“Washed Up:” A Discovered Artifact and the Rub-No-More Soap Company

At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we routinely get requests from researchers for assistance. Some of these are fairly simple, like helping with someone’s family history or determining the age of an antique they just bought. However, every once in a while, we get queries so interesting that they require a whole lot more research, and you never know what you might turn up.

Back in March, I received an email from a gentleman in California who recently found a unique item while metal-detecting on the beach. He needed help figuring out what it was and how old it might be. It was a weathered, rusted emblem with two elephants on the front and a name, “Rub-No-More.” On the back, it said, “some worry about wash day; others use Rub-No-More.”  He also knew it had an Indiana connection, as a quick internet search determined that the Rub-No-More brand was based out of Fort Wayne.

The Rub-No-More Watch Fob that washed up on the beach. Image: Kevin O’Brien.

It turns out that the item he found was a Rub-No-More watch fob, likely made sometime between 1905-1920. A watch fob was a decorative piece that accompanied a pocket watch, and helped keep the watch in a wearer’s pocket. A fob exactly like this one was recently sold at auction. Chicago’s F.H. Noble & Company, whose long history includes making trophies and urns for cremated remains, manufactured the fob. But what about the history of the company who commissioned it, the Rub-No-More Company? In learning more about this small, weathered piece of advertising, I discovered a history of one of Indiana’s most successful businesses at the turn of the twentieth century.

Rub-No-More watch fob recently sold at auction. Image: Hakes’s Auctions.

While its origins go back at least to 1880, the Summit City Soap Works of Fort Wayne (the Rub-No-More Company’s original name) was formally incorporated in May of 1885, with a capital stock of $25,000  for “manufactur[ing] laundry and other soaps,” according to the Indianapolis Sentinel. Their penchant for lavishing gifts on customers goes back almost to its founding. As the Wabash Express reported on May 27, 1886, Harry Mayel of the Summit City Soap Works came to Terre Haute and provided “over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in beautiful and valuable presents” to purchasers of the company’s Ceylon Red Letter Soap. While this was a great deal for consumers, it appears it wasn’t as good for the company. By 1888, the Summit City Soap Works was insolvent, with $18,000 in debt and only $14,000 in assets, and a court-ordered receiver came in to clean up the mess. The difficulties didn’t end there. Two years later, as mentioned by the Crawfordsville Daily Journal, the company’s facilities on Glasgow Avenue burned to the ground, an estimated loss of $6,000. The company, sadly, had no insurance to cover these damages.

Clearly, it was time for new leadership, and it came in the form of the highly successful Berghoff family, German immigrants who became a mainstay of Fort Wayne’s business community. The Berghoffs ran a profitable brewery in the city, most known for its “Dortmunder Beer” brand. They parlayed this success into other ventures, including the Summit City Soap Works. Gustave A. Berghoff, a traveling salesman for the brewery, purchased the soap manufacturer in 1892, likely from his own brother, Hubert. The latter had purchased the firm a year earlier for a measly $5,000, and intended to revive the soap maker to “run day and night,” according to the Fort Wayne Sentinel.

Dortmunder Beer advertisement from Berghoff Brewing Company. Image: FortWayneBeer.com.

Gustave Berghoff and his team wasted no time getting the company back on its feet and profitable, betting its success on a brand new product, Rub-No-More. Introduced in 1895, Rub-No-More was a “labor saving compound” that “clean[ed] the working clothes of a mechanic as well as the finest linen of the household, without much rubbing,” the Fort Wayne News wrote in its May 30th issue. To kick off the new product, the company launched a massive advertising campaign that provided free samples of Rub-No-More to every family in Fort Wayne. Summit City Soap Works then sold it at five cents, in a package that would cover five washing weeks. Rub-No-More became a hit, greatly benefiting Berghoff and his company. As such, they continued their tradition of giveaways. For example, in 1898, Summit City Soap Works offered its customers a free children’s book or wall calendar in exchange for saved Rub-No-More coupons and Globe Soap wrappers.

Fort Wayne Daily News, November 4, 1898. Image: Newspapers.com.

The company completely reorganized in 1903, including a new incorporation and expansion of its facilities. After eighteen years as an incorporated company, the Summit City Soap Works saw its capital stock increase four fold, to $100,000. Its executive staff also evolved, with Gustave Berghoff retaining his position as president but appointing his brothers, Henry and Hubert Berghoff, along with J. W. Roach and Albert J. Jauch, to the board of directors. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported that Berghoff was “having built a large addition to his factory, which will double the plant’s capacity.” The paper also commented on the company’s success, writing that “the business has grown from a small beginning to large proportions, and the institution is now known all over the United States, and the output is used almost universally in this country.”

The company also expanded its marketing, filing for multiple trademarks in 1905. The first filing, from April 17, 1905, included its new logo for Rub-No-More as well as an emblem, one so iconic to the company that it inspired my research: the two elephants logo. Used for decades as the symbol of Rub-No-More, the trademark displays an adult elephant dressed as a washerwoman washing a child elephant with its trunk. The second filing, dated September 19, 1905, includes both the new logo for the company’s name as well as the two elephants symbol. These became the company’s go-to branding for both its products and promotional materials, and it served them well. Grocers at Kendallville purchased 14,000 pounds of soap from the company in April of 1909, as noted by the Fort Wayne Sentinel, which traveled “in a single shipment over the [city’s] interurban.” That year, the Summit City Soap Works continued its tradition of promotional giveaways. An advertisement in the Dayton Herald offered customers free gifts in exchange for some of their products’ packaging trademarks. They offered girls an embroidery set and boys a “very interesting game” suitable for thirteen people.

Rub-No-More trademark application, September 1905. Image: Google Books.

One incident in 1911 showed how Rub-No-More soap could lead to more than just fun giveaways. A young woman named Bessie Lauer, an employee of the Summit City Soap Works, wrote her name on the inside of a soap bar’s packaging. It made its way out west, where a “wealthy California orange grower” found it and sought out a courtship, perhaps even marriage. She turned down his offer, but the publicity it garnered led to a Hanford, California Sentinel article describing the whole affair. Apparently embarrassed by the incident, Lauer told the Sentinel that “this is the first time she has ever written her name on a soap wrapper, and she fervently states that it will be her last.”

After decades of operation under the Summit City Soap Works moniker, the company formally changed its name in 1912 to the Rub-No-More Company, solidifying the importance of their branded soap to the entire enterprise. (A notification of the name change was published in the January 18, 1912 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily News, but it wasn’t official until April 12, 1912, when articles of incorporation were filed, according to the Indianapolis News. Advertisements in newspapers as early as June of that year indicated the name change). Around this time, Gustave Berghoff, the company’s president, began serving on the board of directors of the German-American National Bank based in Fort Wayne, greatly increasing his stature within the local business community.

Rub-No-More Logo, Trade Mark News. 1911. Image: Google Books.

By 1917, sales of the Rub-No-More Company topped $3,000,000 a year, as referenced in a profile in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette celebrating its 25th anniversary under the ownership of Berghoff. The article noted the expansion of its production facilities, from “the old days [when the plant was] comprised [of] but a few shacks” with “equipment consisting mostly of crude apparatus[es],” to a plant comprising “thousands of square feet.” This machinery was “of the most modern design . . . the value of which totals near a million dollars.” Within two decades, Rub-No-More, the company’s flagship product, became a mainstay product for consumers, with “circulars, wrappers, etc. . . . reproduced 200,000,000 times a year,” bringing “both the institution and the city continually before the minds of millions of people residing in this and foreign countries.”

Terre Haute Daily Tribune, March 22 1918. Image: Hoosier State Chronicles.

An interesting modern parallel, the Rub-No-More Company encouraged sterilizing face masks during the influenza pandemic of 1918. A notice printed in the November 22, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News instructed readers to “sterilize flu masks” by “thoroughly dissolv[ing] two tablespoonsful [sic] of Rub-No-More soap chips in one quart of boiling water” to “carefully wash masks.” As with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, soap companies have used their advertising to encourage people to wear masks and to keep them clean, something the Rub-No-More company did over 100 years ago.

Indianapolis News, November 22, 1918. Image: Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the Rub-No-More Company having a mostly positive reputation, it wasn’t without controversy. In 1918, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Rub-No-More Company was one of several companies charged with violating the federal child labor law. In a grand jury indictment against them, it was alleged that “three children were required to work ten and one-half hours a day” at their plant. Another issue the company faced came from its manufacturing process— one of “obnoxious odors.” The Indianapolis Times wrote in 1923 that the City of Fort Wayne was seeking a “permanent injunction” requiring the Rub-No-More Company to reconfigure their production process to alleviate the harsh smells that bothered the city’s east side residents.  It is unclear what the outcomes of these situations were, but violations of child labor laws and air quality, somewhat new to American industry in 1918, represented some of the lesser angels of industrialization.

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 4, 1917. Image: Newspapers.com.

After 35 years of success at the helm, Gustave Berghoff sold the Rub-No-More Company to Procter & Gamble and retired from the company in 1927. The company’s roughly 140 employees were transferred to other Procter & Gamble plants after a transitional period where Rub-No-More Company’s manufacturing stock was used. The Rub-No-More brand continued for many years under the Procter & Gamble umbrella, with advertisements for the product appearing in newspapers well into the early 1950s. Gustave Berghoff, the company’s former president, died on January 25, 1940 at the age of 76. He is buried in Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne.

The Rub-No-More Company exists in history as something of a Horatio Alger tale. A German immigrant, helped by his family, purchased a failing firm and turned it into one of the most successful soap companies of the early 20th century. Additionally, its innovative approach to marketing, promotions, and branding ensured its dominance in the marketplace. This story is also about how even a simple item, like a watch fob washing up on the beach in California, can lead to an understanding of one of northern Indiana’s industrial giants at the beginning of the American Century.

THH Episode 41: Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

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Transcript for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football fades in and out]

Nineteen twenty-four was going to be their year. The Notre Dame football team was coming off a well-played 1923 season with just one loss, and they had their sights set on an even bigger goal that year – a perfect season. However, to get there, they faced some stiff competition – rivals like the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had served up their only loss in 1923, loomed on the horizon. But looming even larger than rival teams was an off-the-field opponent that was in a different class altogether. That year, Notre Dame set out to defeat the Ku Klux Klan in a media crusade the likes of which had never been seen before.

