THH Episode 43: “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Transcript for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Written by Nicole Poletika and produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

Justin Clark: Leaders mounted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to counter systemic oppression, which kept many African Americans in poverty, subpar housing complexes, and inferior schools, while keeping them out of voting booths, political office, and good paying jobs. Public demonstrations like the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Watts Uprising, and Poor People’s Campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of African Americans. And the Black Power Movement, which produced African art and Black studies courses, strengthened “black consciousness” and bolstered racial pride.

But, Black activism and uplift was often met with violence and North Carolina minister Benjamin Chavis recalled that:

Olon Dotson: “I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement.”

Clark: For the most part, by the end of the decade, those in power continued to resist institutional change that would, in Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s words, grant Black Americans “’their fair share of the pie.’” So, Black leaders embraced a different strategy: channeling collective outrage into political reform, transforming the Black Power Movement into the Black Political Power Movement. The site of this “political experiment” for Black liberation? Gary, Indiana.

I’m Justin Clark, filling in for host Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Forging a new Black political strategy would prove challenging, as Martin Luther King’s death created a leadership void, in which differences grew between the two major ideological factions: integrationists and Nationalists. Integrationists, like Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP members, sought to work within the two-party system, pressuring elected officials to meet the needs of Black Americans. They also sought to elect more Black leaders at the local and federal level. Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the complexities of the Nationalist faction.

Nationalists generally sought to establish a self-governing nation, in which Black institutions oversaw Black communities. However, historian Leonard Moore noted that Nationalists were not monolithic. Some sought to replace U.S. capitalism with socialism, by violent means if necessary. Others, Dr. Moore wrote, believed that “the key to black liberation” depended on “the reclaiming of African values and culture.” Territorial nationalists, like members of the Nation of Islam and Republic of New Afrika, called for a separate “geographical home” for Black Americans. While the Nation of Islam imbued many African Americans with a sense of identity and empowerment, it operated as an extremist group that espoused Black superiority and directed hateful ideals at LGBTQ+ and Jewish Americans. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Nation of Islam has “maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s” and grown more extreme under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It is important to address the organization’s problematic aspects, but also to clarify that not all Nationalists belonged to the Nation of Islam or espoused its rhetoric.

Nationalist leader, poet, and founder of the Congress of African Peoples, Amiri Baraka began prioritizing political activism by the early 1970s. He increasingly recognized that the resources and connections of political office holders were necessary to make enduring change. Baraka sought to establish some form of collaboration, or what he called “unity without conformity,” through a National Black Political Convention in 1972.

Gary, Indiana, a city literally built along racial lines, would be the unlikely site of this historic gathering. U.S. Steel Corporation gave birth to the city in 1906, converting acres of swampland and sand dunes into what would become an industrial mecca. Gary’s expanding steel market shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Businessmen and steel mill managers settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks, in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions. The cost to live in this area excluded many newcomers—primarily African Americans and immigrants—from its paved streets and lush rows of trees. Instead, minorities lived on the Southside—an area neglected by the Gary Land Company—often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. The city’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion. Beginning in the 1950s, waves of white residents fled from the city’s growing Black population to the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. This retreat robbed the city of tax dollars and residents of employment opportunities.

Gary’s 1967 mayoral election represented a longing for change in the majority-Black city. Thirty-four-year-old African American lawyer and Democratic candidate, Richard Hatcher, would respond to this call. The Michigan City native earned his law degree in 1959, which he quickly put to work as Lake County prosecutor. He also served as a private practice attorney, representing plaintiffs in school segregation lawsuits. According to historian Leonard Moore, Hatcher used his expertise to challenge police brutality and founded Muigwithania, a group of young black professionals “dedicated to black liberation.” It was this leadership prowess and social activism that made him an ideal mayoral candidate.

Since 1938, Gary’s mayors had belonged to the Democratic Party. And yet, the party supported Hatcher’s Republican opponent in the 1967 election. Although lacking funding and partisan support, Hatcher’s message of equality and racial uplift resonated with Gary’s disenfranchised voters. The leader made history on November 7, when he was elected one of the first African American mayors of a large city, along with Carl Stokes, who was elected Mayor of Cleveland just hours after Hatcher.

Mayor Hatcher quickly got to work meeting the demands of his African American constituents, establishing new low-income housing developments, diversifying the city council, and granting minority businesses government contracts. Given this progressive record, Gary soon made the list of National Black Political Convention hosts. Ultimately, planners selected the Steel City because it symbolized Black political empowerment and because other cities had reservations about accommodating so many African Americans.

On March 10, 1972, approximately 3,000 state delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the country poured into Gary for the weekend. Many of them marveled at the city’s helpful police force and congenial atmosphere. North Carolina delegate Benjamin Chavis recalled:

Dotson: “when we first saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Gary’ and we got [to] downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean . . . to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, black and green.”

Clark: The convention’s significance stemmed partly from the fact that those asked to help draw up the blueprint for equality came from all walks of life. Its architects would not solely be appointed leaders or office holders, but Black Panthers, feminists, college students, pastors, labor leaders, Nation of Islam members, and Marxists.

Because Gary had only one hotel, many attendees stayed in Chicago, IU Northwest dorms, or with Gary residents, some of whom they forged lifelong friendships with. That Friday afternoon, a collective sense of pride spread through West Side High School as delegates headed towards the gym, a packet in hand advertising local black-owned businesses. Music thrummed, vendors sold Afro combs, books about leaders like Marcus Garvey, and soul food like chitterlings, while others recited poetry on the sidewalk about the long struggle for their human rights.  Nationalist Queen Mother Moore, in her colorful headwrap, handed out pamphlets and made the case for reparations. Boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms, joining police and civil defense personnel. The extra security proved necessary after a bomb threat was reportedly called into the Holiday Inn, the convention headquarters.

The convention kicked off with a press conference before state caucuses began developing resolutions to be debated over the course of the weekend. And were treated to a performance by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown that evening. The following day, after a late start, the convention resumed with an address by Mayor Hatcher. In his black rimmed glasses and striped suitcoat, he approached the podium, greeted by a standing ovation. An ideal host for his ability to mediate between Nationalists and integrationists, it was fitting that he delivered the opening address. Hatcher began his speech by invoking the “spirit of triumph and determinism” of W.E.B. DuBois. Warmly welcoming the attendees, which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, he stated the goal of the 1972 convention was the creation of a National Black Political Agenda that would serve as a “dynamic program for black liberation.”

While the “foment” and demonstrations of the 1960s served a purpose, it was time for African Americans to wield political power, to not only advise on legislation but to help create it. He told the rapt audience:

Dotson: “In our infinite patience, we have tried year after year, election after election to work with the two major political parties. We believed the pledges, believed the platforms, believed the promises, each time hoping they would come true. Hoping we would not again be sold out.”

Clark: But no longer. African Americans would pick political candidates to represent them, not the party. And the chosen party must address the “inhumanity” faced daily by every Black American. In addressing indignities, the party must work from the bottom up. National decisions, Hatcher argued:

Dotson: “must be discussed in every nook and cranny of this country, from the tar paper shacks in the Mississippi Delta, to the pine hovels of the Appalachian Hills, from the rank and fetid basement apartments of the 47th Street to the barios of Spanish Harlem.”

Clark: Black Americans must demand that legislators end employment discrimination and meager wages. They must demand a decent public school system and the replacement of inferior houses with those that do “not affront the eyes nor offend the nostrils.” Quality health care must be provided, regardless of one’s means to pay for it. Like in white suburbia, the heroin epidemic should not be allowed to ravage Black youth. Should the government fail to meet these demands, they would lose the support of Black voters, who could “conceivably turn to fearsome tactics” or form a third political party. Mayor Hatcher concluded the rousing speech by asking:

Dotson: “Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions?”

“Will we act like free black men or timid shivering chattels?”

“Will we do what must be done?”

“History will be our judge.”

Clark: Lauded by Dr. Moore as a “work of art,” Hatcher’s speech set the tone for the convention. It blended the urgent tone of Nationalists and the pragmatism of the Congressional Black Caucus. But if his speech was a work of art, Jesse Jackson’s was the Louvre. The young preacher and P.U.S.H. founder, wearing an MLK medallion and wide-collared shirt, was met by applause as he took the stage. He began:

Dotson: “‘Brother Hatcher came up North and got a new house in Gary and said to all the scattered tribes around the nation come home. I know my home is too small but come home. We could’ve went to New York City or L.A. But we didn’t have a home there. Come home. Over in this smoke-filled city called Gary one of our Black brothers said ‘Tribe’ come home.’”

Clark: Invoking Nationalist rhetoric, he asked:

Dotson: “Brothers and Sisters, what time is it?”

Clark: To which the crowd cried:

Dotson: “Nationtime.”

“For 7.5 million registered Black voters and 6 million unregistered Black voters, what time is it?”


“For Black democrats, Black republicans, Black panthers, Black Muslims, Black independents, Black businessmen, Black professionals, Black mothers on welfare, what time is it?”


Clark: Jackson called for African Americans to unlearn white superiority, to create a third party in order to represent their own interests. This required ego, which he argued they lacked after enduring decades of abuse and oppression. He proclaimed:

Dotson: “when you sit here with your healthy Black body and developed Black mind and put your confidence, creativity, and belief in somebody else who is less intelligent than you, to represent you, your ego has been castrated.”

Clark: Holding the audience in the cusp of his hands, Jackson bellowed:

Dotson: “What time is it?”

“Nationtime!,” the audience chanted, now on their feet, fists in the air.

“When we respect each other, what time is it?”


“When we get ourselves confident, what time is it?”


“When we form our own political party, what time is it?”


Clark: With his electrifying speech, he stepped into the leadership void left by MLK. In the words of attendee Byron Lewis, Jackson “was born in that convention.” Fellow preacher, Ben Chavis, recalled the poignant moment:

Dotson: “everybody raised their fists and stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, ‘It’s Nation-time. It’s Nation-time.’ . . . Jesse Jackson became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level of the crowd to an all-time high with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call . . . I mean, you could hear it . . . reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it’s Nation-time, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.”

