“We Like to See You Smile:” The Story of Hook’s Drug Stores

 

Terre Haute Tribune, November 6, 1958. Newspapers.com.

This splashy 1958 advertisement printed in the pages of the Terre Haute Tribune speaks to public health issues that remain relevant today, as shown by philanthropic entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s new Cost Plus Drugs company. When John A Hook established his first drug store in 1900, he “felt a need for a drugstore to fill the medical needs of his community at fair prices, [and] he put his integrity into the filling of his prescriptions.” Over five decades later, as John Hook’s small chain of stores expanded into a statewide brand, the company’s commitment to “filling the medical needs of the community” never wavered. In addition to offering affordable health care, the company advanced racial equality and worked to prevent drug abuse, proving that Hook’s was more than just a pharmacy.

Origins

While Hook’s was a state-wide brand by the 1950s, its beginnings in the German American community of Indianapolis were far humbler. John August Hook was born on December 17, 1880, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents, August J. Hook and Margaret Hook, were both German immigrants who came to the United States in 1869, looking for a better life. His father was a beer brewer, who first laid down roots in Cincinnati before moving the family to Indianapolis by 1891. At the age of 19, John A. Hook knew exactly what his profession would be—pharmaceuticals. He graduated from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy on June 9, 1900, the Indianapolis News reported. There, he earned three medals for his academic work, including “a gold medal for highest general average, a gold medal for highest materia medica, and silver medal for chemistry.” As a wunderkind of pharmacological science, Hook was eager to start serving his adopted community of Indianapolis.

John A. Hook in 1926. Indiana Album.

Shortly after graduating, Hook purchased a “Deutsche Apotheke” at 1101 South East Street from Louis Mattill, according to the Indiana Tribüne. Mattill had established the apothecary with his brother John as early as 1890 and nine years later John A. Hook bought out the company. As the son of German immigrants, Hook saw it as vital that he serve that community, which had greatly expanded in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, a part of the over 19,000 immigrants in the city by 1890.

Indianapolis Times, October 24, 1940. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While formative years at South East Street were successful, it wasn’t until he partnered with the enterprising Edward F. Roesch, who he hired in 1905 to manage a second store, that Hook’s business spread across Indianapolis.

Edward F. Roesch. Newspapers.com.

The Early Years

Within 20 years, Hook and Roesch grew their drug store chain to over fourteen locations, and by the end of the 1920s, to forty-one. One essential component of this growth was prioritizing the design of new stores. It was here that Hook and Roesch partnered up with another legendary Indianapolis business, the architectural firm of Vonnegut, Bohn, & Mueller. Architects Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. (the father of acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.), Arthur Bohn, and Otto N. Mueller designed numerous drug stores for the company, either with completely new buildings or remodels of buildings that Hook’s Drugs previously purchased.

Hook’s Drugs at the Occidental Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1929. Indiana Album.

This partnership started as early as 1920, when Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller redesigned a saloon into a Hook’s drug store at Washington and Senate in Indianapolis. The next year, the firm remodeled a former storeroom at Pennsylvania and Washington.

Hook’s Drug Store in Illinois Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1935. Indiana Album.

Despite the upheaval of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Hook’s continued to expand, with the help of Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller. The Indianapolis Star reported on April 15, 1935 that the architectural firm was “making alterations to the new Hook drug store at the southeast corner of Illinois and Ohio streets. In addition, this company is preparing plans for alterations to the Hook Drug Company store to be located at the northwest corner of Illinois and Market streets.” The Star in its October 24, 1937 edition ran an extensive article on Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller’s plans for a Hook drug store in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis. “Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller are the architects and have given every thought and consideration to the comfort of the customer,” wrote the Star, “such as soundproof ceiling, lighting, and attractive floor design.” In 1939, Hook’s commissioned Vonnegut & Bohn to a store at the northwest corner of Meridian and 22nd Street, which John Hook told the Times would be “one of our most outstanding stores and will be the last word in store design and equipment.” The thriving partnership between Hook’s and Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller lasted for nearly 20 years, with the latter’s innovative and attractive designs aiding the growth of the drug store chain.

Astounding Growth

With John Hook’s death in 1943 and Edward F. Roesch’s subsequent death in a car accident, their sons, August F. “Bud” Hook and Edward J. F. Roesch, took over the family business, as president and vice president, respectively. Their combined leadership led to a profound expansion of the business. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “under the joint leadership of the two men the chain grew from an Indianapolis operation to a state-wide chain of stores.” In 1958, Hook’s operated 50-plus stores throughout Indiana with more than 1,000 employees. The company expanded its stores to “80 communities” by 1973, according to the Nappanee Advance-News.

August F. “Bud” Hook, President of Hook Drugs, Inc., 1964. Indiana Memory.

This growth was not without its controversies. The employees of the Hook’s store in the Marwood neighborhood of Indianapolis ran a paid editorial in the Jewish Post on January 16, 1976, criticizing the company’s labor practices and its attempts to block unionization efforts. One hundred and fifty salesclerks of Hook’s “mann[ed] picket lines at many of the stores throughout Marion and Johnson Counties,” the editorial noted. It alleged that workers voted to be represented by the Retail Clerk’s Union-Local 725, and despite this vote’s certification by the local labor board, Hook’s “ignored this vote and refused to bargain” with them. It also accused Hook’s of hiring replacement labor and launching a public relations campaign against the strikers. The editorial declared “We ask that we be treated fairly and with respect by the Hook’s Drug Company . . . and that negotiations in good faith begin at once.” It is unclear whether the unionization effort was successful.

Hook’s Drugs at the Project A Shopping Center, Indianapolis, c. 1960. Indiana Memory.

Despite these issues, Hook’s established itself by 1982 as one of the nation’s oldest chain drug store corporations, ranking 14th nationally in number of sales units and exceeding $260 million annually. The Illinoisan also noted that 30% of the firm’s business came from the prescription department, which was “nearly twice the national average.” With over 260 stores in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (its expansion outside of Indiana a result of the merger with SupeRx in 1986), Hook’s had become one of the largest drug store chains in the Midwest by the time it celebrated its 90th year of business in 1990.

A woman in front of Hook’s Drugs at New Castle Plaza, New Castle, Indiana, 1974. Wikimedia Commons.

The Innovative Community Leader

While labor disputes occurred during the company’s history, Hook’s nevertheless demonstrated a commitment to equal rights in Indianapolis. The firm desegregated its lunch counters at all locations in 1947, years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder carried coverage of Hook Drugs’ desegregation of their lunch counters, which the Indianapolis Civil Rights Committee fought tirelessly to achieve. As the Recorder noted, “committee members will continue going into various Hook’s stores in order to make certain that the new policy is put into practice.” Alongside equal access to its stores, the company promoted equal employment opportunities. In 1965, the Recorder wrote that Hook’s President Bud Hook served on a committee modeled after California’s Chamber of Commerce for Employment Opportunity. The committee’s goals included ensuring maximum employment of minority groups, improving communication “to make known employment need and opportunities,” and assisting other organizations in improving their minority employment programs.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 15, 1947. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1969, Hook’s put these recommendations into practice in Indianapolis, increasing minority management to 10%. This had a direct impact on the community, as Black manager W. Howard Bell implemented the innovative “Santa Claus Comes to the Ghetto” sales initiative, which “aimed at giving customers a chance to obtain some items at reduced cost without waiting for the after-Christmas discount.” By 1972, Bell would own four drugstores of his own. Hook’s also promoted Black staff to corporate positions. In 1973, the firm appointed Ray Crowe, acclaimed athlete, coach, and politician, to store employment supervisor in the personnel department, as noted by the Indianapolis Recorder.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 20, 1969. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, December 8, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also promoted broader public health initiatives. Starting in the late 1960s, Hook’s implemented a protected packaging program, developing a child-proof, lock-on cap and amber colored bottles that protected medicine from sunlight. Both were offered to customers at no extra charge. Hook’s advertisements in newspapers, including the Rushville Republican, Alexandria Times-Tribune, and the Indianapolis Star, attest to the “protection in packaging” program. Additionally, Hook’s provided a “poison counterdose chart” that “could prevent serious injury or even save a life should accidental poisoning occur in your home,” as printed in the Indianapolis Star.

Rushville Republican, May 20, 1969. Newspapers.com.

Alongside drug safety, Hook’s was active in drug misuse/abuse prevention and education, which is more crucial than ever as drug abuse is at epidemic levels. Pharmacists routinely spoke to community organizations and received training from the Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse Foundation and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. As the Indianapolis Star reported in 1971, “Many Hook’s pharmacists serving in stores and in administrative positions have given countless talks to schools, churches, and other social action groups” about drug abuse and its prevention.

Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1971. Newspapers.com.

In 1980, Hook’s sponsored a state-wide poison control initiative that “include[d] a $40,000 grant. . . to establish a statewide network of regional hospital emergency treatment centers to provide close at hand emergency treatment throughout the state,” as noted in the Nappanee Advance-News. The next year, Hook’s co-sponsored a 10-week “anti-drug abuse public service campaign” entitled “It Takes Guts to Say No.” Hook’s Executive Vice President Newell Hall said of the initiative to the Indianapolis Recorder, “as a corporation we are committed to providing professional prescription service to our communities and feel it is our duty to inform the public about the hazards of substance abuse.”

Nappanee Advance-News, March 26, 1980. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also distributed informative brochures to customers about symptoms of drug abuse and what parents can do if they suspect their children of abusing drugs. James M. Rogers, Hook’s vice president of public relations, told the Banner, “Our brochure offers facts and common-sense information for parents and children alike. If prevention doesn’t work, early detection is critical.” Hook’s “Parent Guide to Drug Abuse” pamphlets were available for free in all their stores.

Knightstown Banner, August 22, 1984. Newspapers.com.

While not always progressive on labor issues, Hook’s advancements of civil rights, innovative packaging programs, and drug abuse and prevention initiatives solidified the company as a trusted community leader for decades.

Hook’s Legacy

The end of Hook’s Drugs came like the end of so many businesses during the 1980s and 1990s: through corporate mergers. In 1985, Hook Drugs, Inc. merged with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, which was the “second largest supermarket chain,” according to the Nappanee Advance-News. This merger would end in 1986, when Hook’s and the SupeRx drug store chain, both owned by Kroger, split off into their own firm, Hook-SupeRx, Inc.

A Hook’s Drugs location in Indianapolis, 1990s. Indiana Historical Society.

On April 4, 1994, Revco, a drugstore chain based out of Twinsburg, Ohio, announced its plan to buy Hook-SupeRx, Inc. for an estimated $600 million. The merger was finalized in July of that year. Unfortunately, this consolidation came with job cuts and store closures.

Richmond Palladium-Item, August 24, 1994. Newspapers.com.

Less than three years later, on February 7, 1997, Rhode-Island based CVS purchased Revco at a cost at $2.8 billion, according to the Indianapolis News, and with it, phased out the use of the Hook’s brand. While the legendary name is gone, many former Hook’s locations still operate today under the CVS banner.

Indianapolis News, February 7, 1997. Newspapers.com.

Although no longer being in business, the company’s history is tangible at the Hook’s Drug Store Museum, which opened at the 1966 Indiana State Fair. Originally a three-month exhibition, it eventually became a permanent attraction. The museum recreates what a Hook’s drug store was like in the early 1900s and remains in operation today at its original location at the fairgrounds. Reflecting on its success years later, journalist Judy observed, “the Hook’s Historical Drugstore and Pharmacy Museum has become a national acclaimed tourist attraction. It has garnered many awards from both pharmaceutical and historical organizations, and millions of individuals have visited from every state and many foreign countries.”

Hook’s Historical Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Memory.

In its 90-plus years, Hook’s Drugs went from one building in Fountain Square to one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, with over 380 locations and millions in sales. While the company faltered on labor issues, Hook’s commitment to civil rights and drug abuse prevention made the brand synonymous with fairness, kindness, and the personal touch. As the collective memory of Hook’s fades, it is important to recognize its special place in the history of Indiana businesses. Also, we must remember its motto from years ago, words that rang through its many ads and embodied its ethos— “We like to see you smile!”

