Wheels of Corruption: Bicycles, Billy Blodgett, and the Allen Manufacturing Company

An "outing bicycle." Indiana Historical Society.
Hay & Willit’s Outing Bicycle, 1896, Indiana Historical Society.

During his long and storied career, Indianapolis-based investigative journalist William H. “Billy” Blodgett exhibited a penchant for exposing local corruption and unlawful business practices. One not entirely aboveboard business in particular caught his attention in the 1890s.

"Bicycling Etiquette," Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Bicycling Etiquette,” Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

During the Gilded Age, bicycles became a national phenomenon. With ever-changing designs and the lowering of costs, bicycles spurred social clubs, faced religious blow back, and even influenced clothing trends. As such, the need for bicycles exploded, with hundreds of different companies competing for their share of the marketplace. There were dozens of companies in Indiana alone.

Of these companies, the Allen Manufacturing Company garnered moderate success but attracted controversy. Founded in 1894 and later incorporated in 1895 by David F. Allen, David A. Coulter, James Murdock, and William B. Hutchinson, Allen Manufacturing maintained a peculiar corporate structure and political affiliation with the Democratic party. In some respects, you could have called the company a “Government-Sponsored Enterprise,” wherein the products made were sold in the marketplace but the labor and capital costs were funneled through government institutions. This is especially true of its labor force, comprised exclusively of prisoners from the State prison north in Michigan City. As reported by the Indianapolis News, “the convicts who work in the factory are to be paid 42 cents a day. Mr. French [the prison’s warden] says that 150 men will be employed in the factory.”

James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.
James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.

Before Blodgett’s investigative reporting on the company, the Indianapolis Journal published a pointed critique of Allen Manufacturing’s labor force. The piece referred to the venture as a “blow to honest labor” and argued that the lack of skilled bicycle makers will “glut the market with cheap wheels.” The article emphasized this point in a further passage:

At the price paid [for labor] the company will have a great advantage over the manufacturers of Indiana, and their employees will, of course, share in the loss by reason, if not through cheapened wages, then of less opportunity for work. The new venture is not likely to decrease their hostility to the prison labor system and the Democratic party of Indiana.

Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another piece in the Indianapolis News, possibly written by Blodgett, also criticized the company’s deep ties to political operatives, and in particular, founder David F. Allen. Allen was serving on the State Board of Tax Commissioners when the company was founded (but not incorporated), and if he didn’t leave the Board, he would be violating section 2,049 of the Indiana legal code. In other words, Allen and his business partners kept the public existence of the company private for nearly a year, incorporating on March 14, 1895, so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Public record of Allen Manufacturing's labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.
Public record of Allen Manufacturing’s labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.

While Allen Manufacturing was still an unincorporated entity, it struck a deal with the Indiana prison north in October 1894 to employ 150 prisoners at forty cents a day (lower than forty-two cents, as mentioned in the papers) for the next five years. The agreement was then amended in 1896 to remove twenty-five workers from the contract for another project. Again, this is a private consortium of well-connected political operatives setting up a business to take advantage of the state’s prison labor system .

At least the prisoners made a quality product. While I couldn’t find photographs of the bicycles, they were apparently made well enough to appear in a state-wide bicycle exhibition on January 28, 1896 at the Indianapolis Y.M.C.A. According to the Indianapolis Journal, the Allen Manufacturing Company displayed its bicycles with 14 other firms and the show also displayed artwork by T.C. Steele, among others. Allen Manufacturing also acquired the Meteor Bicycle Company, a nationally recognized firm located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and began manufacturing bikes under the name from 1896 to 1898. While the public face of their company seemed bright, its internal workings quickly began to unravel.

Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1897, Allen Manufacturing’s financial problems began bubbling to the surface. After the release of twenty-five prisoners from their contract at Indiana state prison north, its labor force wasn’t big enough to keep up with an order for 2,000 bicycles wheels. From there, the company ran up debts that were nearly impossible to reverse, taking out a mortgage to offset their losses. As reported by the Indianapolis News:

Edward Hawkins, of this city [Indianapolis], who has been appointed trustee under the mortgage, returned to-day from a meeting of the officers and directors of the company at Michigan City. The company, he says, found itself unable to pay its paper due, and executed a mortgage on the plant for the benefit of the banks that hold the paper.

Even though it paid off $6,500 owed to the state in October of 1897, Allen’s troubles continued. Hawkins was removed as mortgage trustee, more and more creditors were filing claims, and two court-appointed receivers stepped in to try to clean up the mess.

Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.

This is where Billy Blodgett’s articles began to shed light on the corruption. In January of 1898, Blodgett began a series of hard-hitting exposes in the Indianapolis News against Allen Manufacturing, writing of alleged abuses of state power, graft, and fraud. His first article, published on January 13, 1898, alleged that whole train-cars of bicycles were purchased by individual owners of the company, such as D. F. Allen and D. A. Coulter, and then shuffled around the assets for accounting purposes. Specifically, Allen purchased “$4,000 worth of bicycles,” transferred ownership to his son, and then “applied [the amount] on notes given to the Merchants’ National Bank of Lafayette.” The article also reaffirmed what many had suggested since the company’s founding. Namely, its public incorporation was made after key leaders removed themselves from conflicts of interest yet acted as an incorporated entity when it negotiated its labor contract with the prison.

The headline from Billy Blodgett's first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
The headline from Billy Blodgett’s first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, Blodgett published the next installment, writing of the company’s alleged fraud in connection to its stocks. The Chicago firm Morgan & Wright, who purchased the company’s manufacturing plant during its initial financial woes, alleged that Allen Manufacturing had used backdoor loans from the Merchant’s National Bank of Lafayette in order to inflate its asset value. “In other words,” Blodgett wrote, “Morgan & Wright will try to show [in court] that the total amount of money paid for the stock was $300,” rather than the $4,000 or $5,000 the company claimed.

Judge William Biddle, History of LaPorte County, Google Books.
Judge William Biddle, A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of LaPorte County, Indiana, Google Books.

Blodgett also reported another fascinating case of company misdirection. On October 15, 1897, LaPorte County Judge William B. Biddle ordered the company to stop selling any products and hand the reins over to receiver Alonzo Nichols. This order was ignored by Henry Schwager, another receiver appointed to the company in Michigan City. Biddle retaliated on November 23, issuing an order against the company at large and reaffirmed his previous decision. What came next is shocking:

. . . Sheriff McCormick went to Michigan City to take possession of the property. When he got there, he found the building of the Allen Manufacturing Company locked up, and he could not get in to make the levy, without using force. He was warned not to do this, so the sheriff and his deputies stood around on the outside of the prison, and as the carloads of property came out they seized them. He found the property at different points, and turned it all over to Nichols as receiver.

In other words, Sheriff N. D. McCormick and his deputies had to wait until the company didn’t think the authorities were looking before they could seize the goods. Even in the face of court orders, the Allen Manufacturing Company still tried to do things its own way, to disastrous results.

Headline for Blodgett's third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Headline for Blodgett’s third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billy Blodgett’s final big piece on Allen Manufacturing appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 15, 1898. In it, Blodgett tries to track down and interview company big-wigs David Coulter and David Allen. Blodgett wrote of Coulter that, “He is pleasant and affable, courteous and polite, but I might as well have talked to the Sphynx in Egypt, so far as getting any information from him.” Over the course of a short, frosty conversation between Blodgett and Coulter, the businessman declined to speak about any of the charges leveled against him and maintained his innocence. When Blodgett pressed him on some of the specific charges of defrauding investors, his “demeanor demonstrated that the interview was at an end. . . .”

As for Allen, he was unable to interview the man directly but spoke to one of his colleagues. Blodgett chronicled the exchange:

A few weeks ago Mr. Allen met this friend and said to him:

“You remember the evening you asked me to dinner with you in Chicago?”

“Yes, I remember.it distinctly.”

“Well, that failure to take dinner with you has cost me $5,000, and may cost me more.”

The friend understood from this that if Allen had not gone to the meeting at which the company was formed he would have been money ahead. This friend gives it as his opinion that every member of the Allen Manufacturing Company lost from $3,000 to $5,000 each.

In one corner, you have Coulter trying to hold things together and denying changes against him and Allen in the other allegedly remarking on how he and many others lost money. This inconsistency in the press didn’t help to make the public or the company’s shareholders feel any better about the situation.

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1898, the company was defunct in all but name. Bicycles manufactured under the “Meteor” brand ceased and the company’s remains were being settled in numerous court cases. In 1900, a Louisville, Kentucky court ruled that Allen Manufacturing had in fact defrauded Morgan & Wright out of at least one payment for a shipment of product. Another lawsuit, clearing Sherriff Nathan McCormick of any wrongdoing against court-appointed receivers, was settled in 1901 in U.S. Court and upheld in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1902.

Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blodgett did write a follow up article in 1901, noting that Indiana state prison north Warden Shideler resigned over allegations that he was a stockholder in the company at the time he was serving as Warden. It also indicated that labor contract developed by Allen, Coulter and others in 1894 was binding until 1904, with other companies stepping in to fill the void left by the demise of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Newspaper evidence suggests that Allen, Coulter, and many of the other big players never faced serious charges and that the company’s multiple lawsuits distracted from the other allegations leveled against them. Allen himself would eventually pursue other political offices, including Indiana Secretary of State, as well as serve in the Spanish-American War. He died in 1911, with the failure of his company firmly behind him.

Memorial plaque at David F. Allen's grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.
Memorial plaque at David F. Allen’s grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.

So what do we make of the Allen Manufacturing Company? In some ways, you can look at it as a quasi-private, quasi-public boondoggle, destined to fail. In other ways, you can look at it as a company created to enrich its leadership by taking advantage of sub-contracted labor. However, these may be the symptoms of a larger malady. The major take-away from this episode was that a rapidly changing industrial economy and a national fad in bicycles spurred a slapdash attempt to create a company that benefited from public connections. Furthermore, the episode highlights how determined and detailed journalism helps to keep the public and private sectors of society accountable, both to citizens and shareholders. While some of the key players never faced accountability, Blodgett’s success in investigating Allen Manufacturing’s corruption nevertheless exemplified how an individual citizen, and a free press, can check some of our more abject motivations.

Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | A Communist in Terre Haute: Earl Browder and Free Speech

This video was originally published on the Hoosier State Chronicles blog.

Five men are sitting in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. The leader of the group—a middle-aged, mustached, and unassuming figure—had been arrested on charges of “vagrancy and ‘for investigation’,” according to the local police chief. But it wasn’t a drunk or an unlucky drifter sitting in the cell. It was the leader of an American political party and its nominee for President of the United States. He had tried to give a speech in Terre Haute when arrested by the local authorities. His case became a statewide and even national discussion on the importance and limits of free speech. Now, who could’ve caused all of this ruckus? It was Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.

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Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark. 

Music: “And Then She Left” by Kinoton, “Echo Sclavi” by the Mini Vandals, “Namaste” by Audionautix, “Myositis” by the United States Marine Band, “Finding the Balance” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Dana” by Vibe Tracks

Continue reading “Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | A Communist in Terre Haute: Earl Browder and Free Speech”

Unlearning Ingrained Racism: Journalist Esther Griffin White’s Work to Become an Antiracist

Esther Griffin White, ca. 1915, Esther Griffin White Collection, Earlham College Archives, accessed George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

Esther Griffin White was a woman before her time—outspoken, rebellious, and willing to stake her reputation on the things that she believed in during an era when women were considered second-class citizens. Her Quaker upbringing imparted the importance of racial and gender equality, causes that she ultimately championed throughout her life. Her staunch political activism and dedication to gender equality throughout her life are, arguably, what she is most known for today. However, she also used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against racial injustice. Here, as we examine White’s writing, we clearly see someone trying to make sense of her own ingrained racism while at the same time standing up and speaking out against it.

Born in 1869 in Richmond, Indiana, White was a journalist, political activist, suffragist, and life-long Indiana resident. She began her writing career for the Richmond Palladium as an arts and culture critic and published her own paper (though infrequently) called The Little Paper, which she owned and operated out of her home at 110 South 9th Street. From the 1890s to 1944, she freelanced for many Richmond papers, often transferring from publication to publication as editors worried that her blunt and adversarial writing style could offend readers—likely a concern born partially out of sexism.

Clipping, Indianapolis Sun, 1913, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, If Chorus Girls Asked Men For Suffrage, They’d Get it, Box 5, Folder 4, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

White joined the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League in the early 1900s and was elected chairman of the Publicity Committee in 1916. While in the League, she began actively working towards the cause she wrote so much about; for example, she organized a suffrage street rally for several suffrage speakers in June 1916 in Richmond. This event was heralded as “one of the largest street meetings ever held in Richmond and the first suffrage meeting of its character held in eastern Indiana.”[1]

White was also a politician, running for mayor of Richmond in 1921, 1925, and again in 1938. She also ran for a Republican congressional seat in 1926, making her the first Indiana woman to seek U.S. congressional office. White ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress again in 1928, but to no avail. According to historian George T. Blakey, White was the first Hoosier woman to have her name on an official election ballot, before women even had the right to vote, when she ran for a delegate’s seat at the 1920 Republican State Convention.[2] Though White never held elected office, her ambition sent a strong message—that women could and should be recognized as political actors and that, as far as White was concerned, would no longer accept anything less.

