The Raiderettes: The Women Who Built Evansville’s P-47 Thunderbolts

Sometimes when you think back over your old history texts, and remember that the accounts there relate the deeds of men- not women- doesn’t it give you a marvelous feeling to realize that the greatest chapter of history of mankind is being written today, and that you women are going to have your names in the headlines?

-LaVerne Heady, columnist for Republic Aviation News

Reliable, versatile, and fast, the P-47 Thunderbolt is considered one of the most important fighter-bombers in World War II. Manufactured by Republic Aviation Corporation and debuted in 1943, the P-47 served in both the European and Pacific theaters and quickly became the Allied Forces’ main workhorse. By the end of the war, Republic Aviation produced 15,683 Thunderbolts, which performed more than half a million missions, shooting down more Luftwaffe aircrafts than any other Allied fighter. What’s more impressive than its statistics, however, is the pilots’ testimonials on the durability of these planes, which quickly gained a reputation for their ability to deliver a pilot safely home after sustaining otherwise catastrophic amounts of damage.[i] One of the most dramatic examples of the Thunderbolts’ durability occurred in 1945, when the entirety of a P-47s right wing was sheared off during a bombing mission. The pilot returned to base unharmed, and the plane was reportedly repaired and flown for another 50 missions.[ii]

Headshot of Heady, Republic Aviation News, Indiana State Library.

Military history often focuses on aircraft design and the pilots who flew them. However, who built these planes is equally intriguing. Almost half of the manpower behind P-47 production were women. Known as “Raiderettes,” these women served in a wide array of positions at Republic. This piece will examine the lived experiences of the Raiderettes at the Republic plant in Evansville, Indiana and how their hard work, sacrifices, and patriotism contributed to the production of over one-third of the Thunderbolts manufactured during World War II.


ON THE ASSEMBLY LINE: WOMEN’S ROLES AT REPUBLIC AVIATION

Evansville played a major role in the home front effort throughout the war. In total, fifty different Evansville companies received over $580 million in defense contracts. This included Sunbeam, Serval Inc., Chrysler, and the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. Shipyard, which produced critical defense industry products such as ammunition, tracer rounds, and landing ship tanks. This booming industry nearly tripled Evansville’s manufacturing workforce and revitalized the previously struggling city. [iii] In 1942, Republic and the U.S. War Department announced they would build a second P-47 factory south of the Evansville Regional Airport. The first facility was located in Farmingdale, New Jersey. Construction commenced at a rapid pace and the plant was finished in August of 1943, three months ahead of schedule. However, P-47 construction was already underway before the factory was even finished, with newly hired workers manufacturing parts in garages, rented factory spaces, and other facilities. Evansville’s first P-47 dubbed “The Hoosier Spirit” flew from the plant on September 19, 1942. The Hoosier Spirit marked the first of over 6,000 Thunderbolts manufactured in Evansville during the span of three years.

Hoosier Spirit P-47 Thunderbolt, September 19, 1942, Evansville Courier and Press, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library.

From the beginning, Republic sought to hire a substantial number of women workers because men were fighting overseas. Republic recruited women through newspaper advertisements and provided free, educational opportunities. Evansville College (now the University of Evansville) partnered with Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Education to offer twenty-two-night classes in engineering, science, mathematics, aircraft drafting, and other industrial skills. Notably, the Evansville Press wrote that, for the night classes, “Women especially are urged to enroll… The War Manpower Commission estimates that at least two million more women must enter war industries this year.”[iv] Soon after night classes began, Evansville College and Purdue began to offer daytime classes as well to fulfill the needs of night shift workers at Republic and other defense companies. E. C. Surat, district manager of the Purdue war training program, told the Evansville Courier and Press that “Women with mathematical training may be placed at once” in factory positions and urged that women seeking a defense industry job “enroll in the qualifying mathematics course.”[v]

The Evansville Mechanic Arts School also recruited women for their industrial classes. Previously, the school designed courses solely for men, but, upon the outbreak of the war, opened to women “without a halt.” The school especially appealed to homemakers and unemployed women to enroll.[vi]  In her article, “Diary of a Riveter,” Raiderette Mary Ellen Ward describes the challenges of these types of training courses and adjusting to the “nerve wracking” noise as they learned drilling techniques, how to measure rivets, and built physical strength to rivet for fourteen plus hours a day.[vii]  The City of Evansville and the Republic Aviation Corporation recognized early on the integral role women would play in the home front effort and began recruiting them and providing key training and education for them to succeed in manufacturing roles.

Women from the “tri-state” area of Illinois, Kentucky, and Southern Indiana performed a diverse number of roles, including managerial positions, across the Republic plant. Raiderettes could be found working side by side with men in machining parts, welding metal, wiring electrical components, inspecting aircrafts, and transporting supplies. This makes it impossible to describe a singular, definitive experience among the Raiderettes. However, women across the plant embraced their roles, seeing it as a patriotic duty, and exceeded the expectations of the public. The Muncie Evening Press reported that, in some tasks, women workers across the country exceeded men’s production output by 10 percent or more.[viii] Day-to-day life in the plant consisted of 10 to 14-hour shifts across various departments and, for many, included long commutes of up to 80 miles away a day. Beyond production work, women actively participated in work-adjacent roles, leading the charge on key social services for all Republic employees. Given the amount of time spent at both work and Republic-related events, almost all Raiderettes experienced World War II primarily through the lens of their position at the Evansville plant, making it a key experience to analyze in order to better understand the Indiana home front during World War II.

Article showcasing “Who’s Who” among the Raiderettes and their various positions at Republic, January 29, 1943, Republic Aviation News, photo cropped by IHB, accessed via the Indiana State Library.

One Raiderette, Mildred F. Harris, participated in an oral history interview in 2002, providing key insight into the subjective experience of women at Republic. A schoolteacher, Harris entered war work when her husband was drafted in 1943, commuting 55 miles a day, six days a week from her home in Kentucky to work at the Evansville plant. Harris was placed in a supervisory role managing other aircraft inspectors and supervising factory operations. She stated that men respected her and other female inspectors’ position of authority “as long as the inspectors had this army badge on,” and that they recognized the need for women to work in factories as “they couldn’t get enough men to do it.” Despite this, Harris still experienced sexism in the workplace with some of the men calling her nicknames like “Rose,” “Buttercup,” or “Daisy,” despite her position supervising them. Harris largely ignored these nicknames and kept to herself while she performed her job. Like many women, Harris felt a duty to support both her country and male relatives who served in the war, underlining the importance of her position as an aircraft inspector and the pressures of such long days and high stakes. Her experiences also demonstrated that, simply because women now appeared in “male roles,” that sexism and gender roles still pervaded most Raiderettes experiences. [ix]

Harris in 1943, courtesy of Mildred F. Harris, courtesy The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Women also contributed to the company culture at Republic, actively participating in clubs, the company newspaper, and sports leagues for basketball, softball, bowling, golf, and ping pong. Republic’s clubs competed against other manufacturing companies in Evansville. In addition, women led the charge on hosting social functions like skating nights, formal dances, and even a holiday musical production called “Flying High.” A daycare service was provided for working mothers at the reduced price of 50 cents per week.[x] This proved to be critical as women often found themselves to be “two-job” workers, working at Republic for fourteen hours a day while also continuing to maintain the domestic sphere and raise children, often without the support of their spouse who may have been drafted. Women also formed the “war matrons club,” which catered specifically to older Raiderettes whose sons were serving overseas. This club tracked soldier’s birthdays, wrote to them, and provided a support system for mothers separated from their children due to the war.[xi] While easily overlooked, these services provided necessary social outlets during a period of great change and anxiety in the United States and fostered a strong sense of community for all Republic employees. They also provided workers, many of whom had family members serving overseas, with vital social connections and filled a key gap in societal recreation and relaxation.

Members of the War Matrons Club, June 18, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 3, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

While women were praised for their patriotism and largely welcomed into the plant, gender roles still defined the Raiderettes’ wartime experiences. Often, the work of women was more heavily scrutinized than men’s and feminine traits characterized as a detriment to wartime production. This can be seen in Republic Aviation News through warnings against “super-sensitiveness” in the workplace and constant reminders that a woman must uphold or surpass the standards of the men who worked alongside them.[xii] Additionally, extra emphasis was placed on women’s fashion and social life with an entire column called Strictly Feminine. The column reported on social news, like who danced with whom at the canteen, what women were wearing to social functions, and other, non-work related, news. Women were often expected to meet their position’s expectations and perform social and emotional labor while doing so. Republic Aviation News paints a more nuanced picture than that of the one-dimensional and patriotic “Rosie the Riveter,” who flawlessly steps into a traditionally male position just as a man would. Women’s positions and experiences in home front factories were distinct and laced with gender roles and bias as they were expected to do a “man’s job” but in a traditionally feminine manner.

A major point of friction between women and men in the factory was whether women would continue working after the war concluded or if their jobs ought to be relinquished back to male workers. Inspector Harris, upon reflecting on the closure of the plant, stated “Now, what they [the male factory workers] expected them to do, what they wanted them to do when the war was over, [was] to go back home and wash dishes like they had been doing.”[xiii] This attitude is reflected in the fact that, after the government cancelled their wartime contracts with Republic, women disproportionately lost their jobs compared to male workers.[xiv] While it is debated whether women truly desired to return home or sought to continue working in the factories- likely a mix of both- they unilaterally faced unfair obstacles in remaining in the workforce post-war.

Pictured is restricted radio operator Naomi Johnson, September 3, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Despite the continued presence of gender bias in the factory, Raiderettes pushed against and broke the glass ceiling in various ways. For example, Naomi Johnson was notable for being the first woman restricted radio operator- a position that allows users to utilize advanced aircraft radios to communicate and direct pilots- in the region. Originally from Marion, Kentucky, Johnson moved to Evansville in 1937 and earned her operator license in 1940 from the Federal Communications Commission. Johnson originally tested police radios in cars but, upon the outbreak of the war, transitioned to Republic Aviation. She began working on electrical equipment but, after nine months, was transferred to a radio control board, where she communicated with pilots flying and landing P-47s at the Evansville Regional Airport. Due to her strong interest in and advanced knowledge of aviation, she was made an honorary member of the Civil Air Patrol. When interviewed by Republic Aviation News, Johnson expressed her strong passion for her work, stating, “The thing I like best about radio work is the fact that it’s something you can never learn enough about. You can just keep studying and studying. But I wouldn’t mind being called a book-worm if I could read about radio.”[xv]

Reclamation agent Eunice Hall, January 7, 1944, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Another woman, Eunice Hall of Newburgh, Indiana, became the first “reclamation agent” at the Evansville plant, a new position that encouraged the conservation of factory materials to reduce waste in the various plant divisions. Working with the Utility Shop division, Hall also served as the division’s Safety Council representative. While Republic Aviation News minimized her position by comparing it to a “housekeeping” role, Hall excelled at leadership by defining this new company role and taking the lead on both shop safety and material conservation, a key aspect of the home front’s defense industry economy.[xvi]

Other women broke into aviation and flew P-47s domestically. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, (WASPs) were elite civilian pilots who supported the war effort by ferrying, testing, and transporting planes. Described as “polished” and having perfect uniforms, the WASPs visited the Evansville plant numerous times to transport Thunderbolts to military bases.[xvii] On October 10, 1943, Theresa James and Betty Gillies landed in Evansville to deliver two Thunderbolts and transport two others. Gillies is notable as the first ever woman to fly a P-47 aircraft.[xviii] In 1944, WASPs regularly began transporting P-47s from the Evansville plant, with Republic Aviation News stating that 85 women would participate and, each month, 16 of them would fly to the Evansville plant to ferry completed planes to military bases.[xix]  While the activities of the WASPs generated much interest both in the news and amongst factory workers, it is reported that the WASPs largely stayed separated from the rest of the factory and focused on their positions.[xx]

Raiderettes continue to work after the announcement of V-E Day, Republic Aviation News, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

As evidenced by the previous examples, women held diverse roles within Republic Aviation and navigated their new, public-facing roles in a variety of ways. Some women, like those in the War Matrons club or Eunice Hall, embraced social responsibilities at the plant by serving on committees and clubs and embracing a more “traditionally feminine” role at Republic. Meanwhile, others, such as the WASPs or Harris, were more reserved in their roles and attempted to ignore or minimize gender roles and bias. However, the common thread of all of these women is that they collaborated with both male workers and one another, pushing against traditional gender roles to best serve the United States during World War II. Their sacrifices were largely recognized and praised by the public. However, it was also expected that they would revert to traditional roles upon the end of the war which, generally, is what occurred. Despite this, these women successfully navigated a challenging period in American history to provide a vital service on the home front and ought to be remembered for their work.


Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 6, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

On August 21, 1945, Republic Aviation announced they would be ending all production at Evansville and the plant was soon listed for sale. Upon its closure, the plant had produced over one-third of all the P-47 Thunderbolts in the world, hired thousands of employees, and infused millions of dollars into the local economy. In addition, the plant had gained national recognition, earning three Army-Navy E awards for “excellence in production.”[xxi] This prestigious award was granted to 5% of all eligible plants and represented the top echelon of home front production.[xxii] The plant’s production was considered so outstanding, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt even visited the plant on April 27, 1943 as part of a 17-day, 20-state tour of America’s defense industry, presenting awards to multiple employees.[xxiii]

Without the thousands of women who worked at the Republic plant, these national honors would not have been achieved. Similarly, the quality and reliability of the P-47, which is world-renowned and contributed to Allied Forces’ air superiority during WWII, would not have been possible without the dedicated hands that constructed the planes at an unprecedented pace. While the lives and roles of the Raiderettes at the Republic factory did not ascribe to the simplified “Rosie the Riveter” archetype, they were critical to the defense effort nonetheless, and ought to be commemorated as both Indiana and national heroes.

 

Notes:

[i] “Republic P-47 Thunderbolt,” National Museum of World War II Aviation, accessed https://www.worldwariiaviation.org/aircraft/republic-p47-thunderbolt; National Air and Space Museum, “Republic P-47D-30-RA Thunderbolt,” Smithsonian Institution, n.d., accessed https://www.si.edu/object/republic-p-47d-30-ra-thunderbolt%3Anasm_A19600306000.

[ii] Dario Leone, “The Story of the P-47 that Safely RTB after it Had a Wing Sheared off Against a Chimney during a Strafing Run and its Tail Damaged by Spitfires that Mistook it for a German Fighter,” The Aviation Geek Club, September 20, 2023, accessed https://theaviationgeekclub.com/the-story-of-the-brazilian-p-47-that-safely-rtb-after-it-had-a-wing-sheared-off-against-a-chimney-on-a-strafing-run-and-its-tail-damaged-by-spitfires-that-mistook-it-for-a-german-fighter/.

[iii] James Lachlan MacLeod, Evansville in World War II (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015); David E. Bigham, “The Evansville Economy,” Traces of Indiana And Midwestern History 3, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 26-29, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll39/id/7111/rec/3; Hugh M. Ayer, “Hoosier Labor in the Second World War,” Indiana Magazine of History 59, no. 2 (June 1963): 95-120, accessed https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/8960/11634.

[iv] “College to give Classes in War Work,” Evansville Press, September 12, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[v] “Day War Training Classes Planned,” Evansville Courier, October 15, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vi] “These Doors Never Close: Mechanic Arts School Has Prominent Part in War Work Training Program,” Evansville Courier and Press, July 2, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vii] Mary Ellen Ward, “Diary of a Riveter,” Republic Aviation News, February 12, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[viii] “Two-Job War Worker: She Does a Man-Sized Job on Production Line Plus ‘Women’s Work’ of Maintaining a Home,” Muncie Evening Press, November 5, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[ix] James Russell Harris, “Rolling Bandages and Building Thunderbolts: A Woman’s Memories of the Kentucky Home Front, 1941-1945,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, (Spring 2002): 167-194, accessed JSTOR.

[x] “New Plan for Child Care Offered: Play Center Fills Need Before and After School,” Republic Aviation News, November 26, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xi] “War Mothers Organized at Republic Plant,” Evansville Press, April 29, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[xii] “A Message from Ellen J. Dilger,” Republic Aviation News 100, no. 2, January 29, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xiii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 182.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] “First Woman Restricted Radio Operator in This Region is Republic’s Naomi Johnson,” Republic Aviation News, September 3, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvi] “Utility Shop Girl Becomes First Official Reclamation Agent at Indiana Division,” Republic Aviation News, January 7, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xviii] “First Woman Ever to Fly a Thunderbolt is One of Two Girls Landing Here in P-47s,” Republic Aviation News, October 15, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xix] “First Squadron of Girl Pilots Here to Fly P-47’s,” Republic Aviation News, August 1, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xx] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xxi] “Raiders Win Army-Navy ‘E’ I.D. [Indiana Division] Gains Highest Production Honor,” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Your Army-Navy ‘E,’” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Army, Navy Honor Raiders,” Republic Aviation News, May 26, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 2nd ‘E’ Award: Achievement lauded by Marchev,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “I.D. Earns 2nd Army-Navy ‘E’ for Outstanding Work,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 3rd Army-Navy “E,” Republic Aviation News, May 25, 1945, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xxii] “Army-Navy E Award,” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 15, 2020, accessed https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/army-navy-e-award.html.