Clark: To Chavis, “Nationtime” meant unity of purpose. This would be needed when the delegates, energized by the speeches, debated potential resolutions for the Black Agenda. Illinois delegates proposed prison terms and fines for employers guilty of discrimination, as well as employment priority for Black veterans. North Carolina proposed a prisoners’ bill of rights. Indiana was among those delegations that demanded an end to the Vietnam War. California and Oklahoma proposed harsher consequences for hard drug dealers. Discussion and, at times tense debate, centered around topics like forced busing, foreign policy, and whether or not to endorse African American Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

Given the number of issues demanding attention, and the varied backgrounds and beliefs of delegates, some degree of discord was inevitable. But on Sunday, proceedings nearly fell apart. Baraka, clad in a black dashiki, presided over the stage, lined with leaders like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. He introduced a draft of the National Black Agenda, incorporating the suggested resolutions. To many delegates, the Agenda disproportionately represented Nationalist objectives, such as opposition to forced busing, which integrationists favored as a means to provide African American students with better education. Some delegates alleged that the Agenda failed to offer strategies for implementing resolutions, many of which they deemed unrealistic. Michigan delegation leader, Coleman Young, vocalized these concerns, as well as his discomfort about ratifying the Agenda before having a chance to digest it or give local activists an opportunity to provide feedback.

Coleman felt that the “Black Magna Carta,” as he dubbed it, was contradictory, with some resolutions supporting separatist ideals and others political integration. The Michigan delegation quickly composed a statement opposing ratification at the convention and read it to the crowd. They then filed out of the gymnasium, with Illinois’s delegation on the verge of following suit. Baraka pleaded with them not to leave, fearful that the disunity would entirely derail the convention. When his armed aids intercepted the Michigan delegates, Young recalled “’We were strapped down pretty well and showed them enough artillery to make it out of there.’” On the precipice of disbanding at best and violence at worst, the anxious crowd was ecstatic to realize that part of Michigan’s delegation had indeed remained. Shouts of “Nationtime!” soon resounded.

Delegates who had traveled across the country would not have to return home without hope or direction. By Sunday’s end, a draft of the National Black Political Agenda had been adopted, and tenuous compromise forged. Conveners founded the National Black Political Assembly, which would meet regularly to follow through on the plans made at the convention. Convention planners tweaked the Agenda in the following weeks, trying to address the concerns of delegates, and publicly released the 68-page document on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. With the national elections approaching, the Agenda would be taken to the Democratic Party Convention and the candidate who prioritized its resolutions would gain the support of Black voters. These included:

  • proportional representation in Congress and local government
  • creating a National Black Development Agency to spur economic development
  • ending the exploitation of Third World Countries
  • ensuring a minimum income of $6,500 for a Black family of four

The document didn’t go so far as to endorse the creation of an independent party, but argued that “Social transformation or social destruction . . . are our only real choices.”

While many delegates felt uncomfortable with some of the resolutions, like its stance on busing, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Ethyl Payne wrote that the convention was successful in that “It was a political experiment in political participation. They now know what it means to be a part of the elective process.” The delegates and attendees returned home energized, committed to political engagement. Chavis said that, despite disputes:

Dotson: “I felt like I had been to a revival. . . . But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that’s significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane.”

Clark: The exhilarating event planted the seeds of political empowerment for young observers, some of whom served as delegates’ pages. Gary resident Wayne A. Young recalled that, when he was 12, he accidentally walked into the convention lobby and picked up literature, which:

Doston: “inspired dreams for my city and my country.” . . . “It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den.”

Clark: Although the National Black Political Assembly fractured over the following years, momentum generated at the convention increased voter participation. Black elected officials grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,890 by 1980. Dr. Moore poignantly concluded:

Dotson: “Despite the collapse of the National Black Political Convention, it galvanized entire communities around the possibilities of black political power and ‘people went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that Blacks had never thought about running for public office before.’ Thus, the presidential victories of Barack Hussein Obama can trace their lineage to Gary West Side High School, where black folk met in 1972 under the banner of the National Black Political Convention.”

Clark: While President Obama’s election was historic, institutional change has been slow to come and Black Americans continue to fight for their “’fair share of the pie.’” They are still disproportionately affected by issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and barriers to health care. The death of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resurgence of white supremacist groups have generated a new collective outrage. Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists are grappling with how to transform this outrage into cohesive strategy.

Attention again turned to the ballot as a means for change with the 2020 U.S. election. Through increased grassroots mobilization and voter participation—goals outlined at the 1972 convention— Black turnout swung election results in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, AP News reported that Black voters transformed Georgia into a new battleground state, “potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.” By leveraging social media and tirelessly knocking on doors, groups like Black Voters Matter imparted the relevance of voting to quality of life. Their work helped elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President. Black constituents again flexed their political muscle during the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 6, 2021, helping to elect Jon Ossof, the state’s first Jewish U.S. senator, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. These voters also helped flip the U.S. Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. Combined with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and presidential administration, this could fundamentally alter federal legislation. It remains to be seen whether the high rate of Black political participation will be sustained and if elected officials respond to the demands of those who helped put them in office. But recent elections and the boldness of organizers like Stacey Abrams have made clear how profoundly Black Americans, once lynched for attempting to cast their ballot, can influence democracy.

Listeners, we would love to hear from those who attended or organized the convention, especially those from The Region. Please see the show notes for her contact information.  

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see the sources for this episode, visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Nicole Poletika. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Our guest voice for this episode is Dr. Olon Dotson [Gary native and Ball State University professor]. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice [with former mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson]. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for listening!

Show Notes for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

If you organized or attended the convention, and would like to share your experience, please contact IHB historian Nicole Poletika at or 317-232-2536.


“Black Convention at Showdown Stages,” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), March 13, 1972, 1, accessed

Oral History Interview, Benjamin Chavis, April 18, 1989, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed Eyes on the Prize II Interviews.

Gwendolyn Cherry, House of Representatives, “Cherry Notes from Florida,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 2, 4, accessed

“Chisholm Candidacy Faces Black Debate,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, 10, accessed

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 19, 1972, 10, accessed

Erik Johnson, “Remembering Mayor Richard G. Hatcher,” Chicago Crusader, Special Tribute Edition, December 20, 2019, accessed

Sam Levine, “’They Always Put Other Barriers in Place:’ How Georgia Activists Fought Off Voter Suppression,” The Guardian, January 13, 2021, accessed

Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 2, 64-65, 96-102, 105-108, 112, 130-131, 149, 152.

“The NAACP and the Black Political Convention,” The Crisis 79, no. 7 (August-September 1972): 229-230, accessed Google Books.

Documentary, NATIONTIME-GARY, directed by William Greaves, screened at AFI DOCS 2020.

James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” The Times (Munster), March 12, 1972, 1A, 12A, accessed

Ethel L. Payne, “After Gary, What?,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 5, accessed

Nicole Poletika, “City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary,” Indiana History Blog, May 13, 2019, accessed

Nicole Poletika, “‘Tired of Going to Funerals:’ The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary,” Belt Magazine (January 2019), accessed

“Race and Voting,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed

Jesus Rodriguez, “BLM Organizers See the 1972 National Black Political Convention as a Model. What Can They Learn from It?,” Politico Magazine, August 28, 2020, accessed

Kat Stafford, Aaron Morrison, Angeliki Kastanis, “’This is Proof’: Biden’s Win Reveals Power of Black Voters,” Associated Press, November 9, 2020, accessed

“’…We Must Pave the Way so that Others May Follow,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 10, accessed

Ross Williams, “Record Turnout among Black Voters Could Help Georgia Reshape the Nation,” Georgia Public Broadcasting, January 11, 2021, accessed

Wayne A. Young, “A Gary Native Reflects on What ‘Nationtime’ Means Today,” Chicago Crusader, November 24, 2020, accessed

How South Bend Attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen Lifted the “Heel of Oppression”

Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen, courtesy of Indianapolis Recorder, July 25, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and South Bend Tribune, February 10, 2014, accessed

*This is Part One in a series about the Allens.

Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.

On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.

His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.

In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”

Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.

Image caption: Photograph of Leroy Cobb and two unidentified men sitting along Pinhook Park. In the era of segregation in South Bend, with city pools like the Engman Public Natatorium barring African Americans from entry, Pinhook Park became a popular location for public swimming, ca. 1947, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”

Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,

Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.

J. Chester Allen (center), South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1940, 17, accessed

While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”

Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:

is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.

Membership Card, 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.

Elizabeth Allen, courtesy The History Museum Collection, accessed Roberta Heinman, “Suffragists and Activists are Among 10 Influential Women in Indiana,” South Bend Tribune, August 16, 2020.

Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.

And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.

Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,

such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.

On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.

Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “’Job Opportunities for Negroes:’ The Goal of Indiana’s Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan,” Pamphlet No. 4 (January 1943), accessed Hathitrust.

Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.

Indiana State Defense Council, The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, and Governor Schricker’s Negro Employment Committee, “What is the Truth About Job Opportunities for Negroes in Indiana?,” (August 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”

While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”

Elizabeth Allen front left, J. Chester Allen back of the table, Ca. 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article

used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.

While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”

When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey is explored in Part II.



The majority of this post is based on state historical marker notes, in addition to the following:

“11,605 Helped by Hering House,” South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1931, 5, accessed

“11 Witnesses Charge Police Shot too Soon,” South Bend Tribune, April 10, 1935, 1, accessed

“Seek to Avenge Youth’s Death,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1935, 1, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed

“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.