Clipping, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Name of Item, Box #, Folder #, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she is probably best known for her work to advance women’s rights, she was also a proponent of racial equality and used her journalistic platform to speak about racial issues in the town of Richmond, Indiana throughout the first half of the 1900s. An active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White’s opinions on and support of African Americans garnered plenty of scorn and judgment in her small, rural town—especially because she was a single white woman.[3] Never one to care about others’ opinions of her, White used her talent, privilege, and position as a white female journalist to speak out against racial discrimination. Through her editorials and opinion pieces in both The Richmond Palladium and her self-published newspaper, The Little Paper, between 1910 and 1920, White condemned white supremacy and racial discrimination. Though she often wrote antiracist sentiment, on occasion her choice of words and arguments were in themselves racist—as she often touted common assimilationist and segregationist points of view. Through her published articles, we see the ways in which White grappled with her own ingrained and unconscious racism as she worked to be (what we call today) an antiracist in 20th-Century Richmond, Indiana.

Professor of history and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, explains the relationship between antiracist, assimilationist, and segregationist beliefs:

the history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracists ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways that they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally superior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.[4]

We find representations of each of these ideals, often within the same article, throughout White’s analysis of race. Though we understand that racial inferiority or superiority does not exist—all races are the same and race itself is a construct—we too understand that many people across time, and still today, have used pieces of assimilationist and segregationist ideas in their defense of equal treatment of the races. These racist ideas are so deeply ingrained in our societies that, although plenty of racist people have used them intentionally, plenty of others, like White, who believed in equality between the races, also sometimes unknowingly peddled racist beliefs.[5]

White was, as were some of her well-known contemporaries, engaging in the work to become an antiracist and to communicate antiracist ideas, while also at times touting assimilationist and segregationist ideas, which were prevalent views in terms of race in nineteenth and twentieth century America, and even today. However, highlighting White’s racist tendencies is not to discredit any of the antiracist beliefs she so clearly held—it is simply to be completely transparent about the reality of this type of work and the people engaged in it. She was not a perfect antiracist, but she was trying—she was standing up for what she believed in and, through her journalism, speaking on ideas of racial equality when it was not only unpopular to do so, especially for a woman, but potentially dangerous.

The last years of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in America saw a rise in violence against African Americans by white supremacists looking to quell any power or rights the group received in the years after the Civil War.[6] The violence emerged, most horrifically, in the form of mob violence and lynchings, many of which were not hidden events done in the dark of the night, but rather public spectacles that often doubled as picnics for families and town folk.[7] Though the majority of lynchings occurred in the South, this barbaric act transcended regional lines and can be found nationwide. Mobs throughout the Hoosier state alone murdered at least sixty-six people between 1858 and 1930, eighteen of whom were African Americans.[8] Black men were not the only targets of lynchings, as Native American, Hispanic, Asian, white people, and women and children too were lynched across the United States.

Esther’s Quaker family (L to R): Winifred White Emory (sister), Mary Caroline Cotton White (mother), Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Letter From Raymond White, box 6, folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

There were no recorded lynchings in Richmond, perhaps because of its large Quaker community and the anti-slavery beliefs they held.[9] The closest recorded lynching to Richmond occurred in Blountsville, about thirty miles northwest of the city, in February of 1890.[10] However, the possibility of such violence constantly lingered in the minds of Black Americans. These conditions at the turn of the twentieth century prompted Esther Griffin White, as a white, female journalist to speak out against the unjust treatment of African Americans.

In one of her most notable articles pertaining to race, written in her self-published The Little Paper, White expressed disdain for the depiction of African Americans in the blockbuster hit of the early twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation. This controversial film released on February 8, 1915 by D.W. Griffith claimed to represent the Civil War and Reconstruction in America. However, it depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the valiant saviors of the ravaged, post-war South by freed, barbaric Black people. The film was a commercial hit and helped to rekindle the once regional Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865. It depicted freed Black Americans as “uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women.”[11] The Birth of a Nation prompted protests by the NAACP, but they had little impact as the films’ popularity was so wide. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson showed it at the White House, heralding it as “writing history with lightning.”[12]

"The Birth of a Nation" by Esther Griffin White
Clipping from “African American Relations” exhibit, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she found the musical score and the general cinematography of the film noteworthy, Esther Griffin White did not share the same fervor over the film as President Wilson and so many other white Americans. In her newspaper review of the film, titled “’The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” White writes that “colored people are justified, without any shadow of doubt, in their protest against the second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” She continued, “the play is merely a dramatization of a novel by a well-known fire-eating Southern writer, who has done more to rake up old scores, to intensify class hatred, to accentuate race antagonism by his lurid pictures of conditions long since passed away than any other one medium in the United States.”[13] Here, we see White expressing contempt for the bestial, racist depiction of Black Americans in the film. She also adds:

The second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ if it were looked upon as picture commentary on a phase of the country’s history, might be interesting. But the presentation is not made for this reason. On the other hand neither is it made for the glorification of a lost cause. Its raison d’etre is not philanthropic nor moral nor historic. But commercial…[it] is a business proposition. To make money for its producers.[14]

White seems to clarify here that she does not believe the film to be historically accurate or looking to start a conversation about the country’s past, but rather inflammatory and insulting to African American citizens: “the Negro citizen of this country was sacrificed to  make a moving picture holiday, so to speak. The glaringness of the sop thrown to them by the scenes at the end . . . is laughable if it were not sardonic.”[15] This review of The Birth of the Nation was certainly not the first, nor the last, public condemnation White would make regarding the treatment of African American citizens in the twentieth century.

In one of her earliest political articles from December 1911 in the Richmond Palladium, White writes about the idea of brotherhood and humanity among all people, and the exclusion of African Americans from those ideals. In her article “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” White writes, “take our colored friends, in instance. ‘Live and let live,’ does not apply to our [white Americans’] attitude toward them. We push them clear outside of the limits and then denounce them if they resent total excommunication.”[16] While it seems here that White is arguing for the indiscriminatory inclusion of African Americans within American society and against segregation, further on in the article she begins arguing for more Black organizations to be formed in Richmond for Black residents, like a “colored” Y.M.C.A. for the “well behaved, educated and ambitious young colored men in this city.”[17] Rather than arguing for inclusion and accessibility, it seems White instead argued for the racist separate but equal doctrine we see come to a head in the 1890s with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case in response to African American’s push for equal treatment and opportunity under the law.

Clipping, Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

She continued, “they [Black Americans] are just as much a part of the social, economic and political life of the community as their paler-hued brothers and unless given some consideration will develop into a complicated and puzzling problem. . . . They are citizens of this country just as are the whites.”[18] This perfectly illustrates White’s struggle with the idea of dueling consciousness as it relates to assimilationist and antiracist ideas. At the end of the article, White argues that “there is no use retiring into the fastness of race prejudice and lumping all of the colored people together. There are as many grades and distinctions as there are among the white people.” This comment, as well as many of the other antiracist sentiments White expressed throughout this article, demonstrate her ability to understand and express the antiracist notion that all races are the same—it is individual distinctions that make humans different—distinctions that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. This article, as a whole, demonstrates her own dueling consciousness as a white woman trying to pursue an antiracist mindset and advocating for antiracist policies while also struggling to unlearn deeply rooted racist ideals in the early twentieth century.

The very next month, in January of 1912, White was much more explicit about her views of racism. In her article, while arguing generally for universal gender and racial equality as it pertains to voting and citizenship, White laments:

Why, in instance, “call names.” Why say “niggers,” “dagoes,” “shenies.” Why arrogate yourself a certain superiority because you have a white skin. Who made the “earth and the fullness thereof”? How do you know who got here first? Who are you, anyway? In a few years you will be turned over to the worms who make no distinction between black or white, man or woman, good or bad, educated or uneducated, yellow or red, brown or copper. Neither God nor the worms care what your color may be, your race or your previous condition of servitude. There is nothing so immoral as thinking you are better than anyone else.[19]

In this article, perhaps her most antiracist, White does not allude to any racist or assimilationist ideals. As can be noted in the excerpt above, she completely disdains any ideology that espouses the belief that one’s skin color makes them any different.

Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Esther Griffin White, Box 6, Folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

Just a few months after the above article, White wrote another piece for the Richmond Palladium titled “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell.” In this article, White builds on her antiracist views and highlights an experience she had a few weeks prior while attending a concert in Richmond. She noted how wonderful the musical act performed by a group of male musicians was and that “they were, indeed, one of the best ‘attractions’ the vaudeville theatre has ever had.” [20] She continued that many of the spectators thought them Italian, as they sang many of their songs in Italian, or perhaps Spanish, because they were dressed as troubadours, but that they were in fact African American. This, White argued, proved that “race prejudice is frequently only a matter of thinking” and that “people were delighted with [the musicians]—not because they were Italians or Spaniards, white Americans or of the Negro race, but because they were superior musicians.”[21]

Here, White is arguing that race prejudice and racism are not logical —they are both only a matter of warped thinking. The musicians were not loved and celebrated because of their prescribed race, but simply because they were talented. White continued, “it is one of life’s famed tragedies that these people should have to masquerade, after a fashion, in order to have their talents appreciated for what they really were.”[22]

Looking back at Esther Griffin White’s life reveals many things about her as a person, which can generally be boiled down to one sentiment: she was unapologetically her own person and used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against injustices. Through White’s articles, we clearly see someone trying to process her own ingrained racism while at the same time speaking out against it. That is essentially what happens when engaging in antiracist work. White did not always say or do the right things when it came to her antiracism work, but one can trust in her intentions and hope that she learned from her mistakes. Ultimately, her fearless condemnation of injustice in early-twentieth century Richmond should inspire us all, perhaps now more than ever, to stand up and speak out for what is right, even if it is unpopular.

Notes:

[1] “Suffrage Street Talks Draw Large Audience, Women State Their Purpose,” Richmond Palladium, June 27, 1916, 1, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

[3] Blakey, 286.

[4] Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 31.

[5] So common was the dance between antiracist and assimilationist ideas for people that well-known Black author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with them. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ 1903 essay, he expressed the dueling consciousness that demonstrates the fight between assimilationist and antiracist ideas, specifically for Black folk: “One never feels his twoness…an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[5] Although Du Bois, as a Black man, had disproportionately different experiences than White did as a white woman, we see a similar push and pull between assimilationist and antiracist ideas in his defense of African American’s racial equality that we do in White’s writings.

[6] Michael J. Pfeiffer, Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside of the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 1.

[7] Pfeiffer, 4. The more secretive, hidden lynchings would occur in the latter half of the twentieth century, often carried out by secretive groups like the KKK and often shrouded as “hate crimes” rather than what they were. It was middle-class southerners’ embarrassment at the newfound spotlight anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells were putting on the barbaric practice that drove it underground in the mid-twentieth century. In some areas, like the Midwest and West, public lynchings would continue into the mid-twentieth century.

[8] Pfeiffer, 9.

[9] “Early Black Settlements by County,” Research Materials, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org.

[10] Ibid., 1.

[11] Alexis Clark, “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan,” History Channel, accessed history.com.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Esther Griffin White, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” The Little Paper, February 19, 1920, 1, accessed Earlham.edu.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Esther Griffin White, “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Esther Griffin White, “It Don’t Take Long When You’re a King,” Richmond Palladium, January 24, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] Esther Griffin White, “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell,” Richmond Palladium, February 21, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] Ibid., 6.

[22] Ibid., 6.

Gardening Wisdom from the Historical Indianapolis News: April Edition

Many people are looking for ways to channel the anxiety of our current crisis into something healthy and productive. For those of us with green thumbs, this has meant more time in the garden. And there is no better place for us to get some sage advice than from those Hoosier gardeners who came before us. Luckily, some of them shared their wisdom in an early-twentieth century column in the Indianapolis News titled “Of Interest to Farmer and Gardner.”

Here are some April highlights.

The Pepper King

In 1912, the Indianapolis News columnist raved about the new Ruby King pepper (Capsicum annuum). The writer enthused:

There are a great many varieties on the market today; but there is only one kind of sweet pepper to grow for a large yield, fine appearance and good selling qualities — the Ruby King . . . when a farmer comes in [to market] with a load of Ruby Kings, what a difference there is and how quickly the buyers pick them up!

Ruby King, Seed Savers Exchange, accessed seedsavers.org.

An exciting new find for the writer, we now consider the Ruby King an heirloom variety. According to several companies selling the pepper, it was first introduced in 1902. However, the American Garden: Illustrated Journal of Horticulture described the Ruby King in 1885. The American Garden writer explained that with the introduction of milder yellow peppers, people seemed to have “developed a taste for less pungency in this fiery vegetable.” This critic was not a fan of the yellow pepper, stating emphatically that “it cannot be denied that the correct color in a pepper seems to be red.” The only vegetable that fit the bill as both mild in taste and red in color was “Burpee’s Ruby King, now introduced by W. Atlee Burpee.” The writer called it a “a respectable Pepper . . . mild and pleasant to taste — unequaled, in this respect, by any other variety.”