[xxiii] “Camera Highlights of the President’s Visit to the Indiana Division on Tuesday, April 27,” Republic Aviation News, May 21, 1943, p. 4-5, accessed Indiana State Library; “Roosevelt visits Evansville; Sees P-47 Dive at 500 M.P.H,” Indianapolis News, April 29, 1943, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Evansville Aircraft Plant Receives Visit of President,” Muncie Evening Press, April 29, 1943, p. 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

Henry Victor: The Father of the South Side Turnverein

On January 11, 1898, a special meeting occurred of the South Side Turnverein, one of Indianapolis’ premier social clubs for German Americans. It was the sixtieth birthday of the organization’s president, Henry Victor. The group heaped “tokens of esteem” on their beloved leader, according to the Indianapolis Journal, which further wrote, “the occasion had the effect of bringing Mr. Victor to tears.” The esteem afforded to Victor was no faint praise; in many respects, he was the main reason the South Side Turnverein met that night, and many others, at all.

Indianapolis Journal, January 12, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Only a few years earlier, previous leadership had barely gotten the organization off the ground. It wasn’t until Henry Victor took over in 1894 that the South Side Turnverein expanded and flourished, providing its members with athletic activities, social functions, and cultural events. Years later in a glowing article, the Journal noted Victor’s work for the organization, calling him the “‘Father’ of the South Side Turnverein” and writing, “to Henry Victor is due the success the club has attained.”

A German immigrant with a passion of business, Victor epitomized the promise that America held for so many newcomers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. His successful management of Mozart Hall, one for Indianapolis’s top bars and restaurants, the growth of the South Side Turnverein, and his involvement in numerous civic organizations spoke to his energy and talent for bringing people together to build vibrant communities. As such, the impact he left on the people he served, both at his businesses and with his leadership, provides us with a compelling example of the German American experience in Indiana.

Indianapolis Journal, April 21 1904. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Victor was born on January 11, 1838, in Pommern, Germany, which today sits between Eastern Poland and Western Germany. He lived in Europe for most of his life, becoming “a successful businessman, dealing in silks and dress goods, [and] was also connected with a private bank and was worth considerable money,” noted the Indianapolis News. He likely immigrated to the United States and moved to Indianapolis sometime between 1887 and 1891, as a relatively older man. What would spur a successful businessman in his native land to come to the U.S.? Like a major reversal of fortune. As the News added, “he was stricken with an affliction of the eyes which threatened him with total blindness. He was taken to a hospital, where he remained for several months, during which time losses occurred in his business, and he left Germany practically a broken man.” Like so many who left for the shores of America during that age, he left to restart, and hopefully improve, his life.

Map of Pommern, 1849. Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.

Once in Indianapolis, he got involved in the brewery business, working as a collector for the Terre Haute Brewing Company, which led to his entry into the saloon business. It was in this field that he made his name in the Circle City, with his management of Mozart Hall. In 1892, Victor took over as manager of the decades-old Indianapolis bar and restaurant at 37 South Delaware Street. It didn’t take long for the press to sing his praises. The Indianapolis Journal wrote, “Mr. Victor is one of those whole souled persons who makes friends with everyone he meets, and will not lack in entertaining his customers in that inimitable way he was in conferring with his fellow citizens.” Of Mozart Hall, the article further noted that “none will find a more congenial place in the city to spend a few minutes to pass away the idle moments of the day.”

Indianapolis Journal, May 13, 1892. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon assuming management of Mozart Hall, Victor placed ads in Indianapolis’s premier German-language newspaper, the Indiana Tribüne, which described for his community what patrons could expect.

The ad read, roughly translated:

Mozart Hall!

Henry Victor.

The biggest, prettiest and oldest beer-style eatery in town. The spacious and beautifully furnished hall is available for clubs, lodges and private individuals to hold balls, concerts and meetings under liberal conditions.

As the ad declared, Mozart Hall not only served individual customers, but became a meeting place for many organizations, such as unions and benevolent associations. In today’s language, Mozart Hall would be called a “maker space,” a congenial, well-furnished building for work, philanthropy, and entertainment.

Indiana Tribüne, March 18, 1892. Hoosier State Chronicles.

When he wasn’t hosting civil society, Henry Victor actively participated in it. In 1894, he served as the secretary of the Indiana Liquor Dealer’s Association, which met at Mozart Hall. The association advocated policies they believed would “clean up” the liquor business, including regulations on liquor licenses. As the Indianapolis News reported, “a feeling is growing that only decent people should be granted liquor licenses, and that a protest will be entered against granting liquor licenses to ex-convicts, gamblers, violators of the law, and immoral characters.” Additionally, Victor advocated for policies that would make it easier for breweries to start up and provide its product to local businesses, something that clearly benefitted the German immigrant community he was a part of.

However, his involvement in organizations didn’t always go smoothly. In 1895, he very publicly resigned from the Saloon Keeper’s Union, over disagreements about the implementation of a new liquor law, called the “Nicholson Law,” which placed limitations on gambling, saloons, and underage drinking. Before the national experiment of Prohibition, many state and local laws were implemented in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, as a way to control the ill effects of the liquor trade. However, fierce debates ensued as to how these laws should be followed. In his resignation letter, Victor argued that he was in favor of following these laws and challenging his critics. He wrote:

Many of you members have seen fit to criticize myself and others who have constantly labored for the interest and elevation of the retail trade; and such criticisms have practically gone in public print, and I do not want to be further annoyed this way as in the past, so I will in the future use what influence I possibly have to elevate and regulate the retail business according to my own way.

Former union colleague William G. Weiss, in the Indianapolis Journal, shot back at Victor, arguing that he withdrew because “Mr. Victor is not in sympathy with the union in regard to obeying the law.” Who was right? In the murky territory of pre-Prohibition liquor law, it was often difficult to effectively determine the letter of the law, which led to fierce debates like Victor’s with the Saloon Union. Nevertheless, Victor successfully ran Mozart Hall for many years, earning a reputation as an honest and friendly businessman.

Henry Victor’s notice of his departure from Mozart Hall, Indianapolis News, May 3, 1900. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As his stature in the community grew, so did his involvement in a variety of organizations, the most important of which was the South Side Turnverein. Turnvereins, or Turner Clubs, were a mainstay of German American life during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Founded on the principle of “sound body and mind,” the Turnverein movement was spearheaded by German educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who believed physical exercise and cultural activities led to a healthy life. The South Side Turnverein in Indianapolis, founded on September 24, 1893, began as an offshoot of another organization when about 200 German Americans left the Socialer Turnverein to form their own gymnastics club on the south side. During its first few months, the South Side Turnverein and its members experienced challenges growing the group. That all changed when the membership elected Henry Victor as President, or “First Speaker,” of the organization in September of 1894. He threw himself into the role, rapidly expanding the club’s memberships and activities.

A page of the South Side Turnverein minutes, September 1894. It shows Victor’s election to “First Speaker,” or President of the organization. Indiana State Library Manuscripts Collection, Indiana Memory.

As the Indianapolis Journal wrote of Victor:

Mr. Victor took charge of the work in the spring of 1894, when all efforts to complete the organization and make it a success had failed, and at a time when those supporting the society were losing faith in the undertaking. The enthusiasm and the effectiveness with which he assumed control of the work inspired those interested, and at once new life was put into the organization, and in less than a year a membership of had been secured.

In the next few years, the South Side Turnverein participated in a wide variety of athletic and cultural events. In 1894 alone, the Turnverein hosted a “gymnastic entertainment” at English’s Opera House, produced a “two-act play” called “He Lost His Gloves,” and participated in Indianapolis “Wald-Fest” or “forest festival.” The club was also heavily involved in the larger German community, supporting other Turnvereins and social clubs. In 1898, members of the South Side Turnverein attended a “kommers,” or “students’ entertainment” at the newly opened German House in Indianapolis and some of its members served on the leadership committee of the North American Turnerbund, which decided to move its national headquarters from St. Louis to Indianapolis. Leading by example, Victor’s energy and dedication to the club galvanized the South Side Turnverein and its members.

Indianapolis South Side Turnverein Men’s Class. Victor is the second man standing from the left. Indianapolis South Side Turners Collection, IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Arguably his greatest accomplishment as South Side Turnverein president was overseeing the building of its hall, serving as one of the South Side Turnverein Hall Association’s directors. Leading such a large financial endeavor proved natural to Victor, as his experience with Mozart Hall as well as the German Mutual Insurance Company prepared him for the task. Plans to build the hall started on February 20, 1900, when the South Side Turnverein decided to purchase 150 feet of property on Prospect Street at a cost of $5,000. On March 7, Victor and others filed articles of incorporation for the South Side Turnverein Hall Association, whose charge was to “purchase real estate and to sell the same and particularly to construct and erect for the South Side Turnverein a suitable gymnasium.”

The Association chose Vonnegut & Bohn, one of Indianapolis’s best architecture firms, to design and build their hall, and by June 1900, the Association held the groundbreaking ceremony. Victor, the man responsible for so much of the organization’s success, “dug the first spade of full of dirt and in his speech wished the building progress,” according to the Indianapolis Journal. An illustration of the prospective building appeared in the Indianapolis News on June 7, 1900, with further details on its facilities:

The interior will be arranged with all the appointments of a modern club house. The basement, which will be a full story in hight [sic], will contain the kneipe [bar], bowling alleys, dining-room, women’s parlor, women’s and men’s dressing rooms and shower baths. The main floor will be almost entirely taken up by the large hall, which is also to be used as a gymnasium. This hall will seat, together with gallery, about 700 people. At the east end of the hall there will be a large and well equipped stage. Stretching along the other end of the hall will be a large foyer, with stairways leading to the basement and gallery.

After months of intense work, the South Side Turnverein Hall was completed, and on December 2, the club opened its hall to the public, on the organization’s eight-year anniversary. “In the afternoon the new building was thrown open to the public,” the News reported, “and it was inspected by a large number of visitors.”

South Side Turnverein Hall in the Journal Handbook of Indianapolis by Max Robinson Hyman, 1902. Google Books.

The South Side Turnverein formally dedicated its new hall on January 20, 1901, with 3,000 people in attendance. Victor christened the new building along with Fred Mark, chairman of the building committee, Herman Lieber, president of the North American Turnerbund, and Charles E. Emmerich, superintendent of the Manual Training School, among others. The building and grounds had a cumulative cost of $25,000, raised through its members by the association. A banquet for around 400 people was held the night after the dedication, with the News writing, “Henry Victor, as master of ceremonies, welcomed the representatives of the various German societies at the ‘kommers,’ [or students’ entertainment] with which the South Side Turnverein last night closed the dedicatory services of its new hall. Many women were among the 400 guests and the evening was enjoyable.” In only a a few years, Henry Victor transformed the South Side Turnverein from a small but promising organization into one of Indianapolis’ leading social clubs for the German American community.

Indianapolis News, January 15, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The membership of the South Side Turnverein reelected Henry Victor to President many times and he continued to serve with distinction until 1905. However, towards the end of this life, he shifted gears to help organize a singing society. A long-time singer with the Fourth Christian Church with a “good voice,” as described by the Indianapolis News, Victor helped incorporate the “The Suedsite Liedertafel,” or “South Side Singing Society” in 1910. He served as the president and the organization performed regularly at the South Side Turnverein. Boasting over 200 members and nearly fifty active members, the organization maintained a men’s chorus, a women’s chorus, and a children’s chorus. The society served as more than just an outlet for those who loved to sing; it also wanted to preserve German culture. As the News reported, “in addition to the singing, the society endeavors to conserve a correct use of the German language.”

Unfortunately, his work with the South Side Singing Society was tragically cut short when he died on September 24, 1910, after a week in the hospital following a stroke. Many German American societies attended his funeral at the South Side Turnverein Hall, and some sang music in tribute, something he likely would have appreciated. The Indianapolis Star wrote in his obituary that “Mr. Victor was interested in the South Side Turnverein and the flourishing condition of the society is attributed largely to his efforts.” In addition to the South Side Turnverein, he belonged to the Columbia Lodge, the Knights of Pythias, and the German Heritage Society, to name a few. Newspaper accounts noted that he was a “marked personality among Germans of city” and “a man of mystery, and it was not known what were his family relations previous to coming to this city [Indianapolis].” He left behind a $60,000 estate, a testament to his acumen for business.

Indianapolis Star, September 25, 1910. Newspapers.com.

The life of Henry Victor is but one extraordinary story among the annals of the German American experience in Indiana. A man whose former home left him nearly destitute, he set out for United States to build a better life, and his decades in Indianapolis served as a prime example of his ability and devotion to the community he called his own. From his successful management of Mozart Hall to his trailblazing leadership of the South Side Turnverein, Victor left a large impression wherever he went in Indianapolis, gaining a reputation for hard work and honest entrepreneurialism. He also dedicated himself to the preservation of German culture through his South Side Singing Society, another fruitful organization he helped found merely months away from his death. In all that he was, Henry Victor personified not only German Americans, but German Hoosiers, an immigrant community that profoundly shaped the history of the State of Indiana.

Henry Victor (center) with colleagues in the Indianapolis South Side Turnverein Men’s Class. Indianapolis South Side Turners Collection, IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Foster the People: How One Entrepreneur Cultivated a More Equitable Indianapolis

Andrew Foster, Crispus Attucks High School, January 1, 1938, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, accessed digitalindy.org.

“Someone once suggested that the black man pull himself up by his bootstraps.”

“The black man agreed that it was a good idea, but he wasn’t exactly sure of how to go about it. First of all, he had no boots, and secondly, he considered himself lucky to be wearing shoes.”

Andrew “Bo” Foster perhaps related to the figurative Black man described by Skip Hess in his 1968 Indianapolis News article.[1] Foster’s adolescence was marked by hardship and instability. Despite this, he became a prominent entrepreneur and civic leader in Indianapolis. Not only did he manage to procure “boots,” but went on to ensure that others in the community had a pair. In doing so, he created opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

According to his grandson, Charles Foster Jolivette, Foster was born along an alley near Riley Towers in 1919.[2] His father, Edward, died when Foster was a young child. For reasons that are unclear, he was not raised primarily by his mother, Eva. When not staying with father figure William W. Hyde, a local Black attorney, he spent his childhood in the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children, which had a history of corporal punishment and unsanitary conditions.[3] Nevertheless, Foster kept up with his education, graduating from Crispus Attucks High School in 1938.[4]

Foster during World War II, courtesy of the Foster family.

The Indianapolis News reported that after graduation he “hauled scrap iron on a tonnage basis.”[5] Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Foster was sent to Camp Wolters, an infantry replacement training center in Texas.[6] By 1943, he had graduated as a second lieutenant from officer candidate school at Camp Hood and went on to serve on a tank destroyer unit.

After Foster’s service, he established a lucrative Indianapolis trucking company, enabling him to open and manage several businesses that served Black patrons in the segregated city.[7] His work ethic was second to none, as he worked most holidays, and reportedly said “You must be willing to work 26 hours a day if you want to be in business.”[8] Reflecting on his prolific career in 1983, Foster told the Indianapolis Recorder that he had no formal training, “just high school, the Army and common sense. I came out of the Army and started hauling trash. I saw a need for a black hotel, then added a motel three years later in order to survive.”[9]

Postcard, Evan Finch Collection, accessed Indiana Album.

By 1949, he opened Foster Hotel and the Guest House at North Illinois Street.[10] Both were listed in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which published the names of safe, welcoming businesses and accommodations across the country.[11] At a time when Black Americans were turned away from hotels, Foster’s were one of the only in Indianapolis to serve them. In addition to Foster Hotel and Guest House, he opened the Manor House, Motor Lodge, Carrollton Hotel, and private rooming houses.[12] These businesses accommodated tourists, “permanent guests,” and famed customers, such as Muhammad Ali, LaWanda Page, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, and Redd Foxx.[13] Unless these celebrities had friends or family in the city, they all stayed at a Foster establishment.

Patrons praised the facilities for their cleanliness, modern features, and hospitable staff. Foster opted against “frills” because “Negroes travel on a pretty tight budget” and he chose not to build a pool because of the liability insurance fees.[14] The Recorder attributed his “steady rise in the scale of fortune” to his “integrity, foresight, business acumen and high sense of fair play in his dealing with others.”[15] His bachelor pad reflected this burgeoning fortune. According to a 1954 Jet magazine profile, it was outfitted with “walls of black glass, a full-mirrored ceiling, monogrammed glass-enclosed tub and shower, and double lavatories in pink. The floor is pink and black marble and Foster had a lifelike nude painted on one wall.”[16]

Women dancing at Pearl’s Lounge, courtesy of the Foster family.

In addition to financial success, Foster founded his businesses to meet the need for a communal space in which to socialize, politically organize, and host civic and philanthropic events. According to the Recorder, Foster “saw blacks holding meetings at white-owned establishments ‘where they couldn’t always speak their peace’” and sought to provide a venue where they could.[17] Pearl’s Lounge, opened by 1970, did just that. Named for his wife, whom he married in 1962, the cocktail lounge at 118 West McLean Place (adjoining Foster Hotel). Foster later told the Recorder, “‘Many a black group has gotten its start here.”[18]

The Recorder considered the new addition “just about the most beautiful eating and drinking emporium in the Hoosier capital,” praising its “dim lighted lovers’ rooms of oriental design” and “beautiful mahogany bar with electronic stereo component for continuous music.” In a word, Pearl’s was “fantabulous.”[19]

Voting drive outside of Pearl’s, courtesy of the Foster family.

Pearl’s banquet hall and ballroom facilitated numerous events. These included a fashion show, voter registration program, and IU alumni meeting regarding how to best serve Black students. Pearl’s also hosted numerous NAACP events, including a businessmen’s luncheon, at which executive director Roy Wilkins spoke in favor of busing as a means to educational equality.[20] Pearl’s also served as a venue for furthering race relations. For example, the Recorder reported in 1975, “In their first major attempt to acquaint the owners, coaches and players with the black community, the Indiana Pacers will host a reception and a buffet dinner” at the lounge.[21]

Robert Briggs (far left), Huerta Tribble (fourth from left), Richard Lugar (fifth from the left), Andrew Foster (sixth from the left, Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0303/id/409/rec/3.

