas City of the West” (Muncie Natural Gas Land Improvement Company, ca. 1889), 15, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.
This post draws on more extensive research completed by the author, Cory Balkenbusch, and Jennifer Mara DeSilva. For a full article on this research, see “Toleration of Sex Work in East Central Indiana, 1880-1900” in the upcoming December 2023 edition of the Indiana Magazine of History.

In April of 1894, Muncie policemen Ball, Cole, and Coffey assisted Chief Miller on a raid of a “Palace o’ Pleasure.” When the officers arrived, they discovered “six very well-known young gentlemen,” who were “being entertained” by four women.[1] The Muncie Daily Herald revealed that the young men and their paid female company swiftly scraped together enough money and valuables to give bond, with one man even giving an officer a valuable diamond stud that was given to him by his mother.[2] The resort, located on Vine Street, was owned by a woman who went by the name of Rosenthal. It quickly became notorious for its illicit activities, with another raid occurring in May of 1894, in which four girls and seven men were arrested and charged with “associating.”[3]

Muncie newspaper readers during this era would not find the reports regarding Rosenthal’s “Palace O’ Pleasure” terribly shocking. During the Gas Boom, sex work was increasingly becoming a part of Muncie’s cultural and social landscape. By the end of the nineteenth century, a substantial reservoir of natural gas was discovered in East Central Indiana, prompting surrounding cities like Muncie, Anderson, and Kokomo to rush to discover their own supply.[4]  Despite commonly-held assumptions about American small towns and cities, they were not isolated from the influence of their distant metropolitan cousins. In the two decades before the twentieth century, new railway, telegraph, and telephone connections linked small towns and cities more intimately with the urban centers.

As historians Frank Felsenstein and James Connolly have argued, Muncie, Indiana reflected this rural-urban network. Their research has contrasted Robert and Helen Lynds’ depiction of a sleepy agricultural center recently industrialized in their landmark 1929 study Middletown.[5]  However, historians have chiefly focused on the city’s cultural achievements and technological progress brought upon by the Gas Boom, ignoring a large facet of the economy: the exchange of sexual services. Indeed, between 1880 to 1900, the Gas Boom and subsequent industrialization spearheaded the growth of Muncie’s sexual exchange network. This played an integral role within its growing economy.

The Gas Boom, Working Class Men, & The Rise of Sex Work

“Muncie, Indiana: The Natural Gas City of the West” (Muncie Natural Gas Land Improvement Company, ca. 1889), 28, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

By the spring of 1887, the Muncie Natural Gas Company laid gas mains across most sections of town and was piping inexpensive gas to individual households and businesses.[6] Within that same year, gas had replaced the need for coal, leaving the city free from soot and ash. Forward-thinking businessmen like James Boyce, a member of Muncie’s board of trade, energetically pursued business ventures both for personal gain and to bring new factories to town. Boyce persuaded the Over window glass plant, the Hemingray bottle plant, and the famed Ball Brothers Company to build in Muncie. The working population doubled from 5,500 in 1886 to 11,345 in 1890, and Muncie was quickly becoming the largest city in the Indiana Gas Belt.[7] In turn, the city’s industrial and demographic explosion after 1886 entirely transformed Muncie’s neighborhoods and entertainment districts.  By the end of the century, almost seven times the number of original saloons operated throughout the city and nearly double the number of boarding houses and hotels lined Walnut Street.[8]

As Muncie’s working-class male population grew, saloons became spaces for men to socialize and relieve the stresses of factory work. Relief could be found in conversation, intoxication, sport or musical entertainment, and female company. Sex work often accompanied the development of urban, commercial, and transportation infrastructure.[9] As the north-south artery running straight through the city, Walnut Street connected Muncie’s downtown district with the railway depot. It continued into a new residential area that grew beyond the railway tracks to support workers at the surrounding factories. The Southside neighborhood’s location, at the intersections of the C.C.C. & St. Louis Railroad Lines and the L.E. & W. Railroad Lines, coupled with its proximity to the commercial district, made it a hotbed for sex work. The steady flow of newcomers and addition of boarding houses and saloons around the train depots provided potential clients and encounter sites. As early as 1890, Muncie’s newspapers reported Southside sex workers and their clients being arrested and fined.

Establishing Networks & the Commercialization of a Sex Work

Boardinghouse located above a saloon at 815 South Walnut Street on the 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, accessed Library of Congress.

While the Southside was largely cut off from Muncie’s wealthier commercial district by railway lines, the saloons that lined Walnut Street to the north continued to the south. The 1886 Sanborn map identifies a barber, grocer, jeweler, and three saloons that occupied a block between 1st and 2nd Streets. Sanborn maps show that east of Walnut Street, the Southside neighborhood was made up of houses, bringing businesses like the Muncie Lumber Company, the Artificial Gas Works, the Muncie Foundry & Machine Shop, and the Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot. Although it is hard to determine if these dwellings functioned as boarding houses, there was one known boarding house listed on the 1896 Sanborn map.

The boarding house was located off Walnut Street and might have offered factory men a livable space close to their place of employment. This boarding house occupied the same building as a saloon, with two additional saloons and one restaurant nearby, underlining the proximity to possible prostitution. Widows frequently ran boardinghouses to replace their lost husband’s income. However, the commercialization of women’s labor degraded her role as “keeper of the house.”[10] This highlights the effects of the Victorian middle-class ideals, as paid labor was viewed as a masculine activity.  Moreover, contemporaries viewed boarding houses with suspicion because they often sheltered single women and men in proximity, which undermined the idealized purity of middle-class homes. The possibility of sexual activity between unmarried men and women cast suspicion on boarding houses, and aligned them with brothels, which sometimes masqueraded as “female boarding houses” on Sanborn fire insurance maps.[11]

To find direct evidence of sex work, one needed only to follow South Walnut Street into Muncie’s Southside. Much like Chicago’s sex district, known as the Levee, Muncie’s Southside brothels operated openly, and some women used boardinghouses to meet clients.[12] Unlike middle-class neighborhoods in the northern half of the city that were cut off from factory development and train depots, the Southside sheltered working-class men and families that moved to Muncie as new factories opened. From the late 1880s, women engaging in the sex trade gravitated towards the neighborhood. The number of established brothels, sex workers employed in this area, and the prevalence of their arrests reported in the newspapers evinced this movement.

Walnut Street at Patterson Block railroad construction, Muncie, Indiana, ca. 1900s, Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Not long after he acquired it from Henry Coppersmith, John Mullenix’s saloon earned a reputation for being an “awful, wicked, sinful joint,” and one of the “toughest holes in Indiana.” Mullenix arranged for Minnie White, also known as “Gas Well Minnie,” to use the saloon as a base for exchanging sexual services.[13] The saloon’s location positioned both Mullenix and White to make a profit from travelers, as well as local factory workers. The saloon, located about a block south of the railroad line, was surrounded by four large manufacturing plants, ensuring patronage.  Additionally, about twelve dwellings on the saloon’s block might have served as boarding houses for the men working close by. Elsewhere, tavern keepers relied on sex workers to attract customers, while women often relied on tavern keepers for a space to engage in their sexual services, much like Mullenix and White did in Muncie.[14]

However, women engaging in sex work did not limit themselves to working-class neighborhoods and saloons. Indeed, Muncie’s entertainment and business district offered some women the chance to profit from wealthier clientele. The High Street Theater reflected this trend noted by other historians, as concert halls and theaters became popular new venues for sex and entertainment by the beginning of the twentieth century.[15] Located directly across the street from Delaware County’s courthouse, the theater’s wine rooms were open all hours of the day. Initially, the newspapers portrayed wine rooms as a sign of the city’s metropolitan character, but by 1900 they were a source of communal outrage.[16]

(Delaware County) Courthouse square, Muncie, Indiana, ca. 1900, Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Venues like the High Street Theater catered to a wealthier clientele than the Southside working-class. Clients paid an entrance fee, after which they climbed a stairwell that led to small apartments overlooking the theater’s main auditorium. These semi-private rooms were essentially pine boxes with lace curtains to conceal the activity from the audience down below. In these wine rooms, scantily clad women encouraged clients to buy drinks and other services. These costs required a clientele with sufficient disposable income, something most of Muncie’s factory workers could not claim.[17]

An undercover police officer noted that “Age and color [were] no disqualifications” to visit the theater, making it clear that vice activities attracted far more wealthier men than young factory workers. [18] While single factory workers might have money to spend, Muncie’s older and wealthier men also visited the theater. In 1895, Rhoda Jones arrived at the High Street Theater Restaurant and attempted to climb the staircase to find her husband, George Jones. Although the attendant claimed that the wine-rooms were closed at 11pm, Rhoda was insistent that her husband was present. She argued that each night he walked north from their grocery store on South Walnut Street to visit the wine-room women.[19] Although Rhoda’s arrival appeared in the next day’s newspaper, her husband’s departure was more covert. For men like George, the theater also had alleyway access to several city streets, allowing all clients to make easy escapes and discreet entrances.

