A False Promise of Freedom: The Lynching of John Tucker

According to archivist Keenan Salla, John Tucker’s property was located near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets (Out Lot 37, Lot 3). This 1880 image from a plat map was sent to author courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

* Sources included in the historical marker application, compiled by historian Leon Bates, were foundational to this blog post.

Long before the Great Migration, Black Americans sought to make a living and secure housing in Indianapolis. The life of John Tucker affords us the opportunity to study the experiences of free people of color living in the city, when it was simply an outpost of the Western frontier. Tucker’s life also represented the many obstacles they faced in the pursuit of unequivocal freedom. In researching a new historical marker about Tucker’s violent death, I sought to uncover as many details as I could about his life, work, family, and experiences as a human. Amongst scant documentation, I gleaned that he was a farmer, who raised two children with his wife in a house near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets. Prominent orator Rev. Henry Ward Beecher noted that Tucker was “very generally respected as a peaceable, industrious, worthy man.”[1] On Independence Day of 1845, his pursuit of a life of freedom was brutally ended by white violence. Tucker’s death forced his young children into a years-long legal battle over his property and undoubtedly perpetuated generational trauma. The lynching also made overt the indignities and threats Black settlers had quietly endured.

Tucker was born into enslavement in Kentucky around 1800. It is unclear how or when he was freed, but the Indiana State Sentinel reported in 1845 that he “many years ago honorably obtained freedom.”[2] By 1830, Tucker settled in Indianapolis, which resembled “‘an almost inaccessible village,'” lacking navigable waterways and roads. As Indianapolis’s Black population increased, so did discrimination against Black Americans.[3] The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring them to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior.[4] Black residents were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.

Sketch of homes, including Overall’s, is courtesy of Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader’s Sketches of Early Indianapolis (published 1987), p. 112.

Despite living in a “free” state, Black settlers not only experienced systemic discrimination, but were marginalized by racial violence. City historian Ignatius Brown described Indianapolis in the 1830s:

The work on the National road . . . had attracted many men of bad character and habits to this point. These, banded together under a leader of great size and strength, were long known as ‘the chain gang,’ and kept the town in a half subjugated state. Assaults were often committed, citizens threatened and insulted, and petty outrages perpetrated.[5]

James Overall, a respected free person of color, land-owner, and trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church, would become a target of this violence in 1836. David J. Leach, a white gang member, tried to break into Overall’s home, located on Washington Street, and threatened to kill his family.[6]

Overall shot Leach in self-defense. In this tense circumstance, prominent white allies of Overall came to his aid. Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall gained legal protection from further attack. In his official opinion, Judge William W. Wick affirmed Overall’s “natural” right to defend his family and property. Unfortunately, Judge Wick’s interpretation of the 1836 law did not affect any change in the actual law and African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in cases where only black testimony was available against a white party.

Historical marker installed by IHB in 2016, accessed https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/find-historical-markers-by-county/indiana-historical-markers-by-county/james-overall/.

Overall’s home would again be linked to racial violence when Tucker’s body was transported to it for examination by a coroner.[7] The sequence of events resulting in Tucker’s death were generally corroborated by the testimony of approximately forty white witnesses at trial.[8] On the afternoon of July 4, 1845, Tucker was walking along Washington Street when inebriated white laborer Nicholas Wood physically assaulted him. Bewildered, and with few options for recourse because of his race, Tucker sought the intervention of city officials.[9] While Tucker headed to the Magistrate’s Office, Wood again struck him with a club. Tucker retreated up Illinois Street as Wood followed, now joined by saloon keeper William Ballenger and Edward Davis. Rev. Beecher reported that Tucker “defended himself with desperate determination” against the stones and brickbats hurled at him by the three men.[10] The “murderous affray” took place about 100 yards from Rev. Beecher’s church, and “greatly disturbed” the Independence Day celebration taking place that afternoon.[11]

A crowd surrounded Tucker on Illinois Street. Some gatherers tried to separate Tucker from his assaulters, while others encouraged the violence, chanting “kill the n****r!” Rev. Beecher reported that “the fight was at first scattering, and the mayor attempted to quell the rioters, as did several citizens,” but most “surprised at the suddenness and rapidity of the thing, stood irresolute or timid, having no courageous man among them to save the victim.”[12] Within minutes, John Tucker succumbed to his injuries near a gutter on Illinois Street. Although not the result of a hanging, his death is considered a lynching, as defined by the Equal Justice Initiative: “Lynchings were violent and public events designed to terrorize all Black people in order to re-establish white supremacy and suppress Black civil rights.”

