Maurine Dallas Watkins: Sob Sisters, Pretty Demons, and All That Jazz

Movie poster for “Chicago” (2002), courtesy of Miramax.com.

“Yes, it was me! I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! And I’d do it again-,” cried Roxie Hart, the achingly beautiful murderess conjured up by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. Inspired by crimes she covered for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, Watkin’s 1926 play “Chicago” became an instant hit and has been continuously reinterpreted, from Bob Fosse’s 1970s production to the Oscar-winning 2002 Miramax film. The Crawfordsville, Indiana native’s take on women murderers, who employed charm and theatrics to convince sympathetic male jurors of their innocence, earned the praise of critics and theater-goers. The Los Angeles Times noted that year “critics claim that the play is without a counterpart in the history of the American stage.” In an era of instant, often fleeting social media-derived celebrity, Watkins’ fame-obsessed murderesses who kept the press enraptured seem more relevant than ever.

Maurine Dallas Watkins
Maurine Watkins, News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 14, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, Watkins moved with her family to Indiana and attended Crawfordsville High School. According to a 1928 Indianapolis Star article, she started writing dramas from a young age. At 11-years-old, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church presented her “Hearts of Gold,” which generated $45. The St. Louis Star and Times described Watkins in 1928 as “simply dressed, with big, innocent-looking blue eyes and an exceedingly shy manner.”

After studying at Butler University in Indianapolis and Hamilton College in Lexington, Kentucky, she sought experiences about which she could write and contacted the city editor of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper, convinced by Watkin’s zeal, hired her to write about the city’s crimes from a “woman’s angle.” Her eight month stint as a “sob sister,” or women journalists who wrote about female criminals and were often sympathetic to their crimes (although not in Watkins’ case), inspired her to write “Chicago.” She described the piece as “‘a composite of many different happenings, while Roxy the heroine, was drawn from one of our leading ‘lady murderesses’-the loveliest thing in the world, who looked like a pre-Raphaelite angel, and who shot her lover because he was leaving her'” (Ind. Star).

Beulah Annan
Beulah Annan in a Chicago jail cell immediately following her arrest for the murder of her lover, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 29, 1928. Watkins covered the 1924 trial for the Chicago Tribune and served as inspired for her play, accessed Newspapers.com.

This murderess was one Mrs. Beulah Annan of Chicago, who confessed to killing her lover Harry Kalstedt. She was pronounced not guilty by a jury, swayed by her innocent persona and “man-taming eyes.” While Annan served as the inspiration for “Chicago,” the name of the play’s protagonist Roxie Hart was likely borrowed from a 1913 murder in Crawfordsville involving the lover of the deceased Walter Runyan. Like Annan, this lover was also praised for her captivating eyes and delicate features.

The St. Louis Star and Times noted that Watkins enjoyed this work for a period of time “because the psychological reactions interested her.” With literary inspiration in hand, she moved to New York and worked as a movie critic for the American Yearbook. She attended Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class “47” at Yale University, drafting “A Brave Little Woman.” According to The Best Plays of 1926-27, upon completing the play Watkins, “being a thorough feminist,” approached play broker Laura Wilck, who “promptly bought it for herself and announced an intention of producing it. But before she got around to this the men interfered.” Well-known producer Sam Harris soon bought and changed the play’s name to “Chicago.” Best Plays attributed the piece’s success to Watkin’s “freshness of viewpoint,” “natural gift for writing,” and “interview with a lady murderess.” The Roaring Twenties provided the perfect canvas for Watkin’s literary skills and, as the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News noted in 1927, “No period ever left itself wider open to lampooning than this in which the absurd antics of bootlegging, publicitizing, exploitation, crime and all the rest are commonplaces.”

Clark Gable, Chicago, Maurine Watkins
Actor Clark Gable (far left) portraying a reporter in “Chicago,” courtesy of Gable Archives, accessed Clark Gable, in Pictures: Candid Images of the Actor’s Life.

The play achieved immediate stage success. According to a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, it ran for 172 Broadway performances. Its debut generated widespread anticipation and the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1927 that preparations were being made at the city’s Music Box Theater, “with stage and screen stars, literary prominents, civic officials and society leaders in attendance, the opening promises to develop into a social event.” The showing featured an undiscovered Clark Gable (who later married Hoosier actress Carole Lombard), portraying “Jake the reporter.”

Ad, Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania), April 29, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

A review published by the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted that “Chicago’s” text was “so packed with knowledge and seasoned irony that any one could picture for himself the kind of toughened old buzzard of a sob-sister who would have knocked about enough to know how to write it.” The Arizona Republic published one of the more colorful and insightful reviews of the play’s impact on the public, noting that Watkins filled her “drama with comedy of terrific realty and, with never a word of preachment . . . and sends the audiences home converted to a skepticism that can hardly fail to have important results when enough people have seen the play.” As the scintillating third act concluded, the “audience staggers home, laughed out, yet somehow sadder and wiser, and realizing with tragic wonder that tomorrow the headlines will brazen forth some new female criminal.”

The Republic suggested that Watkin’s drama could change the public’s perception about these “pretty demons.” It added that her work was a “tremendous denunciation of the sacrilege by which the juryman, who should be the wisest and sanest of our guardians, is easily turned into a blithering come-on.” And, “best of all,” the satire was written by a woman “on the folly of men in their false homage to woman, their silly efforts to protect her while she dupes them.”

Maurine Dallas Watkins, father George
Maurine with her father on a return visit to Indiana. She stayed with her parents at their farm in Clermont, Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indianapolis Star reported that the reverend’s daughter still considered Indiana home, despite moving to New York following the success of her play. She recalled upon a return visit “‘I love it out in the country-life’s terribly complicated! You count the rings of the telephone to see if it is your number, and you have to go and meet the postman.'” The woman who wrote about a “flashy negligee of blue Georgette with imitation lace,” kept her hair “unbobbed” due to her father’s dislike of short hair.

Following the success of “Chicago,” Watkins continued to write, but never achieved the same level of literary acclaim. She was commissioned to dramatize Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel Revelry, about the Harding administration’s Ohio Gang, for which she conducted research at the White House. In April 1927, the newspaper hired her to cover the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband. The paper noted that Watkins, a sobless sister, would “deal with facts, without tears, in a notable author’s inimitable way, from her place at the trial table in Queens courtroom.” She reportedly moved to Hollywood, writing screenplays and articles for Cosmopolitan magazine. The author later settled in Florida, where she died of lung cancer in 1969. Watkin’s three act play cemented her legacy among the pantheon of accomplished Hoosier writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, I Love Lucy‘s Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Crawfordsville colleague Lew Wallace.

Thomas A. Hendricks: “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was”

Governor Thomas Andrew Hendricks, Governors’ Portrait Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Thomas A. Hendricks (1819-1885), an attorney from Shelbyville and, later, Indianapolis, became the most prominent Democrat in Indiana during the Civil War era. As such, he articulated the conservative Democratic position most forcefully and memorably. This stance can be summed up in the words, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” Hendricks was also known for his outspoken white supremacist, but antislavery, views.  His frequently quoted remark, uttered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, reveals this attitude: “This is the white man’s Government, made by the white man, for the white man.”

In a storied career that included single terms as senator, governor, and election in 1884 to the vice presidency of the United States, Hendricks spent nearly four decades in public life.  First elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in the late 1840s and then to Congress in 1851, he was appointed by President Franklin Pierce (and later reappointed by President James Buchanan) to lead the extremely busy General Land Office during a period of numerous and generous land grants.  Increasingly out of step with Buchanan’s proslavery and anti-homestead bill policies, Hendricks resigned his Washington position in 1859.

Governor Oliver P. Morton, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

He returned to Indiana, and almost immediately found himself at the head of the Democratic Party ticket as it attempted to retain control of the state’s reins of power. However, although 1860 was a Republican year, Hendricks fared better against his gubernatorial opponent, Henry S. Lane, than did the rest of the Democratic ticket.  Then, according to a pre-arranged agreement, Governor Lane was chosen by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to become Indiana’s new United States senator.  The energetic and ambitious lieutenant governor, Oliver P. Morton, then became governor and served throughout the Civil War.

It was a different story in the off-year elections of 1862, when the unpopularity of the war and many of President Abraham Lincoln’s policies—especially his emancipation plan—resulted in a Democratic sweep of state offices, including control of the Indiana General Assembly.  When this body elected another new senator, the popular Hendricks was chosen.  In office from 1863 to 1869, Senator Hendricks was involved with the final years of the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction. Initially, he stoutly supported the Union’s war effort, but not the plans for the emancipation of African American slaves. After the war, he spoke out against (and voted against) the three so-called Civil War Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th) to the federal Constitution.  In his view, the impassioned feelings of the immediate postwar era and the absence of representatives in Congress from eleven states, made the times “unpropitious” for making basic constitutional changes.