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football]

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

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in the Hoosier State in 1920. By the mid-20s, more than 250,000 men had joined the organization throughout the state, and thousands of women and children had joined auxiliary clubs. While bearing the name, costume, and racist, xenophobic rhetoric of the Reconstruction Era Klan, this iteration of the terrorist organization differed in some key ways.

The Klan of the 1860s and 70s wielded clubs, guns, and nooses, while the Klan of the 1920s mostly wielded political power. The Klan of the mid-19th century terrorized the African American population of the southern United States, while that of the 20th century broadened their animus to include political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, Jews, and, most vociferously, Catholics and immigrants.

One other way in which the Klan of the 1920s differed from its predecessor, especially in Indiana, was just how interwoven it was with respectable society. Klansmen weren’t on the fringes, ostracized by their hatred. Rather, as Indiana University historian James Madison said in his new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was as dark as the night and as American as apple pie.”

Nativism and xenophobia were well established in the state before 1920 – Hoosiers were already asking if immigrants could really be American if they maintained traditions from their homeland. Or if Catholics could be loyal Americans while simultaneously being loyal to the Pope. These weren’t ideas introduced by the Klan, but rather they were ideas that paved the way for the Klan to quickly infiltrate society at a deep level.

Because the Klan was such an integral part of the fabric of everyday life in Indiana, there was very little widespread resistance to the organization. However, there were instances of individuals, communities, and religious groups taking a stand against the hatred. Dr. Madison explores some of these instances in his Indiana Magazine of History article titled “The Klan’s Enemies Step up, Slowly.” Various towns and cities around the state passed laws prohibiting the wearing of masks, targeting the white hood and mask worn during Klan events. They denied permits for Klan-affiliated speakers, and restricted public cross burnings and parades. Jewish Hoosiers organized a lecture series on tolerance in an area rife with Klan activity. Newspapers around the Midwest, including the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Chicago-based Tolerance and the Indianapolis Times wrote scathing editorials decrying the Klan’s practices.

It was Catholic Hoosiers who showed the most unified resistance, though – this was likely because they were the primary targets of the Klan’s intolerance. When the Tipton County Fair announced it would be hosting a “Klan Day,” Catholics boycotted the event. When the Knights of Columbus organized a protest against the Klan in Indianapolis, nearly 800 Catholic men attended. And perhaps the state’s most prominent anti-Klan demonstration took place in the town of South Bend in May 1924.

South Bend, home to Catholics of Irish, Polish, and Hungarian origin, as well as the traditionally Catholic University of Notre Dame, was one of the only major cities in Indiana without a Klan presence. The hate group was working hard to change that in the lead-up to the 1924 election using a two-pronged approach. First, Klan leaders worked to legitimize the organization through philanthropic and recreational family activities and to grow its power through infiltrating politics and local law enforcement. Second, they worked to demonize their target groups – in this case, Catholics and immigrants. To that end, the Klan published anti-Catholic, xenophobic propaganda in their widely circulated newspaper, The Fiery Cross, and, as the existing anti-Catholic sentiments of many Hoosiers were being stoked in that way, Klan leadership laid a kind of trap for the Catholic citizens of South Bend. They scheduled a mass Klan meeting, where members from the Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois Klans would gather to spread their hateful rhetoric. The hope was that Catholic students from the nearby University of Notre Dame and South Bend citizens, many of whom were of immigrant origin, would rise up in reaction to the Klan’s presence, giving the Klan the opportunity to paint them as violent, lawless, un-American immigrants in contrast to the peacefully assembled “100% American” Klansmen. The meeting was scheduled for May 17, 1924.

Fearful for the safety of their students and local residents, Notre Dame and South Bend officials worked to stop a potentially violent incident. South Bend Mayor Eli Seebirt refused to grant the Klan a parade permit, although he could not stop their peaceful assembly on public grounds. Notre Dame President Matthew Walsh issued a bulletin, imploring students to stay on campus and ignore the Klan activities in town. He wrote:

Clark reading from Walsh: Similar attempts of the Klan to flaunt its strength have resulted in riotous situations, sometimes in the loss of life. However aggravating the appearance of the Klan may be, remember that lawlessness begets lawlessness. Young blood and thoughtlessness may consider it a duty to show what a real American thinks of the Klan. There is only one duty that presents itself to Notre Dame men, under the circumstances, and that is to ignore whatever demonstration may take place today.

Beckley: Father Walsh was right. “Young blood” could not abide the humiliation of this anti-Catholic hate group taking over the town. The Fiery Cross had hurled insults and false accusations at the students for some time. The propaganda newspaper called them “hoodlums,” claimed that Notre Dame produced “nothing of value,” and blamed the students for crime in the area. As Klan members began arriving in the city on May 17, 1924, South Bend was ready to oppose them.

The South Bend Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Trouble started early in the day when Klansmen in full regalia of hoods, masks and robes appeared on street corners in the business section, ostensibly to direct their brethren to the meeting ground, Island park, and giving South Bend its first glimpse of Klansmen in uniform.

Beckley: Not long after Klan members began arriving, young men, assumed to have been Notre Dame students, surrounded the masked intruders. The anti-Klan South Bend residents and students tore off several masks and robes, exposing the identities of “kluxers” who wished to spread their hate anonymously. The Tribune reported that some Klan members were “roughly handled.” The newspaper also reported that the anti-Klan force showed some evidence of organization. They formed a “flying column” that moved in unison “from corner to corner, wherever a white robe appeared.” By 11:30 a.m. students and residents of South Bend had purged the business district of any sign of the Klan.

Meanwhile, Klan leaders continued to lobby city officials for permission to parade, hold meetings in their downtown headquarters, and assemble en masse at Island Park. Just after noon, the group determined to protect South Bend turned their attention to Klan headquarters. This home base was the third floor of a building and was identifiable by the “fiery cross” made of red light bulbs in the window. The students and South Bend residents surrounded the building and focused on removing the glowing red symbol of hate. Several young men “hurled potatoes” at the building, breaking several windows and smashing the light bulbs in the cross. The young men then stormed up the stairs to the Klan den and were stopped by minister and Klan leader Reverend J.H. Horton with a revolver.

The students attempted to convince Klan members to agree not to parade in masks or with weapons. While convincing all parties to ditch the costumes wasn’t easy, they did eventually negotiate a truce. By 3:30 p.m., the protestors had left the headquarters and rallied at a local pool hall.  Here, a student leader spoke to the crowd and urged them to remain peaceful but vigilant in case they were needed by the local police to break up the parade. After all was said and done, despite Klan threats, the city never issued a parade license and the Klan never paraded. Looking at the outcomes of this clash, it may seem as though the Notre Dame students came out on top – they were able to clear much of the city of white-robed Klansmen, the parade had not happened, and they had faced their persecutors head-on, something that’s easy to root for. However, this show of resistance was exactly what they Klan wanted, and they ran with it, painting the students as a “reckless, fight loving gang of Hoodlums” and using the Fiery Cross to spread a narrative of law-abiding Protestant citizens being denied their right to peacefully assemble while being violently attacked by gangs of Catholics and immigrants working together.

Mixing outright lies into their media spin, the Klan newspaper claimed that the students ripped up American flags and attacked women and children. The Klan’s propaganda was picked up by many mainstream newspapers and widely reported. The Notre Dame students may have appeared to win the day, but the reputation of the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic community as a whole, had been tarnished by the spread of Klan propaganda.

The university needed a way to combat this bad press, and luckily, they had just the thing: the wildly successful Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Since 1921, Father John O’Hara, the prefect of religion, had been working to link the players’ Catholicism with their success on the gridiron by arranging press coverage of the players attending mass before away games, providing medals of saints for them to wear during games, and writing about “the religious component in Notre Dame’s football success.” In essence, he drew on the idea of sport as a platform for social change, an idea that continues to be used in the 21st century. O’Hara planned to take this strategy up a notch for the 1924 season in an attempt to combat the smear campaign being waged by the Klan.

In order to put this plan into action, though, the Fighting Irish would have to make an even more impressive showing than they had in the 1923 season. This was a tall order, as their only loss that season was a devastating defeat by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game during which the Fighting Irish were subjected to anti-Catholic insults. This would have to be a year like no other – a perfect, undefeated season.

Coach Knute Rockne had his work cut out for him, but he came to the 1924 season with a plan – instead of starting his first-string players, he would send in his second-string “shock troops” to tire out their opponents. Then he would send in his best players, still fresh and ready to make up any ground that had been lost and more. The strategy was deployed with great success in the first two games of the season – Lombard College and Wabash College were defeated with a combined score of 74 to zero. The first real test for both the team and the press strategy came on October 25, when the Fighting Irish faced one of their biggest rivals – the Army team.

[Radio coverage from Army game]

In the lead up to the game, alumni living in the city fed Notre Dame-produced press statements to New York newspapers and drummed up support for the Fighting Irish at local Catholic organizations. As 60,000 fans…

Clark with old-time radio effects:  60,000 fans have descended upon the New York City Polo Grounds to watch this match-up …

Beckley: it was clear that the good press had paid off – the New York Times reported that the crowd was the largest ever seen in the city. When the Irish pulled off a relatively tight 13-7 victory, the press raved and reporter Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune delivered one of the most famous lines in sports history, writing about the Notre Dame’s backfield lineup:

Clark reading from Tribune: Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.

Beckley: The “four horsemen” nickname immediately gained traction. Upon the team’s return, the university arranged to have a photographer shoot a picture of the “horsemen” in uniform on horseback – just another card in the media playbook

One-third of the way through their regular season, the plan was right on track – the team had won some decisive victories and the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that the Fiery Cross continued to re-hash the events of May 24, smearing the Catholic and immigrant community of South Bend every chance they got. As the season continued, it became clear that this Notre Dame team was a force to be reckoned with – they emerged from their mid-season games with three more decisive victories against Princeton, Georgia Tech, and University of Wisconsin. Their next, and perhaps largest, hurdle still loomed ahead in the form of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had delivered their only defeat of the 1923 season.