Property Ownership & Economic Profitability

The Muncie Daily Times, January 26, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

Social reform efforts in the late 1890s underlined the development of a new vice district. By early 1896, Southside citizens had mobilized a reform campaign. On January 26, 1896, the Muncie Daily Times described an attempt to close organized brothels. Between Walnut and Vine Streets, stretching to the C.C.C. and St. Louis Railroad tracks, down towards Ninth Street, the Muncie Daily Times reported that citizens held a “feeling of disgrace” living among houses of “ill-repute.”[20] The tension and notoriety surrounding prostitution is apparent from the newspaper’s willingness to identify prominent brothel owners. Between 1887 and 1896, it had become clear to Muncie’s Southside that an extensive prostitution network had developed. Newspaper accounts sensationalized and corroborated citizens’ concerns. “Soiled Doves” and “Women of ill-repute,” such as Emma Bryant, Hazel Gray, and Kate Phinney, provided Muncie’s newspapers with frequent material for reports of their sexual escapades and commerce.

The effort to close brothels within the Southside neighborhood also revealed the prominent role that sex work played within Muncie’s booming economy. Numerous newspaper articles, like that published by The Muncie Daily Times on January 26, 1896, highlighted the extensive network of female-owned brothels and the way they generated city profits through county court fines. Despite the continuous raids these women faced, city officials never forced their brothels to shut down. Their services, and the fines that these raids produced, were an integral part of the Muncie’s urban economy.

“They Say It Is A Nuisance: Several Citizens File and Affidavit Against Kate Phinney,” Muncie Morning News, May 19, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

For example, in 1891, The Muncie Daily Times reported on a brothel raid that occurred on Third Street, outing five individual women working at the location, including the proprietress, Minnie Dwyer. Those arrested and put before the judge pleaded guilty to prostitution, paying fines of $16.85.[21] Dwyer was not the only woman running a brothel, however. In 1892, the Muncie Morning News reported that nearly “one hundred citizens” gathered to discuss Kate Phinney’s “house of ill-fame,” and ultimately decided it was a nuisance.[22] The Southside’s saloons, boarding houses, and brothels became woven into this area’s economy of leisure, transiency, and commercial sex.

Emma Bryant was one of the most prominent sex workers and brothel owners in the area, appearing six times in the Delaware County Court Records for her involvement in vice activity, including prostitution, witness to prostitution, and witness to violent crimes.[23] However, the newspapers revealed that Bryant often paid hefty fines rather than serving jail time. As early as 1894, Bryant’s “bawdy house” was raided by police, but remained opened.[24] Her brothel on Council Street, known as Gaiety Commons, appeared later in 1895 in The Muncie Morning News when Bryant along with seven young men and two young women were arrested on charges related to the illegal monetary exchange of sexual services.[25] That same year, Bryant was arrested for selling alcohol without a license, but she paid $200 (equivalent to $6,117.81 today) and was released.[26] Despite the continuous raids these women faced, city officials never forced their brothels to shut down. As historian Ruth Rosen has described, sex workers’ services, and the fines that these raids produced, were an integral part of the urban economy in many American cities.[27] Muncie sex workers produced considerable revenue for the city through the fines they paid.

Prostitution on the Southside bolstered the city’s real estate economy. Muncie sex workers actively engaged in purchasing and selling property and securing mortgages. Kate Phinney and Hazel Gray weathered frequent raids, but always found a new location for their businesses. Phinney faced a plethora of fines and charges related to prostitution but remained an integral part of the vice district, moving her brothel from South Plum Street into Shedtown (current-day Avondale neighborhood). Hazel Gray, appearing as early as 1894 in the newspapers, moved her brothel from Second Street to Third Street. Like Phinney, Gray also faced numerous prostitution charges until she left town in 1897. Phinney’s and Gray’s ability to move around the Southside suggest that there was a tolerance of the profession among city officials.

“After Questionable Houses: There Will Be None Left in Muncie After March 10,” Muncie Morning News, February 20, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Southside citizens were seemingly successful in their efforts to close the local brothels. The Muncie Morning News reported that by March 1896, brothels run by Emma Bryant, Kate Phinney, and others had been shut down.[28] However, many of these “businesswomen of ill-repute” did not leave Muncie. According to the Muncie City Directory, Emma Bryant was still living on South Willard Street in 1901. Muncie’s 1897 city directory listed Hazel Gray as living at 138 Kinney Street. These directories reveal that, although their brothels were initially shuttered, these women moved freely about Muncie, redefining the vice district limits.


Muncie and Portland Traction streetcar, n.d., Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

By 1900, 347 manufacturing establishments operated within the city and Muncie boasted a population of 20,942. However, the industrial optimism brought on by the discovery of natural gas would not last long. By the beginning of the 20th century, gas pressure dropped to nearly 100 pounds and many large factories could no longer obtain the natural gas they had so heavily utilized during the previous decade. This caused many factories to find other means of production or shut down.  Unlike smaller cities in Eastern Indiana, like Fairmount and Eaton, the growth of Muncie’s railway lines provided convenient access to coal, raw materials, and markets for finished manufactured products, which maintained its industrial prominence after the gas ran out.  The movement of factories closer to the railway lines prompted Muncie to grow in all directions, with new industrial areas materializing at both the north and south ends of the city.

Muncie’s sex work industry continued to follow the Walnut Street corridor, then flowing out towards industrial areas. As in other cities, the industry maintained a connection to the city’s entertainment district throughout the Gilded Age, providing clients with easy access to vice. However, during the Progressive Era, sex work was forced underground. As social reformers sought to solves issues created by Gilded Age industrialization, Gas Boom Muncie offers historians a chance to understand how Gilded Age vices took hold of smaller-scale urban spaces, creating a new narrative of how these areas reflect larger city trends when regarding the link between sex work and the local economy.

 

Notes:

[1] “A Large Catch,” The Muncie Daily Herald, April 5, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Vine Street Joint,” The Muncie Morning News, June 1, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4]  James Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 96, no. 4 (2000): 315.

[5] Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly, What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), p. 17-20; Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929), p. 5-6.

[6] Remarkably, in 1892 the state reported that 2,500 square miles of natural gas could be located across Central Indiana making it the largest known gas field—larger than the Pennsylvania and Ohio fields combined. Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” 315.

[7] Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” 318.

[8] Charles Emerson, 1893-1894 Emerson’s Muncie Directory (Muncie: Carlon & Hollenbeck, 1893), accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

[9] Katie M. Hemphill, “Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City: The Changing Business of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore,” in Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America, eds. Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), p. 169.

[10] Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 60.

[11] Kristi L. Palmer, “Fire Insurance Maps: Introduction and Glimpses into America’s Glass Manufacturing History,” The News Journal 20, no. 4 (2013): 4; Gamber, The Boardinghouse in the Nineteenth Century, p. 102-103.

[12] Cynthia M. Blair, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 27.

