Physicist Melba N. Phillips: Indiana’s Oppenheimer Connection

 

Melba Phillips at Berkley, 1930, photo courtesy of Ellen and John Vinson, accessed Physics in Perspective 10 (2008).

Physicist and educator Dr. Melba Phillips of Pike County, Indiana was an esteemed colleague of J. Robert Oppenheimer and important innovator in her own right. The two young scientists introduced a foundational physics principle, the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, before taking separate paths. Phillips became an influential educator while Oppenheimer . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the movie for you. And while Phillips does not appear in the film, she did play an important role in the “heroic age” of physics, especially those exciting years that she and Oppenheimer spent at the University of California, Berkeley.

Melba Newell Phillips was born in 1907 in Pike County to a family of teachers. She graduated early from Union High School and enrolled at Oakland City College (now University) in Gibson County. There she benefitted from several important mentors, developed foundational math and science skills (though she recalled learning more physics from textbooks than her professor), and pushed back against conservative rules and instructors. This independence and refusal to compromise would serve her later in life. [1]

After graduating in 1926, Phillips taught briefly at Union High School before accepting a teaching fellowship at Battle Creek College in Michigan. She taught classes and filled in the gaps in her physics education by taking advanced courses. She earned her master’s degree in 1928 at the age of twenty one. In the summer of 1929 she attended a symposium on theoretical physics at the University of Michigan taught by Edward U. Condon, a distinguished and innovative physicist who would later join the Manhattan Project. Phillips impressed Condon and on his recommendation was accepted to the PhD program at the University of California Berkley in 1930. [2]

There was no better place for a young physicist in the 1930s than Berkeley. After World War I, the university devoted abundant resources to the physics department. They hired innovative scientists as teachers and built cutting-edge facilities to encourage experimentation. For example, the university hired renowned scientist Ernest Lawrence, who in 1931 invented the famous cyclotron, a particle accelerator that allowed the user to smash open atomic nuclei. Lawrence worked with his fellow faculty members Emilio Segre and Owen Chamberlain using both theoretical physics and the cyclotron to confirm the existence of the antiproton. All three received the Nobel Prize and joined the Manhattan Project.[3]

J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley, 1948, gelatin silver print, Arnold Newman (American, 1918-2006), Gift of David Newman and Deirdre Steinberg, © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images 1948, 2006.84.3, accessed the Portland Art Museum.

The faculty member who worked most closely with Phillips, greatly influenced her, and became a lifelong friend: the renowned J. Robert Oppenheimer. He had come to Berkeley as an assistant professor of physics in the summer of 1929, shortly before Phillips. He taught theoretical physics, an area in which Berkeley was weak. Oppenheimer explained that he didn’t teach students to prepare them for careers, but instead was motivated by including them in the unsolved problems of the physics world.  He stated:

I didn’t start to make a school. I didn’t start to look for students. I started really as a propagator of the theory which I loved, about which I continued to learn more, and which was not well understood and which was very rich. The pattern was not that of someone who takes on a course and teaches students preparing for a variety of careers but of explaining first to faculty, staff, and colleagues and then to anyone who would listen, what this was about, what had been learned, what the unsolved problems were. [4]

Phillips was profoundly drawn to solving the unknown, something she had ruminated on as an undergrad. Oppenheimer was the perfect mentor for her curious nature and ambition.

By 1931, Phillips had chosen two topics within the field of experimental physics to study and work into her doctoral dissertation.  (Experimental physics is the branch of the field dealing with observation of physical phenomenon through experimentation to test a theory. In turn, these experiments further shape new theories. They are symbiotic sub-disciplines.) As theoretical physics was Oppenheimer’s area of expertise, he became her advisor, and almost immediately, her friend. By 1933, she had worked both of her topics into a dissertation–each of which could had been a dissertation unto itself, according to her peers. [5] Physicists Dwight Neuenschwander and Sallie Watkins explained:

Melba was not the kind of physicist who enters a new field, picks all the low-hanging fruit, and moves on. Rather, the fruit that Melba harvested required her to climb high into some very tall trees. She solved difficult problems, and was a stickler for detail, to do the job right . . . Melba asked genuine questions in her papers. To answer them she invoked fundamental principles, then developed them with sophisticated calculations and insightful approximations and, quite often, with numerical integrations that had to be done by hand because programmable computers had not yet been invented.[6]

Even before her dissertation was finished, several academic journals published Phillips’s work. She had begun to make a name for herself in the physics world and had made herself the peer of her mentor. In 1933, Oppenheimer called her “an extraordinarily able woman” with “a genuine vocation for mathematics and theoretical physics, and an outstanding talent for it.” [7]  He praised her “difficult and important” contributions to theoretical physics while studying at Berkeley and stated that he could “fully recommend her as a valuable member of any university physics department in the country,” although he would “regard it as a very real loss” t0 his department.[8] A full-time job remained elusive, in part because of the Great Depression, but gender discrimination undoubtedly contributed. After earning her Ph.D. in 1933, Dr. Phillips stayed nominally employed with a combination of work as a research assistant and a part-time instructor. She used her extra time at the university to advance her career.

During this period, Phillips and Oppenheimer worked together on problems of theoretical physics, while their colleague Ernest Lawrence’s experiments using the university’s particle accelerator confirmed their theories. In a 1935 paper, Phillips and Oppenheimer proposed a process that was a type of deuteron-induced nuclear reaction, which became a staple of nuclear physics; the New York Times called the discovery a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” [9] This Oppenheimer-Phillips process, as it was called, explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei.” [10] The paper was widely circulated and praised. The Oppenheimer-Phillips process secured Phillips’s place in the history of physics.

Despite her accomplishments and praise from colleagues, Phillips faced challenges. While she had ascended to the peak of her field in a time of unprecedented progress, she bore the historical burden of gender discrimination within that field. According to science writer Margaret Wertheimer, physics has historically been more resistant to women than other scientific fields because of its quest to discover the truths of the universe that descend from theological traditions. While science and religion have been depicted as at odds during the last few centuries, this was not always the case. As the study of physics developed during the Middle Ages, its goal was a religious one: to understand the ultimate truths of the universe through mathematics. It followed then that the social, cultural, and political forces that prevented women from interpreting sacred texts or entering the clergy applied to the field of physics. [11] Some of these prejudices against women remained in the 1930s.

While Phillips clearly had to deal with the burden of exclusion in the field upon her arrival in Berkeley, she was not always comfortable talking about her experience. In interviews she was careful not to insult the many supportive colleagues while speaking of those who were not. Phillips stated:

As in my first college year I was often the only woman in the class, but classes were never large, and the competition was fun rather than otherwise . . . During the five years I lived in Berkeley four women took PhD’s in physics, and perhaps an equal number stopped with the M.A. . . . Were women discriminated against in the department? It did not seem so, certainly not as students. We had teaching fellowships on par with everyone else. It is true that there was one professor who would not take women assistants but it was no hardship to miss that option. [12]

In the same recollection Phillips referred vaguely to “unfair decisions” made by the university about salaries and stipends, but discounted “overt discrimination on account of sex.”[13] Clearly then, Phillips saw that women were not getting equal access to facilities, credit for discoveries, and pay. In fact, physicist and chemist Francis Bonner, who would go on to work on the Manhattan Project, explained that normally such an accomplishment as publishing a new physics principle considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics,” would have meant a faculty appointment [14]. Phillips received no such appointment. This could be partly because of her gender and partly because of the depressed economy. So perhaps in interpreting the climate at Berkeley at this time, we should use Phillips’s own words whenever possible. She seemed to distinguish between “unfair practices” and “overt discrimination.” And while the former will persist throughout this examination of her career and its challenges, one example of the latter practically jumps off the pages of national newspapers.

In February 1934, Phillips’s name appeared in headlines across the country, but not for her groundbreaking work in physics. Instead, she appeared in the national press for the first time, infantilized and sexualized as a poor, tearful girl who was nearly scandalized by her professor. This incident is worth examining in some detail not only for further evidence of the prejudice Phillips faced, but also because the story continues to be retold without deeper examination in biographies of Oppenheimer.

On February 14, the Associated Press (AP) reported:

Robert Oppenheimer, 30, physics professor of the University of California, took Miss Melba Phillips of Berkeley, a research assistant, for a ride in the Berkeley hills Monday night. Prof. Oppenheimer then parked the automobile, made Miss Phillips comfortable by wrapping a blanket around her, and said he was going for a walk. Time passed but Miss Phillips waited and waited. Two hours later Policeman Albert Nevin passed by. “My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” Miss Phillips told the officer tearfully. [15]

The article continued to state that the police raised an alarm and searched the area to no avail.  Eventually, they looked for Oppenheimer at the faculty club where he lived.  The AP reported:

And there they found him – fast asleep in bed.  “Miss Phillips?” he exclaimed to the officers.  “Oh, my word! I forgot all about her. I just walked and walked, and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”[16]

The International News Service (INS) also picked up the story, with some minor tweaks.  In the INS version “Pretty Miss Melba Phillips was found in an automobile in the Berkeley Hills by police at an early hour in the morning.” Oppenheimer had driven her “into the hills to watch the colorful panorama” of a sunrise. After he was found in his quarters, he supposedly stated, “Ah, I forgot Miss Phillips. I just walked home and went to bed.” [17]

Local newspapers included even more questionable details. One article was titled “Absent-Minded Prof. Parks Girl and Then Takes Self Home and to Bed While She Hails Cops For Aid.” The extra details in this article include the following:

Professor Oppenheimer parked the car, wrapped Miss Phillips in a blanket.
“Comfy?” inquired the prof.
“Uh-huh!” said Miss Phillips.
“I’ll be back presently,” said her escort. “I’m going for a walk.”
Miss Phillips waited and waited. The night was dark. Crickets yodled [sic] in the bushes. Insects whirred and crawled. Off in the distance a dog barked. . . Miss Phillips became jittery. Two hours later Policeman Albert Nevin was hailed by a faint feminine voice.
“My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” said Miss Phillips tearfully. [18]

The article–rife with action verbs–concludes with a description of the capable policemen.  The cops “hit” the phones, police cars “hurried to the spot,” the men “combed the bushes,” and “searched and sleuthed.” When the article got to the part where they found Oppenheimer at the faculty club, it reported that the professor stated, “Whazzat? Girl? Miss Phillips? Oh, Lord–my word! By George! I forgot all about her.”[19] The implication is that Dr. Phillips, an accomplished physicist and colleague, was solely an object of sexual interest and once the great man’s mind had moved on to other things, she was forgotten, disposable. By emphasizing the “early morning hours” and the automobile parked in a remote location, the newspapers were more than alluding to some sort of sexual relationship. Primary sources refute this allegation.

Phillips’s life experiences and attitude to this point show her as a brave and self-confident young woman. The idea that she would have been tearful because she was left waiting in a car seems unlikely.  Also, she was comfortable in nature. She grew up on a farm surrounded by woods where she knew all the wildflowers and where the morels grew. [20] It’s unlikely she was terrified by the “yodel” of crickets. She had successfully navigated much more trying challenges than spending some unexpected time alone by this by this point in her life.

Melba Phillips at Berkley with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Car, photograph, circa 1930s, Courtesy of Ellen Vinson, accessed Physics in Perspective 10 (2008).