A Hoosier Shackleton: Julius Frederick and the Greely Expedition

Julius R. Frederick, courtesy of NOAA.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, expeditions from multiple nations took on one of the most dangerous, treacherous parts of the globe: the north and south poles. The most well-known example is Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. His expedition to Antarctica in 1915 became world-famous for his actions to save all 22 men of his crew from extreme cold for 105 days. Biographies of this journey became best-sellers, inspiring many on-screen adaptations, most notably 2002’s Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh. However, Shackleton wasn’t the only artic explorer to receive accolades for his endurance and bravery. Julius Frederick, Indiana resident and survivor of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition, also endured harsh temperatures, food shortages, and crew disruptions while stranded in the arctic.

The crew of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition. Frederick is fifth from the left in the back row. Courtesy of NARA/Glenn Stein.

According to the Indianapolis News, Frederick was born in Dayton, Ohio on July 21, 1852. He spent most of his early years in St. Mary’s, Ohio before his mother died when he was thirteen. Without much keeping him in Ohio, Frederick moved to Chicago, taking odd jobs as a messenger boy and railroad worker before he enlisted in the US army in 1876. For many years, Frederick was a soldier in military campaigns against Native Americans, fighting the Sioux and Nez Pierce. Specifically, he fought in the battle of Muddy Creek against the Sioux on May 7, 1877.

Adolphus Greely, leader of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Courtesy of Google Books.

By 1879, Frederick was interested in a different course and signed up to join the Howgate expedition to the North Pole. However, the unstable condition of the ship stranded Frederick in Montana for another two years. Finally, in 1881, Frederick joined the Lady Franklin Bay expedition led by Adolphus Greely, a then-First Lieutenant of the Army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment. Lady Franklin Bay is by Ellesmere Island, Nanavut, Canada, making it one of the most northern spots on the globe to be explored. The expedition’s task, in Frederick’s words, was to “take scientific observations within the Arctic Circle.” This came in the form of weather recording devices and other techniques used to understand the intense climate of the arctic region. In August of 1881, the 21 person crew set course on the ship Proteus, a “steam whaler” that carried them from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Lady Franklin Bay. As historian Glenn Stein noted, Frederick’s “nick­name among his Arctic comrades was “Shorty” because of his five-foot, two-inch stature” and he “did little hunt­ing during the LFBE, but performed the various duties of a cook, steam-launch engineer, and shoemaker.”

Map of Fort Conger and Lady Franklin Bay. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Once they arrived at Lady Franklin Bay, Greely and his team began their months-long investigation of the region, complete with recordings of the climate and natives. This was all in accordance with a multinational project called the International Polar Year that, according to historian C. J. Taylor, sought to establish “14 research stations” to “study the geophysics and geodesy of the polar region.” Among these stations, they resided at Fort Conger, an outpost a few miles inland from the bay. During these investigations, Sergeants David Brainard and James Lockwood confirmed the “farthest north” record up to that time. Things were going well until the supply ship Neptune failed to reach Lady Franklin Bay and returned to the United States. With its failure went the expedition’s resupply of food and other necessities. Subsequently, the expedition went from a mission of knowledge to one of survival.

Fort Conger, the headquarters of the Greely Expedition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Another image of their headquarters, Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Greely and his men began to face intense supply shortages which ravaged the crew, leading many to die from the lack of food and the harsh temperatures. A first rescue attempt in 1883 had failed, when the ship Proteus had been sunk by ice collisions, permanently shifting the crew southward from Fort Conger. It was in this dire situation that Julius Frederick endured his most painful experience of the expedition. In April of 1884, only a few months before the party was rescued, Frederick and Sergeant George W. Rice trekked to Cape Isabella, Baird Inlet, “to attempt the recovery of the hundred pounds of English beef which had been abandoned in November, 1883.” As a profile in Scribner’s magazine wrote, Frederick and Rice risked “their lives at almost every step of the way . . . only to find, after hours of searching among the floes, that their triumph was a barren one. . . .” The meat “had drifted from the shore” and was not salvageable. Rice’s condition worsened dramatically and he asked Frederick to leave him to die. Frederick refused and stayed with Rice until the very end, wrapping Rice’s “frozen feet with the temiak, or fur-lined jacket taken from his [Frederick’s] own back for this purpose, and then sat and held his unfortunate comrade till the latter’s pain was relieved by death.” Frederick initially yearned to die but, dedicated to his mission, saved Rice’s food ration, laid Rice’s body to rest, gathered up their supplies, and returned to camp so his colleagues wouldn’t suffer during a search attempt. As Scribner’s wrote, “He would use what was his own, but would not rob the living or the dead.”

Sergeant George W. Rice. Frederick comforted him during his final minutes while there were on a supply run. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Julius Frederick (right) helping comrade George Rice (left) stay comfortable before he died in April, 1884. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

While many died from malnutrition, immense cold, and sheer exhaustion during the Greely expedition, only one was executed for insubordination. Private Charles B. Henry was caught stealing food in excess of his ration and summarily punished for his crimes. As the Fort Wayne Sunday Gazette noted, Frederick recalled that Private Henry was shot in the back with “two balls taking effect and producing instant death.” The Gazette shared more details from Frederick about the grisly conditions:

He said further there may have been cannibalism, but of this he has no personal knowledge. Henry had been warned several times about stealing food, but he repeated the offense and finally Greely issued the order for his execution.

Private Charles B. Henry. He was executed for stealing food and supplies. Courtesy of NARA/Daily Mail.

Frederick’s account was also published in the New York Times. However, the Indianapolis News reported that survivor Maurice Connell claimed Henry had been falsely accused and that Greely had actually stolen food. “To these charges,” the News wrote, “Sergeant Frederichs [sic], of this city, gives an emphatic denial, claiming that he himself saw Henry commit the theft. . . .” Greely also defended his decision to the New York Times, exclaiming that “it was discovered that, with other articles [food], Henry had stolen and secreted the sealskin boots of the hunter of the expedition.” The execution of Private Henry was one of the more inhumane moments of the Greely expedition, an acknowledgement of the harsh environment encompassing the men.

The six survivors of the LFB expedition. Frederick is the first on the left, back row. Courtesy of Corbis/Getty Images.

On June 23, 1884, after three long and suffering years, the survivors of the Greely expedition were rescued by a slew of ships led by Commander Winfield Schley. When all was said and done, there were only six survivors: Frederick, Brainard, Biederbick, Connell, Long, and Greely himself. Frederick was promoted to Second Lieutenant for his service during the expedition. The rest had perished during the years-long process to resupply and then rescue the expedition party. Greely, as quoted in the Indianapolis Journal, lamented that “six out of twenty-five were brought home. Nineteen brave men remain in that land of desolation.” When the crew docked at Portsmouth, New Hampshire on August 4, 1884, the New York Times wrote:

Never before in the history of Portsmouth has there been so grand and imposing an event as the celebration of the return of Lieut. Greely and the survivors of the expedition. . . . They were enthusiastically greeted as they landed, and the crowd pressed forward to shake their hands.

New York Times, August 5, 1884, Historic New York Times.

The hero’s welcome they received from their fellow citizens underscored the almost unthinkable hardships these men faced while in the arctic.

After a few other postings, Frederick moved to Indianapolis in February 1885, on assignment for the federal Signal and Weather Bureau Services. His move back to the US required some adjustment, especially in regards to the climate. “Sergeant Frederick[s],” the Indianapolis Journal wrote on January 13, 1887, “was about, yesterday, in his shirtsleeves complaining that the weather was much too warm.” The article further quoted him:

“I suppose an Esquimau [sic],” said the Sergeant, “couldn’t be made to understand that heat, no matter how strong it might be, could under any circumstances, occasion suffering. A hereafter of unquenchable fire would have no terrors for him, and when missionaries are sent to the ever-frozen north, they will have to preach a future for the wicked of even more intense cold.”

Indianapolis Journal, January 13, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite his acclimation to the cold, Frederick never fully recovered from his expedition. In an interview with the Indianapolis News, when asked of why he chose to live more inland in Indiana, he cited “rheumatism” as a motivator.

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1902, after many years of lobbying by the state legislature, Julius Frederick received a final promotion, first-class Sergeant of the signal corps of the army, as well as a retirement with pension. Biederbick, Long, and Connell also received the same commendation. The measure was passed by the Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 12, 1902. This final tribute, explained by Indiana Congressman Jesse W. Overstreet in an article in the Indianapolis News, was to “give to these men the only recognition which it remains for a grateful nation to bestow upon those who have imperiled their lives in war or in pursuit of science. This expedition carried the American flag to the northernmost point it has ever been planted by any scientific expedition.” Frederick’s contributions to exploration were finally recognized by the United States and he could finally retire to focus on his health.

Unfortunately, by the fall of 1903, Frederick’s health steadily declined. As the Indianapolis Journal reported, Frederick was “lying in a critical condition at his home on Center Drive, Woodruff place. Acute gastritis, brought on by exposure while with the General A. W. Greely expedition to the North Pole nineteen years ago, is the cause of Sergeant Frederick’s illness.” Frederick died on January 6, 1904 from complications from stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. Upon his death, the Monthly Weather Review applauded his work in meteorology and noted that he died “enjoying the respect and esteem of all who knew him.” His friend and fellow Greely expedition survivor, Henry Biederbick, traveled all the way from New Jersey to attend his funeral. Frederick was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on the expedition, Frederick said to the Indianapolis News that:

The Greely expedition was most unfortunate. I am not going to criticise [sic]. It was a horrible experience. I think, however that the success of polar expeditions is largely a question of equipping well. My expedition for the most part had only the rigors of the climate to contend against.

Frederick’s humility and perseverance, in the face of unparalleled challenges, speaks to the importance of exploration. As astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “We have always been explorers. It is part of our nature. Since we first evolved a million years or so ago in Africa, we have wandered and explored our way across the planet.” Frederick was one of those explorers, a brave soul who dared to face the elements and survived. In his success the world grew more connected, more understood. Upon Frederick’s death, a friend recalled a motto that he had “made a precept throughout his life: ‘Nothing is impossible to him that does.” If that is the case, then Frederick thoroughly achieved the impossible.

LFB expedition memorial plaque, Pim Island, 2005. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Vesto Slipher: Uncovering the Cosmos

The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.
The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.

This article was originally published on the Hoosier State Chronicles blog on August 26, 2016.

The known universe is big; insanely big! At a staggering age of 13.8 billion years, our observable universe has a diameter of 92 billion light-years. Over the last century, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians have helped us understand a more precise measurement of the size of the universe and how it has changed over time. The prevailing theory is the “Big Bang,” which, “At its simplest, [it] talks about the universe as we know it starting with a small singularity, then inflating over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.” A key component of Big Bang cosmology, “Expansion Theory,” stipulates that the universe is expanding, rather than a static state, which accounts for the changing distances of stars and galaxies. So, how did we come to this conclusion?

Red and blue shift. Courtesy of Caltech.
Blue and red shift. Courtesy of Caltech.

Part of our understanding of the expanding universe has benefited, in no small part, to an Indiana farmer’s son named Vesto Slipher. Slipher developed spectrographic methods that allowed researchers to see a Doppler effect in the distances of what were then called “spiral nebula,” what we today call galaxies. Simply put, by measuring the longer wavelength red shift (objects moving away) and shorter wavelength blue shift (objects moving closer), Slipher demonstrated that the universe was not static. In fact, it was expanding and often pushing objects towards each other. Slipher’s name doesn’t get regularly name-checked as one of the greatest scientists of all-time, but his contributions helped to establish our current view of the cosmos.

Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.
Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vesto Melvin Slipher was born on November 11, 1875 on the family farm in Mulberry, Indiana. As biographer William Graves Hoyt noted, Slipher’s early life on the farm “helped him develop the strong, vigorous constitution that later stood him in good stead for the more strenuous aspects of observational astronomy.” Slipher received a B.A. (1901), M.A. (1903), and Ph.D (1909) in Astronomy from Indiana University. His Ph.D. dissertation paper, The Spectrum of Mars, which tentatively identified atmospheric characteristics (namely, water vapor) on the red planet.