[13] “For Min White and Bomb Shell for The Quart Shop: The Police and Residents of South Walnut Street Very Sore on John Mullenix’s Wicked Joint,” The Muncie Morning News, March 12, 1893, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] Hemphill, “Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City,” p. 172-173.

[15] Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 224; Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900 -1918 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 83-84.

[16] “A Wine Room,” The Daily Muncie Herald, November 15, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

[17] “Muncie’s Den of Iniquity,” The Star Press, January 28, 1900, accessed Newspapers.com.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “After Hubby,” The Muncie Morning News, April 5, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[20] “After the Resorts: Southside Citizens Organize to Fight Them,” The Muncie Daily Times, January 26, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “A Third Street Joint Raided and Ten Victims Gathered,” The Muncie Daily Times, October 26, 1891, accessed Newspapers.com.

[22] Phinney had been charged with keeping a house of ill-fame as early as 1890, and then again in 1895 and 1898; Delaware County Circuit Criminal Court, Cause #2547 (1890), 3031 (1895), 3480 (1898); “They Say It Is A Nuisance: Several Citizens File and Affidavit Against Kate Phinney,” Muncie Morning News, May 19, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

[23] Delaware County Circuit Criminal Court, Cause #3546 (1897), 3494 (1898), 3737 (1900), 8409 (1927).

[24] “Bawdy Houses Raided: The Inmates of Three Bagino’s [sic] in Courts To-Day,” The Muncie Daily Times, January 1, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] “It Comes High: But the Boys Will Stray Into The Path That Leads to Headquarters,” Muncie Morning News, March 19, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[26] “In The Hands of U.S. Officials,” The Muncie Daily Times, March 2, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[27] Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood, p. 74-75.

[28] “After Questionable Houses: There Will Be None Left in Muncie After March 10,” Muncie Morning News, February 20, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

Subversion and Solidarity: A Pre-Roe History of Abortion in the Midwest

Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills advertising pamphlet, ca. 1887. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

The 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health put the responsibility back on each individual state to determine abortion law for its citizens. In presenting a history of abortion in Indiana, I hope to share how both access and barriers to the termination of pregnancies have changed from the 19th century to the present. Due to the complexities of the abortion debate in Indiana, this article will only discuss the state of abortion prior to the 1970s.

While current laws seeking to ban abortion in Indiana and across the United States focus on the detection of a fetal heartbeat, legal cases between 1812 and 1926 were frequently concerned with “quickening,” which is defined as “the point in which the pregnant woman first feels the fetus move . . . usually between the sixteenth and eighteenth week of pregnancy.”[1] Prior to the point of quickening in a woman’s pregnancy, abortion was not considered a crime since the woman might not have been aware of the pregnancy, particularly if her menstrual cycle was irregular.[2] Instead, these women were often regarded as victims of their own actions in allowing themselves to become pregnant or as victims of an illegal abortion resulting in their death. It is this latter situation, unfortunately, that has allowed historians to learn about the history of abortion practices within the United States. The stories were often only publicly shared through inquest reports, which sought to investigate any deviations from acceptable medical practices that led to death.[3]

In the late 1800s, abortion became a statutory crime in Indiana, as in all states in America. This means that the criminality of the action was written into state laws rather than relying only on the precedent set by court decisions, also called “common law.”[4] The specific statute or law included the elements that an individual must satisfy to be found guilty of the crime, such as the action performed, their mental state when the act was performed, and proximate causation, which is defined as a link between the action and the effect of that action.[5] Despite statues and legal precedent asserting the criminal nature of abortions, women were frequently exempt from liability for their participation in terminating the pregnancy, with most charges instead filed against the individual who performed the abortion.[6]

Although women did not speak openly about abortions outside of their social circles, they did confide in their close friends and family members of their desire to be “fixed up” or to “bring their courses around.”[7] According to many historians’ investigations into the topic, women in the 18th and 19th centuries often turned to abortion as a common means of birth control, with some even asserting that it was safer than childbirth, which claimed the lives of numerous women annually. [8] Women often shared folk remedies or other methods for terminating the pregnancy in much the same way they would have discussed the treatments for other common illnesses.[9]

lady
The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

At the turn of the 20th century, approaches to understanding and addressing the rate of abortions within the community involved comparing it with other birth control methods and encouraging the avoidance of pregnancy to prevent the need for an abortion. One such advocate was New York nurse Margaret Sanger,[10] who spearheaded the birth control movement, eventually leading to the approval of modern contraceptives. Sanger reportedly solicited the help of Roberta West Nicholson, a Hoosier legislator (1935-1936) and activist, who co-founded the Indiana Birth Control League in 1932, Indianapolis’s first Planned Parenthood center. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began her 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

Controversially, Sanger argued in favor of abortion for eugenics, though without the overtly racist undercurrent of most pro-eugenics writings. Instead, her arguments, which often referred to minority and immigrant women indirectly, called for increased access to contraception to assist in limiting the number of children born in their families.[11] At the core of Sanger’s arguments was the idea that “the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty.”[12] Indiana took Sanger’s beliefs a step further and passed a new law in 1907 that authorized the involuntary sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists,” following the argument that poverty, criminal behavior, and mental problems were hereditary.[13] According to the historical marker placed outside the Indiana State Library in 2007 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the law, approximately 2,500 people within state custody were sterilized under the mandatory sterilization approved by Governor J. Frank Hanly.[14]

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), accessed womenshistory.org.

In her work with minority, immigrant and working-class communities, Sanger often cared for women who were “relieved if there was a stillbirth, because they could not afford to raise any more children.”[15] As a result, it was these women that Sanger most commonly targeted with her advocacy for increased access to birth control in place of abortions; however, historians like Leslie Reagan and Joan Jacobs Brumberg have argued that abortions were sought by women in all sectors of society to prevent an unwanted birth or to protect a young woman’s reputation. Reagan found that mothers who helped their daughters seek illegal abortions often cited the double standard between males and females in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the mother “knew that bearing an illegitimate child would stigmatize her daughter for life while the boyfriend could experience sexual pleasures without hurting his honor.”[16]

Alternatively, unmarried young women who were kicked out of their homes upon disclosure of their pregnancies were encouraged to bear their children in maternity homes, which often refused to admit Black women.[17] Women who lived in these homes until the birth of the children were required to repent of their sin, perform domestic tasks, participate in religious services, and breastfeed the infants for several months even if they planned to give the children up for adoption.[18] Historians like Regina Kunzel have uncovered evidence that many young women in maternity homes tried and failed to abort their pregnancies as opposed to remaining in the maternity homes.[19]

In the 1930s, particularly during the Great Depression, married Black and white women within similar socioeconomic classes sought abortions at approximately the same rate, often citing their employment or role as the family breadwinner as a critical factor in wishing to avoid another child.[20] Furthermore, data has indicated no significant distinction between abortion rates when classified by religious background; however, the timing of the abortions often differed. Catholic and Jewish women gave birth younger and chose abortion as they aged, whereas Protestant women often sought abortions at younger ages, choosing to give birth later in life.[21]

Throughout the 1920s and 1940s, women from Indiana and other midwestern states often visited downtown Chicago to obtain an abortion at the medical practice of Dr. Josephine Gabler, who had established herself as an expert in the field willing to accept referrals from other medical professionals, despite the practice being illegal in Illinois as well.[22] To protect her identity, that of her staff, and the women visiting the practice, Dr. Gabler and her staff instructed women not to call anyone else if they had issues following their procedure, with the clinic staffing a 24-hour phone line available to assist patients. When women arrived at the clinic, the receptionist, Ada Martin, would lead them back to the room and cover their eyes with a towel so they could not identify the physician performing the procedure prior to putting them to sleep. She would then provide them with instructions for aftercare. Dr. Gabler and her staff paid physicians a percentage of the procedure fees for referring patients to the clinics. The clinic also paid monthly bribes to police officers, which allowed them to continue providing abortions openly without criminal prosecution.[23]

Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1941, 23, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers

One police officer who received bribes from Gabler’s clinic was Indianapolis Detective Daniel Moriarity. In 1941, the clinic’s former receptionist Ada Martin, who had purchased the clinic from Dr. Gabler, was the victim of an attempted murder. Tragically, Moriarity murdered Dr. Gabler’s daughter, mistaking her for her mother. He was attempting to hide the bribes he had received from Gabler and Martin. His crimes exposed the clinic’s practices for the first time.[24] Despite raids on the office in August 1940 and February 1941, convictions against Martin and her receptionist, Josephine Kuder, were overturned because the evidence used to build the case had been drawn from illegally-seized patient medical records.[25] During the trial, numerous women were forced to take the witness stand, sharing their experiences and subjecting themselves to the scrutiny and stigma of the courts.[26] One woman’s medical record from the clinic was even published in the Chicago Daily Tribune as a “sample,” and other women had their names and photos printed, further exposing them to unwanted attention and questioning outside of the courts.[27]

From the late 1930s into the 1970s, poor white women and Black women in northern Indiana and Detroit began to visit Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr., a Black physician practicing in Detroit. He was urged by his wife, another physician who had obtained an abortion herself while completing her medical training, to perform abortions.[28]  Dr. Keemer initially refused to perform an abortion for an unmarried woman, who later died by suicide, leading to his commitment to helping other women to prevent a similar tragedy. Many poor white women regarded Dr. Keemer as a preferable option despite his race and gender because he provided follow-up care and, in the case of the procedure failing, arranged for the woman to have care at a hospital, which he fully paid in addition to any lost wages from missing work.[29]

For women able to make the journey to either Chicago to see Dr. Gabler or Detroit to visit Dr. Keemer, there was often concern about the amount of time a woman would be away from home, leading to the risk of others finding out about her abortion and stigmatizing her for her choices.[30] Abortions at Dr. Gabler’s clinic ranged in price from $35 to $300, with most women paying $50.[31] The cost was higher for abortions performed later in the pregnancy due to the added complexity. This encouraged women to seek treatment as early in the pregnancy as possible to limit costs.[32] Dr. Keemer’s patients were charged $15 in the late 1930s, with fees increasing on a sliding scale to $125 by the 1960s. If the procedure failed, Keemer returned the fee paid and also covered all patient fees associated with the woman receiving a D&C at a local hospital.[33]

(L to R): Cincinnati Enquirer, November 25, 1879, 4; November 26, 1879, 4; November 27, 1879, 4, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Access to abortions was particularly difficult for women living south of Indianapolis without the opportunity to seek treatment from the Gabler-Martin or Keemer clinics. In this area, some women resorted to procedures performed secretly by other professionals. One such case that gained national attention was that of Eliza Francis Levesay from Decatur County, which is located southeast of Indianapolis.[34] Levesay had had an affair with a young man named William Myers, and she became pregnant. Because Levesay was from a poor family and Myers was from a wealthy family, they believed it was in the best interest of both of their reputations that she seek an abortion.[35] Her abortion was performed by Dr. C. C. Burns, a local dentist. When Levesay became ill and sought medical treatment, her physician reported the case to the state authorities. While an investigation was performed, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision against any of the parties, and the case was dismissed.[36]

Profiting from abortion restrictions and lack of access to safe clinics, entrepreneurs marketed various pills and remedies that women had shared with each other for free. Women either mixed their own concoctions or purchased various remedies through the mail, with them marketed under various different names to avoid seizure under the Comstock Act, which prohibited the sending of “obscene” or “unlawful” materials through the postal service.[37] Interestingly, such restrictions were often applied only to those packages crossing state lines, urging entrepreneurs to take up the cause within the state as well.[38] Such remedies were not regulated by the FDA; therefore, their safety and efficacy were not established.[39] It is unknown whether such treatments actually worked or how many people died or became ill from using these them. In fact, some state laws, such as those published in 1827 in Illinois, classified the treatments as poisons.[40]

Dr. Jackson’s English Tablets pill packet, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

In addition to physical harm resulting from such “treatments,” Dr. Keemer and others worried about women’s mental health should they be refused abortions. Despite state laws, demand for abortion increased in the decades following the Great Depression and World War II as more women entered college and the workplace.[41] Women needed to control when they would become pregnant because “once a woman was visibly pregnant, her school would expel her and her boss fire her . . . In short, pregnancy threatened to destroy a young woman’s life and ambitions.”[42] To protect their reputations and their futures, women from the 1930s to the 1960s sought illegal and unregulated abortions, which were often performed by individuals without medical training. Other women from the 1940 to the 1960s found sympathetic psychiatrists were able to secure abortions for “therapeutic reasons” to help prevent the “emotional distress and suicidal intentions” that women expressed in order to receive referrals for a medical hospital-performed abortion.[43]

Numerous state and national advocacy groups supported proposed changes to the laws in Indiana. In 1967, Robert Force, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and Irving Rosenbaum Jr., a physician, drafted the new Indiana Bill (H.B. 1621) and published a statement in which they argued that physicians needed to fully assess a woman’s prognosis if not able to obtain a medical abortion, much as they would when considering treatment for any other medical condition.[44] Additionally, they encouraged the incorporation of protections for women who were victims of crimes, such as rape or incest, and women with mental conditions who could not adequately appreciate their conditions or care for a child after its birth.[45] [46]

Proposed amendments to the Indiana abortion law, 1967. Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” accessed JSTOR.

Some of the groups lobbying for change and supporting the Indiana Bill represented bipartisan, secular, and religious organizations, including the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Indiana State Medical Association, American Protestant Hospital Association, Indiana Council of Churches, National Council of Jewish Women, the Indianapolis Star, and other independent advocates.[47] In 1967, these advocacy groups called on legislators to consider legal precedents in which suicidal tendencies had been grounds for granting an abortion in drafting laws that would protect both the mental and physical health of women seeking an abortion.[48] The Indiana Bill passed the House, but the Senate made substantial changes, which essentially removed most of the proposed amendments, which would have made abortion legal without exception, and it was ultimately vetoed by the governor. While abortion was not legal at this point, Indiana had relaxed its anti-abortion laws to protect the mother’s life.[49]

Ruth Mahaney (right), n.d., in Madison Stacey, ‘It was hidden, you had to hunt,’ accessed WTHR.com.
Women’s Crisis Service ad, Spring 1975, in Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’S History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” accessed IUB Archives.

In 1968, the women’s liberation movement reached Bloomington. During weekly meetings of the IU Women’s Caucus, various women shared their challenges with being able to access abortions, which remained illegal.[50] In response to these challenges, including her friend’s horrifying experience in which an abortionist refused to perform the procedure until she had sex with him, Indiana University graduate student Ruth Mahaney started an abortion counseling center, which came to be known as the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service. This center fielded calls from women in surrounding rural areas, students, and women in Bloomington, and offered support from local ministers and doctors who provided counseling services.[51]

The Midwest Abortion Counseling Service center helped connect women to sympathetic providers both in southern Indiana at IU and in the Chicago area through referrals to the Jane Collective for women to receive safe abortions from respectable providers.[52] In an interview as part of the Indiana University Bicentennial Oral History Project, Mahaney recalled driving young women to a municipal airport in Bloomington to be able to get to Chicago as soon as possible for their procedures.[53] After the legalization of abortion under Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service transitioned to become the Women’s Crisis Service, which not only continued Mahaney’s work in supporting women seeking abortions but also provided support for women in other crises, such as rape or divorce. The center also to connected women to legal resources, daycares, and other available resources.[54]

Protestors gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court building to support their position in the ongoing abortion debate, accessed law.harvard.edu.

Force’s and Rosenbaum’s changes to the laws remain present in modern Indiana abortion laws nearly 60 years later. The 2022 Dobbs decision spurred further debates about women’s reproductive rights. The Indiana Legislative Oral History Interview project provides a window into the perspectives of former Indiana lawmakers regarding abortion access.

