Lincoln’s Forgotten Visit to Indianapolis

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Portrait of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln prior to delivering his Cooper Union address in New York City, February 27, 1860, image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Lincoln reportedly said, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.” Read this blog to decide if that actually was the case.

Quick, Abraham Lincoln buffs! Can you name all the dates Lincoln delivered a public address in Indiana after moving to Illinois in 1830?

Did you guess February 11 and 12, 1861?  Identifying those days were probably fairly easy since that was when Lincoln journeyed through Indiana en route to Washington for his first inauguration. According to historical records, he delivered whistle-stop speeches at State Line City, LafayetteThorntown, Lebanon, and Zionsville. His train stopped at Indianapolis that evening where Governor Oliver P. Morton and 20,000 Lincoln supporters welcomed him. He addressed the citizens of Indiana from the train platform before he disembarked to his hotel room at the Bates House. Lincoln adherents called upon the president-elect later that evening, and he delivered an ad hoc speech from a balcony of the hotel. He resumed his journey east the next morning, which also happened to be his fifty-second birthday.  Lincoln continued to greet and deliver short speeches to well-wishers in Shelbyville, Greensburg, Morris, and Lawrenceburg as his train steamed on to Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you are an advanced Lincoln enthusiast, you may be able to identify another Lincoln visit to Indiana that occurred in 1844 while he campaigned for Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. During that fall visit, he spoke at the Spencer County Courthouse in Rockport.

Site of Rockport Tavern
This Indiana Historical Bureau marker in Rockport references Lincoln’s visit in 1844.

According to oral lore and tradition, he made several other speeches around Spencer County (and allegedly spoke in Knox, Daviess, Warrick, and Vanderburgh counties). However, the Rockport address is the only southern Indiana speech corroborated with a contemporary source. While in Spencer County, Lincoln visited his boyhood home and the graves of his mother and sister. This would be Lincoln’s first and only return to his childhood home since he left Indiana in 1830.

Aside from those two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten for 70 years before a Lincoln researcher and an Indiana State Library employee uncovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.

First, some historical context is helpful to illuminate Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech. In January 1859, Lincoln lost his U.S. Senate campaign to Stephen A. Douglas. Financial necessity forced him to pay more attention to his legal career in the aftermath of this political defeat.  Practicing law, however, had lost some of its luster after the political-high of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As the foremost Republican in Illinois, Lincoln felt an obligation to lead the fractious Illinois Republican political alliance and craft a vision for party success in 1860. Lincoln was particularly concerned about Douglas’s attempts to position himself as a centrist presidential candidate who could siphon off some of the fledgling Republican Party’s conservative-to-moderate-leaning internal factions.

In early September 1859, Lincoln declined an invitation to speak in Illinois citing the necessity of devoting himself to private business. However, two things occurred in September that changed Lincoln’s mind. Harper’s Magazine published his arch-rival’s article that extolled the political virtues of popular sovereignty. Ohio Democrats also invited Douglas to campaign for state candidates. These two events compelled Lincoln to confront the Little Giant, albeit indirectly.

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“The Undecided Political Prize-Fight,” political cartoon from 1860. Source: http://www.paperlessarchives.com/lincoln_douglas_debates.html

There was no formal head-to-head continuation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in September 1859, but Lincoln shadowed his nemesis throughout the Buckeye State, and delivered speeches in Columbus and Cincinnati following Douglas’s wake. On September 16 and 17, Lincoln spoke at the Ohio capitol, Dayton, and briefly at Hamilton. The overall texts of these speeches were similar to one another, and presented sharper arguments than Lincoln first introduced during the formal debates in 1858.

Of all the oratory Lincoln delivered during this circuit, his Cincinnati speech on the evening of September 17, 1859 stood out from the rest, as he crafted his address to speak directly to the many southern Ohioans and Kentuckians in the audience. It was probably the best attended speech during his tour through the state. The speech also reached a much larger audience when newspapers throughout the North widely reprinted and commented on the Cincinnati address. The text so thoroughly saturated the 19th-century news network that few journalists covered the Indianapolis speech that he gave two days later.

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Image from Jacob Piatt Dunn’s History of Greater Indianapolis (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1910).  The street shown is Louisiana Street.