Governor Conrad Baker, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Obviously, Hendricks’s views resonated with his fellow Hoosier Democrats, and while still a senator he was nominated to run again for governor in 1868.  Hendricks was narrowly defeated by the incumbent governor, Conrad Baker, who had succeeded Morton when he went to the U. S. Senate in 1867. Hendricks retained his personal popularity and ran a third time, successfully, for the governor’s seat in 1872, serving from 1873 to 1877.  Still not done with electoral politics, the charismatic governor was Samuel J. Tilden’s running mate in the famous “disputed election of 1876,” in which the Democratic team received more votes than did their opponents, but a partisan Electoral Commission awarded the victory to Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler.

Campaign poster for Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks, 1884, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

Hendricks’ final campaign came in 1884 when he reluctantly, for health reasons, agreed to join Grover Cleveland at the head of the Democratic Party ticket. Successful this time, Hendricks’ service as vice president was destined to be short.  Inaugurated in March 1885, the Hoosier politician died at his home in Indianapolis in November 1885.

Regarding Hendricks’ Civil War years in Indiana, there is no evidence that he was a member of any “dark lantern” society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Sons of Liberty, or the Order of American Knights; nor was he a Copperhead, if one defines that term as a Northerner who supported the South during the war.  If, however, one defines the term more broadly to include those who opposed the Lincoln administration and, following Lincoln’s death, the Radical Republican agenda, then, of course, Hendricks certainly belongs in that category.

Greenback bill, issued March 1863, courtesy of Museum of American Finance.

He was an outspoken critic of what he considered the excesses of Lincoln’s wartime policies, including emancipation, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, high tariffs, the issuance of “greenbacks” and other banking policies that he believed aided the New England states at the expense of western states, and many more extra-military actions by both the state and national administrations. In particular, Hendricks lambasted the Lincoln administration in a major speech in Indianapolis on January 8, 1862, during the state Democratic Party convention, which in its platform condemned the Republicans for rejecting compromises that might have averted war, and for its violations of freedom of the press and the domestic institutions of sovereign states. But Hendricks consistently supported the war to save the Union, urged compliance with the draft, and deplored armed resistance to its enforcement.

Thomas A. Hendricks monument at the Indiana State House, accessed Wikipedia.org.

In May 1863, at the time of another party gathering in Indianapolis, Hendricks was threatened by an unauthorized band of roaming soldiers when he attempted to speak.  The melee that followed led up to the events known as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  Hendricks was also at the center of a volatile situation when he joined Governor Morton on the steps of the state house in eulogizing the assassinated president; Morton’s stern demeanor quieted the protesters, following cries of “Hang him” aimed at Hendricks, and the Democrat was able to continue his remarks. Ironically, this episode occurred near the site on the current State House grounds where a tall monument with a larger than life-size statue of Hendricks was erected in 1890 and still stands.

Bibliography

Gray, Ralph D. “Thomas A. Hendricks:  Spokesman for the Democracy,” in Gray, ed., Gentlemen from Indiana: National Party Candidates, 1836-1940. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1977.

Holcombe, John W., and Hubert M. Skinner. Life and Public Services of Thomas A. Hendricks with Selected Speeches and Writings. Indianapolis: Carlon and Hollenbeck, 1886.

Neely, Jr., Mark E., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stampp, Kenneth M.  Indiana Politics during the Civil War. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1949.

Tredway, G. R. Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1973.

Mermaids, Giant Turtles, and Wild Men…Oh My!

EDITOR’S NOTE: While the Indiana Historical Bureau does not research folklore and cryptozoology, in the course of doing historical research in newspapers about other topics, we sometimes come across odd stories like we have collected here. We thought some people would find these strange accounts from historical records interesting.

A cryptid is defined as “An animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated.” The most famous cryptids include Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, the Pacific Northwest’s Bigfoot, and the Chupacabra of Central and North America. These mysterious animals tend to inhabit mysterious places; deep, dark lakes, impenetrable forests, and wide open desserts. It’s a bit surprising, then, that there is such a long and rich history of Hoosier cryptids. From Ohio River “mud mermaids” in southern Indiana to a Michigan City “wild child” up north, historic newspapers are riddled with reports of unexplained (and mostly unconfirmed) creatures in the wilds of Indiana.

Some of the most commonly reported sightings fall into the category of humanoid creatures. The most widely known of these is Bigfoot and while they’re most often associated with the Pacific Northwest, there have been some sightings here in the Hoosier State. Stories of Bigfoot have their roots in the legends of Native Americans and predate the arrival of Europeans to the continent. These stories existed long before there was one single term to describe all large, hairy, humanoid creatures, making it difficult to suss out reports of early sightings in newspapers. Reports of “wild men,” are probably the predecessors to modern Bigfoot sightings. Here, we will examine four of these reports which span over a century.

The Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 30 Dec 1839, pg 1. Accessed Newspapers.com.

In late 1839, a Pennsylvania newspaper picked up the story of a “Wild Child” sighting in Michigan City, Indiana. About four feet tall and covered in light brown hair, the child apparently was a very fast runner and swimmer and very fond of water. The report theorizes that the “creature” may have been the child of immigrants who wandered too far from camp and, left to his own devices, grew wild and (apparently) very hairy. The report concludes by declaring “It would be nothing but an act of Humanity on the part of our young men to turn out and help to capture it.”

 

 

 

The Weekly Republican, Plymouth Indiana. June 14, 1860, p1. Accessed Newspapers.com

Twenty-one years later, in 1860, the young men of Carroll County had
turned out to help capture another “Wild Child.” This article from The Weekly Republican in Plymouth, Indiana reports that a search party of 300 has formed to help look for a male child between the ages of 7 and 10 who had been sighted several times. Since this is the only account of the sightings found in newspapers and there are no reports indicating that this child had an unusual amount of hair, it’s quite possible that this was nothing but a lost child rather than a small Bigfoot. Even the newspaper expresses doubts, saying “we think we smell a rat.”

The Daily Reporter, Boonville IN, Aug 16, 1937, p.2. Accessed Newspapers.com.

 

It was suggested that the Boonville monster was actually a giant sloth, or Megatherium, pictured here.

In 1937, an animal alternately described as a “monster hairy ape,” a “giant sloth,” a “cross between an ape and a sloth,” and simply a “monster” was reported in Boonville, Indiana. In some articles, the beast was described as harmless but in one article, it was said that the beast “mauled a police dog so bad it had to be shot.” Community members banded together to search for the beast, mothers kept their children inside, and traps with raw meat in them were laid with hopes of luring the creature in. All was for naught as on August 19 newspapers announced that the search was being “temporarily abandoned” and no mentions of resuming search was found in the following months. One article, written about a month later, points out that the rumors began to spread just as blackberry season started and suggests that “Boonville folk” spread the tale to keep people away from their blackberry patches.

Linton Daily Citizen, Linton, IN July 18, 1949, pg 3. Accessed Newspapers.com.

Twelve years later, there was a rash of sightings of a large, hairy, humanoid animal around Thorntown, in Boone County. The papers
reported nearly 30 and claim the town was so terrorized that residents weren’t venturing out at night. An article ran on June 22, 1949 in the Lafayette Journal and Courier reporting that the “Thorntown Gorilla,” as it was being called, was nothing more than a hoax planned by members of the Sportsmen and Wild Life club. The mystery apparently persisted because on July 17, the Richmond Palladium headline read “Safari Seeks ‘gorilla’ at Thorntown.” This “safari” consisted of four posses, including State Conservation officers and nearly 30 Thorntown residents. What they found wasn’t a gorilla. Nor was it a hoax. What they found was much more tragic; a woman described as “deranged” and “mentally ill.”

Big Foot-like creatures aren’t the only kind of humanoids in the cryptozoology field. Mermaids also fit into the subdivision. It may seem unlikely for a land locked state like Indiana to have produced mermaid stories, but in late 1894 Ohio newspapers reported that a pair of “mud mermaids” had taken up residence on a sand bar in the Ohio River near Vevay, Indiana. The Cincinnati Enquirer gave a very detailed description of the rather monstrous sounding creature:

Artist rendering from the description given of the Mud Mermaids, from “Weird Indiana: Your Travel Guide to Indiana’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.”