Another reason to doubt the wire services’ version of this story is that Phillips was an experienced driver. Several photographs of Phillips taken at Berkeley show her driving Oppenheimer’s car or posing confidently next to it. Another time, she and another colleague went out driving when they ran over a milk bottle and flattened a tire. Her colleague went to find a mechanic and when they returned Phillips had changed the tire and was relaxing in the car.  As her colleague remembered, “Melba could be handy with a wrench.” [21] If Phillips had wanted to go home or go searching for the missing Oppenheimer, she would have felt perfectly comfortable driving the car.

“Melba Phillips Sits at the Wheel of Robert Oppenheimer’s Car,” photograph, circa 1930s, Courtesy of AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, accessed Society of Physics Students, spsnational.org

Its perhaps not shocking that newspapers crafted such a salacious story in 1934. What is surprising is that biographers of Oppenheimer continued to cite these articles as evidence of a romantic relationship. For example, the authors of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote: “For a short time, Robert dated his doctoral student Melba Phillips, and one evening he drove her out to Grizzly Peak, in the Berkeley hills.” The authors then go on to rely on the wire services’ version of events described previously. They cite no other sources as evidence that the colleagues had a romantic relationship. [22]

Further evidence of a strictly collegial relationship comes from Oppenheimer’s letters. Oppenheimer describes Phillips, or “Melber,” as he sometimes called her, as only a professional colleague or simply a friend.  In January 1932, Oppenheimer wrote Ernst Lawrence stating that Phillips was doing well and had written him “of some new evidence on the degree of disassociation of potassium . . . Her paper is nearly written up.”[23] In the Fall of 1932, he wrote his brother Frank that “Melber and Lawrence,” among others, “send you greetings.”[24] In January 1935, he wrote his brother concerning theoretical physics problems and noted that “as soon as I get back to Berkeley Melber & I will have a careful look at the calculations.”[25] In Spring 1935, he wrote Lawrence concerning the paper that would define the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process: “I am sending Melba today an outline of the calculations & plots I have made for the deuteron transmutations functions.”[26] In this letter, he noted that Phillips was working out the math calculations for the problem. There is no evidence in these published letters of anything but Oppenheimer’s respect for Phillips as a colleague.

Photo: Collection of Ellen Vinson.

In short, the portrait of Phillips painted by these articles looked nothing like the accomplished physicist and confident young woman she had become. In February of 1934, when these articles ran, Dr. Phillips had completed and defended her Ph.D. dissertation and published a series of papers in academic journals on multi-electron atoms. She was also working for the university as a part-time instructor, while she and Oppenheimer developed their famous process on the “transmutation function for deuterons” and preparing it for publication. But in her first appearance on the national stage, predating the publication of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process by only a few months, she was pretty, helpless, tearful Miss Melba Phillips, the forgotten assistant.  Newspapers across the country were still running the article as late as March.

Despite this wound to her pride, Phillips continued to achieve within her field and went on to become an influential physics educator. But many challenges still lay ahead of her, including advocating for the peaceful application of nuclear energy in the wake of the atomic bomb and facing a Senate subcommittee charging her with communist affiliation during the McCarthy Era. There is much more to learn about Melba Phillips. Check out the state historical marker, additional blog posts, and this podcast episode to learn more.  Or maybe we will see you at the movies this week to see Phillips’s friend Oppenheimer on the big screen.

 

Notes:

[1] Randy Mills, “A Source of Strength and Inspiration: Melba Phillips at Oakland City College,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 30, No. 3 (2018): 38-45.

[2] Dwight E. Neuenschwander and Sallie A. Watkins, “In Appreciation: Professional and Personal Coherence: The Life and Work of Melba Newell Phillips,” Physics in Perspective 10 (2008): 295-364, accessed INSPIRE, Indiana State Library.

[3] “Our History,” Berkeley Physics, University of California, Berkeley, accessed physics.berkeley.edu/about-us/history.

[4] “Oppenheimer: A Life,” J. Robert Oppenheimer Centennial Exhibition, Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, accessed cstms.berkeley.edu/.

[5] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 305-8.

[6] Ibid., 305.

[7] J. Robert Oppenheimer to May L. Cheney, April 10, 1933 in Neuenschwander and Watkins, 308.

[8] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 302. The authors quote a private letter.

[9] “J. Robert Oppenheimer, Atom Bomb Pioneer, Dies,” New York Times, February 19, 1967, 1, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.

[10] Press release, “Melba Phillips, Physicist, 1907-2004,” University of Chicago News Office, November 16, 2004, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml.

[11] Margaret Wertheim, Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 9.

[12] Melba Phillips, “Studying Physics in the Thirties – A Personal Recollection,” April 24, 1978, Folder 2: Correspondence, 1948-1999, Box 1, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Press release, “Melba Phillips, Physicist, 1907-2004,” University of Chicago News Office, November 16, 2004, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml.

[15] “Professor in Adage’s Proof,” Sun Bernardino County Sun, February 14, 1934, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “Absent Minded Professor Leaves Girl in Car, Walks Home and Retires,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 14, 1934, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Professor True to Form,” Indiana (PA) Gazette, February 14, 1934, accessed Newspapers.com; “Girl Is Left in Auto Parked in Hills By Absent Minded Prof,” (Lebanon, PA) Evening Report, February 14, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[18] “Absent-Minded Prof. Parks Girls And Then Takes Self Home and to Bed While She Hails Cops For Aid,” Santa Cruz Evening News, February 14, 1934, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lisa L. Williams to Randy Mills, July 13, 2018, personal collection of Randy Mills, professor emeritus, Oakland City University.

[21] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 305.

[22] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006), 95-96.

[23] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Ernest Lawrence, January 3, 1932 in Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, eds., Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (Harvard University Press, 1980), 147.

[34] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Frank Oppenheimer, Fall 1932 in Kimball and Weiner, 157-8.

[25] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Frank Oppenheimer, January 11, 1935 in Kimball and Weiner, 189.

[26] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Ernest Lawrence, Spring 1935 in Kimball and Weiner, 193.

Jewish Immigrant Assimilation and Labor in the Early Twentieth Century

Women from an Indianapolis citizens class, courtesy of the Neighborhood of Saturdays archive.

Since the early 1800s, Jews have lived and worked in the Hoosier State. Indiana’s Jewish population has fluctuated over time, with  immigration increasing at the turn of the twentieth century. As Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States, many settled in the Midwest, as new factories and businesses sought laborers. In comparison to their treatment in the South, the Midwest was more accepting of immigrants than other parts of the country. On December 22, 1907, the Indianapolis Star reported that upon arriving in Louisiana to look for work, a group of thirty immigrants from southern Europe were “attacked, beaten and robbed” not once, but twice. Such violence in the South was common and, therefore, encouraged immigrants to stay in the North and Midwest.

Jewish identity in America has changed over time. At times of early settlement and migration, Jewish communities were comprised of a variety of cultures, traditions, and practices. Early Jewish immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Germany while immigrants who arrived later included Sephardic Jews from southern Europe and other Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe.[i] In the early twentieth century, as native-born Americans began to scrutinize and resist immigration, established Ashkenazi Jews began to push for the assimilation of Jewish immigrants in attempts to mitigate waves of antisemitism. As part of this initiative, Jewish philanthropic organizations provided the newcomers with aid and employment opportunities, forever changing the cultural landscape of the United States as philanthropic organizations relocated immigrants from New York to cities across the country like Indianapolis, Evansville, and Fort Wayne. While the newcomers were aided by organizations like the Jewish Federation, these same organizations often encouraged the erasure of cultural markers and traditions in an attempt to avoid increasing antisemitism in Indiana.

The “Jewish Question”

The “Jewish Question” was used by writers, philosophers, and theologians beginning in the nineteenth century to argue that a Jewish presence in society was a problem that must be solved. To many supporters of the belief, the “solution” was for Jews to discard their traditions and customs to assimilate into society. Racial antisemites, however, argued that there were no true solutions because Jews were members of a separate, unchangeable race who were incapable of assimilating.

Antisemitism has been encoded in texts throughout history on every continent, in different languages and in different cultures. Its reach is unparalleled both historically and in the present moment as the group is repeatedly depicted as the “other,” removed from society and painted as incapable of true integration.[ii] In an Evansville Journal October 24th, 1923 article, the Ku Klux Klan illustrated this point with the statement:

As a race the Jewish are law-abiding. They are of physically wholesome stock. They are mentally alert. They are a family people. But their homes are not American, but Jewish homes, into which we cannot go and from which they will never emerge for a real intermingling with America.

This statement was published nearly a century after Jews began emigrating to the United States. Yet, in that century, antisemitism in America persisted. In fact, antisemitism spread across the country and developed a strong foothold in this time, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s.[iii] While the experiences of Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century and those in the twentieth century differ, the persistence of antisemitism deeply affected both groups and influenced Jewish settlement trends.

Boston Globe, August 15, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

Early Jewish settlement in the United States began in the 1840s and 1850s, when German Jewish immigrants arrived with the hope of finding new opportunities. Many of these early arrivals became well established as merchants and business owners. These early immigrants experienced less systematic and social prejudice compared to that experienced by later waves of eastern and southern European Jews, who would arrive at the turn of the twentieth century.[iv] German Jewish immigrants frequently rejected the practices and behaviors associated with what they saw as “traditional” Jewish life; for their part, eastern European Jews were typically more invested in Jewish cultural practices, and they were more easily identifiable as members of Orthodox sects, such as the Hasidim. [v]

Incidents of antisemitism and nationalism began to escalate at the turn of the twentieth century as the U.S. experienced  a large influx of eastern European Jews—between the years of 1881 and 1924, roughly 2.5 million eastern European Jews emigrated to the country.[vi]  The September 29th, 1903 issue of the Indianapolis Journal published an article titled “Danger of Immigration,” which featured a sermon from New York Reverend Robert S. MacArthur, in which he cautioned against the influx of foreigners:

The recent marvelous expansion in American life has given a cosmopolitan character. . . . We must, however, teach the old world that it cannot empty its poorhouses and prisons by dumping its paupers, Anarchists and other criminals on American soil. American is worthy the best immigrants.

Jewish Americans feared these kinds of perceptions would grow in the public’s mind and thus took action. Jewish leaders created and expanded organizations and charities to aid Jews upon their arrival in New York. One such Jewish philanthropic organization assisted thousands of immigrants in relocating from New York to over 1,000 cities across the country.[vii] Together with this relocation initiative, community organizations—such as the Indiana Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis—developed assimilation education resources intent on rapidly “Americanizing” the newcomers.

Assimilation, Acculturation, and Americanization

The concepts of “assimilation” and “acculturation” have long been central to discussions of immigration. Their definitions have continued to evolve over time, with historians and social scientists debating what it means to assimilate or acculturate.[viii] The literature on immigration typically defines acculturation as the process whereby a minority group or individual adopts elements of another cultural group and integrates them into their native cultural practices. Assimilation is an outcome of the acculturation process, in which the individual completely adopts the practices and lifestyles of another cultural group while losing those of their culture of origin.[ix]

These concepts became more mainstream at the turn of the twentieth century as the United States saw unprecedented rates of immigration. The country’s discussion was narrowed even further as the idea of “Americanization” emerged. Similar to assimilation, Americanization implied the adoption of “American” behaviors, practices, and values. What specific traits, however, identified a person as distinctly “American” versus “non-American” were difficult to pinpoint.[x]

Letter from Chas Graf, accessed Ancestry.com.