“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed

Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

THH Episode 42: Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

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Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On this installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Dr. James Madison, whose new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland explores what the Klan of the 1920s in Indiana looked like, how they amassed and wielded their power, and how their legacy continues to be seen in the state today. If you haven’t listened to our latest episode, which covers the story of how the University of Notre Dame harnessed the popularity of their football program to combat a smear campaign carried out by the Klan, I encourage you to do so as it elaborates on some of the aspects we touch on in this conversation.

And now, Giving Voice.

I’m here today with Dr. James Madison, Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University and the author of the new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. Thank you, Dr. Madison for being here with me today it’s a real pleasure speaking with you.

Madison: Well, thank you Lindsey. I’m always happy to talk history and I’m especially happy to be on this Indiana Historical Bureau program. So, thank you.

Beckley: So, I thought we’d start out with a simple question that might not have a simple answer. Who joined the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s? And why did they join?

Madison: That’s a very important question, Lindsey, and we are now able to answer that question. Thirty or 40 years ago, we couldn’t, but there’s been a lot of good scholarship on that and there’s more coming out in the future. White, native born Protestants is the answer to your question.

And that’s very important because the myth that prevails – the wrong headed assumption – that has been hailed for nearly 100 years was that members of the Klan in Indiana in the 1920s were, as the great journalist Elmer Davis called them, the “great unteachable’s.” That they were sort of a lower order, even ne’er do wells. We now know that’s not true. They were good Hoosiers. They were good citizens. Respectable people, for the most part. But they were all in their self-definition, 100% American – that is white, native born, Protestants.

Beckley: And why did they join this fraternal organization? What did they see in it that enticed them to join?

Madison: Here too there is a myth. That the Hoosiers that joined the Klan were manipulated by snake oil salesman like DC Stevenson, the grand dragon. That they were not very sophisticated and that they did not understand what the Klan was about. I think that’s simply not true. The evidence is overwhelming that most of the people who joined the Klan truly believed in the values, the goals of the Ku Klux Klan. That is, to redeem America, to return America to its greatness – return America to a place where the enemies were held in secondary status so that good, 100% Americans could really, really run the nation.

Lindsey: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Because I do think that a lot of people still have those ideas and their head that people were duped into joining the Klan or that it was a bunch of ne’er do wells, as you say, that joined. Whereas it was ordinary citizens going in with eyes wide open.

What conditions here in the state preceded the Klan’s arrival that kind of paved the way for them to gain such massive power in such a short amount of time?

Madison Well, there are deep traditions in Indiana history and in American history that were essential to the success of the Ku Klux Klan. And those include fear and hatred of immigrants an outsiders. Fear and hatred among Protestants of Catholics. Among Christians of Jews. All sorts of prejudices and divisions including prejudices against African Americans in particular. All of these ways of dividing Hoosiers and Americans into us and them had persisted in Indiana from the very beginning. So that’s one essential part of the Klan story in the 1920s.

More immediately, there’s World War One. And World War One was a horrible war in so many ways, including its domestic consequences because it exacerbated – it let forth all sorts of prejudices against them, against people who were others. And that persisted into the 1920s.

And then I’d say also that the decade of the 1920s was an unusual time where Indiana had a particularly mediocre political leadership. There were no men – and we’re talking almost entirely about men here in the 1920s – there were no men in political positions of leadership who had what we might call character or even charisma. They were mediocre. And they were mostly, in fact almost entirely, interested in getting reelected. So, policy issues, questions of central importance to our government and our state were not on their agenda. And when the Klan came along so very, very many of them, especially in the Republican Party, saw the Klan as a vehicle to increase their political power. To get reelected. To be more important in running national politics. So, all of those conditions created an atmosphere that was very, very ripe for the Klan to rise to power in Indiana in the early 1920s.

Beckley: So, that last point that you brought up about politics being more about being reelected than actually getting any agenda achieved, kind of flows well into my next question. Which is, it’s interesting to me that the Klan worked like a well-oiled machine to get sympathetic representatives elected to the General Assembly but then once they were actually there, they didn’t seem to get much actual policy or Klan-proposed policy achieved. Maybe one or two things, but it wasn’t quite the powerhouse that I think that they were intending. What do you think stopped them from achieving more in their short time in power?

Madison: That’s a very good point, and a very important part of this story because – let me speak just quickly to the first part, and that is that the Klan was often assumed to be a bunch of bumblers and not really knowing quite what they were doing. But that’s not true. The Klan was a very sophisticated organization. Hierarchal. Able to recruit large numbers of members. Able to bring in millions of dollars to its treasury. So, it’s a very sophisticated, powerful, well run organization by early 1924. So powerful that the Klan candidates sweep into office in the fall elections in 1924.

The General Assembly that sits in early 1925 is composed mostly of Klan members or supporters of the Klan. The governor of Indiana, Ed Jackson, far and away the worst governor in our history, was very very sympathetic to the Klan. So, a very powerful organization. And yet, as you say, Lindsey, in the General Assembly they proved to be a bunch of ineffectual’s, in particular because they started to fight among themselves. One of the blessings of this kind of movement often is that they are so selfish and power hungry that factions develop. That they split apart in their quest for power. And that’s exactly what happened in the late fall and early spring of 1925, particularly in the statehouse, because there are all sorts of factions and they just sort of fight each other. They were more interested in winning power than they were and passing Klan reform programs.

Beckley: It’s just so interesting how they worked so hard and just kind of slid into power there and then kind of fell apart at the most critical junction. Lucky for Indiana, of course.

Madison: Very, very lucky. Because the Klan program – the Klan legislative program – was serious and had they passed it then come back again in the following General Assembly, who knows what they would have put into the force of law and policy. It’s a dreadful, dreadful thing to contemplate.

Beckley: One quote from your book really jumped out at me and it is that, “Klan women and men saw themselves not as bigoted extremists but as good Christians and good Patriots joining proudly in a moral crusade.” Today, we see those same people as members of a terrorist organization. How did most Americans who weren’t part of the Klan but also weren’t part of the organized resistance, how did they view the Klan from the outside looking in?

Madison: That’s a hard question to answer because it’s very hard to find the primary sources that give voice to that. I think that it’s quite likely that many, many Hoosiers did not oppose the Klan and did not join the Klan. Perhaps a majority of Hoosiers were in that category. And within that category of not opposing and not joining or supporting, there are all ranges of possibilities, some were very, very unhappy about the Klan but unwilling to step up. And I think that’s a large number of Hoosiers. They were unwilling to stand up against the Klan. There were very few profiles in courage in this group. They were fearful because the Klan had such immense power. The Klan had the power to intimidate, to threaten, to make your life difficult if they chose to. But also, I think even those who did not join the Klan tended to think that, “well they’re sort of right. There’s really nothing wrong with this organization. We’re not going to pay our dues and march in a parade, but they are OK. They are normal.” And that’s a very important part of the Klan story in the 1920s. The Klan worked hard to be respected to be a normal part of America. And in the eyes of their members and supporters, they were exactly that. They were not on the margins. They were not a bunch of fools. They were normal, good, respectable Americans. And that’s a very hard thing for us to understand today because all sorts of myths and stories get in the way of that. But that is essential to understanding the Klan in Indiana in the 20s. Normal, respectable, Hoosiers.

Beckley: I think that a lot of people, when they’re thinking about the Klan, their ideas about the organization are kind of clouded by the Klan of the Reconstruction Era and then of the 1960s when it is much more violent and, in the case of the 60s, fragmented and kind of – it is those bumbling people, or at least it was closer to that. So, I think that we are thinking about it and we aren’t – a lot of folks aren’t separating out the three distinct versions of the Klan and the 1920s. It’s so hard to wrap your head around just because they were so respectable. And reading the first part of your book, it almost sounded like frivolous. The people were going to parades and having picnics and even cross burnings were a celebration. It wasn’t necessarily seen by them as a source of terror whereas it would have been seen by their victims as a source of terror, but something as iconic as a cross burning can be seen by members of the Klan as a festival almost. It’s just very hard to comprehend, I think.

Madison: Well, yes. And that’s the way in which the Klan was normal. Because, well the Klan had a very very straightforward purpose: to make America for 100% Americans. And to keep the enemies in their place. But at the same time, these were people who wanted to have a good time, who wanted to be with other like-minded people. It was a very social organization. They had picnics and all kinds of events. They got together in their weekly or semi-weekly Klavern meetings. There were Klavern’s in all 92 counties. They got together, they had a social program, they sang hymns, they had good conversation, they always had food – you know Hoosiers always have food at social events like that especially in the 1920s – so they had good food, good picnics, good times. They had fun and many of them joined in part because of that. But that wasn’t the only reason, or the major reason, that they joined. The idea of good Hoosiers enjoying life as members of the Ku Klux Klan is another one that is hard for us to understand. Because what gets in the way, as you said, was the Klan of the post-Civil War era which was a terrorist organization and the Klan of the 1960s, or that began in the 1960s and continued for decades afterwards, which was a horrible organization of white supremacists and getting towards acts of violence. But the Indiana Klan is not that way. Again, respectable and normal. They were not interested in violence. They were much more interested in having a parade, or a cross burning. Certainly those things intimidate people. It tells them that this is a very powerful organization. You see hundreds of robed people walking down Main Street and around the courthouse square in Indiana – that sends a message. You see a cross burning or several cross burnings on a hill outside of town or at the State Fairgrounds – that sends a message. And the Klan was very sophisticated and sending these kinds of messages. “We are powerful. Don’t cross us. Support us we are the good people and you better stay in your place if you are not one of us and not cause trouble.” So again, a sophisticated organization. A normal organization in Indiana in the 1920s. Not later on in the late 20th century not in the South after the Civil War. But in the 20s in Indiana? Absolutely.

Beckley: So, to close out the discussion today, I have another quote from your book. “The Klan was history. The legacy remains.” That’s a powerful quote and I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about those legacies that you see remaining from the Klan.