Immediately after the lynching, Wood was brought before Mayor Levy, and “being rather uproarious with liquor, and the excitement considerable, the Mayor very properly committed the accused” to jail until the following day. Davis sustained severe injuries from Tucker’s attempts to defend himself, and had to recuperate at home before a court appearance was possible.[13] By the time Wood informed Mayor Levy about Ballenger’s involvement and a warrant was written for his arrest, Ballenger “had already secreted himself.”

Rev. Beecher described the general sentiment felt by Indianapolis’s citizens in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. He wrote, “I never saw a community more mortified and indignant at an outrage than were the sober citizens of this. Some violent haters of the blacks, the refuse of the groceries [grocery gang to which Wood belonged], and a very few hair-brained young fellows indulged in inflammatory language.”[14] Similarly, the Indiana State Sentinel wrote a few days after the lynching, “It was a horrible spectacle; doubly horrible that it should have occurred on the 4th of July, a day which of all others should be consecrated to purposes far different from a display of angry and vindictive passion and brutality.”[15] Unwilling to intervene in Tucker’s lynching, many citizens donated money to hire attorneys O.H. Smith and James Morrison, who would aid the state in prosecuting Tucker’s assailants. Prominent abolitionist and businessman Calvin Fletcher spearheaded efforts to secure counsel, writing in his diary, “as a citizen I have done all I could to see that the state should have Justice.”[16]

The Indiana State Sentinel reported that “Much difficulty presented itself in obtaining a jury in consequence of the notoriety of the case.”[17] Despite this, Edward Davis’s trial began by mid-August and several witnesses provided detailed testimony, including Tucker’s employer, City Postmaster Samuel Henderson.[18] Expert witnesses like Dr. John Evans, who helped establish the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, explained the significance of Tucker’s injuries to jury members. The Sentinel noted on August 13, “The examination of the witnesses was very laborious and great vigilance and attention given to it. The Court House was crowded to overflowing during the tedious detail.”

General Index of Estates, Marion County, courtesy of FamilySearch, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Despite damning testimony regarding his involvement in Tucker’s death, the jury acquitted Davis.[19] This surprised many in the community because days later the jury, hearing much the same testimony, found Nicholas Wood guilty of Tucker’s murder.[20] The Sentinel speculated on the reasoning for the differing verdicts, noting Wood was found guilty because he “commenced the affray, and followed it up to its conclusion.” Convicted of manslaughter, Wood was sentenced to three years in state prison.[21] Although a seemingly short sentence, his conviction was a rarity in an era when Black Hoosiers could not legally testify in court.


Many court records related to the case simply referred to “the Negro,” but John Tucker was a human being, whose death left his children without a father and fighting for a home. It is unclear what became of Tucker’s wife, but his 13-year-old daughter, Mary (also written as Meary), and his 10-year-old son, William, were left to grieve.[22] Because their father was only about 45 years old at the time of his murder, he was still working to pay off his property. Thus, his death pushed his family into insolvency and legal proceedings that would conclude only in 1851. Court records show that the children, appointed a guardian ad litem, were required to appear in court multiple times regarding the property at Out Lot 37, Lot 3. Ultimately, the court ruled that it be sold at a public auction held at the court house, likely leaving Mary and William penniless.

Ruling on the Estate of John Tucker, Saturday, August 23rd A.D. 1851 + 10th Day of the Term, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Lynchings in Indiana from the mid-1800s to 1930 intentionally terrorized Black communities and enforced white supremacy. The State Sentinel reported on August 28, 1845 “that many of the colored residents are in the habit, since the 4th of July, of carrying big clubs, &c.”[23] The article’s author admonished:

We assure them that this is wrong. It tends rather to provoke than allay ill feeling. They are as safe from harm, and as much under the protection of the laws as any member of community; and they should be extremely cautious of doing any thing having a tendency to arouse latent prejudice and hatred in the breasts of those who entertain them. Take our advice. Be quiet. Feel safe. Mind your proper business. Behave yourselves like men.

Clearly, this piece of “advice” rang hollow, as Tucker had minded his “proper business” and did nothing to provoke “ill feeling.” Indianapolis’s Black population, which had grown from 122 residents in 1840 to 405 by 1850, remained vigilant.[24] In 1851, the state furthered discrimination against the minority group when a new constitution was drafted, which prohibited migration of Black Americans into Indiana. Preeminent Indiana historian James Madison summarized the many barriers to equality for Black Hoosiers, noting that “Indiana has never been color-blind. For a long time, the state’s constitution, laws, courts, and majority white voice placed black Hoosiers in a separate and unequal place. . . . separation and discrimination, whether legal or extra-legal, were the patterns of public life for African Americans.”[25] As we continue to reckon with discrimination and racial violence, let us remember John Tucker—father, farmer, husband, and Hoosier.