In their last match-up, the Fighting Irish had encountered prejudice and xenophobic epithets from the Nebraska fanbase. This meant that a victory against the Huskers would not only get the Irish one win closer to a perfect season, but the victory of the hardworking and stoic Irish Catholic school over a team with anti-Catholic fans would be symbolic of a larger Catholic victory over prejudice.

This game had been the focus of the entire season for Notre Dame, and when the two teams took the field in South Bend on November 15, the Fighting Irish were out for revenge…

Clark with old time radio effects: …the Fighting Irish are out for revenge. Coach Rockne may be re-thinking his shock troop tactics this game… and the Huskers advance to the four-yard line after the Irish give up a fumble … The crowd goes wild as the first stringers take the field … and the Huskers drive it in for an early touchdown, Huskers lead 6-0 at the end of the first period! The Irish come out strong in the second quarter … the Four Horsemen are putting on a fine show … and we go to the half with the Irish ahead 14-6. … The Irish Eleven are really putting on a show now … Notre Dame 21, Nebraska 6 at the end of the third period … and Layden plunges through the center for a touchdown! … 34-6. The Irish win! The Irish win!!

Beckley: Finally, they had defeated the team that had not only ruined their otherwise perfect 1923 season, but had maligned them with anti-Catholic, anti-Irish slurs as well.

With that win in the books, the Irish swept through the remaining two games on their schedule – against Northwestern and Carnegie Tech – with relative ease, achieving their goal of a perfect season. This perfect record was everything the university administration had hoped for in order to engage their publicity machine and improve the school’s unfairly marred reputation. Giving them an even better opportunity for good press, the team was invited to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Father O’Hara, who had orchestrated press coverage of the team throughout the season, saw this as an unprecedented public relations opportunity.

Rather than travel to California a week before the game and practice a few times on the Rose Bowl field, the team was put through a grueling three-week schedule of practices, press conferences, public appearances, and daily Mass – all while snaking their way across the country by train. At the same time, the Klan continued to churn out hateful propaganda painting Catholics and immigrants as un-American troublemakers. And major outlets had picked up the narrative, lending credibility to the slanderous claims. This was what these young men, who were already facing the biggest game of their careers, were up against. Not only did they have to be at the top of their game, they also had to be on the moral high ground – they were representatives not only of Notre Dame, but of the larger Catholic and Irish American communities.

Finally, the team arrived in Los Angeles to a train platform crowded with fans – it seemed their press tour was working.

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl field for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: a Rose Bowl championship. After one more practice, the Fighting Irish returned to their hotel to rest for the night. In the meantime, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. The excitement was building. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football.

Beckley: On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops…

Clark with old time radio effects: …Coach Rockne has started his second string “shock troops.” That might be a mistake with this Stanford offense … and the Cardinals score first with a field goal – score 3-0 Stanford … And the first string players enter the fray … Even the usually unstoppable Four Horsemen seem to be unable to make a drive against this Stanford line …  Oh! And the Irish get a break as Stanford flubs the punt, placing the Irish on the Stanford 32 yard-line! … The Irish drive it in for their first score of the game – Irish lead 6-3! … Notre Dame full-back Elmer Layden intercepts the pass and runs it back for a 70 yard touchdown!! … Irish lead 13-3 going into the second half!

And the Cardinals fumble the ball – Irishman Edward Huntsinger picks it up and runs it 20 yards for another touchdown!! … Stanford has the ball inside the Notre Dame 1-yard line … and they’re stopped mere inches from the endzone!! Stanford goes for a pass and it’s intercepted by Layden … he’s going, he’s going, he’s gone!!! Layden runs it back for another 70 yard touchdown … And the Irish win the Rose Bowl 27-10! What a way to top off a perfect season!!

Beckley: The season was over, but the public relations machine was still in full force. The team set off on a “victory lap” from California to Indiana on January 2, a 10-day journey where the players met adoring crowds, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and shook hands with politicians. This was a victory lap for the Notre Dame football squad, yes, but also for Catholicism. After all, what’s more American than football? And here was a group of scholar-athletes demonstrating for the nation that their faith didn’t stand in the way of being American.

Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish in the wake of the Notre Dame victory. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group:

Clark reading telegram: WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.

Beckley: By the time they arrived back at the university on January 12, the players were completely exhausted, but triumphant. The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacle. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Notre Dame historian Robert Burns noted that:

Clark reading from Burns: By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.

Beckley: The Klan’s Fiery Cross continued to spread lies about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men – the American public were largely over the story.

The publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead – just one example in a long history of sports being used as a platform for social change and social justice in America.

However, while the Klan was defeated in South Bend, they remained dominant throughout much of Indiana, and their anti-Immigrant views were popular throughout the nation. The same year that this story takes place – 1924 – the Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles yielded real world consequences in the form of the national Immigration Act of 1924, which resulted in a quota system that reduced immigration by 80%. We saw the effects of this legislation most poignantly in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, who applied to the United States for immigration visas, were denied entry. Many of those people were later murdered in the Holocaust.

In the 1920s, the Klan claimed to be the sole proprietor of who was “American:” native born, white Protestants were, and foreign-born Catholics were not.  Although today the Klan has lost much of their power, their vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers right beneath the surface of American politics, and in some cases boils over. In the 1920s, we allowed hate groups to define who was and wasn’t considered American. Today, as we see hate groups on the rise, we must be vigilant not to let the mistakes of our past be repeated.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from “Integrity on the Gridiron,” three original posts written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins for the Indiana History Blog. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to today’s episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice, where I’ll be talking with Indiana University historian and author of the new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Show Notes for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Learn about the Indianapolis Times crusade against the Klan with this episode of Talking Hoosier History. 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/ 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1

Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan

 

Program, “Stanford vs Notre Dame,” 1925, in David Kiefer, “Stanford 125: The 1920s,” September 10, 2019, accessed gostanford.com.

This is Part Three of a three-part series on the University of Notre Dame’s opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. See Part One for information on the May 1924 riot and Part Two for more about the integrity modeled by the Fighting Irish during the 1924 regular football season.

Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan had a good year in 1924. Its members’ lobbying paid off and their xenophobia was codified into law with the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act). The act established a strict quota system that unfairly targeted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, in large part because many immigrants from these areas were Catholics. The Klan and other xenophobes charged that Catholic immigrants would always be loyal to the Pope and to Rome, as opposed to the laws of their adopted country, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. The new immigration law would keep out these “undesirable” immigrants. For many xenophobes, including Klan members, this was not enough. The Indiana Klan worked to further block Catholics and immigrants from gaining political power and influence. They did so by working to portray immigrants, Catholics, and Jews as “other,” as alien, as unassimilable, as un-American.[1]

Left: Ku Klux Klan, “Information Sheet,” 1922, Indiana Pamphlet Collection, Indiana State Library, (top page of sheet). Right: Detail from “Information Sheet.”

In Indiana, the Klan circulated “Information Sheets” before elections. These were copies of ballots where the Klan noted candidates who were “Negro” or “Foreign Born,” those who were Catholic or had Catholic family members, and those who refused to respond to inquiries.[2] The Klan newspaper, the Fiery Cross, accused Catholics and immigrants of various wild plots against their fellow Hoosiers and positioned Klan members as the innocent victims of attacks by Catholics. The propaganda mouthpiece dedicated full pages to this “mounting list of Roman Catholic offenses,” which supposedly included such “papist crimes” as “arson, theft, assault and battery, murder, slander, intimidation, breach of contract, disrespect for flag and violation of the immigration law.”[3]

Advertisement, Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan also continued to use the May 1924 incident at South Bend to vilify the city’s immigrant population as “hoodlums” and Notre Dame University as a front for secret, un-American, “papist” activities that would undermine the values of good Protestant Hoosiers. The Fiery Cross distributed a booklet, “The Truth About the Notre Dame Riot” and ran articles and anonymous letters it claimed were penned by neutral, non-Klan member observers of the “foreign rioting”of May. [4] In truth, these “letters” were racist, anti-Catholic propaganda. These strikingly similar letters, signed with pseudonyms like “An American Citizen” and “Observer” referred to Notre Dame students as”anti-American” and “gangsters. [5] The writers claimed that the students were armed with guns and knives, outnumbered Klan members thirty-to-one, beat women unconscious, tore up the American flag, and spilled the blood of all-American Klansmen, “the same true blood shed at Bunker Hill and Argonne.”[6]  While local non-Klan affiliated newspapers reported no such level of violence, no weapons, no women present, and no destruction of the flag, the Klan’s version of events was repeated in mainstream newspapers, tarnishing the university’s reputation.

Notre Dame officials knew that the Klan wanted them to react. The Klan had baited students into conflict in May and had been thriving off the propaganda opportunity ever since. The xenophobic group continued threatening to return to South Bend, even holding large rallies on the edge of town. Instead of responding to the Klan, the university worked to counter the damage done to their reputation by promoting its increasingly-popular football team. By winning games, growing its fan base, publicizing its players as wholesome American boys, and linking the school’s Catholicism with its success on the field, Notre Dame flipped the script on the Klan. Newspapers across the country were now talking about Coach Rockne’s brilliant plays, the unstoppable Four Horseman offensive backfield, the Fighting Irish’s undefeated regular season, and the team’s odds at the upcoming Rose Bowl.[7]

Minneapolis Star, December 26, 1924, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

The trip to the Rose Bowl presented university leadership with a unique opportunity—a national stage on which to demonstrate that Notre Dame was both proudly Irish Catholic and thoroughly American. Many players were sons of immigrants, improving themselves through education and hard work to achieve success and the American dream. And what could be more American than football? Positive press coverage generated by the Fighting Irish’s undefeated 1924 season convinced President Walsh that mobilizing the full power of the university behind the football team was a winning promotional strategy. According to Notre Dame historian Robert Burns:

When reporters wrote about Rockne’s success or the exploits of the Four Horsemen, they could not do so without also writing about the special religious and academic environment that had made such success and exploits possible. That sort of reporting…was good for Note Dame, for Catholic higher education, and for American Catholics generally in the bigoted climate of 1924. [8]

Walsh gave his blessing to the January 1925 match up between Notre Dame and Stanford at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. He then handed over the reigns to Father O’Hara, the school’s “prefect of religion and  unofficial keeper of the institutional conscience.” Father O’Hara turned the train trip to Pasadena into a “public relations spectacular.”[9]

“Mass Celebrated by the Notre Dame Football Team on the Road,” n.d., University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed https://www.nd.edu/stories/whats-in-a-name/.