On the morning of September 19, 1859, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, and one of their sons departed Cincinnati for Indianapolis.  They arrived at the Union Depot in the Hoosier capital at four o’clock.  A party of political friends, led by Atlas editor John D. Defrees, welcomed the Lincolns as they disembarked.  The hosts escorted their visitors across the street to the American Hotel (located near present-day 18 W. Louisiana St.) where they would spend the night.

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Masonic Hall in Indianapolis, ca. 1850s, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

At seven o’clock that evening, an audience packed the Masonic Hall (then located on the southeast corner of Washington Street and Tennessee, which is now Capitol Avenue) to hear the Illinoisan speak.  Among those in attendance were political dignitaries from both sides of the aisle, including Indiana’s Democratic Governor Ashbel P. Willard, Lincoln’s future cabinet member Caleb Blood Smith, future Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, and Congressman Albert G. Porter (also a future governor).  Although not mentioned in newspaper coverage as being in attendance, the Atlas reported that Henry S. Lane registered at a hotel that day.  Most likely he attended too.  If Lane was in the audience, then his presence would be of interest since he became an instrumental lobbyist for Lincoln’s presidential nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention, and later as a U.S. Senator during the Civil War he voted for many of President Lincoln’s legislative proposals.

One wonders how Lincoln appeared and sounded to his Midwestern audiences during the late summer of 1859. The descriptions of Lincoln in the Indianapolis newspapers are somewhat limited. However, the audience’s impression of the orator were perhaps not unlike the Democratically leaning Cincinnati Enquirer‘s colorful introduction of the then not-so-well-known Lincoln to their readers:

“Hon. Mr. Lincoln is a tall, dark-visaged, angular, awkward,
positive-looking sort of individual, with character written on his face and energy expressed in his every movement.  He has the appearance of what is called…a Western man – one who, without education or early advantages, has risen by his own exertions from an [sic] humble origin….He makes no pretension to oratory
or the graces of diction, but goes directly to his point…regardless of elegance or even system….With orthoepy [correct pronunciation of words] he evidently has little acquaintance, pronouncing words in a manner that puzzles the ear sometimes to determine whether he is speaking his own or a foreign tongue.”

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Ambrotype, September 1858, unidentified artist, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.  A year before Lincoln lectured in Indianapolis, he sat for this portrait around the time of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charlestown, Illinois.  Lincoln probably did not look too different a year later while speaking to Hoosiers.

After Lincoln’s old congressional colleague Caleb Smith introduced the lecturer to the Indianapolis crowd, Lincoln opened his address with some reminiscences of growing up in Indiana. The Atlas, the best extant source for this speech, reported his words in the third person:

“Away back in the fall of 1816, when he was in his eighth year, his father brought him over from the neighboring State of Kentucky, and settled in the State of Indiana, and he grew up to his present enormous height on our own good soil of Indiana. [Laughter.] The scenes he passed through to-day are wonderfully different from the first scenes he witnessed in the State of Indiana, where he was raised, in Spencer county, on the Ohio river. There was an unbroken wilderness there then, and an axe was put in his hand; and with the trees and logs and grubs he fought until he reached his twentieth year.”

The Democratic-leaning Sentinel, while not fully reporting on Lincoln’s oration, did supply a few anecdotes from Lincoln’s youth in Indiana that the Atlas omitted.  The Sentinel supplemented:

“[H]e had chopped wood, raised log cabins, hunted bears, drank out of the same bottle as was the fashion of those days, with the woodsmen of Indiana for years. He gave a graphic account of a bear hunt in the early days of this wooden country, when the barking of dogs, the yelling of men, and the cracking of the rifle when Bruin was treed, would send the blood bounding through the veins of the pioneer. Those were the days when friendships were true, and he did not think any other state of society would ever exist where men would be drawn so close together in feeling and affection.”

It is an interesting addition considering Lincoln had authored a poem about a bear hunt, and evidently the incident left quite an impression on him.

Lincoln stopped with his reminiscences, and admitted that he expected that his audience came to hear him say something about politics. At this point, he transitioned into a critique of Stephen Douglas’s advocacy of popular sovereignty. Lincoln opened his political remarks by recalling his famous words: “this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free; that a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He pointed out that Douglas had critiqued this thesis, and counter argued, “Why cannot this government endure forever, part free, part slave, as the original framers of the constitution made it?” Lincoln set out to answer Douglas’s question over the next two hours.

