John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, serves as an example of a part of the religious fervor on the western frontier in the years before the Civil War. The legends and tales about him that grew even in his own lifetime rivaled those of his contemporaries, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Like them, Chapman’s career in the wilderness as a preacher and Good Samaritan quickly got caught up in the American imagination.
Johnny Appleseed had been on the frontier for several decades before coming to Fort Wayne, possibly as early as 1822. Already many stories were told of this gentle man’s propagation of fruit trees in odd plots of land all over the Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness, his love of wildlife, and the awe in which American Indians regarded him as a powerful medicine man.
He repeated the Bible verse Song of Solomon 2:5, which stated “refresh me with apples.” Johnny Appleseed declared “with apples shall men be comforted in the wilderness of the West.” A holy man he was, for his principal aim was to bring, “some news right fresh from heaven” as he read from the Beatitudes to the settlers he visited in cabins in the forest. He told them of the spiritual happiness he enjoyed through the teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem. Ironically, the apples produced were not like the sweet apples we eat today, and therefore the fruit was more likely to be used for hard cider. This explains why many of the orchards he planted were destroyed during Prohibition.
One eyewitness described Johnny Appleseed’s appearance when he came to Fort Wayne as:
“simply clad, in truth clad like a beggar. His refined features told of his intelligence, even though seen through the gray stubble that covered his face since he cut his hair and beard with scissors. Johnny was serious, his speech clean, free from slang or profanity. He traveled on foot – sometimes with just one shoe or two different kinds of boots.”
Some descriptions have him wearing his cooking pot for a hat, at times with other parts of hats – the crown or the brim – on top of his tin cap. Other biographers claim that because his mush-pot hat did not protect his eyes from the bright sun well enough that he fashioned one made of pasteboard with a large peak in front. Although his eccentric appearance occasionally caused anxiety or even alarm in some people, by and large, he was well liked for his sincere and kind ways.
Exceptionally strong for his tall slim frame, one pioneer observed that Johnny Appleseed was able to get more work done clearing the forests in one day than most men could finish in two. Above all else, however, he was appreciated for his great ability to tell stories about his church, of his many adventures on the frontier, his narrow escapes in the wilderness, his interactions with American Indians, and his association with the wildlife of the Midwest, from bears to wasps.
Johnny Appleseed showed a great reverence for all life, including the lowly insects. In fact, he became a vegetarian later in life. One story often told was that when he was being stung by a hornet that had crawled into his shirt, he carefully removed his shirt to allow the creature to go on its way unharmed rather than kill the stinging nuisance. On another occasion he put out his evening camp fire to avoid the possibility of the moths being destroyed in the flames. He was known to have purchased an aged horse from a pioneer who was continuing to put the creature to work, in order that the animal could spend its last days peacefully at pasture. A settler once described him saying that he was like, “good St. Francis, the little brother of the birds and the little brother of the beasts.”
Johnny Appleseed died in 1845 at the age of 71. He had been protecting his saplings from some cows that had broken down the fence of one of his orchards just north of Fort Wayne. He was overcome by his exertions and succumbed to what the people of the time called the “winter plague.” He was buried along the St. Joseph River and the old feeder canal bed on the Archer farm, but the actual site is not known today; a commemorative marker** sits atop the hill in present-day Johnny Appleseed Park, which was once the Archer family cemetery. Each year during the Fort Wayne festival that bears his name, visitors remember the comfort John Chapman brought to the west, for around his memorial children fondly place their gifts of apples.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]
Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.
He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’sOpen Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolisinto German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.
After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”
However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:
True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.
Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.
Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.
Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:
I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.
Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.
Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.
In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”
His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five(1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:
A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.
So it goes.
“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:
Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.
Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.
Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.
Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.
[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).
While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious. Bierce’s own agnosticism aligned with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an Illinois politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory. He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, that were critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors and their counter-cultural thinking became an indelible part of 19th century Freethought (broadly understood during the period as an open, reasoned evaluation of religion and spirituality).
In his essay, “A Dead Lion,” Bierce defended the agnostic orator and responded to his critics. When Ingersoll died in 1899, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country paid their respects to the infidel, but they also continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator. Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defended Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” as Bierce wrote in the aforementioned essay, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.”
Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argued that it was, “keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar.” While his pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, Bierce’s essay does show a deep intellectual kinship between the two.
Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. In one passage, Bierce defends Ingersoll’s position:
It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.
Both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays reflected a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.
Bierce also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.” Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.” In other words, he had to see it to believe it.
Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s free thought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.” He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.” Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired critical lectures by clergymen. This work influenced journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who wrote clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.
Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some veterans discovered interests in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given him an immortality he may have never imagined.
The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, both from the pages and their authors. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Hoosier Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late-19th century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views about life and religion.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Bierce’s early life, after he and his family moved to Indiana, remains shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the Republican newspaper, the Northern Indianan. Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.
After returning from Kentucky, Bierce reportedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months. He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861. He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War inspired much of his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.
Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californianand Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.” One critic referred to his writing as “humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne.” Another review considered his early works, “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke,” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”
For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of his unorthodox pen name came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a pen name while in England. As biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”
Bierce’s columns appeared in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.
After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonautand the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.” This column gave Bierce a platform to express his views on politics, current events, literature, and history, often with a humorous slant. As an example, this short quip about a millionaire’s dining habits appeared in the March 13, 1886 issue of the Wasp:
There is a man in San Francisco—a millionaire who has revived a very ancient custom, I am told. This gentleman is rather fond of dining people at his house—mostly men. Between the courses, now and then during the meal, he introduces various uncouth monsters, whose antics are supposed to amuse and edify the guests. I am told they don’t. A friend of mine has asked me to complain of the infliction—which I willingly do, although it is not the simplest method of relief that my friend could have thought out. If he does not relish monsters with his dinner why does he not dine at home and ask to have the monsters sent over to him afterward, as a separate entertainment?
In 1887, he worked for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald. Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom, a growing antagonism existed between them. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906. Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.
In 1891, he compiled many of his Civil War tales into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The book included “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story.” The widely anthologized tale excellently displays Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war. Film maker Robert Enrico adapted the story into an Academy Award winning short film (1963), which Rod Serling subsequently used as a Twilight Zone episode.
In this excerpt from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce reflects on death in war:
Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
Many reviewers praised the Tales of Soldiers and Civilians after its publication. A New York Tribune reviewer noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].” New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called Bierce a “genius” and considered the anthologythe “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”
It is somewhat fitting that an author known for his unexpected plot twists would have a surprise coda to his own life. Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1914 proved to be as complicated as his early years in Indiana. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source (a letter to a friend) that suggests that he went to Mexico. The other indication that he was headed that way is in letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington places him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best. Therefore, it is more likely that he disappeared after 1914 and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913. Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.