Father O’Hara planned a three week trip centered around the Rose Bowl game and mobilized Notre Dame alumni and Catholic organizations to set up public events en route. Alumnus and railroad executive Angus D. McDonald arranged for a special train to transport the team, coaches, managers, alumni, and Father O’Hara. The train included a chapel car for Mass, Holy Communion, and confession. Father O’Hara believed that the devoutness demonstrated through daily communion, combined with “the gentlemanly conduct of the team” would win over the American public “while bigotry and prejudice received an abrupt setback.”[10]

“Notre Dame University’s Unbeaten Football Team at Illinois Central Station Chicago en Route to California via New Orleans,” Illinois Central Railroad Company Photograph, December 20, 1924, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

On Thursday, December 18, 1924, Rockne drilled his players “on a field covered with ice and in a slow drizzle,” a public display of a steadfast team determined to win in January.[11]  The next day, the special Notre Dame train left for Chicago. The Tennessean reported that “Hundreds of students and townspeople braved zero degree weather” to see them off.[12] When they arrived in Chicago on Saturday, alumni and members of the Knights of Columbus greeted the team and posed for photos. Notre Dame had become increasingly popular among Chicago’s immigrant community, and local newspapers thoroughly covered the team’s arrival in the city, openly rooting for them over the days leading up the Rose Bowl.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the entire Midwest was “pulling for Knute Rockne’s famous ‘Four Horsemen’ to ride rough shod over the Californians.”[13] The newspaper stated that midwesterners had a vested interest in the game’s outcome “because of the intersectional reputation of Notre Dame, the most widely advertised eleven the country has ever known.”[14] The Tribune reported that while normally telegraph offices would be closed on New Year’s Day, they would “remain open to receive the returns.”[15] The paper also encouraged “everybody with a radio, or those who know somebody with a set” to keep “their ears glued to the headpieces” as Tribune radio station WGN would be airing the game.[16] Pasadena hotel companies even beckoned to Chicago-area residents to follow the team out West for the Rose Bowl through newspaper advertisements.[17] In fact, newspapers all across the country reported on the team’s travels from this first stop. By the time the train left Chicago, the Rose Bowl seats were completely sold out.[18]

“A ticket from the 1925 Rose Bowl between Notre Dame and Stanford,” in “The First Bowl Trip, 125 Moments, University of Notre Dame Football, accessed 125.nd.edu.

The Notre Dame train traveled south, stopping briefly in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 21. Here, the team and entourage were again greeted by alumni and Knights of Columbus members, who had set up a special Mass in the team’s honor. They continued on to New Orleans, where locals pulled out all the stops for “a series of entertainments”over a two-day period.[19] The first day Coach Rockne held an hour-long practice at Loyola University stadium, “consisting chiefly of passing and kicking and the execution of several plays,” and the second day the team spent the afternoon in workouts at Holy Cross College.[20] In the evenings, the team was “elaborately entertained.”[21] According to Burns, “The team was a huge favorite of the large local Catholic population, who turned out in large crowds to cheer and follow the players as they enjoyed the city.”[22] They reportedly enjoyed themselves too much and were “so stuffed with oysters and creole food that they could barely run” at practice.[23] Rockne was not happy and threatened to send players home if they didn’t restrain themselves, maintain their physical fitness, and obey his 10:00 p.m. curfew from this point forward.

The team arrived in Houston, Texas, on December 24 to a now-familiar scene as Notre Dame alumni and the local Catholic community greeted them. Several representatives also arrived from nearby St. Edwards College in Austin, including the college president Father Matthew Schumacher and the athletic director Jack Meager, who was also a former Notre Dame player.[24] Rockne drilled the team hard, despite the rain, and they showed improvement from their lackluster practice in New Orleans.[25] Newspapers reported that Rockne made the team run drills on Christmas day. This was likely a short practice, considering the devout Father O’Hara was supervising the trip, dressing up as Santa Claus that day.[26] The players also attended Mass, a private party, and a Knights of Columbus dinner.[27]

“Horsemen in Action,” 1924, in Harry McGuire and Jack Scallan, eds., Official 1924 Football Review, University of Notre Dame, 51, accessed Notre Dame Archives.

With the Rose Bowl game drawing near, Rockne cancelled the team’s scheduled stop in El Paso, and the train headed straight to Tucson, Arizona, to get down to work. Here the team practiced for four straight days in order to adapt to the warmer climate. Again, Rockne was joined by former players, this time at the University of Arizona stadium. One of these players, Edward Madigan, “scouted Stanford for Rockne” and made the coach aware of a “sideline screen pass that the Stanford coach used two or three times a game.”[28] Rockne devised a play to block this pass and taught the players to recognize its set up. This intelligence would greatly impact the results of the Rose Bowl game.

Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1924, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

When the team arrived in Los Angeles on December 31, 1924, several thousand supporters met them at the train station. Commenting on the crowd and the success of Notre Dame’s publicity machine, the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine reported:

Despite the early arrival hour, seven o’clock, the station platform was crowded with alumni, Knights of Columbus, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (who presented a massive silver football to the team) and various motion picture people anxious to see their rivals in publicity.[29]

At least one hundred of the folks gathered on the platform that day were South Bend, Lafayette, and Chicago-based Notre Dame alumni who had arrived on the “Rockne Special,” a Pullman train chartered by the Notre Dame Club of Chicago, to take them from the Windy City to Los Angeles.[30] The train full of super fans garnered its own round of press coverage with wire services reporting on its stops across the country, where these alumni also stopped for daily Mass and were welcomed by local Catholic organizations.[31]

“Notre Dame Grid Men at Pasadena, California,” January 1, 1925, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

Rockne, worried about the players getting distracted by all the fanfare, had the team driven immediately to their hotel in Pasadena. Even famous heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey couldn’t convince the coach to let him entertain the players first.[32] But the hotel lobby was just as festive as the train platform. Former football player and Chicago Tribune sportswriter Walter Eckersall wrote:

Again at the hotel the squad was accorded another rousing reception for the lobby had been filled all day with curious personas who continually asked to see the warriors who have brought so much glory to Notre Dame.[33]

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl championship. Coach Rockne worried that they hadn’t gotten in enough practice time during the trip because of inclement weather, but felt optimistic about the plays they studied and ran in Tucson. The players wore “looks of determination on their faces which indicate they realize the burden of responsibility they are carrying.”[34] The Fighting Irish returned to their hotel at 8:30 p.m. without accepting any local offers of entertainment. Rockne notified the hotel staff: “No incoming calls answered.”[35]

Meanwhile, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. And the excitement was building. Eckersall wrote:

Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football. [36]

On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. (4:15 for those Midwest fans listening to the WGN Chicago broadcast). [37] As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops” so as not to tire his first string, especially under the warm California sun. (See Part One on this famous Rockne’s strategy). The shock troops buckled under the pressure of Stanford’s offense and the Cardinals scored first with a field goal. [38]

Chicago Sunday Tribune, January 11, 1925, 115, accessed Newspapers.com.

Stanford continued to outplay Notre Dame in the first quarter, even after Rockne sent his first string players into the fray. According to Burns, “The Four Horsemen could not mount a sustained drive against the huge but agile Stanford line.”[39] When Stanford kicked a bad punt, placing Notre Dame offense on the Stanford thirty-two yard line, the Irish got their first break. Burns continued: “Seven plays later, [full-back Elmer] Layden scored the first Notre Dame touchdown on a three-yard run early in the second quarter.”[40] The score was 6 to 3, Notre Dame. The Cardinals drove the Irish back hard, quickly putting them on the defensive at the Notre Dame six-yard line. Stanford brought out their trusty sideline screen pass, hoping to breeze by the Irish. This was the moment the Horsemen had trained for in Tucson after receiving the scouting report on the play. Coach Rockne explained:

We were primed for that play. Not only had Layden been instructed to intercept it, but we had two men to take out the safety man and the passer in the event that he did intercept the pass.[41]

Not only did Layden intercept the pass, he then ran seventy yards for a touchdown in one of the most exciting moments of the game. Half-back James Crowly kicked the extra point and Notre Dame led at the half 13 to 3. [42]

Los Angeles Times, January 2, 1925, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although Notre Dame led in points, Stanford was outpassing and outrushing the Irish, while shutting down their offense. The game was “hard fought,” physically exhausting, and Notre Dame looked tired at the half.[43] The Notre Dame Alumnus reported:

The boys were obviously feeling the effects of the long trip, the unusual heat of the day, and the hard, but clean, combat of the game . . . It was doubtful if some of the men, particularly the linemen could finish the game.[44]

Stanford missed two field goals early in the third quarter but kept Notre Dame “confined within their own thirty yard line throughout the period.”[45] About halfway through the quarter, Stanford fumbled, and Irishman Edward Huntsinger grabbed the ball. Coach Rockne had almost sent Huntsinger home days earlier in New Orleans for disobeying curfew to buy postcards in the hotel lobby. The Irish were lucky the coach reconsidered, because Huntsinger ran the recovered ball for another touchdown. Crowley again kicked the extra point, and Notre Dame led 20 to 3 at the end of the third.[46]

Des Moines Register, January 2, 1925, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

The crowd was tense when the fourth quarter began, as the score did not reflect how close the game really was.[47] Stanford intercepted a Notre Dame pass, and “in seven running plays” the Cardinals “moved the ball to a fourth down situation inside the Notre Dame one yard line.”[48] Then,“in the final period Stanford made a beautiful march of 60 yards” to put the ball at the Notre Dame one-yard line on the fourth down.[49] Stanford’s quarterback was stopped only a foot, or mere inches (depending on the report), from crossing the “counting mark” for a touchdown.[50] Layden punted back to Stanford’s 48-yard line, and “again the Cardinal[s] started to march down the field.”[51] With two minutes to go, Stanford again attempted their sideline screen pass. Layden anticipated the move, intercepted the play, and ran 60 or 70 yards (depending on reports) for a touchdown. Crowley came through with the extra point, and Notre Dame beat Stanford 27 to 10.[52] Both teams played exceptional football, and the Rose Bowl game was noted for “aggressive playing” but “remarkably clean” sportsmanship.[53]

The stadium roared with Notre Dame fans “jubilant in victory,” but the Fighting Irish were surprisingly stoic.[54] The Notre Dame Alumnus reported:

As 53,000 spectators jostled their way through the crowded tunnels of the Rose Bowl . . . thirty-three tired young lads dropped their football togs [clothing] on a damp cement floor of the dressing room, for the last time in a long season, silent in their contemplation of a hard-earned victory and buoyed up only by the realization that they had acquitted themselves to the credit and price of Notre Dame and Knute Rockne.[55]

Boston Globe, January 2, 1925, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

The victorious players were so tired, they couldn’t enjoy the dinner and dance held for them back at their hotel that night. But the Fighting Irish would have to muster up a last bit of energy.[56] For while it had been a long trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl title, there was one last but important journey ahead of them: a victory lap across the country and back to South Bend.