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Stephen A. Douglas, ca. 1855-1861, image courtesy of the Library of Congress.  Lincoln challenged the Democratic incumbent for the U.S. Senate in 1858.  After a series of well-publicized debates, Lincoln lost the election in January 1859.  Douglas and Lincoln would continue challenging each other over the next few years, culminating in their respective candidacies for the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln reasoned that the U.S. Constitution was silent about slavery’s continued existence in America, and he disputed Douglas’s contention that the country was to endure “part free, part slave.”  Lincoln’s main support for this argument was legislation near and dear to the history of Indiana: the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited the introduction of slavery into the Northwest Territory. Lincoln correctly pointed out that the Second Continental Congress passed the ordinance at the same time as legislators were crafting the U.S. Constitution.  Therefore, Lincoln maintained,

“There was nothing said in the Constitution relative to the spread of slavery in the Territories, but the same generation of men said something about it in this ordinance of ’87, through the influence of which you of Indiana, and your neighbors in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, are prosperous, free men….Our fathers who made the government, made the ordinance of 1787.”

Lincoln proved to be an astute student of Indiana history, and related to his audience that a few Indiana Territory residents had once petitioned Congress to amend the ordinance to allow for the introduction of slavery.  Lincoln likened this to the residents trying to exercise popular sovereignty. Yet in this case, Congress denied the petition. Lincoln reasoned, “[H]ad it not been for the ordinance of ’87, Indiana would have been a slave State.” He thereby refuted Douglas’s key political doctrine, by citing an example where the federal government had prohibited the spread of slavery, and ignored the supplications of some citizens seeking to exercise popular will. “Popular sovereignty,” Lincoln argued, “has not made a single free State in a run of seventy or eighty years [of the nation’s existence].”

In addition to focusing on popular sovereignty, Lincoln’s speech also focused on economics by contrasting slave labor and free labor. Lincoln summed up Douglas’s popular sovereignty in this way: “If one man choose[s] to make a slave of another man, neither that other man [n]or anybody else has a right to object.”

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The Atlas reported, “The speaker himself had been a hired man twenty-eight years ago.” This Indiana Historical Bureau Marker tells about some of the hired work Lincoln performed while living in Indiana. The opposite side of the marker tells about Lincoln ferrying customers across the Ohio River, and his flatboat journey to New Orleans in 1828 with a load of goods.

For Lincoln, that was a dangerous proposition. As a counter to this prospect, he praised the merits of free labor. Citing Indiana’s labor force, Lincoln said, “[O]f all that is produced, seven-eighths of it is produced by the hands of men who work upon their own ground; and no more than one-eighth is produced by hired men.  The condition of the hired man was not worse than that of the slave.”  Lincoln recalled his own work in Indiana as a hired man, and assessing his own experience at that time he did not consider himself worse off than a slave.  He concluded:

“Men who were industrious and sober, and honest in the pursuit for their own interests, should after a while accumulate capital, and after that should be allowed to enjoy it in peace, and if they chose, when they had accumulated capital, to use it to save themselves from actual labor and hire other people to labor for them, it was right.”

At this time and before this audience, Lincoln spoke out against slavery not on moral grounds, but on economic grounds. Near the end of his two hour address, he said, “The mass of white men were injured by the effect of slave labor in the neighborhood of their own labor.” In other words, free labor’s value was depressed because of the existence of slave labor in the United States.

After Lincoln concluded, Oliver Morton took the stage to say a few words, but on account of the lateness of the hour, he kept his remarks brief. The next day the Lincolns continued their westward journey home to Springfield.  The Indianapolis press, both Republican and Democratic organs, gave accounts of the previous night’s events, but other papers largely ignored the future president’s remarks.

In the grand scheme of things, one could conclude that Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis in 1859 was rather insignificant. Chalk it up as one of those “George Washington slept here” historical moments. However, there is another interpretation of his visit, which adds historical significance to it.  Historian Gary Ecelbarger in a Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association article argued against the common narrative that Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech delivered in New York City in February 1860 was the speech that made Lincoln president. Ecelbarger persuasively argues that before Lincoln could get an east-coast endorsement for his candidacy, he first needed to mobilize political support among Midwesterners. Obviously, Lincoln was a well-known figure in Illinois politics, but his first deliberate and substantial politicking outside of his home-state’s borders started with his September 1859 trip to Ohio and Indiana.