American Garden: Illustrated Journal of Horticulture 6:2 (February 1885), 23, accessed GoogleBooks.

Burpee does not seem to offer the variety any longer, but you can add the Ruby King to your garden by ordering from heirloom sellers like the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange.

An Overlooked Bramble Berry

L. H. Bailey, “The Lucretia Dewberry,” Cornell University Bulletin, reprinted in American Gardening 8:5 (May 1892), 274-75, accessed GoogleBooks.

In the April 29, 1911 edition of the Indianapolis News, our gardening columnist gave some advice on introducing a low-maintenance bramble called a dewberry into the garden. While blackberries and raspberries were (and are) better known brambles, the writer gave several reasons to add dewberry, which is also native to Indiana. The dewberry does just fine in poor soil, doesn’t need fertilizer, and can produce in partial sun or full shade. While raspberries and blackberries need regular pruning, the dewberry doesn’t. It can be trained to a stake or a trellis, but doesn’t require any support. And while it doesn’t produce until its third or fourth year, the writer suggested that the plant benefits from mulch and frequent harvesting once it has berries. The Indianapolis News columnist had one more piece of advice for bramble growers in 1911: plant different varieties together. I was not able to confirm the science behind this, but the writer’s experience shows that dewberries grow better when planted with blackberries or raspberries.

“Dewberry,” Missouri Department of Conservation, accessed nature.mdc.mo.gov.

There are several varieties of dewberry, but one native to Indiana, according to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, is the Lucretia Dewberry (Rubus roribaccus). Writing for the Cornell University Bulletin in 1892, L. H. Bailey described the ease of growing the Lucretia Dewberry. Interestingly, this gardener-writer also recommended planting dewberry with blackberry and raspberry brambles. The main value of the dewberry was that of the three, it ripened first. Bailey also pointed out that dewberry is hardier than other berry plants, able to survive harsh winters without taking any special precautions. Birdwatchers might also want to plant this lesser known species. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, dewberry is a favorite of catbirds, waxwings, and finches. I couldn’t find an Indiana farm selling Lucretia dewberry, but you can find them at DeGroot Nursery in Michigan, a family-owned farm in operation since 1957.

The Wolf Flower

“Of Interest to Farmer and Gardener: Perennial and Annual Lupine,” Indianapolis News, April 3, 1909, 20.

The April 3, 1909 edition of the Indianapolis News column touted the beauty of lupines, recommending them to Indiana gardeners. The News columnist explained that this flowering plant works both in formal and more natural gardens, easily withstands the cold midwestern winters, and come in an array of colors and varieties, both annual and perennial. Lupine seeds should be direct sown in April after frost and will flower in June, “and if cut frequently so that the plants can not go to seed, their flowering period continued almost up to the first frost.” An added bonus: lupine returns nitrogen to the soil. (You can learn how here). Beyond gardens, Hoosiers can also keep a look out for lupine in the wild, or even by the side of the road.

National Park Service, “Impact of Climate Change on the Karner Blue Butterfly,” 2010, accessed nps.gov.

Beautiful white, blue, and purple wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) thrives in the sandy soil of the Indiana Dunes and the larger Calumet Region. Here they support the life cycles of three different butterflies that only eat lupine. One of these is the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. At the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the National Park Service uses controlled burns that encourage lupine growth, in order to improve the Karner Blue’s habitat. While much has been done to improve the chances of this endangered species, climate change is also proving to be a threat, according to the NPS. In response, scientists are working to create lupine-filled microclimates.

Nathaniel Lord Britton, Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, Vol II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 269, accessed GoogleBooks.

Butterflies aren’t the only species that eat lupine. While the flowers are not edible (in fact they are poisonous), the nut-like seeds are edible for humans once soaked to remove the toxic chemicals and historically have been ground into a flour for cooking. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, lupine seeds were “a favorite food for traveling troops in ancient Europe.” The historical lore around this flower’s name is also rich. “Lupine” is latin for “wolf.” While we now know that lupines add nitrogen, the opposite was once thought true, that they “wolfed” nitrogen from the soil to get their color. Others have claimed the that the flower got its wolfish name, from the barren habitat in which it thrives. After a prairie, the lupine could be seen thriving among the burnt landscape, like a lone wolf. But it is lupine’s intense color, especially the blue, that has captured the imaginations of poets, artists, and writers through the ages. Let’s close then with an 1851 journal entry by Henry David Thoreau:

June 5. The lupine is now in its glory. It is the more important because it occurs in such extensive patches, even an acre or more together, and of such a pleasing variety of colors, — purple, pink, or lilac, and white, — especially with the sun on it, when the transparency of the flower makes its color changeable. It paints a whole hillside with its blue . . . No other flowers exhibit so much blue. That is the value of the lupine. The earth is blued with them. Yet a third of a mile distant I do not detect their color on the hillside. Perchance because it is the color of the air.

National Park Service, “Riverbank Lupine,” accessed nps.gov.

Sources:
* All newspapers accessed Newspapers.com.

The Pepper King

American Garden: Illustrated Journal of Horticulture 6:2 (February 1885), 23, accessed GoogleBooks.

“Of Interest to Farmer and Gardener: Suggestions for Growing Peppers,” Indianapolis News, April 13, 1912, 17.

An Overlooked Bramble

L. H. Bailey, “The Lucretia Dewberry,” Cornell University Bulletin, reprinted in American Gardening 8:5 (May 1892), 274-75, accessed GoogleBooks.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, “Rubis Roribaccus,” University of Texas at Austin, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/www.utexas.edu.

Missouri Department of Conservation, “Dewberry,” Field Guides, https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/dewberry.

“Of Interest to Farmer and Gardener: How to Grow Successfully the Bramble Berries in the Small Garden,” Indianapolis News, April 29, 1911, 22.

The Wolf Flower

“Growing Lupines,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, accessed https://www.almanac.com/plant/lupines.

Sarah Fuller, “Wild Lupine,” Indiana Dunes, accessed http://www.indianadunes.com/beaches-and-beyond/blog/wild-lupine/.

Nathaniel Lord Britton, Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, vol. II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 269, accessed GoogleBooks.

Kim Mitchell and Cathy Carnes, “Wild Lupine and Karner Blue Butterflies,” Midwest Region Endangered Species, U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed https://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/kbb/lupine.html.

National Park Service, “Impact of Climate Change on the Karner Blue Butterfly,” 2010, accessed nps.gov.

“Of Interest to Farmer and Gardener: Perennial and Annual Lupine,” Indianapolis News, April 3, 1909, 20.

Henry David Thoreau, The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 36 (Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Classics, 2017), accessed GoogleBooks.

“Wild Lupine,” Save the Dunes, accessed https://www.indunesguide.com/lupinusperennis.

Coping with Quarantine in a Pre-Digital Era

Employees of Seattle, Washington’s Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, courtesy of University of Washington Libraries. Very few images of the public exist from this period-being that there was a quarantine-so we have yet to locate a similar images of essential Hoosier workers.

At the height of World War I, Spanish Influenza ravaged Hoosier servicemen and servicewomen. Fortunately, city and health officials acted quickly in the fall of 1918, resulting in Indianapolis having one of the lowest casualty rates in the country, according to IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. But how were Hoosiers’ daily lives impacted by the dread malady? As we can now relate, the public was consumed with news reports about the pandemic and resultant quarantine, which we will re-examine here via Newspapers.com and the freely-accessible Hoosier State Chronicles.

The flu struck Fort Benjamin Harrison in September of 1918 and by October 6, U.S. public health service officials mandated a statewide quarantine for Indiana and most other states. [1] Making us grateful for the immediacy of Apple News and Google Alerts, state board officials at the time spread the news by dispatching telegrams to board secretaries in every county, ordering them to “immediately close all schools, churches, theaters, amusements of all kinds, and to put a ban on all public meetings and gatherings.” [2] The order initially exempted factories, “business houses,” and restaurants, and limited confectionaries’ services.

Princeton Daily Clarion, October 7, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Much like now, some Hoosiers pushed back against the ban, deeming it unnecessary as influenza patients, in their estimation, suffered from nothing more than “heavy colds.” [3] A Terre Haute high schooler placed an ad in the paper the day after the public health announcement, stating “can work all day during quarantine.” [4] Perhaps in response to this disregard, health officials across the state placed “influenza placards” at the residences of those infected as a measure to keep the community safe. [5]

Quarantined individuals communicated through letters printed in local papers, detailing how they passed their time. Four Hammond soldiers quarantined at Camp Sherman, Ohio wrote, “I guess we Hoosiers are too strong bodied to have it for we are well at this time.” [6] A quarantine pastime familiar to us today, they reported doing “nothing much but eating and sleeping.” After a little drilling, they “played games and bullfrog. We have boxing contests and concerts of our own.” Of their new normal, they wrote, “We are our own washowmen [sic] for we are orphans without wives or mother, but one great Uncle who is Uncle Sam, but we have the time of our lives just the same.” [7] At night, the men caught up on local news by browsing Hammond papers by candlelight, likely searching for the names of friends and family who may have fallen victim to the malady.

Advertisement, Terre Haute Tribune, October 9, 1918, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the Columbus, Indiana Republic, quarantine wasn’t just a matter of public health but patriotism during World War I. The paper urged readers to have “common sense,” as the epidemic ravaged healthy U.S. troops and argued that quarantine “is of vital importance in connection with the war and the sooner the disease is stamped out the better it will be for war conditions.” [8] Given the global conflict, one South Bend writer framed quarantine as a much needed pause contending, “In our present nervous state of society, due to the war, the Liberty loan, the draft, etc. . . we have found something new to nurse our nervousness; and possibly the quarantine is necessary as a means of rest.” [9]

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1918, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many Hoosiers, the practical took precedent over the patriotic during the shutdown. Teachers in Seymour wanted to know if they would still be paid while classes were suspended. Fortunately, the state ruled that they would receive full wages because it would be wrong to lose money due to an “order over which they have no control.” [10] Unfortunately, they would not be able to spend these wages on libations, as Seymour health officials ordered “all near beer places of business to be closed” the next day. [11] Nor could they worship together, as pastors across the city appealed to congregants to conduct services from their own homes. [12]

As the “enforced vacation” dragged on, Richmond children felt as if they “were having summer vacation once more.” [13] One nostalgic girl wrote to the Palladium-Item with recollections of her summer visit to see family in Boston. With the sunny season a mere glimmer in one’s eye, the YMCA of Evansville distributed cards advising residents—who now lacked the “old excuse of ‘I haven’t time'”—to exercise for thirty minutes three times per week. [14] It’s no #situpchallenge, but Richmond’s Earlham College got creative with physical fitness during their four weeks as “strangers to world outside.” The school converted the chapel into a calesthentics area, and female faculty members played hockey and baseball. [15]

The quarantine also impacted politics, disrupting campaigns for the November congressional election. Unable to stump across the nation, candidates sought to sway local electors via “letters and heart to heart talks.” [16] They scattered campaign cards and held “street corner sessions,” where they informed citizens about political platforms from afar—social distancing, anyone? Voter turn-out was low, as expected, and experts predict the Coronavirus will have a similar effect on the 2020 congressional and presidential elections. In fact, as of this date, Indiana’s primaries have been pushed back to June.

The Times [Seymour, IN], October 8, 1918, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.
As the quarantine dragged into November, newspapers reflected the financial anxiety that set in for numerous Hoosiers. While some businesses capitalized on the social isolation, like Morell Tilson & Sons phonograph company—“The New Edison will be worth the price for entertainment in your home during the influenza quarantine on public musicals and social gatherings”—many others took a hit. [17] Terre Haute theater companies, having taken “their medicine without complaint,” clamored to reopen after three weeks of quarantine. Their employees struggled to make ends meet, despite being temporarily commissioned as members of the “spittoon squad of sanitary health officers, placing boxes of sawdust here and there for the use of thoughtful expectorators.” [18] The South Bend News-Tribune reported on November 12 that “the merchants of the city are becoming restive. These dreary and dismal days are getting on the nerves. Business is practically at a standstill.” [19] In fact, the merchants considered staging a protest against the continuation of quarantine. The paper noted that businessmen weren’t the only ones growing restless, reporting, “The school children are running on the streets and congregating in spots as is their custom.” Regardless, officials extended the quarantine into the winter.

Despite experiencing setbacks, the compliance of businesses, schools, politicians, and the public enabled Indiana to avoid a much worse outcome.  After the isolation of quarantine and the solitude of winter, on May 7, 1919, 20,000 men and women congregated in Indianapolis’s welcome parade. For thirty-three blocks, Hoosiers honored victorious troops returning from World War I combat—no masks or social distancing needed.