On January 2, Hollywood welcomed the victorious Notre Dame team. The Alumnus reported that if there was a famous movie star who did not meet the players that day, it could only have been because the actor was not in town. The Alumnus also noted that “cameras worked overtime” capturing the stars and star players. [57] That night, the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles hosted a dinner dance which “gave the men their first opportunity to really celebrate.”[58] Father O’Hara was proud to report that at all times the players conducted themselves as honorable gentlemen and good Catholics.[59] After all, a large part of why they were on this trip was to reflect positively on the university. Every team member would have been aware of the expectations.

Indianapolis Star, January 9, 1925, 12, accessed Newspapers.com

The next day, January 3, the group arrived in San Francisco. Notre Dame alumni, the Knights of Columbus, and the city’s Irish-American mayor welcomed the Fighting Irish. Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish that day. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group: “WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.”[60] At the dinner and dance that evening “once again, the players and coaches were charming, properly dressed, and well-behaved.”[61] They attended a special Mass the next morning and spent the day as the guests of some of the city’s most prominent citizens and leaders.[62]

The rest of the trip must have been a whirlwind for the exhausted players. They arrived in Salt Lake City on January 5, where they took historical tours, went to a concert, had dinner, and attended yet another reception. They received a Wild West themed welcome the following day from the local Catholic community of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Irish were provided with “six-gallon hats, stage coaches, a military band and the key to the frontier town.”[63]

“The Fighting Irishmen Notre Dame Cheyenne Wyoming,” January 1, 1925, University of Notre Dame Archives, accessed 125.nd.edu.

On January 6, a crowd of thousands waited on the platform as the team’s train pulled into Denver. Mothers of Notre Dame students and “a remarkably beautiful group of girls” greeted the players, pinning blue and yellow streamers on their coats.[64] The Denver alumni club reported:

Movie cameras were clicking, press photographers were snapping, and over it all sounds the low rumbling roar of the admiring crowd.[65]

The Denver Alumni Club drove the team through the cheering crowd to the Denver Athletic Club for yet another banquet. Two hundred prominent Denver citizens, including the governor of Colorado, attended the gala, where celebrants sang Notre Dame fight songs. Speeches that night focused on the moral strength of the university and on Catholicism as a powerful force in shaping students into upstanding American citizens. The Denver Alumni Club reported that “no one who attended the dinner can ever forget that Notre Dame builds character, manliness and righteousness along with wonderful football elevens.”[66]

Surprisingly, the next stop on the tour, on January 8, was Lincoln, Nebraska, where the team had been accosted by xenophobic and anti-Catholic insults on the gridiron over the previous two seasons. [See parts one and two]. Only now, they arrived in the city of their conquered rivals as national champions. Lincoln “forgot the defeat of November” at the hands of the Irish and treated them with sportsmanship and respect. The Notre Dame players even attended the inauguration of the new Nebraska governor that evening.[67]

Lincoln Journal Star (Nebraska), January 2, 1925, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Notre Dame train pulled into Chicago on January 9. Some players stayed for a few days in the city that had rooted for their victory beside radio sets a week earlier. Others went straight back to South Bend. By January 12, the Fighting Irish had all returned to the university.[68] They were completely exhausted from physical exertion and from continually being on their best behavior. The constant scrutiny of serving as representatives not just of the school, but of Catholics everywhere was a lot of pressure for young students. The Notre Dame Alumnus wrote:

The word ‘banquet’ is an alarm, ‘look pleasant, please’ is an oath and ‘the game’ is an unmentionable now that the men are back on campus — with exams less than two weeks away.[69]

The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacular. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Burns noted that “By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.”[70] The Fiery Cross continued to blather about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men. Burns wrote:

For O’Hara and millions of American Catholics throughout the country who believed and felt as he did, and especially for the 300,000 Catholics living in Indiana—11 percent of the population of the state—the performance of the Notre Dame football team in that year gave them all a supreme moment of restored pride and dignity.[71]

The Klan would continue to influence Indiana politics for several years. But other Hoosiers would rise up in opposition like South Bend and Notre Dame. Cities passed anti-mask ordinances to prevent the Klan from marching in their hoods and robes.[72] Prominent citizens founded civic clubs “to fight the Ku Klux Klan.”[73] The Indianapolis Times launched a multi-year “crusade” against the Klan, exposing members’ identities and combating the secret organization’s influence on Indiana politics, and winning a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. [74] African American voters risked being jailed as “floaters” (someone whose vote was illegally purchased), but came out in record numbers to cast their votes in opposition to Klan-backed candidates.[75] Local Catholic organizations called on politicians to denounce the Klan and include a plank in their official party platforms rejecting “secret political organizations” and supporting “racial and religious liberty.”[76] Indiana attorney Patrick H. O’Donnell led the American Unity League, a powerful Chicago-based Catholic organization that also published the names and addresses of Klan members in its publication Tolerance.[77]

As students of history, we should remember that, in many ways, the Indiana Klan succeeded  in their goals. They were able to elect officials sympathetic to the xenophobic demands for strict immigration quotas, which were enforced for decades. But we should also note that some Hoosiers refused to accept intolerance even when wrapped in the flag.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, “Konsternation in Indiana,” October 7, 1926, accessed State Historical Society of Missouri Digital Collections.

While much of Indiana became Klan territory, the publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead. And they played with the honor and dignity imbued  through “the spirit of Notre Dame.”[78]

(Newport, VA) Daily Press, January 2, 1925, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Notes:

For a thorough examination of the opposition to the Klan by African Americans, Jews, Catholics, lawyers, politicians, labor unions, newspapermen and more see: James H. Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History 116, no. 2 (June 2020): 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01.

[1] Jill Weiss Simins, “‘America First’: The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s,” accessed Hoosier State Chronicles Blog.
[2] Indiana Ku Klux Klan, “Information Sheet,” 1922, Indiana Pamphlet Collection, Indiana State Library.
[3] “Tales Need No Adornment,” Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[4] Advertisement, Fiery Cross, August 22, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “High School Boy Writes of Experiences in Notre Dame Riot,” Fiery Cross, July 25, 1924, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[5] Ibid.; “May 17 — November 8,” Fiery Cross, November 21, 1924, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” accessed Indiana History Blog.
[8] Robert E. Burns, Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 361.
[9] Ibid., 364-65.
[10] Ibid. Burns quoted from Father O’Hara’s Religious Survey for 1924-25.
[11] “Name N.D. Squad,” Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1924, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.
[12] “Stanford – Notre Dame Seats All Sold Out,” Tennessean (Nashville), December 21, 1924, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.
[13] “Midwest Anxious for Notre Dame Victory,” Chicago Tribune, December 31, 1924, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.
[14-16] Ibid.
[17] Advertisement, Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1924, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.
[18] “Stanford – Notre Dame Seats All Sold Out,” 17.
[19] “Notre Dame Football Team in New Orleans,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), December 23, 1924, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 116-17, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Times (Shreveport, LA), December 23, 1924, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.
[22] Burns, 366.
[23] Ibid.
[24] “Saint Coaches to See Micks,” Austin American (Texas), December 24, 1924, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
[25] “Notre Dame at Houston,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 25, 1924, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.
[26] “Rockne’s Team Spends Holiday with Practice,” Oakland Tribune, December 25, 1924, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.; “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[27] Burns, 366.
[28] Ibid., 367; “Football,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 106-107, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[29] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 17.
[30] “Rockne Special,” South Bend Tribune, December 19, 1924, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lafayette’s Off for Coast,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), December 27, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[31] Ibid.; “Notre Dame to Stop Here,” Kansas City Times, December 18, 1924, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.
[32] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.; Walter Eckersall, “53,000 to See N. Dame Battle Stanford Today,” Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1925, 37.
[33-34] Eckersall, 37.
[35] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[36] Eckersall, 37.
[37] “Rose Tournament Throng Sets Record,” Pasadena Evening Post, January 1, 1925, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[38-40] Burns, 368.
[41]“Football,”  Notre Dame Alumnus, 106-07.
[42] Burns, 368.
[43-44] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[45-46] Burns, 368.
[47] “Iowan Stars as Notre Dame Beats Stanford Team,” Des Moines Register, January 2, 1925, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.
[48] Burns, 368.
[49] Ibid.; “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1925, 1, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.
[50] Ibid.
[51] “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” 19.
[52] Burns, 368.
[53] “U.S. Title to Notre Dame,” 19.
[54-55] “Football,”  Notre Dame Alumnus, 106.
[56-58] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 116-17.
[59] Burns, 369-70.
[60]  Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, reprint, 2003), 171.
[61] Burns, 370.
[62-64] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[65] “Local Alumni Clubs,” Notre Dame Alumnus 3, No. 4 (January 1925): 115, accessed University of Notre Dame Archives.
[66] Ibid.
[67] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[68] Burns, 372.
[69] “To Pasadena and Return,” Notre Dame Alumnus, 117.
[70] Burns, 349.
[71] Ibid.
[72] “Michigan City Passes Anti-Mask Resolution,” Star Press (Muncie, IN), September 8, 1923, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
[73] “Political Club to Fight Klan in Lake County,” Times (Munster), April 10, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[74] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indianapolis Times,” 2013, accessed State Historical Marker Text and Notes.
[75] “Many Factions Clash,” Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1925, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
[76] “Request Parties to Oppose Klan,” Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), January 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
[77] “Former Local Man to Fight Ku Klux Klan,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 16, 1922, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
[78] Jim Langford and Jeremy Langford, The Spirit of Notre Dame (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2005), passim.