These speeches were the first of about 30 addresses Lincoln delivered in eight states and the Kansas Territory in the nine months leading up to his nomination for president in May 1860. As Ecelbarger interpreted it, “[This] is evidence that Lincoln sought to increase his exposure outside of Illinois for a run for the presidency.” In this light, Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis takes on greater significance, as he introduced himself to the Hoosier demographic that would aid his political ascent. Many of the Republican attendees who heard him that night in Indianapolis would become influential brokers in helping him secure the presidential nomination, electoral influencers that would enable him to carry the Hoosier state in the general election, and strong backers of his executive and military policies as president during the Civil War.

To read the full text of Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech, click here.  View summaries of some of Lincoln’s most poignant assertions in his Indianapolis speech via the Atlas:

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Ben-Hur Races to the Top in Indy

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2016 movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

The release of the new Ben-Hur movie this summer reminded us of the story’s Hoosier origins.  This latest production from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is the fifth time that film producers have interpreted Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel for the screen. Many are familiar with the 11 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Charlton Heston in 1959 and most film buffs know that there were two earlier versions in 1907 and 1925.  The 1907 film prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected copyrighted works from unauthorized motion picture adaptation.  The 1925 film arguably has a better chariot race than the 1959 movie. There was also a forgettable and regrettable Canadian mini-series reboot of Ben-Hur in 2010.

In a world of constant movie reboots, one ponders: if Lew Wallace were alive today and re-wrote Ben-Hur in a contemporary setting, would he have Ben-Hur racing in the Indianapolis 500?

What if we told you that Ben-Hur did, in fact, race at Indianapolis?  Of course, the race did not take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; instead it took place in 1902 at English’s Theater during the BenHur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.

The stage race as explained and illustrated in pages of Scientific American. Image from General Lew Wallace Study and Museum website.

On November 13, 1902, the Indianapolis News reported “J.J. Brady is here in advance of ‘Ben-Hur,’” and “brings with him a corps of stage carpenters and mechanics, who have practically to reconstruct the stage . . . so that the play may be given properly.”  Although English’s stage was new, crews needed to rebuild it in order to accommodate the chariot race. Producing that scene called for eight live horses running at full gallop on treadmills, cycloramic scenery and, other apparatus.  All this equipment and animals imposed an estimated weight of over 50 tons on the stage, which required pouring a special cement foundation. The public was anxious to see the spectacle, even if it meant staking out a place in line many hours in advance.  The Indianapolis News reporter observed:

“A few individuals sat and shivered all night in the lobby of English’s waiting in patience and with an unwonted supply of cash in their pockets for the box office to open.  They were men who had been hired to buy seats for some of the performances of ‘Ben-Hur.’”

Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents to two dollars. Even at that rate, a day after the tickets went on sale, the English Theater reported “over $10,000 was taken in at the box office window” and representatives for the producers of the play (Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger) announced that the sales “beat all records for the play in advance sales.”  The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur, a national benevolent society headquartered in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville, nearly bought out one performance by itself.  The Tribe planned to run an excursion via train for its members from Crawfordsville to see the play.

Basill Gill as Messala (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 Indianapolis production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Ben-Hur and Messala face off in a promotional picture for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, a few members of the Hoosier public were dubious about purchasing tickets.  In particular, one woman was of the opinion that the play was to take two weeks to complete.  When the box office manager informed her that the entire play was presented every night, she remained quite suspicious that anyone “could put all that book into a one-night drama.”

Production managers sought to cast extras from Indianapolis’s denizens, advertising a salary of $4.25/week. That was enough to encourage a crowd of men, women, and children to stand outside in a late Indiana autumn for an hour and a half waiting for their opportunity at show business.  An assistant stage director eventually made an appearance and sorted through the crowd.  One “gray beard” was turned away because the assistant director believed him not to be “nimble afoot.”  The rejected man futilely protested to the assistant director and argued “he could get around faster than two-thirds of the younger fellows that had been accepted.”