Pearl’s lounge hosted numerous political campaign events and debates—including those of Mayor William Hudnut, Judge Rufus C. Kuykendall, Senator Julia Carson, and Senator Richard Lugar.[22] It accommodated events for groups across the political spectrum, including Indiana Black Republican Council meetings and a Socialist Workers Party rally.[23]


Indianapolis Star, February 17, 1970, 26, accessed Newspapers.com.

Foster not only uplifted the community through his businesses, but also as president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Business League (NBL) in the 1960s and 70s. Through the NBL—described as the “chamber of commerce of Negro enterprise” and a “type of professional group therapy”—Foster mentored Black business owners.[24] He helped them obtain grants and matched minority-owned businesses with “established corporate buyers.” Under Foster’s leadership, the NBL worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket to provide entrepreneurs with seminars about topics like accounting trends and business law.

Of this work, Foster said “We’re living in a new day and working with a new Negro who is more professionally and economically mature . . .  Negro businessmen today realize that they can not stand a chance individually. They must unite and mobilize their resources for a stronger voice and larger economic base.”[25] He also worked to increase capital for minorities by co-founding the Midwest National Bank in 1972. The bank publicly objected to redlining practices, issued “inner-city” loans, and appointed women to several leadership positions.[26]


Despite cultivating a small empire and a reputation as a civic-minded leader, Foster’s proverbial boots were nearly confiscated. In 1974, he was arrested for allegedly operating an interstate heroin ring.[27] His arrest followed a “‘super secret'” investigation conducted by the FDA and Indianapolis Police Department narcotic squad, which purported that he violated the Indiana Controlled Substances Act. The following year, the Indianapolis Star reported that a Marion County grand jury exonerated Foster, claiming in an eight-page report that his arrest was “‘politically motivated.'”[28] The report concluded that he was arrested because two informants were promised leniency in other cases against them if they would implicate Foster. Jurors opined, “‘We believe Andrew Foster has personally suffered a great deal as a result of these indictments.'”

Foster elaborated on this suffering. He told the Indianapolis Star that his wife was afraid to stay at home, fearing that the allegations would induce individuals in the drug trade to “‘kidnap one of our children or break into our home to rob us.'”[29] Another ramification of the indictment was Foster’s resignation from the board of the Midwest National Bank. He told the Star, “‘I was a successful black businessman and the younger blacks could look up to me and see a model for success,'” but after the arrest and prosecutors’ statements “some of the younger blacks felt I was discredited.'”[30] In his pursuit of accountability, Foster filed suit against Marion County Prosecutor Noble Pearcy and Chief Trial Deputy Leroy New for defamation.[31] Over the course of years and various appeals, the state ruled against Foster, concluding that “‘the prosecutor and his assistant were immune from being sued for anything they said in their official capacity.'”[32] The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state.

Broadcasters Hall of Famer Amos Brown (right) celebrating “Bo Foster’s Day” with Bo (seated) in 1982, courtesy of the Foster family.

The arrest ultimately failed to tarnish his reputation, which he went to various length to defend, including voluntarily taking a lie detector test.[33] He certainly felt a sense of gratification when hundreds gathered to celebrate “Bo Foster Day” on August 24, 1982.[34] At the event, the Marion County Sherriff’s Department presented him with a plaque, and Joe Slash, the city’s first Black deputy mayor, presented him with a letter from Mayor William Hudnut. Foster was also bestowed with the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash, which Governor Robert Orr awarded in recognition of his civic contributions.[35] The Indianapolis Recorder profiled the event and predicted “In the years to come the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Foster will remember him as a man who contributed endlessly to the well being of the Hoosier state and of his admiring contemporaries . . . a man who lived the American Dream.”[36]

Foster’s relatives at the 2023 historical marker dedication, former site of Foster Motor Lodge and Pearl’s Lounge, photo taken by author.

Andrew “Bo” Foster passed away in 1987, having increased capital and equity for Indianapolis’s Black community.[37] In the 1990s, Foster Motor Lodge and adjoining Pearl’s Lounge were demolished.[38] Fittingly, the site was replaced with the Hamilton Center, a non-profit mental health organization. This would be the location of a historical marker installed in 2023 to commemorate Foster. His family shares his sense of stewardship. His grandson, Charles, applied for the marker and manages a robust Instagram account documenting Foster’s life to ensure his legacy endures.

The marker dedication was a joyous occasion, one that resembled a family reunion. Relatives flew from across the country to commemorate the patriarch and learn about the Indianapolis of his time. Also in attendance was Joe Slash, who was effusive in his praise of Foster and his enduring impact. He and family members passed around a microphone, sharing memories and anecdotes that affirmed the Recorder‘s prediction.

Notes:

[1] Skip Hess, “No ‘Bootstraps,’ So NBL Evolves,” Indianapolis News, June 27, 1968, 56, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account, managed by Charles Foster Jolivette. The account includes several primary sources, including newspaper clippings and images.

[3] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[4] Photograph, Andrew Foster, January 1, 1938, Crispus Attucks High School Collection, accessed Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections; Photograph, Crispus Attucks Alumni, December 9, 1983, accessed Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections.

[5] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] “Andrew Daniel Foster,” U.S. World War II Draft Cards, Young Men, 1940-1947, Registration Date: October 16, 1940, accessed Ancestry Library; “Service Roll: Inductions and Enlistments into U. S. Forces,” Indianapolis News, October 21, 1941, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1943, 22, accessed Newspapers.com; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24.

[7] The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.com; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “Andrew Foster,” 1950 United States Federal Census, accessed Ancestry Library; George Vecsey, “For Many, It was Just Another Weekend,” New York Times, February 15, 1971, 13, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com; Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[9] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[10] Indianapolis Recorder, February 5, 1949, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “’House of Strangers’ at Walker Sunday,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 8, 1949, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] “Indianapolis,” The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: The Guide to Travel and Vacations (1955 Edition): 20, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; “Indianapolis,” Travelers’ Greek Book (New York City: Victor H. Green & Co., 1966-1967): 24, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; Alexandria Burris, “How the ‘Great Book’ Helped Black Motorists Travel across Indiana,” IndyStar, February 16, 2022, accessed indystar.com. (Foster Hotel and Guest House were printed in issues from 1955 to 1977).

[12] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Recorder, August 13, 1955, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 29, 1963, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Ad, Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1967, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[13] Ad, “Welcome Permanent Guest,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 6, 1954, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 24, 1966, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[14] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] Jet (November 11, 19540): 46, submitted by marker applicant.

[17] “Marriage Licenses,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1962, 30, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Pearl’s Cocktail Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 9, 1970, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[19] Indianapolis Recorder, October 17, 1970, submitted by marker applicant.

[20] Renee Ferguson, “NAACP Leader Denounces Bills Prohibiting Busing,” Indianapolis News, February 23, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women’s Luncheon Every Monday at Pearl’s Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 17, 1974, 5, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Indianapolis Recorder, October 9, 1976, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Let’s Go: Leisure Time Calendar,” Indianapolis Star, February 27, 1983, 83, accessed Newspapers.com; “Special Notices,” Indianapolis News, October 26, 1984, 33, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Pacers Get-Acquainted Buffet at Pearl’s Nov. 3,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 25, 1975, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; “One Man in Life,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 6, 1973, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Group Raises $67,075 for Lugar Campaign,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1974, 20, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hudnut, GOP Mayoral Candidate, Plans Active Recruitment Program for Blacks,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 4, 1975, 1, 17, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Black Republicans Cite Kuykendall, Ms. Holland,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 28, 1976, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “C. Delores Tucker Arranges Series of Weekend Talks,” Indianapolis Star, October 10, 1976, 86, accessed Newspapers.com; William J. Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, September 15, 1984, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[23] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] Pat W. Stewart, “Operation Breadbasket Ministers Outline Broad Program for Action in the City,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 30, 1967, 1, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; John H. Lyst, “Negro Firms to Get Push,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1968, 73, accessed Newspapers.com; L. J. Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1968, 78, accessed Newspapers.com; “Opportunity Fair to Aid Minorities,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1970, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, 78.

[26] Robert Corya, “80,000 Shares OK’d for Newest City Bank,” Indianapolis News, April 20, 1971, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “New Midwest National Bank Gets Approval to Sell Common Stock,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1971, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “The Best Kept Secret in Town: Midwest National Bank,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 28, 1981, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[27] “Health Board Member Among 7 Arrested on Drug Indictments,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1974, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] Joseph Gelarden, “Jury Calls Indictment ‘Politics,'” Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1975, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Judge is Ordered to Consider Suit,” The Herald [Jasper, MI], June 21, 1978, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] “From Libel Suit: Court,” The Times [Munster, IN], April 4, 1979, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “High Court Denies Hoosier’s Appeal,” Daily Reporter [Greenfield, IN], April 15, 1980, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[34] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 1, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[35] William “Skinny” Alexander, “Time for Talk,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[36] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1, 8.

[37] “Andrew Daniel Foster, Sr.,” Indiana State Board of Health Medical Certificate of Death, June 23, 1987, Indiana, U.S., Death Certificates, 1899-2011, accessed Ancestry Library; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.

[38] Mary Francis, “McLean Place was Truly Foster’s Place, and Now It’s Official,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1994, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Howard M. Smulevitz, “New Mental Health Center will Stand on Site of Historic Lounge and Lodge,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1996, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Where Are My People To Go?:” The West Baden “Race War”

Bellmen at the French Lick Hotel, accessed IndyStar.

Embroidered with resorts and mineral springs, French Lick Valley served as a veritable playground for Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Hotels in West Baden and French Lick offered all the creature comforts money could buy. One could luxuriate in mud baths, bird watch from marbled verandas, and be moved to tears at an opera house. When nestled in the hills of southwestern Indiana, daily responsibilities were but a glint in the rearview mirror. But for some, the Valley was a hotbed of violence and intimidation. In early June 1902, “Friends” penned a letter informing Black waiters, “There is 35 sticks of 45 per cent dynamite in hiding now to blow you up and there is also ammunition at the same place. Every house in West Baden, French Lick, Hillham and in the valley that has colored people in them will be blown up.”[1]

The letter reported that fifty-six locals had gathered in the countryside, plotting to drive out the region’s Black population. The conspirators were likely the same individuals who had recently installed a sign in West Baden bearing “the proverbial skull and cross bones” associated with sundown towns.[2] According to Lin Wagner, director emeritus of the French Lick West Baden Museum, “’The hotels were building and booming in the late 1800s, the south was undergoing reconstruction and a lot of blacks were moving north. West Baden Springs Hotel owner Lee W. Sinclair brought workers up from the south to work as nannies, bellmen, maids, porters and waiters; vital to the day to day operations and success of his West Baden resort.'”[3] As the Black community grew, the “laboring classes among the white people” conspired to dispel its workforce.

Pluto Spring interior, French Lick Springs, Indiana, circa 1910, courtesy Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

Between 1902 and 1908, newspapers reported on an emergent “race war” in the French Lick Valley. Just days after the letter was dispatched to Black waiters, as well as the property owners who rented to them, Secret Service officials descended on the area.[4] They warned the conspirators, who had appointed themselves the “Committee of Regulators,” that if they were caught with firearms they would be jailed for “inciting a riot.” And while “Uncle Sam” had taken “a Hand,” as the Huntington Weekly Herald phrased it, it is unclear if any of the “ringleaders” actually faced arrest or imprisonment.[5]

Punitive lip service was more likely, as Deputy U.S. Marshall John Ballard reportedly feared arrests would make the situation more volatile. In analyzing the “race war,” historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “although there were no statutory laws forbidding black settlement,” it was “enforced not only by public opinion but also by sheriffs and other local officers, that decreed blacks could not settle in the town or stay overnight.” This aligns with the Bedford Weekly Mail‘s report that “several of the most objectionable” Black residents complied with a “quiet” order to leave the area during the conflict.[6]

Referencing the events in West Baden and similar occurrences in “several towns along the line of the Monon railroad,” Rev. Edward Gilliam wrote to the editor of the Indianapolis News, asking “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?”[7] He argued that these conflicts represented the larger struggle for Black people to support themselves in post-Reconstruction America. Rev. Gilliam wrote, “With factory doors, mercantile opportunities and other avenues of earning a livelihood closed against us,” it was particularly shameful to “be notified that we shall be permitted to choose our fields of labor only upon the approval and consent of a lot of men who defy the laws of the country.” He begged the question “is it not time for those who favor fair play to all men to speak out and emphatically say that Indiana shall not be disgraced  by such unlawful proceedings?” Black Americans were barred from employment and subsequently condemned for their destitution.

Group photo at West Baden Springs Hotel, 1906, Bretzman Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

Just after midnight on June 5, 1908, sections of the Valley illuminated with gunfire. A few hours later, the sound of explosions plucked dozens of waiters from slumber at the Jersey European Hotel. “Frightened so badly that they could scarcely speak,” they rushed into the street as sticks of dynamite hammered the west side of the building.[8] Many boarders at the Jersey European—operated by Black proprietor Charles “Champ” Rice—were Black employees of the West Baden Springs Hotel.[9] While no one was physically harmed, the blast damaged the structure and succeeded in driving many residents from the area.

Journalists speculated about the perpetrators’ motive, but generally concurred that the violence was intended as retribution for the dismissal of white waitresses for the West Baden Springs Hotel, known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”[10] Reportedly, hotel manager Lee Sinclair had recently fired about forty waitresses and replaced them with Black men from Louisville.[11] According to Thornbrough, “Just as custom and prejudice, rather than law, assigned blacks to certain residential areas, so custom and prejudice decreed that only certain kinds of employment were open to ‘colored persons’—usually seasonal jobs that whites disdained.” U.S. Census reports at the time noted the majority of Black men worked as servants and porters.

Richmond Palladium (Daily), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sinclair justified his decision to replace the waitstaff as “trying to better moral conditions.” However, an anonymous writer informed the Indianapolis News that Sinclair was induced by the “jealousy of a woman for the waitresses. She has been trying to make this change for the last year.”[12] It is unclear if the woman was part of hotel staff or had a personal relationship with Sinclair. Regardless of its impetus, the resultant hostility caused many of the waiters and residents to flee the area.[13] On the precipice of a “race war,” Marshall John Ballard returned to West Baden, seeking to identify those who initiated the attacks. He was generally met with silence, especially from fearful Black residents who had chosen to remain in the Valley. A night watchman also had little to offer, as he reportedly fled in search of law enforcement when the shots began ringing.

Tensions were so heightened that the Brazil Daily Times predicted the state militia would be dispatched.[14] The Muncie Evening Press echoed, “Other attacks upon the place are feared unless police protection is furnished in this place. The community has always been opposed to negroes.”[15] Nevertheless, John Felker, owner of a building that housed the displaced individuals, refused to expel them, “even if the alternative is leveling the building to the ground with dynamite.”[16]

Perhaps the war would not be so easily won. The violence seemed to disperse as quickly as it emerged, or at least reports of it ceased to appear in newspapers. And while many Black residents fled, refugees in their own country, others stayed and nurtured the remaining community. In 1909, Rev. Chas. Hunter wrote to the Indianapolis Recorder about the burgeoning Black-owned businesses in the French Lick Valley.[17] He noted that members of the “superior class,” like hotel porter S.C. Pitman and news dealer H.L. Babbage, lived in “good houses, furnished up-to-date.” W.O. Martin owned a tailoring business and Mrs. W.L. Alexander and Mrs. W. M. Scott did “a fine business” as dress makers. James Gibbs, “well known in Indianapolis,” excelled as head waiter at French Lick Springs Hotel. Rev. Hunter concluded his letter to the editor by quipping “my old friend Wiggington plays the ‘devil’ as usual'” in his role as the French Lick Springs Hotel’s mascot, Pluto Water.

Yarmouth Wiggington dressed as the hotel’s Pluto Water mascot, ca. 1910, accessed Indiana Album.

Rev. Hunter’s editorial resonated with a Recorder subscriber, who added in the following issue that George Jones operated a dry cleaning business and tailoring establishment, both of which did “a very heavy summer business.”[18] George’s wife, Myldred, started a music class, hoping to teach “her former pupils and also people musically interested.”

Recreation and the humanities kept pace with business endeavors in the Valley’s Black community. Members of the Ladies Culture Club met that spring to discuss issues of peace. They listened as Mrs. W.O. Martin delivered a talk “On why should we hustle for a living.”[19] Young residents organized a literary society to explore matters of art and culture. In April 1909, the First Baptist Church was dedicated. Hugh Rice and J.P. Cook presented tithes on behalf of their fellow waiters at the West Baden and French Lick hotels.[20] After church, one could watch the West Baden Sprudels (managed by hotel proprietor Champ Rice) play the French Lick Plutos.

Postcard collected by Kevin Pope, showing the Sprudels ca. 1910-1913, courtesy Gary Ashwill, accessed Agate Type.

Rice’s Jersey European Hotel withstood the Summer of 1908. In ads printed in The New York Age in 1912, he promised those “in bad health” the benefits of the Jersey’s spring waters for just $1.00 per day.[21] Indeed, those who hailed from the Big Apple took him up on the offer, as well as those from cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Cleveland, and Chattanooga. Providing the Jersey European with competition, the Waddy Hotel opened in 1913. It served Black patrons like noted Indianapolis journalist Lillian Thomas Fox and, years later, famed boxer Joe Louis.

Black communities and institutions continued to grow in Indiana cities during the Progressive Era. In trying to make a livelihood, Black Americans had to contend with displacement, vandalism, violence, and eventually the organized efforts of the Klan. By 1923, fiery crosses stretched across Southern Indiana’s “little valley,” as 100 members were initiated into the hate group.[22] Despite the shadow cast by Jim Crow discrimination, Black Americans continued to answer the questions “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?” through community-building and fellowship.