Upon their arrival in the United States, immigrants experienced culture shock in their new surroundings, regardless of their origin. For those who did not have family and friends already established in the country, it was difficult to move away from New York, as they were unfamiliar with the country and transportation systems. Outside of New York, it could be difficult to adhere to Jewish practices; Chas Graff reflected in a July 22nd, 1908 [xi] that it was impossible to find kosher meat anywhere near Logansport, Indiana (photo included). Because Jewish populations were small throughout Indiana, this issue consistently arose during the early twentieth century. Language barriers were an additional challenge, as many immigrants had limited proficiency in English. An Indianapolis Jewish immigrant named William Silberman reflected to the IRO in an undated letter, “I don’t know where to go and don’t master the English.”[xii]

Beginning in the late 1800s and gaining in popularity in the 1900s, an Americanization education movement took hold across the United States with the goal of expediting the assimilation process. A hierarchy of immigrants was established, with the light-skinned, blonde haired so-called “Old Stock” immigrants from northern and western Europe being viewed as superior to the dark-skinned southern and eastern Europeans. The former was considered to be model immigrants, known for their quick assimilation and gentile practices, while the latter were viewed as unrefined, poor-mannered individuals in dire need of education on how to “properly” behave.[xiii]

Labor: Barriers and Opportunities

At the time of this mass migration, the United States’s labor market was drastically changing. Manufacturers moved towards models of mass production, seeking to reduce employee downtime and increase production, and unions began to form to advocate for workers’ rights and workplace condition improvements. Unfortunately, many unions would not accept Jews into their organizations on the basis of not meeting a central criterion: being white.[xiv] While their predecessors, Ashkenazi German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century, were typically better accepted by their neighbors due to their practicing of Reform Judaism, Sephardic Jewish immigrants and Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were more racialized. This racialization reduced opportunities for these groups, limiting what types of jobs and compensation were available to them to a greater extent than their German predecessors.[xv]

Jewish community members began to grow concerned about the gentile public’s perception of Jews changing due to these so-called ghettos. They were concerned that judgement of the new wave of immigrants would affect the livelihoods of the Jewish immigrants who had arrived years prior.[xvi] Journalistic entities were taking notice of the change, frequently publishing stories reflecting on the country’s Jewish presence. On August 8th, 1907, for instance, the Indianapolis News featured a story titled “Wave of Crime Due to Idle Immigrants.” The article suggested that immigrants in New York struggled to find and hold employment in the congested city and, as a result, the unemployed were “attacking children” because they were simply “floating around with nothing to do.” The author suggested immigrants would be of much more useful if they were sent elsewhere and utilized for labor, writing: “Now they are picking pockets, whereas if they were in the South, they would be picking cotton.”

Despite their desire to work and establish themselves in America, eastern and southern European immigrants were criticized and critiqued for their presence in the country and questioned for their work ethic. During this mass migration period, newspapers published numerous articles comparing the newcomers to previous immigrants, claiming that their predecessors were more intelligent, hardy, and industrious and “better stock.” This argument has persisted throughout history—every immigration period is met with resistance, and new arrivals are often compared to and classified as inferior to those who arrived years earlier. However, every generation of immigrants is burdened with problems similar to their predecessors. The United States continues to resist immigration today by using the same arguments as were seen in the early twentieth century, questioning the character of new arrivals, debating whether their labor was beneficial to the country, and making declarations that previous immigrants were better suited for life in America. Immigrants have historically been identified as burdens on society unless they were skilled in a trade or willing to work undesirable jobs, which has often led to their exploitation.

Many companies used this period of mass migration to exploit the labor of incoming immigrants, locking them into contracts with unlivable wages. Isaac Benjamin Cohen, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside, immigrated from Monastir in 1906. Upon landing at Ellis Island, Cohen was approached by representatives from a mining company, who offered him a position in Wheeling, West Virginia. Cohen accepted the offer, hoping to save up the money necessary to bring his wife and two daughters to join him in America. The work was laborious, and the wages were so little that after months of working for the company, Cohen was indebted to them and not permitted to leave. He felt that he had no choice but to escape in the night. Upon doing so, he rode a train to Chicago, where he was given word that jobs were available in Indianapolis. The Circle City provided him with better opportunities, allowing him to earn a livable wage and eventually pay for his family’s voyage to the country.[xvii]

The Industrial Removal Office

With the influx of eastern European immigrants arriving in New York, established Jewish Americans, many of them with their origins in western Europe, particularly Germany, feared the growing presence of Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jews and Sephardic southern European Jews in New York would create new waves of antisemitism, which in turn could threaten their own status as respected Americans. Beyond the concerns for their own reputations, Jewish Americans sympathized with immigrants and did not wish to see them exploited. These motivations inspired the creation of the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in 1901.[xviii]  The organization was established to aid Jewish immigrants living in New York, providing transportation and temporary support to those who were willing to resettle in smaller cities across the country.

The IRO framed its mission in terms of how immigrant relocation could benefit cities of the United States by providing needed labor and stimulating local economies. This was not a unique initiative. A handful of Jewish charities had previously attempted to relocate immigrants to agricultural communities in states like Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and the Dakotas. However, these relocation programs were disorganized and typically unsuccessful in terms of long-term placements. The majority of Jewish immigrants had little knowledge about farming, lived in terrible conditions in the settlements, and preferred city life.[xix] The IRO, for its part, played to the immigrants’ strengths, placing them in cities with familiar work and supporting their establishment. It operated in a highly-organized manner and was in communication with many employers, religious leaders, and organizations throughout the country.

Upon seeking aid from the IRO, Jewish laborers were assessed on their character—the organization relocated only those immigrants whom officials deemed to be of respectable character and strong work ethic. The IRO was in constant communication with its own representatives, employers, and Jewish organizations in many major U.S. cities. The New York office received requests for laborers and would do its best to send qualified individuals—whom it called “removals” —to fill the positions. While many immigrants were eager to utilize the services of the IRO, others were hesitant to leave New York or were too frightened to pick up and move once again.[xx]

Map of immigrants relocated through the IRO. Photo via Robert Rockaway, “The Industrial Removal Office,” accessed Tablet Magazine.

The efforts of the IRO brought many Jewish immigrants to Indianapolis and other Indiana towns such as Anderson, Evansville, Logansport, Fort Wayne, and South Bend. The IRO worked with a handful of local businesses to secure employment for removals. Because many of the new arrivals were typically well trained in the garment trades, Kahn Tailoring Company became one of the IRO’s most valuable contacts in Indianapolis.

Kahn Tailoring Company had begun as a small tailor shop in 1886 and had rapidly expanded. As the son of German Jewish immigrants, its founder, Henry Kahn, was sympathetic to the Jewish immigrants arriving in New York. He attempted to assist in their resettlement processes by collaborating with the IRO to hire skilled workers. Kahn Tailoring Company was known for not only hiring new Sephardic immigrants, in particular, but also for providing them with generous benefits and educational opportunities which may have otherwise been unobtainable.

Call for coat makers, Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

After immigrants arrived in their new cities and secured employment, IRO officials would typically provide check-ins to evaluate the success of the removal. If problems arose, the representatives would meet with the immigrant to discuss potential solutions. If a city was deemed an ill fit for the worker, the IRO would assist in relocating him to a different city. Otherwise, the IRO would hand the case off to local Jewish charities, such as the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis, who would provide further assistance. The JWF provided translators to bridge the language barrier of many immigrants, as well as offering legal aid, monetary allowances, and allotments of physical goods, such as coal, groceries, and clothing.[xxi]

Because of the industrial nature of many of the positions filled by the IRO, removals often found themselves in dangerous workplace environments. In the case of Russian immigrant Moses Cohen, within a month of being placed in a job at Connersville, Indiana, he lost his arm to a press machine accident. Cohen had a wife and child in Russia, a child in New York, and four children in Indianapolis to support. The JWF stepped in on Cohen’s behalf to secure him a moderate settlement for the injury and to protect his employment.[xxii] This intervention provided much needed support to the Cohen family, securing Mr. Cohen’s income which may have otherwise been lost due to his permanent injury.

Not every new arrival was satisfied to work in factories, however. Many people emigrated to the United States with the hopes of becoming entrepreneurs and business owners.  For the IRO removals who arrived in Indianapolis without trade skills but with dreams of self-employment, the JWF often provided loans or small allowances and encouraged peddling. In the early twentieth century, the Indianapolis streets were filled with horse-drawn wagons, pushcarts, and market stands. For some, this early peddling led to the development and establishment of full-fledged businesses.[xxiii] This was also an option for those who could no longer handle their jobs. Chas Cassalori immigrated to America in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire. He was employed as a presser at Kahn Tailoring Company in Indianapolis, but he developed severe rheumatism which made it impossible for him to work on his feet. The JWF connected Mr. Cassalori with someone who taught him the shoe trade, which allowed the man to open a shoe store at 529 Massachusetts Avenue.[xxiv]

The IRO continued its relocation efforts until its dissolution in 1922. Changes in U.S. immigration law at this time—particularly the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921—largely cut off the flow of European Jewish immigrants, reducing the need for the Office. Throughout its two decades of work, the organization assisted roughly 80,000 Jews in moving to more than 1,600 communities across the country. These communities continued to grow without the IRO’s direct involvement, as the removals’ kin and friends sought to join them after hearing of their settlement.[xxv] As a result, the IRO’s main correspondence cities developed sizable Jewish communities, rich in culture and history.

For some early twentieth century immigrants, the stress of migration, culture shock, and difficult employment was too much to handle. In July 1906, an Indianapolis man contacted the IRO, stating that a Russian immigrant by the name of Aaron Cohn was “on the verge of insanity from homesickness” and had threatened to end his life because he did not feel he could adapt to life in America.[xxvi] The IRO’s General Manager, David M. Bressler, responded that the Office had unfortunately dealt with numerous immigrants in similar situations, and that this homesickness was a “real disease” that could “be cured only by radical treatment, either by work or by return home.”[xxvii] In response to such situations, the IRO encouraged immigrants to participate in educational programs.

Community Education Initiatives

Cooking class at the Nathan Morris House, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

In an attempt to better support new immigrants, and to prevent a new wave of antisemitism, philanthropic organizations, particularly those run by German Jewish Americans, established initiatives to educate and Americanize eastern European Jews across the country. The mission became central to much of the Jewish philanthropic work at the time; New York’s Harmonie Club, a prestigious German Jewish social club in the U.S., which mirrored the conduct of clubs across the country, used the unofficial slogan of “More polish, less Polish” when advertising their Americanization programs.[xxviii]

Immigrant education in Indianapolis was run by a handful of charities and philanthropic organizations, including the city’s National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the of Indianapolis (JWF)[xxix], and the Workmen’s Circle.[xxx] On October 10, 1909, the Indianapolis Star declared the NCJW to be “among the most important local women’s organizations,” stating: “There is no club in the city that accomplishes more earnest philanthropical work than this council.”