 

Notes:

[1] H.W. Beecher, “Rev. H. W. Beecher—the Indianapolis Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 30, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Gayle Thornbrough and Dorothy L. Riker, eds., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher,  vol. III, 1844-1847 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1974), 164.

[3] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org; James H. Madison, Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 81, 94.

[4] Nicole Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the ‘Natural Rights of Man,'” Indiana History Blog, July 15, 2016, accessed https://blog.history.in.gov/james-overall-indiana-free-person-of-color-and-the-natural-rights-of-man/.

[5] Ignatius Brown, Logan’s History of Indianapolis from 1818 (Indianapolis: Logan & Co., 1868), 35.

[6] Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color.”

[7] State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[8] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; State vs. Nicholas Wood, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[9] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[10] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[11] W.R. Holloway, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City, a Chronicle of Its Social, Municipal, Commercial and Manufacturing Progress, with Full Statistical Tables (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Print., 1870), 80-81, accessed Archive.org.

[12] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Testimony of Enoch Pyle, State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[13] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[15] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, 165.

[17] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 9, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[19] The Locomotive, August 16, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 20, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Murder Cases at Indianapolis,” Evansville Weekly Journal, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indiana State Prison South, Pardon Book B, page 20, microfilm roll 1, 401-F-2, DOC000690, ICPR Digital Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[22] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles, 5; “John Tucker,” General Index of Estates, No. 512, July 23, 1845, II-96, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; Petition to Sell Paid Real Estate as Insolvent, John Tuckers Estate, George H.P. Henderson, Adm of the Estate of John Tucker, Deceased v.s. Mary Tucker & William Tucker, Infants, Thursday October 16th 1845, and 4th Day of Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; George H. P. Henderson, Adm. of the Estate of John Tucker v. Elizabeth Frazee, of Full Age, & Meary Tucker and William Tucker (infants), Saturday, August 23rd, A.D., 1851 & 12th Day of the Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla.

[23] “Wrong,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society.

[25] James H. Madison, “Race, Law, and the Burdens of Indiana History,” in The History of Indiana Law, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Hon. Randall T. Shepard (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 37-59.

An Unusual Road to Politics

“Senators Take Oath of Office,” Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1961, accessed Proquest.com.

We are all familiar with the stereotype of corrupt and power-hungry politicians who do whatever it takes to win and get their party into office. This stereotype has been around for centuries and in fact still influences public perception about candidates’ motivations for running for elected office. This stereotype emerged because there have been corrupt politicians in the past, and the State of Indiana is no exception. For example, in the 1920s, the Indianapolis Times exposed the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana politics via bribes to several high-ranking politicians in the state, including Governor Ed Jackson.[1] As recently as this year, two former members of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA) were sentenced to federal prison for breaking election finance law.[2] Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Hoosiers and their fellow Americans to be a bit skeptical regarding the intentions of politicians. Given that citizens are the ones electing politicians, we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and look critically at their actions, since it affects our lives.

But in fairness, however, state legislators have historically come into office via a variety of different means, from different backgrounds, and with different motivations. In the course of my work as a historian for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI), I have found there are many elected officials who essentially stumbled into politics. This has been one of the intriguing aspects of conducting interviews for ILOHI. Take for instance, the former Republican Calvin Didier, who served in the House of Representatives in 1961. Prior to serving in the Assembly, Didier was a minister in La Porte. Members of his congregation began to recruit him to run for office, claiming they did not feel well-represented by the legislature and believed he would be a good candidate. When recounting this story, Didier remembered his puzzled reaction, saying “‘No, I can’t do that.’ I mean, you know a minister doesn’t run very often, but they pushed hard enough, in terms of wanting a candidate and apparently, I had some popularity in that small community. So, you know I said, ‘well okay nothing to lose’ and I agreed.” Subsequently, Didier would go on to win his election, showing how communities can play a major role in determining who runs for office. During his legislative service, he was known for his ability to work with both parties and get along with everyone. He also worked to prevent churches from taking advantage of their tax exemptions, feeling that even as a minister it was unethical.

Earline Rogers, image courtesy of “Sen. Rogers Reached Out, Moved Mountains,” Salina Journal, May 10, 2016, accessed Salina.com.

However, Didier was not the only legislator encouraged to run by their community. This was also the case for former Democratic legislator Earline Rogers. Rogers served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990 and the Indiana Senate from 1990 to 2016. Despite Rogers having no prior interest in politics, she accepted the Gary Teachers Union suggestion that she run for office. Once elected to the Assembly, Rogers proved to be very influential in education reform, such as helping casino legislation get passed to increase government revenue to help fund education.