History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, December 2, 1938, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Children under eighteen years of age make up more than half of the approximately 22 million people seeking refuge today. [1] We read statistics like this often, and sometimes our empathy for such human devastation of can get lost in the numbers. The problems can feel remote, foreign, and unrelated to our own daily struggles. And that is precisely how many Americans felt just before the outbreak of WWII, as the number of people applying for refuge in the United States multiplied. In 1938, 125,000 asylum seekers applied for the 27,000 visas under the restrictive U.S. quota system. By 1939, that number increased to over 300,000. [2] A Fortune magazine poll from the summer of 1938, showed that 67% of Americans thought “we should try to keep them out.” Only 5% thought the U.S. government should raise the quotas to allow more people asylum. [3]

Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed Washington Post.

Again, the staggering statistics can be numbing. But even at our most ambivalent, the stories of children fleeing persecution seem to break through our indifference and stir us to act. For example, in 1938, British citizens lobbied their government to act on behalf on  children fleeing Austria and Germany after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht. They agreed to fund the transportation, care, and education of these children and infants. These rescue missions, known as Kindertransport, saved ten thousand children from annihilation.

“Kindertransport,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Despite the prevailing attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, some hoped their fellow Americans would make an exception for child refugees. Hope came in 1939, in the form of the Wagner-Rogers Bill that aimed to bring 20,000 children escaping Nazi Germany to the United States. Hoosiers both supported and opposed refugee immigration and the bill. Looking through Indiana newspapers for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s History Unfolded project, we can see what Hoosiers knew about the issue, how they aided, and how they failed these small asylum seekers. (Find out how you can participate in the History Unfolded Project which helps the USHMM determine what Americans knew about the Holocaust.)

USHMM caption: Jewish refugee children, part of a Children’s Transport (Kindertransport) from Germany, upon arrival in Harwich. Great Britain, December 12, 1938, Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library Limited, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The Wagner-Rogers Bill

(Richmond) Palladium-Item, May 22, 1958, 11, accessed Newspapers.com

Clarence Pickett, an Earlham College professor and leader of Quaker relief organization American Friends Service Committee, led the drafting of the bill in December 1938. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) introduced this legislation in both the House and Senate on February 9, 1939. The bill would allow 20,000 children under the age of fourteen to immigrate to the United States (10,000 in 1939 and that same amount in 1940) outside of the established quota. While the bill did not specify that these were Jewish children, “the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe made this an obvious and understood fact. [4] The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) quoted Senator Wagner:

The admission of a handful of unfortunate people means little in the economic life of 120 million people, but it means a great deal for us and the world as a symbol of the strength of democratic convictions and our common faith.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Support for the bill came from unlikely places. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) both supported the legislation, specifying that the children were not a threat to American jobs, an oft-cited fear for those with anti-immigration sentiments. In fact, Pickett argued, they would become consumers, helping the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor agreed, and offered to place the children via their Children’s Bureau.  Leaders from all of these organizations testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the bill. The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post reported via the JTA that John Brophy, National Director of the CIO “told the committee  that organized labor had no fears of an undue influx of refugees resulting from the Wagner-Rogers Bill.” Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke in favor of the bill, allowing herself to be quoted on a heated political issue for the first time in her six years as first lady, according to the USHMM. She told UP reporters:

I hope very much it will pass. It seems to be a wise way to do a humanitarian thing.

“The Conscience of the American People”

At the same time in Indiana, several notable Hoosiers were at work on grassroots campaigns to rescue German-Jewish children. Prominent Jewish civic leader Sarah Wolf Goodman and the leadership of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, among others, raised money to bring refugees to the United States. We examined these efforts thoroughly in post 5 of this series “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue.” But these were small-scale operations. The sweeping action needed had to come from the federal government.

History Unfolded Post 5: “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog.
(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, July 28, 1939, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 16, 1938 Jewish Post Editor Gabriel M. Cohen made a passionate argument for congressional action. Cohen stated that protests against the Nazi perpetrators and prayers for the victims were not enough. It was time for “immediate relief.” Cohen noted that President Roosevelt was not seeking to extend the quota system, but that maybe it was not up to the president to lead the way on this issue. Cohen continued:

USHMM caption: A Jewish refugee girl from Vienna, Austria, upon arrival in Harwich after her arrival in England on a Kindertransport. United Kingdom, December 12, 1938, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Possibly such a demand cannot at this time come from the President. It can and should come, however, from the conscience of the American people.

He noted especially the responsibility of communities and leaders of faith. He expressed his confidence in American Jews to take a leading role in the care of these children

We are certain that there are thousands of Jewish families in the United States, who, in the face of the present crisis, will gladly take refugee children into their homes and provide them with food and shelter as long as necessary.

Cohen’s prediction was correct. The JTA reported that at an April 1939 joint committee hearing for the bill, attorney Wilbur Large presented 1,400 letters from citizens around the country offering to adopt a refugee child. In fact, the AP reported that Paul Belsser, head of the Child Welfare League of America testified that there were more than enough homes for the children with twelve applications coming in for every child adopted in America.

Marcus Blechman,, Photograph of Helen Hayes, 1945, Henrietta Alice Metcalf Performing Arts Photographic Collection, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7gxd0qsz74_205_1/

Hollywood actress Helen Hayes offered to adopt a refugee child herself. Hayes told the committee that her grandmother, who had nine children, lived by the motto, “There is always room for one more.” Then, joking aside, Hayes addressed the lawmakers:

There is room in my family for one more. I beg you to let them in.

One senator “heckled” her, according to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, asking sarcastically, “Do you mean to say you’d adopt a child unseen?” Hayes replied sharply, “I never saw my own child until it was delivered!”

“A Stand Against A Haven”

In his plea for congressional action, Cohen also anticipated and refuted opposing arguments. Echoing Pickett, the Jewish Post editor wrote:

Whatever economic objections and fears of increased unemployment Congress may have with regard to enlarging the existing immigration quota, there can be no such objections to the admission of children.

Also like Pickett, Cohen argued that the children would first be consumers before they would be job seekers. He continued, “Their presence in the community would stimulate business.”

USHMM caption: Children aboard the President Harding look at the Statue of Liberty as they pull into New York harbor. They were brought to the United States by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. New York, United States, June 1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Steve Pressman, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Again, Cohen’s predictions were correct. The bill’s opposition focused on the “economic dangers” of increasing immigration just as the country was climbing out of the Great Depression. Senator Robert R. Reynolds (D-NC) argued that the children would grow up and “undoubtedly keep our own children from jobs and work that they are rightfully entitled to.” Reynolds pledged to “filibuster the plan to death,” according to the Associated Press (AP).

Meanwhile, in Indiana, members of the American Legion‘s Subcommittee on Immigration gathered in Indianapolis to begin a series of meetings on the bill and establish the official position of the national organization. According to a May 3 AP article via the Kokomo Tribune :

Some members of the immigration committee were reported to be favoring the admission of the children for humanitarian purposes while others were opposing it on the grounds American children would suffer by the influx of additional foreigners.

By May 5, 1939, the American Legion made its decision to oppose the bill and adopted a report of their official position. Announcing their decision from their Indianapolis headquarters, American Legion Chairman Jeremiah Cross called the bill “class legislation” because it “would benefit persecuted minorities in only one country.” According to the International News Service via the Hammond Times, Cross claimed that accepting the children would “break up homes and thus be contrary to the American tradition of preserving home life.” National Commander Stephen Chadwick stated that there were too many children at home that needed assistance. Chadwick continued:

We should solve this problem at home before extending a helping hand to foreign nations.

The local Franklin, Indiana, American Legion chapter encouraged the legionnaires gathered at Indianapolis to go further in denying asylum. The Edinburg Daily Courier and Franklin Evening Star reported that the district recommended “a ten-year curtailment of all immigration into the United States” on top of opposing the bill. At the final session of their meetings on immigration, American Legion director Homer L. Chaillaux announced that the powerful organization would indeed back a policy of “curtailed immigration for 10 years to solve the unemployment problem” and “halt the flow of undesirable aliens into this country.” The Evening Star reported that the Legion also reiterated that they were taking “a stand against a haven for thousands of German refugee children seeking admittance to this country, on the grounds that entrance of the children would clear the way for a increased number of parents and close relatives.”

USHMM caption: Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The anti-immigration position of the American Legion and other organizations (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) was translated into policy. The Senate Committee on Immigration proposed admitting the children but counting them against the quota. Senator Reynolds proposed the children be admitted in exchange for an end to all quota immigration for five years. This is exactly what leaders of organizations dedicated to rescue feared. James G. McDonald, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee (and a former Indiana University professor who has been covered in detail in our History Unfolded series post 4 and post 5)  predicted this response and the death of the bill. Assistant Secretary of State George S. Messersmith recommended to McDonald that his advisory committee not attempt to intervene, as any effort to expand the quota would result in a cutting of the quotas instead. Congress was eager for the chance to respond to American anti-immigration sentiment. McDonald worked behind the scenes to put pressure on President Roosevelt to intervene, but the president declined to act or comment on the issue. McDonald wrote despairingly in a private letter that the settlement of refugees was “dependent upon the attitude of governments which are little influenced by humanitarian factors.” [5]

USHMM caption: A child wears the compulsory Jewish badge. The “Z” stands for the word “Jew” (Zidov) in Croatian. Yugoslavia, ca. 1941, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The amendments added by the legislation’s opponents, nullified its intent, and Senator Wagner withdrew his bill on July 1, 1939. The Jewish Post reported that antisemitic groups and publications praised Senator Reynolds. The newspaper also reported on Reynold’s founding of the Vindicators Association, which was “an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist” group, according to the North Carolina History Project. The Post reported via correspondent:

Speaking of refugees, Senator Bob Reynolds, of North Carolina, who sees the overthrow of the republic if 20,000 refugee children are allowed to enter this country in the space of two years, has just opened a new headquarters for his organization, The Vindicators, here in Washington. It’s right behind the Supreme Court Building, and cost $20,000.