Madison: Well, that’s another one of the many complexities of the Klan, because in some ways, I’ve argued, the Klan by 1930 was dead in Indiana. The Klan that we know in the 20s no longer existed. What happened was, as the Civil Rights movement began to grow in Indiana and in America in the late 50s and especially in the early 60s, it produced a space. It produced opposition. It produced blow back from some white Hoosiers and white Americans who said woah, woah, woah this Civil Rights movement has gone too far. These African Americans have gotten out of their place. They’re asking too much. And George Wallace came to Indiana in 1924 – the segregationist governor from Indiana* – and campaigned on that platform and got about 1/3 of the white vote. Horrible example of the responses to the idea that the Civil Rights went too far, as some whites in America an Indiana would claim. And that cleared a space for a revival, a renewal, of the Ku Klux Klan. Small groups mostly scattered across the state with some self-proclaimed Grand Dragons got a lot of publicity in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. They held rallies and parades in many places including Indianapolis in Kokomo and Madison, Indiana. Always at these rallies in the late 20th century, there were more opponents than supporters of the Klan. Far, far more people came out to protest. So that Klan that revived in the late 20th century really is a bunch of unteachable ne’er do wells. Really white supremacists par excellence. That was their reason for being. White supremacy. That Klan today has very little influence, very little presence. It can still intimidate us. A robe and mask of a burning cross can still cause us to fear. And African American families have stories handed down over the generations with that kind of terror, that kind of fear. But the real problem today I think is not in men and women who Don robes and hoods.

The issue today is respectable Americans, men and women and dark suits and silk blouses who say things that are on the outside may not look so horrible, but if you think a little bit, if you understand America and if you understand our past and our present, what they’re doing is using dog whistles. Coded language to say things that today are very similar to what the Klan said, much more explicitly, in the 1920s. The bigotry, prejudice, the notion that there are 100 percent Americans – that it’s US versus them – is still a notion that flourishes today in America and especially in the last four years. So, in the last four years we’ve seen an intensification of this kind of prejudice, this kind of bigotry, this kind of homophobia and xenophobia all of the things that contradict American ideals. It’s come from the White House, it is come from leaders in our political parties, especially one party in particular. And it has been the most significant attack to fundamental American values in my lifetime.

So, I think that we have in America a challenge of education. A challenge that requires that we understand our history from the very beginning to the present. Not a patriotic history. Not bedtime stories for children. Not myths. But the real history that we can now find and read not only in books but in museum exhibits and programs like this that are so very important to the future of our democracy, to our role as thinking, knowledgeable citizens.

Beckley: Yeah, we hope to always inform our listeners about their own past and how they can kind of utilized that to inform their present, so I appreciate you coming on and having this discussion today. This is such an important part of Indiana history that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So, I’m I’m happy that we could clear some things up today.

Madison: Thank you Lindsey.

Beckley: A huge thank you, once again, to Dr. Madison. He’s one of the best Indiana historians out there and it was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him about such an important and prescient topic. If you’re interested in this period of Indiana history, I can’t recommend Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland highly enough – I know he did a lot of archival research in the past few years while working on it and it really shows.

This is the last episode of the year and we’ll be taking a little break over the holidays, but Talking Hoosier History will be back in February with more stories of the people, places, and events that shaped the Hoosier state. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

*George Wallace, the segregationist Senator, came to Indiana in 1964, rather than 1924, when he was running in the Democratic primaries. He was a Senator from Alabama, rather than Indiana.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: James Madison

Learn more about the Klan in Indiana:

Talking Hoosier History, The KKK, Political Corruption, and the Indianapolis Times, 

Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana 1921-1928, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog,

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog,

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120,

THH Episode 41: Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

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Transcript for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football fades in and out]

Nineteen twenty-four was going to be their year. The Notre Dame football team was coming off a well-played 1923 season with just one loss, and they had their sights set on an even bigger goal that year – a perfect season. However, to get there, they faced some stiff competition – rivals like the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had served up their only loss in 1923, loomed on the horizon. But looming even larger than rival teams was an off-the-field opponent that was in a different class altogether. That year, Notre Dame set out to defeat the Ku Klux Klan in a media crusade the likes of which had never been seen before.

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football]

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in the Hoosier State in 1920. By the mid-20s, more than 250,000 men had joined the organization throughout the state, and thousands of women and children had joined auxiliary clubs. While bearing the name, costume, and racist, xenophobic rhetoric of the Reconstruction Era Klan, this iteration of the terrorist organization differed in some key ways.

The Klan of the 1860s and 70s wielded clubs, guns, and nooses, while the Klan of the 1920s mostly wielded political power. The Klan of the mid-19th century terrorized the African American population of the southern United States, while that of the 20th century broadened their animus to include political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, Jews, and, most vociferously, Catholics and immigrants.

One other way in which the Klan of the 1920s differed from its predecessor, especially in Indiana, was just how interwoven it was with respectable society. Klansmen weren’t on the fringes, ostracized by their hatred. Rather, as Indiana University historian James Madison said in his new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was as dark as the night and as American as apple pie.”

Nativism and xenophobia were well established in the state before 1920 – Hoosiers were already asking if immigrants could really be American if they maintained traditions from their homeland. Or if Catholics could be loyal Americans while simultaneously being loyal to the Pope. These weren’t ideas introduced by the Klan, but rather they were ideas that paved the way for the Klan to quickly infiltrate society at a deep level.

Because the Klan was such an integral part of the fabric of everyday life in Indiana, there was very little widespread resistance to the organization. However, there were instances of individuals, communities, and religious groups taking a stand against the hatred. Dr. Madison explores some of these instances in his Indiana Magazine of History article titled “The Klan’s Enemies Step up, Slowly.” Various towns and cities around the state passed laws prohibiting the wearing of masks, targeting the white hood and mask worn during Klan events. They denied permits for Klan-affiliated speakers, and restricted public cross burnings and parades. Jewish Hoosiers organized a lecture series on tolerance in an area rife with Klan activity. Newspapers around the Midwest, including the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Chicago-based Tolerance and the Indianapolis Times wrote scathing editorials decrying the Klan’s practices.

It was Catholic Hoosiers who showed the most unified resistance, though – this was likely because they were the primary targets of the Klan’s intolerance. When the Tipton County Fair announced it would be hosting a “Klan Day,” Catholics boycotted the event. When the Knights of Columbus organized a protest against the Klan in Indianapolis, nearly 800 Catholic men attended. And perhaps the state’s most prominent anti-Klan demonstration took place in the town of South Bend in May 1924.

South Bend, home to Catholics of Irish, Polish, and Hungarian origin, as well as the traditionally Catholic University of Notre Dame, was one of the only major cities in Indiana without a Klan presence. The hate group was working hard to change that in the lead-up to the 1924 election using a two-pronged approach. First, Klan leaders worked to legitimize the organization through philanthropic and recreational family activities and to grow its power through infiltrating politics and local law enforcement. Second, they worked to demonize their target groups – in this case, Catholics and immigrants. To that end, the Klan published anti-Catholic, xenophobic propaganda in their widely circulated newspaper, The Fiery Cross, and, as the existing anti-Catholic sentiments of many Hoosiers were being stoked in that way, Klan leadership laid a kind of trap for the Catholic citizens of South Bend. They scheduled a mass Klan meeting, where members from the Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois Klans would gather to spread their hateful rhetoric. The hope was that Catholic students from the nearby University of Notre Dame and South Bend citizens, many of whom were of immigrant origin, would rise up in reaction to the Klan’s presence, giving the Klan the opportunity to paint them as violent, lawless, un-American immigrants in contrast to the peacefully assembled “100% American” Klansmen. The meeting was scheduled for May 17, 1924.

Fearful for the safety of their students and local residents, Notre Dame and South Bend officials worked to stop a potentially violent incident. South Bend Mayor Eli Seebirt refused to grant the Klan a parade permit, although he could not stop their peaceful assembly on public grounds. Notre Dame President Matthew Walsh issued a bulletin, imploring students to stay on campus and ignore the Klan activities in town. He wrote:

Clark reading from Walsh: Similar attempts of the Klan to flaunt its strength have resulted in riotous situations, sometimes in the loss of life. However aggravating the appearance of the Klan may be, remember that lawlessness begets lawlessness. Young blood and thoughtlessness may consider it a duty to show what a real American thinks of the Klan. There is only one duty that presents itself to Notre Dame men, under the circumstances, and that is to ignore whatever demonstration may take place today.

Beckley: Father Walsh was right. “Young blood” could not abide the humiliation of this anti-Catholic hate group taking over the town. The Fiery Cross had hurled insults and false accusations at the students for some time. The propaganda newspaper called them “hoodlums,” claimed that Notre Dame produced “nothing of value,” and blamed the students for crime in the area. As Klan members began arriving in the city on May 17, 1924, South Bend was ready to oppose them.

The South Bend Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Trouble started early in the day when Klansmen in full regalia of hoods, masks and robes appeared on street corners in the business section, ostensibly to direct their brethren to the meeting ground, Island park, and giving South Bend its first glimpse of Klansmen in uniform.

Beckley: Not long after Klan members began arriving, young men, assumed to have been Notre Dame students, surrounded the masked intruders. The anti-Klan South Bend residents and students tore off several masks and robes, exposing the identities of “kluxers” who wished to spread their hate anonymously. The Tribune reported that some Klan members were “roughly handled.” The newspaper also reported that the anti-Klan force showed some evidence of organization. They formed a “flying column” that moved in unison “from corner to corner, wherever a white robe appeared.” By 11:30 a.m. students and residents of South Bend had purged the business district of any sign of the Klan.

Meanwhile, Klan leaders continued to lobby city officials for permission to parade, hold meetings in their downtown headquarters, and assemble en masse at Island Park. Just after noon, the group determined to protect South Bend turned their attention to Klan headquarters. This home base was the third floor of a building and was identifiable by the “fiery cross” made of red light bulbs in the window. The students and South Bend residents surrounded the building and focused on removing the glowing red symbol of hate. Several young men “hurled potatoes” at the building, breaking several windows and smashing the light bulbs in the cross. The young men then stormed up the stairs to the Klan den and were stopped by minister and Klan leader Reverend J.H. Horton with a revolver.