Hospital 32 Nurses in Welcome Home Day Parade, photograph, 1919, courtesy Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

Notes:

[1] “No Public Assemblages,” Princeton Daily Clarion, October 7, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Closing the Town,” Terre Haute Tribune, October 9, 1918, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[4] “Wanted-Situation,” Terre Haute Tribune, October 8, 1918, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[5] “State Board Orders Homes Placarded,” South Bend News-Times, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[6] “From Lonesome Boys,” Hammond Times, October 9, 1918, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Influenza is Not Epideic [sic] in This County,” The Republic [Columbus, IN], October 23, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[9] “Influenza and Fear,” South Bend News-Times, October 11, 1918, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[10] “Teachers to Get Contract Wages,” The Tribune [Seymour, IN], October 10, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[11] “Near Beer Places Are Closed,” The Tribune [Seymour, IN], October 11, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[12] “No Church Services will be Held Here Tomorrow,” The Tribune [Seymour, IN], October 12, 1918, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] “Quarantine Brings Memories of Summer,” Palladium-Item [Richmond, IN], October 19, 1918, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “To Begin Gym Work When Ban is Off,” Evansville Press, October 16, 1918, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Students at Earlham Remain within Campus,” Indianapolis News, November 2, 1918, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “Campaign is Very Quiet this Fall,” The Tribune [Seymour, IN], October 19, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[17] “No Danger of Influenza,” The Evening Star [Franklin, IN], October 11, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[18] Terre Haute Tribune, November 3, 1918, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “‘Flu’ Cases are Growing Less,” South Bend News-Times, November 12, 1918, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Giving Voice to Silent Film Star John Bowers

John Bowers, courtesy of IMDB.

Many dismiss movies made during the silent film era (1885-1930) as farcical or irrelevant. However, this period of great discovery and innovation laid the foundation for modern film-making techniques. One early contributor to this burgeoning new art form was Hoosier actor John Bowersox. He made over ninety films during his career and was among those first honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His versatility and athleticism enabled him to become a leading man in a variety of roles and genres. Off-screen, Bowersox was an extreme sports enthusiast who enjoyed racing his automobile, airplane, and yacht during a novel time for those sports.

Born circa 1884,[1] John Bowersox grew up in the small town of Garrett, Indiana, not far from Fort Wayne. Six feet tall and naturally athletic, Bowersox played football on a local Garrett team.[2] As a young man, he could often be found sailing his boat on nearby Lake Wawasee, the largest natural lake in Indiana. As early as fifteen, he began acting locally in amateur plays. His parents encouraged him to become a lawyer and John enrolled in nearby Huntington Business College. However, John Bowersox was destined for something completely different.

Bowersox continued to act while attending college and he caught the eye of local stock company owner, C. Garvin Gilmaine, who took Bowersox under his wing and eventually recommended him to a touring company performing A Royal Slave.[3] Turning his back on college, John signed an acting contract and left Garrett for rehearsals in Coldwater, Michigan in July, 1904.[4]

As a demonstration of support, his father equipped him with $450 worth of clothes and a trunk that his co-workers joked was worth more than all the show props combined. Bowersox recalled his father’s parting words in an interview with Photoplay Magazine, “If you don’t make [a go of it], come home.”[5] That $450 investment George Bowersox made in his son turned out to be a good one.

The part he played as a Mexican soldier in A Royal Slave introduced Bowersox to a world he could have only dreamed of as a small-town kid. It led to more roles and bigger parts and, by 1912, Bowers had dropped the “ox” from his name and worked as an actor in New York City. [6] Many of his early performances came by way of his relationship with William A. Brady, a prolific producer of both stage and screen.[7]  Under his guidance, Bowers made his Broadway debut in Little Miss Brown on August 29, 1912.[8]

When Bowers was working in New York theater, film studios in and around the city dominated the American motion picture film industry. By today’s standards, “silent era” films can seem campy and amateurish. The acting was often melodramatic and unnatural, a by-product of stage performances. However, a century ago this entertainment medium was every bit as creative and innovative as modern day modes of expression like virtual reality and TikTok.

Image courtesy of IMDB.

As the scale of production increased, the larger studios on the West Coast began dominating the film industry and Bowers eagerly followed the work, moving back and forth between New York, Chicago, and California.[9] It’s impossible to know precisely how many films Bowers made. Early film stock contained highly volatile nitrates that were subject to deterioration at best, and combustion at worst. Some sources estimate that seventy-five percent of early films are forever lost to either decay or disposal.[10] Bowers’s first known credit appears in the short film The Baited Trap (1914), in which he played a criminal.[11] He made two more films that year including one with Tom Mix. It wasn’t long before “John Bowers” was a leading man. He is officially credited with appearing in over ninety films, including Lorna Doone (1922), The Sky Pilot (1921), When a Man’s a Man (1924), and Chickie (1925). His rugged good looks and natural athleticism allowed Bowers to play many different roles.

Although often the love interest, Bowers played heroes, gangsters, cowboys, businessmen, soldiers, and lawyers. He acted in many genres including drama, musical, comedy, romance, crime drama, adventure, action, and westerns. He worked with most of the early silent film stars, such as Mary Pickford, Will Rogers, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Richard Dix. In 1960, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored him with one of the inaugural stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[12] However, acting did not define John Bowers.

Always a bit of daredevil, Bowers took pride in doing his own stunts, believing the audience would appreciate him more if they saw him risking life and limb.[13] Early in his stage career, while acting in A Royal Slave, his over-enthusiastic dueling performance resulted in a sword-jab to his eye, causing serious injury.[14] Years later, while making the film When a Man’s a Man (1924), he broke his leg trying to bull-dog a steer.[15]

He was always athletic and believed that staying physically fit was essential to happiness.[16] As a teenager, he built his own 21’ sailboat that he sailed around Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana. Bowers became so adept at maneuvering it that he would sometimes “turn turtle” just to exasperate his parents watching from shore.[17] Sailing would become central to Bowers’s life. After achieving some success in New York, he purchased a 70’ racing schooner, the Uncas, which he enjoyed sailing up the Hudson River.[18] Sometime in the early 1920s, his friend Doc Wilson sailed it from New York to California in ninety days.[19] Later, Bowers would take his Hollywood friends out for weeks at a time.[20]

An early adopter, Bowers embraced new technology. He became enamored with automobiles and was a known speedster around Los Angeles. In 1924, he took racing lessons from professional driver Ralph De Palma and even entered the 250-mile Thanksgiving Day race at the Ascot Speedway in LA.[21]  In addition to sailing and racing cars, Bowers became an accomplished pilot and even customized his own racing plane. In 1927, Bowers won first place on both days of the Santa Anna air races with his plane, the Thunderbird.[22]

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Western genre began to take off and many film roles required athleticism. Bowers, who was reportedly, “an excellent horseman, can swing a mean lariat, and can bull-dog a steer like a hardened plainsman,” landed many plum roles.[23] The exuberance in which he lived life made for great press. Publicists, either on behalf of the studios or hired by actors for a percentage of their income, carefully crafted the images of movie stars. They arranged appearances, set up photo shoots, and provided copy to trade magazines and newspapers eager to report the off-screen lives of the Hollywood elite. [24]

Bowers and De La Motte on set, courtesy of Motion Picture Classic Magazine.

His third wife Marguerite De la Motte was also a silent film star. [25] De la Motte and Bowers co-starred in the film What a Wife Learned (1923), where they developed a friendship. For quite a while, fans and media speculated about their relationship and, according to most sources, Bowers and De La Motte married in 1924.[26] The couple often entertained and sometimes amused their guests with an exhibition of Bowers’ shooting prowess. De La Motte would place an object on her head and John would shoot it off, an offer he made to anyone willing to participate.[27] It is unclear how many reports about John Bowers are true. Many newspaper accounts reported what he was going to do rather than what he actually did. It’s possible that some accounts of Bowers have been exaggerated. Self-promotion and exaggeration were just as common then as they are today. One thing is certain; John Bowers embodied the spirit of carpe diem.

Bowers worked steadily during the 1920s, but like many silent film stars, he was unable to make the transition to “talkies”. Actors struggled to succeed in the era of sound for many reasons. Sometimes their voices did not match their screen persona, possibly due to an accent or the pitch of their voice. Some actors relied on constant direction that was not possible with the introduction of sound. For whatever reason, by 1927 Bowers’s film career was in decline. To make matters worse, around 1930 John and Marguerite likely separated.[28]

Bowers and De La Motte in Daughters Who Pay, courtesy of IMDB.

The last movie Bowers made was Mounted Fury (1931). By then his drinking had become a problem. Bowers was only forty-five-years-old, but his life was unraveling. A few years later, he returned to Indiana and wrote a weekly fictional serial for the local newspaper, the Garrett Clipper. [30] The serial was a lighthearted coming-of-age story of a small town kid who made good. The protagonist, John Wright, was affable, ambitious and, “If he had fallen into a sewer he would have come out with a bouquet in his hand.” Many of the characters would probably have been familiar to Garret residents, and the serial ran from March until August of 1936.

While in Indiana, John had been caring for his long-ill mother, Ida, in nearby Syracuse when she passed away in July of 1936.[31] Given the new void in his life, John decided to give acting another try. He heard that his old friend Henry Hathaway was directing a film with Gary Cooper and hoped there might be a part in it for him. So, he went back to LA one last time.

The morning after finding out that Hathaway was unable to offer Bowers a part in his movie, Bowers rented a small sailboat in Santa Monica. Two days later, on November 17, 1936, his body washed ashore in Malibu. The coroner reported the cause of death as “Drowned as a result of suicide – jumped off sail boat.” The boat was later recovered adrift.[32] His sister, with whom he was staying at the time, reported that he had recently become despondent.[33]

Although nobody knows what was on the mind of John Bowers when he went overboard, most believed he died by suicide. His mother had recently passed away, his acting career was floundering, and his drinking had become problematic. Despite such a tragic ending, this Hoosier left behind a legacy as a prolific film actor and adventurer.

Notes:

[1] The exact date of Bowers’s birth is questionable. Census records, newspaper articles, and magazine stories report his date of birth differently, but generally around 1885. The DOB from his death certificate is the only official record. “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201 : 22 August 2018), Los Angeles, Death certificates 1936, no. 10100-12041, image 31 of 2142, California State Archives, Sacramento.

[2] “Local and Personal,” Garrett Clipper (Indiana), October 15, 1903, 5, Newspapers.com.

[3] “John Bowers Receives Contract for Royal Slave Company,” Huntington Herald (Indiana), May 20, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[4] “John Bowers Receives Contract for Royal Slave Company,” Huntington Herald, May 20, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[5] “He Hasn’t Been Home Since,” Photoplay, August, 1919, 61, Internetarchive.org.; “The Right Bower,” circa 1920, Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[6] “He Hasn’t Been Home Since,” Photoplay, August, 1919, 16: 3, 61, Internetarchive.org.

[7] Brady produced both plays and films. IMDB credits him for producing forty-three films from 1897-1920. Here are some examples of Brady-produced plays in which Bowers was a cast member: “At the Brady Playhouse,” Brooklyn Citizen, November 30, 1913, 17, Newspapers.com.; “The Family Cupboard” Chat [Brooklyn, New York], January 3, 1914, 16 Newspapers.com.; “Attractions of Current Week in Leading Washington Theaters: Family Cupboard,” Washington Herald [Washington, D.C.], January 18, 1914, 18, Newspapers.com.; “Belasco: The Family Cupboard,” Evening Star [Washington, D.C.], January 20, 1914, 8, Newspapers.com.; “This Week in the Theaters: Alvin,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 25, 1914, 23, Newspapers.com.; “Attractions at the Theatres: The Decent Thing to Do,” Boston Globe, March 8, 1914, 150, Newspapers.com.; “Surpasses Drury Lane,” Brooklyn Citizen, October 8, 1914, 6, Newspapers.com.; “Plenty of New Productions Listed for Future Appearance,” Variety, October, 1914, 36, 10, Internetarchive.org.

[8] David L. Smith, “John Bowers: A Tragedy That Became a Legend,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2017, 4, Indiana Historical Society.

[9]  1920 Census, Los Angeles Assembly District 63, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T625_106; Page: 12B; Enumeration District 167, FamilySearch.org.

[10] Paul Harris, “Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost,” Variety, December 4, 2013, https://variety.com/2013/film/news/library-of-congress-only-14-of-u-s-silent-films-survive-1200915020/.

[11] “King Baggot in ‘The Baited Trapm,’” Great Falls Tribune (Montana), June 21, 1914, 8, Newspapers.com. See IMDB for information on film credits.

[12] “John Bowers,” Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, November 22, 2019, https://www.walkoffame.com/john-bowers

[13] “Movie Facts and Fancies,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1923, 54, Newspapers.com.

[14] “John Bowers Narrowly Escaped Permanent Injury,” August 16, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[15] Bull-dogging refers to the act of wrestling a steer to the ground by holding its horns and twisting its neck.; “Movie Facts and Fancies,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1923, 54, Newspapers.com.