“The beast is about five feet in length…Its (sic) general color is yellowish. The body between the four legs resembles that of a human being. Back of the hind legs it tapers to a point…The extremities resemble hands and are webbed and furnished with sharp claws…it is devoid of hair…Its (sic) ears are sharp-pointed and stand up like those of a dog…”

While newspapers report that sightings of the duo had started four year earlier, no newspaper reports can be found recounting earlier sightings and the mermaid craze ends as quickly as it began, with the first report in September and the last just under two months later in November.

The Telegraph, Logansport, IN, August 11, 1838 pg 1. Indiana State Library microfilm.

Of course, humanoid creatures aren’t the only kind of cryptid that has been reported to dwell in Indiana. Eye witness reports of a lake monster have been coming out of Lake Manitou, near present day Rochester, for many years. In an 1838 article, the Logansport Telegraph described a “well known tradition of the Indians respecting the Monster in the ‘Devil’s Lake.'” Witnesses estimated the monster “measured sixty feet” and described the Lake Manitou monster as having a head about three feet across with the contour of a cow’s head, a tapering neck, and being “dingy” colored with large bright yellow spots. Below is a depiction of the terror of Manitou Lake, published August 11, 1838 in the Logansport Telegraph.

Welcome to Churubusco sign, still taken from youtube.com video “Churubusco, Indiana”

Perhaps the most famous Indiana cryptid, definitely the one most thoroughly covered by newspapers, is a giant turtle called the “Beast of Busco” which was reported to live in a 10 acre lake near Churubusco, Indiana. Also called Oscar, the turtle’s shell was said to be as big around as a dining room table. Gale Harris, the owner of the lake Oscar called home, first saw the beast a year after purchasing the farmland the lake sat on, 1948. In early March 1949 the Columbia City Commercial Mail demanded a hunt for the reptile, running headlines like “Five Hundred Pound Turtle Would Make Lots of Good Turtle Soup.” The residents of the small town turned into turtle hunters; they proposed building a turtle house in the middle of town to display him in if they caught him. They tried everything to get the turtle out of the lake including using a crane, bringing in divers, draining most of the water from the lake, and using a female turtle to lure it out. They even offered a $1,800 reward for the capture of the beast, all to no avail. Eventually, it was concluded that the Beast of Busco either never existed or escaped to another lake. Dubbed “Turtle Town USA,” Churubusco still celebrates its famous reptilian resident with the annual Churubusco Turtle Days festival. 

These are just a few of the many unexplainable creatures that have been sighted in Indiana. So, the next time you’re hiking in the woods or swimming in the Ohio River, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might find.

Philo T. Farnsworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne

See PART I for Philo Farnsworth’s struggle to commercialize the
television and his involvement in the 1935 patent suit against RCA.

Engineers and office personnel at Farnsworth TV and Radio Corporation, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1940, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

In 1938, investors in the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation (FTRC) scoured the nation for a manufacturing plant that would allow them to profit from Farnsworth’s invention: the television. They selected the former Capehart Phonograph Company building in Fort Wayne, Indiana because, according to biographer Paul Schatzkin, the “company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”

The FTRC plant opened in 1939, stimulating the city’s economy with the production of radios, phonographs and television equipment. Not only did Farnsworth oversee production, but continued his scientific endeavors with a research department that, according to his wife Pem, operated at “high efficiency.” She noted that Farnsworth’s “input breathed energy into the men, and in turn their reciprocation kept him on his toes.” The plant’s opening coincided with the outbreak of World War II and Fort Wayne would experience the same economic revival as the nation through the manufacture of war goods.

Mark III, installed on vacuum system of television set, ca. 1930s-1940s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

Shortly after the FTRC began operations in Fort Wayne, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt required all television and radio materials be converted to the production of military equipment. With America’s involvement in World War II, the FTRC expanded throughout Indiana, culminating in a total of seven factories in the state during the war years, including those in Marion, Huntington and Bluffton. Donald Sinish, who worked with Farnsworth at the FTRC Research Department, recalled that the Ft. Wayne facilities were “rapidly converted to production of military equipment and engineering channeled to development of radio communication, missile guidance and radar systems.”

Despite the company’s expansion, Farnsworth’s quest to commercialize television was halted by the production of war materials and the FCC’s hesitation to establish broadcasting channels and standards, narrowing the period in which he could benefit from his patents, which expired in 1947. Disheartened by the obstacles preventing him from capitalizing on his invention, Farnsworth moved to Maine and vowed never to return to Fort Wayne.

Farnsworth (far right) with “Fusor” and engineers, ca. 1930s-1940s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

But when the company struggled to repay war loans that allowed for expansion, Farnsworth returned to Fort Wayne and reluctantly convinced investors to sell FTRC to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). The Fort Wayne company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth researched and experimented in his lab. Pem stated that the Fort Wayne lab “developed a device for the United States early-warning system” that could detect and destroy missiles and planes in the early atomic era. Farnsworth’s primary post-war research interests centered around developing a low cost form of fusion. Creating self-sustaining fusion is equivalent to bottling a star, a nearly impossible task that has yet to be conquered.

Farnsworth hoped to usher in the “high-energy era” with fusion, as a minuscule amount could power a whole city without the pollution of fossil fuels. Pem stated that Farnsworth’s fusion idea “gained solidarity early in 1947,” when a mutual friend set up a phone call between him and Albert Einstein. After discussing scientific theories for about an hour, Pem recalled “Phil reappeared, his face aglow from the excitement of finding someone who understood what he was talking about.”

Albert Einstein with J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientists whose work contributed to invention of the atomic bomb used in World War II.

Allegedly, Einstein had developed similar theories, but “was so shocked that his work had been used to produce the atomic bombs dropped on Japan that he vowed never to contribute further.” However, he encouraged Farnsworth to pursue the fusion work for “peaceful” purposes and requested Farnsworth contact him once he worked out the mathematics. Pem contended that “it was a great psychological relief to find another human being who shared his increasingly unique perspective” and that he found Einstein to be a “fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.”

Encouraged, Farnsworth established a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne and devised a “fusion reaction tube” called the Fusor, which he patented in 1968. He reportedly achieved fusion in Fort Wayne, but it is unclear whether or not he generated self-sustaining fusion. Unfortunately, Einstein died before Farnsworth could share his mathematics with him and, upon his passing, Farnsworth felt more alone than ever. The burden of his genius again overwhelmed him when he collaborated with employees to finalize his second fusion patent. According to Pem, upon realizing that they too did not grasp the “vital point of his concept” he closed his briefcase and informed them “’I have given you all the material you need to finish this patent. Now I am going home and get drunk!’”

Farnsworth with “Fusor,” 1960, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

After self-imposed isolation, he moved to Provo, Utah with Fort Wayne employees to pursue fusion away from ITT’s influence. In 1966, he established Philo T. Farnsworth Associates and collaborated with Brigham Young University on sustaining fusion. Eventually, Farnsworth’s health failed and he cancelled the fusion project. According to Schatzkin, family members suspected he carried the secret of fusion to his grave out of concern that humanity was not spiritually prepared for it.

Farnsworth was reportedly disgusted with television programming for its failure to facilitate his noble goals of exchanging cultures and educating viewers. Pem stated that while watching the 1969 moon landing Farnsworth professed “this has made it all worthwhile.” Ironically, Farnsworth himself appeared only once on the medium he invented on the program I’ve Got a Secret. Farnsworth passed away March 11, 1971 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Philo T. Farnsworth kept a plaque on his desk that read “MEN AND TREES DIE—IDEAS LIVE ON FOR THE AGES.” Farnsworth’s life serves as a testament to this. Schatzkin eloquently summarized his contributions, stating “There are only a few noble spirits like Philo T. Farnsworth . . . who can alter the course of history without commanding great armies.”

“THE DAMNED THING WORKS!:” Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television

Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s
Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

It is notable that in this age of celebrity worship, most people cannot name the inventor of the television. Even the meticulous Aaron Sorkin confused the details of Farnsworth’s life in his stage play. Woefully unrecognized, Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electronic television at the age of 14 and brought his conception to fruition in 1927 with his first electronic transmission.

Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Farnsworth nurtured a broad, idealistic vision of how his invention would change the world, envisioning how television might increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. Farnsworth’s greatest resource, much like Jobs’, was unconventional thinking and an ability to assemble a small team of determined ingénues like himself. Farnsworth’s wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, attributed her husband’s success to “intuitive thinking, logic, and hard work,” as well as his ability to combine “seemingly unrelated elements into new instruments of amazing effectiveness.”