Alternatively, some legislators were recruited by political parties in their communities but not through the stereotypically “nefarious” ways. In one humorous instance, a former representative was chosen to run for office completely out of the blue when an outgoing representative in the IGA needed a replacement. This was the case for former Democratic Representative Jesse Villalpando, who served in the House from 1983 to 2000. At the time of his recruitment, Villalpando was a student and magician at Indiana University-Bloomington when one of his roommates informed him a man had called about a job offer. As it turned out, this man was Representative Peter Katic, who had met Villalpando only once, after one of Villalpando’s magic shows. However, before he returned Katic’s call, he called his mother. And to Villalpando’s total surprise, his mother informed him that he was running for office. As Villalpando recounts, “I called my mom first and my mom is excitable. She said, ‘I just heard it on WJOB Radio, you’re a candidate for State Representative. . . . I said ‘What did you say?’ . . . I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ultimately, despite being shocked by all of this, Villalpando would run for office, and this former representative’s decision to volunteer Villalpando as his replacement, would lead to Villalpando serving almost twenty years in the House. He was influential in helping create the CLEO bill, which would provide legal educational opportunities for underrepresented students preparing to go to law school.

Stephen L. Ferguson, no date, accessed Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

Lastly, like the recruitment of Jesse Villalpando, State Senator Stephen Ferguson, was also talked into running for office by local members of the Republican Party in his community. Like Villalpando, Ferguson had no interest in running for the Indiana General Assembly and even refused to run when first asked. It was only later that Ferguson was talked into it and then went on to win his election, serving in the Indiana Senate from 1967 to 1974. He  played an important role in the creation of Unigov, which  had a transformative impact on the city of Indianapolis.

There are many reasons why someone runs for office, as highlighted by the dozens of ILOHI interviews conducted over the past 4 years. The legislative office comes with power and influence certainly, but the ILOHI interviews demonstrate that usually is not the driving factor for why someone runs for the Indiana General Assembly. Many legislators simply get involved because they were convinced that they could help their communities. And despite the long-standing stereotype, financial greed is not likely a motivating factor, as the pay is low in the Indiana General Assembly, since it is a part-time body. As pointed out by the Indy Star in 2021, legislators’ salaries were under $30,000.[3] Based on ILOHI interviews, most former legislators testify to genuinely wanting to help their communities. Whether they succeeded or not is up for you to determine.

Notes:

[1] Jordan Fischer, “The Dragon & the Lady: The Murder that Brought Down the Ku Klux Klan,” WRTV, August 22, 2017, accessed wrtv.com.

[2] Press Release, “Former Indiana State Senator and an Indianapolis Casino Executive Sentenced to Federal Prison for Criminal Election Finance Schemes,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana, August 17, 2022, accessed justice.gov.

[3] Tony Cook, “Analysis: Part-time Legislators Earn About $65.6K/yr.” Indianapolis Star, August 15, 2021, accessed Indystar.com.

Governor Paul V. McNutt: Hoosier Humanitarian

Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Library of Congress.

One of the most dynamic political careers of any Hoosier belonged to Governor Paul V. McNutt. He set his sights on the U.S. presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly for the Jewish people during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a Democratic “Dark Horse” candidate before Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. While his chance to become president never materialized, McNutt’s decades of public service revealed a man dedicated to democracy and humanitarianism.

Paul McNutt as a senior at IU. IU Bloomington.

Paul Vories McNutt was born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana. His father, attorney John Crittenden McNutt, served as a librarian for the Indiana Supreme Court and exposed his son to law and politics at a young age. When Paul was seven, the family moved to Martinsville, where he graduated from high school in 1909. He then attended Indiana University, earning a BA in English in 1913. McNutt attended IU at the same time as another influential Hoosier who would also have ambitions for the presidency: Republican businessman Wendell Willkie. While at IU, they both held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake noted that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.

Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Indiana Historical Society.

After a year of private practice with his father, McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917. However, World War I disrupted his teaching and in the spring he registered for military service. By November, the South Bend News-Times reported he attained the rank of Captain. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. He also met his future wife, Kathleen Timolat, during his time in Texas. He proposed marriage to Kathleen in 1918 and they married three months later. His only child, Louise, was born in 1921.

After the war, McNutt returned to teaching at the IU Law School faculty in 1919 and in 1925 was formally installed as the school’s Dean. Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded its enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until his inauguration as Governor in 1933.

McNutt and wife Kathleen, circa 1940. Library of Congress.

His career trajectory sharply pivoted once he got involved with the American Legion. The organization served as a vehicle for his political ambitions and provided him with the infrastructure to win the governorship. According to its website, the American Legion:

evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States. Membership swiftly grew to over 1 million, and local posts sprang up across the country. Today [2022], membership stands at nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide.