[16] “Sophistication Lends Charm, is Actor’s Theory,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1927, 57, Newspapers.com.

[17] David L. Smith, “John Bowers: A Tragedy That Became a Legend,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2017, 4, Indiana Historical Society.

[18] “The Sport of Kings – and Movie Stars,” Motion Picture Classic, September, 1923, 18:1, 18, Internetarchive.org.

[19] “The Sea-Going Actor,” Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[20] “The Owner of the Uncas,” Motion Picture Classic, January, 1920, 20, accessed Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/motionpicturecla1920broo/page/n25

[21] “Notes from Movie Land,” Knoxville Journal and Tribune (Tennessee), August 10, 1924, 17, Newspapers.com. This article establishes that he began taking racing lessons.; “Famous Driver Adopts Novel Training Stunt,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1924, 11, Newspapers.com.; “Floyd Roberts Adds to Fame,” Van Nuys News (California), September 16, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com. The previous two articles establish that Bowers became involved in the professional auto racing world in 1924.; “50 Daredevils Gamble Lives Against Time in 250-Mile Speed Battle,” Los Angeles Evening Express, November 27, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com. This article reveals that Bowers did not race in the Thanksgiving Day race but rather contributed as an track official.

[22] “Planes are Hobby of Bowers,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1927, 46, Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[23] “Yachts and Autos His Hobbyhorses,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1924, 48, Newspapers.com.

[24] “Publicity and the Film Star,” Film Reference, February 27, 2020, http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Publicity-and-Promotion-PUBLICITY-AND-THE-FILM-STAR.html.

[25] “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201 : 22 August 2018), Los Angeles, Death Certificates 1936, no. 10100-12041, image 31 of 2142, California State Archives, Sacramento.

[26] The couple were cagey about announcing their marriage. The consensus at the time was they were married in 1924. Although IHB has been unable to unearth their marriage certificate, Marguerite was listed as Bowers’s wife in his death certificate. “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201.

[27] “Hollywood’s Halls,” Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1927, 136, Newspapers.com.

[28] Solid proof of the separation of John and Marguerite may not exist. Exactly when they married and when they separated is uncertain. “Romance of Screen Pair Disrupted,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1930, 8, Newspapers.com.

[30] “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, March 9, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, July 6, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, August 10, 1936, 3, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, August 17, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com.

[31] “Mrs. Ida Bowers,” Garrett Clipper, July 16, 1936, 1, Newspapers.com.

[32] “Body of Former Film Star Found,” Cushing Daily Citizen (Oklahoma), November 19, 1936, 12, Newspapers.com. After his death, a local newspaper reported that Bowers had been depressed and wanted to get back into movies. “John Bowers,” Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[33] “How Bowers Met Death,” Hammond Times (Indiana), November 19, 1936, 4, Newspapers.com.

Gardening Wisdom from the Historical Indianapolis News: March Edition

Like a lot of people, the historians at IHB are working from home. We’re feeling very lucky to be healthy and employed, as we know not everyone is so fortunate. As usual, we’re trying to find historical stories that will be of interest, and hopefully useful, to our fellow Hoosiers in these strange times in which we find ourselves.

Since Hoosiers across the state are stuck at home, let’s try some new things in the garden. And who better to look to for advice than the generations of Hoosiers who came before us? So let’s see what we can do with just a few supplies and perhaps an order of heirloom seeds. You can find heirloom seeds from small companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds that are attempting to keep rare seeds with long histories in circulation. They’re  closed until Monday, March 23 to make sure they’re completely disinfected and their employees are healthy. That gives us time to look through historical newspapers for gardening wisdom from experts in the past. A great resource is the early-20th century column titled, “Of Interest to the Farmers and Gardeners”  in the Indianapolis News. It’s so packed full of advice, it’s hard to know where to begin. So here are just a few ideas from March articles about early spring planting.

Indianapolis News

Hotbeds and Cold Frames

A March 1909 Indianapolis News column warned:

The amateur gardener who wants to keep abreast of his neighbors when warm weather comes had better prepare his hotbed of boxes at once.

Well, okay then. The March 19, 1910 Indianapolis News explained the advantages of both hot beds and cold frames and how they work. Checking the information against a recent article on the subject from the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture of the Purdue University Extension, the historical paper’s advice really holds up.

Indianapolis News, March 19, 1910, 28.

Hotbeds and cold frames are built the same: a frame set into the ground with a glass panel to cover the plants. While there is a lot of advice about how to tweak each design, the heat source is the only real difference. These instructions from Purdue University give all the necessary details. But they’re both ways to get a jump on the growing season in the spring or extend it in the fall.

Indianapolis News, March 19, 1910, 28.
“Growing Tomatoes,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/plant/tomatoes

As the 1910 Indianapolis News explained, the hotbed is supplied with heat, usually from fermenting manure, but there are other options (see the sweet pea section below). The News suggested placing the bed not in the garden, but by a path or building “where it can receive attention without interfering with other work.” The 1910 columnist stated that it should always face south with the south side of a building or hedge providing protection. The hotbed should be started in March if growing tomatoes and cabbages, so they are ready to plant in the garden in April. If the night gets really cold, cover the glass panel with “board shutters, straw mats, or mats of burlap or carpet,” and if it gets too hot in the day, raise the panels to ventilate the plants. The News advised, “Hotbeds should be watered in the morning only and then only on bright days.” This avoids losing heated air by opening the panel too often, lowering the temperature too much, or making the soil too damp.

Indianapolis News, March 19, 1910, 28.
“Growing Lettuce,” Old Farmers Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/plant/lettuce

The same Indianapolis News article also explained:

Cold frames are devices intended to protect plants from cold, without forcing them to growth. They differ from hotbeds in that no artificial means of heating are employed.

Likewise, the Purdue Extension explains that plants grow slower in cold frames, which is great for lettuce and spinach. The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends cold frames for greens as well as radishes, scallions, kale, and endive. They also have a step by step guide to building a cold frame.

Purdue University, https://www.hort.purdue.edu/hort/ext/Pubs/HO/HO_053.pdf

 

Starting Seeds Indoors

Of course, not everyone has the resources to build frames. The March 27, 1909 Indianapolis News has advice for simpler starts as well:

The simpler method of raising plants to be set out after danger of frost is over is to sow seed in boxes or pots to be kept indoors. The boxes should have holes for drainage in the bottom, but should not be so open as to let the soil dry.

“Starting Seeds Indoors,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/content/starting-seeds-indoors

I use the plastic flats from my previous year garden store purchases. Right now my kitchen table is covered and I have native wildflowers just starting to sprout. They’re doing much better this year than the ones I started last year because I carefully mixed peat, potting soil, and pearlite and have misted them regularly. The News recommended a light mix like this for the top soil when planting in boxes but noted that regular garden soil would be fine beneath that. The 1909 gardener advised small seeds be sown over the surface and gently pressed down while “coarse seeds” needed to be dropped into little holes and covered. Water both immediately after planting and set boxes where they will get indirect sunlight, not harsh rays.  And finally, the Indianapolis News gave some advice on a flower you can start right in the garden this month.

Sowing Sweet Pea Seeds

“Of Interest to Farmers and Gardeners,” Indianapolis News, March 11, 1911, 8.

Annual sweet peas have a wonderful, unforgettable scent. The perennial version has no scent and can be invasive, so choose wisely. Try heirloom varieties like the 1896 “America” or the ca. 1901 “Old Spice.” Sweet peas like cold weather, so they’re a great plant to start in the early spring. In March 1911, the Indianapolis News gave the perfect recipe for rich soil to grow this delicate flower. The newspaper’s advice for a “rich and deep” soil that would create “plenty of blooms of good substance” was to add “plenty of well-rotted manure.” Of course, those of us without access to manure (or without the desire to have access) can use rotted grass clippings , leaves, vegetable kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, or a mix of these items. The Farmer’s Almanac gives a rundown of the benefits of each mix and its own tips for growing sweet peas.

Growing Sweet Peas, Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/plant/sweet-peas.

The 1911 Indianapolis News recommended you sow seeds directly outdoors (as opposed to starting indoors) while weather is still cold between mid-March and mid-April. The article continued:

Make a trench or furrow about six inches deep, in the bottom of which sow the seed thickly. Cover the seed with about an inch of soil, pressing it down firmly. As soon as they are above ground, thin out to two or four inches apart; when planted too close they do not attain their full development. As soon as the plants are above the trench the balance of the soil may be filled in.

Before they mature, add stakes with wire netting or even branches, that are at least four feet high. Adding mulch at the start of the summer will help them get through the hot weather.

We hope you’re finding productive ways to spend your time while at home, whether you experiment with heirloom plants or not.  Check in with IHB on Twitter (@in_bureau) or Facebook and let us know what history questions you have. And check back in April for more historical gardening wisdom from old newspapers. Finally, here’s a stanza from a relevant James Whitcomb Riley poem, for all of us itching to “git back” into the garden this weekend.

James Whitcomb Riley, “When the Green Gits Back in the Trees, The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1916), accessed GoogleBooks.

Sources
All newspapers accessed Newspapers.com.

Hotbeds and Cold Frames:

Boeckmann, Catherine. “How to Build a Cold Frame,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/content/how-build-cold-frame.

Dana, Michael N. and B. Rosie Lerner.”Hotbeds and Cold Frames,” Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University Extension Service, https://www.hort.purdue.edu/hort/ext/Pubs/HO/HO_053.pdf.

“Construction of Hot Beds and Cold Frames for the Growth of Early Plants to Transplant to the Garden,” Indianapolis News, March 19, 1910, 28.

Starting Seeds Indoors:

Boeckmann, Catherine. “Starting Seeds Indoors,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/content/starting-seeds-indoors.

“Starting Seeds Indoors to Gain a Month in the Garden When Danger of Frost Is Over,” Indianapolis News, March 27, 1909, 17.

Sweet Peas:

Andrews, Moya. “Invasive Sweet Pea,” Focus on Flowers, https://indianapublicmedia.org/focusonflowers/invasive-sweet-pea.php.

Boeckmann, Catherine. “Growing Sweet Peas,” Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/plant/sweet-peas.

“Prepare Beds for Sowing of Sweet Pea Seeds,” Indianapolis News, March 11, 1911, 18.

 

“A Solemn, Consecrated Act of the People Themselves:” Rep. Louis Ludlow and the Power to Declare War

Harris & Ewing, “Louis Ludlow,” 1937, photograph, Harris & Ewing photograph collection,  courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Describing the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 2014 Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts, conservative political writer George E. Will stated:

The presidency is like a soft leather glove, and it takes the shape of the hand that’s put into it. And when a very big hand is put into it and stretches the glove — stretches the office — the glove never quite shrinks back to what it was. So we are all living today with an office enlarged permanently by Franklin Roosevelt. [1]

Seventy-five years after President Roosevelt’s death, the debate continues over how much power the president should have, especially in regards to taking military action against a foreign power. On January 9, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to restrict that power, requiring congressional authorization for further action against Iran. The issue now moves to the Senate.

But the arguments over this balance of war powers are not new. In fact, in 1935, Indiana congressmen Louis Ludlow forwarded a different solution altogether – an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow a declaration of war only after a national referendum, that is, a direct vote of the American people. Had the Ludlow Amendment passed, the U.S. would only engage militarily with a foreign power if the majority of citizens agreed that the cause was just. Ludlow’s ideas remain interesting today as newspaper articles and op-eds tell us the opinions of our Republican and Democratic representatives regarding the power of the legislative branch versus the executive branch in declaring war or military action. But what do the American people think, especially those who would have to fight? According to Brown University’s Cost of War Project, “The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries,” and the New York Times reported last year that we now have troops in “nearly every country.” [2]  But what does it mean to say “we” have troops in these countries? And does that mean that we are at war? Do the American people support the deployment of troops to Yemen? Somalia? Syria? Niger? Does the average American even know about these conflicts?

Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics, “This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019.

Expanding Executive War Power

Many don’t know, partly because the nature of war has changed since WWII. We have a paid professional military as opposed to drafted private citizens, which removes the realities of war from the daily lives of most Americans. Drone strikes make war seem even more obscure compared to boots on the ground, while cyber warfare abstracts the picture further. [3] But Americans also remain unaware of our military actions because “U.S. leaders have studiously avoided being seen engaging in ‘war,’” according to international news magazine the Diplomat. [4] In fact, Congress has not officially declared war since World War II. [5] Instead, today, Congress approves “an authorization of the use of force,” which can be “fuzzy” and “open-ended.” [6] Despite the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973, which was intended to balance war powers between the president and Congress, presidents have consistently found ways to deploy troops without congressional authorization. [7] And today, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, justified an even greater extension of executive power in deploying armed forces.[8]

“To Give to the People the Right to Decide . . .”

Indiana congressman Louis L. Ludlow (Democrat – U.S. House of Representatives, 1929-1949), believed the American people should have the sole power to declare war through a national referendum. [9] After all, the American people, not Congress and not the President, are tasked with fighting these wars. Starting in the 1930s, Representative Ludlow worked to amend the Constitution in order to put such direct democracy into action. He nearly succeeded. And as the debate continues today over who has the power to send American troops into combat and what the United States’ role should be in the world, his arguments concerning checks and balances on war powers remain relevant.