For a bibliography of sources used in this post, click here.

Notes:

[1] Samuel W. Buell, “Criminal Abortion Revisited,” New York University Law Review 66, (1991): 1780.

[2] Buell, 1782; Julie Conger, “Abortion: The Five-Year Revolution and its Impact,” Ecology Law Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1973): 312.

[3] Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 22.; Buell, 1782.

[4] “Criminal Law,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/criminal_law.

[5] “Criminal Law.”

[6] Buell, 1783.

[7] Reagan, 23.

[8] Tamara Dean, “Safer Than Childbirth: Abortion in the 19th Century Was Widely Accepted as a Means of Avoiding the Risks of Pregnancy,” The American Scholar, 97; Reagan, 22.

[9] Reagan, 26.

[10] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[11] Melissa Murray, “Abortion, Sterilization, and the Universe of Reproductive Rights,” William & Mary Law Review 63, no. 5 (2022): 1607.

[12] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[13] “Project Overview,” Indiana Eugenics History & Legacy 1907-2007, accessed June 28, 2023, https://eugenics.iupui.edu/ ; “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed June 28, 2023, https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/1907-indiana-eugenics-law/.

[14] “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau.

[15] Ingrid Mundt, “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control,” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (2017): 124.

[16] Regan, 28.

[17] Regan, 28.

[18] Reagan, 28-9.

[19] Regina Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993): 68-69, 81.

[20] Reagan, 135.

[21] Reagan, 137.

[22] Reagan, 149.

[23] Reagan, 155.

[24] Reagan, 155.

[25] Reagan, 311. Mrs. Martin estimated in court testimony that she worked as a receptionist for Dr. Gabler for approximately 12-15 years. She purchased the practice from Dr. Gabler in January 1940 and later hired physicians, including Dr. Henry James Millstone, to perform abortions in the clinic. While under indictment following the raids, Dr. Millstone died by suicide from drinking poison on April 17, 1941, with his wife dying by suicide from drinking ammonia shortly after on May 1.

[26] Reagan, 167-168.

[27] Reagan, 167.

[28] Reagan, 156.

[29] Reagan, 157-158.

[30] Regan, 151. Dr. Gabler used surgical techniques for the abortion, including general anesthesia and dilation and curettage (D&C) similar to the procedure following a miscarriage, with after-instructions provided similar to those for women who had just given birth, such as avoiding hot baths or avoiding intercourse while they healed.

In contrast to Dr. Gabler, Dr. Keemer used the Leunbach method, which was reported to be safer and less painful.[30] The process utilized a compounded paste and potassium soap solution inserted into the uterus via a syringe.  The vagina was then packed with a sterile gauze tampon, which would be removed 18 hours later at home. Women receiving an abortion via the Leunbach method, on average, spent only 10 minutes on the doctor’s table and reported minimal cramps, with aspirin prescribed to blunt the pain. Women could return home the same day, and a nurse would visit women at home the following day. Dr. Keemer also arranged a follow-up visit as well to ensure all of the contents had been properly expelled to prevent infection.

[31] Reagan, 154-155.

[32] Reagan, 155.

[33] Regan, 157-158.

[34] Madeleine Boesche, “19th Century Anti-Abortion Laws Enforcement in the Rural United States,” Vassar College Clark Fellowship, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[35] Various sources utilize different spellings for Mr. Myers’ last name, with “Myers” utilized in newspapers covering the case and “Miers” as the spelling in the Boesche article detailing her research into the case.

[36] Boesche, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[37] Reagan, 13.

[38] Melody Rose, Abortion: A Documentary and Reference Guide (London: Greenwood Press, 2008): 31.

[39] Sarah Gordon, “Female Remedies: A Little Show Draws a Big Response,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library, June 10, 2019,  https://www.nyhistory.org/blogs/female-remedies-a-little-show-draws-a-big-response.

[40] Reagan, 10.

[41] Reagan, 194.

[42] Reagan, 194-5.

[43] Reagan, 202.

[44] Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” Administrative Law Review 19, no. 4 (1967): 370-372.

[45] Force, 372.

[46] Force, 372.

[47] Force, 365.

[48] Force, 365.

[49] Force, 365.

[50] Mary Ann Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002): 136.

[51] Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’s History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” IUB Archives (blog), October 28, 2016, https://blogs.libraries.indiana.edu/iubarchives/2016/10/28/ruth-mahaney-nancy-brand-insight-into-ius-history-of-womens-reproductive-rights/.

[52] Madison Stacey, “’It was hidden, you had to hunt’ | How covert networks helped women access abortions before Roe v. Wade,” WTHR.com, last modified August 24, 2022, https://www.wthr.com/article/features/how-covert-networks-helped-women-access-abortions-before-roe-v-wade/531-8839cfb4-8eff-475f-bd6a-27643eea675b.

[53] Stacey.

[54] Kilgore.

Tonight, there’s going to be a (Rotary) Jail Break!

A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.
A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.

One of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions was the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank.  There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh.  These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became  popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste. In this blog post, we’ll expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.

A search for "rotary jail" in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.
A search for “rotary jail” in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.

But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.

Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city's rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.
Main street in Burlington, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city’s rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.

In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:

This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.

Despite the reputation that rotary jails were nearly impossible to break through, escapes occurred periodically throughout the country.

Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.
Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.

For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.

Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.
Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.

Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.

Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:

I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.

Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.
Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.

She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.

Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.

Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.
Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.

Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized.  Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.

Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.

Dillinger, Denial, and Devotion: The Trials of Lena and Gilbert Pierpont

Harry Pierpont, courtesy of Geocities, and Lena Pierpont, courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

“Harry is a fine boy, he never told me a lie in his life,” Lena Pierpont proclaimed about her son, “Handsome Harry” Pierpont, who was considered the brains of the John Dillinger gang.[1] Like many families, the Pierponts rallied around their son in times of trouble. The extent to which they defended Harry demonstrated both the depths of parental love and the pitfalls of willful ignorance. Harry’s troubles centered on the frenzied period between September 1933 and July 1934, when the Dillinger gang became America’s most wanted criminals for a crime spree that impacted Indiana communities big and small.

While Dillinger became the FBI’s very first “Public Enemy Number 1,”[2] 32-year-old Harry Pierpont was often credited with being the architect of the Dillinger gang’s crimes, and the mentor who helped make Dillinger a skilled criminal.[3]  Born in Muncie in 1902, Pierpont had amassed a lengthy criminal history long before meeting up with Dillinger. Pierpont was linked to a series of 1920s bank and store robberies across the state, including in Greencastle, Marion, Lebanon, Noblesville, Upland, New Harmony, and Kokomo, prior to landing in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City – where he befriended and mentored Dillinger.

Pierpont’s criminal sophistication, however, had not spared him from arrest. By July 1934, he was arrested and awaited execution in Ohio for the murder of Lima County Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The sheriff had been killed in October 1933 as gangsters broke Dillinger out of the county jail. Pierpont’s mother, Lena, and father, J. Gilbert, instinctively believed in their son’s innocence and grew resentful over the “persecution” they said they endured from authorities after they had relocated from Ohio to Goshen, Indiana in April 1934. Pierpont’s beleaguered parents had come to the Hoosier city to try and “make an honest living in a respectable business.”[4]

By mid-July, with Dillinger still at large (although only days away from being slain by federal officers in Chicago), the Pierponts were under constant surveillance in an all-out effort to locate Dillinger. They had rented a “barbeque and beer parlor” on what was then called State Road 2 (now U.S. 33 West). Known as the “Cozy Corner Lunch” spot, the roadhouse was a half mile northwest of the famous A.E. Kunderd gladiola farm just outside the Goshen city limits.[5] Conducting what she called her first “free will interview” given to a journalist, Lena told the The Goshen News Times & Democrat, “I am going to try and open this place and run a legitimate business as soon as these men stop trailing us. Mr. Pierpont (her husband) is ill and unable to work, so all we want is to earn an honest living.”[6]

The Goshen News Times & Democrat reported that the Pierponts had rented the barbeque stand on an one-year lease offered by a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hill. Although summer was nearly half over, the Pierponts had not opened for the year because a requisite beer license was still pending. The Pierponts believed this was held up by local officials facing pressure from federal authorities. Lena bitterly explained that the couple had sold all of their farm goods in Ohio in order to open the Goshen business.