Nathan Morris, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

The NCJW established the Nathan Morris House with the Jewish Federation in 1904, named after a Jewish attorney who tragically perished while trying to save his nephew from a burning house. It served as both a social hub and educational settlement house for immigrants new to Indianapolis, offering classes designed to help their constituents acculturate to American life, particularly through English and American citizenship classes. It also sponsored vocational training and courses in dressmaking, millinery, typing, cooking, and dancing and held events to celebrate their patrons’ works. According to the Indianapolis News on April 28, 1905, the settlement house held a night of entertainment, featuring a play and an exhibit of hats made by its members to demonstrate the skills learned in millinery class, awarding prizes to Nellie Barrett and Ruth Rosenfield for their handiwork. The Nathan Morris House classes were of much interest to locals; the Indianapolis Journal reported on May 8, 1904 that the large number of members and their constant class attendance made it difficult to accommodate new guests.

Children of the Nathan Morris House on an outing to Wonderland Park, Indianapolis Star, June 23, 1907.

Local organizations would use the house’s meeting rooms while working with the settlement house’s patrons, such as the teachers from local kindergarten, whose monthly classes taught immigrant mothers “American child-rearing methods” and to discourage the use of “Old World” habits and patterns.[xxxi] The members had frequent social outings, which increased the settlement house’s visibility and piqued the interest of others in joining. The success of the settlement house created a shortage on space. By the end of 1912, the Jewish Federation purchased a new building with the intention of expanding community services even further. The new community center was named the Communal Building.

In 1913, the Communal Building opened on Indianapolis’s Southside. The Jewish Federation intended for the Communal Building to exist as a resource for all Indianapolis Jews, but the differing needs and interests of well-established Jewish Americans versus those of the newcomer immigrants made this goal difficult to reach. Instead of becoming a central hub to connect the city’s Jewish population, the Communal Building further divided German American Jews from eastern and southern European Jews as the former associated the building with poor, unrefined patrons.[xxxii]

The Southside Communal Building, 1950, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, accessed the Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007).

American Judaism

The Jewish Federation and NCJW constantly struggled to find a balance between integration and the retention of identity. While the philanthropic groups were pushing for immigrants to assimilate to American culture, the organization leaders hoped to preserve their patrons’ connection to Judaism. The leaders of these Jewish education initiatives did not want immigrants to abandon their religion, but instead wanted to create a new, distinctively American Jewish identity; however, they wished to build this identity from Ashkenazi Jewish traditions rather than those of the Sephardim.

The Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917.

The vocalization of the necessity for Jews to assimilate often came from within Jewish communities. Fort Wayne’s Rabbi Aaron Weinstein reflected in a sermon shared in the April 13, 1919 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette that the future of American Judaism should be “moulded by American traditions and American standards of life,” and upheld “by its moral and spiritual outlook all that is highest and best in Americanism.” Pride for the United States was deeply rooted in Americanization programs, as evident from the March 3, 1917 Indianapolis News article featuring foreign children posed with American flags as part of their Americanization education. As a result of this connection, many Jewish immigrants and their families developed a home culture intertwined with Jewish and American characteristics. In a 1981 interview with anthropologist Jack Glazier, former Indianapolis Southside resident Lee Zuckerman shared that she had a number of memories of her mother completing routine tasks, like rocking a cradle or cutting green beans, while reciting the Preamble to the United States Constitution.[xxxiii]

While the Americanization movement was intended to better acclimate immigrants to life in America, it occasionally created turmoil in communities and immigrant homes. As a result of groups like the Jewish Federation and NCJW attempting to rapidly assimilate Jewish immigrants, organization involvement discouraged and effectively erased parts the immigrants’ Sephardic cultural identities. In a May 18, 1981 interview, Vickie Goldstein, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside and daughter of two Sephardic immigrants, stated that she felt like she was part of a “lost generation as far as religion is concerned.”[xxxiv] A similar statement was given by Max Cohen, a member of the same generation and neighborhood as Goldstein. Cohen felt that he was never aware of the richness of his Sephardic culture growing up, only developing a true pride for his heritage and Sephardic traditions as a young adult.[xxxv] In this regard, the rapid assimilation of Sephardic Jews in Indianapolis resulted in a sense of lost culture in second and third generation Jewish Americans.

By erasing cultural markers and traditions of Jewish immigrants in the twentieth century, philanthropic leaders hoped to avoid an increase in antisemitism. Unfortunately, antisemitism has continued to evolve and gain footholds in the United States, threatening the well-being of Jewish people’s lives every day. A 2022 audit by the Anti-Defamation League reported that since the organization began tracking them in 1979, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. The report showed an average of more than seven incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism every day, which is a 34% increase from 2020. It is not only antisemitism that has escalated in recent years. Hate of all kinds— against minorities and immigrants— has been fostered in the United States. According to a 2021 article by the Indy Star, hate crimes in Indiana spiked in 2020 with a 133% increase over 2019, making it the highest number of incidents in two decades. Through the 2016 presidential election, there was a steep increase of 20% in hate crimes against foreign-born minorities.[xxxvi]

The recent dramatic increase of hate crimes in the last decade is a major point of concern. The globalization of prejudice has created a sense of comfort among nationalists and, as a result, hate speech is widely expressed in the public sphere.[xxxvii] Political divides have drastically grown, and extremists have redefined the American freedom of speech as the acceptance of intolerance.[xxxviii] Social media has provided a platform for the formation of hateful spaces, allowing hate to grow through a “radicalization effect,” in which individuals can avoid real-life repercussions for hateful behavior due to online anonymity.[xxxix] Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center work tirelessly to combat this national growth of hate, documenting and exposing hate crimes and seeking justice for targeted victims.[xl]

America has long been dubbed a “nation of immigrants,” yet it has never been a nation truly welcoming of newcomers. Immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century were heavily scrutinized for their foreign characteristics and encouraged to leave behind their “Old World” values if they wished to fit into American society. They were assigned value based on their skills and willingness to work in poor conditions. Despite the passing of a century, immigrants today are burdened with the same barriers as their predecessors. The documentation of early twentieth century immigration experiences provides Americans with the opportunity to learn from the past. Philanthropic organizations urged early Jewish immigrants to rapidly assimilate to their new surroundings in order to avoid new waves of antisemitism. Many immigrants lost their traditions and heritage as a result, yet the antisemitic hate nonetheless persisted. By avoiding this narrative in the future, immigrants have the chance to retain and celebrate their heritage, making America a true nation of immigrants.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Sephardic Jews trace origins to the Iberian Peninsula prior to the Inquisition.  After 1492, some of these Jews were invited by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Beyezid II, to settle in those lands.  The first Sephardic immigrants to Indianapolis arrived from cities that are now in North Macedonia and Greece, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

[ii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 7-21.

[iii] Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 26.

[iv]  Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted: Jewish Immigrants in Early Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 5-6.

[v]  Jack Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005), 6-12.

[vi] Jack Glazier, “‘Transplanted from Kiev to Hoosierdom’: How the Industrial Removal Office Directed Jewish Immigrants to Terre Haute,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, no. 1 (2001): 5.

[vii] Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto, 16-17; Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 29-30.

[viii] Russel A. Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History,” American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (1995): 437.

[ix] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,” 465-467; Robert A. Carlson, “Americanization as an Early Twentieth-Century Adult Education Movement,” History of Education Quarterly 10, no. 4 (1970): 440.

[x] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,”468-470; Carlson, “Americanization,” 444.

[xi] Letter from Chas Graff [translated by IRO], 22 July, 1908, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), Ancestry.com, accessed www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1613/.

[xii] Letter from William Silberman, n.d., U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xiii] Carlson, “Americanization,” 440-441.

[xiv] Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242; Irwin Yellowitz, “Jewish Immigrants and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1920,” American Jewish History 71, no. 2 (1981): 189.

[xv] Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5; Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242.

[xvi] Ibid., 6.

[xvii] Gladys Cohen Nisenbaum, interview by Jack Glazier, January 20, 1981.

[xviii] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 1-3, 13-14; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 2-5, 15-16.

[xix] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 7-8.

[xx] Ibid., 19-20; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5-6.

[xxi] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxii] Cohen, Moses and Simmie. 1912-1916.  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxiii] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463.

[xxiv] Cassalori, Charles “Chas” and Masolto (1913-1918).  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxv] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 27, 32; David Bressler, “Distributing Immigrants Throughout America,” Jewish Tribune, December 18, 1914, 6.

[xxvi] Letter to David M. Bressler from Sol. Kiser, 25 July,1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxvii] Bressler Response to Sol. Kiser, 27 July, 1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxviii] Gerald Sorin, “Mutual Contempt, Mutual Benefit: The Strained Encounter Between German and Eastern European Jews in America, 1880-1920,” American Jewish History 81, no. 1 (1993): 35.

[xxix] This organization was established with the name “Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis.” It is later referred to as the “Jewish Federation of Indianapolis” in documentation, though it is unclear when this name change occurred.

[xxx] Judith E. Endelman, The Jewish Community of Indianapolis, 1849 to the Present (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 71-72.

[xxxi] Endelman, Jewish Community, 93.

[xxxii] Richard Moss, “Creating a Jewish American Identity in Indianapolis: The Jewish Welfare Federation and the Regulation of Leisure, 1920-1934,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007): 46-47.

[xxxiii] Lee Cohen Zuckerman, interview by Jack Glazier, May 4, 1981.

[xxxiv] Vickie Calderon Goldstein, interview by Jack Glazier, May 18,1981.

[xxxv] Max Cohen, interview by Jack Glazier, April 18,1981.

[xxxvi] Jonathan Weisman, (((Semitism))) (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 194-195.

[xxxvii] Goldhagen, The Devil, 163.

[xxxviii] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 21.

[xxxix] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2019), 35; Weisman, (((Semitism))), 107-111, 121.

[xl] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 218.

 

Governor Paul V. McNutt: Hoosier Humanitarian

Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Library of Congress.

One of the most dynamic political careers of any Hoosier belonged to Governor Paul V. McNutt. He set his sights on the U.S. presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly for the Jewish people during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a Democratic “Dark Horse” candidate before Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. While his chance to become president never materialized, McNutt’s decades of public service revealed a man dedicated to democracy and humanitarianism.

Paul McNutt as a senior at IU. IU Bloomington.

Paul Vories McNutt was born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana. His father, attorney John Crittenden McNutt, served as a librarian for the Indiana Supreme Court and exposed his son to law and politics at a young age. When Paul was seven, the family moved to Martinsville, where he graduated from high school in 1909. He then attended Indiana University, earning a BA in English in 1913. McNutt attended IU at the same time as another influential Hoosier who would also have ambitions for the presidency: Republican businessman Wendell Willkie. While at IU, they both held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake noted that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.

Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Indiana Historical Society.

After a year of private practice with his father, McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917. However, World War I disrupted his teaching and in the spring he registered for military service. By November, the South Bend News-Times reported he attained the rank of Captain. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. He also met his future wife, Kathleen Timolat, during his time in Texas. He proposed marriage to Kathleen in 1918 and they married three months later. His only child, Louise, was born in 1921.

After the war, McNutt returned to teaching at the IU Law School faculty in 1919 and in 1925 was formally installed as the school’s Dean. Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded its enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until his inauguration as Governor in 1933.

McNutt and wife Kathleen, circa 1940. Library of Congress.