 

Sources:

[1] “Race Troubles Imminent,” The Daily Mail (Bedford, IN), June 17, 1902, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] The Huntingburgh Independent (IN), June 21, 1902, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Dawn Mitchell, “Revival at the Last African American Church in West Baden,” IndyStar, September 19, 2018, accessed IndyStar.com.

[4] “Government Takes a Hand,” Fort Wayne News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, June 27, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[5] “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, 6.

[6] Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 2000), 3.

[7] “The Negro in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] Quote from “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, 1; “Dynamite Explosion Frightens Negroes,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; “Race War at West Baden,” Greencastle Herald, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] Bedford Daily Mail, June 2, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Change to Male Waiters,” Indianapolis News, June 3, 1908, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, p. 6.

[12] “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; Letter-to-the-Editor, X, “West Baden Waitresses,” Indianapolis News, June 12, 1908, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1; “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, June 6, 1908, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Riot Quiets Down,” Brazil Daily Times, June 6, 1908, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1.

[16] “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, 15.

[17] Letter-to-the-Editor, Rev. Chas. Hunter, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 16, 1909, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] A Subscriber, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 23, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 10, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] “Jersey European Hotel, West Baden, Ind.,” New York Age, August 8, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Jersey European Hotel & Baths,” New York Age, October 3, 1912, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[22] “French Lick Shows Interest,” Fiery Cross, April 6, 1923, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “French Lick, Ind., Has Klan Ceremony,” Fiery Cross, July 6, 1923, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Gas Boom, Sex Work, and Muncie’s Urban Economy

“Muncie, Indiana: The Natural Gas City of the West” (Muncie Natural Gas Land Improvement Company, ca. 1889), 15, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.
This post draws on more extensive research completed by the author, Cory Balkenbusch, and Jennifer Mara DeSilva. For a full article on this research, see “Toleration of Sex Work in East Central Indiana, 1880-1900” in the upcoming December 2023 edition of the Indiana Magazine of History.

In April of 1894, Muncie policemen Ball, Cole, and Coffey assisted Chief Miller on a raid of a “Palace o’ Pleasure.” When the officers arrived, they discovered “six very well-known young gentlemen,” who were “being entertained” by four women.[1] The Muncie Daily Herald revealed that the young men and their paid female company swiftly scraped together enough money and valuables to give bond, with one man even giving an officer a valuable diamond stud that was given to him by his mother.[2] The resort, located on Vine Street, was owned by a woman who went by the name of Rosenthal. It quickly became notorious for its illicit activities, with another raid occurring in May of 1894, in which four girls and seven men were arrested and charged with “associating.”[3]

Muncie newspaper readers during this era would not find the reports regarding Rosenthal’s “Palace O’ Pleasure” terribly shocking. During the Gas Boom, sex work was increasingly becoming a part of Muncie’s cultural and social landscape. By the end of the nineteenth century, a substantial reservoir of natural gas was discovered in East Central Indiana, prompting surrounding cities like Muncie, Anderson, and Kokomo to rush to discover their own supply.[4]  Despite commonly-held assumptions about American small towns and cities, they were not isolated from the influence of their distant metropolitan cousins. In the two decades before the twentieth century, new railway, telegraph, and telephone connections linked small towns and cities more intimately with the urban centers.

As historians Frank Felsenstein and James Connolly have argued, Muncie, Indiana reflected this rural-urban network. Their research has contrasted Robert and Helen Lynds’ depiction of a sleepy agricultural center recently industrialized in their landmark 1929 study Middletown.[5]  However, historians have chiefly focused on the city’s cultural achievements and technological progress brought upon by the Gas Boom, ignoring a large facet of the economy: the exchange of sexual services. Indeed, between 1880 to 1900, the Gas Boom and subsequent industrialization spearheaded the growth of Muncie’s sexual exchange network. This played an integral role within its growing economy.

The Gas Boom, Working Class Men, & The Rise of Sex Work

“Muncie, Indiana: The Natural Gas City of the West” (Muncie Natural Gas Land Improvement Company, ca. 1889), 28, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

By the spring of 1887, the Muncie Natural Gas Company laid gas mains across most sections of town and was piping inexpensive gas to individual households and businesses.[6] Within that same year, gas had replaced the need for coal, leaving the city free from soot and ash. Forward-thinking businessmen like James Boyce, a member of Muncie’s board of trade, energetically pursued business ventures both for personal gain and to bring new factories to town. Boyce persuaded the Over window glass plant, the Hemingray bottle plant, and the famed Ball Brothers Company to build in Muncie. The working population doubled from 5,500 in 1886 to 11,345 in 1890, and Muncie was quickly becoming the largest city in the Indiana Gas Belt.[7] In turn, the city’s industrial and demographic explosion after 1886 entirely transformed Muncie’s neighborhoods and entertainment districts.  By the end of the century, almost seven times the number of original saloons operated throughout the city and nearly double the number of boarding houses and hotels lined Walnut Street.[8]

As Muncie’s working-class male population grew, saloons became spaces for men to socialize and relieve the stresses of factory work. Relief could be found in conversation, intoxication, sport or musical entertainment, and female company. Sex work often accompanied the development of urban, commercial, and transportation infrastructure.[9] As the north-south artery running straight through the city, Walnut Street connected Muncie’s downtown district with the railway depot. It continued into a new residential area that grew beyond the railway tracks to support workers at the surrounding factories. The Southside neighborhood’s location, at the intersections of the C.C.C. & St. Louis Railroad Lines and the L.E. & W. Railroad Lines, coupled with its proximity to the commercial district, made it a hotbed for sex work. The steady flow of newcomers and addition of boarding houses and saloons around the train depots provided potential clients and encounter sites. As early as 1890, Muncie’s newspapers reported Southside sex workers and their clients being arrested and fined.

Establishing Networks & the Commercialization of a Sex Work

Boardinghouse located above a saloon at 815 South Walnut Street on the 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, accessed Library of Congress.

While the Southside was largely cut off from Muncie’s wealthier commercial district by railway lines, the saloons that lined Walnut Street to the north continued to the south. The 1886 Sanborn map identifies a barber, grocer, jeweler, and three saloons that occupied a block between 1st and 2nd Streets. Sanborn maps show that east of Walnut Street, the Southside neighborhood was made up of houses, bringing businesses like the Muncie Lumber Company, the Artificial Gas Works, the Muncie Foundry & Machine Shop, and the Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot. Although it is hard to determine if these dwellings functioned as boarding houses, there was one known boarding house listed on the 1896 Sanborn map.

The boarding house was located off Walnut Street and might have offered factory men a livable space close to their place of employment. This boarding house occupied the same building as a saloon, with two additional saloons and one restaurant nearby, underlining the proximity to possible prostitution. Widows frequently ran boardinghouses to replace their lost husband’s income. However, the commercialization of women’s labor degraded her role as “keeper of the house.”[10] This highlights the effects of the Victorian middle-class ideals, as paid labor was viewed as a masculine activity.  Moreover, contemporaries viewed boarding houses with suspicion because they often sheltered single women and men in proximity, which undermined the idealized purity of middle-class homes. The possibility of sexual activity between unmarried men and women cast suspicion on boarding houses, and aligned them with brothels, which sometimes masqueraded as “female boarding houses” on Sanborn fire insurance maps.[11]

To find direct evidence of sex work, one needed only to follow South Walnut Street into Muncie’s Southside. Much like Chicago’s sex district, known as the Levee, Muncie’s Southside brothels operated openly, and some women used boardinghouses to meet clients.[12] Unlike middle-class neighborhoods in the northern half of the city that were cut off from factory development and train depots, the Southside sheltered working-class men and families that moved to Muncie as new factories opened. From the late 1880s, women engaging in the sex trade gravitated towards the neighborhood. The number of established brothels, sex workers employed in this area, and the prevalence of their arrests reported in the newspapers evinced this movement.

Walnut Street at Patterson Block railroad construction, Muncie, Indiana, ca. 1900s, Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Not long after he acquired it from Henry Coppersmith, John Mullenix’s saloon earned a reputation for being an “awful, wicked, sinful joint,” and one of the “toughest holes in Indiana.” Mullenix arranged for Minnie White, also known as “Gas Well Minnie,” to use the saloon as a base for exchanging sexual services.[13] The saloon’s location positioned both Mullenix and White to make a profit from travelers, as well as local factory workers. The saloon, located about a block south of the railroad line, was surrounded by four large manufacturing plants, ensuring patronage.  Additionally, about twelve dwellings on the saloon’s block might have served as boarding houses for the men working close by. Elsewhere, tavern keepers relied on sex workers to attract customers, while women often relied on tavern keepers for a space to engage in their sexual services, much like Mullenix and White did in Muncie.[14]

However, women engaging in sex work did not limit themselves to working-class neighborhoods and saloons. Indeed, Muncie’s entertainment and business district offered some women the chance to profit from wealthier clientele. The High Street Theater reflected this trend noted by other historians, as concert halls and theaters became popular new venues for sex and entertainment by the beginning of the twentieth century.[15] Located directly across the street from Delaware County’s courthouse, the theater’s wine rooms were open all hours of the day. Initially, the newspapers portrayed wine rooms as a sign of the city’s metropolitan character, but by 1900 they were a source of communal outrage.[16]

(Delaware County) Courthouse square, Muncie, Indiana, ca. 1900, Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Venues like the High Street Theater catered to a wealthier clientele than the Southside working-class. Clients paid an entrance fee, after which they climbed a stairwell that led to small apartments overlooking the theater’s main auditorium. These semi-private rooms were essentially pine boxes with lace curtains to conceal the activity from the audience down below. In these wine rooms, scantily clad women encouraged clients to buy drinks and other services. These costs required a clientele with sufficient disposable income, something most of Muncie’s factory workers could not claim.[17]

An undercover police officer noted that “Age and color [were] no disqualifications” to visit the theater, making it clear that vice activities attracted far more wealthier men than young factory workers. [18] While single factory workers might have money to spend, Muncie’s older and wealthier men also visited the theater. In 1895, Rhoda Jones arrived at the High Street Theater Restaurant and attempted to climb the staircase to find her husband, George Jones. Although the attendant claimed that the wine-rooms were closed at 11pm, Rhoda was insistent that her husband was present. She argued that each night he walked north from their grocery store on South Walnut Street to visit the wine-room women.[19] Although Rhoda’s arrival appeared in the next day’s newspaper, her husband’s departure was more covert. For men like George, the theater also had alleyway access to several city streets, allowing all clients to make easy escapes and discreet entrances.

Property Ownership & Economic Profitability

The Muncie Daily Times, January 26, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

Social reform efforts in the late 1890s underlined the development of a new vice district. By early 1896, Southside citizens had mobilized a reform campaign. On January 26, 1896, the Muncie Daily Times described an attempt to close organized brothels. Between Walnut and Vine Streets, stretching to the C.C.C. and St. Louis Railroad tracks, down towards Ninth Street, the Muncie Daily Times reported that citizens held a “feeling of disgrace” living among houses of “ill-repute.”[20] The tension and notoriety surrounding prostitution is apparent from the newspaper’s willingness to identify prominent brothel owners. Between 1887 and 1896, it had become clear to Muncie’s Southside that an extensive prostitution network had developed. Newspaper accounts sensationalized and corroborated citizens’ concerns. “Soiled Doves” and “Women of ill-repute,” such as Emma Bryant, Hazel Gray, and Kate Phinney, provided Muncie’s newspapers with frequent material for reports of their sexual escapades and commerce.

The effort to close brothels within the Southside neighborhood also revealed the prominent role that sex work played within Muncie’s booming economy. Numerous newspaper articles, like that published by The Muncie Daily Times on January 26, 1896, highlighted the extensive network of female-owned brothels and the way they generated city profits through county court fines. Despite the continuous raids these women faced, city officials never forced their brothels to shut down. Their services, and the fines that these raids produced, were an integral part of the Muncie’s urban economy.

“They Say It Is A Nuisance: Several Citizens File and Affidavit Against Kate Phinney,” Muncie Morning News, May 19, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

For example, in 1891, The Muncie Daily Times reported on a brothel raid that occurred on Third Street, outing five individual women working at the location, including the proprietress, Minnie Dwyer. Those arrested and put before the judge pleaded guilty to prostitution, paying fines of $16.85.[21] Dwyer was not the only woman running a brothel, however. In 1892, the Muncie Morning News reported that nearly “one hundred citizens” gathered to discuss Kate Phinney’s “house of ill-fame,” and ultimately decided it was a nuisance.[22] The Southside’s saloons, boarding houses, and brothels became woven into this area’s economy of leisure, transiency, and commercial sex.

Emma Bryant was one of the most prominent sex workers and brothel owners in the area, appearing six times in the Delaware County Court Records for her involvement in vice activity, including prostitution, witness to prostitution, and witness to violent crimes.[23] However, the newspapers revealed that Bryant often paid hefty fines rather than serving jail time. As early as 1894, Bryant’s “bawdy house” was raided by police, but remained opened.[24] Her brothel on Council Street, known as Gaiety Commons, appeared later in 1895 in The Muncie Morning News when Bryant along with seven young men and two young women were arrested on charges related to the illegal monetary exchange of sexual services.[25] That same year, Bryant was arrested for selling alcohol without a license, but she paid $200 (equivalent to $6,117.81 today) and was released.[26] Despite the continuous raids these women faced, city officials never forced their brothels to shut down. As historian Ruth Rosen has described, sex workers’ services, and the fines that these raids produced, were an integral part of the urban economy in many American cities.[27] Muncie sex workers produced considerable revenue for the city through the fines they paid.

Prostitution on the Southside bolstered the city’s real estate economy. Muncie sex workers actively engaged in purchasing and selling property and securing mortgages. Kate Phinney and Hazel Gray weathered frequent raids, but always found a new location for their businesses. Phinney faced a plethora of fines and charges related to prostitution but remained an integral part of the vice district, moving her brothel from South Plum Street into Shedtown (current-day Avondale neighborhood). Hazel Gray, appearing as early as 1894 in the newspapers, moved her brothel from Second Street to Third Street. Like Phinney, Gray also faced numerous prostitution charges until she left town in 1897. Phinney’s and Gray’s ability to move around the Southside suggest that there was a tolerance of the profession among city officials.

“After Questionable Houses: There Will Be None Left in Muncie After March 10,” Muncie Morning News, February 20, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Southside citizens were seemingly successful in their efforts to close the local brothels. The Muncie Morning News reported that by March 1896, brothels run by Emma Bryant, Kate Phinney, and others had been shut down.[28] However, many of these “businesswomen of ill-repute” did not leave Muncie. According to the Muncie City Directory, Emma Bryant was still living on South Willard Street in 1901. Muncie’s 1897 city directory listed Hazel Gray as living at 138 Kinney Street. These directories reveal that, although their brothels were initially shuttered, these women moved freely about Muncie, redefining the vice district limits.


Muncie and Portland Traction streetcar, n.d., Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs Collection, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

By 1900, 347 manufacturing establishments operated within the city and Muncie boasted a population of 20,942. However, the industrial optimism brought on by the discovery of natural gas would not last long. By the beginning of the 20th century, gas pressure dropped to nearly 100 pounds and many large factories could no longer obtain the natural gas they had so heavily utilized during the previous decade. This caused many factories to find other means of production or shut down.  Unlike smaller cities in Eastern Indiana, like Fairmount and Eaton, the growth of Muncie’s railway lines provided convenient access to coal, raw materials, and markets for finished manufactured products, which maintained its industrial prominence after the gas ran out.  The movement of factories closer to the railway lines prompted Muncie to grow in all directions, with new industrial areas materializing at both the north and south ends of the city.

Muncie’s sex work industry continued to follow the Walnut Street corridor, then flowing out towards industrial areas. As in other cities, the industry maintained a connection to the city’s entertainment district throughout the Gilded Age, providing clients with easy access to vice. However, during the Progressive Era, sex work was forced underground. As social reformers sought to solves issues created by Gilded Age industrialization, Gas Boom Muncie offers historians a chance to understand how Gilded Age vices took hold of smaller-scale urban spaces, creating a new narrative of how these areas reflect larger city trends when regarding the link between sex work and the local economy.

 

Notes:

[1] “A Large Catch,” The Muncie Daily Herald, April 5, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Vine Street Joint,” The Muncie Morning News, June 1, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4]  James Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 96, no. 4 (2000): 315.

[5] Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly, What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), p. 17-20; Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929), p. 5-6.

[6] Remarkably, in 1892 the state reported that 2,500 square miles of natural gas could be located across Central Indiana making it the largest known gas field—larger than the Pennsylvania and Ohio fields combined. Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” 315.

[7] Glass, “The Gas Boom in Central Indiana,” 318.

[8] Charles Emerson, 1893-1894 Emerson’s Muncie Directory (Muncie: Carlon & Hollenbeck, 1893), accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

[9] Katie M. Hemphill, “Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City: The Changing Business of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore,” in Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America, eds. Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), p. 169.

[10] Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 60.

[11] Kristi L. Palmer, “Fire Insurance Maps: Introduction and Glimpses into America’s Glass Manufacturing History,” The News Journal 20, no. 4 (2013): 4; Gamber, The Boardinghouse in the Nineteenth Century, p. 102-103.

[12] Cynthia M. Blair, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 27.

[13] “For Min White and Bomb Shell for The Quart Shop: The Police and Residents of South Walnut Street Very Sore on John Mullenix’s Wicked Joint,” The Muncie Morning News, March 12, 1893, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] Hemphill, “Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City,” p. 172-173.

[15] Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 224; Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900 -1918 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 83-84.