McNutt joined the Bloomington post of the American Legion shortly after its founding in 1919. In the years leading up to his role as State and National Commander, McNutt had little interest in the Legion other than as a social club. This changed around the time he became Dean of the IU Law School; McNutt’s desire for higher office motivated his involvement in Legion leadership. Thus, he became one of the organization’s indispensable leaders and rose quickly through the ranks, being elected State Commander in 1926.

Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929.  Library of Congress.

As State Commander, he lobbied for veterans, urging state banks to provide personal loans to WWI veterans based on their future retirement compensation. An American Legion Monthly piece credited McNutt with growing the Indiana department of the Legion from 18,336 to 25,505 by 1929. After rigorous campaigning and substantial support at the American Legion’s National Convention, McNutt was elected National Commander in 1928. In this role, McNutt continued to expand national membership, organized events, and offered advice on foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. McNutt’s outspoken views on military preparedness ignited a very public feud with President Herbert Hoover. In 1929, the Hoover Administration agreed to scrap two British Naval Ships, a decision McNutt vehemently disagreed with in a telegram published in the New York Times. McNutt believed it made America more open to attack if “naval parity with Britain” was lost. McNutt’s internationalist view of foreign policy, which would serve him well during the 1940s, clashed with the isolationist current of the 1920s.

In July 1929, McNutt traveled to France, Hungary, and Yugoslavia on a trip as National Commander. He visited the Legion’s world headquarters in Paris and attended gravesites for those killed in World War I. In October, his one-year term limit expired, and McNutt was replaced as National Commander. Following his tenure, the Legion appointed McNutt as “legal advisory council of the [U. S.] Veteran’s Bureau,” which advanced his policy experience. Overall, McNutt’s time in the American Legion provided the logistical tools and political network necessary to run for higher office.

Muncie-Post Democrat, July 1, 1932. Ball State University, Indiana Memory.

In 1932, Hoosier voters elected McNutt as the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first won the presidency. In his inaugural address on January 9, 1933, McNutt advocated for broad political reform, especially relief for those affected by the Great Depression, something he vigorously campaigned on. He called for investments in public education, infrastructure, care for the elderly and infirm, and a reorganization of government functions. The next day, McNutt gave another address to the General Assembly detailing his proposals, which included consolidation of government agencies, a personal income tax, tighter regulation of public utilities, the end of alcohol prohibition, and balancing the state budget.

Franklin_D_Roosevelt_in_Car
Paul V. McNutt and Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1932. Both men would be elected in November of that year to higher office; McNutt to the Indiana Governorship and Roosevelt to the Presidency. Indiana Historical Society.

During his four years as governor, McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. This law was seen as a controversial power grab by many Republicans; one critic of McNutt, State Senator William E. Jenner, called him “Paul the Fifth” in a speech, as if he was a monarch rather than a Governor. Nevertheless, McNutt’s reorganization plan proved popular, and Democrats fared well in both the 1934 and 1936 elections. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”

Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews persecuted by the iron-fisted rule of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. McNutt delivered the keynote address at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, condemning the Nazi treatment of German Jews. Thousands of attendees filled the theater and those unable to get in wrapped around the block, listening through loudspeakers. In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need to combat Germany’s injustice:

Indiana joins the protest against this persecution. This is a prayer for the freedom of the world. Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice?

What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.

Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Indiana Historical Society.

During the convention, a resolution introduced by Dr. Paul Hutchinson, editor of the Christian Century magazine and one of the event’s organizers, was adopted “amid wild applause.” It called for the United States to end its diplomatic relations with Germany until an independent investigation was conducted regarding the status of Jewish residents. This event was one of multiple examples of his advocacy of the Jewish people. (To learn “what Hoosiers knew when” about the Holocaust, see IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins’s History Unfolded blog series).

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

Governor Paul V. McNutt speaking at the dedication of the new educational building, 1936. Indiana State Fairgrounds Collection, Indiana Memory.

While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:

In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.

McNutt shaking hands at the 1934 Grand Army of the Republic parade in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State, Indiana Memory.

Once the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, McNutt’s administration aligned Indiana’s policies with the national program through the “Unemployment Compensation Act, the Public Welfare Act, and the Child and Maternal Health Act. Like Roosevelt, McNutt’s progressive policies highlighted his belief in “economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.”