His career trajectory sharply pivoted once he got involved with the American Legion. The organization served as a vehicle for his political ambitions and provided him with the infrastructure to win the governorship. According to its website, the American Legion:

evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States. Membership swiftly grew to over 1 million, and local posts sprang up across the country. Today [2022], membership stands at nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide.

McNutt joined the Bloomington post of the American Legion shortly after its founding in 1919. In the years leading up to his role as State and National Commander, McNutt had little interest in the Legion other than as a social club. This changed around the time he became Dean of the IU Law School; McNutt’s desire for higher office motivated his involvement in Legion leadership. Thus, he became one of the organization’s indispensable leaders and rose quickly through the ranks, being elected State Commander in 1926.

Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929.  Library of Congress.

As State Commander, he lobbied for veterans, urging state banks to provide personal loans to WWI veterans based on their future retirement compensation. An American Legion Monthly piece credited McNutt with growing the Indiana department of the Legion from 18,336 to 25,505 by 1929. After rigorous campaigning and substantial support at the American Legion’s National Convention, McNutt was elected National Commander in 1928. In this role, McNutt continued to expand national membership, organized events, and offered advice on foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. McNutt’s outspoken views on military preparedness ignited a very public feud with President Herbert Hoover. In 1929, the Hoover Administration agreed to scrap two British Naval Ships, a decision McNutt vehemently disagreed with in a telegram published in the New York Times. McNutt believed it made America more open to attack if “naval parity with Britain” was lost. McNutt’s internationalist view of foreign policy, which would serve him well during the 1940s, clashed with the isolationist current of the 1920s.

In July 1929, McNutt traveled to France, Hungary, and Yugoslavia on a trip as National Commander. He visited the Legion’s world headquarters in Paris and attended gravesites for those killed in World War I. In October, his one-year term limit expired, and McNutt was replaced as National Commander. Following his tenure, the Legion appointed McNutt as “legal advisory council of the [U. S.] Veteran’s Bureau,” which advanced his policy experience. Overall, McNutt’s time in the American Legion provided the logistical tools and political network necessary to run for higher office.

Muncie-Post Democrat, July 1, 1932. Ball State University, Indiana Memory.

In 1932, Hoosier voters elected McNutt as the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first won the presidency. In his inaugural address on January 9, 1933, McNutt advocated for broad political reform, especially relief for those affected by the Great Depression, something he vigorously campaigned on. He called for investments in public education, infrastructure, care for the elderly and infirm, and a reorganization of government functions. The next day, McNutt gave another address to the General Assembly detailing his proposals, which included consolidation of government agencies, a personal income tax, tighter regulation of public utilities, the end of alcohol prohibition, and balancing the state budget.

Franklin_D_Roosevelt_in_Car
Paul V. McNutt and Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1932. Both men would be elected in November of that year to higher office; McNutt to the Indiana Governorship and Roosevelt to the Presidency. Indiana Historical Society.

During his four years as governor, McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. This law was seen as a controversial power grab by many Republicans; one critic of McNutt, State Senator William E. Jenner, called him “Paul the Fifth” in a speech, as if he was a monarch rather than a Governor. Nevertheless, McNutt’s reorganization plan proved popular, and Democrats fared well in both the 1934 and 1936 elections. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”

Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews persecuted by the iron-fisted rule of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. McNutt delivered the keynote address at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, condemning the Nazi treatment of German Jews. Thousands of attendees filled the theater and those unable to get in wrapped around the block, listening through loudspeakers. In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need to combat Germany’s injustice:

Indiana joins the protest against this persecution. This is a prayer for the freedom of the world. Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice?

What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.

Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Indiana Historical Society.

During the convention, a resolution introduced by Dr. Paul Hutchinson, editor of the Christian Century magazine and one of the event’s organizers, was adopted “amid wild applause.” It called for the United States to end its diplomatic relations with Germany until an independent investigation was conducted regarding the status of Jewish residents. This event was one of multiple examples of his advocacy of the Jewish people. (To learn “what Hoosiers knew when” about the Holocaust, see IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins’s History Unfolded blog series).

Furthermore, McNutt advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, in the early years of the Depression, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, McNutt’s predecessor Governor Harry G. Leslie refused to authorize relief bonds. According to the Evansville Press, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'” Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to historian James H. Madison. McNutt worked to reverse the previous administration’s inaction.

Governor Paul V. McNutt speaking at the dedication of the new educational building, 1936. Indiana State Fairgrounds Collection, Indiana Memory.

While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:

In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.

McNutt shaking hands at the 1934 Grand Army of the Republic parade in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State, Indiana Memory.

Once the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, McNutt’s administration aligned Indiana’s policies with the national program through the “Unemployment Compensation Act, the Public Welfare Act, and the Child and Maternal Health Act. Like Roosevelt, McNutt’s progressive policies highlighted his belief in “economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.”

Despite his broader liberalism on many issues, Governor McNutt received criticism for how he wielded his political power. In the fall of 1933, Governor McNutt ordered Sullivan County under martial law and sent National Guard Troops to deal with unrest at the Starburn Shaft Mines following a labor contract dispute. He also garnered criticism for his actions during the 1934 midterm elections. McNutt used his influence within the Democratic Party to ensure that Sherman Minton was the Democratic nominee for Senate, rather than R. Earl Peters, a vocal opponent of the McNutt administration and its policies. These actions, alongside his consolidation of state government agencies, ironically garnered him the nickname the “Hoosier Hitler” among many within the labor movement.

Karl Kae Knecht cartoon highlighting McNutt’s presidential ambitions, 1939. Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Indiana Memory.

He spent the later years of his term as governor championing his reforms of state government and maintaining a progressive agenda. His second legislative message to the Indiana General Assembly called for the expansion of relief efforts within state government and new reforms for taxes, highways, and the sale of alcohol. In a 1935 address, McNutt championed the new Utilities Commission, whose tighter regulations on energy companies saved the Hoosier public over $5,000,000 in just two years—a crucial difference during the lean Depression years. These new regulations ensured that rural areas of the state received electricity for the first time, something McNutt counted as one of his greatest gubernatorial accomplishments. In his final weeks of office, McNutt was honored with a dinner hosted by Democratic Party leaders, who had begun to see him as a presidential candidate. Senator Sherman Minton said to McNutt that, “As we bid you good-bye to the State House, we bid you godspeed to the White House.”  In his book, Indiana Through Tradition and Change, historian James Madison emphasized that McNutt’s governorship was one of the most dynamic and influential administrations in Indiana history. Not since Civil War Governor Oliver P. Morton had a governor left such an impact on the lives of Hoosiers.

McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Library of Congress.

After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming the Philippines’s first Ambassador to the United States after it gained independence in 1946. He was nominated for the position in 1937, roughly a month after he finished his term as Indiana’s Governor. His nomination surprised the Philippine public, to whom McNutt was relatively unknown. However, his diplomatic record reportedly earned their trust. Nevertheless, his nomination also drew criticism in the United States. Frederick J. Libby, executive secretary of the National Council for the Prevention of War, saw McNutt’s use of national guard troops as governor during labor disputes as a serious concern which he addressed in a letter to President Roosevelt. The criticism continued after his appointment, specifically in his handling of ceremonial functions. An article by James Stevens in the American Mercury noted that McNutt’s insistence on toasting décor during official functions as High Commissioner: “As the new High Commissioner to the Philippine Commonwealth, he recently issued an ukase [word for Russian edict] on precedence in public toasts and thus assured himself of front-page fame.” Regardless of the criticism, McNutt proved to be a key ally to President Roosevelt, and the office became a political asset.

McNutt on the cover of Life magazine, 1939. Google Books.

Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht, a nationwide pogrom the Nazi regime launched against German Jews in November 1938. Mobs smashed and looted Jewish shops and burned hundreds of Jewish synagogues. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and transferred from local prisons to concentration camps, mainly Dachau. German officials reported 91 Jewish deaths during Kristallnacht, but numbers were likely much higher. In the months following the “Night of Broken Glass,” thousands of Jews emigrated from Germany to other countries. McNutt ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands. His policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s, as entering the United States was often difficult for Jewish refugees fleeing fascism, even for such luminaries like Albert Einstein. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s enduring legacies.

A woman named Mrs. O'Gridley, hanging up a photograph of handsome Paul, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt's presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A woman named Mrs. O’Gridley, hanging up a photograph of Paul McNutt, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt’s presidential campaign literature. Library of Congress.

During his time as Commissioner, some Democrats began touting him as a candidate for the party’s 1940 presidential nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as president, initially displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his February 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President. Two national publications also placed him front and center. A Life magazine piece by Jack Alexander highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.

McNutt speaking before delegates of the 1940 Presidential Election. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.
McNutt speaking before delegates at the 1940 Democratic Convention. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.

However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.

McNutt serving as the Director of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt serving as the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Library of Congress.
McNutt on the cover of Time magazine, 1942. Time.

After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, McNutt continued public service as a loyal lieutenant for Roosevelt during World War II. He served as the Administrator for the Federal Security Agency from 1939-41, overseeing war efforts in infrastructure, health, and education, as well as the implementation of Social Security. In 1942, he was the Director of the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services, part of the larger Office of Emergency Management. His final war post was as Chairman of the War Manpower Commission from 1943-1945. During his tenure, McNutt became an advocate for agricultural issues and their impact on the war effort, urging the need for food preparedness and the importance of student agricultural sciences.

Paul V. McNutt being sworn in as High Commissioner of the Philippines, September 12, 1945. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Near the war’s end, at President Harry Truman’s personal request, McNutt returned as High Commissioner to the Philippines in 1945 and, once they secured independence, appointed their first U.S. Ambassador in 1946. McNutt represented President Truman at the Philippine Independence ceremony on July 4, 1946, sharing the ceremonial duties with Philippine President Manuel Roxas and General Douglas MacArthur. He retired from this post in 1947. After his final post to the Philippines, the former governor, diplomat, and administrator took on a variety of projects, including unsuccessful stint as chairman of the United Artists Film Corporation in 1950- 51, buying out the controlling shares from Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Unable to save the company from losses, McNutt was eventually bought out by movie mogul Arthur Krim, whose subsequent leadership spearheaded such classic films as The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1952).

Paul V McNutt in 1951. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images).

By 1954, McNutt’s health began to decline, most likely due to complications from surgery on a “throat ailment,” and on March 24, 1955 he died in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 63. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 1955 with full burial rites. Herman B Wells, then president of Indiana University, performed the eulogy. In honor of his contributions to Indiana University, a residence hall complex at the Bloomington campus is named Paul V. McNutt Quadrangle and a bust of him resides in the front foyer of the main building.

McNutt Quadrangle and Residence Hall, circa 1965. Indiana Album, Indiana Memory.

Paul V. McNutt’s decades of public service—as head of the American Legion, governor, diplomat, and administrator—left an indelible mark on the state of Indiana, the United States, and even the world. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy remain relevant today. His steadfast dedication to the protection and rights of the Jewish people during the hour of their extreme oppression serves as a model for us.

Paul McNutt bust in McNutt Residence Center, Indiana University Bloomington. Crawfordsville Journal-Review.