With the extras cast, the production opened on Monday, November 25, 1902.  After witnessing opening night, an Indianapolis reporter wrote, “There [will] be critics who see nothing good in the American stage or in the works of American dramatist: if the American stage had done absolutely nothing worthy in its long career but this, had its fame to rest solely on this production of ‘Ben-Hur’ it has justified its existence.”

Mabel Bert in costume for theatrical production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the Digital Public Library of America.
Mabel Bert in costume as the mother of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The cast, as it appeared in Indianapolis, included William Farnum as Ben-Hur and Basil Gill as Messala.  Farnum’s performance was described as realizing the part to the fullest degree.  Among the other actors and actresses in the production, Mabel Bert’s portrayal as the mother of Hur is worth noting because she was the only cast member with a major role to be with the company continuously since the production opened on November 29, 1899 in New York City.  Mrs. Bert told a reporter,

“I have always been the mother of Ben-Hur – various Ben-Hurs, however, for Mr. Farnum is the third I have mothered on the stage…It does make me a trifle lonely sometimes to lose my stage children and stage friends that way.  But then, too, it affords a certain amount of variety that is interesting and keeps my work from becoming at all monotonous.”

Ellen Mortimer as Esther (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Esther and Ben-Hur in a promotional photo for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

The public certainly found nothing monotonous about the play.  In fact, the production was originally slated to run for two weeks in Indianapolis, but four days after opening night the Indianapolis News reported that the high demand for tickets had prompted producers to extend the play for another week.  Box office receipts for the first two weeks alone were estimated in excess of $35,000.  That figure broke all box office records for Indianapolis and was the highest figure for all productions of Ben-Hur to that date.

The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis News attempted to describe the sales phenomenon in Indianapolis:

“‘Ben-Hur’ occupies a unique position on the native stage, since it appeals alike to habitual theater patrons and those who seldom find enjoyment in offerings of the stage.  While the elaborate scenic equipment and realistic chariot race command the admiration of the spectators, the rare beauty and force of ‘Ben-Hur’ as a drama give a lasting distinction to this most uplifting, inspiring and soul-stirring play.”

This description of the popularity of Ben-Hur, while no doubt true, neglects that a major reason for the large turnouts was because the author of Ben-Hur was a native Hoosier son.  Some Indiana cities, such as Covington, Franklin, and Noblesville, brought large numbers of their population and sold out individual performances.  In fact, Covington could not secure as many tickets as they had citizens who wanted to attend; the Indianapolis Sentinel reported that a small riot broke out as a result.

While various Indiana cities were hoping to witness the performance, Crawfordsville was no exception, as it was Ben-Hur’s birthplace.  A contingent of Athenians and Montgomery county residents had the theater to themselves for a performance on December 2.  Among those in attendance at that performance was James Buchanan Elmore, aka the Bard of Alamo.  After witnessing the arrest of the Hur family, Buchanan leaned over to a newspaper reporter and said, “Seems to me if I was bossing that show I would make the actors speak softer and not so rough, it don’t seem like Scripture voices.”

An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.
An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.

Although the December 2 performance hosted one Montgomery County literary celebrity, another one was conspicuously absent, that being General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur.  Wallace was recovering from an illness during the Crawfordsville excursion.  However, he was sufficiently recovered to attend a matinee with his son, daughter-in-law, and his two grandsons on December 12.  Wallace watched most of the play from a private box and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, lest he be called upon to deliver a speech.  Wallace and his party were invited behind the stage so that they could witness how some of the scenes were produced, especially the chariot race.  Wallace took special interest in watching the race and all of the mechanization that was involved.  While backstage, Wallace met the starring members of the cast and reportedly chatted for several minutes with the actor incarnating his literary creation.  Before returning to his box Wallace remarked to a stage manager that the production had reached a state of perfection. Ben-Hur ended its stay in Indianapolis the day after Wallace’s visit, before moving to Milwaukee for a two-week engagement.

Eleven years later, when Ben-Hur was making another visit to Indianapolis, Hector Fuller aptly noted in the Indianapolis Sunday Star,

“If Indiana had contributed nothing else, save this one play to the American stage it might be counted that the Hoosier state had done its part.  For ‘Ben-Hur’ is the dramatic marvel of the age.  It has held the stage now for fourteen years, and in that time over 10,000,000 people have seen it.”