The students attempted to convince Klan members to agree not to parade in masks or with weapons. While convincing all parties to ditch the costumes wasn’t easy, they did eventually negotiate a truce. By 3:30 p.m., the protestors had left the headquarters and rallied at a local pool hall.  Here, a student leader spoke to the crowd and urged them to remain peaceful but vigilant in case they were needed by the local police to break up the parade. After all was said and done, despite Klan threats, the city never issued a parade license and the Klan never paraded. Looking at the outcomes of this clash, it may seem as though the Notre Dame students came out on top – they were able to clear much of the city of white-robed Klansmen, the parade had not happened, and they had faced their persecutors head-on, something that’s easy to root for. However, this show of resistance was exactly what they Klan wanted, and they ran with it, painting the students as a “reckless, fight loving gang of Hoodlums” and using the Fiery Cross to spread a narrative of law-abiding Protestant citizens being denied their right to peacefully assemble while being violently attacked by gangs of Catholics and immigrants working together.

Mixing outright lies into their media spin, the Klan newspaper claimed that the students ripped up American flags and attacked women and children. The Klan’s propaganda was picked up by many mainstream newspapers and widely reported. The Notre Dame students may have appeared to win the day, but the reputation of the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic community as a whole, had been tarnished by the spread of Klan propaganda.

The university needed a way to combat this bad press, and luckily, they had just the thing: the wildly successful Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Since 1921, Father John O’Hara, the prefect of religion, had been working to link the players’ Catholicism with their success on the gridiron by arranging press coverage of the players attending mass before away games, providing medals of saints for them to wear during games, and writing about “the religious component in Notre Dame’s football success.” In essence, he drew on the idea of sport as a platform for social change, an idea that continues to be used in the 21st century. O’Hara planned to take this strategy up a notch for the 1924 season in an attempt to combat the smear campaign being waged by the Klan.

In order to put this plan into action, though, the Fighting Irish would have to make an even more impressive showing than they had in the 1923 season. This was a tall order, as their only loss that season was a devastating defeat by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game during which the Fighting Irish were subjected to anti-Catholic insults. This would have to be a year like no other – a perfect, undefeated season.

Coach Knute Rockne had his work cut out for him, but he came to the 1924 season with a plan – instead of starting his first-string players, he would send in his second-string “shock troops” to tire out their opponents. Then he would send in his best players, still fresh and ready to make up any ground that had been lost and more. The strategy was deployed with great success in the first two games of the season – Lombard College and Wabash College were defeated with a combined score of 74 to zero. The first real test for both the team and the press strategy came on October 25, when the Fighting Irish faced one of their biggest rivals – the Army team.

[Radio coverage from Army game]

In the lead up to the game, alumni living in the city fed Notre Dame-produced press statements to New York newspapers and drummed up support for the Fighting Irish at local Catholic organizations. As 60,000 fans…

Clark with old-time radio effects:  60,000 fans have descended upon the New York City Polo Grounds to watch this match-up …

Beckley: it was clear that the good press had paid off – the New York Times reported that the crowd was the largest ever seen in the city. When the Irish pulled off a relatively tight 13-7 victory, the press raved and reporter Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune delivered one of the most famous lines in sports history, writing about the Notre Dame’s backfield lineup:

Clark reading from Tribune: Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.

Beckley: The “four horsemen” nickname immediately gained traction. Upon the team’s return, the university arranged to have a photographer shoot a picture of the “horsemen” in uniform on horseback – just another card in the media playbook

One-third of the way through their regular season, the plan was right on track – the team had won some decisive victories and the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that the Fiery Cross continued to re-hash the events of May 24, smearing the Catholic and immigrant community of South Bend every chance they got. As the season continued, it became clear that this Notre Dame team was a force to be reckoned with – they emerged from their mid-season games with three more decisive victories against Princeton, Georgia Tech, and University of Wisconsin. Their next, and perhaps largest, hurdle still loomed ahead in the form of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had delivered their only defeat of the 1923 season.

In their last match-up, the Fighting Irish had encountered prejudice and xenophobic epithets from the Nebraska fanbase. This meant that a victory against the Huskers would not only get the Irish one win closer to a perfect season, but the victory of the hardworking and stoic Irish Catholic school over a team with anti-Catholic fans would be symbolic of a larger Catholic victory over prejudice.

This game had been the focus of the entire season for Notre Dame, and when the two teams took the field in South Bend on November 15, the Fighting Irish were out for revenge…

Clark with old time radio effects: …the Fighting Irish are out for revenge. Coach Rockne may be re-thinking his shock troop tactics this game… and the Huskers advance to the four-yard line after the Irish give up a fumble … The crowd goes wild as the first stringers take the field … and the Huskers drive it in for an early touchdown, Huskers lead 6-0 at the end of the first period! The Irish come out strong in the second quarter … the Four Horsemen are putting on a fine show … and we go to the half with the Irish ahead 14-6. … The Irish Eleven are really putting on a show now … Notre Dame 21, Nebraska 6 at the end of the third period … and Layden plunges through the center for a touchdown! … 34-6. The Irish win! The Irish win!!

Beckley: Finally, they had defeated the team that had not only ruined their otherwise perfect 1923 season, but had maligned them with anti-Catholic, anti-Irish slurs as well.

With that win in the books, the Irish swept through the remaining two games on their schedule – against Northwestern and Carnegie Tech – with relative ease, achieving their goal of a perfect season. This perfect record was everything the university administration had hoped for in order to engage their publicity machine and improve the school’s unfairly marred reputation. Giving them an even better opportunity for good press, the team was invited to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Father O’Hara, who had orchestrated press coverage of the team throughout the season, saw this as an unprecedented public relations opportunity.

Rather than travel to California a week before the game and practice a few times on the Rose Bowl field, the team was put through a grueling three-week schedule of practices, press conferences, public appearances, and daily Mass – all while snaking their way across the country by train. At the same time, the Klan continued to churn out hateful propaganda painting Catholics and immigrants as un-American troublemakers. And major outlets had picked up the narrative, lending credibility to the slanderous claims. This was what these young men, who were already facing the biggest game of their careers, were up against. Not only did they have to be at the top of their game, they also had to be on the moral high ground – they were representatives not only of Notre Dame, but of the larger Catholic and Irish American communities.

Finally, the team arrived in Los Angeles to a train platform crowded with fans – it seemed their press tour was working.

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl field for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: a Rose Bowl championship. After one more practice, the Fighting Irish returned to their hotel to rest for the night. In the meantime, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. The excitement was building. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football.

Beckley: On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops…

Clark with old time radio effects: …Coach Rockne has started his second string “shock troops.” That might be a mistake with this Stanford offense … and the Cardinals score first with a field goal – score 3-0 Stanford … And the first string players enter the fray … Even the usually unstoppable Four Horsemen seem to be unable to make a drive against this Stanford line …  Oh! And the Irish get a break as Stanford flubs the punt, placing the Irish on the Stanford 32 yard-line! … The Irish drive it in for their first score of the game – Irish lead 6-3! … Notre Dame full-back Elmer Layden intercepts the pass and runs it back for a 70 yard touchdown!! … Irish lead 13-3 going into the second half!

And the Cardinals fumble the ball – Irishman Edward Huntsinger picks it up and runs it 20 yards for another touchdown!! … Stanford has the ball inside the Notre Dame 1-yard line … and they’re stopped mere inches from the endzone!! Stanford goes for a pass and it’s intercepted by Layden … he’s going, he’s going, he’s gone!!! Layden runs it back for another 70 yard touchdown … And the Irish win the Rose Bowl 27-10! What a way to top off a perfect season!!

Beckley: The season was over, but the public relations machine was still in full force. The team set off on a “victory lap” from California to Indiana on January 2, a 10-day journey where the players met adoring crowds, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and shook hands with politicians. This was a victory lap for the Notre Dame football squad, yes, but also for Catholicism. After all, what’s more American than football? And here was a group of scholar-athletes demonstrating for the nation that their faith didn’t stand in the way of being American.

Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish in the wake of the Notre Dame victory. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group:

Clark reading telegram: WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.

Beckley: By the time they arrived back at the university on January 12, the players were completely exhausted, but triumphant. The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacle. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Notre Dame historian Robert Burns noted that:

Clark reading from Burns: By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.

Beckley: The Klan’s Fiery Cross continued to spread lies about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men – the American public were largely over the story.

The publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead – just one example in a long history of sports being used as a platform for social change and social justice in America.

However, while the Klan was defeated in South Bend, they remained dominant throughout much of Indiana, and their anti-Immigrant views were popular throughout the nation. The same year that this story takes place – 1924 – the Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles yielded real world consequences in the form of the national Immigration Act of 1924, which resulted in a quota system that reduced immigration by 80%. We saw the effects of this legislation most poignantly in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, who applied to the United States for immigration visas, were denied entry. Many of those people were later murdered in the Holocaust.

In the 1920s, the Klan claimed to be the sole proprietor of who was “American:” native born, white Protestants were, and foreign-born Catholics were not.  Although today the Klan has lost much of their power, their vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers right beneath the surface of American politics, and in some cases boils over. In the 1920s, we allowed hate groups to define who was and wasn’t considered American. Today, as we see hate groups on the rise, we must be vigilant not to let the mistakes of our past be repeated.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from “Integrity on the Gridiron,” three original posts written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins for the Indiana History Blog. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to today’s episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice, where I’ll be talking with Indiana University historian and author of the new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Show Notes for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Learn about the Indianapolis Times crusade against the Klan with this episode of Talking Hoosier History. 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog,

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog,

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clipping, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Name of Item, Box #, Folder #, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Birth of a Nation" by Esther Griffin White
Clipping from “African American Relations” exhibit, accessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Esther Griffin White, Box 6, Folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Blakey, 286.