Above all, McNutt was committed to the cause of democracy. Like today, the challenges of McNutt’s era led many to question the relevance of the democratic ethos, whether we could have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In his inaugural address as Governor on January 9, 1933, Paul V. McNutt reflected on the importance of, and obstacles to, democracy:

It is possible to know the truth without fear, to meet a crisis with indomitable courage. Our proud heritage from the Indiana pioneers, who came here over a century and a half ago to build homes in the wilderness, should give us that power. Yet there are those among us who are afraid, who listen to prophets of evil. They profess to see the end of representative government, now rudely challenged by Communism, Fascism, and, some think, by Technocracy. They say that democracy in theory is not democracy in practice, that popular sovereignty is an elusive concept, that the right to have a voice in government is not a prized possession.

I wish to be counted among those who deny such a doctrine. I believe in the destiny of democracy as a system of government, believe in it more profoundly than in anything else human. . ..

This is a testing time for representative government. Our high enterprise is to prove it sufficient in every circumstance and for every task which can come to free people. We face a magnificent opportunity in which we, as lovers of freedom, dare not fail.

McNutt’s life and work demonstrate that democracy is a living, breathing process, one shaped by a resolute faith in the power of self-government. Hoosiers, and Americans broadly, are living through a “testing time” of their own, but the successes, and failures, of the life of Governor Paul V. McNutt provide a clear, historical example of robust and democratic leadership.

Paul McNutt, circa 1950. Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

To learn more about Governor Paul V. McNutt, visit the Bureau’s marker page : http://www.in.gov/history/markers/165.htm.

“Disguised As A Doughboy:” The Front Line War Work of Sarah M. Wilmer

Poster, Charles N. Sarka, “Lend Him A Hand, Buy Liberty Bonds,” 1918, Digital Maryland, accessed Digital Public Library of America.

Upon her arrival at the U.S. Army basecamp, elegant entertainer Sarah Mildred Wilmer changed out of her travelling dress and into the brown wool jacket, breeches, and steel helmet of a doughboy. A talented performer and dramatic reader, she had arrived in Bar-le-Due, France, on September 4, 1918, on behalf of the Y.M.C.A. She was recruited to entertain the troops, but within twenty minutes of landing at the camp, she knew she would serve in a different capacity. She disguised herself as a soldier and headed to the front lines under heavy fire to help nurse the wounded. Wilmer would return from France to her parents in Hobart, Indiana, in a wheelchair and celebrated as a hero.[1]

Evening Crescent (Appleton, WI), July 8, 1907, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Sarah Wilmer was born to Benjamin and Ida Wilmer circa 1881 in Buffalo, New York. Her father worked as a printer for a daily newspaper and her parents made sure that she and her sister received an excellent education.[2] She “studied with the best” teachers and was “thoroughly schooled.”[3] Regarded as a beautiful young woman, Wilmer honed her elocution skills. As early as 1904, she began performing on the circuit of Chautauqua assemblies, traveling across the country and regularly stopping in the Midwest.[4] The Richmond Palladium, reported that she was “well-known by Richmond Chautauqua goers.”[5]  A Wisconsin newspaper called her “one of the greatest artists on the platform today.”[6] The program for a 1909 Chautauqua at Shades Park near Waveland, Indiana, described her skill and artistry:

Miss Sarah Mildred Wilmer’s work is characterized by determination to present literary masterpieces of true dramatic value. She is not content to please by mere cleverness. There must be an honest effort to do her work artistically and well. This quality has always won warm approval wherever she has appeared . . . She presents a repertoire of exceptional strength, embracing many of the best selections from modern and classic fiction and drama. Certainly no reader of the platform has ever given more perfect and artistic presentation than those given by Miss Wilmer.[7]

Caney News (Kansas), September 27, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

While her name may not be familiar today, she was famous, sought-after, and respected in her time. Drawing large crowds, Wilmer received top-billing and rave reviews. For example, in 1912, a Kansas newspaper called her “the greatest reader of the present generation” and reported that ten thousand people attended a recent Chautauqua to see her.[8]

She was also glamorous, dressing in fine clothes and staying in the best hotels. It would have been difficult for her adoring fans to imagine her dressed as a soldier, wading through mud, and dodging shells only a few years later.

Through her elocution work, Wilmer met Edward Van Bond of the Lyceum Bureau of Chicago and they were married in 1912. Unfortunately, her young husband died only a few years later, in 1915. She continued to keep a home base in Chicago near her parents who had moved to nearby Hobart, Indiana, and whom she visited often. She also continued touring and performing. After the U.S. entered WWI, however, she decided to use her talents to help the war effort.[9]

Poster, United War Work Campaign, Inc., “One of the Thousand Y.M.C.A. Girls in France. Y.M.C.A.,” 1918, Princeton Poster Collection, accessed Smithsonian Institution.

In 1918, the Y.M.C.A. asked Wilmer if she would be willing to go to France through a partnership with the American Expeditionary Forces to entertain the troops and raise their spirits. Not only did she cancel six months of Chautauqua appearances—a serious personal financial loss—she accepted the offer and refused payment from the Y.M.C.A. Lyceum Magazine reported:

Having had experience in surgical work she is well qualified to work in the hospitals and she plans on giving her programs in the hospitals during the day time and to the soldiers in the camps at night. She will give her regular play readings and also some special programs which she has prepared for the boys.[10]

It’s not clear when she would have gained “surgical work” experience, as newspapers show she was consistently busy with her Chautauqua performances. Whether or not she arrived in France with medical experience, she would soon be practicing on the battlefield.[11]

Postcard, “Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. girls on their way to France,” n.d., Cliff Smith YMCA Postcard Collection, Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online, accessed Digital Public Library of America.
Passport photo, “Sarah Mildred Willmer,”  June 20, 1918, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 569; Volume #: Roll 0569 – Certificates: 30500-30749, U.S. Passport Applications, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

Wilmer left for France on August 4, 1918 and arrived September 4 at the Y.M.C.A base. Despite feeling scared, she was determined to be brave. In these later years of WWI, advancements in weapons technology meant that the hospitals and basecamps set up behind front lines were now in the line of fire for long range artillery and airplane bombings. She was right to be afraid.[12]

Wilmer gave different firsthand accounts of what happened next. A true performer, her story changed a bit as she polished and dramatized it for a public audience. Regardless, it is clear that she acted bravely and selflessly to aid the soldiers. She told the Chicago Tribune that upon arrival at the basecamp, the man in charge of the division’s entertainment greeted her and asked if she would “volunteer, then, to go to the front lines” to a camp where she would perform for the troops. He warned her that it would be dangerous, that she would “smell gunpowder and high explosives and gas.” She responded, “That is what I hoped for.” She entertained men during the day. However, at night she snuck to the front with the ambulance corps, intending to aid wounded soldiers. She explained:

Aided by friendly officers – entirely outside regulations and unknown to the “Y” man in charge of the base [entertainment] – I would dress in a soldier’s uniform and go up in total darkness.[13]

“Loading ambulance with wounded. American Red Cross Outpost sign shown in the background. American Red Cross men ministering to the wounded. Argonne Forest, west of Marcq, Ardennes, France, October 11, 1918, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed https://www.loc.gov/resource/anrc.17955/.

She also gave this description of a brush with death, mentioning the soldier’s uniform only as a passing detail:

I was in an ambulance, disguised as a man and dressed in a uniform, when we ran [the vehicle] into a shell hole, and promptly climbed out of it without stopping, with a driver grimly holding the wheel and never faltering for an instant, although shells were bursting all around us.[14]

A few days after she gave this account, she told the story to the Lake County Times with a few new dramatic flourishes, making the wearing of men’s clothing more central to the story:

How did I get to the front line? Well, I heard a young officer say, “Oh, it’s terrible up there tonight, a lot of the boys have been killed and wounded and there’s not nearly enough men to care for them.”

“Can’t you take me up there?” I asked him.

He told me I was a woman, that it would be breaking the rules.

“Well, get me some man’s clothes and I’ll be a man,” I replied. He hesitated and finally gave me a complete outfit, breeches, blouse, puttees [leg coverings], hobnails [boots] and all. And I went up.[15]

Lucien Jones, “An infantry attack in woods at Argonne front,” print, 1927, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.03879/.

Wilmer explained that she went to the front nine times. And despite a bit of creative license with the details, she was consistent in her telling of the danger she faced and of the soldiers’ sacrifices. She recalled:

I was scared to death every time I went up to the line and would ask myself: “Why did I come here?” and then I would begin to sniffle and sob. But every time something would happen to show me why I had gone up there.[16]

But Wilmer knew why she had “gone up there” when she was able to help medical staff or comfort injured soldiers. One dark night in October, she had once again arrived at the front dressed in her doughboy uniform in order to provide help to the surgeons and nurses at the “first aid dressing station.” That night, the only breaks in the “uncanny” darkness were the “shells bursting” around them. Soldiers and medical staff carried their comrades into the medical station on stretchers. A doctor or nurse would then shine a flashlight on the injured to determine what care could be provided. The sight was often shocking. “O, it was horrible,” Wilmer said. She continued:

I was frightened, O, so frightened, but I did not dare to let that be known, for I was supposed to be a man. I helped with the boys who were brought in, and saw vividly the horror of it all, the lads dying and suffering, and had to remain quiet.[17]

Poster, “Red Cross Nurse,” circa 1918, Princeton University Posters Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, accessed Smithsonian Institute.

One incident in particular stuck with her. While she needed to dress as a man to help at the front, she was able to provide maternal comfort to a dying man. At one point, a soldier felt her hand and thought it belonged to a female Red Cross nurse. Wilmer denied her gender, telling him in “a gruff man’s voice” that there were no women at the front. But soon, when a man who was clearly dying, identified her as a woman, she conceded. This soldier had been shot in the lungs and was bleeding internally. Wilmer could only sit with him so he wouldn’t die alone. She smoothed his hair and he asked how it could be that a woman was at the front. Wanting to give him some of the comfort of home, she told him that his mother had sent her. He responded, “My mother? O, yes, I understand.” She then read to him from the Bible and he died in her arms.[18]

In late October, Wilmer was badly injured during a battle in the Argonne forest. Once again, she “went in front of the barrage, disguised as a doughboy.” She expounded:

I became sick suddenly. I smelled burning cabbage and bad onions and then I realized it was chlorine. Gas shells were breaking all around me . . . I grew faint and stumbled into a German dugout which had been deserted but a day previously. After five hours I recollected my thoughts and heard some voices. I walked out and found several stretcher bearers with whom I made the rear.[19]

While chlorine gas was not usually fatal, the effects could be long lasting or even permanent.[20] Wilmer suffered greatly as the gas “continued burning in her lungs” for weeks. But, she said, “I didn’t want to give up.”[21] Though she was back at base camp, she continued to entertain the soldiers with her dramatic readings. This was almost certainly uncomfortable in her condition. On November 11, 1918, she was reading to a large group of men when a colonel walked in and interrupted her to make an announcement. Germany had surrendered. The war was over.[22]

U.S. Army in France – doughboys cheering news of Armistice, 1918, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed https://lccn.loc.gov/2016652679.