The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

Slipher’s professional career in science began in August of 1901, when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to fill a vacancy at the Lowell Observatory. Founded by the idiosyncratic Dr. Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory became one of the foremost institutions of astronomy during the early 20th century. As the Coconino Sun put it, the observatory, “is known and recognized all over world for its discoveries and correct calculations.”

Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.

Lowell’s chief pursuit with the observatory was to prove that there were inhabitants on Mars, and hired young Slipher to help him. As early as 1908, Slipher found evidence through his spectroscopic techniques that Lowell may be on to something. The Washington Herald reported that V. M. Slipher (newspaper articles almost always identified him in print with just his initials) and his brother, Earl C. Slipher, “discovered evidences of the presence of water in the atmosphere of Mars. . . .” Sometime later, on May 20, 1909, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian noted that Slipher’s observations, “favor the view that the whitecaps about Mars poles are composed of snow rather than of hoarfrost,” and that “prevalent conditions of Mars . . .are those of a mild but desert climate, such as Professor Percival Lowell has asserted exists there.”

The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Lowell’s interest in Mars, emboldened by Slipher’s results, intensified. In 1912, Slipher helped install a 13,000 feet high telescope in the San Francisco Mountains so as to refine his measurements. Slipher’s efforts culminated in a 1914 announcement of further confirmation to his Water Vapor hypothesis. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that, “while the amount of water is difficult to determine, the estimates placed it at about one-third that of the atmosphere of the earth.” While Slipher and Lowell never found Martians on the red planet, their findings established atmospheric models that are still corroborated by scientists to this day.

The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

With his research on Mars, Slipher was only getting started. His real passion was observing the position and velocities of “spiral nebula,” and he used his spare time away from his Mars projects to advance his research. His early successes convinced Dr. Lowell to give him time devoted to this research. It came with spectacular results. In 1912, Slipher began recording spectrographic results of the Andromeda Nebula (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) and found that they were blue-shifting, which indicated that the nebula was “not within our galaxy.” “Hence we may conclude,” Slipher observed in his published findings, “that the Andromeda Nebula is approaching the solar system with a velocity of about 300 kilometers per second.” Within the next couple of years, Slipher also discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was also rotating as it traveled, and published these results in a subsequent article. From there, the results went to the press; the Daily East Oregonian published the findings in its November 15, 1915 edition. The Caldwell Watchmen in Columbia, Louisiana also reported that the Nebula was traveling at an unprecedented speed of “186 miles a second.” Similar articles were published in the Ashland, Oregon Tidings and the Albuquerque Evening Herald.

The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Slipher eventually observed the speeds of 15 nebulae, shared his findings at the 1914 American Astronomical Society meeting, and “received a standing ovation.” His results were then published by the society in 1915, demonstrating that the average velocity of these nebulae at 400 kilometers a second. A few years later, in 1921, Slipher found a record-breaking nebula called Dreyer’s Nebula (known today as IC 447) that was traveling away from our galaxy at 2,000 kilometers a second! With nebulae moving at varying velocities and in varying directions, Slipher’s research had started a conversation about the need to reevaluate the static theory of the universe. Why were these nebula acting like this?

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.

In comes Edwin Hubble, the lawyer-turned-astronomer with the dashing looks of a movie star who pushed our understanding of the universe even further (Like Slipher, Hubble also had an Indiana connection as he taught and coached basketball at New Albany High School during the 1913-14 academic year) . As physicist Lawrence Krauss noted, Hubble used Slipher’s data on spiral nebula, combined with new observations he obtained with colleague Milton Humason, to postulate a new cosmological law. This new theorem, called “Hubble’s Law,” argued that there was a direct “relationship between recessional velocity and galaxy distance.” In other words, the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. These results flew in the face of both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein’s notions of the universe, which argued for a static universe. If Hubble was right, the universe was actually expanding.

To test this idea, Hubble began a new series of spectrographic experiments in the 1930s. The Muncie Post-Democrat reported on one of these experiments on November 25, 1938:

The answer [to the expansion theory], they said, may be found when the new 200-inch reflector, cast in Corning, N. Y., glassworks, is completed. If the universe is expanding, the giant reflector being built on Mt. Palomar, in California, may indicate the type of expansion. The new mirror will collect four times as much light as the 100-inch Hooker reflector now in use at Mt. Wilson.

The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

These further experiments reaffirmed Hubble’s earlier conclusions and the expansionary model of the universe became the standard-model. The evidence was so overwhelming that Einstein changed his mind and accepted the expansionary theory. Like with his work on Mars, Slipher’s early observations helped to uncover a field-altering discovery, and as biographer William Hoyt concluded, his research “enabled astronomers to gauge the approximate age and dimensions of the known universe.”

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.
Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.

Even after his momentous research on spiral nebula, Slipher continued to be involved in key discoveries. For example, Slipher assisted in the discovery of the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto! A January 2, 1920 article in the Coconino Sun recalled that, “Dr. Slipher said he believes it is true that there is an undiscovered planet. This belief is due to peculiar actions of Uranus, who gets kind of wobbly sometimes in her course around the sun.” To confirm these claims, Slipher brought young scientist Clyde Tombaugh onto the project in 1928. After many attempts of photographing the unknown body, and Slipher even missing it in some telescopic photographs, Tombaugh finally discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930. The New York Times later reported the discovery on April 16, 1930. “Denial to the contrary,” the Times wrote, “Dr. V. M. Slipher, director of the Lowell Observatory [here], believes evidence indicates that the recently discovered “Planet X” is the long-sought trans-Neptunian planet, and is not a comet.” While Tombaugh rightfully gets the credit for the discovery, Slipher’s hard work in assisting the young scientist should count as one of his accomplishments.

The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Slipher retired from the Lowell Observatory in 1952 and spent the remaining years of his life involved in minor astronomical work and community affairs before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 94. While not a household name, Slipher’s achievements in astronomy are legendary, from his discovery of the atmospheric conditions of Mars and assisting with the discovery of Pluto to his ground-breaking research on spiral nebulae that led to our understanding of the expanding universe. In short, he helped science, and in turn humanity, further uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. Pretty good for a farm boy from Mulberry, Indiana.

“King of Ghouls” Rufus Cantrell & Grave-Robbing in Indianapolis

Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 29, 1902, 1.

In the fall of 1902, a crime syndicate was uncovered in the city of Indianapolis – not a syndicate of gambling, booze, or other illicit activities. No, this was a gang of “ghouls,” or men who robbed graves and sold bodies to medical schools on the black market.

Practitioners of this trade have been called many things – grave robbers, body snatchers, resurrection men, ghouls. Regardless of what they go by, they have a long and dark history tied inextricably to the advancement of medical science. In the 14th century, a professor at the University of Bologna began teaching anatomy using dissection as a tool of instruction. Soon after, four students at the university committed the first documented case of body snatching. The need for corpses had outpaced the legal means of obtaining them, driving students to procure cadavers by unlawful means. The rest, as they say, is history.

Anatomical Dissection Scene, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University.

As medical education advanced, the need for human specimens rose at a dramatic pace. For centuries, however, the supply was met mostly by legal means – largely, the remains of criminals condemned to death. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries a confluence of two factors – a reduction of executions and the proliferation of medical schools – created a massive shortage. One which would be filled by a barely underground network of so-called “Resurrection Men.”

While illegal, the practice of stealing corpses to sell to medical schools often went unprosecuted as it was perceived as being “for the greater good.” The dissection of cadavers – weather obtained legally or otherwise – has been used to train new physicians in anatomy, lending them an unprecedented level of understanding of the human body.  This, along with the fact that most of the victims were poor or people of color also helped law enforcement turn a blind eye. However, as the practice continued and more prominent families were victimized by the traumatizing act, states began expanding the legal channels through which medical schools could procure specimens. These acts are referred to as anatomy laws.

Indiana’s first anatomy law was enacted in 1879, perhaps not-so-coincidentally a year after the grave of John Scott Harrison, son of former President William Henry Harrison and father of future President Benjamin Harrison, was robbed and his body discovered at the Ohio Medical College. The 1879 law provided that:

the body of any person who shall die in any state, city or county prison, or jail, or county asylum or infirmary, or public hospital, within this State, shall remain unclaimed. . .for twenty-four hours after death. . .may be used as a subject for anatomical dissection and scientific examination.

While the law was meant to provide a morally sound avenue for medical schools to obtain bodies for dissection,  that avenue still took advantage of the poor and mentally ill as it was highly unlikely that any of the deceased were ever given the opportunity to consent to their remains being used in this way.

Central College of Physician and Surgeons in Indianapolis, circa 1902, courtesy of IUPUI University Libraries.

But even with this law in place, there were still sometimes shortages. The early 20th century was one of those times. In 1902, at least five institutions in Indianapolis needed a steady supply of corpses. As the winter semester of the 1902-03 school year approached, these institutions vied for the inadequate lawful supply and eventually turned to the black market to fill their needs.

Mug shot of Rufus Cantrell, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

Dominating the black market was Rufus Cantrell. Having been a driver, porter, clerk, and even an undertaker, in 1902, he added a new title: The King of Ghouls. He, along with approximately seven other men, ran one of the most successful body-snatching syndicates in the city. According to the September 30, 1902 issue of the Indianapolis Journal:

He did not use hooks in pulling out corpses, as was done years ago. He only used hooks when a corpse was fastened in a coffin. Instead of digging down at the head of the grave, as was the former custom, he adopted the plan of digging in the center. The covering of the box was then sawed through and the small lid on the coffin shoved back. No lights are used by the ghouls . . . except an occasional match, which is lighted down in the grave.

It was hard, grim, and dirty work, but it paid off. Cantrell reported that between July and September of 1902, he and each of his men had earned $420 from their nighttime exploits, nearly as much as the average American made in a whole year. But their profits wouldn’t last long.

At least three different Indianapolis residents received anonymous tips that the graves of their recently buried loved ones may be found empty. Upon further investigation, the families discovered that this was indeed the case, and, more horrifying still, they discovered the missing remains in the basement of the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons. Panic gripped the city as newspapers published these stories. Families began guarding the graves of their recently interred relatives. Citizens called for investigations. Detectives staked out cemeteries and medical schools, waiting for the Ghouls to show themselves.

Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1902, 3.

However, a break came from an unexpected source. A pawnbroker by the name of Emil Mantel grew suspicious of a customer after loaning him $28 in return for four shotguns. Mantel contacted his attorney, Taylor Gronniger for advice on the situation. When Mantel gave the name of the suspicious customer as Rufus Cantrell, Gronniger connected the dots. He had heard rumors about Cantrell’s unsavory practices, and here Cantrell was, pawning off more shotguns than any one person would need – shotguns that could be used to scare off any unwanted observers intruding on illegal happenings – and just when the grave robbing business was too hot to continue. So, Gronniger relayed his hunch to Detectives Asch and Manning of the Indianapolis Police Department. By the end of the next day, the detectives had arrested Rufus Cantrell and six of his associates and extracted full, corroborating confessions from each man.

Cantrell, the leader of the “gang of ghouls,” gave his confession in excruciating detail, seemingly proud of his escapades. He and his assistants had plied their gruesome trade at Crown Hill Cemetery, the German Catholic graveyard, Mount Jackson Cemetery, Traders Point Cemetery, and the Old Anderson graveyard, as well as the cemetery at the Central Indiana hospital for the Insane, where, Cantrell confessed, he and his posse had emptied over 100 graves.

Dr. Joseph Alexander, Indianapolis News, February 13, 1903, 13.

He went on to implicate Dr. Joseph Alexander of the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons as his principal buyer. However, while most medical men simply feigned ignorance of the source for the bodies they were buying, Cantrell described Alexander as playing a much more hands-on role in the operation. Not only did Alexander knowingly buy stolen bodies, he identified potential targets, accompanied Cantrell on scouting missions, and even joined the gang in their nightly expeditions. Alexander was arrested, but quickly posted bail.