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

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

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

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

[8] Pfeiffer, 9.

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

[10] Ibid., 1.

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

[12] Ibid.

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

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 1.

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

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Ibid., 7.

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

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

[21] Ibid., 6.

[22] Ibid., 6.

Hearth & Hardship: How Hoosiers Have Adapted Thanksgiving Celebrations and Recipes

Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“The Long Distance Telephone is the Modern Thanksgiving Greeting:” this 1929 Indiana Bell Telephone Co. advertisement will certainly resonate with Hoosiers, who are finding alternative ways to spend the holidays during the pandemic. The ad continues—and we relate—”Distances, however, and the press of modern affairs sometimes seek to rob us” of the mouthwatering aromas of Grandma’s kitchen. Fortunately, the #telephone “takes our voices quickly and easily to the home folks whenever they are, and leaves lasting impressions of thoughtfulness and occasion for real Thanksgiving.”

Despite the stock market having just crashed, Americans in 1929 kept traditions alive and counted their blessings. While 2020 celebrations will look different in many Hoosier households, we thought we would look back at some of the recipes shared in the pages of historic Indiana newspapers, especially those published during periods of hardship. But before you get to cooking, be sure to pick up some skillets, pie dishes, and perhaps some nut crackers (to keep greedy fingers at bay) from Vonnegut’s.

Perhaps bespeaking the tension felt in households across the nation during the Great Depression, Jean Allen told the tale of one woman, who was grateful that Thanksgiving came only once a year (Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8). The woman “gave each of her children a sound spanking, tucked them in bed, and sat down to plan her Christmas dinner.” Mindful of these struggles, Allen crafted menus that would “save you a lot of work, worry, and wear and tear,” with a focus on “goodness” and cost.

Jean Allen, Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8.

If Allen’s recipes aren’t your persuasion, check out this  1935 issue of the African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, which featured all cranberry everything, from tapioca to ice.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 30, 1935, 6.

Just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged Americans into World War II, the Indianapolis Recorder noted that during a “New Deal Thanksgiving,” it was understandable that “some of us didn’t get right into the spirit of it.” Nonetheless, one could take a decorative page from those who did, bestowing their dinner table with lace and yellow chrysanthemums or perhaps a combination of fruit, apples leaves, and red, gold, and white placards.

The following year, the Recorder noted that there was much to be thankful for “in a world and season of great distress,” as Americans were “confronted presently with obligations and sacrifices to be made in prosecuting the war.” While it was natural to despair, and to worry that next year’s Thanksgiving could require even more sacrifices and rationing, the author wrote “the American people generally have enjoyed an abundance of the comforts or luxuries of life not realized by other peoples of the world. We have taken the needs or desires of our daily life as a matter of course.” Bowed over steaming plates, Hoosiers likely prayed for the safety of their sons, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters overseas.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.
Kokomo Tribune, November 21, 1938, 12, accessed

A seasoned procrastinator? The Kokomo Tribune has you covered with some last minute recipes. But before digging in, be mindful of Dr. C.C. Robinson’s suggestions. He advised readers in 1923, via the Muncie Evening Post, to “Remember that cheerfulness is a most necessary asset for enjoying a real meal. If your wife has invited someone who doesn’t agree with your idea on the League of Nations, don’t forget to carry on with a smile just the same. It helps the liver secretions.” Sound advice, in these polarized times. However, we have to disagree with his warning “Don’t think you have to eat everything.” After sampling the fare, be sure to compliment the chef, as it “may make her heart beat a little faster or increase the blood pressure for the time being.”

If you’re looking for a way to use up some of leftover turkey—once the tryptophan wears off, of course—this issue of the South Bend News-Times serves up several ideas.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While this year’s Turkey Day feels a little different, these articles show that historically Americans have adapted to hardship, while retaining a sense of gratitude. Whether you’re making a meal for those closest to you or daydreaming of next year’s meal, we hope you have enjoyed exploring Thanksgiving recipes from years past. Search for more recipes using and Hoosier State Chronicles, which provides free access to over 1.1 million pages of newspapers spanning 216 years.

*Additional research provided by Lindsey Beckley.

Re-Imagining Migration: Free Virtual Teaching Resources on the History of Immigration and Xenophobia

Teachers know that the U.S. history has some dark moments. The making of the republic was a flawed process where immigrants, among others, were marginalized. But history teachers don’t always have the tools to teach this difficult history as many textbooks and curriculum still emphasize a narrative that does not include the contribution of immigrants to the American story. Re-Imagining Migration is attempting to address this gap by teaching migration as a shared human condition and showing students of immigrant origin that they are part of the story of the U.S.  The Indiana Historical Bureau (IHB) has partnered with Re-Imagining Migration to supply original historical research and primary sources from Indiana State Library collections to create free virtual lesson plans. We hope these two new classroom resources help teachers guide students through some difficult, but highly relevant, historical events:

Resource 1: One Hundred Percent American: The Ku Klux Klan and Immigration in the 1920s

Resource 2: Save the Children: American Attitudes toward Refugees and the Wagner-Rogers Act

About the 100% American Resource

Xenophobia can sometimes present itself wrapped in the American flag, in the 1920s and today. Through understanding the 1920s Klan as a mainstream, not fringe, organization, students will learn how easily words and propaganda can become actions and official policy – like the 1924 Immigration Act and ensuing quota system. Students can learn to evaluate sources for bias and identify ways that hateful rhetoric can be disguised as patriotism. (Read more from the Historical Context essay).

The 1920s Klan was perhaps strongest in Indiana, where it infiltrated society and politics. Sources show how the hate group spread its message through newspapers, songs, picnics, and parades. And while sources are mainly from the Indiana State Library, the lessons can be applied much more widely. (View the Primary Sources).

About the Save the Children Resource

When people seek refuge from war, genocide, and oppression, who is responsible for helping them? When 300,000 refugees from Nazi persecution sought harbor in the United States in 1939, most Americans turned a blind eye. Others actively opposed new immigrants, while an admirable few worked to tear down the paper walls aimed specifically at excluding Jews. Still others hoped, if nothing else, they could at least save the children through the Wagner Rogers Bill. (Read more from the Historical Context Essay).

The sources include arguments for and against allowing 20,000 Jewish children into the United States. These arguments will help students think about who does and does not get to be an American and who gets to decide. These sources also allow for discussion of how economic arguments have been used to legitimize xenophobic policies such as the quota system. (View the Primary Sources).

Using the Teacher Resources

These resources don’t attempt to impose a curriculum on teachers, but only offer three main tools to bring discussions about immigration into the (virtual) classroom:

1. Historical Context: Each resource has an historical essay, providing the background and context for the topic. This academic essay could be used by the teacher, who then relays the content to younger students, or assigned to older students.

2. Primary Sources: IHB selected a diverse collection of primary sources, including photographs, newspaper articles, political cartoons, pamphlets, song sheets, and more. These sources will help students think about who has been considered a “desirable” immigrant or a “real” American, who has been denied refuge and citizenship rights, and how this has changed in response to demographic shifts and world events.

3. Teaching Ideas: Re-Imagining Migration provides a guide for teaching each topic, including reflection questions and thinking routines. These will help ensure that dialog remains thoughtful and respectful in the classroom. These questions and routines can be paired with each individual primary source or used more generally.

Join Us

Please join us on Wednesday, December 2 for a free webinar exploring the 100% American resource and teaching about patterns of anti-immigration prejudice.

Register at:





THH Episode 40: Giving Voice: Sarah Halter

Transcript for Giving Voice: Sarah Halter

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Halter, the executive director of the Indiana medical History Museum. If you haven’t listened to our latest episode, which covered the story of Rufus Cantrell, the so called King of Ghouls, I suggest you go do so now as we reference that story during our conversation and it might be helpful to be familiar with the story before going in. In this episode, we talk about the history of Central State Hospital and the steps the museum has taken to reintroduce the stories of the patients of Central State into the interpretation of the museum.

And now, Giving Voice.

I’m here today with Sarah Halter of the Indiana medical History Museum. We are so excited to have you on today Sarah, thanks for joining us.

Halter: Thank you.

Beckley: So I reached out to you because in our main episode, which is about Rufus Cantrell who was also known as the ghoul – or the King Ghouls – he, in his confession, in his long and varied confessions, claimed to have stolen upwards of 100 bodies from the cemetery on the site of what is now the Indiana Medical History Museum, but at that point would have been Central State Hospital. I was wondering, do you know if there is any truth in that claim or if he was just kind of blustering?

Halter: There certainly could be. It’s certainly possible. He also was supposed to have, I think he described it as something like he virtually emptied Mount Jackson Cemetery too, which is right west of the former grounds, just south of the later parts of the Central State Hospital Cemetery. The problem with Rufus Cantrell is that he was an interesting guy, he was quite a showman, and he was thought to have exaggerated or even made up things  One of the first things he did when he got out of prison, for example, was to try to get the gang back together to start a vaudeville act. He bragged a lot and it’s hard to know for sure. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he had.

Beckley: Yeah, I got a little bit of a sense of that from reading the newspaper reports. There was some truth definitely in there because there were a lot of graves that were found empty, but there was also at least a little bit of blustering in there as well. So, I thought that as far as with Central State Hospital, I was hoping that you would give a little bit of a general history on the hospital and how it became the Indiana Medical History Museum.