Farnsworth's childhood home in Indian Springs Utah
Farnsworth’s childhood home in Indian Springs Utah, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

The inventor of television grew up in Utah prior to the existence of power lines, making his radical electronic concepts all the more remarkable. Farnsworth’s family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where Farnsworth delighted at the sight of a Delco power system, immersed himself in scientific magazines and invented tools that facilitated household chores. While working on the farm, a teenaged Farnsworth observed the straight rows created by the horses as he plowed, and abruptly thought “he could build the image like a page of print and paint the image line after line . . . with the speed of the electron, this could be done so rapidly the eye would view it as a solid picture.”

According to Pem, Farnsworth reasoned that by using an image dissector tube, he could manipulate electrons to “change a visual image into a stream of electrical current, transmit that to another vacuum tube at the receiver, and on a fluorescent screen turn the current back into the visual image again.” Farnsworth sketched his idea on the blackboard of his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and presented him with a drawing of it, which would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling.

Philo T. Farnsworth's sketch for teacher Justin Tolman
Philo T. Farnsworth’s sketch for teacher Justin Tolman, courtesy of philointhehall.com.

In 1923, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah and pursued formal education, enrolling at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study mathematics and physics, although, like Jobs, never graduated. Ironically, his lack of formal training contributed to his success, as fundraiser George Everson recalled that Farnsworth “attacked the whole assignment with no engineering experience and little engineering knowledge, but to compensate for these inadequacies he had courage and genius.” After leaving BYU, Farnsworth worked for Everson as an organizer at the Community Chest Campaign, who, along with fundraiser Leslie Gorrell, funded Farnsworth’s electronic television idea. With this financial backing, Farnsworth moved to California, eventually establishing a lab on Green Street in San Francisco and hand-picking a team of scientists and innovators.

In the team’s early days, engineers shuffled in and out of the lab with various instruments, a “glittering array of crystals, prisms, and lenses.” This activity attracted the attention of police in the Prohibition era and Pem stated “it’s not hard to imagine how suspicious our operation must have looked to an outsider. Strange packages were being brought in, and the curtains were drawn for demonstrating the light relay.” Pem reassured two policemen, who came to investigate the lab, that she and her husband were not operating a still and continued their electronic experiments.

Farnsworth’s 202 Green Street lab in San Fransisco, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

Farnsworth focused on perfecting the image dissector tube with the help of Pem’s glassblowing brother, Cliff Gardner. The scientific team constructed numerous models before developing a bulb that was delicate, yet strong enough to transmit an image electronically. After years of failed experiments and twelve hour work days, on September 27, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted the first “electronic television image.” With Farnsworth and his staff at the receiver, Cliff inserted the slide into the Dissector and a small line materialized in the receiver room, ushering in the television age. Farnsworth wired Gorrell a simple message: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” and applied for his first television patent on January 7, 1927.

Farnsworth was “the first to form and manipulate an electron beam” and according to his biographer Paul Schatzkin “that accomplishment represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is still in use today.” Farnsworth’s ability to harness electrons negated the need for mechanical objects to transmit images and later contributed to breakthroughs in radar and electron microscopy.

Farnsworth Television Model, 1936, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah.

However, transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal problems. Farnsworth struggled to maintain a balance between scientific experimentation and his financial backers’ desire for a return on investment. In 1928, Farnsworth met with impatient investors who demanded to see “some dollars” in his invention, and stunned them when an image of a dollar sign materialized in the screen before them. This presentation bought Farnsworth more time, but later that year the backers repealed their support, forcing Farnsworth to rally his team to continue with the development of television.

In the period between his first transmission and first public demonstration of the television in 1934, Farnsworth continued to navigate around financial problems, company reorganization, and protests by radio and film actors fearing the new medium could jeopardize their jobs. The primary obstacle to commercialization was RCA’s lawsuit regarding his 1927 television system patent. Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin attempted to devise an electronic television system and applied for a patent in 1923, despite lacking proof of its feasibility. Farnsworth invited Zworykin, a former employee of Westinghouse, to see his San Francisco lab in 1930 in hopes that Westinghouse might fund his invention. Unbeknownst to Farnsworth, Zworykin no longer worked for the company and his visit to the lab was motivated by personal objectives.

Farnsworth’s television system patent, contested over in the 1935 patent suit against RCA, accessed Google Patents.

Farnsworth demonstrated how to construct an Image Dissector for Zworykin, who later replicated the tube and presented it to RCA. Farnsworth’s refusal to sell his patents to RCA prompted the company to sue for priority of invention, so as to introduce commercial television to the public. The U.S. Patent Office settled the “David and Goliath confrontation,” as described by Farnsworth’s wife Pem, when it ruled in Farnsworth’s favor based on Justin Tolman’s presentation of Farnsworth’s high school Image Dissector sketch. For the first time in RCA’s history, the company had to pay patent royalties, rather than receive them. The ruling also established Farnsworth as the inventor of television, despite ongoing debate and distortions to the historical record like Aaron Sorkin’s stage play proclaiming RCA the victor of the suit. Schatzkin provides a superb synopsis of the debate about the inventor of television and errors punctuating the narrative in The Boy Who Invented Television.

Farnsworth continued to fight against RCA’s appeals and his refusal to bow to the corporation taxed his mental and physical health. While struggling with depression, exhaustion and a dependence on liquor to cope with the stress, Farnsworth vowed to bring television from conception to commercialization. He aimed to get into broadcasting, but because the FCC would not yet allocate spectrum space for television, Farnsworth decided to enter into manufacturing, which would lead him to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

According to the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah, in 1938 the Farnsworth television show was taken on a country- wide tour and was very well received.

Read part II: Philo T. Farnsworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne here.

History Unfolded Project Part 3: Book Burnings

We are continuing to examine world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

USHMM caption: At Berlin’s Opernplatz, the burning of books and other printed materials considered “un-German” by members of the SA and students from universities and colleges in Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

For this post, Part 3 of our History Unfolded project, we examine Indiana newspapers to find out when and what Hoosiers learned about the book burnings staged by German students and Nazi officials. In our previous post, we looked at articles reporting the removal of Jewish leaders from government and institutional positions by the Nazi Party in March and April of 1933.  By this time, Nazi authorities were also working to remove Jews from cultural organizations and to “synchronize” the goals of these organizations with that of the Nazi Party.  According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM):

USHMM caption: Joseph Goebbels, German propaganda minister, speaks on the night of book burning. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

In 1933, Nazi German authorities aimed to synchronize professional and cultural organizations with Nazi ideology and policy (Gleichschaltung). Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, began an effort to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals. The government purged cultural organizations of Jewish and other officials alleged to be politically suspect or who performed or created art works which Nazi ideologues labeled “degenerate.”

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, January 17, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1933, Goebbels had coordinated with the influential National Socialist German Student’s Association to “synchronize” German literature.  According to the USHMM, “German university students were among the vanguard of the early Nazi movement.” This younger generation was resentful of what they saw as the humiliation of Germany through disarmament and sanctions imposed at the end of World War One. They saw National Socialism as an outlet for their anger and feelings of nationalism and antisemitism.  An article published in the (Greencastle) Daily Banner on January 17, 1933, gives some insight into the students’ hostility.  In this article, United Press Staff Correspondent Richard D. McMillan reported the sentiments of one German student:

We did not make the last war.  Even if it is accepted that Germany was guilty for plunging the world into the greatest carnage of all time — and we dispute this question of war guilt — we, the younger generation, were not responsible. Why, then, should we suffer the humiliation and indignity of our present situation.

This generation, however, would be responsible for much greater carnage. On April 6, 1933, the student association’s propaganda office declared a nation-wide purge of “un-German” literature. Local chapters of the Nazi German Student Association published articles and lists of blacklisted works, created press releases and radio announcements, and organized book burning events with Nazi speakers.

Theodore Dreiser, photograph, 1931, New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002735853/

Black listed authors included socialists, communists, and “corrupting foreign influences.”  They condemned several American writers including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Indiana author Theodore Dreiser. A Terre Haute native, Dreiser was targeted because of his socialist convictions and because of his role in defending political radicals, many of whom were union leaders that he believed were denied social justice. Interestingly, Dreiser’s books were also ordered to be burned for their socialist content in 1935 by the library trustees of Warsaw, Indiana, where he went to high school.

Considering the action of burning books runs counter to American ideas about freedom of the press and speech, we expected to see strong denunciations of the purge in Indiana newspapers.  In actuality, we found little.  Unfortunately, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post is not available for most of the year 1933 in Hoosier State Chronicles.  On the other hand, most Indiana residents would not have had access to that newspaper.  So what did the average Hoosier newspaper reader know about the Nazi-orchestrated book burnings?