“Portrait of Indiana Politician Louis Ludlow, Indiana,” photograph, 1929, accessed Indiana Album.

Ludlow maintained two defining viewpoints that could be easily misinterpreted, and thus are worth examining up front. First, Ludlow was an isolationist, but not for the same reasons as many of his peers, whose viewpoints were driven by the prevalent xenophobia, racism, and nativism rooted in the 1920s. In fact, Ludlow was a proponent of equal rights for women and African Americans throughout his career. [10] Ludlow’s isolationism was instead influenced by the results of a post-WWI congressional investigation showing the influence of foreign propaganda and munitions and banking interests in profiting off the conflict. [11]

Second, Ludlow was not a pacifist. He believed in just wars waged in the name of freedom, citing the American Revolution and the Union cause during the American Civil War. [12] He supported the draft during WWI and backed the war effort through newspaper articles. [13] Indeed, he even voted with his party, albeit reluctantly, to enter WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. [14] He believed a direct attack justified a declaration of war and included this caveat in his original resolution. What he did not believe in was entering war under the influence of corporations or propaganda. He wanted informed citizens, free of administrative or corporate pressure, to decide for themselves if a cause was worth their lives. He wrote, “I am willing to die for my beloved country but I am not willing to die for greedy selfish interests that want to use me as their pawn.” [15]

So, who was Louis Ludlow and how did he come to advocate for this bold amendment?

“I Must and Would Prove My Hoosier Blood”

Ludlow described himself as a “Hoosier born and bred” in his 1924 memoir of his early career as a newspaper writer. [16] He was born June 24, 1873 in a log cabin near Connersville, Fayette County, Indiana. His parents encouraged his interests in politics and writing, and after he graduated high school in 1892, he went to Indianapolis “with food prepared by his mother and a strong desire to become a newspaperman.” [17]

He landed his first job with the Indianapolis Sun upon arrival in the Hoosier capital but quickly realized he needed more formal education. He briefly attended Indiana University before becoming seriously ill and returning to his parents’ home. After he recovered, he spent some time in New York City, but  returned to Indianapolis in 1895. He worked for two newspapers, one Democratic (Sentinel) and one Republican (Journal) and the Indianapolis Press from 1899-1901. While he mainly covered political conventions and campaign speeches, he interviewed prominent suffrage worker May Wright Sewall and former President Benjamin Harrison, among other notables. He also became a correspondent for the (New York) World. [18]

In 1901, the Sentinel sent Ludlow to Washington as a correspondent, beginning a twenty-seven-year career of covering the capital. During this time, he worked long hours, expanded his political contacts, and distributed his stories to more and more newspapers. He covered debates in Congress during World War I and was influenced by arguments that membership in the League of Nations would draw the U.S. further into conflict.[19] By 1927 he was elected president of the National Press Club. He was at the height of his journalistic career and had a good rapport and reputation within the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Ludlows Vote Early,” Indianapolis Star, November 7, 1928, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

With the backing of Democratic political boss Thomas Taggart, Ludlow began his first congressional campaign at the end of 1927 and announced his candidacy officially on February 23, 1928. [20] The Greencastle Daily Herald quoted part of Ludlow’s announcement speech, noting that the candidate stated, “some homespun honesty in politics is a pressing necessity in Indiana.” [21] He won the Democratic primary in May 1928 and then campaigned against Republican Ralph E. Updike, offering Hoosiers “redemption” from the influence of the KKK. [22] Ludlow “swept to an impressive victory” over Updike in November 1928, as the only Democrat elected from 269 Marion County precincts. [23] He took his seat as the Seventh District U.S. Representative from Indiana on March 4, 1929. [24]

The Indianapolis Star noted that while Ludlow was only a freshman congressman, his many years in Washington as a correspondent had made him “familiar with the workings of the congressional machinery” and “well known to all [House] members,” earning him the “confidence and respect of Republicans and Democrats alike.” [25] The Star claimed: “Perhaps no man ever entering Congress has had the good will of so many members on both sides of the aisle.” [26] This claim was supported by Ludlow’s colleagues on the other side of that aisle. Republican senator James E. Watson of Indiana stated in 1929, “Everybody has a fondness for Louis Ludlow, and as a congressional colleague, he shall have the co-operation of my office in the advancement of whatever he considers in the interest of his constituency.” [27] Republican representative John Cable of Ohio agreed stating:

Louis Ludlow has character and ability. He is the sort of a man who commands the respect and confidence of men and women without regard to party lines. He will have the co-operation of his colleagues of Congress, Republican as well as Democrats, and no doubt will render a high class service for his district.[28]

Cable went so far as to recommend Ludlow for the vice-presidential candidate for the 1932 election.

Ludlow achieved some modest early economic successes for his constituents, including bringing a veterans hospital and an air mail route to Indianapolis. By 1930, however, he set his sights on limiting government bureaucracy and became interested in disarmament as a method to reduce government spending. Concurrently, he threw his support behind the London Naval Treaty which limited the arms race, and he became a member of the Indiana World Peace Committee. During the 1930 election, he stressed his accomplishments and appealed to women, African American, Jews, veterans, businessmen, and labor unions. He was easily reelected by over 30,000 votes. [29]

Back at work in the House, he sponsored an amendment to the Constitution in 1932 to give women “equal rights throughout the United States” which would have addressed legal and financial barriers to equality. He was unsuccessful but undaunted. He introduced an equal rights amendment in 1933, 1936, 1939, 1943, and 1945. [30] [A separate post would be needed to do justice to his work on behalf of women’s rights.] He also worked to make the federal government responsible for investigating lynching, as opposed to the local communities where the injustice occurred. He introduced several bills in 1938 that would have required FBI agents to investigate lynchings as a deterrent to this hate crime, but they were blocked by Southern Democrats. His main focus between 1935 and 1945 was advocating for the passage of legislation to restrict the government’s war powers and end corporate war profiteering.

 “To Remove The Profit Incentive to War”

[McAllen, Texas] Monitor, January 11, 1938, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
In 1934 the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, known as the Nye Committee after its chairman Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND), began to investigate the undue influence of munitions interests on U.S. entry into WWI. Like many Americans, Ludlow was profoundly disturbed by the committee’s conclusions. As Germany rearmed and Hitler’s power grew during the 1930s, Ludlow worried that the threat of a second world war loomed and the U.S. government, especially the executive branch was vulnerable to the influence of profiteers, as highlighted by the Nye Committee reports. He stated:

I am convinced from my familiarity with the testimony of the Nye committee and my study of this question that a mere dozen – half a dozen international financiers and half a dozen munitions kings, with a complaisant President in the White House at Washington – could maneuver this country into war at any time, so great are their resources and so far reaching is their power. I pray to God we may never have a President who will lend himself to such activities, but, after all, Presidents are human, and many Presidents have been devoted to the material aggrandizement of our country to the exclusion of spiritual values . . . [31]

Although he admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s diplomatic abilities Ludlow thought, as historian Walter R. Griffin asserted, that “it was entirely possible that a future President might very well possess more sordid motives and plan to maneuver the country into war against the wishes of the majority of citizens.” [32] As a protection against the susceptibility of the legislative and especially the executive branches to financial pressures of the munitions industry, Ludlow introduced a simple two-part resolution [HR-167] before the House of Representatives in January 1935. It would amend the Constitution to require a vote of the people before any declaration of war. He summed up the two sections of his bill in a speech before the House in February 1935: “First. To give the people who have to pay the awful costs of war the right to decide whether there shall be war. Second. To remove the profit incentive to war.” [33] He believed that the resolution gave to American citizens “the right to a referendum on war, so that when war is declared it will be the solemn, consecrated act of the people themselves, and not the act of conscienceless, selfish interests using the innocent young manhood of the Nation as its pawns.”[34]

More specifically, Section One stated that unless the U.S. was attacked, Congress could not declare war without a majority vote in a national referendum. And Section Two provided that once war was declared, all properties, factories, supplies, workers, etc. necessary to wage war would be taken over by the government. Those companies would then be reimbursed at a rate not exceeding 4% higher than their previous year’s tax values. [35] This would remove the profit incentive and thus any immoral reasons for a declaration of war.

In an NBC Radio address in March 19235, Ludlow told the public:

The Nye committee has brought out clearly, plainly and so unmistakably that it must hit every thinking persons in the face, the fact that unless we write into the constitution of the United States a provision reserving to the people the right to declare war and taking the profits out of war we shall wake up to find ourselves again plunged into the hell of war . . . [36]

He added that “a declaration of war is the highest act of sovereignty. It is a responsibility of such magnitude that it should rest on the people themselves . . .” [37]

Ludlow’s resolution, soon known as the Ludlow Amendment, was immediately referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. During committee hearings in June 1935, no one spoke in opposition to the bill and yet the committee did not report on the resolution to the House before the end of the first session in August, nor when they reconvened in 1936. Ludlow attempted to force its consideration with a discharge petition but couldn’t round up enough congressional signatures. Congress was busy creating a second round of New Deal legislation intended to combat the Great Depression and was less concerned with the war clouds gathering over Europe. Despite Ludow’s passionate advocacy both in the House and to the public, his bill languished in committee. In February 1937, he made a fresh attempt, dividing Sections One and Two into separate bills. The same obstacles persisted, and despite gathering more congressional support for his discharge petition, these resolutions too remained in committee. [38]

Harris & Ewing, “Louis Ludlow,” photograph, Harris & Ewing photograph collection, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress caption: Denouncing the present war-declaring mechanism as ‘autocratic,’ Rep. Louis Ludlow appealed for approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a Nat’l referendum on participation in a foreign war.

“What Might Have Been”

During a special session called by Roosevelt in November 1937 (to introduce what has become known as the “court-packing plan”), Ludlow was able to obtain the necessary signatures to release his resolution from committee. While congressional support for the Ludlow Amendment had increased, mainly due to the advocacy of its namesake, opposition had unified as well. Opponents argued that it would reduce the power of the president to the degree that the president would lose the respect of foreign powers and ultimately make the U.S. less safe. Others argued that it completely undermined representative government by circumventing Congress and thus erode U.S. republican democracy. Veterans’ organizations like the American Legion were among its opponents, and National Commander Daniel J. Doherty combined these arguments into a public statement before the January 1939 House vote. He stated that the bill “would seriously impair the functions and utility of our Department of State, the first line of our national defense.” He continued: “The proposed amendment implies lack of confidence on the part of our people in the congressional representatives. This is not in accord with the facts. Other nations would readily interpret it as a sign of weakness.” [39] The Indianapolis Star compared the debates over the resolution to “dynamite” in the House of Representatives. And while Ludlow had the backing of “1,000 nationally known persons,” who issued statements of support, his opponents had the backing of President Roosevelt who continued to expand the powers of the executive branch. In a final vote the Ludlow Amendment was defeated 209-188. [40]

Ludlow continued to be a supporter of Roosevelt and when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Indiana congressman voted to declare war, albeit reluctantly. He stated:

Japan has determined my vote in the present situation. If the United States had not been attacked I would not vote for a war declaration but we have been attacked . . . American blood has been spilled and American lives have been lost . . . We should do everything that is necessary to defend ourselves and to see that American lives and property are made secure. That is the first duty and obligation of sovereignty. [41]

[Indianapolis] Jewish Post, November 3, 1944, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
After the close of World War II, Louis Ludlow continued his work for peace at an international level, calling on the United Nations to ban the atomic bomb. But he no longer advocated for his bill, stating that with the introduction of the bomb and other advanced war technology it was “now too late for war referendums.” [42] He told Congress in 1948:

Looking backward, I cannot escape the belief that the death of the resolution was one of the tragedies of all time. The leadership of the greatest and most powerful nation on earth might have deflected the thinking of the world into peaceful channels. Instead, we went ahead with tremendous pace in the invention of destruction . . . I cannot help thinking what might have been. [43]

Ludlow continued his service as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives until January 1949 after choosing not to seek reelection. Instead of retiring, he returned to the Capitol press gallery where his career had begun some fifty years earlier. And before his death in 1950, he wrote a weekly Washington column for his hometown newspaper, the Indianapolis Star.

“The People . . . Need to Have a Major Voice in the Use of Force . . .”