“We should not be persecuted,” Lena explained. “We’re simply unfortunate. The government should call off its detectives and allow us to live as other good American citizens.” She pointed at a car parked about a quarter mile away and said, “See that car down the road? They’re always watching us.” She alleged that “Every minute for 24 hours a day we’re shadowed. They think we know (John) Dillinger and that he may come here. We don’t know him and we don’t want to.”[7] She insisted that her son was hiding in the attic of her home on the night the Ohio sheriff was killed, and while he was a fugitive escapee from the Indiana State Prison at the time, he was no murderer.[8]

Lena suggested that if she and Gilbert did know Dillinger maybe “we could get a deposition from him to the effect that our son, Harry, did not kill Sheriff Jess Sarber at Lima, Ohio.” Harry had assured her that Dillinger would clear him of the murder “and name the real slayer,” thus saving her son from the electric chair in Ohio.[9] The Indianapolis Times reported in September, Lena successfully arranged to meet with him in Chicago. According to her account, when asked who freed him from the Lima jail, Dillinger said “‘I’ll tell you who turned me out. Homer Van Meter is the man who fired the shot that killed Sarber and Tommy Carroll and George McGinnis are the men who were in the Lima jail and turned me out.'”[10]

Members of the Dillinger outlaw gang, Russel Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, John Dillinger, Ann Martin and Mary Kinder, are arraigned in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934, courtesy of the Associated Press.

Although used to letting his wife serve as family spokesperson, Gilbert Pierpont told an enterprising reporter from The Goshen News-Times & Democrat, “Harry (Pierpont) will not die for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. We are looking for a reversal of the Lima verdict by the Ohio Supreme Court. If not, the case will go to the United States Supreme Court.”[11] Harry’s angry and reportedly ill father said he didn’t like talking to reporters “because of so many false statements they have made about my son.” Contrasting her ailing husband, Lena “was jovial during the interview” and “jokingly remarked that the press would have it all wrong” when writing about her son.[12]

State and federal law enforcement officials were quick to impeach the Pierponts. Captain Matt Leach, who headed the effort of the Indiana State Police to bring the marauding gang to justice, actually identified Pierpont as “the brains” of the Dillinger gang. It was Pierpont, Leach said, who came up with the idea of springing Dillinger from the county jail in Lima by posing as Indiana police officers. When Sheriff Sarber demanded to see their credentials, Pierpont reportedly said, “Here’s our credentials,” and fired multiple shots into the lawman, killing him instantly.[13]

It was a short-lived, but “productive” period of freedom for thirty-one-year-old Dillinger after being sprung from the Lima jail. During this stint, he led his gang in a bold April 12, 1934 raid on the Warsaw Police Department, where they seized a cache of guns. The gang also conducted a deadly robbery of the Merchants National Bank in downtown South Bend on June 30, killing a police officer and injuring four others in a brazen sidewalk shootout. Federal agents put a stop to the spree when they gunned down Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, just nine months after the Pierpont-led escape from the Ohio jail.

The Akron Beacon Journal, March 8, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

While Dillinger met his “death sentence” on a Chicago street, Pierpont remained on Ohio’s death row for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. Lena said she and her husband would continue to make the journey of more than 200 miles from Goshen, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, “every weekend” to see their son. “We will continue to do this as long as we have any money,” she said.[14] Lena also declared she would continue to challenge state and federal authorities for their alleged harassment of her family. She had reportedly talked to an Elkhart attorney about bringing suit against state and federal authorities.

“We are unfortunate that our son is in prison under sentence of death,” Lena said, adding “No other members of our family have a criminal record. We should not be persecuted. They tell us that these men, who are constantly nearby in parked automobiles ready to follow us at any time we may leave, are federal government men.”[15] Lena’s claim that her son Harry was the only member of her family who had run afoul of the law was not accurate. The Pierponts’ younger son, Fred, 27, and Lena herself, were both arrested and held on illegal possession of weapons charges and vagrancy in Terre Haute in December 1933. A car driven by Lena on the day she was arrested contained almost $500 in cash and a sawed-off shotgun.

To publicize her claims of harassment, a day after granting an exclusive interview to The Goshen News Times & Democrat (picked up by the Associated Press and reported by newspapers across the nation), Lena marched into the Elkhart County Courthouse at Goshen, demanding that she be granted her long-delayed beer license and that an “order of restraint” be placed against detectives following them.[16] Despite his family’s attempts to win over “the court of public opinion,” as summer gave way to fall in 1934, Harry’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were coming to no end other than delaying his execution. Surprisingly, in late September, Pierpont and fellow Dillinger gang member, Charles Makley, staged a spectacular, yet unsuccessful escape attempt from the Ohio Penitentiary. Fashioning realistic-looking handguns made of soap (and blackened with shoe polish), Pierpont and Makley were immediately “outgunned” by prison guards, who killed Makley and critically wounded Pierpont in a shootout.[17]

By October, Pierpont could no longer escape his fate. As one reporter noted, Pierpont “whose trigger finger started the John Dillinger gang on its short but violent career of crime that blighted everything it touched, must die in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.” Prison officials reported “the doomed man has reconciled himself to death and embraced his former faith, the Roman Catholic religion.”[18]

Sullen and weakened by the gunshot wounds sustained during his failed prison escape, Pierpont strongly contrasted with “the braggart who once boasted he would kill every cop on sight.” Now, jailers said, Pierpont wished out loud that he too had been fatally wounded in the prison shootout.[19] “Pierpont’s mother, Lena, by this time living near Goshen, Indiana, and his sweetheart, Mrs. Mary Kinder, an Indianapolis gang ‘moll,’ are remaining true to the fallen gangster to the last,” one newspaper account told. Kinder, whom reporters were quick to point out was previously married, “even went to Columbus recently[,] determined to marry Harry in prison before he dies.”[20]

South Bend Tribune, October 19, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

On October 17, 1934, the “fair-haired brains of the dissolved Dillinger mob” was executed. The Associated Press noted, “Quietly, unaided and with the ghost of a smile on his lips, the 32-year-old killer sat down to death in the gaunt wooden chair within the high stockade of the prison guarded in unprecedented fashion.”[21] Reporters who witnessed the execution said Pierpont “was not asked for any ‘last word,’ and he volunteered none. He just sat down with a rueful smile, closed his eyes, strained the muscles of his lanky, six-foot-two frame, as the current struck, clenched one fist – and that was all.”[22] A national wire photo showed Kinder comforting Lena and Gilbert at their new home along U.S. 31 in Lakeville in St. Joseph County, where they had moved after their failed attempt to start a roadhouse near Goshen.

A funeral was conducted for Harry inside the Pierponts’ home, led by a priest from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Lakeville. The services were held an hour earlier than was announced to keep reporters away. Harry Pierpont had told Ohio prison officials that he desired a “simple, but lavish funeral” and wanted his remains be released to his parents in Indiana.[23] The South Bend Tribune reported, “His casket was adorned only by a small wreath of artificial flowers, and lay grotesquely surrounded by canned goods and automobile accessories in his parent’s home store.”[24] Harry was eventually buried at the Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Lena Pierpont would appear in the news one more time for her resilience. In the summer of 1937, Lakeville town authorities took court action to rid the village of “a band of roving coppersmiths” who had settled at Lena’s White City Inn. Surely she refused to oust them because she needed the income in the lean Depression years, but perhaps she also related to those on the fringes of society, trying their best to survive.[25]

The Pierponts suffered another tragedy when Harry’s younger brother, Fred, died in March 1940 at the age of 33 from injuries suffered in a car crash near South Bend. Perhaps being forced to hone the art of resilience due to the upheaval wrought by Harry helped them survive this second blow. Lena died in her Lakeville home on October 21, 1958 at the age of 78. Her long-suffering husband Gilbert, died three years later also at Lakeville at the age of 80. They were buried alongside their infamous son in Indianapolis.[26]

Police booth, courtesy of the Goshen Historical Society.