Learn more about Lew Wallace, his father David Wallace, his stepmother Zerelda Wallace, and his mother Esther Test Wallace with other IHB historical resources.

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Stop by our exhibit in the Indiana State Library to see memorabilia from productions of Ben-Hur.

William Hayden English: A Man Apart

William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

When I started researching him, William Hayden English seemed like a pretty typical figure for the 19th century: Congressman, businessman, Vice-Presidential candidate. However, I soon realized how complicated his life and his politics really were.

English played a key role in the unrest in Kansas during the antebellum period, yet supported the Union during the Civil War (but was still antagonistic towards Lincoln’s presidency). A deal broker, English often chose the middle of the road. He was a conciliator, a compromiser, and a tactical politician who was a Pro-Union Democrat who held misgivings about both slave-sympathizers in the South and radical Republicans in the North. In more ways than one, he was truly a man apart.

William Hayden English was born on August 27, 1822. Early in his life, English received some formal education. According to a letter by E. D. McMaster from 1839, English received education in the “Preparatory and Scientific departments” of Hanover College. Additionally, he received accreditation to teach multiple subjects at common schools by examiners Samuel Rankin and John Addison. He would eventually leave school and pursue law, where he passed the bar in 1840.

The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

His major break in politics came with his selection as the principal Secretary of the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850. During his time as Secretary, he earned the reputation as being a thoughtful and balanced tactician, someone who was willing to work with others and make things happen.

The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Using this newly-earned reputation, English was first elected to the Indiana House of Representatives from Scott County in August of 1851. On March 8, 1852, after the resignation of Speaker John Wesley Davis, English was elected Speaker of the House with an overwhelming majority of the vote. He was only 29 years old, making him the one of the youngest Speakers in Indiana History.

In his election speech, he stated his praise for the new Constitution and called for a full new legal code to be established. He additionally called for a “spirit of concession and compromise” and for his colleagues to “zealously apply himself to the completion of the great work intrusted [sic] to us by a generous constituency.” In effect, the Indiana House of Representatives under Speaker English had consolidated state government and extended its purview to neglected regions of the state.

William English's officialt Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
William English’s official Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in state government, English was called for national service. He won his first election to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and was reelected in 1854, 1856, and 1858. During his tenure in Congress, English would be remembered for his “wise and patriotic course in Congress,” notably his important role in crafting a controversial bill that gave Kansas the choice of whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state.

English’s time in Congress, much like the rest of his political career, can be seen as pragmatic. While he morally abhorred slavery, he condemned abolitionists and believed in the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which argued that the people of a state or territory should choose for themselves whether to have slavery. He stated his view in a speech in 1854:

Sir, I am a native of a free State [sic], and have no love for the institution of slavery. Aside from the moral question involved, I regard it as an injury to the State where it exists….But sir, I never can forget that we are a confederacy of States, possessing equal rights, under our glorious Constitution. That if the people of Kentucky believe the institution of slavery would be conducive to their happiness, they have the same right to establish and maintain that we of Indiana have to reject it; and this doctrine is just as applicable to States hereafter to be admitted as to those already in the Union.

During this session, Congress was debating a bill named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Compromise of 1820) and allow for states and their citizens to decide whether they wanted to be admitted as a slave state or free state. English voted for the bill and it was later signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Almost immediately, violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates in the state, who could not agree on the direction of the state constitution.

Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the "English Bill" that would later ensure that Kansas as a free state. Today, he is best remembered for being the Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the “English Bill” that hoped to quell unrest in the territory of Kansas. Ironically, he is best remembered for being Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his reelection in 1856, English, along with congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, went to work on a compromise bill that would potentially quell the violence and political unrest. This compromise, known as the English Bill, allowed the citizens of Kansas to either accept or reject the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. However, if the citizens of Kansas chose to be a slave state by referendum, they had to additionally let go of federal land grants within the territory.

The bill passed and the voters of Kansas did not reject the land grants, thus rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Upon the Bill’s passage, English declared that, “The measure just passed ought to secure peace, and restore harmony among the different sections of the confederacy.” The Kansas issue would be not resolved until its admission to the Union as a free state in 1861.  As he did in the Indiana House, English struck a compromise that hoped to quell the violence, using federal land grants as a way to take heat off the slavery issue.