Ludlow’s eighty-five-year-old argument for giving Americans a greater voice in declaring war gives us food for thought in the current debate over war powers. Today, the conversation has veered away from Ludlow’s call for a direct referendum, but the right of the people’s voices to be heard via their elected representatives is being argued over heatedly in Congress. Many writers for conservative-leaning journals such as the National Review agree with their liberal counterparts at magazines like the New Yorker, that Congress needs to reassert their constitutional right under Article II to declare war and reign in the powers of the executive branch. This, they argue, is especially important in an era where the “enemy” is not as clearly defined as it had been during the World Wars. Writing for the National Review in 2017, Andrew McCarthy argued:

The further removed the use of force is from an identifiable threat to vital American interests, the more imperative it is that Congress weighs in, endorses or withholds authorization for combat operations . . . to ensure that military force is employed only for political ends that are worth fighting for, and that the public will perceive as worth fighting for. [44]

Writing for the New Yorker in 2017, Jeffery Frank agreed, stating:

The constitution is a remarkable document, and few question a President’s power to respond if the nation is attacked. But the founders could not have imagined a world in which one person, whatever his rank or title, would have the authority to order the preemptive use of nuclear weapons – an action that . . . now seems within the realm of possibility. [45]

And in describing the nonpartisan legal group Protect Democracy’s work to create a “roadmap” for balancing congressional and executive powers, conservative writer David French wrote for the National Review that “requiring congressional military authorizations in all but the most emergency of circumstances will grant the public a greater voice in the most consequential decisions any government can make.” [46]

So, if many liberals and conservatives agree that Congress should hold the balance of war powers, who is resisting a return to congressional authorization for military conflicts? According to the Law Library of Congress, the answer would be all modern U.S. Presidents. The library’s website explains that “U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch” and found ways to circumvent its constraints. [47]

This bloating of executive war power is exactly what Ludlow feared. When his proposed amendment was crushed by the force of the Roosevelt administration, Ludlow held no personal resentment against FDR. He believed that this particular president would always carefully weigh the significance of a cause before risking American lives. Instead, Ludlow’s feared how expanded executive war powers might be used by some future president. In a January 5, 1936 letter, Ludlow wrote:

No stauncher friend of peace ever occupied the executive office than President Roosevelt, but after all, the period of one President’s service is but a second in the life of a nation, and I shudder to think what might happen to our beloved country sometime in the future if a tyrant of Napoleonic stripe should appear in the White House, grab the war power, and run amuck. [48]

A bridge between Ludlow’s argument and contemporary calls for Congress to reassert its authority can be found in the words of more recent Hoosier public servants. Former Democratic U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton and Republican Senator Richard Lugar testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 28, 2009 on “War Powers in the 21st Century.” Senator Lugar stated:

Under our Constitution, decisions about the use of force involve the shared responsibilities of the President and the Congress, and our system works best when the two branches work cooperatively in reaching such decisions. While this is an ideal toward which the President and Congress may strive, it has sometimes proved to be very hard to achieve in practice . . . The War Powers Resolution has not proven to be a panacea, and Presidents have not always consulted formally with the Congress before reaching decisions to introduce U.S. force into hostilities . . . [49]

In 2017, in words that echo Rep. Ludlow’s arguments, Rep. Hamilton reiterated that “the people who have to do the fighting and bear the costs need to have a major voice in the use of force, and the best way to ensure that is with the involvement of Congress.”[50] While the “enemy” may change and while technology further abstracts war, the questions about war powers remain remarkably consistent: Who declares war and does this reflect the will of the people who will fight in those conflicts? By setting aside current political biases and looking to the past, we can sometimes see more clearly into the crux of the issues. Ludlow would likely be surprised that the arguments have changed so little and that we’re still sorting it out.

Further Reading:

Stephen L. Carter, “The Constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution,” Faculty Scholarship Series, January 1, 1984, accessed Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository.

Richard F. Grimmet, “War Powers Resolution: Presidential Compliance,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, September 25, 2012, accessed Federation of American Scientists.

Walter R. Griffin, “Louis Ludlow and the War Referendum Crusade, 1935-1941” Indiana Magazine of History 64:4 (December 1968), 270-272, accessed Indiana University Scholarworks.

___________________________________________

Footnotes:

[1] The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, A Film by Ken Burns, Premiered September 14, 2014, accessed Public Broadcasting Service.

[2] “Costs of War,” Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University; The Editorial Board, “America’s Forever Wars,” New York Times, October 22, 2017. The Times cites the Defense Manpower Data Center, a division of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

[3] Sarah E. Kreps, “America’s War and the Current Accountability Crisis,” The Diplomat, June 8, 2018.

[4] Ibid.

Kreps writes that this “light footprint warfare,” made possible by technological advancement, creates a “gray zone” in which it’s unclear which actors are responsible for what results, thus fragmenting opposition.

[5] Official Declarations of War by Congress, The United States Senate.

[6] Garance Franke-Tura, “All the Previous Declarations of War,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2013; Robert P. George and Michael Stokes Paulsen, “Authorize Force Now,” National Review, February 26, 2014.

Franke-Tura wrote about congressional use of force in Syria in 2013: “If history is any guide, that’s going to be a rather open-ended commitment, as fuzzy on the back-end as on the front.” Writing for the National Review in 2014, Robert P. George and Michael Stokes Paulsen agreed that in all cases of engaging in armed conflict not in response to direct attack, the president’s power to engage U.S. in military conflict (without an attack on the U.S.) is “sufficiently doubtful” and “dubious.”

[7] “War Powers,” Law Library of Congress; Jim Geraghty, “Is There A War Powers Act on the Books or Not?,” National Review, August 29, 2013.

While the purpose of the War Powers Resolution, or War Powers Act, was to ensure balance between the executive and legislative branches in sending U.S. armed forces into hostile situations, “U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch” and found ways to circumvent its constraints, according to the Law Library of Congress. Examples include President Reagan’s deployment of Marines to Lebanon starting in 1982, President George H. W. Bush’s building of forces for Operation Desert Shield starting in 1990, and President Clinton’s use of airstrikes and peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Writer and National Review editor Jim Geraghty wrote in 2013: “There are those who believe the War Powers Act is unconstitutional – such as all recent presidents . . .” Journals as politically diverse as the National Review and its liberal counterpart the New Yorker, are rife with articles and opinion pieces debating the legality and constitutionality of the Act. Despite their leanings, they are widely consistent in calling on Congress to reassert its constitutional authority to declare war and reign in the war powers of the executive branch.

[8] Ibid.

According to the Law Library of Congress, in 2001, Congress transferred more war power to President George W. Bush through Public Law 107-40, authorizing him to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups, or even individuals who aided the September 11 attacks.

[9] Louis Ludlow, Hell or Heaven (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1937).

[10] Walter R. Griffin, “Louis Ludlow and the War Referendum Crusade, 1935-1941,” Indiana Magazine of History 64, no. 4 (December 1968), 270-272, accessed Indiana University Scholarworks. Griffin downplays Ludlow’s early congressional career, however, he pushed for many Progressive Era reforms. Ludlow worked for an equal rights amendment for women, an anti-lynching bill, and the repeal of Prohibition.

[11] Ibid.; United States Congress,“Report of the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry (The Nye Report),” Senate, 74th Congress, Second Session, February 24, 1936, 3-13, accessed Mount Holyoke College.

[12] “Speech of Hon. Louis Ludlow of Indiana, in the U.S. House of Representatives,” February 19, 1935, Congressional Record, 74th Congress, First Session, Pamphlets Collection, Indiana State Library.

[13] Ernest C. Bolt, Jr., “Reluctant Belligerent: The Career of Louis Ludlow” in Their Infinite Variety: Essays on Indiana Politicians, eds. Robert Barrows and Shirley S. McCord, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1981): 363-364.

[14] Griffin, 287.

[15] Louis Ludlow, Public Letter, March 8, 1935, Ludlow War Referendum Scrapbooks, Lilly Library, Indiana University, cited in Griffin, 273.

[16] Louis Ludlow, From Cornfield to Press Gallery: Adventures and Reminiscences of a Veteran Washington Correspondent (Washington D.C., 1924), 1. The section title also comes from this source and page. Ludlow was referring to the Hoosier tendency to write books exhibited during the Golden Age of Indiana Literature.

[17] Ibid., 17; Bolt, 361.

[18] Bolt, 355-359.

[19] Ibid., 360-365.

[20] “Evans Wollen Is Best of the Democrats,” Greencastle Herald, November 7, 1927, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Charles J. Arnold, “Say!,” Greencastle Herald, February 24, 1928, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bolt, 371.

[23] “G.O.P. Wins in Marion County,” Greencastle Herald, November 7, 1927, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ludlow Wins Congress Seat,” Indianapolis Star, November 27, 1928, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] Everett C. Watkins, “Ludlow Will Leap from Press Gallery to Floor of Congress,” Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1929, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Republican Advances Ludlow’s Name as 1932 Vice Presidential Candidate,” Indianapolis Star, January 4, 1929, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] Bolt, 376-377.

[30] “Discuss Women’s Rights,” Nebraska State Journal, March 24, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women Argue in Favor of Changes in Nation’s Laws,” Jacksonville (Illinois) Daily Journal, March 24, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Woman’s Party Condemns Trial of Virginia Patricide,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 2, 1925, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Equal Rights Demanded,” Ada (Oklahoma) Weekly News, January 5, 1939, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; Bolt, 383.

The National League of Women Voters crafted the language of the original bill which Ludlow then sponsored and introduced. In 1935, the organization passed a resolution that “expressed gratitude  . . . to Representative Louis Ludlow of Indiana for championing women’s rights.”

[31] “Ludlow Asks War Act Now,” Indianapolis Star, March 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Griffin, 281-282.

[33] “Speech of Hon. Louis Ludlow of Indiana, in the U.S. House of Representatives,” February 19, 1935, Congressional Record, 74th Congress, First Session, Pamphlets Collection, Indiana State Library.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Ludlow Asks War Act Now,” Indianapolis Star, March 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “To Amend the Constitution with Respect to the Declaration of War,” Hearing before Subcommittee No. 2 of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives, 74th Congress, First Session, On H. J. Res. 167, accessed HathiTrust; Griffin, 274-275.

[39] Everett C. Watkins, “Ludlow Bill ‘Dynamite’ in House Today,” Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1938, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[40] Griffin, 285.

[41] “Indiana’s Votes Solid for War,” Indianapolis News, December 8, 1941, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[42] Congressional Record, 80th Congress, Second Session, Appendix, 4853, in Griffin, 287-8.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Andrew C. McCarthy, “War Powers and the Constitution in Our Body Politic,” National Review, July 8, 2017.

[45] Jeffery Frank, “The War Powers of President Trump,” New Yorker, April 26, 2017.

[46] David French, “Can Congress Get Its War Powers Back?,” National Review, July 5, 2018.

[47] “War Powers,” Law Library of Congress.

[48] Louis Ludlow to William Bigelow, January 5, 1936, in Griffin, 282.

[49] U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, War Powers in the 21st Century, April 28, 2009, Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 111th Congress, First Session, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Press, 2010), accessed govinfo.gov.

[50] Bolt, 380-381.

Did an Indianapolis Local Help Inspire “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Photograph by M. B. Parkinson (New York: 1890), Special Collections, University of Virginia.

This has been adapted from its original August 22, 2019 publication in the Weekly View.

Was a Hoosier the inspiration behind the book that sold more copies in the 19th century than any other book except the Bible—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly? It’s a distinct possibility. Stowe penned the novel during a fearful time in America for persons of color. Fleeing intolerable conditions wrought by enslavement, many risked a perilous journey to the North. This was America after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that residents of free states return fleeing slaves to their masters or face imprisonment or fines. The country was at odds over the issue of slavery and as to the responsibility of individuals in protecting the peculiar institution. It appeared America was edging ever closer to being torn in two.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher
Harriet Beecher Stowe, daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, c. 1856, courtesy metmuseum.org, accessed Britannica.org.

Moved by these events, young abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe put pen to paper and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hoping to appeal to the heart and conscience of the nation. The National Era serialized the narrative, with the first of forty chapters appearing on June 5, 1851.  A year later it was published in book form and quickly became the most widely-read book in the U.S., selling 300,000 copies in 1852 alone. Stowe’s realistic depiction of American slavery through the character of “Uncle Tom” mobilized support for abolition, particularly in the North.

Playwrights adapted the popular story for the stage, but in doing so distorted Stowe’s original depiction of Tom in order to attract bigger audiences. Readers encountered a benevolent, but deeply convicted character, who would rather lose his life than reveal the location of two enslaved women hiding from their abusive master. The stage version depicts Tom as a doddering, ignorant man, so eager to please his master that he would sell out fellow persons of color. Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, notes that because of the “perversion” of Stowe’s portrayal, today “in many African American communities ‘Uncle Tom’ is a slur used to disparage a black person who is humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people.” Despite the modern implications of the term “Uncle Tom,” the Antebellum stage productions further propelled Americans to take action against the plight of enslaved people in the mid-19th century.

Theatrical Poster of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Poster, ca. 1880, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

While Stowe acknowledged that the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from an 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, she’d had personal interactions with former slaves who she had met while living in Cincinnati. She was also familiar with Quaker settlements, which “have always been refuges for the oppressed and outlawed slave.” [1]  In a companion book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe documented “the truth of the work,” [2] writing that the novel was “a collection and arrangement of real incidents . . . grouped together . . . in the same manner that the mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture.” [3]

Although Stowe does not mention him by name, Indianapolis residents and newspapers credited a local man with influencing her book: Thomas “Uncle Tom” Magruder. Tom had been enslaved by the Noble family.  Dr. Thomas Noble gave up his medical practice and became a planter in Frederick County, Virginia when his brother gave him a plantation sometime after 1782.  Tom Magruder was probably one of the slaves on this plantation who, in 1795, were forced to move with Dr. Noble to Boone County, Kentucky, where he established “Bellevue” farm.