[16] “A Wine Room,” The Daily Muncie Herald, November 15, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

[17] “Muncie’s Den of Iniquity,” The Star Press, January 28, 1900, accessed Newspapers.com.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “After Hubby,” The Muncie Morning News, April 5, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[20] “After the Resorts: Southside Citizens Organize to Fight Them,” The Muncie Daily Times, January 26, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “A Third Street Joint Raided and Ten Victims Gathered,” The Muncie Daily Times, October 26, 1891, accessed Newspapers.com.

[22] Phinney had been charged with keeping a house of ill-fame as early as 1890, and then again in 1895 and 1898; Delaware County Circuit Criminal Court, Cause #2547 (1890), 3031 (1895), 3480 (1898); “They Say It Is A Nuisance: Several Citizens File and Affidavit Against Kate Phinney,” Muncie Morning News, May 19, 1892, accessed Newspapers.com.

[23] Delaware County Circuit Criminal Court, Cause #3546 (1897), 3494 (1898), 3737 (1900), 8409 (1927).

[24] “Bawdy Houses Raided: The Inmates of Three Bagino’s [sic] in Courts To-Day,” The Muncie Daily Times, January 1, 1894, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] “It Comes High: But the Boys Will Stray Into The Path That Leads to Headquarters,” Muncie Morning News, March 19, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[26] “In The Hands of U.S. Officials,” The Muncie Daily Times, March 2, 1895, accessed Newspapers.com.

[27] Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood, p. 74-75.

[28] “After Questionable Houses: There Will Be None Left in Muncie After March 10,” Muncie Morning News, February 20, 1896, accessed Newspapers.com.

Subversion and Solidarity: A Pre-Roe History of Abortion in the Midwest

Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills advertising pamphlet, ca. 1887. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

The 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health put the responsibility back on each individual state to determine abortion law for its citizens. In presenting a history of abortion in Indiana, I hope to share how both access and barriers to the termination of pregnancies have changed from the 19th century to the present. Due to the complexities of the abortion debate in Indiana, this article will only discuss the state of abortion prior to the 1970s.

While current laws seeking to ban abortion in Indiana and across the United States focus on the detection of a fetal heartbeat, legal cases between 1812 and 1926 were frequently concerned with “quickening,” which is defined as “the point in which the pregnant woman first feels the fetus move . . . usually between the sixteenth and eighteenth week of pregnancy.”[1] Prior to the point of quickening in a woman’s pregnancy, abortion was not considered a crime since the woman might not have been aware of the pregnancy, particularly if her menstrual cycle was irregular.[2] Instead, these women were often regarded as victims of their own actions in allowing themselves to become pregnant or as victims of an illegal abortion resulting in their death. It is this latter situation, unfortunately, that has allowed historians to learn about the history of abortion practices within the United States. The stories were often only publicly shared through inquest reports, which sought to investigate any deviations from acceptable medical practices that led to death.[3]

In the late 1800s, abortion became a statutory crime in Indiana, as in all states in America. This means that the criminality of the action was written into state laws rather than relying only on the precedent set by court decisions, also called “common law.”[4] The specific statute or law included the elements that an individual must satisfy to be found guilty of the crime, such as the action performed, their mental state when the act was performed, and proximate causation, which is defined as a link between the action and the effect of that action.[5] Despite statues and legal precedent asserting the criminal nature of abortions, women were frequently exempt from liability for their participation in terminating the pregnancy, with most charges instead filed against the individual who performed the abortion.[6]

Although women did not speak openly about abortions outside of their social circles, they did confide in their close friends and family members of their desire to be “fixed up” or to “bring their courses around.”[7] According to many historians’ investigations into the topic, women in the 18th and 19th centuries often turned to abortion as a common means of birth control, with some even asserting that it was safer than childbirth, which claimed the lives of numerous women annually. [8] Women often shared folk remedies or other methods for terminating the pregnancy in much the same way they would have discussed the treatments for other common illnesses.[9]

lady
The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

At the turn of the 20th century, approaches to understanding and addressing the rate of abortions within the community involved comparing it with other birth control methods and encouraging the avoidance of pregnancy to prevent the need for an abortion. One such advocate was New York nurse Margaret Sanger,[10] who spearheaded the birth control movement, eventually leading to the approval of modern contraceptives. Sanger reportedly solicited the help of Roberta West Nicholson, a Hoosier legislator (1935-1936) and activist, who co-founded the Indiana Birth Control League in 1932, Indianapolis’s first Planned Parenthood center. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began her 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

Controversially, Sanger argued in favor of abortion for eugenics, though without the overtly racist undercurrent of most pro-eugenics writings. Instead, her arguments, which often referred to minority and immigrant women indirectly, called for increased access to contraception to assist in limiting the number of children born in their families.[11] At the core of Sanger’s arguments was the idea that “the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty.”[12] Indiana took Sanger’s beliefs a step further and passed a new law in 1907 that authorized the involuntary sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists,” following the argument that poverty, criminal behavior, and mental problems were hereditary.[13] According to the historical marker placed outside the Indiana State Library in 2007 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the law, approximately 2,500 people within state custody were sterilized under the mandatory sterilization approved by Governor J. Frank Hanly.[14]

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), accessed womenshistory.org.

In her work with minority, immigrant and working-class communities, Sanger often cared for women who were “relieved if there was a stillbirth, because they could not afford to raise any more children.”[15] As a result, it was these women that Sanger most commonly targeted with her advocacy for increased access to birth control in place of abortions; however, historians like Leslie Reagan and Joan Jacobs Brumberg have argued that abortions were sought by women in all sectors of society to prevent an unwanted birth or to protect a young woman’s reputation. Reagan found that mothers who helped their daughters seek illegal abortions often cited the double standard between males and females in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the mother “knew that bearing an illegitimate child would stigmatize her daughter for life while the boyfriend could experience sexual pleasures without hurting his honor.”[16]

Alternatively, unmarried young women who were kicked out of their homes upon disclosure of their pregnancies were encouraged to bear their children in maternity homes, which often refused to admit Black women.[17] Women who lived in these homes until the birth of the children were required to repent of their sin, perform domestic tasks, participate in religious services, and breastfeed the infants for several months even if they planned to give the children up for adoption.[18] Historians like Regina Kunzel have uncovered evidence that many young women in maternity homes tried and failed to abort their pregnancies as opposed to remaining in the maternity homes.[19]

In the 1930s, particularly during the Great Depression, married Black and white women within similar socioeconomic classes sought abortions at approximately the same rate, often citing their employment or role as the family breadwinner as a critical factor in wishing to avoid another child.[20] Furthermore, data has indicated no significant distinction between abortion rates when classified by religious background; however, the timing of the abortions often differed. Catholic and Jewish women gave birth younger and chose abortion as they aged, whereas Protestant women often sought abortions at younger ages, choosing to give birth later in life.[21]

Throughout the 1920s and 1940s, women from Indiana and other midwestern states often visited downtown Chicago to obtain an abortion at the medical practice of Dr. Josephine Gabler, who had established herself as an expert in the field willing to accept referrals from other medical professionals, despite the practice being illegal in Illinois as well.[22] To protect her identity, that of her staff, and the women visiting the practice, Dr. Gabler and her staff instructed women not to call anyone else if they had issues following their procedure, with the clinic staffing a 24-hour phone line available to assist patients. When women arrived at the clinic, the receptionist, Ada Martin, would lead them back to the room and cover their eyes with a towel so they could not identify the physician performing the procedure prior to putting them to sleep. She would then provide them with instructions for aftercare. Dr. Gabler and her staff paid physicians a percentage of the procedure fees for referring patients to the clinics. The clinic also paid monthly bribes to police officers, which allowed them to continue providing abortions openly without criminal prosecution.[23]

Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1941, 23, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers

One police officer who received bribes from Gabler’s clinic was Indianapolis Detective Daniel Moriarity. In 1941, the clinic’s former receptionist Ada Martin, who had purchased the clinic from Dr. Gabler, was the victim of an attempted murder. Tragically, Moriarity murdered Dr. Gabler’s daughter, mistaking her for her mother. He was attempting to hide the bribes he had received from Gabler and Martin. His crimes exposed the clinic’s practices for the first time.[24] Despite raids on the office in August 1940 and February 1941, convictions against Martin and her receptionist, Josephine Kuder, were overturned because the evidence used to build the case had been drawn from illegally-seized patient medical records.[25] During the trial, numerous women were forced to take the witness stand, sharing their experiences and subjecting themselves to the scrutiny and stigma of the courts.[26] One woman’s medical record from the clinic was even published in the Chicago Daily Tribune as a “sample,” and other women had their names and photos printed, further exposing them to unwanted attention and questioning outside of the courts.[27]

From the late 1930s into the 1970s, poor white women and Black women in northern Indiana and Detroit began to visit Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr., a Black physician practicing in Detroit. He was urged by his wife, another physician who had obtained an abortion herself while completing her medical training, to perform abortions.[28]  Dr. Keemer initially refused to perform an abortion for an unmarried woman, who later died by suicide, leading to his commitment to helping other women to prevent a similar tragedy. Many poor white women regarded Dr. Keemer as a preferable option despite his race and gender because he provided follow-up care and, in the case of the procedure failing, arranged for the woman to have care at a hospital, which he fully paid in addition to any lost wages from missing work.[29]

For women able to make the journey to either Chicago to see Dr. Gabler or Detroit to visit Dr. Keemer, there was often concern about the amount of time a woman would be away from home, leading to the risk of others finding out about her abortion and stigmatizing her for her choices.[30] Abortions at Dr. Gabler’s clinic ranged in price from $35 to $300, with most women paying $50.[31] The cost was higher for abortions performed later in the pregnancy due to the added complexity. This encouraged women to seek treatment as early in the pregnancy as possible to limit costs.[32] Dr. Keemer’s patients were charged $15 in the late 1930s, with fees increasing on a sliding scale to $125 by the 1960s. If the procedure failed, Keemer returned the fee paid and also covered all patient fees associated with the woman receiving a D&C at a local hospital.[33]

(L to R): Cincinnati Enquirer, November 25, 1879, 4; November 26, 1879, 4; November 27, 1879, 4, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Access to abortions was particularly difficult for women living south of Indianapolis without the opportunity to seek treatment from the Gabler-Martin or Keemer clinics. In this area, some women resorted to procedures performed secretly by other professionals. One such case that gained national attention was that of Eliza Francis Levesay from Decatur County, which is located southeast of Indianapolis.[34] Levesay had had an affair with a young man named William Myers, and she became pregnant. Because Levesay was from a poor family and Myers was from a wealthy family, they believed it was in the best interest of both of their reputations that she seek an abortion.[35] Her abortion was performed by Dr. C. C. Burns, a local dentist. When Levesay became ill and sought medical treatment, her physician reported the case to the state authorities. While an investigation was performed, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision against any of the parties, and the case was dismissed.[36]

Profiting from abortion restrictions and lack of access to safe clinics, entrepreneurs marketed various pills and remedies that women had shared with each other for free. Women either mixed their own concoctions or purchased various remedies through the mail, with them marketed under various different names to avoid seizure under the Comstock Act, which prohibited the sending of “obscene” or “unlawful” materials through the postal service.[37] Interestingly, such restrictions were often applied only to those packages crossing state lines, urging entrepreneurs to take up the cause within the state as well.[38] Such remedies were not regulated by the FDA; therefore, their safety and efficacy were not established.[39] It is unknown whether such treatments actually worked or how many people died or became ill from using these them. In fact, some state laws, such as those published in 1827 in Illinois, classified the treatments as poisons.[40]

Dr. Jackson’s English Tablets pill packet, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

In addition to physical harm resulting from such “treatments,” Dr. Keemer and others worried about women’s mental health should they be refused abortions. Despite state laws, demand for abortion increased in the decades following the Great Depression and World War II as more women entered college and the workplace.[41] Women needed to control when they would become pregnant because “once a woman was visibly pregnant, her school would expel her and her boss fire her . . . In short, pregnancy threatened to destroy a young woman’s life and ambitions.”[42] To protect their reputations and their futures, women from the 1930s to the 1960s sought illegal and unregulated abortions, which were often performed by individuals without medical training. Other women from the 1940 to the 1960s found sympathetic psychiatrists were able to secure abortions for “therapeutic reasons” to help prevent the “emotional distress and suicidal intentions” that women expressed in order to receive referrals for a medical hospital-performed abortion.[43]

Numerous state and national advocacy groups supported proposed changes to the laws in Indiana. In 1967, Robert Force, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and Irving Rosenbaum Jr., a physician, drafted the new Indiana Bill (H.B. 1621) and published a statement in which they argued that physicians needed to fully assess a woman’s prognosis if not able to obtain a medical abortion, much as they would when considering treatment for any other medical condition.[44] Additionally, they encouraged the incorporation of protections for women who were victims of crimes, such as rape or incest, and women with mental conditions who could not adequately appreciate their conditions or care for a child after its birth.[45] [46]

Proposed amendments to the Indiana abortion law, 1967. Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” accessed JSTOR.

Some of the groups lobbying for change and supporting the Indiana Bill represented bipartisan, secular, and religious organizations, including the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Indiana State Medical Association, American Protestant Hospital Association, Indiana Council of Churches, National Council of Jewish Women, the Indianapolis Star, and other independent advocates.[47] In 1967, these advocacy groups called on legislators to consider legal precedents in which suicidal tendencies had been grounds for granting an abortion in drafting laws that would protect both the mental and physical health of women seeking an abortion.[48] The Indiana Bill passed the House, but the Senate made substantial changes, which essentially removed most of the proposed amendments, which would have made abortion legal without exception, and it was ultimately vetoed by the governor. While abortion was not legal at this point, Indiana had relaxed its anti-abortion laws to protect the mother’s life.[49]

Ruth Mahaney (right), n.d., in Madison Stacey, ‘It was hidden, you had to hunt,’ accessed WTHR.com.
Women’s Crisis Service ad, Spring 1975, in Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’S History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” accessed IUB Archives.

In 1968, the women’s liberation movement reached Bloomington. During weekly meetings of the IU Women’s Caucus, various women shared their challenges with being able to access abortions, which remained illegal.[50] In response to these challenges, including her friend’s horrifying experience in which an abortionist refused to perform the procedure until she had sex with him, Indiana University graduate student Ruth Mahaney started an abortion counseling center, which came to be known as the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service. This center fielded calls from women in surrounding rural areas, students, and women in Bloomington, and offered support from local ministers and doctors who provided counseling services.[51]

The Midwest Abortion Counseling Service center helped connect women to sympathetic providers both in southern Indiana at IU and in the Chicago area through referrals to the Jane Collective for women to receive safe abortions from respectable providers.[52] In an interview as part of the Indiana University Bicentennial Oral History Project, Mahaney recalled driving young women to a municipal airport in Bloomington to be able to get to Chicago as soon as possible for their procedures.[53] After the legalization of abortion under Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service transitioned to become the Women’s Crisis Service, which not only continued Mahaney’s work in supporting women seeking abortions but also provided support for women in other crises, such as rape or divorce. The center also to connected women to legal resources, daycares, and other available resources.[54]

Protestors gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court building to support their position in the ongoing abortion debate, accessed law.harvard.edu.

Force’s and Rosenbaum’s changes to the laws remain present in modern Indiana abortion laws nearly 60 years later. The 2022 Dobbs decision spurred further debates about women’s reproductive rights. The Indiana Legislative Oral History Interview project provides a window into the perspectives of former Indiana lawmakers regarding abortion access.

For a bibliography of sources used in this post, click here.

Notes:

[1] Samuel W. Buell, “Criminal Abortion Revisited,” New York University Law Review 66, (1991): 1780.

[2] Buell, 1782; Julie Conger, “Abortion: The Five-Year Revolution and its Impact,” Ecology Law Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1973): 312.

[3] Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 22.; Buell, 1782.

[4] “Criminal Law,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/criminal_law.

[5] “Criminal Law.”

[6] Buell, 1783.

[7] Reagan, 23.

[8] Tamara Dean, “Safer Than Childbirth: Abortion in the 19th Century Was Widely Accepted as a Means of Avoiding the Risks of Pregnancy,” The American Scholar, 97; Reagan, 22.

[9] Reagan, 26.

[10] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[11] Melissa Murray, “Abortion, Sterilization, and the Universe of Reproductive Rights,” William & Mary Law Review 63, no. 5 (2022): 1607.

[12] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[13] “Project Overview,” Indiana Eugenics History & Legacy 1907-2007, accessed June 28, 2023, https://eugenics.iupui.edu/ ; “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed June 28, 2023, https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/1907-indiana-eugenics-law/.

[14] “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau.

[15] Ingrid Mundt, “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control,” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (2017): 124.

[16] Regan, 28.

[17] Regan, 28.

[18] Reagan, 28-9.

[19] Regina Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993): 68-69, 81.

[20] Reagan, 135.

[21] Reagan, 137.

[22] Reagan, 149.

[23] Reagan, 155.

[24] Reagan, 155.

[25] Reagan, 311. Mrs. Martin estimated in court testimony that she worked as a receptionist for Dr. Gabler for approximately 12-15 years. She purchased the practice from Dr. Gabler in January 1940 and later hired physicians, including Dr. Henry James Millstone, to perform abortions in the clinic. While under indictment following the raids, Dr. Millstone died by suicide from drinking poison on April 17, 1941, with his wife dying by suicide from drinking ammonia shortly after on May 1.

[26] Reagan, 167-168.

[27] Reagan, 167.

[28] Reagan, 156.

[29] Reagan, 157-158.

[30] Regan, 151. Dr. Gabler used surgical techniques for the abortion, including general anesthesia and dilation and curettage (D&C) similar to the procedure following a miscarriage, with after-instructions provided similar to those for women who had just given birth, such as avoiding hot baths or avoiding intercourse while they healed.