Despite his broader liberalism on many issues, Governor McNutt received criticism for how he wielded his political power. In the fall of 1933, Governor McNutt ordered Sullivan County under martial law and sent National Guard Troops to deal with unrest at the Starburn Shaft Mines following a labor contract dispute. He also garnered criticism for his actions during the 1934 midterm elections. McNutt used his influence within the Democratic Party to ensure that Sherman Minton was the Democratic nominee for Senate, rather than R. Earl Peters, a vocal opponent of the McNutt administration and its policies. These actions, alongside his consolidation of state government agencies, ironically garnered him the nickname the “Hoosier Hitler” among many within the labor movement.

Karl Kae Knecht cartoon highlighting McNutt’s presidential ambitions, 1939. Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Indiana Memory.

He spent the later years of his term as governor championing his reforms of state government and maintaining a progressive agenda. His second legislative message to the Indiana General Assembly called for the expansion of relief efforts within state government and new reforms for taxes, highways, and the sale of alcohol. In a 1935 address, McNutt championed the new Utilities Commission, whose tighter regulations on energy companies saved the Hoosier public over $5,000,000 in just two years—a crucial difference during the lean Depression years. These new regulations ensured that rural areas of the state received electricity for the first time, something McNutt counted as one of his greatest gubernatorial accomplishments. In his final weeks of office, McNutt was honored with a dinner hosted by Democratic Party leaders, who had begun to see him as a presidential candidate. Senator Sherman Minton said to McNutt that, “As we bid you good-bye to the State House, we bid you godspeed to the White House.”  In his book, Indiana Through Tradition and Change, historian James Madison emphasized that McNutt’s governorship was one of the most dynamic and influential administrations in Indiana history. Not since Civil War Governor Oliver P. Morton had a governor left such an impact on the lives of Hoosiers.

McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Library of Congress.

After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming the Philippines’s first Ambassador to the United States after it gained independence in 1946. He was nominated for the position in 1937, roughly a month after he finished his term as Indiana’s Governor. His nomination surprised the Philippine public, to whom McNutt was relatively unknown. However, his diplomatic record reportedly earned their trust. Nevertheless, his nomination also drew criticism in the United States. Frederick J. Libby, executive secretary of the National Council for the Prevention of War, saw McNutt’s use of national guard troops as governor during labor disputes as a serious concern which he addressed in a letter to President Roosevelt. The criticism continued after his appointment, specifically in his handling of ceremonial functions. An article by James Stevens in the American Mercury noted that McNutt’s insistence on toasting décor during official functions as High Commissioner: “As the new High Commissioner to the Philippine Commonwealth, he recently issued an ukase [word for Russian edict] on precedence in public toasts and thus assured himself of front-page fame.” Regardless of the criticism, McNutt proved to be a key ally to President Roosevelt, and the office became a political asset.

McNutt on the cover of Life magazine, 1939. Google Books.

Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht, a nationwide pogrom the Nazi regime launched against German Jews in November 1938. Mobs smashed and looted Jewish shops and burned hundreds of Jewish synagogues. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and transferred from local prisons to concentration camps, mainly Dachau. German officials reported 91 Jewish deaths during Kristallnacht, but numbers were likely much higher. In the months following the “Night of Broken Glass,” thousands of Jews emigrated from Germany to other countries. McNutt ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands. His policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s, as entering the United States was often difficult for Jewish refugees fleeing fascism, even for such luminaries like Albert Einstein. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s enduring legacies.

A woman named Mrs. O'Gridley, hanging up a photograph of handsome Paul, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt's presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A woman named Mrs. O’Gridley, hanging up a photograph of Paul McNutt, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt’s presidential campaign literature. Library of Congress.

During his time as Commissioner, some Democrats began touting him as a candidate for the party’s 1940 presidential nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as president, initially displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his February 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President. Two national publications also placed him front and center. A Life magazine piece by Jack Alexander highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.

McNutt speaking before delegates of the 1940 Presidential Election. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.
McNutt speaking before delegates at the 1940 Democratic Convention. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.

However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.

McNutt serving as the Director of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt serving as the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Library of Congress.
McNutt on the cover of Time magazine, 1942. Time.

After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, McNutt continued public service as a loyal lieutenant for Roosevelt during World War II. He served as the Administrator for the Federal Security Agency from 1939-41, overseeing war efforts in infrastructure, health, and education, as well as the implementation of Social Security. In 1942, he was the Director of the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services, part of the larger Office of Emergency Management. His final war post was as Chairman of the War Manpower Commission from 1943-1945. During his tenure, McNutt became an advocate for agricultural issues and their impact on the war effort, urging the need for food preparedness and the importance of student agricultural sciences.