Tom managed the farm during his enslavement until 1830, when both Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Noble had passed away.  He was “permitted to go free” [4] and he moved his family to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, likely to a free slave settlement.  In 1831, Dr. Noble’s son, Indiana Governor Noah Noble, brought the aged Tom and his wife, Sarah, to Indianapolis. There, he had a cabin built for them on a portion of a large tract of land that he had acquired east of the city.  The dwelling that became known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was located on the northeast corner of Noble (now College Avenue) and Market Street.  Eventually Tom and Sarah Magruder’s daughter, Louisa Magruder, and granddaughter Martha, known as “Topsy,” joined the household.  Tom was a member of Roberts Park Methodist Church and was an “enthusiastic worshipper—his ‘amens,’ ‘hallelujahs,’ and ‘glorys’ being . . . frequent and fervent.” [5]

Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1868, Lenox Library Association, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.

Living a few blocks from Tom at the southwest corner of Ohio and New Jersey in the 1840s was Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, white pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. [6]  He was “a constant visitor of Uncle Tom’s, well acquainted with his history, and a sincere admirer of his virtues.” [7]  Like the main character in Stowe’s novel, Tom Magruder was a “very religious old Negro;” [8] of commanding appearance, his “open, gentle, manly countenance made him warm friends of all persons, white and black, who became acquainted with him.” [9] 

It is known that Rev. Beecher mentioned the venerable gentleman in a sermon, which may have been when he preached on slavery on May 34, 1846. [10]  Harriet Beecher Stowe visited her brother in Indianapolis that summer and may have accompanied him on one of his frequent visits to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  It is possible that she left the city with the future title of her novel and its main character in mind.  It is likely that the names of the Magruder sons—Moses and Peter—and the name of their granddaughter Topsy remained with Stowe to later find their way into her tale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [11]

Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis; The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Indianapolis Public Library, 1910), 242, accessed Archive.org.

Tom Magruder died on February 22, 1857 at about 110 years old. He was buried in the Noble family lot at the city’s Greenlawn Cemetery.  At the time of his death, there was a universal belief in Indianapolis that “there are some circumstances which give it an air of probability” [12] that “Old Tom” is “Stowe’s celebrated hero.” [13]  Among other things, “‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’ . . . was a familiar phrase here long before Mrs. Stowe immortalized it.” [14] Local papers “stood up for the claim” [15] in the immediate years after Tom’s death.  The Daily Citizen wrote in April 1858, “It is believed here that Thomas Magruder . . . was the ‘veritable Uncle Tom,’” [16] and the Indianapolis News in March 1875 bluntly stated, “[Josiah Henson] is a fraud.  The original Uncle Tom lived in this city and his old cabin was near the corner of Market and Noble Street.” [17]

In his 1910 book Greater Indianapolis, historian Jacob Piatt Dunn thought it unlikely that Tom Magruder would ever be confirmed as the inspiration behind Stowe’s legendary fictional character. However, he noted that “it is passing strange that none of the numerous friends and admirers of the Beechers in this city received any denial of it, which would necessarily have broken the uniform faith in the tradition.” [18] What Dunn was certain about is that nearly everyone in Indianapolis at the time knew Tom Magruder, “‘for he was noted as an exemplary and religious man and was generally respected.'” [19]

 

SOURCES USED:

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe,  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (John P. Jewett & Co, Boston, 1858), Part I, Chapter XIII: The Quakers, p. 54.

[2] Ibid., title page.

[3] Ibid., Part I, Chapter I, p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacob Piatt Dunn,  Greater Indianapolis, vol. 1 (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 243.

[6] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol II, 1838-1842 (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1973), p. 164, p. 340.

[7] “An Old Resident Dead,” The Indianapolis Journal, February 24, 1857, 3:1.

[8] Jacob P. Dunn, “Indiana’s Part in the Making of the Story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History 7, no. 3 (September 1911), 115.

[9] “Early Recollections. Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Daily State Sentinel, December 31, 1862, 2:4.

[10] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. III, 1844-1847, (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1974), p. 62, p. 259.

[11] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852), title page.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, vol. I (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 244.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Scraps,” The Indianapolis News, March 27, 1875, 2:3.

[18] “‘Uncle Tom’ Was Resident of City,” The Indianapolis Star, July 22, 1912, 19.

[19] Ibid.

“Do Fish Think, Really?” And Will Cuppy’s Other Musings

Will Cuppy, accessed Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2014).

Humorist Will Cuppy’s witticisms tended toward, as his biographer Wes Gehring put it, “dark comedy that flirts with nihilism.” Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, published posthumously in 1950, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list and enjoyed eighteen reprints in hardback. Decline and Fall typified Cuppy’s life’s work, which satirized human nature and utilized footnotes to great comedic effect. He spent sixteen years researching the historic figures featured in Decline and Fall, but, after years of battling depression, passed away before its publication.

Young Cuppy, 1902, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, accessed Gale Academic OneFile.

The Auburn, Indiana native spent a lot of time on his grandmother’s South Whitley farm. There, he developed a love of animals and a curiosity about life. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Cuppy found himself wondering if fish think—and no one he knew was curious enough to similarly wonder or care if indeed fish do think. In search of more inquisitive conversationalists, Cuppy moved out of Indiana as soon as he could. Upon graduation from Auburn High School, Cuppy departed for the University of Chicago where he would spend the next twelve years taking a wide array of courses. He completed his B.A. in philosophy and planned to get his Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature.

While at university, Cuppy worked for the school paper. As a result, the University of Chicago Press hired Cuppy to “create some old fraternity traditions for what was then a relatively new college” to give the school more of an old east coast university feel. This assignment evolved into Cuppy’s first book, Maroon Tales, published in 1910. Eventually, Cuppy’s college friend Burton Rascoe invited him out to New York City, where Rascoe was an editor and literary critic for the New York Tribune. After agreeing to move to New York City, Cuppy decided to get his M.A. in literature and leave the University of Chicago rather than complete his Ph.D. He was ready to move on.

Illustration from How to Become Extinct (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), 31.

In 1921, Cuppy moved into a tarpaper and tin shack on Jones’ Island in New York. Suffering from hypersensitivity to sound, Cuppy wished to escape the noise of the city. He lived on the island year-round for eight years, with occasional visits to the city for supplies. The men of the Coast Guard station a few hundred feet down the beach befriended him and shared food, as well as fixed his typewriter. Cuppy called his beach home Tottering-on-the-Brink, giving insight into his mental health. But despite his seclusion, Cuppy’s career progressed. By 1922, he was writing occasionally for the New York Tribune, and in 1926 he joined the staff there as a book reviewer (by which time the Tribune had become the New York Herald Tribune).

End paper art from How to be a Hermit, courtesy of Simanitis Says.

Then, in 1929, Cuppy had to leave his shack because New York designated the area to become a state park, although he received permission to visit his hermitage for irregular vacations. Cuppy moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, but even after he left his residence at Jones’ Island he would sometimes be referred to—and refer to himself—as a hermit because he continued to maintain an isolated lifestyle. Predictably, Cuppy found it difficult to stand the noise of the humming city. He tended to sleep during the day and work during the night to minimize his exposure to the cacophonous sounds. When it all got to be too much, Cuppy would blow on noisemaker as hard as he could out an open window.

Cuppy published a book about his experience living on Jones’ Island in 1929, How to Be a Hermit (Or A Bachelor Keeps House). The book was a best-seller—reprinted six times in six months—and put Cuppy on the map as a humorist and author. In traditional Cuppy fashion, he quipped “I hear there’s a movement among them [architects] to use my bungalow as a textbook example of what’s wrong with their business. The sooner the better—that will give the dome of St. Paul’s a rest.” And then there was this telling jest:

Coffee! With the first nip of the godlike brew I decide not to jump off the roof until things get worse—I’ll give them another week or so.

Cuppy followed up Hermit with How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931.

Cuppy at a broadcast for CBS Radio, circa 1942, courtesy of Gale Academic OneFile, accessed Simanaitis Says.

The 1930s were a busy time for Cuppy. In 1930, he tried to establish himself as a comic lecturer; however, after a brief stint of talks, it appeared the venture did not work out. A few years later Cuppy hosted a short-lived radio program on NBC called “Just Relax.” It proved too difficult to sustain a radio program with Cuppy’s singular brand of comedy and socially anxious tendencies—radio executives simply told him he wasn’t funny. Though his program didn’t last, Cuppy continued to appear in radio broadcasts sporadically through the years. He went on the radio to promote his next book, How to Become Extinct (1941).

Numerous reviews of mystery and crime novels had garnered Cuppy the distinction of being “America’s mystery story expert” as early as 1935. It was earned—in the course of his career Cuppy published around 4,000 book reviews. He secretly admitted that his heart wasn’t in it and he’d never particularly enjoyed the mystery and detective genre, but reviewing these books in his New York Herald Tribune column “Mystery and Adventure” was Cuppy’s steadiest income stream over the years. Nevertheless, in the 1940s Cuppy used his genre expertise to edit three anthologies of mystery and crime fiction. His freelance writing also picked up in this decade.  National publications like McCall’s Magazine, The New Yorker, College Humor, For Men, and The Saturday Evening Post printed Cuppy’s essays that would later be compiled in his books, like How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

In a reflection that brings to mind Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cuppy was fond of saying:

I’m billed as a humorist, but of course I’m a tragedian at heart.

One gets the sense from reading Cuppy’s material that he used humor as a coping mechanism. Quoting Cuppy, Gehring wrote that the dark humorist “believed humor sprang from ‘rage, hay fever, overdue rent, and miscellaneous hell.’” You could say that, like his humor, Cuppy’s life was tragic. Though he had long suffered from depression, multiple sources noted Cuppy’s declining health in mid-1949. Then, threatened with eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment and reeling from the end of a decades-long friendship, Cuppy followed through on decades of casual talk about self-harm. He died on September 19, 1949, due to suicide. He was buried in Auburn, Indiana’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Illustration from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 38.

After Cuppy died, his editor, Fred Feldkamp, took on the task of assembling Cuppy’s numerous notes into The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy took his research seriously, and this is where Cuppy’s extensive education shined through. He would spend months researching a single short essay, reading everything he could find on the topic and amassing sometimes hundreds of notecards on each subject. Having worked on Decline and Fall for a whopping sixteen years before his death, Cuppy had collected many boxes of notecards filled with research. Decline and Fall was an immediate success when it was published in 1950. Locally, the Indianapolis News named it one of the best humor books of the year, and listed it as the top best-seller in Indianapolis in non-fiction for the year. In 1951, Feldkamp used more of Cuppy’s notes to edit and publish How to Get from January to December; it was the final publication in Cuppy’s name.

Footnote from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 154.

Cuppy’s style was characterized by a satirical take on nature and historical figures. Footnotes were his comedic specialty—they were such a successful trademark that he was sometimes hired to add his touch of footnote flair to the works of fellow humorists. In Decline and Fall there is one footnote in particular which is emblematic of Cuppy’s unique dark humor: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” Before the publication of Decline and Fall, Cuppy was frequently asked why he always wrote about animals—when would he write about people? But, of course, he had been lampooning humanity all along.

Courtesy of Amazon.com.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in the last decade of his life, Cuppy befriended William Stieg, the man who would go on to create the character Shrek in his 1990 children’s book by the same name. A young cartoonist, Stieg was hired to illustrate How to Become Extinct and Decline and Fall. Cuppy and Stieg struck up an extensive correspondence, and Cuppy influenced Stieg’s style. The notion of a humorous curmudgeon living in isolation and drawn out into the world by both necessity and outgoing friends strikes a familiar chord that echoes in Shrek.

Cuppy was a famous humorist in his time, and the acclaim of his better-known comedy contemporaries, like P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, certainly helped to heighten his renown. When Decline and Fall came out, a reviewer for the New York Times insisted that “certain people, at least, thought [Cuppy] among the funniest men writing in English.” Beyond his work as a humorist, Cuppy’s career as a literary critic had been impactful; the managing editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he had “given up reading whodunits” after Cuppy’s death because he didn’t trust any other critic to guide his mystery selections. The sadly serious humorist is less widely known today, but his quips seem more relevant than ever.

Be sure to see Will Cuppy’s state historical marker at the site of his childhood home in Auburn after it is unveiled in August.

 

Further reading:

Wes D. Gehring, Will Cuppy, American Satirist: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013).

Norris W. Yates, “Will Cuppy: The Wise Fool as Pedant,” in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964).

Al Castle, “Naturalist Humor in Will Cuppy’s How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” Studies in American Humor, 2, 3 (1984): 330-336.