While the English Bill attempted to stave off conflict within Kansas, the harmony among the nation was short lived. The growing tensions among pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country were mounting, and English lamented this development in one of his final speeches to Congress. He chastised both the abolitionists and radical Republicans, who he believed had appealed to the “passions and prejudices of the northern people, for the sake of getting into office and accomplishing mere party ends.” To English, the cause of all this strife was the agitation of the slavery question and the solution would be to elect a Democrat President and ensure that the national discussion be reverted back to other issues of state. This did not happen; in the fall of 1860, voters chose Republican Abraham Lincoln and the first seven southern states seceded from the union.

By 1861, right as English was leaving Congress, the United States became engulfed in Civil War. While many within the national Democratic Party either defected to the Confederacy or took a tenuous position of support in the north, English was unequivocally for the Union. In an August 16, 1864 article in the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the Committee of the Second Congressional District, under the chairmanship of English, wrote a platform that supported the Union and decried the act of secession. However, it did reserve criticism for President Lincoln, particularly with regards to supposed violations of freedom of speech. English’s pragmatic, even-handed political gesture fell in line with many of his past political actions.

Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in Congress,  he was the President of the First National Bank of Indianapolis for 14 years. He established the bank in 1863, taking advantage of the reestablished national banking system during the Civil War. According to historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the First National Bank of Indianapolis became “the largest bank of Indianapolis, and one of the largest in the Middle West.” He is also listed as a “banker” in the 1870 Census and as a “capitalist” in the 1880 Census. By the time of his death in 1896, English had become one of the wealthiest men in Indiana.

Even though his time in national politics was years removed, he was nonetheless nominated by the Democratic Party in 1880 for Vice President, with Winfield Scott Hancock as President. Articles in the Indianapolis News and the Atlantic noted that his chances for the Vice-Presidential nomination were quite good, especially if the candidate was presumed front-runner Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Within days of the News piece, when asked if he was interested in the VP nomination, English said, “None whatever, for that or any other office.

A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite his protestations, English was nominated for the Vice-Presidency by the Democratic Party on June 24, 1880, after Tilden redrew his consideration for the Presidential nomination and General Winfield Scott Hancock was elected in his stead. In his acceptance letter, English wrote that he was “profoundly grateful for the honor conferred” and that his election with Hancock would be a triumph over the dominance of the Republican Party in the presidency. Their chances to win the White House were dashed when they lost to Republicans James Garfield and Chester Arthur in the General Election.

English's Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
English’s Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English's Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English’s Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

While he was running for Vice-President, English’s business empire was also expanding, with his financing and construction of the English Hotel and Opera House. Historians James Fisher and Clifton Phillips noted that English purchased land on the city circle in the 1840s, as a residence for himself and his family. In early 1880, during renovations on the circle, English announced that he would invest in the construction of a new Hotel and Opera House. His son, William E. English, became the proprietor and manager. It officially opened on September 27, 1880, and the first performance was Lawrence Barrett as Hamlet. It would be in continual use until its closure and demolition in 1948.

English served as the President of the Indiana Historical Society, from 1886 until in his death ten years later. During his tenure, English wrote a two-volume history of the Northwest Territory and the life of George Rogers Clark. It was published in 1896, shortly after his death. An 1889 article in the Indianapolis Journal noted his compiling of sources and his emerging methodology; a two-volume general history that would be divided at the 1851 revised State Constitution. By 1895, the project materialized into the history mentioned above, with English using documents from leaders involved, such as Thomas Jefferson and Clark himself. He also conducted interviews with other key figures of the revised Indiana Constitution. English’s historical research became the standard account of the Northwest Territory for those within the Historical Society and the general public for many years.

The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

William English died on February 7, 1896, as reported by the Indianapolis Journal. On February 9, thousands came to see his body displayed in the Indiana State Capitol before he was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

His legacy in Indiana is lesser known, but he does have some monuments. A sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse commemorates his place in history. The town of English, Indiana is also named after the late politician. According to historian H. H. Pleasant and the Crawford County Democrat, the unincorporated town was originally named Hartford. It was changed to English in 1886 after the town was officially incorporated, in honor of election to Congress from the area. He also has an IHB marker at his former home in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana.