Halter: Sure, I’d love to. Central State Hospital opened in 1848 as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and that name doesn’t really sound very progressive to modern ears, but just using the word hospital in the name implied that the goal was to help patients recover, which was a far cry from the asylum system that had been pretty widespread before, where patients were just confined and sort of kept out of sight and out of the mind of the public and usually treated more as prisoners than as patients. So, this whole idea of treating mental illness as just that – these are something like other diseases, they can be understood and treated. So, the hospital opened in line with these new ideas and what was called moral treatment. And physicians and administrators had pretty high hopes for success. They had a lot of confidence in their own abilities. And it was a big step in the right direction, but unfortunately it was largely ineffective in many cases. It provided more humane treatment for patients and improved living conditions, and it certainly eased burdens on families, and in some ways it began a slow change in medical and public perceptions about mental illness and the people who suffer from mental illnesses , but they had a grossly deficient understanding of the nature of the diseases that they were working with. They didn’t have any effective arsenal of therapies and so the doctors really just kind of couldn’t do much regardless of their intentions. And many of the staff, including doctors, nurses, and attendants were poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly equipped emotionally for the really high stress situations that they found themselves in.

So, from the beginning there were also serious allegations of abuse and neglect as well as mismanagement and misuse of funds, nepotism, political cronyism, all of those things. In the 19th century, hospitals were perpetually overcrowded and underfunded and most of the patients really couldn’t expect a quick recovery and these hospitals, you know, this was the 1st in Indiana, they would fill up with patience and they weren’t likely to go home, and so a new hospital would be needed. So, by the late 1880s, early 1890s, these massive state hospitals were popping up all over Indiana. They were huge, they were expensive to build and to operate, and one of their responses to this which happened here at Central State Hospital was the establishment of pathological departments.

So, Dr. George Edenharter, who was the Superintendent at the time, had this idea that by learning about these diseases using this new field of pathology that was just emerging, it was pretty unheard of in the United States, it was something that was being studied in Europe, especially in Germany and in France, we could use these new ideas and these new technologies to study physical causes of mental diseases. We could learn about them learn what causes them and how to treat them, and that way we can improve outcomes for patients, which weren’t that great at the time, but we could also save the state a lot of money by eliminating this seemingly constant need for new hospitals. And so, the Pathological Department here at Central State was established in 1896 for that reason. They were studying things like tumors, lesions, circulatory problems, inflammation, hermetic injuries, congenital defects – all of these things – to learn about them, to learn about the things that can go wrong with a person’s central nervous system and to develop treatments, hopefully, for them. And to ease the burden both on the patients and on the state of Indiana.

Beckley: I have this memory of one of the first times I went to the medical History Museum and, I can’t suss out whether it is a false memory or not, that the treatment for syphilis – the malarial treatment for syphilis – was that discovered at that pathology lab, or was it just , is that some weird memory that I’ve come up with?

Halter: It was not discovered there, but that was kind of their claim to fame. That’s one of the areas that I researched quite a lot. I don’t like this, but people sometimes refer to me as the Queen of syphilis. But yeah, it was introduced there in 1925 by doctor Walter Bruetsch, who was the chief pathologist there at the time, and he had learned about it from – he was from Germany – and he had learned about it there an brought the treatment to the US. He was one of the first in the US to use it and he used it so much and so successfully that when the US public health service started their research on the topic in 1936 they invited doctor Bruetsch and Central State Hospital to participate not only by testing the efficacy of various treatments, but also by supplying all of the data that they had accumulated over the decade or more that they were using this treatment. And then when penicillin was available for research beginning in 1943, they also participated in penicillin trials. So, though malaria therapy –

Beckley: So, just for listeners at home, what is the malarial treatment for syphilis if they have never heard of it, what all does that encompass?

Halter: It sounds like a pretty scary thing, and it was potentially disastrous. Essentially, there weren’t ways to treat neurosyphilis – third stage tertiary neurosyphilis – and that was a leading cause of institutionalization before penicillin was available. So the treatment for syphilis – the first big manmade miracle drug that was on the market – was Salvarsan 606 , which was introduced in 1910. And it was pretty effective, though it had some pretty horrible side effects, and even killed some people. It was an arsenical compound that would be injected into the patient. It was more effective with primary and secondary syphilis infections, but because it couldn’t penetrate the blood brain barrier, it was useless against neurosyphilis. And so, throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, there were a couple of doctors who were sort of dabbling in this idea that you could use one disease to treat another.

So, we could intentionally infect patients with malaria, which induces a high fever, and in fact cycles of fever, and at the time they thought that it was the heat from the temperature of the fever itself that was killing the spirochete, but it was actually discovered later to be an immunological response of the body. But at any rate, they had noticed over the decades that people who had recovered from bad fever diseases often saw improvement in their psychiatric symptoms. And so, by the mid World War One and into the early 1920s, this was sort of being developed into an actual therapeutic option for patients with tertiary syphilis.

So, you would infect the patient with a particular strain of malaria that was pretty weak and fairly easy to treat with quinine – this was before penicillin, this was before any of the sulfa drugs – there really weren’t any antibiotics at the time and malaria was one of the few infectious diseases that they could actually treat because of quinine. So they used this week strain – they would inject the patient with malarial blood, so someone else’s blood who had malarial infection in their blood, would be injected into the patient to kind of give them the disease and then after 8 or 10 or maybe 12 cycles of fever, again they thought that was the mechanism by which it worked, they would then treat the patient with quinine, but not before drawing blood from them to inject into the next patient. So, that’s where it could have been really ugly, and there were instances over the years where contamination was a problem, and there were at least three instances that I know of where patients died from other infections that they contracted that way. But that was the idea that you are using one potentially deadly infectious disease to treat another.

Beckley: That’s so interesting and kind of sounds medieval to a lot of people’s ears, but it was such an advancement from absolutely no treatment to a disease that was almost a death sentence and to at least you have some hope to recover from an awful disease.

Halter: Right.

Beckley: I guess this is a good time to kind of turn to some of your work that you’ve been doing incorporating the stories of the patients of Central State into your interpretation of the museum. Because, I know that you all have a lot of specimens and I know some of maybe the more popular ones are the brain slides that you can see the tumors and stuff. Could you talk a little bit about your reinterpretation of some of those things and how you’re introducing a little bit of humanity into what goes into your interpretations?

Halter: Sure. Well, we have those because when the laboratory closed in 1968, within the year it re opened as a museum and so, there wasn’t a lot of time in between for all of this wonderful stuff to be lost. So, when it reopened in 1969 as the museum it had all of the original furnishings and equipment and some of the chemical jars and records and all of these things. And it also had all of these specimens. So, we have histological specimens, we have tissue blocks, we have some skeletal material, and then what we’re really known for are these specimen jars. They are like glass specimen jars that are on display in the museum with various organs – most of them are brains, but there are a few other organs sort of here and there – and these are organs that were collected from patients to study these different physical causes of mental illness, and also to teach students about them, about the research that was being done there. So, for the first 40 years or so that we were a museum, a lot of the interpretation of those was based on how they were interpreted when it was a functioning lab.

So, it was a place for medical students and practicing physicians could come and learn about these different problems that can develop in the brain and spinal cord and to learn about the research that was being done. So, the labels that were next to these specimen jars were very clinical descriptions of tumors and lesions. Most of them did not really give you any sense that it was even a person that was being referred to in the label. They didn’t have names, only initials and an autopsy number. They had the year and then they had these very technical descriptions of what it was that was preserved and why it was important for the students.

And so, in the last five or six years, we’ve been doing a lot here to kind of expand our focus beyond the science and the technology that was used in the building and beyond the doctors and administrators who worked here at the hospital and beyond the architecture of what, really is a pretty amazing and well preserved 19th century laboratory, to really focus more on the patients themselves and their experience. You know, this was a very vulnerable an often forgotten – and all too often mistreated – group of people who were isolated and stigmatized from their lives. There were very few people who would speak up for them and they had no real voice of their own. And so, we’ve done a lot to kind of shed more light on what their experiences were like, what their lives were like, and this was just one component of this larger effort. So, when we were working to rehumanize these specimens, it started with just a lot of research. We have a lot of records here and a lot of the medical records and autopsy records are also at the Indiana State Archives . So, we started with what we knew, and then used more genealogical and historical methods to find out more about these people. We wanted to know who they were as people, what their lives were like, what their family dynamics were. We wanted to know about their diseases, but from their perspective. So, not what went wrong inside of their brains but what were the symptoms that impacted their daily lives and their ability to build friendships and raise families and hold a job and all of those things? And we were also very curious about how their prognosis, diagnosis, treatment, and all of those things would be different today. We’ve come a long way since many of these specimens were collected and when many of these patients died, so a lot of things that might be a death sentence today – or would have been then – are not really so much now. Some of the diagnosis have changed, there are things that patients were diagnosed with which are no longer accepted diagnosis, and for a lot of things our understanding has changed. So, a person with a particular type of tumor today would have a very different experience than someone who had the same kind of tumor 100 years ago. So, we just wanted to kind of tell those stories.

It took us about five years to get all that research done. We have 53 specimens on display in our anatomical museum, and we learned a lot more about some than others, but we have information about each of them. And, last year, July 2019, we unveiled this new interpretation of the specimens. We kept the old labels, those are important too, it’s part of the specimen’s history in terms of kind of the specimen as an object, if you will, and it’s important for the medical folks who come to visit the museum to see those as well because they understand more of it than a layperson who comes in. So, we didn’t want to get rid of that interpretation, but we wanted to tell the whole story. And so, the new labels tell the human story next to the old labels with those clinical details.

Beckley: That’s an amazing project and I imagined visitors can connect on a whole different level to your new labels, even if those two labels are side by side, you’re going to learn one thing from the older labels but then you’re going to connect at a whole different level to seeing the details of somebody’s life and how their diagnosis affected their daily life and their relationships and everything like that. I imagine it just brings a whole new depth to the museum.

Halter: Yeah, I think it does. I like to kind of listen in when groups are in there. It’s very interesting. I mean, the project is something that I tried to do before I was the director, but it wasn’t a priority for the organization, so until I was the director of the museum, we weren’t really able to move forward with it, but it’s something that has been really important to me personally for a very long time . And the process of learning about these people, I mean it was emotional and it was overwhelming at times, it was just very inspiring, and it felt well worth the effort. So I like to see how other people kind of relate to these stories. It’s very interesting.