“Nazi Troops Active,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 2, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By searching the (Greencastle) Daily Banner we can see that Indiana readers had at least some knowledge of Nazi attempts to align their values with that of various institutions. (See Part 2 for information of removal of Jews from various positions of leadership as well as from universities.)  On May 2, 1933, the Daily Banner ran a United Press (UP) article reporting that Nazi storm troops had seized all German trade unions.  The article stated that Nazis “arrested the upper officials of each union and assumed charge” and “announced labor was being ‘harmonized’ with the Nazi regime.”

(Columbus) Republic, May 10, 1933, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 10, the day of the scheduled event,  several Indiana newspapers picked up the story via the Associated Press (AP).  The (Columbus) Republic, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item, and the Muncie Evening Press were among the newspapers that ran the same article announcing the burning of books for the sake of saving “kultur,” a Nazi term referring to native, superior German culture. The AP article reported:

USHMM caption: Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (at podium) praises students and members of the SA for their efforts to destroy books deemed “un-German” during the book burning at Berlin’s Opernplatz. Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

Blacklisted books from private as well as public libraries were piled high today on ‘Kultur’s altars’ throughout Germany for public burning tonight. Schoolboys enthusiastically rushed final preparations for the huge bonfires. Nazi student committees of action have been working at top speed more than a week arranging for the great purging of the libraries of ‘un-German influences.’ Government recognition is to be lent to the occasion in a rallying speech shortly before midnight by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of public enlightenment.

(You can watch footage courtesy of the National Archives of Goebbels speaking to students at Openplatz in Berlin as books burn in front of the Nazi flag.)

USHMM caption: German students gather around books they regard as “un-German.” The books were publicly burned at Berlin’s Opernplatz. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

The AP article reported that 20,000 books had been piled up in Berlin to be lit on fire at 11:00 that night. The article stated that “All books of a socialistic, Jewish or pacifist trend are especially marked for destruction.” In place of the blacklisted books the students would reportedly be reading Alfred Rosenburg, a Nazi ideologue who penned some of the central dogma of the party, and the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter.  Some works, however, were mandatory.  The article continued: “Among books compulsorily introduced is Chancellor Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ . . . There must be two to ten copies in each library.”

(Muncie) Star Press, May 11, 1933, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 11, descriptions of the book burning appeared in several Indiana newspapers.  The (Muncie) Star Press ran an AP article reporting from Berlin:

University young men and women, pronouncing judgment on world literature considered as contravening German spirit, started huge bonfires of the volumes shortly before midnight.  Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of public enlightenment and propaganda, pronounced the government’s blessing and declared that “the period of Jewish intellectualism now has ended.”

The AP article continued to describe the scene:

The weird glow illuminated Opera Square opposite Berlin University as the students, garbed in the picturesque costumes of their fraternities, the Nazi brown or the steel helmet gray, threw a thousand torches on the pyre, then seized the books from trucks and hurled them onto the blaze amid cheers.

The (Greencastle) Daily Banner ran a similar article from the United Press, describing the event in Berlin.  The UP reported:

Ten thousand singing and shouting students marched around a blazing bonfire in Opera square until the early hours of today, jubilant at destroying books representing ideas and doctrines considered hostile to Nazi Germany.

The UP reported that in addition to books by the authors previously mentioned, the students destroyed All Quiet On The Western Front, a work describing the horrors of the First World War, from which the students were distancing themselves.

“Nazi Students in Celebration,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 11, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the days following the purge, we expected to find editorials condemning the book burning and exalting the American principles of free speech and press. As previously mentioned, our search suffers from lack of access the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post for these dates.  However, we were hoping to find a strong statement such as the editorial by the African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder condemning the boycott covered in our previous post in this series. However, we found little local response to the event.

Indianapolis Star, May 17, 1933, 8, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 17, the Indianapolis Star ran an editorial originally published by the Baltimore Sun titled, “Book Burning an Evidence of German Nazi Stupidity.” The writer asserted that this event was part of a long history of book burnings by “underlings” of authoritarian governments who have been convinced to hate what they cannot understand. The editorial stated: “German education . . . must subordinate scholarship to a mass of ill-digested preconceptions about Nordics, ‘blond men’ and ‘heroic steely romance.'” By eradicating all writings that challenge party doctrine and erasing historical context, governments have been able to manipulate and influence their followers.  In Nazi Germany, this had devastating consequences. The editorial ended by predicting that someday volumes of works would be written about the “Influences of the Blond Nordic Myth on the Revolt of the Illiterate.”

On May 22, the (Greencastle) Daily Banner ran a group of photographs and a caption almost certainly from a wire service (though none is credited) showing images from the book burning. The headline, “Scene at Nazis’ Literary Holocaust,” seems chillingly prescient of the genocide to come.

“Scene at Nazis’ Literary Holocaust,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 22, 1933, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The caption reads:

Made in Berlin during the recent Nazi drive on what they considered anti-German literature, these pictures show the destruction of more than 20,000 books and pamphlets adjudged inimical to culture as interpreted by Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his followers. Upper photo shows cheering Nazis hailing Hitler as the books went up in smoke, while in lower panel are young Nazis feeding the literary Holocaust.

While the articles stopped appearing in Indiana newspapers, the book burnings continued. Nazis burned books in thirty-four university towns across Germany.  There were more burnings over the following days and another wave on June 21. The Berlin event was broadcasted throughout the country.  According to William L Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels had “put German culture into a Nazi straight jacket” (page 241). The night of May 10, 1933, Goebbels stated, “These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they light up the new.”

USHMM caption: Crowds gather at Berlin’s Opernplatz for the burning of books deemed “un-German.” Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, Wide World Photo, accessed ushmm.org

Despite Goebbel’s assertions, the “new” era only grew darker. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in an 1821 play which was among the works burned that night, ” Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” According to the USHMM, the oppression of culture was just one of many ways in which the Nazis worked to “purify” Germany.  The annihilation of the Jewish people would be next.

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the book burnings for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Check back over the next few weeks as we share our research into Indiana newspaper coverage of the Nuremberg Race Laws, the annexation of Austria, and the struggle of Jewish refugees.

History Unfolded Project Part 2: Jewish Businesses Boycotted / Jews Removed from Government

For this project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

Jewish Post, March 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In Part 1, we asked: When did Hoosiers learn about the opening of the Dachau concentration camp?  For this post, Part 2, we are looking into Indiana newspapers to find out when and what Hoosiers learned about the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and the removal of Jewish leaders from government posts during the spring of 1933.

Members of the Storm Troopers (SA), with boycott signs, block the entrance to a Jewish-owned shop. One of the signs exhorts: “Germans! Defend yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

On April 1, 1933, Nazis organized a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the boycott, “marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign by the Nazi party against the entire German Jewish population.”  The Nazis presented the boycott as retaliatory, but we know this was not the case.  What did Hoosiers know at the time, considering they were reading United Press and Associated Press articles which sometimes repeated propaganda compiled by Nazi communications directors?

To get the whole story, we need to start at least a month before the boycott.  According to the USHMM, “In March 1933, the SA (Storm Troopers) attacked Jewish-owned department stores in German cities in an attempt to segregate Jews from the rest of society.” Additionally, SA members took Jewish lawyers and judges from courtrooms into the streets and publicly humiliated them.  The international press and organizations condemned these acts, which Nazis denied despite evidence, and called for a boycott of German goods.  Nazi leaders claimed the press was biased against them and blamed Jewish German citizens for reporting false stories.  The Nazi Party called for a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, March 10, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The earliest article that we located directly tied to this rising storm, was published in the very first issue of the new (Indianapolis) Jewish Post on March 10, 1933.  The short article on the second page of the paper reported that Nazi Storm Troops arrested Jewish business owners in Annaberg, Germany, and closed their shops. Unfortunately, this is also the only issue of the Jewish Post currently available in Hoosier State Chronicles for the year 1933, so we don’t know what other information Jews in Indianapolis received about the situation. Most Indiana residents would not have had access to this newspaper, however, so looking at newspapers that published articles from press associations tells us even more about what the average Hoosier knew.

Greencastle Daily Banner, March 24, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On March 24, 1933, the Greencastle Daily Banner printed a United Press (UP) article titled, “Boycott by Jews is Seen in Germany: Dictator Adolf Hitler Centers Attention on This Matter.” This one short article shows the powerful Nazi propaganda machine in motion, along with the muted threat of censorship and hints of violence. The article reported from Berlin that Hitler was focused on “the twin problems of answering atrocity reports abroad and meeting threats of an economic boycott by Jewish business men in foreign lands.” Reportedly, Hitler supporters were working to “disprove reports of Jewish persecution,” though no mention was made of how this would be accomplished. The same article reported that the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter announced that “the government would take drastic measures against newspapers disseminating such reports and against their Berlin correspondent.”