As Cantrell’s confessions continued, more empty graves were unearthed. The various medical schools around the city were searched thoroughly, but the bodies were nowhere to be found. Detectives Asch and Manning received a tip that Dr. Alexander had commissioned twenty pine boxes from a local box-builder to be delivered to the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons just days after the arrests had been made. This seemed like just the break they were looking for – surely the boxes had to be connected to the missing bodies. However, upon further investigation, it was discovered that Central College was in the process of moving locations and the boxes had been commissioned for the mundane purpose of packing away delicate medical instruments.

Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902, 10.

In mid-October, just as a grand jury was called to make indictments in the case, the mystery of the missing bodies was solved, at least in part. On October 14, 1902, the Indianapolis Journal reported:

Amos Smith . . . on his way to work, yesterday morning about 6 o’clock, partially cleared up the mystery of the bodies recently spirited away from the medical colleges. He found two bodies tied in sacks in a dry goods box at the side of Hibben, Holloweg & Co.’s store . . . The same young man, in walking farther south noticed two more bodies at the rear door of the Central Medical College.

After being positively identified by family members, there was speculation that a competing medical college in the city had disposed of the bodies near the Central Medical College in an attempt to throw all suspicion on that institution while dissuading further investigation. While these grizzly details were being spread in newspapers throughout the city, the grand jury received its instructions and began hearing testimony in the case. By the end of the grand jury’s investigation, twenty-five indictments were handed down and allegations had been made against seventy-five different people who were all part of three additional body-snatching syndicates in the city. Among the indicted were Cantrell and his associates, Dr. Alexander, four physicians from other schools, cemetery workers who facilitated the robberies, and various low-ranking employees of medical schools who had played some small part in the operation.

Indianapolis News, February 5, 1903, 3.

After several delays, the first Ghoul Gang trial, that of Dr. Joseph Alexander, began in early February. Alexander’s defense attorney’s strategy seemed to be to cast as much doubt on the character of the star witness, Rufus Cantrell, as possible. First, they attempted to link him to the unsolved murder of a Chinese immigrant who had been killed a year earlier. When that didn’t stick, the defense brought into question the sanity of the King of the Ghouls by introducing evidence that Cantrell had been diagnosed with epilepsy, at that time a broad diagnosis encompassing several mental illnesses.

Multiple physicians were brought to testify on Cantrell’s mental health. Each in turn pronounced Cantrell “insane.” Cantrell and the state begged to differ. Upon cross examination, each doctor admitted to having ties, past or present, to the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, the same college which employed Dr. Joseph Alexander. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Coincidence or not, the evidence presented by the defense seems to have been enough to sway at least some of the jurors. The February 16, 1903 issue of the Indianapolis Journal reported:

Dr. Joseph C. Alexander’s status in the community is unchanged. He is neither the convicted felon of the heinous crime of complicity with ghouls and neither is he wholly absolved from the accusations made against him by the state’s attorney. . . Yesterday morning at 10 o’clock, after deliberating since the same hour Friday morning, the jury reported through its foreman . . . that it had not arrived at a verdict and undoubtedly would be unable to do so, and it was discharged from further service.

The result of one of the most anticipated trials of the year resulted in a hung jury. While the state’s attorney promised a retrial, it never came to fruition. Cantrell, who had all along hoped that his cooperation would result in a lighter sentence, saw the writing on the wall and refused to testify in the retrial. With their star witness gone, the state had little evidence against the doctor – or any of the other four physicians originally indicted, who had maintained their innocence throughout and whose only accuser was the now silent Cantrell. The next big trial was that of the King Ghoul himself.

Taking a page from Dr. Alexander, Cantrell’s defense team entered a plea of insanity at the onset of the trial. The state, of course, used the testimony of Cantrell himself given in interviews with police as well as during the grand jury investigation. The question of the trial was not if Cantrell had robbed graves, but why? Was he a greedy criminal just trying to make a buck, or was he criminally insane?

To make the case for the latter, Cantrell’s own mother was put on the stand. Through her testimony, the defense told the jury:

that they proposed to show Cantrell to be insane . . . that while Cantrell lived in Gallatin, Tenn., from the age of one to fifteen years, he suffered from epilepsy; that when twelve years old he was thrown from a horse and his head was injured; that when he was ten or twelve years old he had a delusion that he was called by God to preach, and told his friends that he talked with God face to face; that while at work in the field he would kneel at the plow and pray and preach from a Biblical text; that he still suffers from delusions and in the jail has preached to prisoners; that when taunted by his friends in Tennessee over his inability to preach he would become profane and once assaulted a minister with his tongue when he refused to ordain him; that he has a violent temper and has attempted the lives of himself and others; that he delighted to call himself the “King of the Bryan campaign,” and had cards printed with the words, ‘Rufus Cantrell – the Democratic hero;’ that he suffered a sunstroke in Indianapolis, which incapacitated him for work in hot places, and that he succumbed to heat while employed in the Malleable iron works. All these things, Cantrell’s attorneys would prove.

It should be noted that traumatic brain injuries can affect the mental health of those who experience them – they can cause mood swings, agitation, combativeness, and other cognitive symptoms. And both epilepsy and sunstroke were used in the 19th century to describe various mental illnesses. That being said, it’s difficult to tell from newspaper reports alone how much the testimony given was exaggerated in an attempt to keep Cantrell out of jail. After all, he did deny having any mental illness during the trial of Dr. Alexander.

Yet another topic that may have played a part in the trial, and certainly played a part in the sensationalized coverage of the case, is race. Rufus Cantrell and his associates were all Black men. Alexander and the other physicians, all of whom would eventually walk free, were white.  It’s important to note that people of color, facing systematic discrimination, were often driven to find income in alternative ways. These alternative ways were, in some cases, illegal. This could have influenced Cantrell’s decision to enter the profession of grave robbing. However, there were gangs of white ghouls in the city working right alongside Cantrell’s gang – grave robbing was a lucrative business if you could get past your moral qualms.

So, the influence of race on Cantrell choosing this line of work isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that his associates, and not the white physicians, were prosecuted for their crimes. It’s also clear that newspapers took every chance they could to point out the race of the accused. In the end, race can’t not have played a role in the trial, but it’s difficult to tell through reports – all written for white newspapers – how extensive that role was.

Indianapolis Journal, April 26, 1903, 8.

On April 26, 1903, Rufus Cantrell, the King of the Ghouls, was found guilty of two charges and sentenced to three to ten years in the Jeffersonville State Reformatory. In the end, Cantrell and four of his associates were convicted and sentenced to between one and ten years each. The twenty other men indicted by the Grand Jury were cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence.

Convictions weren’t the only thing to emerge from this tale, though. The system of public institutions delivering the unclaimed bodies of the deceased directly to medical schools was clearly not working as desired. As a result of this and other similar trials, the Indiana General Assembly passed the Anatomical Education Act in 1903, establishing the State Anatomical Board, which would oversee the distribution of bodies to medical schools. The State Anatomical Board is still in existence today, continuing to oversee the distribution of donated bodies to medical schools. According to anatomist Sanjib Kumar Ghosh, body donation constitutes the sole source of cadavers used in teaching anatomy in the vast majority of the world, including in the United States. Learn more about the history of dissection here.

Find all sources for this blog post here.

How Indiana’s Religious Institutions Kept the Faith During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Indianapolis woman wearing a mask during the Spanish Flu epidemic, November 27, 1918, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

For many Hoosiers across the state, this week marks the sixth week that they’ve been asked to stay at home to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition to the many schools, businesses, libraries, and other enterprises that have been impacted, so too have Indiana’s religious institutions. During this stretch, Christians could not come together as parishioners to celebrate Holy Week as they have for centuries past. Jews had to find alternative ways to observe Passover. And last week, with the start of Ramadan, Muslims could not gather in mosques or with family to mark the month of spiritual rejuvenation as they traditionally would.

Beyond adjusting to holiday commemorations is the general desire among worshipers to practice their religion and attend daily or weekly services together as normal. Most religious leaders across the state have made the difficult, but necessary decision to help comply with social distancing orders in an effort to do their part and protect their followers and other Hoosiers.

Muncie Evening Press, October 7, 1918, p. 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

Historical records show us that this is not the first time Indiana’s religious institutions have faced such circumstances. When the Spanish Influenza pandemic hit Indiana in the fall of 1918, U.S. public health service officials mandated a statewide quarantine here and in most other states. The order, put in place by October 6th, called for the immediate closure of “all schools, churches, theaters, amusements of all kinds, and to put a ban on all public meetings and gatherings.”[1] In a previous Indiana History Blog post, IHB historian Nicole Poletika examined how Hoosiers coped with the quarantine in a number of ways. Here, we take a more in-depth look at how the order directly impacted Indiana’s religious institutions and believers in late 1918.

As we’ve seen today, Hoosiers have not let the stay-at-home order prevent them from finding creative ways to come together, celebrate, and in some cases mourn. While technological advancements might afford us more opportunities to “see” one another and connect virtually now, religious leaders in 1918 also found many ways to help keep the faith among their followers as the number of influenza cases grew.

South Bend Tribune, October 12, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

Many used the local press to stay connected with members, give each other hope, and encourage the continued practice of their religion. Through the newspapers, they shared scripture readings, offered Bible school lessons, and encouraged their followers and anyone else interested to worship as individuals or together as a family. In mid-October 1918, A.F. Mitchell, chairman of the press committee of the Ministerial Association, issued the following statement to city church members in Richmond, which was published by the Palladium Item on October 12, 1918: [2]

On account of the ban laid upon congregational assemblies there will be no public services of the churches until after October 20. During this period of time there should be no cessation in Bible study or worship. The home is still fundamental and the basis of all good government. . . Let the home then be true to its highest privilege and around the family altar keep the home fires burning adding even a brighter glow while the churches are closed.

Rev. G.P. Fisher published a similar statement in the Culver Citizen a few days later, urging all families to continue to pray at the stated hours of services.[3] When the statewide ban was extended to the end of October, First Presbyterian Church in Rushville implored members to “make [Sunday] a day of prayer and meditation in their homes” and the pastor offered an outline of readings to unite the congregation despite their physical isolation.[4]

Muncie Evening Press, October 19, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

Some newspapers went a step farther and dedicated larger portions of their publications to celebrating Sunday morning services. In a series the Indianapolis Star named “Worship with the Star,” the paper featured a full page that included opening and closing hymns, a scripture lesson, and sermons.[5] The Muncie Press responded similarly in their October 19, 1918 issue, presenting sermons from the pastors of First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, and High Street M.E. Church.[6]

Indianapolis Star, October 13, 1918, p. 30, accessed Newspapers.com.

Religious leaders sought other ways to maintain contact with their members and keep services going during the influenza pandemic. Today, during the present COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen a trend among a number of churches across the country to offer “drive-in” services. Some worshipers have also celebrated services on their front lawns in an effort to comply with social distancing regulations. In 1918, some church leaders actively proposed and, in some cases held, open air services, believing that “brief religious services in well ventilated churches” could be held “without in any serious sense compromising the health of the community.”[7]

Local health boards across the state discouraged this practice. On October 13, 1918, a policeman had to be dispatched to the Adelbert Polish Catholic Church in South Bend when the pastor of the church offered one such service.[8] Similarly, in Evansville, the local health officer denied granting permission to the Assumption Church to hold open air services at Bosse Field in mid-October, stating that “even a gathering in the open air might prove dangerous.”[9] As conditions seemed to improve in early November and the ban was lifted, many churches held open air services with the approval of their local boards of health.[10]

Fort Wayne Journal, November 13, 1918, p. 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rev. F.E. Smith of Jackson Street Christian Church in Muncie came up with one of the more creative ways of safely “getting around the flu order.” Working with the Central Union Telephone Company, Rev. Smith arranged to hold services by having members of the church call in and listen by phone, our modern equivalent to following services online or watching them broadcast on television.[11]

Muncie Evening Press, October 12, 1918, p. 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

As the flu pandemic went on, worshipers and religious leaders alike wondered what the lasting impact might be once buildings began to reopen and gatherings were again permitted. A cartoon in the Fort Wayne Sentinel offered one view, with different families seated apart from one another in church and everyone required to wear masks upon entry to help contain the spread of germs.[12]

Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 16, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

As new outbreaks of the flu occurred in late November and December, health authorities across the state strongly urged all people attending churches or theaters, or visiting stores to wear regulation masks.[13] Some churches curtailed services, while others closed again for a few weeks under new bans. In December, board of health officials in some areas ordered churches to keep their services to one hour in length and “instructed [pastors] to devote fifteen minutes of that hour to the subject of ventilation in the homes and business houses as a preventative of influenza.”[14]

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, December 6, 1918, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Like businesses across the state, religious institutions also had to deal with the financial strains imposed by the pandemic. Several weeks of missed weekly offerings left heavy burdens on some churches. Many religious leaders looked for ways to continue collections as their buildings remained closed, with some publicizing specific hours whereby members could safely drop off their offerings.[15]

Temple Beth-El, South Bend, Indiana. Photo courtesy of Temple Beth-El.