The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.
The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.

To many who enter the Statehouse and see his statue on the fourth floor, he might be just another leader of Indiana’s past. However, English’s political career attempted to stave off Civil War (at least temporarily) and reinforced Indiana’s political tradition of measured, temperate leaders who sought a middle ground on most issues. In that regard, English might be one of Indiana’s most emblematic statesmen.

The King’s Final Bow: Elvis’s Last Concert in Indianapolis

Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is the final one, at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His final performance, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.

Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com
Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.

An article in the Indianapolis News on June 25 listed it as a requisite event for music fans. The Indianapolis Star noted playfully “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” While $15 doesn’t sound like much, that’s the equivalent of nearly $60 today.

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A ticket stub from Elvis’s final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
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Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The concert began at 8:30 p.m., but Elvis didn’t perform until 10 p.m.; warm-up acts of brass bands, soul singers, and a comedian filled time before the King. Then for about 80 minutes, Elvis sang both his classic tunes like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” and his more somber numbers, like “Hurt” and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He closed the concert with “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” one of his most poignant ballads.

He reportedly told the audience “We’ll meet you again, God bless, adios” as he left the stage. Based on filmed footage, the crowd appeared enthusiastic about the performance; the local press, however, was a bit skeptical.

A ticket stub from Elvis's final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The Indianapolis press seemed divided on the quality of his performance. Rita Rose’s piece in the Indianapolis Star provided a sympathetic take of the show, even as it criticized his appearance. Rose wrote comically:

The big question was, of course, had he lost weight? His last concert here, nearly 2 years ago, found Elvis overweight, sick and prone to give a lethargic performance. As the lights in the Arena was turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: Please, Elvis, don’t be fat.

She assuaged readers, writing “At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection, but it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.” She noted glowingly how well he sang some songs, including “It’s Now or Never,” and “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain.” Rose’s piece emphasized the better elements of the concert and the excitement of the crowd.

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Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Conversely, critic Zach Dunkin’s piece in the Indianapolis News was the consummate bad review:

“Elvis Presley led another crowd of screamers in bananaland last night during his concert at Market Square Area and the question is why,” wrote Dunkin at the start of his piece. He added, “He obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.”

The first page of Zach Dunkin's critical piece on Elvis's last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
The first page of Zach Dunkin’s critical piece on Elvis’s last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Dunkin went on to call Elvis’s mix of opening acts and his performance a “sideshow,” writing:

“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room.” He also heavily criticized the “hawking” of souvenirs by vendors, who he said “came on the P.A. three times and urged the crowd to visit the souvenir stand. He even listed the prices.”

However, Dunkin’s strongest criticism was of the King himself, who he said could “sing when he tries.” His best numbers, in Dunkin’s view, were his renditions of “Hurt” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” even though Elvis “for some reason had to read the lyrics from a sheet.” Dunkin’s lackluster impression of the King ended with this final take: “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.”

Sadly, Presley never got the chance to do better, for his show in Indianapolis was his last. After the concert at Market Square Arena, Elvis took a break from touring and returned home to Graceland. Nearly six weeks after his Indianapolis concert, Elvis died in his home on August 16, 1977 from heart failure, likely caused by years of prescription drug abuse.

Elvis's casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis’s casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

For months afterward, Dunkin received scores of angry letters from fans of Elvis for his unfavorable review. In an interview with John Krull, Dunkin talked about the hate mail he received, particularly attacks against his personality and his supposed “envy” of Elvis. Yet, other letters (in his estimation about “20 percent”) were sympathetic, with one letter saying the King “should’ve stayed home.” Dunkin’s review still receives attention from fans of Elvis and students of music history.

A historical marker commemorating Market Sqaure Arena and Elvis's final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pintrest.
A historical marker commemorating Market Square Arena and Elvis’s final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pinterest/ElvisCollector.info.

Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001 and it is now a parking lot. A memorial marker for the arena commemorates its history and importance as the venue for Elvis Presley’s final concert.

Elvis Presley’s mark on American music and culture is permanently etched into stone, but his controversial final concert showed the complications and problems associated with his final years. Regardless of the quality of the concert, it will be remembered forever as the place where the King took his final bow.