On March 27, the Banner ran another UP article announcing “Jews To Be Ousted from High Posts.”  Again reporting from Berlin, the article quoted the “chief of the foreign press section” of the Nazi organization, Ernst Hanfstaengl.  He told the press that Jewish leaders would be ousted from government and “influential” positions “until the house is cleansed.” Hanfstaengl claimed that Jewish leaders and government officials were removed because they abused their positions “morally, financially and politically,” resulting in the crumbling of the German people.  He claimed they were trying to “smirch Germany’s renaissance.” Hanfstaengl also denied reports of widespread atrocities against the Jewish people in a manner that still managed to be threatening.  He stated, “If we wanted to conduct a pogrom against the Jews it would all have been over now.”

Sign on truck carrying Storm Troopers (SA) urges “Germans! Defend yourselves. Don’t buy from Jews.” Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

Another short UP article on the same page reported: “Retaliatory measures against Jews in Germany were decided on by the Nazi party today to balance the ‘atrocity propaganda’ being circulated in foreign countries.” It is interesting that those creating Nazi propaganda were calling the international criticism of Nazi treatment of Jews “atrocity propaganda.” The article continued: “Retaliation will take the form of a boycott of Jewish goods and shops, a sharp reduction of the number of Jewish students permitted at German universities, and curtailment of the licenses granted to practicing Jewish physicians and lawyers.”

This attitude was much different than that of only a few years before, and would get much worse within a few years.  According to the USHMM, before 1933:

Jews held important positions in government and taught in Germany’s great universities. Of the thirty-eight Nobel Prizes won by German writers and scientists between 1905 and 1936, fourteen went to Jews. Marriage between Jews and non-Jews was becoming more common. Although German Jews continued to encounter some discrimination in their social lives and professional careers, most were confident of their future as Germans.

On March 29, 1933, the Columbus Republic ran an AP article that mainly focused on the arrest of members of the “steelhelmets,” a paramilitary organization. However, the second half of the article, addressed the boycott and the continued effort to deny reports of atrocities. The article reported: “The Nazi ‘anti-lie’ campaign to offset widespread reports of persecution of the Jews has taken the form of a general boycott of Jewish shopkeepers and professional men.”  The article also reported that the German government, still somewhat separate at this time from the Nazi Party, would not interfere.

Alexandria Times-Tribune, March 29, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com

On March 29, 1933, the planned boycott made front page headlines of at least a few Indiana newspapers. The Alexandria Times-Tribune reported on an alleged split in the Nazi Party concerning the boycott and the treatment of Jewish citizens.  The article, titled “Elimination of Jews in Trade Causes Rioting” reported: “The radical element of the Nazis demanded boycott measures which amount to the practical extermination of Jews or their reduction to a position of serfdom.” The use of the word “extermination,” even here in reference to their position in society, is haunting. This article, clearly regurgitating Nazi propaganda, naively positions Hitler as a moderate within his party and distances him from the boycott. The article continued, “Chancellor Hitler and his close advisors, while of a determination to curb Jewish influence in politics and industry and commerce, took a more liberal view of the problem.”  The article ponders whether the “liberal” Hitler would be able to curb the “radical” Nazis without dividing the party. The article went on to describe the plan for the April 1 boycott:

The boycott plan, put forward by the Nazi radicals, calls for the clamping down the lid on all Jewish business and professional activities on April 1. Unless the government is able to forestall it, no phase of Jewish life, judging from the proclamation issued at National Socialist party headquarters in Munich will be spared. Jewish merchants, doctors and lawyers will be targets of the campaign as well as Jewish children, to whom the Nazi pronunciamento would bar certain professions and even would prevent extensive attendance by Jewish children in the schools.

According to the same article, a terrifying communique issued from Nazi headquarters in Munich titled, “For the defense of the Nazi party against the atrocity propaganda” explained that committees would be formed to carry out the boycott.  It included the statement: “These committees will see to it that the innocent do not suffer, but they must not spare the guilty.”

Greencastle Daily Banner, March 19, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The aforementioned article from the (Alexandria) Times-Tribune and another from the (Greencastle) Daily Banner on the same day (March 29)  reported to Hoosiers on the “spontaneous” boycotts, business closings, and violence leading up to the official April 1 boycott.  The Times-Tribune reported:

  • “In one Silesian town Jews were forced to close their stores and pay two months wages to their employes [sic].”
  • “At Bitterfeld, near Berlin, Nazi groups closed up Jewish market stalls and ordered their proprietors out of town.”
  • “Unidentified men swinging clubs damaged a store at Neumünster which opened after having been closed for two weeks by the police. They drove out customers, broke windows, and upset counters.”
  • “Boycott demonstrations extended to the offices of Jewish lawyers. At various places these lawyers were ordered to pay off their employes [sic] and closed their doors.”

The Daily Banner reported:

  • “In Wittenburg and the province of Brandenburg, Hitler’s storm troops picketed Jewish shops and forced them to close.”
  • “All stores owned by Jewish proprietors were closed in Darmstadt.”
  • “Jews of Gleiwitz voluntarily closed during the morning and found their places of business officially closed by the dictator’s storm troops when they sought to open them in the afternoon.”
Greencastle Daily Banner, March 31, 1933, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On March 31, the Banner ran another AP article on the impending boycott, reporting: “Twenty-four hours before their scheduled nation-wide boycott of Jewish industry and commerce, Nazi storm troopers mobilized today for mass action in every city of Germany.” The article reported that the German government stated that the boycott was not a government activity but a Nazi Party action. Those party members who also held a government position could not participate. They were to be replaced by “thousands of civilian party members… summoned to ‘duty’ . . . wearing distinguishing armbands with the party’s swastika emblem.”  The article also reported that in some towns, patrons who ignored the boycott and shopped at a Jewish business, would have their photograph taken and published in their local newspaper and their names and addresses recorded by the SA.

Seymour Tribune, March 31, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com

That same day, the Seymour Tribune ran an AP article reporting that attempts to persuade the Nazi Party to abandon the boycott “seemed only to add fuel to the fire today.” Instead of backing down, the party released a defiant statement.  The article reported: “A new proclamation defined the action as the beginning of a war on the entire Jewish race of the world.” According to the article, Jewish business owners had been instructed to identify their stores by hanging yellow signs in their windows. The Nazi newspaper reported “World Jewry will receive a blow from which it will not easily recover. German Jewry will be done for morally and commercially. No pardon will be given; no compromises made.”

Boycott poster. Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, accessed ushmm.org.
Greencastle Daily Banner, April 1, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 1, 1933, the day of the official boycott, several Indiana newspapers covered the day’s events.  The Greencastle Daily Banner ran an UP article stating that the “Nazi boycott of Jewish industry was reported 100 per cent complete in Berlin at noon today” and “the stoppage of all trade with proscribed elements of the population had been completed in many other cities as well as Berlin.” The atmosphere was described as being similar to that of a “holiday” and as “orderly.” However, the description of the Nazi party members stationed outside of stores was more menacing.  SA members were stationed in pairs in front of Jewish businesses and held signs with slogans such as “defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda.” One sign even read: “Dangerous to life to buy here.”

An SA member instructs others where to post anti-Jewish boycott signs on a commercial street in Germany. A German civilian wearing a Nazi armband holds a sheaf of anti-Jewish boycott signs, while SA members paste them on a Jewish-owned business. Most of the signs read, “Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda/Buy only at German stores.” Germany, ca. April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org.
Columbus Republic, April 1, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com/

An AP article from the day of the protest and published by the Columbus Republic had a different report.  The article titled “Boycott Opens But Some Jews Ignore Orders,” claimed that while some Jewish businesses closed under pressure, others defied Nazi orders.  The article reported: “Many Jewish stores remained open after the nation-wide boycott on their business began at 10 a.m. this morning despite anti-Semitic signs pasted on their windows by enthusiastic young Nazi storm troops.”  Nonetheless the Nazis were out in force. The article described the scene in Berlin:

“Brown shirted Nazis busily moved to and fro pasting signs of identification on Jewish stores, standing guard or picketing before shops and driving through streets in motor cars displaying boycott signs. On many public squares and market halls the Nazi brass bands made the air reverberate with snappy military marches. The Nazi Swastika and Imperial flags were displayed on all streetcars. Shops whose owners were Nazi party members, flew especially large Swastika banners.”

As with the earlier, nonofficial boycotts, the article reported that lawyers, physicians, and judges were also targeted.  The article closed by stating that the Nazi Women’s Federation appealed to every German woman “to join the movement for the destruction of Jewry.”