Wilmer soon sailed for the United States, still suffering from her injuries. By the time she reached New York, it became clear that she would need a nurse to continue her journey home to the Midwest and she hired a Mrs. Jane Redfield Vose to help care for her.[23] Wilmer and Vose went first to Chicago. Wilmer was there to visit Dr. Lena K. Sadler “with whom she had lived for years.” She was still suffering to the extent that she had to be carried from the taxi into the house by two men. Once inside, Sadler’s two young children ran to greet their adopted “Aunt Sarah.” Wilmer then needed “restoratives” to allow her to speak to reporters.[24]

Lake County Times, December 24, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

From Chicago, Wilmer went to her parents’ house in Hobart, which would be her home for some time as she recovered. She arrived in a wheelchair and was advised by doctors not to return to the stage for months. However, she travelled from the Region to Indianapolis as early as March 1919 to attend the “Big Meeting” where she delivered her speech “My Experiences in War.” And we can only imagine how much she had polished her tale during her months of recovery.[25]

Indianapolis Star, March 16, 1919, 3, accessed Newspapers.com

Though she returned to the stage, Wilmer wasn’t finished helping others. In 1928, she moved to Rochester, New York. A local newspaper reported:

Always interested in social service work, Mrs. Wilmer took up reading and soon took over classes in the Rochester schools, teaching lip reading and effective speech.

She also worked for the Rochester Board of Education and the League for the Hard of Hearing. When the U.S. entered World War II and women were again called to service, Wilmer answered. She worked a “line job on the graveyard shift” at the local General Motors factory, which had been converted to war production. She also continued her dramatic performances. She died in 1949, and was remembered in her obituary as a “heroine” who “brightened the lives of many” through her social work and dramatic arts. Though only briefly a Hoosier, she is one to remember.[26]

Notes

[1] “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience: Was in Battles in Male Attire,” Lake County Times, December 24, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] Tenth Census of the United States, Buffalo, Erie County, New York, June 7, 1880, District: 116, Ward: 2, Page: 17, Lines: 40-43, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

[3] Pamphlet, First Annual Assembly of the Pleasant Shades Chautauqua to be Held at “The Shades” Near Waveland, Indiana, 1909, p. 8, Chautauqua Album, Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

[4] Advertisement, Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin), September 19, 1904, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[5] “Chautauqua Performer, Well-Known Here, Returns from Y Work in France,” Richmond Palladium, December 18, 1918, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[6] “In Society,” Sheboygan Press (Wisconsin), February 12, 1913, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

[7] Pamphlet, First Annual Assembly of the Pleasant Shades Chautauqua to be Held at “The Shades” Near Waveland, Indiana, 1909, Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

[8] “Would Have Ranked High as an Actress,” Caney News (Kansas), September 27, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[9] “Nephew of President Crossfield Is Dead,” Lexington Herald, August 11, 1915, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Miss Wilmer Goes to France,” Lyceum Magazine (July 1918): 31, accessed Google Books.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sarah Joyce Wilmer, “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1918, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women in WWI,” National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/women. Note that the Chicago Tribune misprinted Wilmer’s middle name.

[13] “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” Lake County Times, December 24, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.

[18] Ibid.; “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.

[19] “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.

[20] “First Usage of Poison Gas,” National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/spotlight-first-usage-poison-gas.

[21] “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.

[22] Ibid.; “Armistice,” National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/armistice.

[23] “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.

[24]”War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.

[25] “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1; “Woman War Worker Will Address Big Meeting,” Indianapolis Star, March 16, 1919, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[26] “Sarah M. Willmer [sic] Dies; Heroine, Social Worker,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), July 14, 1949, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Agitator: Theodore Luesse Takes On the Great Depression

Evansville Journal, July 21, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As they awaited the fate of Minor Moon, a legion of anxious men spilled down the stairs of the municipal courtroom, prodded by a “double chain” of Indianapolis patrolmen. Judge Paul C. Wetter had decided: Moon, a Black resident, would pay $50 for trespassing—an almost unfathomable fine for November 25, 1930, especially for a man recently evicted from his home at 409 West North Street. With this sentencing, Theodore Luesse—a white strike-leader in his mid-20s—cried from the front of the court room, “Comrades are we going to stand for this miscarriage of justice?”[1]

His comrades, still lining the stairs, responded, “We want justice!” They rushed back into the courtroom, where they exchanged blows with police officers. The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported, “The raging fighters smashed through the doorways into the corridors. Clubs rose and fell and fists were swung. Everyone was yelling.”[2] Luesse’s comrades, unemployed men attracted by the promise of Communism, eventually fled, leaving Luesse and organizer R.M. Spillman among the “avalanche of blue coats.” Police swiftly escorted Luesse and Spillman to jail, where, from their cells, they cried “injustice!” and “downtrodden proletariat!”

This would be one of dozens of arrests of Luesse for his role in agitating for better living and working conditions during the Great Depression. His actions would eventually culminate in a sentence at the notorious State Penal Farm in Putnamville, known as the “Black Hole of Indiana.” From this bleak environment, Luesse ran for governor on the Communist ticket. While the gubernatorial campaign inevitably failed, calls for Luesse’s release from imprisonment, for what many decried as simply exercising his “freedom of speech,” endeared widespread public support, including from Indianapolis businessmen like Franklin Vonnegut and clergy like Dr. Frank S. C. Wicks, as well as non-partisan groups like the ACLU.[3] His sentence also, to the dismay of judicial and government officials, increased Hoosiers’ interest in Communist ideals and ignited a series of social protests.


Much of Luesse’s inimitable life can be pieced together by pairing his 1995 recollections How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story* with U.S. Census records and newspaper articles, which typically corroborate his memories. The future firebrand, born in 1905 in Batesville to German immigrants, experienced hardship nearly from birth. When his mother died shortly after his first birthday, his father, likely grief-stricken and needing to provide for the family, moved to Indianapolis, where he varnished furniture in a factory. Theodore’s sisters were sent to an orphanage, and Theodore moved in with his aunt on a Batesville farm.[4] The family reunited a few years later, when his father brought his children to the capital city. There, Theodore recalled his father returning from work “full of sweat,” having undertaken grueling labor for pennies. Young Theodore tried to supplement this income with various jobs, like delivering newspapers and selling errant pieces of iron and rags.

The Luesse family, with Theodore in his father’s arms, courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): cover.

This struggle likely informed Luesse’s later work as an organizer, as did attending local political meetings with his father. His experiences certainly cultivated in him a deep empathy for the disenfranchised, which manifested in middle school, when he protested the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras.[5] Having exploited Honduran plantations for years, the U.S. sought to protect its profits after Hondurans denied access to them. Luesse was taught that the Marines were sent under the guise of protecting locals from “gangsters and guerrillas.” However, he challenged this narrative, telling teachers at his Catholic school that Hondurans were “fathers and mothers just like our fathers and mothers.” He recalled the nuns ridiculing his protestations. This incident, combined with their corporeal punishment, caused him to drop out of school.

In his early-teen years, Luesse found work as a messenger. He hauled boxes from “five and tens” and department stores, recalling, “Oh it was a big wagon with big horses and I was so proud of being able to drive that thing right in the heart of Indianapolis just going down the streets and hearing the automobiles and trucks and everything.”[6] According to Luesse, he then got a job at Western Union, where he led his first strike, demanding “equal work for equal pay, although we didn’t call it that.” He led fellow employees under the age of 16 to demand wages equal to that of older teenagers. Here, he demonstrated his signature mixture of intimidation and organizational prowess, threatening and sometimes employing physical harm against anyone who refused to strike. The tactic proved successful in raising wages.

He then leveraged his job as a newsboy to work for social justice in the 1920s. He and some coworkers obtained an anti-Ku Klux Klan paper published in Chicago called The Intolerance.[7] They distributed copies at  Jewish synagogues, Catholic churches, and churches in Black neighborhoods in Indianapolis, hoping to combat the rhetoric and ideals espoused in the Klan’s Fiery Cross paper. According to Luesse, publicizing information about the hate group helped pressure public officials into stemming the Klan’s influence in government.

Curtisville Bottom, Great Depression shantytown located along the west bank of the White River from Oliver Street to Washington Street, May 1935, courtesy of Indy Star, accessed Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

Around 1930, Luesse joined the Communist Party, learning about local cases of unemployment and evictions through the party’s paper. Giving up a house-painting job, Luesse focused solely on combatting the deprivations wrought by the early months of the Great Depression.[8] He organized “flying squadrons,” groups of men who traveled to welfare and unemployment offices to ensure that the agencies were meeting people’s needs. He and his comrades also distributed copies of the communist paper and delivered speeches at Indianapolis factories. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Luesse visited the Kingan meat packing plant, informing workers about evictions around the city, arguing that, “If they can throw her out, they’ll throw us out tomorrow.” Such speeches attracted a crowd of onlookers, some of whom joined organizers in a parade to houses from which residents were being evicted. They hauled furniture back into renters’ homes, relying on a “security squad” comprised of military veterans, to intimidate police if they tried to intervene.

Luesse helped organize the Communist-based Unemployment Council of Indianapolis because the jobless had received “very little help from these organizations like the Socialist Party, the Workman’s Circle, and the Death Benefit Society. They were evolutionary and we were revolutionary. The Socialist Party believed that you could get everything on a ballot.”[9] The Unemployment Council, however, embraced public demonstrations and confrontations with public officials. Luesse contended that these were necessary in early 1931, as the socioeconomic privilege of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers shielded them from the realities of daily life for the unemployed. He noted, “They didn’t know about people having to pull things out of swill cans to eat, how people had to steal food to eat or things to live, how they had to burn up furniture in order to keep warm.”[10]

Citizens tried on one of the 2,500 pairs of shoes at the Indianapolis Salvation Army, donated by the city’s children via the Circle Theater, courtesy of the Indianapolis Times, November 24, 1930, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations during the early years of the Depression. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, Governor Harry G. Leslie and Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan refused to authorize relief bonds.[11] In fact, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'”[12] Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to preeminent Indiana historian James H. Madison.[13]


As inaction pitched Hoosiers further into destitution, their public protestations intensified. On January 6, 1931, the Indianapolis Times reported that Luesse and Council members led hundreds of unemployed men, about 60% of whom were Black, to the statehouse.[14] They failed in their attempt to meet Governor Leslie, whom they’d hoped would reconsider his stance on relief and housing. After this, Luesse led the men, desperately in need of warmth, to Tomlinson Hall. The group hoped that they could possibly find work there, as Tomlinson housed the Office of the Unemployed. Leading the delegation with Luesse was J.C. Moon (possibly a relative of Minor), dressed “fantastically in a dark blue uniform resembling that of hotel bellboys, and his head was topped by a scarlet fez hat with a flowing tassel.”[15]

Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 77, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

As the marchers approached the building, they sustained momentum by chanting “When we see a cop we use him for a mop.”[16] They immediately encountered a police squadron at Tomlinson Hall, which culminated in a clash like that in the municipal courtroom. Banners bearing slogans like “Deliver Us From Starvation” and “To Hell With Your Lousy Charities” soon littered Delaware and Market Streets as some marchers fled and others attempted to occupy Tomlinson.[17] According to Luesse, police officers threw him on top of the gatherers and “motioned for the streetcars and automobiles to cut through the crowd.” After sustaining a blow to the nose, police again hauled him to jail. “My twenty-eighth ride!” he proclaimed.