In contrast to Dr. Gabler, Dr. Keemer used the Leunbach method, which was reported to be safer and less painful.[30] The process utilized a compounded paste and potassium soap solution inserted into the uterus via a syringe.  The vagina was then packed with a sterile gauze tampon, which would be removed 18 hours later at home. Women receiving an abortion via the Leunbach method, on average, spent only 10 minutes on the doctor’s table and reported minimal cramps, with aspirin prescribed to blunt the pain. Women could return home the same day, and a nurse would visit women at home the following day. Dr. Keemer also arranged a follow-up visit as well to ensure all of the contents had been properly expelled to prevent infection.

[31] Reagan, 154-155.

[32] Reagan, 155.

[33] Regan, 157-158.

[34] Madeleine Boesche, “19th Century Anti-Abortion Laws Enforcement in the Rural United States,” Vassar College Clark Fellowship, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[35] Various sources utilize different spellings for Mr. Myers’ last name, with “Myers” utilized in newspapers covering the case and “Miers” as the spelling in the Boesche article detailing her research into the case.

[36] Boesche, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[37] Reagan, 13.

[38] Melody Rose, Abortion: A Documentary and Reference Guide (London: Greenwood Press, 2008): 31.

[39] Sarah Gordon, “Female Remedies: A Little Show Draws a Big Response,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library, June 10, 2019,  https://www.nyhistory.org/blogs/female-remedies-a-little-show-draws-a-big-response.

[40] Reagan, 10.

[41] Reagan, 194.

[42] Reagan, 194-5.

[43] Reagan, 202.

[44] Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” Administrative Law Review 19, no. 4 (1967): 370-372.

[45] Force, 372.

[46] Force, 372.

[47] Force, 365.

[48] Force, 365.

[49] Force, 365.

[50] Mary Ann Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002): 136.

[51] Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’s History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” IUB Archives (blog), October 28, 2016, https://blogs.libraries.indiana.edu/iubarchives/2016/10/28/ruth-mahaney-nancy-brand-insight-into-ius-history-of-womens-reproductive-rights/.

[52] Madison Stacey, “’It was hidden, you had to hunt’ | How covert networks helped women access abortions before Roe v. Wade,” WTHR.com, last modified August 24, 2022, https://www.wthr.com/article/features/how-covert-networks-helped-women-access-abortions-before-roe-v-wade/531-8839cfb4-8eff-475f-bd6a-27643eea675b.

[53] Stacey.

[54] Kilgore.

“If Even a Sparrow Should Fall:” The Conservation Work of Ornithologist Jane L. Hine

Historians tend to write about the leaders of movements – the “big picture” people espousing new ideologies or courses of action. This focus makes sense. These larger-than-life historical figures had an outsized impact on our past and they lend themselves to more dramatic stories. But what about the lesser-known folks who make change at a local level? Can we make space to honor these quieter voices and their work putting big ideas into action? In this post we’ll look at the late-in-life work of Jane L. (Brooks) Hine to save Indiana’s native bird species. While not one of the major voices of the burgeoning conservation movement, Hine’s ornithological work helped convince Hoosiers that birds were worth protecting as part of delicate ecosystems, from forests to farms.

Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, accessed  GoogleBooks.
Photograph of Hines courtesy “Charlie Chat” from the Elkhart Public Library, accessed https://eplcharliechat.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/throwback-thursday-jane-brooks-hine/

Jane Levisa Brooks was born in Ohio in 1831 and studied literature at Oberlin College, graduating in the 1850s. She married her sister’s widower, Horatio Hine, adopting children from that union and having three more of her own. The family moved to a farm in Sedan, DeKalb County, Indiana in December 1861. Jane Hine focused on raising her children and helping with the farm work over the following decades. (The family also returned to Ohio for a time before circling back to the Sedan farm permanently). [1] It was not until the mid to late 1880s, when Hine was in her late fifties, that she began to study ornithology (the branch of zoology focused on birds). [2]

Photograph of Hine’s Farm in Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, GoogleBooks.

Women around the world were engaged in scientific work long before they were allowed to study at universities and gain accreditation. Hine joined an informal coterie of women doing physics equations, tinkering with inventions, and categorizing plant species at the kitchen table instead of the university laboratory. Without an avenue open for formal study, Hine simply followed her passion for birds. She became an ornithologist by doing ornithology. That is, she began keeping careful, scientific observations of the birds that populated the farmland and forests around her home in a journal. She also began attending the same meetings and reading the scientific journals of professionally-accredited ornithologists. For example, in 1890, Hine attended a meeting of ornithologists, mainly professors, which was part of a larger meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Indianapolis. [3]

Pamphlet, Amos W. Butler, Birds of Indiana with Illustrations of Many Species (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, First Published 1890), 29, accessed GoogleBooks.

Soon, other scientists came to respect and seek out her data. Amos Butler, a prominent ornithologist and a founder of the Indiana Academy of Science, sought Hine’s data for his Birds of Indiana report for the Indiana Horticultural Society. Amos extensively cited Hine’s observations on bird species around her Sedan home and called her “a faithful observer of nature and a careful recorder of her observations.” [4] Butler’s report was widely circulated by various organizations and the Horticultural Society made Hine a member. [5] After the publication of this report, Hine rocketed to prominence in naturalist circles.

By 1891, Hine was speaking regularly at Farmers’ Institutes, first in the nearby town of Waterloo, and then around the state.  [6] Through these talks, she made a significant impact on bird conservation. At this time, many farmers saw birds as pests, nothing more than thieves of seeds and fruits, and shot them on sight. Hine knew she wouldn’t be able to convince everyone to love birds for their own sake as she did, so she found a more practical approach. She painted a larger picture of the ecosystem around farms, with birds as an essential component. Most significantly, Hine told farmers, birds ate the insects that ruined crops. This got their attention. After presenting at the Waterloo Farmers’ Institute in February 1891, the local newspaper reported:

Mrs. Hine is well known not only in this State, but throughout the U.S. among ornithologists, as one [of] the best among them in everything that pertains to the life and habits of the different birds that inhabit the forests and fields on our farms. Her description of different species of birds that were valuable to farmers as insect destroyers was listened to with marked attention by the many farmers present. [7]

Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, accessed GoogleBooks.

In addition to her talents as a reliable collector of scientific data and a convincing speaker for bird preservation, Hine was a colorful and engaging writer. While she continued contributing ornithological data for scientific reports, she also began writing articles for scientific and  general audiences. For example, she wrote “Tyrant Flycatchers” for the Waterloo Press in 1891 and contributed an article on thrushes, bluebirds, and robins to the Indiana Board of Agriculture report in 1893. [8] Most popular were the articles she penned for the Farmer’s Guide, which was published in Huntington, Indiana, but had statewide circulation and a large readership. She wrote “Birds That Befriend Our Trees” and “Farmers, Take Care of Your Birds,” both arguing for conservation of bird species. [9] In 1896, she contributed a series of articles under the title “Farm Birds in Northern Indiana,” carefully and colorfully describing bird species. [10] Readers, especially the young ones, couldn’t get enough of these articles from “Aunt Jane” and they clamored for more in their letters to the editor. [11]

The Farmer’s Guide 14, No. 7 (February 15, 1902), 97, accessed GoogleBooks.
Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, GoogleBooks.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Hine’s influence continued to grow. Butler again cited her data in a widely-circulated report for the Indiana Academy of Science. [12] She continued to present to Farmers’ Institutes but also to more general audiences, such as literary clubs, around the state. [13] Reporting on the 1899 meeting of the Indiana Audubon Society, the Waterloo Press called for several actions to protect birds. One of these was to have Hine speak widely to the public and especially school children to “awaken an interest in the dear birds by telling of their habits and her own experience watching them.” [14] The article highlights both her expertise and the regard to which her knowledge was held in her community, hinting at how contagious her enthusiasm must have been.

Hine also successfully advocated for the “Indiana Bird Law,” which protected insect-eating birds essential to the ecosystem and especially certain species of trees used in orchards and for timber. She told the Waterloo Press in 1904:

The people of DeKalb county have reason to be proud of our Indiana Bird Law. Only two counties of the state sent petitions, through their Farmer’s Institutes, to the State Legislature for its passage, without which no action could have been taken. Our county, DeKalb, was one of the two counties. The law provides for the protection of our insectivorous birds . . . Our timber and orchards have need of them. Sometimes, both before and since the passage of this law, there has been much slaughter among our woodpeckers . . . but that is in the past; and now boys let us loyally stand by our Indiana Bird Law. [15]

Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, accessed GoogleBooks.

The farmers who attended the institutes where Hine regularly spoke had evolved from shooting the birds on their property to petitioning the Indiana General Assembly for their protection. Hine could have stopped there. She had influenced bird conservation and been accepted by the scientific community as an expert in her field. In fact, in 1906, she presented at the prestigious Twenty-Fourth Annual Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union. [16] The Indianapolis Daily Sun referred to her as “one of the foremost authorities on native birds in the state.” [17] Fortunately for Hoosier bird lovers, she still had more to contribute.

In 1911, at the age of eighty, Hine made perhaps her most notable contribution to Indiana ornithology in the form of “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” published in the Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game. [18] In this collection of articles on twenty-nine families of birds, Hine wrote vividly on her personal experiences with the various species and their characteristics and habitats. Her serene and poetic writing painted an idyllic picture of her farm and its feathered residents. She wrote:

I have seen, on a misty morning, an Egret that seemed, as it rose white and beautiful in the mist, more like a spirit than a bird. [19]

Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, accessed GoogleBooks.

Each featured bird was accompanied by a full color photogravure (a type of photographic engraved print) taken by Hines. She also included a poem, “My Birds,” in which she made a passionate argument against the killing of birds for fashion or agriculture. [20] Instead she advocated for their protection, based in part on a religious argument and partly through descriptions of their unique beauty, characteristics, and contributions to the natural environment. The poem begins:

No bird that the Lord has created
Shall come to misfortune through me;
Not one of my jolly old Robins,
Though they take the fruit from my trees [21]

After several more stanzas describing all of “her” birds, she concluded:

Not one of my beautiful Wax-wings,
Though they take my cherries I know;
Not one of the birds God has given me;
Not even my jaunty old Crow.

Shall have from me aught but kind treatment,
When He who created them all,
Would feel both compassion and sorrow
If even a Sparrow should fall. [22]

Newspapers and magazines raved about the collection of articles, reprinted large sections, and included her poem as well. She became known far and wide as “the bird woman of Indiana.” [23] For the next few years she continued speaking to local clubs, but her major work was complete. Jane L. Hine died in Sedan on February 11, 1916. [24] The Waterloo Press praised her as “an authority” on ornithology and the natural sciences. [25] Other newspapers, scientific journals, and the Indiana Audubon Society also paid tribute to her contributions. [26]

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 6, 1911, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” Biennial Report of the Indiana Commissioner of Fisheries and Game (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, accessed GoogleBooks.

It would be difficult to quantify Hine’s impact on the conservation movement or summarize her exact place in the history of women in science. But maybe each spring when we hear the birds chatter outside our windows we can just take a minute to thank Hine for protecting our native species at a time when they had few voices to speak for them.

Learn more about bird conservation in Indiana through the Indiana Audubon Society.

Notes

[1] 1850 United States Federal Census, Berlin Township, Erie County, Ohio, August 29, 1850, National Archives, Record Group 29, Series Number: M432, Page 460A, Line 10, AncestryLibrary.com; 1860 United States Federal Census, Berlin Township, Erie County, Ohio, June 14, 1860, National Archives, Record Group 19, Series Number: M653, Page 172, Line 38AncestryLibrary.com; 1870 United States Federal Census, Lawrence / Richland Township, DeKalb County, Indiana, Roll: M593_309, Page 364B, National Archives and Records Administration, Ancestry.com; Seventy-Fifth Anniversary General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833—1908, (Cleveland, OH: O. S. Hubbell Printing Co., 1909), 121, HathiTrust; Marriage Record, Lake County Ohio Courthouse Records, p. 160, Various Ohio County Courthouses, 1853-1875, Film Number 000974916, AncestryLibrary.com; History of DeKalb County, Indiana (Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen & Company, 1914), 991-92, GoogleBooks; “Mrs. Jane L. Hine Died Early Saturday Morning,” Waterloo Press, February 16, 1916, 1, 8, Newspapers.com; “Jane L. Hine,” photograph of grave, Waterloo Cemetery, DeKalb County, Indiana, Find A Grave Index, AncestryLibrary.com.
[2] “Noblesville,” Waterloo Press, June 14, 1888, 8, Newspapers.com; Jane L. Hine, “Water Birds and Waders of Our Indiana Farm,” [Hine’s journal], circa 1880s, transcribed in Terri L. Gorney, Jane Brooks Hine: An Indiana Bird Woman (self-published, 2014), Indiana State Library.
[3] “The Men of Science,” Indianapolis News, August 21, 1890, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[4] Amos W. Butler, Birds of Indiana with Illustrations of Many Species, pamphlet (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, First Published 1890), 5, 59, 63, 83-84, 92, 100, 102, 104-105, 117, GoogleBooks; Amos W. Butler, “A Catalogue of the Birds of Indiana” in Transactions of the Indiana Horticultural Society for the Year 1890 (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1891), Appendix C, GoogleBooks.
[5] Transactions of the Indiana Horticultural Society for the Year 1890 (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1891), 12, GoogleBooks.
[6] “Farmers’ Institute,” Waterloo Press, March 5, 1891, 1, Newspapers.com; “Sedan,” Waterloo Press, January 28, 1892, Newspapers.com.
[7] “Farmers’ Institute,” 1.
[8] Jane L. Hine, “Tyrant Flycatchers,” Waterloo Press, March 19, 1891, 5, Newspapers.com; Jane L. Hine, “ A Family of Feathered Friends,” in Forty-Second Annual Report of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture, 1892-1893 (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Buford, Contractor for State Printing and Binding, 1893), 555-56, GoogleBooks.
[9] Jane L. Hine, “ A Family of Feathered Friends,” in Forty-Second Annual Report of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture, 1892-1893 (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Buford, Contractor for State Printing and Binding, 1893), 555-56, GoogleBooks; W. S. Blatchley, ed., Indiana Department of Geology and Natural Resources Twenty-Second Annual Report (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Buford, Contractor for State Printing and Binding, 1897), 544, GoogleBooks.
[10] W. S. Blatchley, ed., Indiana Department of Geology and Natural Resources Twenty-Second Annual Report (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Buford, Contractor for State Printing and Binding, 1897), 544, GoogleBooks.
[11] Farmer’s Guide, July 3, 1897, 11, GoogleBooks; Farmer’s Guide, July 17, 1897, GoogleBooks; Farmer’s Guide, August 28, 1897, 11, GoogleBooks; Farmer’s Guide, September 4, 1897, 11, GoogleBooks;  Farmer’s Guide, September 11, 1897, 11, GoogleBooks; Farmer’s Guide, November 13, 1897, 11, GoogleBooks; Farmer’s Guide, February 22, 1902, 123, GoogleBooks.
[12] A. W. Butler, “Additional Notes on Indiana Birds,” in Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 1894 (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1898), 162-166, HathiTrust.
[13] No Title, Waterloo Press, January 20, 1898, 1, NewspaperArchive.com; “Institute Proceedings,” Albion Noble Democrat, February 10, 1898, 1, NewspaperArchive.com; “Sedan Bulleted,” Waterloo Press, October 13, 1904, 8, Newspapers.com; “Sedan,” Waterloo Press, October 12, 1905, 8, NewspaperArchive.com.
[14] “Our Native Birds,” Waterloo Press, March 9, 1899, 5, Newspapers.com.
[15] “Our Indiana Bird Law,” Waterloo Press, November 24, 1903, 1, Newspapers.com.
[16]“The Twenty-Fourth Annual Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union: Program,” in Bird Lore, edited by Frank M. Chapman (Harrisburg, PA and New York City: D. Appleton & Co., 1906), 212, GoogleBooks.
[17] “Local and General,” Indianapolis Daily Sun reprinted in the Waterloo Press, August 3, 1911, 4, Newspapers.com.
[18] Jane L. Hine, “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm,” in Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries and Game for Indiana (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford, State Printer, 1911), 294-470, GoogleBooks.
[19-22] Ibid.
[23] “Game and Land Birds of an Indiana Farm, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 6, 1911, 1, NewspaperArchive.com; “Talked on Birds,” Waterloo Press, May 16, 1912, 1, Newspapers.com.
[24] “Personal Mention,” Waterloo Press, April 25, 1912, 5, Newspapers.com; “Local and General,” Waterloo Press, January 28, 1915, 8, NewspaperArchive.com; “All Around Pick Up,” Waterloo Press, May 27, 1915, 4, Newspapers.com; Indiana State Board of Health, “Jane Hine, Certificate of Death, February 11, 1916, Richland Township, DeKalb County, Indiana, p. 127, Indiana State Board of Health Death Certificates, 1900-2017, microfilm, Indiana Archives and Records Administration Roll Number 04, AncestryLibrary.com; “Mrs. Jane L. Hine Died Early Saturday Morning,” Waterloo Press, February 16, 1916, 1, 8, Newspapers.com.
[25] “Mrs. Jane L. Hine Died Early Saturday Morning,” 1.
[26] “Reports of Affiliated State Societies and Bird Clubs: Indiana Audubon Society” in Bird Lore, edited by Frank M. Chapman (Harrisburg, PA and New York City: D. Appleton & Co., 1917), 447, GoogleBooks; John Hall Sage, “Thirty-Fourth Stated Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union,” in The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 42, (1917), 76-77, GoogleBooks.