Pastors and rabbis also sought ways to help those more directly afflicted by influenza. In mid-October 1918, Rabbi Julius A. Leibert of Temple Beth-El in South Bend offered the city the “use of the temple as an improvised concentration hospital where cases of influenza could be taken.”[16] Local board of health members discussed the plan with other leading health experts and declined the offer, fearing that concentrating larger numbers of people at the temple at that time would increase the mortality rate. Other actions were taken elsewhere in the state as the pandemic continued. For example, as the number of influenza cases grew in Tipton County in December, leaders at Elwood’s First Christian Church converted the building into a temporary hospital to help offer aid to those afflicted.[17]

First Christian Church, Elwood, Indiana, ca. 1908. Photo courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Though pressure to end the state’s COVID-19 quarantine has increased in the last few weeks, it remains unclear when businesses, cultural institutions, and religious buildings will reopen and what guidelines will be enacted when they do. The 1918 influenza pandemic offers us examples of how religious leaders and worshipers handled closures and bans on gatherings in the past and how they continued to safely practice their faith and serve the community in the midst of a crisis.

Notes:

*All newspaper articles were accessed via Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] “Closing of All Public Places is State Order,” Muncie Evening Press, October 7, 1918, 1, 8.; “No Public Assemblages,” Princeton Daily Clarion, October 7, 1918, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] “Keep Church Work Going, City Urged,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), October 12, 1918, 5.

[3] “Preacher to People,” Culver Citizen, October 16, 1918, 4.

[4] “With the Churches,” Daily Republican, October 26, 1918, 3.

[5] “Worship with the Star,” Indianapolis Star, October 12, 1918, 1.; “The Star’s Sunday Morning Services,” Indianapolis Star, October 13, 1918, 30.

[6] “Go to Church Sunday with the Muncie Press,” Muncie Evening Press, October 19, 1918, 2.

[7] “Urges Open Air Church Service,” South Bend News-Times, October 13, 1918, 3.

[8] “Polish Priest Holds Open Air Service in Defiance of Health Order,” South Bend News-Times, October 14, 1918, 3.

[9] “The Influenza is Decreasing Reports Show,” Evansville Press, October 17, 1918, 6.

[10] “Hold Services in Open Air,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, November 9, 1918, 1.; [Untitled], Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 10, 1918, 2.; “Celebrated Masses in Open-Air Sunday,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 13, 1918, 6.

[11] “Church Services by Phone to Get Around ‘Flu’ Order,” Muncie Star Press, October 12, 1918.; “And Don’t Forget to Put Baby to Sleep,” Muncie Evening Press, October 12, 1918, 8.

[12] “Church Services Might be Resumed Under Conditions Represented Below,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 16, 1918.

[13] “The Need of Precaution,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, November 20, 1918, 7.; “Flu Mask Order Stands; Option is Permissible,” Indianapolis Star, November 24, 1918, 1.; “Must Wear Flu Masks,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, December 3, 1918, 1.; “Epidemic Fought by Wearing Masks,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, December 6, 1918, 1.

[14] “Ban is Lifted as to Churches,” Columbus Republic, December 17, 1918, 4.; “Health Board Rapped for Closing Churches During the Epidemic of Flu,” Columbus Republic, December 25, 1918, 3.

[15] “Pastors Need Support While Flu Ban is On,” Indianapolis Star, October 25, 1918, 9.; “Church Needs,” Indianapolis News, October 26, 1918, 6.

[16] “Board of Health Rejects Temple Beth-El Offer,” South Bend News-Times, October 20, 1918, 2.

[17] “Condition Serious at Elwood,” Tipton Daily Tribune, December 13, 1918, 1.; First Christian Church, Elwood, Indiana, photograph, ca. 1908, accessed Indiana Memory.

How Indianapolis Surgeon Dr. Joseph Ward Challenged the Jim Crow South

“New Sanitarium,” The Freeman, An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 19, 1909, 3. accessed Google News.

If you scour Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier, The Encyclopedia of African American Military History, The African American Encyclopedia, and the Who’s Who of the Colored Race, Dr. Joseph Ward’s name is nowhere to be found. This is a concerning omission, given that his leadership at Tuskegee, Alabama’s Veterans Hospital No. 91. helped prove to some white Jim Crow Southerners, medical practitioners, U.S. military officials, and even President Calvin Coolidge that African Americans were fit to manage large institutions. His significance is two-fold: in an era where African Americans were often excluded from medical treatment, Ward made care accessible to those in Indianapolis and, on a much larger scale, to Southern veterans.

Born in Wilson, North Carolina to Mittie Ward and Napoleon Hagans, Joseph traveled as a young man to Indianapolis in search of better opportunities. In the Circle City, he attended Shortridge High School and worked as the personal driver of white physician George Hasty. According to the African American newspaper The Freeman, Dr. Hasty “‘said there was something unusual in the green looking country boy, and to the delight of Joe as he called him, he offered to send him to school.'”[1] By the 1890s, Ward had earned his degree from Indiana Medical College and practiced medicine in his adopted city. In 1899, The Freeman remarked “The fact that he has risen from the bottom of poverty, th[r]ough honorable poverty, without any assistance, is sufficient evidence to justify our belief in his success in the future.”

Barred from treating Black patients in city hospitals due to institutionalized discrimination, he opened Ward’s Sanitarium and Nurses’ Training School on Indiana Avenue around 1907, which soon garnered the praise of white physicians. He also convinced administrators at the segregated City Hospital to allow Ward’s Black nursing students to attend courses. By enabling them to pass the same state licensing test as white students, he opened professional opportunities to African American women in an era in which they were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor.

Advertisement, Indianapolis Recorder, January 8, 1910, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Dr. Ward became as foundational to Indianapolis’s rich Black history as The Freeman publisher Dr. George Knox and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, for whom Ward helped get her professional start. He gave back to his city by helping found the African American Senate Avenue YMCA. During World War I, Ward temporarily left his practice to serve in the Medical Corps in France with the 92nd Division Medical Corps, where he worked as ward surgeon of Base Hospital No. 49. Again, his diligence propelled him to excellence, and he became one of two African Americans to achieve the rank of Major in World War I.[2] In 1924, Dr. Ward’s name was etched into the annals of history, when he became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Initially, the Veterans Bureau placed the new hospital in control of a white staff, despite promising Black personnel they would manage it. After seemingly talking out of both sides of their mouths, Bureau officials gradually began replacing white staff with Black staff due to the unrelenting protest of African Americans across the country. This decision essentially pulled the pin from a grenade. Vanessa Northington Gamble contended in Making A Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945 that “White Tuskegeeans saw the fight over the hospital as a ‘test of the supremacy of the Angle-Saxon race’ and were prepared to win the battle by any means necessary.”[3] When African American bookkeeper John C. Calhoun arrived at the hospital to replace his white predecessor, he was handed a letter that warned[4]:

WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE REPORTING TO HOSPITAL TO ACCEPT DISBURSING OFFICERS JOB, IF YOU VALUE YOUR WELFARE DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB BUT LEAVE AT ONCE FOR PARTS FROM WHENCE YOU CAME OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES, KKK.

He took heed, and an hour after Calhoun fled, approximately 50,000 Klan members marched on Tuskegee and burned a forty-foot cross, before silently marching near the veterans’ hospital. Although violence was avoided, one “fair-skinned” man reportedly “infiltrated the Klan by passing as white” and learned they planned to kill a Black leader and blow up the Tuskegee Institute. The community at large expressed their disapproval of Black leadership by protesting at the White House. Southern politicians did so by writing pieces for the local papers, like State Senator R. H. Powell, who insisted in The Montgomery Advertiser “We know that a bunch of negro officers, with uniforms and big salaries and the protection of Uncle Sam . . . will quickly turn this little town into a place of riot such as has been experienced in so many places where there has occurred an outbreak between the races.”

But President Calvin Coolidge’s Republican administration stood up to the Klan and continued to replace white staff with Black personnel. In a nod to the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, The Buffalo American wrote that the Klan’s demonstration “proved to be another ‘lost cause’ and Negro workers continued to arrive.”[5] With Dr. Ward’s appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. The hospital’s pioneering practitioners treated Southern Black veterans, many of whom suffered from PTSD following WWI service. Under Ward’s leadership, the Buffalo American reported, patients “are happy, content and enjoying the best of care at the hands of members of their own race who are inheritently [sic] interested in their welfare.” The Montgomery Advertiser noted in 1935 that No. 91 was among the largest U.S. veterans hospitals in the country, offering 1,136 beds, and experiencing a monthly wait list of about 375 patients. In addition to neuropsychiatric treatment, the hospital’s library hosted a bibliotherapy program and patients could view moving pictures and attend dances. The sprawling complex also provided job opportunities for Black laborers, waiters, stenographers, plumbers, and electricians.

Dr. Joseph Ward, courtesy of VA History Highlights, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In describing his leadership, Ward’s colleagues recalled that his purpose was firm, demeanor alert, and interactions with subordinates fair. Ward reportedly “amassed an enviable reputation in the Tuskegee community. His legendary inspection tours on horseback and his manly fearlessness in dealing with community groups at a time when there was a fixed subordinate attitude in Negro-white relations are two of the more popular recollections.”[6] He proved so adept as a leader that the War Department promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel. A 1929 editorial for the Journal of the National Medical Association praised Ward for his ability “to win over to your cause the White South.”[7] The author added that Ward “has served as an inspiration to the members of the staff of the hospital. He has stimulated original observation and contributions”[8] and noted “‘Those who led the opposition to the organization of a Negro personnel openly and frankly acknowledge their mistake and their regret for the earlier unfortunate occurrences.'”[9]

President Coolidge affirmed these characterizations in an address to Congress. Howard University conferred an honorary Master of Arts degree upon Ward for honoring his profession “under pioneer conditions of extraordinary difficulty.”[10] The accolades go on. In regards to this praise, Ward was characteristically humble, stating in The Buffalo American on October 30, 1924, “‘My associates have worked as though they realized that not only them personally, but the entire group was on trial and whatever success we have had was due to that spirit.'”

Tuskegee VHA key staff, 1933, Dr. Ward, front row, center, courtesy of VA History Highlights, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Years after Ward’s appointment, racial tension had not entirely dissipated. In 1936, a federal grand jury charged Ward and thirteen others on the hospital’s staff with “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” After more than eleven years of service, the esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud,” and he plead guilty to the charges in 1937.[11] Black newspapers provided a different perspective on Ward’s rapid descent from grace. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.”[12] The paper added that these Southern Democrats tried to “take advantage of the administration of their own party in Washington and oust colored executives on charges they would not have dared to file under a Republican regime.” These Black employees, the paper alleged, became the “hapless victims of dirty politics.” Given the previous attempts of the white community to usurp control of the veterans hospital, one is tempted to see truth in this interpretation. After Ward’s dismissal, he quietly returned home to Indianapolis and resumed his private practice, which had moved to Boulevard Place. He practiced there until at least 1949 and in 1956 he died in Indianapolis. 