Paul V. McNutt being sworn in as High Commissioner of the Philippines, September 12, 1945. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Near the war’s end, at President Harry Truman’s personal request, McNutt returned as High Commissioner to the Philippines in 1945 and, once they secured independence, appointed their first U.S. Ambassador in 1946. McNutt represented President Truman at the Philippine Independence ceremony on July 4, 1946, sharing the ceremonial duties with Philippine President Manuel Roxas and General Douglas MacArthur. He retired from this post in 1947. After his final post to the Philippines, the former governor, diplomat, and administrator took on a variety of projects, including unsuccessful stint as chairman of the United Artists Film Corporation in 1950- 51, buying out the controlling shares from Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Unable to save the company from losses, McNutt was eventually bought out by movie mogul Arthur Krim, whose subsequent leadership spearheaded such classic films as The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1952).

Paul V McNutt in 1951. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images).

By 1954, McNutt’s health began to decline, most likely due to complications from surgery on a “throat ailment,” and on March 24, 1955 he died in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 63. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 1955 with full burial rites. Herman B Wells, then president of Indiana University, performed the eulogy. In honor of his contributions to Indiana University, a residence hall complex at the Bloomington campus is named Paul V. McNutt Quadrangle and a bust of him resides in the front foyer of the main building.

McNutt Quadrangle and Residence Hall, circa 1965. Indiana Album, Indiana Memory.

Paul V. McNutt’s decades of public service—as head of the American Legion, governor, diplomat, and administrator—left an indelible mark on the state of Indiana, the United States, and even the world. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy remain relevant today. His steadfast dedication to the protection and rights of the Jewish people during the hour of their extreme oppression serves as a model for us.

Paul McNutt bust in McNutt Residence Center, Indiana University Bloomington. Crawfordsville Journal-Review.

Above all, McNutt was committed to the cause of democracy. Like today, the challenges of McNutt’s era led many to question the relevance of the democratic ethos, whether we could have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In his inaugural address as Governor on January 9, 1933, Paul V. McNutt reflected on the importance of, and obstacles to, democracy:

It is possible to know the truth without fear, to meet a crisis with indomitable courage. Our proud heritage from the Indiana pioneers, who came here over a century and a half ago to build homes in the wilderness, should give us that power. Yet there are those among us who are afraid, who listen to prophets of evil. They profess to see the end of representative government, now rudely challenged by Communism, Fascism, and, some think, by Technocracy. They say that democracy in theory is not democracy in practice, that popular sovereignty is an elusive concept, that the right to have a voice in government is not a prized possession.

I wish to be counted among those who deny such a doctrine. I believe in the destiny of democracy as a system of government, believe in it more profoundly than in anything else human. . ..

This is a testing time for representative government. Our high enterprise is to prove it sufficient in every circumstance and for every task which can come to free people. We face a magnificent opportunity in which we, as lovers of freedom, dare not fail.

McNutt’s life and work demonstrate that democracy is a living, breathing process, one shaped by a resolute faith in the power of self-government. Hoosiers, and Americans broadly, are living through a “testing time” of their own, but the successes, and failures, of the life of Governor Paul V. McNutt provide a clear, historical example of robust and democratic leadership.

Paul McNutt, circa 1950. Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

To learn more about Governor Paul V. McNutt, visit the Bureau’s marker page : http://www.in.gov/history/markers/165.htm.

IU Basketball and the Legislator Who Was Left Behind

John Coldren and Mark Palmer, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.

While interviewing former legislators for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI), I learned that many stories in the Indiana General Assembly’s history transcend politics. Some illuminate the human, humorous, and collegial side of the assembly. Perhaps one of the funniest occurred back in 1987 during a group excursion to an Indiana University basketball game. This is the story of how former Republican legislator John Coldren accidentally left former Democratic legislator Mark Palmer behind.

The night was Wednesday, January 28, 1987, and legislator John Coldren had just gathered a group of fourteen legislators, including Mark Palmer, to go see Indiana University play the University of Illinois in Bloomington, Indiana.[1] For context, this wasn’t just any IU basketball team, this was the Hoosier team that would later go on to win the National Championship.[2] Thus, the traveling party focused its attention on what promised to be an exciting game rather than on mundane details of getting there and back. The legislators arrived at the game and disembarked from the bus in time to watch IU beat the University of Illinois in a close game, 69 to 66.[3] However, after the game, Palmer stepped away to say goodbye to his wife and friends who had come to the game separately and were seated away from him. Little did he know that while he was enjoying his brief parting exchange of pleasantries his ride home was already leaving. Because John Coldren and the other legislators were in a rush to be on their way, no one bothered to do a headcount as they boarded. Coldren describes the situation, stating, “We come flying out there and the van’s right there at the door and I want to beat the traffic back to Indianapolis. We get back to Indianapolis and when everybody gets out of the van at the State House, I go, ‘did anybody see Mark Palmer?’ And they said ‘no.’” Thus, the only trace of Mark Palmer was his coat that was left in the van.