“I’m Lonely! Please Write:” The Search for Solidarity and the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE)

Members of IXE, Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

A note on terminology: This post examines gender non-conforming or gender-questioning individuals. This includes those who identified as “cross-dressers [CDs],” male/female “impersonators,” “transvestites [TVs],” “transsexuals [TSs],” and, in modern terminology, “transgender.” When unsure about how individuals identified or what pronouns they preferred, they will be referred to as the name that appears in relevant publications.

For gender non-conforming Hoosiers, the pursuit of kinship and shared identity was often fruitless, if not outright dangerous. Before the connectivity of the internet and the advocacy of organizations like Indiana Youth Group and GenderNexus, many were bereft of social opportunities and emotional support. Beginning in 1987, the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE) served these Hoosiers by providing social forums and offering resources to individuals struggling with gender identity. The group also challenged instances of discrimination within and outside of the LGBTQ community.

The Works newsletter provides a bit of insight into early Hoosier female impersonators (at least in predominantly-white areas of Indianapolis), who performed at bars along Virginia Avenue from the early 1900s until World War II. Articles in 1982 remarked on the resurgence in popularity of impersonators, noting that the Alley Cat Lounge and Disco had begun hosting weekly shows. By the mid-1980s, however, The Works reported that the queer community had been gatekeeping gender non-conforming or gender-questioning individuals, approximately 20,000 of whom lived in Indianapolis. In a 1984 Works article, Jim Chaffin—a gay, cisgender man—chastised the “drag queen” mentality among Indiana’s LGBTQ community. He implied that because society considered gay individuals too effeminate “more ‘normal’ acting gays” needed to come out. Couching his criticism in masculine rhetoric, Chaffin alleged of those who kept their identities private: “you guys don’t have the b*lls to just go ahead and say what you are.”

In the following issue, Roy Pershing, also known as LaNora Takie, fired back at Chaffin’s narrow view of queerness and Chaffin’s insistence that masculine gay men live publicly. The author noted that while Chaffin likely had good intentions, it is the “individuals’ business and no one else’s,” that:

‘We are told that we are wrong everyday by straights and others; so is it necessary for this kind of behavior to go on within the community?’ Furthermore, ‘Could you please tell me what your idea of a normal acting gay person is? Is it an overweight, big mouth who runs a male wh*re house or is it someone who dresses in leather from head to toe? . . . To me, a normal acting gay person is a person who is himself and doesn’t run around forcing him or her lifestyle’ on others.’

The author also felt that Chaffin’s use of “drag queen” was derogatory, and that Pershing/Takie considered themself to be an “entertainer” and “impersonator.”

Facing alienation in the Indianapolis area, some Hoosiers like Betty and Lori attended meetings in Cincinnati hosted by Cross-Port, a group that provided support and social opportunities for gender non-conforming people. According to Cross-Port’s newsletter InnerView, Lori was one of the first Hoosiers to attend these meetings, where she “stood close to seven foot in those spike heels, and spent much time ducking the beams in Heather’s basement.” By early 1987, Betty and Lori helped form a similar group in Indianapolis, called Iota Chi Sigma, better known as the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE). About thirteen people attended this first meeting, presided over by Chairperson Laura, who “received special recognition for wearing a dress.” In a Q&A published in InnerView, IXE described itself as a “gender group interested in helping gender conflicted persons in the context of a social meeting.” This included a broad range of individuals, who could “be anybody from the transvestite who just wants to wear womans [sic] panties to the transexual person who believes themselves to be of the opposite sex.” Cross-Talk, the “gender community’s news and information monthly,” remarked that IXE members, feeling that the “gender community was always too hard on itself,” sought to “show a ‘happier’ side.”

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, 1989, H1, accessed Newspapers.com.

After their first gathering, IXE met the first Thursday of every month at the 21 Club, and within a year, attendance outgrew that of Cross-Port. InnerView noted that Cross-Port members sometimes traveled from Cincinnati to Indianapolis to attend IXE meetings and Christmas parties. While in town, visitors shopped at Glendale Mall and Stuart’s Shoes, and participated in fashion shows at the downtown Hyatt Regency. One self-conscious visitor reported that they were treated courteously at these shops.

By 1989, IXE had over 100 members residing in the tri-state area—which included Kentucky—helping forge a social network of support for the marginalized community. According to an Indianapolis Star piece entitled “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” most members were heterosexual men experiencing “gender conflict,” and came from a variety of professions, including carpentry, business, and law enforcement. The paper noted that once a month, about thirty members socialized at a Westside apartment clubhouse, many bringing their spouses. At one meeting, cosmologists gave members make up tips. At another, police officers advised them on how to avoid a “scene” in public.

The Star piece profiled IXE member Sharon Allan, who spent about 30% of his life dressing as a woman, undergoing “painful electrolysis” to achieve smooth skin, perming his hair, and piercing his ears. Sharon married his high school sweetheart, Ann, who knew about his cross-dressing from the beginning of their relationship. On their first date, she removed the choker from her neck and placed it around his. Ultimately, the couple divorced because Ann felt that although Sharon “is a wonderful person . . . his cross-dressing left no room for me as a woman in the marriage.'” Despite this blow, Sharon chose to be transparent about his identity with his young son in order to facilitate trust, stating, “‘I came to decide there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. There was nothing wrong with feeling feminine, inside or out.'”

Adam, a middle-aged health care professional, did not share Sharon’s perspective. According to the Star article, he began wearing women’s clothes as a teenager, but reported, “It’s not something I want to do. I got tired of feeling bad about myself. There were times I couldn’t control it.” Despite undergoing aversion therapy, Adam continued to dress in feminine clothing. His wife divorced him when she found out, and Adam noted, “It felt degrading to her and me as well. The discovery certainly was unpleasant. And it didn’t feel good to me. It was shaming.” Rita could empathize with Adam’s despair, having experienced two painful divorces. The northern Indiana police officer considered ending his life. Unlike Adam, Rita ultimately concluded that, despite having to keep the crossdressing aspect of his life private, “I wouldn’t give it up. If there was a magic pill, I wouldn’t take it.” The Star profile noted that Rita had begun wearing feminine clothing in elementary school. While in the Marines, he was able to shave his arms and legs “without attracting undue attention from his fellow leathernecks.”

Despite their personal struggles with shame and acceptance, gay bars afforded gender non-conforming Hoosiers a degree of shelter from harassment and discrimination. The Star noted that the venues were particularly important to this minority group because they provided a “place where men won’t try to pick them up.” However, these spaces dwindled when the 21 Club and G.G.’s closed, which according to the New Works News, prompted an influx of gender non-conforming patrons to other local gay bars. As demographics changed, some bar owners implemented exclusionary policies, perhaps reflecting the assertion of transgender activist Evan Greer in her 2018 piece for The Washington Post, that historically “the predominantly white, cis, gay, male leadership saw trans people as a threat to their slowly but surely growing social and economic political power.” Perhaps these discriminatory measures were an attempt to safeguard this hard-fought increase in social “legitimacy.”

In 1989, the New Works News reported on the fallout of the bar closings. Articles reported instances in which bar owners refused to serve cross-dressing and transgender individuals like Roberta Alyson and Kerry Gean. Dressed as the “woman I am deep inside of my biological male self,” Gean and friends went to the Varsity Lounge in February 1989. After they were seated, their server singled out Gean with a request for identification. The server then informed her that she was breaking the law because the photo on her I.D. did not identically match her face. Humiliated and hurt, she returned home, changed into “male” clothes, and upon return was immediately served.

Roberta Alyson, courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

By June, things were no better for Roberta Alyson, described by The Works as a “pre-operative transsexual.” Alyson was denied entrance to the gay bar Our Place on the grounds of not meeting dress code and identification not matching Alyson’s face, despite having a doctor’s note confirming the necessity of dressing as a woman. Bar officials got an off-duty officer who worked security to check the 31-year-old’s ID. The officer crumpled up the doctor’s note and Alyson “regrettably began to panic,” walking away from the parking lot. The officer pursued and arrested Alyson, who later said one of the back-up officers was abusive and tried to lift Alyson’s skirt. Alyson was charged with and fined for fleeing an officer. Alyson addressed the implications of such discrimination in a letter to the editor of The New Works News, noting Our Place’s dress code “flies in the face of the Stonewall Riots and sends a terrifyingly repressive message to the ‘straight’ community.”

Alyson received assistance from IXE, of which she was a member. That year, IXE had “joined Justice, Inc., a statewide umbrella organization for support and activist groups working in and with the gay/lesbian community. Justice has a full time lobbyist at the state capital.” Forging such partnerships would prove critical in challenging discrimination. With Justice’s help, IXE initiated a series of meetings with bar owners, excise police, and allies like the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. These gatherings provided a forum to exchange perspectives and to gain a better understanding of excise laws.

The groups initially gathered in July for a meeting facilitated by police officer and community liaison Shirley Purvitis. Remarking on the conflict within the queer community, she noted in the Star profile that crossdressers are “‘professional people with good jobs. They’re taxpayers. A lot of them have families. It’s time we started learning about them.'” As expected, the meeting was tense. Some owners claimed that they implemented policies, like denying entrance to those whose photo I.D.s did not reflect their apparent gender, because they feared breaking excise laws and making their businesses vulnerable to legal issues. Responding to these concerns, Excise Chief Okey reassured that “the only requirement that excise has for a person being served alcohol is that they be 21 years of age or older. . . . crossdressing, either male or female, is not grounds for refusal of service.”

Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Other bar owners stated blatantly that they refused to admit these patrons because they intended to “‘preserve the established atmosphere of their bars.’” A 501 Tavern spokesperson stated that these individuals “‘were not wanted there,’ and if they had been admitted violence might have resulted. The bar owners also voiced the fear that if they admitted people in drag their regular patrons might leave.” Our Place owner David Morse sympathized with the 501 Tavern representative. He complained at a later meeting that new patrons had filled his bar with “boisterous, outrageous drag queens in double Dolly Parton wigs and that their presence was very disruptive” to the bar’s masculine ethos.

Works writer E. Rumbarger came away from this first meeting with a greater understanding of those who had been excluded from gay bars. Prior to attending, he had mused, “Did they eat their young? . . . Did they have two heads?” However, he was “very surprised and pleased to find that they were simply a group of very relaxed and congenial people who were ‘doing their own thing. . . . These men quite simply looked and acted like women or to be more precise—ladies.” He added that he could not fathom how any establishment would “object to their presence” and urged that “Greater knowledge and understanding is needed (and quickly) in the gay community regarding the wide diversity of groups that make up the community.” Similarly, Stan Berg, Works publisher and owner of the Body Works bath house, addressed Dee Gordon’s editorial, which criticized the push for greater inclusion. Berg opined that Gordon had articulated the:

feelings and actions of another owner of a gay business who, at one time, and for many years, kept out drags. Now, whether old age, an increasing tolerance for gays of all persuasions, or just the realization that bigotry was wrong, actually changed this business owner’s mind, I can’t tell you. But, that business owner is me. The bottom line is that your arguments are bigoted bullsh*t. My own reasons for keeping drags out of THE WORKS for seven years were also bigoted bullsh*t.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, 1989, H1, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the initial meeting spurred greater understanding among certain individuals, it failed to resolve turmoil within the broader community or result in specific policy reform. Upon IXE’s request, Justice, Inc. conducted a survey of those parties involved in the conflict and hosted a subsequent workshop in September. This workshop provided an opportunity to discuss injustices experienced by various groups within the community. Many voiced their anguish about discrimination within the lesbian community, against persons with AIDS, and along racial lines. At the center of the meeting, however, remained the exclusion of gender non-conforming individuals. IXE vice president Sharon Allan detailed the trials faced by crossdressers and drag queens, noting that they “are currently experiencing problems which the gay community faced years ago.”

However contentious, these meetings led to the reversal of policies at some bars and helped open the door to acceptance for other gender non-conforming individuals in Indianapolis. IXE members reported in September that they encountered less hostility at local establishments. Although bars like The Varsity maintained stringent policies, Tomorrow’s was much more welcoming. And while Jimmy’s did not reverse its I.D. policy, employees were more lenient about its enforcement. Roberta Alyson patronized the bar with a friend, who was also dressed in “female attire.” When the server approached, this friend instinctively searched their purse for identification, to which their server said “’Don’t worry about that, honey, we don’t do that kind of discriminating here.’” The Works noted that this action “on the part of Jimmy’s shows that people can change their mind” and should be commended for doing so.

Booth at Pride Week Picnic, New Works News, August 1989, 13, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

As the 1980s came to a close, the queer community seemed more tolerant—and perhaps welcoming—of gender non-conforming individuals. The Works announced in January 1990 that the owner of the 21 Club was opening 3535 West, which would “cater to all segments of the gay community.” The piece added, “Now that Indianapolis will finally have a gay meeting place where everyone is welcome, perhaps our gay visitors from out of town who have avoided coming here in recent months because of all the discriminatory nonsense taking place in some of the local bars, will once again return to Indy for a renewal of good times shared in the past.”

In 1990, at the first large outdoor Pride celebration, which took place on Monument Circle, people who staffed IXE’s booth reported that they were generally accepted, if not entirely understood. An unidentified member mused in the Works:

‘We all had lots of fun watching and talking. More often than not people would come up to our table and say hello and then look at what was on display and read the titles of the magazines and books, see the word ‘crossdressing’ and then look up at us and then down at the book and then back at us as a look of surprise and realization passed across their faces. . . . One girl was talking with Emily for five minutes before she looked down and saw the title ‘Understanding the Crossdresser’ and said with utter surprise, ‘Oh, I get it! You’re a guy! That’s cool. You know, I never understood why I can wear anything I want and guys can’t wear skirts.’

Similarly, public acceptance of crossdressers increased slightly following media profiles like that published by the Indianapolis Star about IXE. The feature’s author marveled that not only did she not receive vitriolic phone calls from readers after its publication, but got calls asking for more information about IXE. Indeed, Genny Beemyn contended in “Transgender History of the United States,” that in the early 1990s a “larger rights movement” emerged. Beemyn noted that this movement was “facilitated by the increasing use of the term ‘transgender’ to encompass all individuals whose gender identity or expression differs from the social norms of the gender assigned to them at birth.”

Dan Riley, courtesy of Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 58 (1991): 129, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Reflecting this movement, the Louisville Gender Society was formed in 1992, serving people living in southern Indiana and Illinois, as well as Kentucky. At the same time, IXE’s membership notably increased, as gender non-conforming Hoosiers searched for solidarity. In a 1991 Tapestry issue, Gloria C., a 33 year-old “transvestite” who lived in a small town, pleaded “I’m lonely! Please Write.” The auto racing and fishing fan hoped to meet “TV/TS” friends. IXE drew members like Michelle Michaels, a 40-year-old self-described transvestite who struggled with addiction resulting from the “guilt, shame, & confusion” of crossdressing. After getting sober, Michaels—who had three children and a supportive wife—joined IXE because of an ongoing struggle with “acceptance, self-esteem and balance.” Member Vickie Mansfield, “a young 47,” was involved in the Catholic Church, enjoyed “fine wines,” and was only “recently out of the closet.” Dan Riley, a 40-year-old “female-to-male” crossdresser, who enjoyed hiking and t’ai chi, joined the organization, in part, because Dan liked “helping others ‘coming out.’” Indianapolis funeral service supplier Yvonne Cook was not only a lifetime member IXE, but a leader and board member of the International Foundation for Gender Education.

IXE served such members until at least 2005. Although, no longer an organization as of 2023, IXE provided solidarity to so many Hoosiers in distress or suffering from loneliness. Additionally, its members’ activism and willingness to facilitate discussion helped change public perceptions about gender non-conforming individuals and contributed to greater inclusivity within the LGBTQ community. The struggle to obtain societal acceptance and secure civil rights in Indiana endures, as evidenced by recent debates about gender-affirming medical practices. Like the Indiana Crossdresser Society, groups like Trans Solutions Resources and Research, continue to fight, in the words of Sharon Allan, for “‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a fundamental right.'”

 

Sources:

Genny Beemyn, “Transgender History in the United States,” in ed. Laura Erickson-Schroth, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, p. 28, accessed UMass Amherst.

Cross-Port InnerView (March 1987, June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, December 1987, July 1988, November 1988, January 1991, August 1991, September 1991, December 1992, June 1995, June 1996), Digital Transgender Archive.

Cross-Talk: The Transgendered Community’s Newsletter (September 1991, July 1992), Digital Transgender Archive.

Editorial, Jim Chaffin, “‘Hoosier Gay Boy, Come on Down!,'” The Works (October 1984): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

“Indiana,” Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 78 (Winter 1996): D38, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

“National Gender News,” Renaissance News 3, no. 1 (January 1989): 9, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, November 26, 1989, 115, accessed Newspapers.com.

“North American Support Groups,” Lady Like (Winter 2005): 44, accessed Internet Archive.

Editorial, Roy Pershing/LaNora Takie, “Darts from a ‘Drag,'” The Works (November 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

JoAnn Roberts, “The Iconoclast,” Renaissance News 6, no. 9 (September 1992): 7, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 58 (1991): 129-130, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Nicole Poletika, “’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community,” October 7, 2020, accessed Untold Indiana.

Draft, Nicole Poletika, “’Walk a Mile in their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indianapolis’s Queer Community,” 2022 Queer History Conference paper, accessible here.

When Harry Refused to Serve Harry: Belafonte’s Visit to Purdue

Clipping, Debris (Purdue University’s yearbook), 1957, p. 27, accessed Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

In 1956, Black activist Harry Belafonte was one of the top performers in the United States and his album, Belafonte, reached #2 on the Billboard Chart. When he performed two shows of “Sing, Man, Sing” at the Purdue University Hall of Music on May 5, it was a major hit. Before the first performance,  Belafonte visited Purdue’s famous drinking establishment, Harry’s Chocolate Shop. However, proprietor Harry J. Marlack refused to serve him due to the color of his skin.