The struggle for leadership of the new veterans hospital shifted the threat of African American autonomy from theoretical to real for the white Jim Crow South. It exposed the organizational capabilities of the white community in terms of protesting the possibility of this autonomy. It also exposed the capabilities of the Black community in terms of demanding their own governance, efforts Dr. Ward ensured were not made in vain. The young man who journeyed out of the South in search of better opportunities later returned to create them for others. Yet somehow his efforts are virtually absent from the historical record. With the help of doctoral student Leon Bates, IHB is changing that this summer by commemorating Lt. Col. Joseph H. Ward with a historical marker.

 

SOURCES USED:

Dr. Joseph H. Ward historical marker notes.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.

[2] “Maj. Ward Back from U.S. Work,” The Indianapolis Star, June 29, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com. “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.

[3] Gamble, 90.

[4] Quotation from Gamble, 92.

[5] “Making Good at ‘The Tuskegee’ United States Veterans’ Hospital, No. 91,” The Buffalo (New York) American, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] Dr. Clifton O. Dummett and Eugene H. Dibble,”Historical Notes on the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 54, no. 2 (March 1962), 135.

[7] Editorial, “The U.S. Veterans’ Hospital, Tuskegee, Ala., Colonel Joseph Henry Ward,” Journal of the National Medical Association 21, no. 2 (1929): 65-66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] “Col. Ward,” Baltimore Afro American, June 13, 1931, accessed Newspaper Archive.

[11] “Dr. Dibble Succeeds Col. Ward as Head of Tuskegee Hospital,” The Pittsburgh Courier, accessed Newspapers.com; Colonel Indicted in Food Stealing,” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 10, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com; “Two Plead Guilty in Hospital Case,” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 25, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.

[12] “Charge Southern Democrats Seek Control of Veterans Hospital at Tuskegee, As 9 Others Are Indicted,” The New York Age, October 3, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.

The “Destruction of an Icon:” Wrestling with Complicated Legacies

Rev. Oscar McCulloch, courtesy of IU Newsroom; Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a researcher, few things are more disheartening than coming across that blemish on an otherwise inspiring legacy. But it happens more often than not in the messiness of human history. Events and actors often occupy an ambiguous position between right and wrong, progressive and stagnant, heroic and indifferent. We wish the loose ends of the stories could be tied up into one neat moral bow, but often it’s more complex. In wrestling with this phenomenon, I concluded two things: that context is everything and that we must remember that the historical figures we idolize—and sometimes demonize—were, in fact, evolving humans. The visionary and controversial leadership of Indianapolis Rev. Oscar McCulloch and Gary, Indiana Rep. Katie Hall inspired these conclusions.

In the early 20th century, Oscar McCulloch’s misguided attempt to ease societal ills was utilized to strip Americans of their reproductive rights. Born in Fremont, Ohio in 1843, McCulloch studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary before assuming a pastorship at a church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He moved to Indianapolis in 1877 to serve as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, situated on Monument Circle. On the heels of economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1873, he implemented his Social Gospel mission. He sought to ease financial hardship by applying the biblical principles of generosity and altruism. To the capital city, Brent Ruswick stated in his Indiana Magazine of History article, McCulloch “brought a blend of social and theological liberalism and scientific enthusiasm to his work in Indianapolis.”[1] He also brought a deep sense of empathy for the impoverished and soon coordinated and founded the city’s charitable institutions, like the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, Flower Mission Society, and the Indianapolis Benevolent Society.

In 1878, McCulloch encountered the Ishmael family, living in abject poverty. He described them in his diary [2]:

composed of a man, half-blind, a woman, and two children, the woman’s sister and child, the man’s mother, blind, all in one room six feet square. . . . When found they had no coal, no food. Dirty, filthy because of no fire, no soap, no towels.

Disturbed by the encounter, McCulloch headed to the township trustee’s office to research the Indianapolis family, who lived on land known as “Dumptown” along the White River, as well as in predominantly African American areas like Indiana Avenue, Possum Hollow, Bucktown, and Sleigho.[3] He discovered that generations of Ishmaels had depended upon public relief. According to Ruswick, McCulloch came to believe that the Ishmaels, “suffering from the full gamut of social dysfunctions,” were not “worthy people suffering ordinary poverty but paupers living wanton and debased lives.”[4] Over the course of ten years, the pastor sought to discover why pauperism reoccurred generationally, examining 1,789 ancestors of the Ishmaels, beginning with their 1840 arrival in Indiana.

Pamphlet, “The Tribe of Ishmael: diagram,” 1888, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The blemish. McCulloch’s nationally renowned 1888 “Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation” concluded that heredity and environment were responsible for social dependence.[5] He noted that the Ishmaels “so intermarried with others as to form a pauper ganglion of several hundreds,” that they were comprised of “murderers, a large number of illegitimacies and of prostitutes. They are generally diseased. The children die young.” In order to survive, the Ishmaels stole, begged, “gypsied” East and West, and relied on aid from almshouses, the Woman’s Reformatory, House of Refuge and the township. Assistance, he reasoned, only encouraged paupers like the Ishmaels to remain idle, to wander, and to propagate “similarly disposed children.” In fact, those benevolent souls who gave to “begging children and women with baskets,” he alleged, had a “vast sin to answer for.” McCulloch’s sentiment echoes modern arguments about who is entitled to public assistance.

In addition to revoking aid, McCulloch believed the drain on private and public resources in future generations could be stymied by removing biologically-doomed children from the environment of poverty. Ruswick noted that McCulloch, in the era of Darwin’s Natural Selection, believed “pauperism was so strongly rooted in a person’s biology that it could not be cured, once activated” and that charities should work to prevent paupers from either having or raising children. This line of thought foreshadowed Indiana’s late-1890s sterilization efforts and 1907 Eugenics Law. The Charity Organization Society, consulting McCulloch‘s “scientific proof,” decided to remove children from families with a history of pauperism and vagrancy, essentially trampling on human rights for the perceived good of society.

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1910s-1920s, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

But McCulloch had a change of heart. He began to rethink the causes of poverty, believing environmental and social factors were to blame rather than biological determinism. Ruswick notes that “Witnessing the rise of labor unrest in the mid-1880s, both within Indianapolis and nationwide, McCulloch began to issue calls for economic and social justice for all poor.* To the ire of many of his Indianapolis congregants, the pastor defended union demonstrations and pro-labor parties. He no longer traced poverty to DNA, but to an unjust socioeconomic system that locked generations in hardship. McCulloch believed that these hardships could be reversed through legislative reform and organized protest. To his dismay, McCulloch’s new ideology reportedly resulted in his church being “‘broken up.'”

In a nearly complete reversal of his stance on pauperism, McCulloch wrote a statement titled “The True Spirit of Charity Organization” in 1891, just prior to his death. He opined [6]:

I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. . . . It is the spirit of love entertaining this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. . . . It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for method for the restoration of every one.

But after McCulloch’s death, Arthur H. Estabrook, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Research Office, repurposed McCulloch’s social study (notably lacking scientific methodology) into the scientific basis for eugenics. Historian Elsa F. Kramer wrote that Estabrook revised McCulloch’s “casual observations of individual feeblemindedness” into support for reforms that “included the institutionalization of adult vagrants, the prevention of any possibility of their future reproduction, and the segregation of their existing children—all to protect the integrity of well-born society’s germ-plasm.”[7] McCulloch had unwittingly provided a basis for preventing those with “inferior” genetics from having children in the name of improving the human race. Kramer notes that co-opting the Ishmael studies for this purpose reflected “the changing social context in which the notes were written.”[8] In fact, Estabrook resumed the Ishmael studies in 1915 because “of their perceived value to eugenic arguments on racial integrity.”[9]

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1921, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

McCulloch’s work influenced Charles B. Davenport’s report to the American Breeders Association and Dr. Harry C. Sharp’s “Indiana Plan,” an experimental program that utilized sterilization to curtail unwanted behaviors of imprisoned Indiana men. Sharp also promoted Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law, the first in the U.S., which authorized a forced sterilization program “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” in state institutions. Twelve states enacted similar laws by 1913 and approximately 2,500 Hoosiers were sterilized before the practice ceased in 1974.[10] Even though McCulloch moved away from his problematic beliefs, for decades they were utilized to rob Americans of the ability to have a family. His legacy proved to be out of his hands.

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

The complexities of African American Rep. Katie Hall’s legacy could not be more different. In 1983, Rep. Hall, built on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday, including musician Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. But it was the Gary, Indiana leader who spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes and successfully led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

2018 birthday card by Emyha Brown, student at McCullough Girls School.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. In 1938, she was born in Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws barred her from voting. Hall moved her family to Gary in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Hall trained as a school teacher at Indiana University, and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Gary’s first Black Mayor, Richard Hatcher. She broke barriers herself when, in 1974, she became the first Black Hoosier to represent Indiana in Congress. Two years later, she ran for the Indiana Senate and won. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

The blemish. In 1987, voters elected Hall Gary city clerk, and it was in this position that her career became mired in scandal. In 2001, suspended city clerk employees alleged that Hall and her daughter and chief deputy, Junifer Hall, pressured them to donate to Katie’s political campaign or face termination. Dionna Drinkard and Charmaine Singleton said they were suspended after not selling tickets at a fundraiser for Hall’s reelection campaign. Although suspended, the Halls continued to list them as active employees, which meant Drinkard was unable to collect unemployment. The U.S. District Court charged the Halls with racketeering and perjury, as well as more than a dozen other charges. At trial, a federal grand jury heard testimony from employees who stated that the Halls forced them to sell candy and staff fundraisers to maintain employment. Allegedly, the Halls added pressure by scheduling fundraisers just before pay day. Investigators discovered cases of ghost-employment, noting that employees listed on the office’s 2002 budget included a former intern who was killed in 1999, a student who worked for the clerk part time one summer two years previously, and Indiana’s Miss Perfect Teen, who was listed as a “maintenance man.”

The Times (Munster), May 18, 2002, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Munster Times, the Halls alleged their arrest was racially motivated and their lawyers (one of whom was Katie’s husband, John) claimed that “the Halls only did what white politicians have done for decades.” Josie Collins countered in an editorial for the Times that “if they do the crime, they should do the time. This is not an issue of racial discrimination. It is an issue of illegal use of the taxpayers’ money.” Whether or not the Halls’ allegation held water, it is clear from phone recordings between Junifer and an employee, as well as the “parade of employees past and present” who testified against the Halls, that they broke the law.

In 2003, the Halls pled guilty to a federal mail fraud charge that they extorted thousands of dollars from employees. By doing so, their other charges were dropped. They also admitted to providing Katie’s other daughter, Jacqueline, with an income and benefits, despite the fact that she did not actually work for the city clerk. The Halls immediately resigned from office. In 2004, they seemed to resist taking accountability for their criminal actions and filed a countersuit, in which they claimed that Gary Mayor Scott King and the Common Council refused to provide them with a competent lawyer regarding “the office’s operation.” The Munster Times noted “The Halls said they wouldn’t have broken the law if the city of Gary had provided them sound advice.” Instead, they lost their jobs and claimed to suffer from “‘extreme mental stress, anxiety, depression, humiliation and embarrassment by the negative publication of over 500 news articles.'” For this, they asked the court to award them $21 million.

The Times (Munster), July 9, 2003, 112, accessed Newspapers.com.

The City of Gary deemed the Halls’ Hail Mary pass “frivolous,” and a “‘form of harassment,'” arguing that “the Halls had no one to blame for their troubles but themselves.” The countersuit was dismissed. Junifer served a 16-month sentence at the Pekin Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Katie Hall was placed on probation for five years. According to the Munster Times, one observer at her trial noted:

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

Thus ended Katie Hall’s illustrious political career, in which she worked so hard to break racial barriers and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This leads to the perhaps unanswerable question: “Why?” Maybe in the early 2000s no one was immune from being swept into Gary’s notoriously corrupt political system. This system arose from the city’s segregated design, one which afforded white residents significantly more opportunities than Black residents. Possibly, the Halls sought to create their own advantages, at the expense of others. Either way, it is understandable that some Gary residents opposed the installation of a historical marker commemorating her life and work.