Also on the day of the boycott, the Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article that can perhaps be read as more insightful than some of the other articles, especially the UP articles. The article titled “Shops Closed, Trade Halted by Hitlerites,” reported that although the German government was able to hold the Nazi boycott to one day, much permanent damage had been done. The AP stated, “Only a small comfort was derivable from the present limitations for a half million distracted German Jews who to all practical purposes already are ostracized.”  The article also decried the removal of Jews from the courts and legal practices, of Jewish doctors from hospitals, and of Jewish leaders from other institutions. “Doors were being closed to them all around,” the article continued. Joseph Goebbels, the recently declared minister of Nazi propaganda, also threatened Jewish allies abroad, stating that if the English and Americans joined a Jewish-led boycott of German goods, Germany would “take its gloves off.”

Articles on the boycott and the removal of Jews from positions of leadership dwindled over the next several days and weeks.  Several Indiana newspapers, including the Greencastle Daily Banner, ran the following photograph and caption:

Greencastle Daily Banner, April 14, 1933, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

During our digital newspaper search, we discovered only one editorial in an Indiana newspaper responding to the reports. In a scathing denunciation of Nazi persecution of German Jews, the Indianapolis Recorder, the leading Indiana African American newspaper, stated on April 8, 1933:

“Indiscriminate persecution of Jews throughout the so-called Republic of Germany has aroused the indignation of the entire civilized world. The anti-Jewish boycott imposed by the Nazi party was enforced in a spirit of savage spite by Hitler’s storm troops and other disciples of Germany’s administration . . . What took place at the behest of Germany’s Gentiles against the Jews of that troubled country was virtually a revolution on a mild scale.  It was plainly a burst of long pent up race hatred, prejudice and treachery . . .it was a bold mockery of civilization; a slap in the face of common justice and fair play. By participating in what is now regarded throughout the world as their official and totally unnecessary reign of terror against the Jews of their native land the German people have committed a crime against society, the consequences of which they are bound the suffer eventually . . . World peace was never in such jeopardy as it is today, and since the assumption of power of Germany’s dictator. Treatment of Jews in Germany by its Nazi party headed by Hitler is condemnable to the core.” (Read the entire editorial through Hoosier State Chronicles).

Indianapolis Recorder, April 8, 1933, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the USHMM, the official boycott only lasted one day, but it was the beginning of a systematic campaign against the Jewish people by the Nazi Party.  Over the following weeks, several laws were passed officially removing Jews from civil service, government work, schools and universities, courts, and hospitals.  Jews feared first for their livelihood, then for their lives. According to William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the time the boycott was organized, Hitler had “publicly declared a thousand times, Jews were not Germans” [page 203].  It was not long before they were not only not considered citizens, but also not considered human.

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the boycott for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of survivors. Hoosiers can learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Check back in February for Part 3 on our History Unfolded project for a new post on the May 10, 1933 book burnings.

History Unfolded Project Part 1: When Did Hoosiers Learn What about Dachau Concentration Camp?

In this series of posts, we will be looking at world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

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Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, especially the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

We began with the first suggested topic: the opening of Dachau.

Dachau Barracks and Ammunition Factory, photograph, circa March or April 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Dachau Barracks and Ammunition Factory, photograph, circa March or April 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The first Nazi concentration camp, opened at Dachau March 22, 1933. According to History Unfolded, the facility at Dachau was located just north of Munich in an old munition factory. It was first established to hold political prisoners of the Nazis. Within one year, it held about 4,800, mainly political prisoners and by the end of the war, that number would exceed 188,000. Over 28,000 prisoners, many of them Jews, would lose their lives there.

Just a few days after the opening of Dachau, on March 27, 1933, the famous activist rabbi Stephen Wise organized a large protest in New York City against Nazi treatment of Jews, labor leaders, and those with opposing political views. Many American newspapers reported on the camp’s opening and Wise’s protest.  For example, on April 5, 1933, a New York Times headline read “Nazis to Hold 5,000 in Camp at Dachau; 300 Communist Prisoners Are Preparing Building of Old Munitions Plant; Secrecy Shrouds Work.” However, this important article was buried on page ten.  So, while there was some mention of Dachau, it was perhaps not clear to the average reader what was occurring there. We searched Hoosier State Chronicles to find out specifically: When did Hoosiers hear about Dachau?

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Our HSC search covered four newspapers: the Greencastle Daily Banner, the Muncie Post-Democrat, and limited issues of the Jewish Post and Indianapolis Recorder. The first issue of the Indianapolis paper, the Jewish Post, appeared in March 1933, the same month that Dachau opened.* The only mention of the rise of the Nazi regime in the first issue was a short article about the arrest of Jewish merchants in Annaberg, Germany by Nazi Storm Troopers. (We will look further into this in the next post).

We were so surprised by the lack of articles on Dachau in 1933 that we decided to look at Indiana newspapers in the Newspapers.com collection as well.  There was only one. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune published a United Press article on April 13, 1933.  The article reported: “Three communists seeking to escape from a concentration camp for political prisoners at Dachau, Bavaria, were shot and killed…” The next article available in Newspapers.com mentioning Dachau appeared over a year later. On July 20, 1934, the (Seymour) Tribune and the Rushville Republican ran an Associated Press article reporting on “rumors of further wholesale murders spread through Germany today” and accompanying “cool denials from Nazi leaders.” The article stated that “among the reports was one . . . that prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp were murdered” though “no verification could be made.” The Tipton Daily Tribune ran a similar article on the same day reporting on “allegations” that “prisoners and guards at Dachau concentration camp had been killed off.”

No more articles available through Hoosier State Chronicles mentioned Dachau until December 28, 1934, when the Greencastle Daily Banner reported on fighting between German and Austrian Nazis at Munich.  A small riot broke out that resulted in the summoning of SS Troops from Dachau. Additionally, the Banner misspelled the name of the camp as “Bachau,” suggesting that the average Hoosier still heard very little about the Dachau camp at this time.**

Greencastle Daily Banner, December 28, 1934, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Greencastle Daily Banner, December 28, 1934, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

A more general search of the Jewish Post for only the word “camp” as opposed to “Dachau” revealed the first mention of a German Jew being sent to a concentration camp on May 25, 1934.  The Post reported that in Berlin:

“the first arrest in a new campaign against ‘faultfinders’, preferably Jews, was made when a Jewish employee of a large bank was sent to a concentration camp on a charge of slandering Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of Propaganda.  He is Dr. Jacob Wasserman, 34, a native of Latvia.”

Jewish Post, May 25, 1934, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles
Jewish Post, May 25, 1934, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles

The next mention of a concentration camp appears in a short announcement in the Jewish Post on July 20, 1934. The Post reported that German-Jewish actress Elizabeth Bergner, who had escaped to England, “was threatened with three years internment in a concentration camp if she returns to Germany.”

Elisabeth Bergner, photograph, 1935, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Elisabeth Bergner, photograph, 1935, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The first mention of Dachau as a concentration camp in one of these Indiana newspapers did not occur until October 14, 1938, five years into its operation.  The Greencastle Daily Banner ran a report from Vienna on Nazi persecution of Czech Jews and prominent Catholics.  At a Nazi demonstration outside the palace of Cardinal Innitzer, archbishop of Vienna, signs read, “Jews and Priests are Enemies of the German People,” and the demonstrators carried a mock gallows and chanted “To Dachau!” in reference to the cardinal.

Greencastle Daily Banner, October 14, 1938, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
Greencastle Daily Banner, October 14, 1938, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles

By the time Hoosiers read this October 1938 article in the Greencastle newspaper, Dachau had become a large complex of multiple buildings through the forced labor of its prisoners. By November 1938, over 10,000 Jews were imprisoned at Dachau after the Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken glass.

"Shattered storefront of a Jewish-owned shop destroyed during Kristallnacht," photograph, November 10, 1938, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Shattered storefront of a Jewish-owned shop destroyed during Kristallnacht,” photograph, November 10, 1938, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

There are too many tragedies at Dachau and its sub-camps to address here. Upon liberation, thousands had died from disease, forced labor, execution by firing squad and hanging, death marches, medical experimentation, and transportation to killing centers.

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On April 30, 1945, Hoosier subscribers to the Greencastle Daily Banner read:

“The notorious Dachau concentration camp seven miles north of Munich — the first and blackest of the political death camps established in the early days of the Hitler regime — was over-run by the Seventh army yesterday. There the Yanks killed or captured 300 SS guards and liberated 32,000 political and religious prisoners who greeted their rescuers with hysterical joy. For hundred and perhaps thousands of Dachau’s other inmates the Americans came too late. Fifty boxcars were found on a nearby railroad siding, loaded with bodies, torture chambers, gas boxes, tnd [sic] other paraphernalia of terror that the Nazi guards were attempting to remove.”