Born in Harlem to Jamaican parents, Belafonte experienced discrimination throughout his life. In 1944, while serving in the U.S. Navy, Belafonte was denied entry to New York’s famous Copa Cabana because he was Black. When Belafonte achieved stardom in the 1950s, the Copa Cabana offered him a lucrative contract to perform there. He infuriated the owner by spurning the offer, citing the discrimination he faced at their door years earlier in his decision.

In Spring 1956, Belafonte met Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Belafonte committed to “help [King] in any way I could. And for the next twelve years, that’s what I did.”[i] When he concluded the first show at Purdue, Belafonte kept his promise to King and addressed the audience about the discriminatory act and what he thought of it. His words angered Purdue officials and the campus buzzed. While Purdue students and staff talked about the incident at Harry’s Chocolate Shop and Belafonte’s speech for weeks afterward[ii], nothing was written about the incident. This prompted a Ph.D. student, David Caplan, to write a letter to the editor of The Exponent, Purdue’s student newspaper. Caplan wrote:

Many Purdue students and staff members have been talking about a recent incident that took place in ‘Harry’s Chocolate Shop’ when Harry Belafonte and his troupe were in town. Why has no mention been made of this in the Exponent? Certainly an incident of such scope deserves at least a news item, if not an editorial. Burying one’s head in the sand does not change the facts that have occurred. Why has this story not been reported?

The Exponent editor responded to Caplan by writing, “the Exponent has followed and will continue to follow the accepted journalistic practice of not publishing ‘cold’ news or facts that have been distorted by personal opinion or hearsay. The Exponent staff refuses to yield to ‘rabble-rousers’ or free-publicity seekers.”[iii]

Behind the scenes, Purdue University officials had zero tolerance for Belafonte’s civil rights message. In a 1977 interview with the Lafayette Journal & Courier, former director of Purdue Musical Organizations, Al Stewart, talked about many famous people he had met during his long career. Of Belafonte, Stewart opined:

He finished a 7 p.m. show with an angry jab at racial discrimination at a local drinking place. I warned him never to do that again or he’d never get another booking anywhere in the U.S. Second show, Dr. Hovde (Purdue President Frederick L. Hovde) and I sat in the front row and tape-recorded the whole thing as evidence if we needed it. It was a beautiful show.

Stewart’s comments demonstrated stunning hubris. Belafonte was on top of the entertainment world in 1956. He had the #2 album in the United States. In June, he released a second album, Calypso, that spent a record ninety-nine weeks on the Billboard Chart. He headlined Broadway shows and top-tier venues across the country. He played the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Palmer House in Chicago. He broke Lena Horne’s attendance record at the Venetian Room in San Francisco, and broke the color barrier and Frank Sinatra’s attendance record at Waldorf’s Empire Room in New York City. Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine Stewart belittling Sinatra or Elvis Presley—Belafonte’s peers at the time.

By the time Stewart made his remarks in 1977, the Civil Rights Act had become law thirteen years earlier. Belafonte had recorded a campaign ad for John Kennedy, mediated between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show ten times, hosted the Tonight Show for a full week, had four gold records, starred in movies, and was a world-renowned civil rights leader. For Stewart to think he could have curtailed this superstar’s career is laughable, had it not been so bigoted. In response to racism, university officials told a Black man “Shut up and sing.”

Belafonte (right) at the National Black Political Convention, cover of William Greaves’s Nationtime film.

Harry Belafonte would refuse to “shut up and sing.” Rather, upon his return visits to Indiana, he used his voice to advance racial justice. He donated significant funds to Gary candidate Richard Hatcher’s mayoral campaign and vocalized his support for the unlikely candidate in national media outlets. Belafonte’s efforts helped make Richard Hatcher one of the first Black mayors of a major American city. In 1972, Belafonte returned to Gary to perform at the unprecedented National Black Political Convention, taking the opportunity to implore the massive audience to engage in political reform.

In January 2017, Belafonte returned to Purdue University, serving as keynote speaker for the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s celebration, themed “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Where Do We Go From Here?” At age 89, he knew his life’s work was unfinished and he delivered a rousing speech on justice, civic engagement, and meaningful art. Audience member Sandra Sydnor told the Journal & Courier “’I was overwhelmed by his presence. . . . We were just staying rooted in spot, not wanting to leave after he left because of his persona, because of his spirit.’” Belafonte passed away April 25, 2023, but this spirit would endure, along with his legacy of racial justice and equal rights activism.

* This piece will be featured in the author’s upcoming book, Dispatches from a Northern Hoosier.

 

Notes:

[i] Harry Belafonte and Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir  (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011), 150.

[ii] Conversation between the author and All-American football player Bernie Flowers, 1995.

[iii] The Purdue Exponent, May 23, 1956.

[iv] Lafayette Journal & Courier, November 13, 1977.
Stewart’s judgment is questionable. Belafonte referred to Sing, Man, Sing as “my one indisputable career bomb.” My Song: A Memoir, 142.

The Plight of Desertion: Jewish Families at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Immigrants, Ellis Island, 1907, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The turn of the twentieth century was marked by record rates of family desertion in the United States, especially among eastern European Jewish immigrant families. A family was considered deserted if the male head of household withheld his wages or if he were to leave and no longer offer monetary support.[i] Jewish women who were deserted by their husbands were left in a particularly vulnerable and liminal state; they were neither widowed nor wed, yet Jewish law dictated that they were bound to their spouse until a divorce could be obtained.[ii]

Rates of family desertion, or the act of a primary caregiver leaving their family without providing support, have been shown to significantly rise in times of mass migration, which made it a pressing issue as over two million eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.[iii] While it is not known how many women were victims of desertion during this migration period, data from Jewish philanthropic organizations suggest it affected a large number  of women.[iv] Between 1900 and 1922, approximately 15% of aid distributed by Jewish charitable agencies in the United States was granted to deserted women and their families, most of which was granted to Jewish women and families due to their large migration numbers.[v]

The Struggles of Immigration

The pattern of Jewish migration was typically that of a family migration, though families were often disrupted throughout the process.[vi] The head of the household, who was generally the husband, would emigrate alone, later to be joined by their kin. The men would arrive in their new country, settle down, find a job, and build up the necessary funds to bring the remaining relatives to join them, typically in two to three years’ time.[vii] This separation placed great stress on families.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1904, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Upon arriving to the United States, the search for employment, long working hours, health issues, and poor living conditions took a heavy toll on immigrants. On top of these stressors, many Jewish immigrants did not know how to read or write, and therefore had to rely on the aid of others if they wished to write home. These limitations made contacting relatives difficult, if not impossible. Families were often left with silence for months or years at a time, waiting to hear that their loved one had made it to the United States, and that they were actively working towards a reunion in the New World.[viii]

Following immigration, many families experienced new tensions and challenges within the home, which threatened the stability of family units. Members of families, who were separated during the emigration process, often felt alienated from each other and their relationships became irreparable.[ix] American influences encouraged men to act more aggressively if they wished to thrive in their new capitalist country, while women were expected to behave in more submissive manners than the roles which they had previously assumed, drastically altering family dynamics.[x] Marriages established in eastern Europe were rarely the product of love and were more often based on tradition; after living in the United States for an extended period of time, it was not uncommon for married couples to simply drift apart to the point of incompatibility or to develop romantic relationships with new partners.[xi] Generational conflict, typically related to irreligiousness of children, placed stress on household relationships and generated feelings of shame, humiliation, and disconnectedness.[xii] As a result of the new tensions in their relationships, many men did not seek divorces and, instead, turned towards desertion as a solution. This became such an occurrence that National Desertion Bureau president Walter Liebman labeled the process a “poor man’s divorce.”[xiii]

For some men, however, desertion was an attempt to assist their families. They would leave their families behind to better their conditions and earn funds. By leaving without a word, though it caused much distress, many husbands felt confident that charities would offer assistance. Samuel Sorbel, a lawyer who worked on desertion cases in Indiana in 1908, reported in an August 29th, 1908 Evansville Courier and Press article that deserters often told him: “Well, as long as I was here the charities wouldn’t do anything for them, and I knew that if I went away they would feed the wife and children and keep a roof over their heads.” For these men, desertion felt like a mercy to their loved ones. By leaving their families and seeking employment in a different city, the men could save up money for their return home while local charities supported their families in the meantime. This outcome was preferable to making the difficult choice of whether to pay rent or to put food on the table with an inadequate income. Unfortunately, the aid given to deserted families during the man’s absence was not as grand as many men had hoped; Sorbel stated he had never met a case of desertion that was without destitution.

The Role of Philanthropic Organizations and the National Desertion Bureau

Evansville Courier and Press, August 29, 1908.

Jewish charitable organizations sought to assist deserted women in a number of ways. When working with a deserted family, most organizations hoped to locate missing husbands and reunite them with their families. This process, however, could take months, or even years, to complete. In the meantime, Jewish charitable organizations attempted to assist deserted families through financial and material charity, though the support was generally minimal.[xiv] The relationship between charitable organizations and immigrants—both the husbands and the wives— was tense and, at times, discriminatory and victim-blaming.

Anti-desertion campaigns were typically organized and managed by middle-class men who saw themselves as the protectors of women and children, many of whom were German Jewish Americans.[xv] These reformers had relative control over the public narrative surrounding desertion, spinning deserters as burdens to society. According to a May 12, 1920 Fort Wayne Sentinel article, deserters were “the arch villains of society, the primary cause of all social distress, the perpetrators rather than the victims of all social evils.” These reformers attempted to separate their own male identities from those of deserters by challenging the latter’s manhood, often painting working-class deserters as cowardly, unambitious, and incapable of becoming proper breadwinners for their families. Working-class families never fully adopted the ideal of having a male breadwinner due to their low wages, but this concept was of central importance to the middle-class’s understanding of manhood.[xvi]

Upon seeking external assistance, deserted women became subject to much public scrutiny and judgement. Philanthropic organizations consistently looked to categorize the people to whom they provide aid—a person’s marital status merited how much, if any, assistance should be granted to their case.[xvii] Immigrants who requested aid were studied for shortcomings or plausible blame for their being deserted. Nearly any characteristic or action of a woman could be twisted into rational for her circumstances; some women were criticized for their inability or unwillingness to forgo their traditions and customs to “Americanize” and assimilate to American customs, while others became too indulgent in material consumption and American trends.[xviii]

Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis Relief Card for Mrs. Morris Cohen, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In Indianapolis, the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis provided a great deal of support to deserted families. One such case of support was that for the Cohen family. On August 17, 1914, applied for aid from the JWF of Indianapolis after Morris Cohen deserted her and six of their seven children. Mr. Cohen had left for St. Louis, taking along one of their sons, Isidor. By the time the Federation had made contact with the United Jewish Charities in St. Louis, the two Cohens had relocated once again with no indication of their destination.[xix]

Just over a year later on November 15, 1915, the JWF discovered that Morris and Isidor had moved to in Birmingham, Alabama, where the latter was employed at a department store. Isidor encouraged the family to join the two in Birmingham, but Mrs. Cohen* was hesitant to do so; Morris had habitually moved from city to city the prior fourteen years, thus she questioned the finality of the move. Additionally,  elder children were employed in positions they did not wish to lose, her three youngest children were well settled in school, and one was ill with pneumonia. The Federation contacted Isidor’s employers, Birmingham’s Federation of Jewish Charities, and a local Rabbi to gauge what would be the best action for the Cohen family. Following the correspondence, the JWF of Indianapolis agreed with Mrs. Cohen and believed it would be best for the family to stay in Indianapolis, and for her husband to send monetary support or to return to the city. Records suggest Morris obliged with the latter, and the family did not require further support from the JWF of Indianapolis.[xx]

Philanthropic organizations like the JWF quickly became inundated by the sheer number of women seeking assistance during the spike in immigration in the early 1900s. In 1909, the United Hebrew Charities reported that for every three relief applications received by widows, two were received from deserted women.[xxi] Desertion became such a strain on charitable organizations and state services that Jewish Americans feared, “Mah yomru hagoyim” (What will the gentiles say?”).[xxii] This concern contributed to the development of the United Hebrew Charities’ National Desertion Bureau (NDB) in 1905. The Bureau worked to locate deserters and return them home, or, if a deserter was unwilling to return, to negotiate support on behalf of his family.[xxiii] These negotiations would be finalized in front of a judge in the “Court of Tears,” aptly named due to the emotional distress associated with the hearings.

Gallery of Missing Husbands, printed in the Forward 9 June, 1912, accessed https://www.jewishgen.org/databases/usa/missinghusbands.html.

The NDB corresponded with local charities, organizations, religious institutions, and employers when attempting to locate missing husbands, much like the JWF had done in the case of the Cohen family. The NDB would gather the husband’s name, date of disappearance, physical description, photographs, and additional information that might be of assistance in locating him. Case descriptions and photos were frequently published in Yiddish newspapers in the cities of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Montreal, and Toronto—cities to which deserters often fled. These postings became part of the newspapers’ “Gallery of Missing Husbands,” which pleaded for members of the public to inform the NDB if a deserter was found. These public tips were then used to apprehend the men so a solution could be found to satisfy both him and his family. It served a secondary purpose of attempting to prevent  desertion; the gallery made it clear to men who read the paper that if they were to desert their families, they could be publicly humiliated.[xxiv]

Neglected Children

Indianapolis Orphan’s Asylum, circa 1885, courtesy of the Indiana Album.

Desertion not only took a toll on immigrant wives, but it also deeply affected their children. For every ten families which applied for relief from charitable organizations, one came from a deserted family. Additionally, one of four children committed to orphanages at the time had been deserted by one, or both, of their parents; after desertion, some women felt that giving up their child was the only option as they struggled to provide adequate care and daily necessities.[xxv] Children who remained in the home felt the effects of desertion through parental neglect and the need to work to help the household. These stressors led deserted children to struggle with emotional instability and/or delinquency later in their lives.[xxvi]

This is precisely what happened to the Behrman family Louis Behrman deserted his wife and children in the summer of 1905, leaving them behind in Indianapolis while he took refuge in Chicago. found herself without support from her husband and responsible for ten children, the youngest of which was three years old and the eldest twenty years old. She and two of her children attempted to support the family, making a total of $12.50 a week. Trying to ease the burden on their family, Nathan and Robert Behrman, twelve and eight years old respectively, were caught stealing and begging and were committed to a day nursery for seven months as consequence, adding yet another stressor to the family’s circumstances. The JWF assisted the Behrman family until the husband could be found. Louis Behrman was arrested for contributing to their delinquency, received a fine, and was sentenced to a workhouse. He returned to his family after serving his sentence. Charitable organizations like the JWF of Indianapolis provided much needed services to the struggling families affected by desertion, providing resources, support, and a chance for justice against deserters.[xxvii]

Letter from Stern Brothers Clothiers and Shoers regarding Louis Behrman’s desertion of his family, 1907, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, M0463, Box 264, Folder 26.

A History of Hardship

Early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrants were not alone in their hardships. Desertion and family neglection were an issue for many immigrants, regardless of their origin and background. Catholics, for example, addressed issues of desertion through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but Catholic charities aided deserted families on a case-by-case basis. Jewish charities, on the other hand, identified desertion as a greater social problem in need of fixing and established national connections, including those with charities and businesses across the country, with which to address it. This unique approach stemmed from the fear of American Jews, who believed widespread discussion of family desertion in the Jewish community could encourage new waves of antisemitism.[xxviii]

Despite the fact that immigrants founded the United States, the country has rarely welcomed newcomers with open arms. There is a common misconception in the twenty-first century that European immigrants in the twentieth century became Americans with ease, persevering and prospering in a growing economy. Historically, however, adversities plagued every step of the immigration process, and fear of how these challenges were perceived by the greater public caused much stress in both existing and developing communities. The same can be said of immigrants today. By recognizing this historic trend, America has the opportunity to reduce this burden and provide better support to future immigrants. It is clear through the efforts of organizations like the National Desertion Bureau that creating specialized departments for societal problems can help those in need, and doing so would positively impact both native and foreign-born Americans.

 

* The author was unable to locate the first name of Mrs. Cohen or Mrs. Behrman.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Reena Sigman Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband Who Is In New York City:’ Husband Desertion in the American Jewish Immigrant Community 1900-1926,” Jewish Social Studies 44, no. 1 (1982): 4.

[ii] Anna R. Igra, Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.; Gur Alroey, “‘And I Remained Alone in a Vast Land:’ Women in the Jewish Migration from Eastern Europe,” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 62; Bluma Goldstein, Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 2-6.

[iii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60; Lindsey Mintz, “A Century of Jewish Education in Indianapolis: 1860 to 1960,” Indiana Jewish History 35, no. 1 (2003): 14-15.

[iv] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60.

[v] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5.

[vi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10; Paula E. Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” in Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Paula E. Hyman (London: Routledge, 1998), 346-347.

[vii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10-11; Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 59-60; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347.

[viii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 62; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 348-349.

[ix] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’”59; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[x] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-4.

[xi] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 286-287.

[xii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-5.

[xiii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 43; Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 4.

[xiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 7; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347; Caroline Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress:’ Gender, Benevolence, and the ‘Agunah’ in Regional Perspective,” American Jewish History 97, no. 2 (2013): 166-167.

[xv] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-4; Fridkis, “Desertion,” 289-291.

[xvi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-5.

[xvii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 2, 78-81; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 167.

[xviii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5-6; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 166-167.

[xix] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xx] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40).

[xxi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 1.

[xxii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 15.

[xxiii] Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[xxiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 11; Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 23-26. Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 92-100.

[xxv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.; Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 112-114.

[xxvi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.

[xxvii] Correspondence regarding Louis Behrman, 1905-1912, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 26), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxviii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 9.