* Interestingly, the Goshen connection to the Dillinger gang, beyond the Pierponts’ battles there, is forever enshrined in the city’s limestone police booth opened in 1939. The impressive octagon structure sits on the corner of the Elkhart County Courthouse square, opposite Goshen’s two largest banks. Complete with bulletproof glass (donated by two of the city’s banks), the booth (partially funded by Works Progress Administration dollars) was never called into duty as Goshen’s banks escaped being robbed.

Sources:

*Primary documents were accessed via Newspapers.com, the Goshen Public Library, and the Goshen Historical Society. 

[1] Associated Press, July 12, 1934.

[2] Andrew E. Stoner “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” in Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds., Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015), 96.

[3] Patrick Sauer, “Harry Pierpont: John Dillinger’s Mentor” in Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, eds., The Who, the What, the When: Sixty-Five Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC., 2014), 42.

[4] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[5] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 19, 1934.

[6] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[7] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[8] United Press, July 13, 1934.

[9] Associated Press, September 23, 1934.

[10] Indianapolis Star, July 13, 1934.

[11] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[12] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[13] Paul Simpson, The Mammoth Book of Prison Breaks: True Stories of Incredible Escapes (London Constable & Robinson, LTD., 2013).

[14] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[15] Associated Press, December 14, 1933.; Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Associated Press, September 22, 1934.

[18] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[19] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[20] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[21] Associated Press, October 17, 1934.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1934.

[24] South Bend Tribune, October 18, 1934.

[25] United Press, June 8, 1937.

[26] Muncie Evening Press, October 22, 1958.; Muncie Star-Press, October 4, 1961.; Associated Press, March 6, 1940.

Fort Wayne’s Charles Allen: Theatrical Ingenue & “Unsung Gay Hero”

Courtesy of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, caption: Pianist Charles Allen, left, and singer Steve Black were part of the entertainment scene in the late ’60s, when bars replaced coffeehouses as the centers of musical activity.

Legendary choreographer and “unsung gay hero” Charles Allen sat with a tape recorder in his Fort Wayne house, a veritable art museum awaiting curation. Sipping gin and orange juice from an empty peanut butter jar, he began to document his life. Notorious for self-mythologizing—once claiming to have killed a man using “voodoo and black magic”—some of the anecdotes he fed the tape no doubt were embellished.[1] These would prove unnecessary, however, as his legacy speaks for itself. Not only did Allen give “birth to generations of dancers and . . . change the way people looked at the world around him,” but he inspired and empowered LGBTQ+ Hoosiers, perhaps unintentionally. Upon Allen’s 1980 death, Jerry Jokay wrote in TROIS, Fort Wayne’s gay newsletter, that “Although he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, one of his greatest contributions was that he was a gay hero. And he is a gay hero simply because his gayness was a trivial issue in his life even in spite of the oppression it caused him.”[2] Allen, on the other hand, would probably consider his greatest contributions to be advancing performing arts and instilling a love of storytelling and self-expression in Hoosiers.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of KPC News.

Born in 1912, Allen was likely raised by his aunt and uncle in Mongo, Indiana. Depictions of Allen’s childhood are characteristically colorful and include a traipse through Tamarack Swamp with famed author and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter in search of insects and plant specimens.[3] Allen “recalled dyeing his hair pinkish-brown as a child, catching blue racer snakes, putting them around his neck, and startling passersby on highway 20 near his home. A barefoot, innocent, wild-haired child of the swamp.”[4]  The spirited child attended school in Kendallville and spent free time in LaGrange, where he learned to play piano at Wigdon Theater. Fully enamored with artistic expression, he devoured performances delivered by a travelling company. The News-Sentinel reported “there was a troupe of four or five men, who did a two-reel silent movie, and set up an impromptu stage with an indian scene. There was singing, and two of the men did female impersonations. When he left the show, his life had changed. . . . He’d fallen in love.”

The production continued to call to him, long after the caravans departed. He left school, took a train to northern Michigan, where the travelling company had migrated, and became its new pianist. As despair deepened during the Great Depression, the public increasingly took solace in travelling shows. These provided Allen with opportunities to try his theatrical hand and hone his skills as a performer. The News-Sentinel noted, “People were doing almost anything for money. He fell in with a freak show,” dubbed the Palace of Wonders, for which he mesmerized crowds as the Human Pin Cushion. During this period, Allen learned how to perform the “half-man, half-woman” act, styling his feminine half after screen siren Marlene Dietrich. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he would perform this routine at local tavern, Henry’s, and played piano at bars like This Old House, Trolly Bar, and the Caboose.[5] Allen insisted that friends stay at his house once the bars closed down for the night, hating solitude.[6]

The eclectic career he had forged for himself was abruptly derailed by the conformist ethos of the 1940s. At a time of global upheaval, Americans held evermore sacrosanct heteronormativity. The News-Sentinel reported that during this “less enlightened age,” a judge sentenced Allen to six years in a Michigan City Prison after “an affair with a soldier led to a charge of sodomy.”[7] Allen recalled in the Fort Wayne Free Press that the judge declared ironically “we’re going to send you where you’ll be happy; locked up with a lot of men!”[8] This prediction proved correct, as he spent time with paramours in a makeshift room fashioned out of old pianos and curtains. On weekends, he played piano for the men waiting in line to watch a movie. While it played, a band mate would take his place at the piano, so that he could go hold hands with his companion. During his few years in prison, Allen made friends, assembled a band—for which he played the sousaphone—and learned how to dance.[9]

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed theparisreview.org.

The News-Sentinel noted that in prison Allen “kept following his insatible [sic] desire to learn. Where he could find no one else to teach him, he taught himself. The creativity could never let him rest. It would be that way to the end of his life.”[10] This cultivation of self-expression paralleled the journey of African American poet, Etheridge Knight. While serving eight years at the Indiana State Prison in the 1960s, he discovered the restorative power of writing, culminating in his revolutionary Poems from Prison. Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.”[11]

So, too, did music and dance sustain Allen during his incarceration. Upon release, he returned to Fort Wayne, opening the Charles Allen Dance Studio.[12] According to the Journal-Gazette, he was the city’s only choreographer and, through his trips to New York and Chicago, “single-handedly” invigorated the city’s theater scene. Something of a cultural conduit, Allen traveled to Vera Cruz, Mexico to research indigenous dances. He studied dance at the University of Guatemala and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico, imbuing midwestern students with unique material and perspectives.[13]

In life and work, Allen gravitated towards those on the fringes, perhaps identifying with their struggles or the stigmatization they endured. He reportedly taught exotic dancers how to improve their performances and played piano at “houses of ill repute.”[14]  In his TROIS article, Springer wrote that Allen played piano and felt a “kinship” with Black Americans because “like him, they were among the outsiders of society.”[15] Though he was exacting and sometimes cruel, the News Sentinel reported that “he would work with beginners no one else had time for, work tirelessly because he felt a love of what he was doing.”[16] Janice Dyson recalled this experience, after her mom “scrimped grocery money to help pay” for lessons for her and her sister, Bernice. She recalled that Allen “was a real taskmaster. . . . Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it.”[17] Perhaps he hoped to provoke the same grit he’d developed through surmounting the many hardships imposed by society.