In many ways, McCulloch’s and Hall’s stories are not unique. It seems almost inevitable that with such prolific careers, one will make morally or ethically questionable decisions or at least be accused of doing so. Take African American physician Dr. Joseph Ward, who established a sanitarium in Indianapolis to treat Black patients after being barred from practicing in City Hospital. He forged professional opportunities for aspiring African American nurses in an era when Black women were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor. In 1924, Dr. Ward became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. With his appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan. The blemish. In 1937, before a Federal grand jury he pled guilty to “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” The esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud” after over eleven years of service. However, African American newspapers attributed his fall from grace to political and racial factors. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.” Again, context comes into play when making sense of blemishes.

If nothing else, these complex legacies are compelling and tell us something about the period in which the figures lived. Much like our favorite fictional characters—Walter White, Don Draper, Daenerys Targaryen—controversial figures like Katie Hall and Oscar McCulloch captivate us not because they were perfect or aspirational, but because they took risks and were complex, flawed, and impactful.  They were human.

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

Elsa F. Kramer, “Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael: The Role of Indianapolis’s Nineteeth-Century Poor in Twentieth Century Eugenics,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 54.

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

Brent Ruswick, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877-1891,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 9.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

[5] Oscar C. McCulloch, “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation,” (1891), accessed Archive.org.

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Learn more about the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law and Indiana Plan with IHB’s historical marker notes.

Dr. Helene Knabe: Revictimized in Death

J.P. Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City (1910).

See Part I to learn about the unparalleled professional accomplishments of Dr. Helene Knabe.

Who entered Dr. Helene Knabe’s rooms at Indianapolis’s Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear? The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine.

Officials followed a variety of leads regarding the gruesome crime. The first person on the list, suspiciously, was an African American janitor named Jefferson Haynes, who lived below her. Second on the list was a Greek prince who was seen mailing a letter near her apartment. This absurd line of inquiry continued for months by the very people who should or could have advanced the case more quickly. Police Chief Martin Hyland reasoned that she committed suicide because at 5’6″ and 150 pounds, he believed her strong enough to ward off any attack or to take her own life.

Martin Hyland

Also problematic, evidence was left in a room where anyone could access it. Although fingerprinting was in its infancy, officials ignored a bloody fingerprint, despite Dr. Knabe having no blood on her hands. Police and some physicians believed despondency over her unproven sexual preference or financial situation caused her to take her own life. Even Detective William Burns, known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, publicly stated that based solely on the evidence in the newspapers, he believed she killed herself.

Local, state, national, and even some international press ran stories about Dr. Knabe. Indianapolis newspapers were surprisingly fair in their coverage and published editorial and opinion pieces that were overwhelmingly complementary of Dr. Knabe and her professional achievements. Although these newspapers interviewed people who believed Dr. Knabe got what she deserved, they did not give these sentiments undue attention or sensationalize them.

Thankfully, the coroner, Dr. Charles O. Durham, determined that Dr. Knabe was murdered. Dr. Durham noted she had defense wounds on her arms and he was adamant that she could not have made both cuts. He also noted several factors he considered “strongly presumptive of murder,” including the position of the hands, which had been closed after death; the absence of a plausible suicide weapon; and the fact that many witnesses had seen a man that night around the apartment building.  Dr. Durham’s findings negated rumors regarding Dr. Knabe’s sexuality and finances, which police felt could have contributed to her death by her own hand.

Dr. Knabe’s cousin and assistant, “Scene of Knabe Murder and Principals in Trial,” Palladium Item (Richmond), November 28, 1913, accessed Newspapers.com.

In response to Dr. Durham’s findings, female doctors who were Dr. Knabe’s friends actively tried to help find her killer. They hired private investigator Detective Harry Webster at their own expense, through donations, and at the detective’s own expense. Almost fifteen months after her death, two men were indicted by a grand jury, based on Detective Webster’s findings. The prosecution believed that Dr. William B. Craig was engaged to Dr. Knabe, a fact he vehemently denied, and that he wanted out of the relationship. As Dean of Students, lecturer, and financial stakeholder in the Indiana Veterinary College, he would have been very familiar will zoology and the “sheep’s cut,” which is the type reported to have killed her.

Dr. William B. Craig, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Craig met Dr. Knabe in 1905 and maintained a friendship, at the very least. He recommended her for the position as Chair of Hematology and Parasitology in 1909 at the veterinary college. Shortly before her death, Dr. Craig and Dr. Knabe seemed to be in the middle of an ongoing dispute. Dr. Knabe went to the IVC to see about changing her lecture time with Dr. Craig so that she could attend her course at the Normal College. Dr. Craig became enraged when a colleague asked for his answer and he said “Oh, f—! Tell her to go to hell!” and he stormed out of the room. The night before Dr. Knabe died, Dr. Craig’s housekeeper overheard them arguing and she heard Dr. Knabe say, “But you can continue to practice and so can I!” Police had a letter in their possession in which Dr. Knabe told a friend she was getting married. Dr. Knabe confided to a friend she was getting married to a man with an “ungovernable temper.” At the time of her death, Dr. Knabe, an accomplished seamstress and dressmaker, commissioned a costly dress, indicative that she was getting married.

Alonzo Ragsdale, Indianapolis News, December 31, 1912, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The second man indicted, Alonzo M. Ragsdale, was an undertaker and Dr. Knabe’s business associate. Dr. Knabe often joked with Ragsdale that when she died, she would be sure to give him her business. And so she did. Augusta appointed Ragsdale undertaker and estate executor. He was accused of concealing evidence against Dr. Craig in the form of the kimono Dr. Knabe was wearing at the time of her death. It was said he had laundered it in an effort to rid it of blood stains.

In the words of Ms. Frances Lee Watson, Clinical Professor of Law at IUPUI, “She was screwed from day one.” Dr. Knabe was never treated as a victim; she was treated as a villain. Society in general could not understand a woman wanting to work in a field that was sometimes unpleasant and coarse. In the media and by some of her peers, Dr. Knabe was chastised for being assertive in her career and pursuing her dreams. Her character was summarily attacked because she expected equality with her peers, male or female. Because she was a 35-year-old woman, who was a physician living in a small apartment—rather than a grand home with a husband and children—Dr. Knabe was automatically judged unhappy. Due to Alonzo Ragsdale, who in addition to being indicted was also an unscrupulous estate executor, the public believed her to be an unsuccessful, pauper physician.

The truth was Dr. Knabe had many revenue streams from jobs that she loved: practitioner, instructor, and artist. She planned to continue her work and make herself even more financially stable. By looking at her financial records, Dr. Charles Durham proved that she was financially sound, bringing in over $150 per month. The public did not know for many months that Dr. Knabe chose to send most of her disposable income back to her uncle because he was no longer able to work.

Shelby Republican, December 4, 1913.

None of these facts mattered. The defense attacked Dr. Knabe’s personal character in the courtroom, claiming she was an aggressive and masculine woman. The character witnesses, who sought to discredit Dr. Craig, suddenly moved out of state or could not be found. A key witness who positively identified Dr. Craig changed his story, and Dr. Craig’s own housekeeper, who had signed an affidavit stating she saw him return late and leave early with a bundle of clothes the night Dr. Knabe died, refused to come to the courthouse.

Consequently, the state’s case fell apart and after nine days the prosecution could not make a connection between Dr. Craig and the evidence. In an unusual move, the judge stepped in as the thirteenth juror and instructed the jury to acquit Dr. Craig. Normally a judge provided this instruction only when a technical error was committed, which was not the situation in this trial. He did rule that the prosecution had proven Dr. Knabe had been murdered, but that they had no real evidence against Dr. Craig.

Because there was now nothing to be an accessory to, the charges against Ragsdale were dropped. No one was ever convicted of Dr. Knabe’s murder. Oddly enough after the trial, Ragsdale declared Dr. Knabe’s estate insolvent without collecting all debts. Many of her personal items did not sell and their whereabouts were undocumented. The probate records submitted over three years to the courts contained erroneous calculations that went unnoticed and several hundred dollars were not reconciled.

Dr. Knabe was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill. Over the years, newspapers have revisited her case, but in 1977 her case file was destroyed in a flood.  Unfortunately, the sensationalizing of Dr. Knabe’s death has obscured her legacy as a tenacious, committed, and savvy physician in a field dominated by men.

* To learn more about the tragic case of Dr. Knabe, see She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe and “She Sleeps Well; Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe.”

Dr. Helene Knabe: A Vanguard

Graduation Portrait, Medical College of Indiana, 1904, courtesy of the Indiana University School of Medicine Ruth Lilly Special Collections.

The black snake undulated between the two women, winding back and forth, circling overhead. A lascivious leer seemed to be affixed to the snake’s mouth as it weaved, moving the women closer, but then winding between and pulling them apart. Augusta Knabe could not bear to see this horrible apparition between them. She reached for her cousin.

Augusta lost her grip on Helene and sat up in bed, struggling to catch her breath. She pushed her sweat-drenched hair back and collected herself. What a horrible dream! Augusta felt guilty she had not accepted her cousin’s offer of tea the past afternoon. She was sure the dream was her penance for wanting to avoid late afternoon traffic and enjoy the comfort of her home after shopping. Augusta promised herself she would stop by Helene’s flat after school and take her to tea the very next afternoon. Despite this promise, Augusta passed the rest of the night fitfully.


Augusta’s cousin, Helene Elise Hermine Knabe, yearned to be a doctor. In Germany women were not allowed in medical school until 1900 and it would not be allowed for women in the German state of Prussia, where she lived, until 1908. Her father, Otto Windschild, left her mother when Knabe was an infant and she was raised by her uncle after her mother died. Given her humble upbringing, becoming a doctor became more of a dream and less a reality with each passing year.

Augusta Knabe (R), cousin, and Katherine McPherson (L), an office assistant, courtesy of “State’s Most Important Witnesses in Knabe Case,” Indianapolis News, December 6, 1913.

When Augusta informed Helene that women were allowed to attend medical school in America, Helene’s life changed forever and she moved to Indianapolis in 1896.  The motto she heard most often growing up was “You cannot be a master in anything unless you know every detail of the work.” No one applied this maxim more than Knabe.  To prepare for school she worked for four years in domestic and seamstress work in order to learn English from the upper class. She attended Butler University for a term to supplement her self-learning and to prepare her for the rigors of medical school.

In 1900, Knabe entered the co-educational Medical College of Indiana (MCI). She was required to attend classes, dissect every body part of cadavers, maintain a 75% grade in all classes, refrain from drinking, and work fourteen hour days. During this time, she continued as a seamstress to supplement her income. Knabe also used her drawing skills by providing medical textbook illustrations to several books, including detailed sketches for anatomy, surgery, and pathology slides.

Dr. Knabe’s illustration of a neck wound. This would prove foretelling of the doctor’s fate.

Knabe proved a trailblazer with her medical school accomplishments. Dr. Frank B. Wynn, the Director of Pathology at MCI, appointed her curator of the pathology museum. She was consequently placed in charge of the pathology labs at the school.  Much to the chagrin of many of her male peers, Dr. Wynn chose her to be his only preceptee for the year. She began teaching underclassmen, an unheard of honor for a student. On April 22, 1904, Knabe became one of two women to graduate from MCI. She threw herself wholeheartedly into her profession, burning the candle at both ends to gain a foothold in practice, networking, and skills.

Dr. Knabe stayed on in her positions as lab curator and clinical professor—for which she was not paid. Appointed a deputy state health officer in 1905 by Dr. J. N. Hurty, the Secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health (ISBH), Dr. Knabe became the first woman to hold this office in Indiana. Part of her duties involved investigating suspected epidemics, such as typhoid and diphtheria, and making recommendations to reverse unsanitary conditions. Dr. Knabe routinely traveled the state to work with the public and doctors, and processed hundreds of pathological samples.