Beckley: If our listeners are wanting to learn more about these stories and see them than ourselves, could you tell them how to do that, whether that be online during covid era or whether that be in person if you guys are open – do some plugs. Where can folks find you guys?

Halter: Sure, we have reopened. We have a pretty limited capacity at the moment because we have small spaces in the building and we have an older volunteer core and want to make sure that we keep everybody here safe and all of the visitors as well. We also want to, frankly, set a good example for the community as a medical museum. We felt a responsibility to do that. So we can’t have drop-ins like we used to, but we are open by appointment. You can call to make an appointment or visit our website for more information . It’s You can see all of the specimens here on site. We also are adding new stories to the website periodically. If you go to, you can find an online version of this exhibit and there is a lot of interpretive material and all of that, but also all of the individual specimens, and you can see photographs of the specimens and then read both the new labels and the old labels right there on our website and we add a few of those every once in a while. I think there are maybe 10 or 15 of them right now.

Beckley: I will make sure that we will go in and link all of those links in the show notes which can be found at and we will make sure that we get all of those in there. Thank you so much, Sarah, for coming on the show today. It was a real pleasure to talk to you.

Halter: Thank you.

Once again, I want to thank Sarah for taking the time to talk with me today. Remember, if you are interested in learning more about the work being done at the Indiana Medical History Museum, you can visit their website at or find the links to their site in the transcripts for this episode which can be found at We’ll be back next month with the final episode of 2020. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

Putting the Vote to Work: How Women Voters and Poll Workers Rallied during the 1920 Election

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed

A caravan of automobiles, expertly commanded by Evansville women, arrived at polling stations on November 2, 1920. That day, Hoosier women exercised their right to vote for the first time in history. In their decades-long work for enfranchisement, many women found their political voice, gained self-assurance by withstanding public scrutiny, and mastered the art of grassroots mobilization. This served them well on Election Day, when the Evansville Courier reported that “One girl had been held up by some of her boy friends who were attempting to remove the political insigna [sic] from her car, but she was demonstrating the fact that this day had women came into their own and was defending her car and her party valiantly. From somewhere another young amazon came to her rescue. It was a good natured scrap but the girls won.”

Indeed, the activism of the suffrage movement carried over to ballot box. In Evansville, women in “conspicuously labeled” automobiles ensured that no sister was left behind and picked them “up off the streets and hauled to their respective voting places, irrespective of politics.” Hoosier women invoked the communal spirit of the homefront during World War I, when they organized for war work and suffrage. Munster women drove to women’s houses to watch their children, while the “mistress of the house was taken to the polls.” In Evansville, as with cities across the country, “Many women took turns with her neighbor in minding the children while the other voted. That plan worked nicely. The political women workers also took charge of the children while mothers voted.”

Some working women in Evansville arrived at the polls early, so as to miss as little work as possible. Other women, like those employed by the Fendrich Cigar Factory, were given a “half holiday,” so they could exercise their newfound right. On the northside of the city, women went from “house to house,” arranging for housewives to vote earlier in the day. This would “clear the way for factory workers who could vote only between 5 and 6 o’clock.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 13, Indiana State Library microfilm.

Once at the polls, women capitalized on the long-awaited opportunity. In Noblesville, papers reported that it was common for women who encountered long voting lines to insist that men let them vote first. The men obliged. Women at one precinct demonstrated passion equal to that of male voters, as they “became involved in some pretty heated arguments over politics,” but quickly disengaged when polling officials intervened. Muncie women, especially those who worked, voted early and the Star Press reported that “Intense interest was manifested in the campaign issues by the women clerks in many uptown stores and there were many heated debates overheard by those so fortunate to be far back in line awaiting their turn to vote.” As with Noblesville, the Muncie debates dissipated without incident.

Mrs. F. T. Reed, of Indianapolis, wouldn’t let a car accident, which left her “badly bruised and shaken,” keep her from casting her vote. After an ambulance took her home, she rested for a few hours before returning to the polls. Inspector of the Third Precinct of the 18th Ward, Charles H. Taylor, observed that women voted “intelligently, quickly, and manifested more interest in the election than the men.” In Gary, mothers hurried to the polls in the early morning. The Gary Evening Post remarked, “She didn’t stop outside to chat though, just hurried back home and resumed her management of a successful home while all the silly talk about mother neglecting her home and children to vote evaporated.”

Some Hoosiers marveled that women needed little help with the process of voting. In Indianapolis, “Contrary to expectations, women voters did not become confused when they reached the voting booths.” Far from meek or bewildered, one Evansville woman cast her vote so fervently that she ripped the handle off of the machine. The Noblesville Ledger remarked that Hamilton County women, some of whom voted in their “kitchen apparel” so as not to waste any time, “walked into the precincts as if they had been voting all of their lives.” The Tipton Daily Tribune attributed the success of local women in voting “to the interest they took in learning to vote. The voting schools in Tipton and over the county were filled each day with women trying out the system and receiving instructions.”

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed

African American women, who had been so integral to obtaining the vote, too turned out in droves. The Indianapolis News noted that in some parts of the city “colored women swarmed to the polls in greater numbers than men.” According to historian Jill Weiss Simins, party organizers arranged for a cannon blast to rouse residents of the Fifth Ward, who lived in predominantly-Black areas like Indiana Avenue and Ransom Place, to ensure that no voters overslept on Election Day. Weiss Simins vividly depicted the moment:

The Black women of the Fifth Ward’s Second Precinct dressed up in high-heeled shoes and lace up boots, donned coats with wide collars and fur edging, and sported a variety of hats trimmed with satin ribbons. They made their way to 904 Indiana Avenue, walking past several shops, a large dry goods store, and a doctor’s office, and lined up outside ‘Wm. D. Chitwood Fruits,’ a large market that served as their polling place.

Like many white women voters, they endured long lines in the bitter cold and generally voted for the Republican Party. Unlike white voters, their livelihood and well-being depended much more on the results of the election, as Indiana Equal Suffrage Branch #7 president Carrie Barnes contended, “We all feel that colored women have need for the ballot that white women have, and a great many that they have not.”*

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 6, Indiana State Library microfilm.

The women who staffed the polls displayed the same grit as female voters. In Elwood, women workers did whatever was asked of them, “holding the poll books in the chill November air.” In Culver, Republican women instructed voters how to properly mark their ballots, occasionally ducking into tents equipped with stoves to keep them warm. Hoosier reporters across the state commended the efficiency with which women worked the polls. The Elwood Call-Leader wrote, “The Republican and Democratic chairmen owe much to the efforts of the woman who entered the campaign with a commendable spirit and their participation lent dignity all along the line.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 5, Indiana State Library microfilm.

While Hoosier women suffered no fools at the polls, their presence also produced a kinder, more dignified election than of those past. The Evansville Courier noted that “At the polls there was nothing but courtesy and kindliness, showing that the softening influence of a woman’s presence was felt even there.” The Richmond Item reported that the barbs thrown at voters whose candidates lost were noticeably gentler and that no brawls erupted due to the attendance of women. Even the ballots were cleaner, as the Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “All the ballots marked by the ladies were folded with an exactness and neatness which could easily be detected when the ballot boxes were opened.”

Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 11, Indiana State Library microfilm.

On the evening of November 2, Hoosier women, likely exhausted yet proud, waited as their ballots were counted. Evansville residents watched returns projected from stereoptican slides onto a twenty-four foot wide screen hung from a downtown building. In Muncie, crowds watched returns projected by the Star Press on a screen hanging from the YMCA building. The 1920 election experienced the largest voter turnout in the state’s history, with 71,000 of 76,000 registered women casting their vote in Indianapolis. The Black vote in Indiana, an estimated 45,000 voters, played a large part in the national election and shifted “the balance of power,” according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the victors declared, many women held election parties at sites like the Victoria Hotel and the mayor’s office in Gary.

The 1920 election was significant not only because women skyrocketed voting rates, but because they changed the nature of elections. Hoosier women demonstrated how to conduct an election not only efficiently, but respectfully and with kindness. Evansville Democrat Walter Wunderlich said he had never seen “anything like it before in politics” and that “I wouldn’t go back to the old conditions for anything. I haven’t heard a quarrel all day.” The ingenuity women displayed in getting their fellow voters to the polls, regardless of party affiliation, was truly American. The spirit of Indiana’s suffragists lives on through the League of Women Voters, which formed with the ratification of the 19th Amendment and continues to ensure that voters are informed, empowered, and show up for the democratic process.

* While some southern states disenfranchised Black women through state election laws and voter intimidation, Black women in Indiana faced no legal obstacles to voting.

*All newspaper articles accessed via unless otherwise specified.

“Clean Sweep is Made,” Star Press (Muncie, IN), November 3, 1920, 4.

“Did You Hear That,” The Times (Munster, IN), November 3, 1920, 1.

“Election Crowd Good Natured,” Richmond Item, November 3, 1920, 2.

“Election is Quietest Ever,” Evansville Courier, November 3, 1920, 11, Indiana State Library microfilm.

“Indiana Women Wear Boudoir Caps to Elections,” Gary Daily Tribune, November 2, 1920, 1, Indiana State Library microfilm.

“Less Than 5,000 of 76,000 Women in County Fail to Vote,” Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1920, 11.

“Made Fine Showing,” Tipton Daily Tribune, November 3, 1920, 1.

Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless:” The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2020) , 204.

Jill Weiss Simins, “A ‘Record of Protest Against Prejudice’: Black Hoosier Women Vote in the 1920 Election,” Indiana Historical Bureau (2020).

“The Election,” Culver Citizen, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Ballot Early and Fast,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Filled All Requirements in Election Day Duties,” Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Had Good Time at Election,” Noblesville Ledger, November 3, 1920, 1.

“Women Hurry to Polls to Cast Ballots,” Gary Evening Post, November 2, 1920, 7, Indiana State Library microfilm.

“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.