While he worked with Fort Wayne performers, Allen reportedly knew the jazz greats, like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and one friend noted that “a lot of famous people used to come here and have him fix their acts. Polish the acts. Reblock them or rechoreograph them.'”[18] Legend has it that one winter Allen sold his horse to pay the train fare to see Holiday perform in New York City. Due to a snow storm, he was the only person to show up at the theater. The usher relayed his presence to Holiday, who performed only for him, after which they went out for a drink. She reportedly drove him to the train station and ran alongside the cars, waving as the train departed. Allen was so moved by the experience that he wept while watching the train station scene in “The Lady Sings the Blues.”[19]

Family Theatre Festival (1975-1976), OnStage On Campus Collection, mDON: mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Purdue University Fort Wayne (PUFW) recognized the ingenue’s talent, hiring Allen to teach courses like Stage Movement.[20] He felt immense pride about being self-taught. A man who embodied resistance towards oppression and convention, his influence intersected fortuitously with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Friends and colleagues seem to agree that he was not an activist in the traditional sense, but he always answered when called to provide insight about homosexuality or the burgeoning “homophile” movement. He recognized that, as one of few men in the area living openly, if he did not engage in public discourse that no one one would. When asked by WANE-TV to serve as one of five panelists about homosexuality Allen agreed, saying “‘I’m all right here, I don’t have any problems because I’m not scared. But a lot of people are scared; they’re scared they’ll get arrested.”[21] He appealed to dozens of people to serve as panelists, but only two agreed. Those who declined feared that their parents would disown them or that they would lose their job, as had one of Allen’s friends who served in World War II. Others claimed the panel was unnecessary or worried that it would upset the “status quo,” which had provided a modicum of safety. To this reasoning, Allen said, “‘I thought if everything is so fine, why can’t they get on the air and say it’s fine. It’s because it isn’t fine.”[22]

Allen spoke about homosexuality at PUFW campus teach-ins and college classes, and wrote editorials for the student paper, The Fort Wayne Free Press, under the pseudonym “Claude Hawk.”[23] He wanted audiences to understand that sexuality was not a choice, noting that “My own doctor tells me that one gene or chromosome determines sexual preference—not butchness, effeminancy, athleticism, not militancy, but whom you want to go to bed with.”[24] He added that this knowledge, while “comforting,” doesn’t help if you get fired or the “bartender breaks your glass after each drink, etc., etc.” His efforts shifted the perspectives of students like Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, who attended a teach-in with the “brave man” who “sat up there and told it like it is.”[25] The authors were enlightened by Allen’s revelations that he knew he was gay at the age of four and that scientific studies suggested that biology dictated sexual preference.

Courtesy of The Fort Wayne Free Press, 3, iss. 16 (July 27, 1972): 9, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

In one Free Press editorial, Allen addressed those who had come to terms with their sexuality, but faced the question “where do you go?” to meet someone. Of the dilemma, he wrote:

You can’t find someone at an office party or at a neighborhood bar because someone would ‘find out’. So you experiment. You drink too much or get so horny that, without experience, you get your teeth bashed in saying something dumb to to the wrong person; or the right-wrong person who relieves you of your watch, wallet, and rings. Or sometimes you are picked up by a nicelooking, intelligent, young man with long hair and bare feet, who turns out to be fuzz and you are entrapped, fined, and-or jailed.[26]

He advised readers to find a “gentle, gay” friend, who can help navigate the covert social world, or a relatively tolerant restaurant or bar. A “third salvation,” Allen noted, was to “know an art or theater crowd who don’t give a damn. Not about you, but about it.” The theater provided a world in which he did not have to explain himself or act as a local spokesperson for homosexuality. He wrote that the “freedom, acceptance, and love” afforded by the theater community created “a place to breathe in this pollution of brotherhood. Since one doesn’t have to hide, or lose his job in these fields, these are the more obvious” ones in which to work.[27] In fact, Allen noted that living as a gay man paralleled life in the performing arts, writing:

“You are forced to think and live like a male and play the game so well that you are never uncovered. And this becomes an art, gives you a facility for understanding objectively what’s going on. It’s like a play, and while others are doing it naturally you’re listening for clues, and if well rehearsed, arrive at a happy ending.”[28] 

The Fort Wayne Free Press 4, iss. 3 (January 25, 1973): 6, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

While TROIS writer Jerry Jokay considered Allen “Fort Wayne’s unsung gay hero,” he noted that “his fortitude laid in the fact that he didn’t dwell upon his difference . . . Allen was preoccupied with being so much more, as his best friends attest.”[29] Preoccupied, he was. Allen informed Free Press readers about his life, writing in 1971 that “I ran my own school, taught at Purdue, played piano in bars, was connected with Ft. Wayne Civic Theater, Kenosha Little Theater, Theater Alanta, had choreographed a Broadway show, was a Japanese paper folder, an Arabian knot tier.”[30] He had traveled the globe in search of inspiration and imbued new generations of performers with it. The News-Sentinel wrote that “he became unique, in a world of his own creation. His art became his life, his life his art.”[31]

His life, his art. Perhaps it was his cancer diagnosis that inspired him to detail them on tape, stories that writer Dan Luzadder suggested “may have been plucked from the intensity of his nether world.”[32] We don’t know what stories he told, as he ran out of time to complete the recordings,* but perhaps he described the demands of caring for his pet python or recited original sonnets, haikus, and Limericks, “both clean and questionable.”[33] We can be certain that his life and art profoundly influenced those around him. This is evidenced by the obituaries written upon his death in 1980 at the age of 68. Luzadder wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:

There was loneliness and insecurity. There were things that drove him. And there was tremendous courage to live through the times of his life, to aspire to art, to survive with nothing more than intelligence and faith in himself, to go hungry, to be alone, to see the world in its intolerance and still love it.[34]

Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

On March 21, hundreds of people from all walks of life—including actors, dancers, bartenders, city officials, and editors—stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Performing Arts Center to pay their respects to the man “whose life had taught them the meaning of art.”[35] His memorial served as a final standing ovation, with Civic Director Richard Casey reading from “Hamlet,” poets performing spoken word, and dancers delivering a finale performance of “Mr. Bojangles.”[36]

Allen provides us with a window into the experiences of those who lived openly in Indiana prior to the liberating events of the 1980s and 1990s. Before a sense of community was fostered by the formation of groups like Fort Wayne Gay and Lesbian Organization (GLO), Pride Week celebrations, and the publication of gay newsletters, Allen drew upon a deep reservoir of self-assurance and creative impulse to fashion a fulfilling life.[37] In his 1980 tribute, Steve Springer described Allen as “an individualist. Society had its standards of behavior and Allen had his own.” And although he had suffered because of these standards, Springer insisted that “Long after Anita Bryant and her hordes of intolerants are forgotten, the legend of Charles Allen will live on.”[38]

* The author has been unable to locate these recordings. If you know of their location please contact npoletika @library.in.gov.

Sources:

All issues of The Fort Wayne Free Press were accessed via mDON Mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

[1] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, Indiana State Library (ISL) microfilm.

[2] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[3] “Arts Center Site for Allen Service,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 20, 1980, ISL microfilm.

[4] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[5] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[6] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Claude Hawk, “Boys Will Be Girls!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 1 (January 1, 1971): 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[11] Nicole Poletika, “Etheridge Knight: ‘can there anything good come out of prison,'” May 3, 2017, accessed Untold Indiana.

[12] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[13] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[14] Ibid.; Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[15] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[16] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[17] Janice Dyson, “Studio Marks 65 Years of Dancing,” KPC News, December 28, 2017, accessed kpcnews.com.

[18] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[19] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[20] “Family Festival Slated,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 28, 1976, 6C.

[21] “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.; Claude Hawk, “Out of the Closet,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 11 (November 2-18, 1970): 3, 6.; “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[24] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[25] Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, “Dear Freep,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 7 (April 22-May 6, 1971): 10.

[26] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Claude Hawk, “God Love Us All,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 8 (May 6, 1971): 9.

[29] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[30] Bob Ihrie and Charles Allen, “Holiday on Ice,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 2 (January 18-February 2, 1971): 3.

[31] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[34] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[35] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.; Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[36] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.

[37] Nicole Poletika, “From ‘Gay Knights’ to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis,” October 5, 2021, accessed Untold Indiana.

[38] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.