Despite Dr. Knabe’s expertise, Dr. Hurty did not hire her as superintendent of the lab. Instead, he chose Dr. T. V. Keene, regardless of the fact that he did not apply for the job. As the laboratory grew, Dr. Knabe became Assistant Bacteriologist and was expected to work longer hours and spend more time in the field. During her work at the ISBH, Dr. Knabe presented papers and worked with the public in diagnosis and education. Local papers interviewed her for her thoughts on how to make Indianapolis a more beautiful and clean city.

Indianapolis Star, October 25, 1911, 4.

Dr. Knabe also kept current on new methods, most notably studying with Dr. Anna Wessel Williams of the New York Research Laboratory. Dr. Williams was brilliant in her own right as the originator of the rapid diagnosis of rabies, which was based on research from Negril and the co-developer of the diphtheria antitoxin. Dr. Knabe proved the widespread existence of rabies in Indiana. From this work, she implemented ways to prevent the spread of rabies by educating the public about the disease and its consequences.

Widely accepted as the state expert on rabies, Dr. Knabe was promoted to acting superintendent and paid $1,400 annually. Dr. Hurty promised her the superintendent position and an increase to $1,800 or $2,000. Over a year later Dr. Hurty told Dr. Knabe that there was no money for her salary increase and that because she was a woman she could not command the amount of money the position should pay anyway. Dr. Knabe contacted the newspaper and tendered her resignation, citing discrimination and broken promises.

Dr. Hurty had searched for what he considered “a real capable man” by actively recruiting Dr. Simmonds as the new superintendent. Additionally, although Dr. Hurty told Dr. Knabe the state had no money for her raise, he informed Dr. Simmonds he would pay $2,000 the first year and $3,000 in the second. That was a 47% increase from Dr. Knabe’s salary. The final slap in the face came from Dr. Simmonds himself in the first 1909 Indiana State Board of Health bulletin. He published Dr. Knabe’s findings about rabies in Indiana and elsewhere without crediting her.

Dr. Knabe’s illustration, courtesy of “A Parting Word to the Class of I.M.C 1907,” The Medical Student. (1907) vol. 5, no. 8 (19. 21-25).

Leaving the oppressiveness of state employ could not have been better for Dr. Knabe. Her dedication to medicine was rejuvenated. She opened her own private practice and continued her rabies research at $75 or more per case. While many female physicians shied away from accepting male patients because they may not be taken seriously or feared being attacked by male patients, Dr. Knabe insisted on having a phone installed in her apartment in case a patient needed her. She would always answer a knock or a call, regardless of the hour. Quite often she would treat people for free or accept payments via the barter system. This is how she acquired a piano and the lessons to go with it.

One of her biggest achievements was when she became the first elected female faculty for the Indiana Veterinary College (IVC), where she was the Chair of the Parasitology and Hematology. Dr. Knabe’s tenure at the IVC predates any recognized woman department chair at any veterinary college in the United States prior to 1920.

Demonstrating her willingness to be a social feminist, Dr. Knabe bucked trends at every turn by her work in sex education. She served as the medical director and Associate Professor of Physiology and Hygiene, known today as sex education, at the Normal College of the North American Gymnastics Union in Indianapolis. She also networked with women’s clubs and the Flanner House to create and teach hygiene and sanitation practices to all ethnic groups across the State of Indiana, especially African American communities.


The same night that Augusta dreamt about the black snake, a person entered Dr. Knabe’s rooms at the Delaware Flats and brutally cut her throat from ear to ear. The killer was skilled enough to cut her on one side first, missing her carotid artery and cutting deep enough to cause her to choke on her blood. The second cut just nicked the carotid artery and cut into the spine. See Part II to learn how Dr. Knabe’s non-conformist lifestyle and work as a female physician would be used against her in the bungled pursuit of her killer.

* To learn more about the extraordinary life of Dr. Knabe, see She Sleeps Well: The Extraordinary Life and Murder of Dr. Helene Elise Hermine Knabe.

 

Dr. Otto King: Facing the “Gravest Crisis” in History

Dr. Otto U. King, Indiana
“Dr. Otto U. King: Small-Town Dentist, World- Wide Impact,” accessed via the Indiana Dental Association.

Shells rained down on men who had endured disease, the obliteration of their comrades, sleep deprivation, the constant shriek of ammunition, and the literal smell of death. Burrowed into dirt along the Western Front, these Allied men slugged it out in a battle of wills and weaponry until they defeated the Central Powers in 1918. Many of the American troops that helped ensure victory in World War I, as well as the surgeons waiting on hand in ambulances to treat shrapnel-torn faces, were there, in part, because of the efforts of Indiana dentist Otto King. For Dr. King, dentistry went beyond staving off cavities and engineering attractive smiles. He applied his dental skills to a greater good both abroad and at home, and encouraged the nation’s dentists to follow suit. This meant mobilizing dentists to treat war-induced maxillofacial trauma and establishing free dental clinics for poor children who missed school due to untreated oral issues.

After graduating from the Northwestern University Dental School in 1897, Dr. King practiced dentistry in his hometown of Huntington, Indiana. He assumed a national leadership role in his profession in 1913, when he was elected the general secretary of what is today known as the American Dental Association (ADA). The role of general secretary was equivalent to that of a modern executive director. Dr. King helped transform dentistry from a trade to a profession through the establishment of The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA), published in Huntington and distributed nationally. Dentists across the country—notably those in remote areas—could learn about best practices, research findings, educational and professional opportunities, and new dental theories through articles like “The Functions of Dentistry and Medicine in Race Betterment” (1914) and “Commercialism vs. Professional Ethics” (1915).

World War I dental ambulance at Van Cortlandt Park, NY, to be sent to Hancock, GA, courtesy of Getty Images.

Editor King also used the journal to mobilize dentists for World War I service and published findings related to war-related injuries, such as Leo Eloesser’s 1917 “Gunshot Wounds and Lesions Produced by Shell and Shrapnel in the Jaws and Face.” Just days before the U.S. entered World War I by declaring war on Germany in 1917, Dr. King gave an interview printed in newspapers across the country about the Preparedness League of American Dentists, an extension of the ADA. The emergence of trench warfare during the “gravest crisis” in history created an urgent need for dentists on the frontlines and the Preparedness League worked to recruit dentists for Army and Navy service from every state, as well as Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and Canada. Dr. King did his part when Colonel Kean ordered him to choose dentists to serve at base hospital No. 32, located in Indianapolis, in July 1917.

Dr. King explained that the league would respond to this need by securing “in each locality, a nucleus of the trained dental specialists, who will assist in the instructions of the members of the unit along the lines of war dental surgery, as a measure of preparedness against war and to co-operate in treatment of wounds of the jaws and face, in case of actual warfare.” He stated that “Whereas Red Cross base hospitals are being formed, we are, as fast as possible, organizing dental units in connection therewith and co-operation is established between the organizations.”

American Red Cross dental ambulance, 1918
American Red Cross dental ambulance, 1918, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The New York Times reported that the Preparedness League outfitted dental ambulances sent to the warfront to reach patients in “out-of-the way places.” In addition to treating the wounded, these ambulances isolated men in order to prevent the spread of diseases like mumps and German measles. The Times reported that “at least 20 per cent of the men are incapacitated and kept from active service on account of illness finding its source in diseased conditions of the mouth.” These state-of-the-art ambulances included a fountain cuspidor, electric lathe, sanitation cabinet, steam sterilizer, nitrous oxide, vulcanizer, and a typewriter on which to record treatment findings. A secondary use for these ambulances involved relief work in France, where the Red Cross mobilized dentists to treat the teeth of children.

Otto King, Committee on Dentistry, General Medical Board Council of National Defense
Image from Report of the Committee on Dentistry, General Medical Board Council of National Defense, September 9, 1917.

Because of his work with the Preparedness League, Dr. King was appointed as one of twelve members on the Committee on Dentistry, General Medical Board of the Council of National Defense. He headed the Committee on Publicity, a subcommittee tasked with recruiting dentists for Army service. Dr. King utilized JADA for this purpose, including a blank application to the Dental Reserve Corps and publishing pieces like “You Can Help Win the War!—An Appeal for Prompt Individual Service by Every Member” and “How May You Assist the Medical Department of the United States Army?”

In one article, U.S. Army dentist Dr. John S. Marshall detailed the morbid gamut of dental injuries awaiting military personnel, including:

blows upon the face from the closed fist; kicks of horse or mule; the impact of some heavy missile propelled with considerable force; the extraction of teeth, tho this is rare; a fall from a horse, bicycle, or a gun-carriage; the passage of a wheel over the face; and gunshot injury in line of duty or from accident, or design, with suicidal intent or otherwise.

Wounded in Field 896, C.P.I. 4050. First Aid in the First Line Trenches, administered by the hospital corps, March 6, 1918, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

He lamented the devastation wrought by shell fragments, which “tear away the soft tissues and underlying bone, leaving a hideous and ghastly wound.” Because of these traumas, “the Oral Surgeon has during this World War come into his own.” These surgeons not only performed life-saving procedures, but also helped restore facial features in what the Chicago Tribune described in 1918 as “a new branch of the healing art—that of plastic surgery.” The Decatur, Illinois Daily Review noted that working to reverse oral disfigurement “have given the dentists a new distinction.”

In addition to injuries, success on the battlefield was impeded by defective teeth, as they hindered the ability to eat and subsequently weakened the fighting force. Dr. King thus noted the importance of the U.S. Army Dental Corps, stating “It is truly said that an army fights on its stomach and teeth . . . As monitors of the teeth, the dentists are supervisors of the stomach, hence, the army is helpless without our professional officers.”

Soldiers with dental splints at Base Hospital No. 6 in Bourdeaux, France, 1918, courtesy of the ADA Library & Archives.

But just getting troops onto the battlefield proved to be a challenge. Dr. King utilized his prominence in the profession to convince dentists to treat recruits barred from service due to dental issues—at no cost. He warned that “more than 2,000 applicants for enlistment were in danger of being refused entrance into the fighting force of the nation because of defective teeth.” In April 1917, he volunteered to personally treat rejected recruits and he convinced local dentists to prepare the mouths of two rejected recruits. Under his direction, the ADA hosted a “Help Win the War” convention in 1918, which featured a series of clinics about dental treatment and military recruitment.

Removing a tooth during World War I, courtesy of the U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History.

The Chicago Tribune reported that by the time of the conference, Preparedness League members had performed more than 500,000 free operations on recruits, enabling the men to pass the military’s physical examination. A letter printed in the JADA encouraged dental colleges, dispensaries, and hospital clinics to work with the Preparedness League to treat the mouths of recruits. The author lamented that the criteria for military acceptance included only “a mouth free from disease producing conditions and four (4) opposing molars, two on either side . . . This requirement is a joke but we can change it no doubt, if desired.”

With the conclusion of the Great War, Dr. King intensified his efforts to bring his “great humanitarian mission” to fruition. This involved educating the public about importance of dental prevention, particularly among children. He noted that most infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and small-pox, entered through the nose and mouth, making the maintenance of a healthy oral environment crucial. He observed that many children missed school due to infections and malnutrition caused by defective teeth, but their parents lacked the resources to treat the maladies. Dr. King hoped to prevent these painful and disruptive dental issues by educating children about hygiene, through demonstrations and nursery rhymes, and by offering free preventative treatment. In an address about oral hygiene, Dr. King proclaimed that “For years we have been trying to dam back or cure diseased bodies, due to neglected Oral Hygiene conditions, but overlooking the source or beginning of life as represented in childhood as the place to teach and establish preventative medicine.”

University of Rochester, school for dental hygienists, 1920s, courtesy of the Eastman Institute for Oral Health.

Dr. King helped establish free clinics on the East Coast and implored the public and lawmakers to invest in their establishment, stating in 1917 that “Disease is a social menace, an enemy of the State.” In a 1920 criticism of American dental care, he noted that “The children of our country deserve as effective physical care as the livestock.” He anticipated backlash for proposing free dental clinics, but argued that “socialized health” should be wielded as a weapon against “capitalized disease.” Dr. King’s dogged belief that dentistry could uplift humanity radiated from the trenches of Gallipoli to classrooms in New York.

Learn more about the extraordinary Dr. Otto King with IHB’s new historical marker.