Palmer recalled the episode this way: “And so when I went to where the van was parked, it was gone. And so, I didn’t know what to do.” Finding himself alone in Bloomington, Palmer was desperately trying to find a ride home. Luckily for him, he happened to know the father of Indiana University star player Steve Alford, whose father Sam had been Mark Palmer’s high school basketball coach. So, when he ran into Alford after at the game and explained the situation, he was subsequently invited to dinner with the Indiana University basketball team. As a result, Palmer dined with the team and received the offer of a ride home from one of the attendees. Due to a sudden turn of fortune Palmer found himself in a pretty good situation.

IU player Steve Alford, 1987, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.

While Palmer was dining with the future NCAA champions, though, Coldren was scrambling to find him, calling Palmer’s roommate in Indianapolis to see if he had seen him. Keep in mind these were the days before cell phones and the internet. Unfortunately for Coldren, Palmer’s roommate hadn’t seen him either. This led Coldren to call the state police to look for Palmer. As Coldren describes, “I call the state police down in Bloomington, asking them if a legislator had come over to see if there was a way to get a ride back to Indianapolis…I think that made the front page of the Indianapolis Star.” Fortunately, Palmer would get home safely and Coldren would be able to stop worrying. Palmer arrived home around midnight and soon received a call from Coldren checking up on him, allowing them to piece together what had transpired.

When the legislators returned to the State House together the next day, there were quite a few jokes about the whole debacle. The House even drafted a resolution about Mark Palmer being lost and then found. Coldren would make a sign for Palmer to wear, proclaiming “MY NAME IS MARK PALMER IF FOUND PLEASE RETURN ME TO HOUSE.” Additionally, Palmer would make a humorous speech on the House floor about the incident, talking about how both Republican and Democratic legislators didn’t realize he was gone.  Feigning suffering, he concluded, “The thing that hurt the worst was that no one realized I wasn’t there until they got back to Indianapolis…It was a bipartisan lack of effort.” In response, Coldren delivered his own speech and noted jokingly, “Making 14 out of 15 shots in basketball is considered good, but when you have only 14 out of 15 in a van, you’re considered a bad driver.” [4]

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Palmer would get revenge against Coldren with the help of some legislative colleagues and the president of Indiana University, John Ryan. The day was February 4, 1987, and Coldren and another group of legislators would go to a game to see Indiana University play against Michigan State University. After IU’s win, President Ryan and some legislators conspired against Coldren on behalf of Palmer. At the game’s conclusion, President Ryan invited Coldren to visit the IU locker room. While Coldren was in the locker room, the rest of the legislators slipped away without him and drove home.[5] Eventually, they let Coldren in on the joke and gave him a ride home. Subsequently, the next day on the House floor, Speaker of the House Paul Mannweiler made a statement: “John Coldren 1. Mark Palmer 1. No rematch is planned.”[6]

Notes:

[1] Robert N. Bell, “Party of Lawmakers Misses Mark,” Indianapolis Star, January 30, 1987, 30, accessed ProQuest.

[2] “1986-87 Indiana Schedule and Results,” accessed Sports Reference CBB.

[3] Box score, Illinois Men’s Basketball, January 28, 1987, accessed Fightingillini.com.

[4] Bell, “Party of Lawmakers Misses Mark.”

[5] “Sweet Revenge,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1987, 50, accessed ProQuest.

[6] Ibid.

The Agitator: Theodore Luesse Takes On the Great Depression

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Notes:

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[49] Ibid., p. 184.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] Ibid., p. 180.

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

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

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

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

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

Contrasting Journeys, Converging Missions

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

Mother Jones, 1915. Library of Congress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Jones in 1902. Library of Congress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jones, Kern, and Life in the Mines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince Pu Lun in Indianapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moy Kee’s Fall from Prominence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title IX: Hoosiers React

The Indiana Historical Bureau is celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the passage of Title IX all week! Title IX, which was authored by Hoosier Senator Birch Bayh, provided that:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

As Title IX legislation worked its way through Congress, many questions arose – would this affect sororities and fraternities? Would colleges and universities be able to comply with the non-discriminatory laws while still turning a profit?

Many Hoosiers turned to their elected officials to voice their concerns in the lead up to the passage of Title IX and in the immediate aftermath. The Indiana State Library Rare Books and Manuscripts collection contains several of these letters in the Earl F. Landgrebe collection. In reading these letters, you can get a glimpse into the worries of average Americans and see how their elected officials addressed their concerns.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

For further reading, see:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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