Greencastle Banner, April 30, 1945, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Greencastle Banner, April 30, 1945, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

The The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000, to which must be added those who perished there between 1933 and the end of 1939, as well as an uncounted number of unregistered prisoners. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known.

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of Dachau for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of survivors. Hoosiers can learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Notes:

*Unfortunately the March 1933 issue of the Jewish Post is the only issue available on Hoosier State Chronicles for that year. Starting in February 1934, HSC has almost every issue, and thus this newspaper will be used more in later posts.

**There was a Bachau (or Bad Bachau) in Germany but it was over 200 km away from Munich while Dachau was about 30 km away, suggesting that the spelling of “Bachau” was indeed a misprint.

The Trouble with Firsts

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Kodak cameras, courtesy of Mashable’s “How Kodak Squandered Every Single Digital Opportunity it Had”

Digest this: In 1975, Kodak invented the first digital camera. Unwilling to prioritize this technology over existing film products and unable to adapt to the market, Kodak notoriously claimed bankruptcy in 2013. The inability to capitalize on “firsts” brings into question the importance of priority—of ideas, inventions and even actions. At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we frequently review markers commemorating “firsts,” ranging from the first electrically-lighted city to the first county physician. Hoosier “firsts” inspire controversial discussion, local commemoration and even a stage play by Aaron Sorkin.

As one can imagine, these firsts are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to substantiate, given conflicting sources or lack thereof. Rather than wrestle with claims that may never be confirmed, we decided to focus on what makes these novel ideas, inventions and actions significant to Indiana and U.S. history.

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Elwood Haynes with his Pioneer, courtesy of the W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

The case of Indiana inventor and metallurgist Elwood Haynes illustrates not only the obstacles to proving a “first,” but why being “first” isn’t always ideal. Kokomo resident Haynes claimed to have constructed America’s first automobile in 1894, dubbed the “Pioneer.” Using a Sintz 2-cycle gasoline engine, Haynes built the automobile’s foundation in his kitchen and hired brothers Elmer and Edgar Apperson to construct the carriage based on his designs. Haynes debuted the vehicle at Kokomo’s 1894 Fourth of July celebration at the Pumpkinvine Pike and shortly thereafter established the Haynes Automobile Company with Elmer Apperson.

The company thrived, and historian Ralph Gray contends that “industrial activity connected with the automobile greatly augmented Kokomo’s importance as a manufacturing center.” Experiencing success, Haynes ignored public demand for small, mass marketed cars and instead focused on medium sized luxury cars intended for affluent customers. Eventually Haynes could not compete with Ford’s mass production and marketing and declared bankruptcy October 1924. He lamented that being a pioneer in the automobile industry

“meant a selling loss on the Haynes car, whereas to have waited until others had made the trial and experiment, and then to have followed in the easy path of their success probably would have saved us thousands of dollars.”

Journalist Rick Johnson contended that “instead of becoming one of the giants of American invention and enterprise, Haynes became merely the man whose discoveries helped spark a new era for others.”

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Farnsworth with his Image Dissector, ca. 1920s, courtesy of the digitized Philo T. Farnsworth Collection at the J. Willard Marriot Library, University of Utah.

Much like Haynes’, the battle to establish scientist and Fort Wayne business owner Philo T. Farnsworth as the inventor of the electronic television was arduous and public. In Farnsworth’s case, the U.S. Patent Office ultimately awarded Farnsworth priority of invention, providing historians with irrefutable proof via patents that he indeed earned the title of “first.” Tragically, neither visionary possessed the business acumen to capitalize on their inventions, failing to permanently establish their products on the consumer market. Yet, both were fiercely protective of their inventions, and historians suggest in both cases their deaths and the closing of their companies were more than coincidental.

We want to hear from you. Do firsts matter? Certainly, they will evoke strong opinions for decades to come.

John Shaw Billings: “I Could Lie Down and Sleep for Sixteen Hours without Stopping”

John Shaw Billings portrait, n.d. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

We all know those people, who accomplish more in one hour than we do all week, who redefine “industrious” and excel at everything they try. Indiana native John Shaw Billings was the archetype, a visionary with seemingly infinite energy who revolutionized medical and bibliographical practices that endure into the 21st century. Billings stands among several Hoosiers who are profoundly influential, yet under recognized, including the inventor of the television Philo T. Farnsworth and creator of one of America’s first automobiles Elwood Haynes.

Billings was born April 12, 1838 in Allensville, Indiana; his family moved to the East Coast briefly in 1841 and returned in 1848. Ambitious from a young age, Billings made a deal with his father that, in exchange for forfeiting inherited property, his father would fund his college education. At the age of 14 and after intensive study, he passed the entrance exam for  Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he incessantly studied philosophy and theology at the college library. After earning his B.A., he entered the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati in 1858, where he undertook his thesis “The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy” that would later inform his monumental bibliographical endeavors.

John Shaw Billings : an autobiographical fragment 1905 (facsimile copy of the original manuscript), courtesy of Archive.org.

Shortly after graduation, Billings’s training coincided with the start of the American Civil War, providing him with opportunities to apply his medical knowledge. In 1861, Billings traveled to Washington, D.C. and became a contract-surgeon with the military. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, working at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. While there, his “extraordinary manual skill and boldness in dealing with difficult cases attracted the attention of the surgeon-general,” and he was put in charge of Cliffburne Hospital near Georgetown.

As a Civil War surgeon at several prominent battles–including the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg–Billings was tasked with establishing field hospitals, operating and treating wounded soldiers for hours while under fire, and transporting waves of injured soldiers from battle sites with limited equipment. Billings lamented the trials of his work, writing to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg:

“I am utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. I have been operating night and day, and am still hard at work. I have been left in charge of 700 wounded, and have got my hands full. Our division lost terribly, over 30 per cent were killed and wounded. I had my left ear just touched with a ball . . . I am covered with blood, and am tired out almost completely, and can only say that I could lie down and sleep for sixteen hours without stopping. I have been operating all day long, and have got the chief part of the work done in a satisfactory manner.”

After the battle, Billings understandably left field work for a brief period due to “nervous tension and physical exhaustion.” In August 1864, Billings helped edit field reports that became the monumental The Medical and Surgical History of the War and eventually transferred to the Surgeon-General’s Office, where he remained until retirement in 1895.

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Albumen silver print, ca.1862, courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries blog.

As the war concluded, hospitals submitted surplus operating funds to the Surgeon-General’s Office; these funds were given to Billings to build up the Surgeon-General’s library, which later became the National Library of Medicine. Billings expanded the collection by writing to editors, librarians, physicians, and State Department officials requesting book donations, eventually increasing its holdings from 600 entries in 1865 to 50,000 by 1873. The scope of the collection soon required a guide to help researchers locate desired publications. Billings understood firsthand the difficulty of locating such sources, as his thesis research required intensive time, labor, and travel to libraries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

With the assistance of Dr. Robert Fletcher, Billings devised a catalogue for the Surgeon-General library’s holdings, publishing the first volume of the Surgeon General’s Medical Index Catalogue in 1880. He hoped it “would spare medical teachers and writers the drudgery of consulting ten thousand or more different indexes or of turning over the leaves of as many volumes to find the dozen or so references of which they might be in search.” As new medical materials were published, Billings struggled to keep the Catalogue current, so he devised the Index Medicus, a monthly supplement that focused on new and select publications. The Index Medicus was the forerunner to the medical databases MEDLINE and PubMed.

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Surgeon General’s Library, ca. 1890. Billings sits at center table, courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prior to Billings’s systematic efforts to compile and organize medical literature, researchers and physicians had few methods to effectively locate sources, including medical studies and reports on operations. The Index Catalogue and Medicus served as a nearly comprehensive clearinghouse of medical literature, both current and historical, whose contents could aid in medical education and diagnoses. Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg and Patricia E. Gallagher summarize the magnitude of Billings’s efforts in “The Great Contribution,” contending that “with only ink and index cards, they [Billings and Fletcher] tamed an enormous and complex technical literature in virtually every written language on the planet” and that the indices “paved the way for the great databases that now are the primary underpinnings for the medical research of the future.”

Billings’s efforts at the Surgeon-General’s library served as the beginning of his library work, which would one day lead him to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For more information on Billings’s Civil War activities and establishment of the Surgeon-General’s library and corresponding Index Catalogue, see the Historical Marker Review.

Check back for Part II: “A New Era of Hospital Construction” about Billings’s involvement in the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital and how it revolutionized medical treatment and education.