The New York Times and other national publications also condemned Reynold’s extreme anti-immigration stance and linked him to antisemitic groups. But the senator continued to advocate for isolationism. The Congressional Record reported his 1941 address to the Senate:

I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.

USHMM caption: This photograph taken soon after liberation shows young camp survivors from Buchenwald’s “Children’s Block 66″—a special barracks for children. Germany, after April 11, 1945, Federation Nationale des Deportes et Internes Resistants et Patriots, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Private citizens and charitable organizations continued their rescue efforts (and this series will continue to share the stories of such notable Hoosiers.) However, the immigration quotas remained in effect, denying asylum to those fleeing Nazi persecution. As we reflect this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remember the 1.5 million children who were killed by Germans and collaborators — not as “unwanted aliens” and not as statistics — but as boys, girls, and even infants who deserved a future. And we can’t help but regret that Cohen’s appeal in the Jewish Post to “Save the Children” went unanswered. In it, he concluded:

Tens of thousands of innocent children are now exposed to a life of torture or to a slow painful death . . . America must do its share. Let us open our gates to their outstretched hands.

Learn more about the  History Unfolded project and about issues facing Refugees Today through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Notes

  1. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees Today,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees-today.
  2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees.
  3. Poll: , Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world-war-ii/?utm_term=.2a6a6f677323.
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” Wagner-Rogers Bill,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/wagner-rogers-bill.
  5. Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009), 160-161.

History Unfolded Part 6: The Abandoned Refugees of the St. Louis

“Mother of Exiles: Hope for Those Seeking Freedom”  . . . This headline ran in a Midwestern newspaper along with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and these relevant words:

Des Moines Register, July 13, 1939, 6, Newspapers.com

At a time when isolation has become a fetish for many, it is fitting to recall some of the evidences of America’s pride as a place of refuge . . . One such landmark, symbolizing the hope of peoples who migrate from their homeland to this foreign shore, is the Statue of Liberty . . . There is a sonnet on the wall at the base of the statue that is worth re-reading today, when so many are again fleeing from the hand of oppression.

And while it seems that this article could run in today’s newspaper, the year was 1939.

The sonnet includes the well-known words:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The Poems of Emma Lazurus, Vol. I, (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1889), 8, accessed Archive.org.

These words have come to symbolize America as a shining beacon of democracy and a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. However, not everyone knows that these words were written by a Jewish American poet named Emma Lazurus or that the poem was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. In the full poem the statue is named “Mother of Exiles” and she tells the reader:

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In June 1939, the United States had the opportunity to open that golden door to save the lives of over 900 Jewish refugees. However, the country whose ideals were embodied by powerful words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty — words specifically written for persecuted Jews in need of America’s asylum — would fail them. Lady Liberty’s golden door was shut by indifference, xenophobia, and antisemitism.

History Unfolded and Alternative Viewpoints

The story of the St. Louis is well-known to many. Recently, however, several historians have attempted to revise the interpretation of the events, absolving the United States and the FDR administration of any responsibility towards these asylum seekers. [1] Thus, it remains valuable to go back to contemporary newspaper sources and decide for ourselves what really happened. And as Hoosiers, it is worth finding out what the average Indiana newspaper reader knew about the events and meditating on the uncomfortable question: Could we have done anything different?

Simply put, the U.S. did not act when the mainly Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louis pleaded for asylum in June of 1939. Most of these refugees had purchased visas that they believed would allow them to live in Cuba while waiting for their turn to immigrate to the U.S. when there was room within the quota. Instead, they were returned to Europe. While they were safe for a time in various host countries, after the Nazi occupation spread through Europe, many of these refugees were killed in ghettos and concentration camps. [2]

Photo and caption accessed USHMM.

In this post, we will look at the incident through articles available in Indiana newspapers to ascertain what the average Hoosier, and by extension, the average American knew about this tragedy. We will place the newspapers in context using secondary source information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newspaper articles for this post have been submitted to the USHMM’s History Unfolded initiative which is attempting to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust through their newspapers. You can join the effort here: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/

Refugees at Sea

By spring of 1939, newspapers were full of reports of the misery faced by Jewish refugees at sea and the refusal of country after country to give them shelter. For example, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported on a Greek steamer seized off the Palestinian coast whose refugee passengers were denied entry by the British authorities there:

The sunny Mediterranean has been turned into a watery hell in which thousands of condemned souls – men, women and children – are floating in indescribable misery and physical agony . . . Uncounted Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution are drifting in a state equal to the worst horrors of the Dark Ages . . . they have been wandering for weeks and months on nightmare voyages, despairing of reaching any port except the bottom of the waters…

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Post reported on hundreds more turned away from Indian ports, as well as from Manila and Hong Kong. The Indianapolis News reported on another 104 Jewish refugees denied permission to land in Vera Cruz, Mexico. And reports from Bucharest described twenty hopeless Jewish refugees who jumped into the Black Sea rather than remain homeless.

The Passengers of the St. Louis

The hundreds of disparate people who boarded the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in May of 1939 all had one thing in common. They felt that the only choice left to them was to abandon their homes and loved ones for an uncertain life in a faraway land. Most were German Jews who had been forced from their jobs and sometimes their homes and subjected to increasing persecution by the Nazi regime. Some had even come out of hiding just for this journey. Some used the last of their savings to buy an expensive ticket, pay the “contingency fee” for an unplanned return voyage, and purchase pricey, inflated visas. Some of these individuals had been sent by the collective effort of their families, who pooled all of their money to save just one of their kin. Most were on a list awaiting U.S. visas which were limited by quotas. They hoped to pass time in Cuba until they could start anew in the U.S. [3]

Photograph, USHMM.

Among the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis were several German Jewish families who we can follow through the historical record thanks to the work of the USHMM assembled into the online exhibition “Voyage of the St. Louis.” Their stories were surprisingly similar at first and tragically different at the close of the war. We will follow four families through this story (introducing the patriarch first only for consistency and ease in following the records). [4]

Heinz and Else Blumenstein, 1940, photograph accessed USHMM.

Franz Blumenstein was a successful businessman living in Vienna with his wife Else, their son Heinz, and his mother Regina. During Kristalnacht, he was arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Else was able to bribe officials for his release under the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He fled to Venezuela and then immigrated to Cuba where he made arrangements for his family to join him. He purchased landing certificates for Else, Regina, and Heinz who then booked passage on the St. Louis.

“Safe Conduct” Pass for Siegred Seligmann, 1941, USHMM.

Siegfried Seligmann, a cattle dealer from Ronnenberg, Germany, was also arrested during Kristalnacht. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp for a time but was somehow, likely through bribery, able to secure his release under the condition that he flee. Siegfried was able to purchase tickets on the St. Louis for himself, as well as his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursula.

The Hermanns Family, 1938, USHMM.

Julius Hermanns, a textile merchant from Monchen-Gladbach, Germany, was also arrested, sent to Dachau, transferred to Buchenwald, and released on the condition of immediate emigration. Like Franz Blumenstein, Julius had to leave his family behind. His brother-in-law in New York purchased him a Cuban landing certificate. Julius said goodbye to his wife Grete and his daughter Hilde and boarded the St. Louis.

“Leopold, Johanna, and Martin Dingfelder in front of the meat shop,” USHMM.

Leopold Dingfelder owned a kosher meat shop in Plauen, Germany, where he lived with his wife Johanna and their son Rudi. An older son, Martin, had emigrated to America earlier. After persecution of German Jews intensified, the Dingfelders hoped to join Martin in the United States. They booked passage on the St. Louis to await U.S. visas in Cuba.

Regardless of how they began this journey, they must have boarded with some trepidation. For while the ship was owned by a private German company, it was still flying the swastika flag.

Caption and photograph, USHMM.

The Voyage to Cuba & Hope in the United States

The St. Louis left on May 13, 1939, at 8:00 p.m. Even before they set sail, their landing certificates had been invalidated by the Cuban government. Antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of competition for limited jobs, and Nazi propaganda had turned the Cuban people against further Jewish immigration. Only a few days before the St. Louis departed, 40,000 Cubans attended an antisemitic rally. Responding to this turn in public sentiment and backlash from widespread sale of illegal landing certificates, the Cuban government demanded additional paperwork and money from any potential immigrants.

“Jewish refugees aboard the refugee ship St. Louis,” USHMM.

The passengers were unaware that the tide had turned against them. As they sailed away from the Nazi empire, they likely relaxed a bit. The food was good, the crew showed movies, and children made new friends. The two-week journey was relatively uneventful except for two incidents of which most of the passengers were probably unaware. A man in poor health worsened, died, and was laid to rest at sea. A troubled crew member took his own life by jumping overboard late one night. [5]

The St. Louis entered the Havana harbor on May 27. According to the USHMM, of the 935 passengers, the Cuban government admitted twenty-eight: twenty-two Jewish passengers with valid U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, two Cubans, and another man who had attempted suicide and needed hospital care.

908 people, including the Blumensteins, Seligmanns, Hermanns, and Dinfelders, were denied entry. The story soon captured the attention of the media around the world. Perhaps, it seemed, sympathetic news stories would lead to their rescue.

What Hoosiers Knew about the St. Louis

The Jewish Post ran a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from Havana reporting that the St. Louis was “barred from landing under the presidential decree,” referring to Decree 937, which invalidated landing permits. Entry would now require written permission from the Cuban Secretaries of Labor and State and a $500 bond posted to ensure the refugees would not become dependent on the state. The passengers did not have this sum.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Post article also reported on “intervention with the government by Jewish communal and refugee organizations.” The main negotiating force was American attorney Lawrence Berenson who represented the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC). Berenson had previously worked as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and thus had important contacts in both the U.S. and Cuba. However, the Post reported on June 2, the negotiations proved “fruitless.” Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters if the refugees could not pay the bonds totaling $453,500.

Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1939, 12, Newspapers.com

Meanwhile, the Jewish Post reported, two other ships, one French and one British, arrived with refugees, complicating the situation and increasing the antipathy of the Cuban people. They were also denied entry. The Post reported that the St. Louis passengers were growing “desperate” with some “seeking to commit suicide by throwing themselves overboard.” The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “Twenty-five police were sent aboard the liner to guard others from any attempted self-destruction after Max Lowe, one of the refugees, slashed his wrists and jumped overboard.” The Indianapolis Star also relayed reports from ship guards who “reported the situation among the refugees as desperate,” that “women and children cried continuously,” and that “calls for meals for the most part went unanswered.”

It became increasingly clear to the passengers that they would not leave the boat. According to the JTA, an editorial in the Cuban newspaper Diaro de la Marino “predicted pogroms against the Jews” if they disembarked. And the Jewish Post reported that “anti-Semitic activities have been increasing.”

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the people on board was just how close they were to safety. Little boats began to encircle the St. Louis, some of them rented by family and friends of the refugees who had previously immigrated. They were close enough to wave and shout to each other, but not to be reunited.

Hammond Times, June 7, 1939, 30, Newspapers.com.

Negotiations continued. The JJDC made an offer to President Bru to pay part of the requested $453,500. He refused to compromise and ordered the ship to leave or the Cuban navy would force it asea. The Indianapolis Star reported that Cuban marines stood at the ready. Buying time for further negotiations, the captain of the liner “aimlessly cruised the Caribbean,” travelling “around the West Indies for a time in hope some country would answer… appeals and offer the refugee[s] a home.” Over the following week, many United Press (UP) and Associated Press (AP) articles ran in Indiana newspapers. The Kokomo Tribune and the Indianapolis News ran the same UP article June 3 with two different but powerful headlines: “Jewish Refugees Adrift in Caribbean Appeal to Many Nations for New Homes” and “Refugee Vessel Appeals for Help.” The articles reported that the St Louis was “appealing by radio to nations of the new world to relieve her of her terrified passengers before there was a wave of suicides.”

Kokomo Tribune, June 3, 1939, 1, Newspapers.com.

One of those countries to which the refugees appealed for asylum was the United States. On June 5, the St. Louis “moved slowly southward into Caribbean waters along the Florida coast.” As the ship moved first north and then turned around and headed south, the passengers could see the lights of Miami. Indiana newspapers widely printed wire articles reported from Miami that the U.S. Coast Guard kept the St. Louis from landing. The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “A coast guard patrol boat had trailed the ship as it passed near here watching its movements, guarding lest some of its desperate passengers jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore.” One headline from the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier perhaps summed up the situation most succinctly: “Refugee Ship Cruising Off Florida Coast: American Authorities Are Keeping Close Watch on Vessel that Has 907 Unwanted Jews Aboard.”

Columbus Republic, June 5, 1939, 1, Newspapers.com

The article also reported: “For two hours the ship rode at anchor off the Miami channel light, easily visible from shore.” The Lafayette paper’s Miami report also noted, “Two coast guard planes were dispatched from Miami to keep the anchored craft under surveillance” and a “patrol boat hovered nearby.” The ship continued towards the Florida Keys “while negotiators sought to arrange for the refugees’ entry into Cuba, from where many hope to join relatives in the United States.”

Jewish organizations, led by the JJDC, finally raised and offered the entire bond requested by the Cuban president. Cuba, however, was no longer willing to welcome Jewish refugees and the president refused the offer. As the St. Louis turned around to head towards Europe on June 6, the United States was their last hope.

The Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article which reported: “Their hope crushed by the Cuban government’s refusal for the second time to give them asylum, victims of one of the strangest sagas of the sea renewed an appeal to President [Franklin] Roosevelt for last-minute intervention.” The Tribune closed the article by reporting: “Captain [Gustav] Schroeder decided to steer for Germany.” While, the ship ultimately did not land in Germany, for several days, the media reported that the Fatherland was the intended destination. The front page of the Indianapolis Star read: “Refugees Start Back to Germany” and the Kokomo Tribune headline read: “Jewish Refugees Reported Enroute to Germany After Cuba Refuses Landing.” According to the AP service, “The German liner St. Louis informed Tropical Radio at 11:40 o’clock tonight [June 6] that she had set her course for Europe, bearing back to Germany the 907 Jewish refugees who fled that country for Cuba . . . until they could get in the United States quota.”

The “St. Louis,” carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, arrives in the port of Antwerp after Cuba and the United States denied it landing. Belgium, June 17, 1939, Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Caption and Photo accessed USHMM.

Context and Contention

Most scholars agree that the United States, and more specifically President Roosevelt, did not do enough to help these refugees. Recently however, a vocal minority have argued that the blame lies only with Cuba and that FDR could legally have done nothing to help. Without wading into this academic and political mire, we can assert with confidence that the U.S. did little. According to the USHMM, “President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees.” FDR chose not to act because of “general hostility toward immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and [his] consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president.” In short, while newspapers printed sympathetic stories and editorials, the cause was not popular enough or politically beneficial enough to justify intervention. [6]

Land and Loss

Fortunately, Jewish organizations, again led by the JJDC, were able to negotiate with four European countries for the placement of the refugees. Great Britain admitted 288; the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium admitted 214, and France admitted 224 Jewish refugees. [6] The St. Louis unloaded her passengers to these countries between June 16 and June 20. Only those who arrived on British soil would find safety. [7]

Franz Blumenstein, who preceded his family and arranged their passage on the St. Louis, would have watched the ship carrying his wife Else, his three-year-old son Heinz, and his mother Regina turn around and sail back to Europe. They disembarked in the Netherlands and over the following years arranged for visas that would let them join Franz in an agricultural colony in the Dominican Republic. However, by 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and they could not procure the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Else missed Franz desperately and in 1941 wrote him:

It won’t be long and then we will, with G-d’s help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive.

Heinz and Else Blumenstein in Heijplaat Quarantine Center in Rotterdam, summer 1939, photograph accessed USHMM,

After deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in 1942, Regina was arrested by police. She somehow managed to hide Heinz during the arrest. Else and Heinz fled and went into hiding for a time in northern Holland. Despite the efforts of Dutch resistance, Else was arrested and on September 24, 1943. She was transported to Auschwitz. Heinz remained hidden throughout the war and was able to eventually join his father in the United States. Else and Regina died in Auschwitz.

The Dingfelder family of Leopold, Johanna and their 15-year-old son Rudi (their other son previously emigrated to New York) also disembarked in the Netherlands. Like the Blumensteins, the Dingfelders were arrested and deported in 1942. Leopold and Johanna were sent to Auschwitz, while Rudi was sent to Westerbork transit camp. He was forced to labor in an aircraft factory in Holland for a time before he was sent to the Vught concentration camp. After being sent back to Westerbork, he was taken to Auschwitz where he labored in the Siemens-Schuckert factory.

The Siemens-Schuckert Factory, USHMM.

When the Soviets advanced in 1945, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Rudi marched for two-weeks to Buchenwald and sent to another factory outside Berlin. As the Soviets closed in, the SS forced him to join a “death march.” He and four others attempted an escape near Schwerin. Most were shot. Rudi was soon rescued by Allied troops and eventually emigrated to the United States. Leopold and Johanna died at Auschwitz.

Siegfried Seligmann, his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursala disembarked in Belgium and settled in Brussells. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, Belgian police arrested Siegfried. He was sent to France and imprisoned at Les Milles, a factory converted to an internment camp. Alma and Ursala traveled to France, hoping to find him. They were arrested in Paris and taken to a different internment camp. Somehow, separately, the entire family managed to obtain the visas necessary to leave France. They settled in the United States.

Julius Hermanns, who had to leave his family behind when he boarded the St. Louis to flee Dachau, disembarked in France. He contacted his wife Grete and his teenage daughter Hilde to join him. After France declared war on Germany, Julius was arrested and taken to Saint-Cyprien, an internment camp on the French-Spanish border. Here he joined 50 other passengers of the St. Louis. Julius wrote to organizations and relatives begging for help:

We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places . . . In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably.

Hilde Hermann (left), 1930, USHMM.

Grete, Hilde, and several of their relatives were deported to the Riga ghetto December 11, 1941. After several transfers, Julius was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942.

Julius died at Auschwitz while Grete and Hilde likely died at Riga.

Mother of Exiles

Of the 620 St. Louis passengers returned to the European continent, “532 were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe,” according to the USHMM. Of these Jewish refugees who were in sight of the palm trees of Havana and the lights of Miami, and who repeatedly radioed the United States for asylum, 254 died in the Holocaust.

 

As we continue to debate who is and who is not allowed through the Mother of Exile’s golden door, we should consider whether we can improve on her legacy.

Learn how we can confront genocide: https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide

[1]Recently, scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have argued in their book FDR and the Jews that there was nothing that could be done for these refugees and that President Roosevelt, and the larger United States, do not deserve the condemnation that this incident drew. This position has been hotly contested and thoroughly dissected by Rafael Madoff in “Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust,” David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, accessed http://new.wymaninstitute.org/2013/08/politicizing-americas-response-to-the-holocaust/

[2] The main source for secondary and contextual information for this post is “Voyage of the St. Louis,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267

[3] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis

[4]  Information on the families of St. Louis Passengers accessed “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” Online Exhibition, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/st-louis/story/

[5] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis

[6] Breiman and Lichtman argue that there was no way FDR’s administration could have admitted the passengers because the quota was full. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies argues that the refugees could have been easily admitted to the U.S. Virgin Islands where the governor and legislature offered asylum. Medoff argues, “The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitmann and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did. See Medoff’s book FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith. Breiman and Lichtman argue that the fact that these refugees founds temporary safety, frees the United States of any blame for their eventual fate. The USHMM study Refuge Denied shows that passengers were desperately seeking menial jobs in Chile to get out of being sent to these “safe” countries.

[7] One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.