Such conflicts demonstrated the painful dichotomy between the urgency of citizens’ needs and the inadequacy or unwillingness of governmental and societal structures to meet them. The fraught circumstances are likely why some lawyers continued to aid Luesse and why Judge Paul Wetter was fairly lenient in his punishment of him. In a serendipitous twist, Luesse had dated Wetter’s sister, establishing a friendly rapport with the future judge.[18] During their many courtroom encounters, Luesse and Judge Wetter exchanged perspectives, both seemingly perplexed by the other’s stance. Judge Wetter wanted to know why Luesse engaged in such provocation, and Luesse asked why Judge Wetter sentenced Hoosiers the way he did. Luesse recalled telling the judge:

‘There was this here old man that stole a pig and you put him one hundred and thirty days on the rock pile [penal farm]. You didn’t ask him why he stole the pig. You didn’t ask him about anything, but because of the fact that the law says that he should go to jail for one hundred and thirty days for stealing a pig you sent him. . . Now he’s got four breadsnappers at home. . . . he stole that pig in order to feed those children.’ (p. 47)

Luesse added, “You live in a world of hypocrisy. You go to church. . . . I’m up to here with all your bullsh*t, all your people’s bullsh*t, the priest’s and bishop’s and pope’s and everybody else.'” Apparently he earned Judge Wetter’s begrudging respect because, according to Luesse, Wetter ordered the turnkey to release him.[19] Just one month later, Luesse came again before Judge Wetter for having made “inflammatory speeches to a crowd assembled at a soup kitchen.”[20] Rather than fining or sentencing Luesse, Judge Wetter ordered him to report to City Hall for work digging ditches the following day.

Picture
The Unemployed Workers’ Movement Anti-Eviction Committee protesting the eviction of a women and her family of 5 children in Norfolk St, Ponsonby, Auckland, 1931, accessed The Great Depression Riots of 1932.

Luesse employed another tactic to draw attention to the plight of Hoosier families. In How I Got Out of Jail, he described a “Mrs. Allen,” whose husband was unable to work due to tuberculosis. Having four children to care for, Mrs. Allen walked two to three miles to the welfare office for “gold soup,” so called because of the carrots that floated to the top of the broth.[21] She supplemented this paltry meal with rotten vegetables gathered from around the city. Luesse noted:

She was a fighter in every capacity and I loved that. So she was being evicted from her place and I convinced her that we were gonna get her a house. . . . We’re gonna have a big demonstration on the state house lawn and we’re going to have a house built there.

After Mrs. Allen agreed to this plan, Luesse and his comrades transported a dilapidated house to the statehouse grounds and distributed leaflets encouraging people to come “see how the unemployed has to live.” Two sides of the shanty were without walls, so for four days people observed Mrs. Allen care for her children and complete routine tasks with meager resources. Based on the publicity generated by the demonstration, Luesse was able to secure permanent housing for the Allen family.[22]

Throughout the spring, Luesse returned to jail several times for halting evictions and leading public demonstrations. His luck ran out after his thirty-fourth arrest, for which he interfered with the “eviction of a destitute Negro family,” and finally faced legal consequences. [23] Judge Frank P. Baker sentenced Luesse to one year at a penal farm in Putnamville, stating “‘no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Any such man is a menace to society. I believe this man has tried to stir up resistance against the law and create disrespect for it, which in turn might lead to dangerous riots.'”[24]


“Oh, Goddman, that was a hell of a place,” Luesse recalled about the jail.[25] In a sweltering quarry, he worked alongside men incarcerated for a spectrum of transgressions, including drunkenness, theft, and “social crimes”—meaning imprisonment for the crime of simply being a person of color. One man reportedly died because of the brutal work environment, a tragedy Luesse tried to expose by tying a letter to a kite.[26] For this attempt, he was placed in “the hole” for twenty days, where guards handcuffed and hung him out on a door for hours. Such allegations were confirmed by former prisoners, who presented Governor Leslie with affidavits testifying to such treatment.[27] Glenn Emmett Mulford wrote that after Luesse was released from solitary confinement, he “‘looked sick, worn-out and was bleeding from the nose.'” According to the Garrett Clipper, Governor Leslie dismissed the claims, declaring that Luesse was treated with “‘exceptional kindness.'”

The support Luesse engendered via his activism endured throughout his incarceration, as downtrodden Hoosiers continually demanded his release. In fact, the Evansville Press noted that his “case caused nationwide protests.”[28] At the end of November 1931, hunger marchers en route to Washington, D.C. stopped at the Putnamville prison farm, demanding to see Luesse.[29] Rebuffed, the automobile detachment continued on to Indianapolis, where they attempted to confront Governor Leslie about Luesse’s release and about authorizing war funds for the unemployed. By the spring of 1932, prominent Indianapolis clergymen and business leaders signed a petition for the Hoosier Communist’s release.[30] Indianapolis citizen Samuel Nathanson appealed to the governor after Luesse—who happened to be born with the unique “No. 1 count”—donated pints of blood to his sick daughter in an attempt to save her life.[31] Although Nathanson “was not in sympathy with Luesse’s political and economic beliefs,” he felt that Luesse’s punishment did not fit the crime, and that his generosity demonstrated his fitness as a citizen. He went so far as to offer Luesse a job at The Store Without a Name, for which he was manager.

“News of the Day as the Pictures Record It,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

After these efforts failed, local women led the charge to free Luesse. In April, they organized a protest of about one hundred supporters at the statehouse and defied police orders to relocate to Military Park. The Lake County Times reported that police had to forcefully remove a number of women “after they had climbed to the top of ornamental urns and had harangued their male companions to remain.”[32] Among the three arrested and charged with “inciting to riot and resisting arrest,” was a “Mrs. Fay Allen.” Described by the Indianapolis Star as a “mother of four children,” she was likely the same woman aided by the home demonstration organized on the statehouse grounds.[33] She appeared to take up the mantle for Luesse while he was behind bars, as she was arrested again the following month for “inciting a riot and interfering with legal process” during an eviction.[34] In July, a similar protest materialized at the statehouse, this time organized by unemployed men from The Region, who sought relief measures and the release of Luesse.[35] Hammond spokesman Wenzel Stocker told legislators that “‘mass starvation and suicide'” would occur in Gary if relief funds were not issued.

Given the apparent futility of such demonstrations, organizers hoped to effect change through electoral politics. In 1932, the Communist Party nominated Fay Allen for Secretary of State, Stocker for Lieutenant Governor, and Theodore Luesse, still serving time at the penal farm, for governor.[36] Luesse reported that some guards were sympathetic to his ideology and even supported his gubernatorial run. The candidates earned the public’s sympathy and respect, but not their electoral support, as born out by the 1932 returns. All three Communist candidates came in sixth out of seventh place, earning just over ninety votes each.[37]

Despite the loss, Luesse and his comrades increased interest among Hoosiers in the Communist Party, which as editorialist Paul B. Sallee noted in 1935, “could not develop a membership sufficient to muster a corporal’s guard.”[38] However, Luesse’s imprisonment—a veritable “miscarriage of law”—and the suppression of free speech wrought by his incarceration helped the Party grow by “leaps and bounds.” Sallee alleged that if the two major parties denied Hoosiers their “political rights and civil liberties . . . it is clear to any intelligent person that the people will throw off such restraint by any method.” While Hoosier voters did not forsake the two major parties, they did signal the desire for change by electing the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, Paul V. McNutt. Indiana’s new head of state had apparently been sympathetic to Luesse’s plight and in March of 1933 released him from Putnamville.[39]


Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 71, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

“Assured that Luesse would leave the state” upon his release, Gov. McNutt likely breathed a sigh of relief. Although progressive in his politics, McNutt surely preferred not having to contend with Luesse’s agitation.[40] But Luesse, dogmatic as ever, returned to Indianapolis the day after he left the penal farm. He stood on the courthouse steps before an audience of 200 women and men, most of whom the paper noted were African Americans, and “urged concentrated action of his followers against governmental officials to force them to favor demands of workers and the unemployed.”[41] Upon request, he made similar speeches in cities like Evansville, Munster, and Hammond in the following months.[42] According to Luesse, after his incarceration he worked with Indiana volunteers to organize a C.I.O. branch, made possible by passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act.[43] In August of 1933, while preparing to speak to a crowd of unemployed residents in Marion, he was arrested and transported to the Grant County jail, where a mob forcibly removed and lynched two young Black men in 1930.[44]

It appears that Governor McNutt could breathe a bit easier by 1935, as Luesse had transferred his organizational talent to other midwestern cities, like Belleville, Illinois.[45] Some time after leaving Indiana, Luesse assumed the alias “Jim Moore” and worked as a machinist. Shedding his association with the Hoosier state, he resided in St. Louis for a time, channeling his revolutionary spirit into protesting the Vietnam War.[46] After decades of activism, Moore joined his son, Stan, in San Francisco around 1967. They circulated 50,000 leaflets throughout the Bay Area, “telling the workers to organize stoppage of work for five minutes, ten minutes or any amount as a memorial to the people that died” in the war. After permanently relocating to the West Coast, Moore fought for equal representation in law enforcement and county government.[47] In the late 1980s, he served as a U.S. delegate to the World Peace Convention in Denmark, relying on young peers to help him travel to Copenhagen, as a lifetime of activism had worn down his body.[48]

Image of Luesse/Moore courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): inside cover.

Moore appeared to have tempered his radical impulses later in life, telling interviewer Claire Burch in 1995, “We’ve got enough anarchy! We don’t need no more anarchy. We need organization. We need discipline. We need to be moved to do things in order to be able to get legislation passed.”[49] Despite a philosophical shift, the nonagenarian continued to work for societal change.  An average weekend for Moore meant rising at 7 o’clock, getting in some light exercise (mindful of his pacemaker), and walking over to the local hospital cafeteria for breakfast before folding copies of The People’s World. He then distributed them at the University of California, Berkley and in boxes throughout the city. Some Saturdays he breakfasted with college students to “talk over what is necessary for them to do” and on Sundays attended Humanist meetings or American-Soviet Friendship Society gatherings.[50] He ran a petition drive to convince the Montgomery Ward Company to donate one of its buildings to the City of Oakland, so it could be repurposed as a trade skill training center or housing for those experiencing homelessness.[51] Moore distributed leaflets at local welfare and unemployment offices and attended Bay Area demonstrations almost until his death.[52]


With characteristic resolve, Moore achieved his goal to reach the age of 100, passing away in 2005 just two weeks after the milestone birthday. Despite playing a large role in Indiana’s labor tradition and making an indelible impact on his native state during the Depression, he has largely been forgotten. Crusaders such as himself helped centralize Indiana government and cultivate a new generation of organizers, who demanded more from their government during those tumultuous years.

While some Hoosier leaders disapproved of Luesse’s resistance, it helped catalyze necessary change during unprecedented circumstances. After all, the New Deal was not a foregone conclusion and many state lawmakers were slow to recognize the scope of constituents’ needs. Luesse’s many public protests and his vociferous criticism of Governor Leslie’s inaction infused some Hoosiers with the spirit of reform. Primed for change, voters decided not to elect Gov. Leslie to a second term, instead electing progressive candidate Paul V. McNutt in 1933. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, Gov. McNutt’s “liberal social-welfare programs . . . marked a significant shift in the direction of assistance to those in need” and created a “more centralized, modernized, and professional welfare system.”[53]

Luesse’s unflinching demand for accountability and relief measures may resonate with modern Americans, as they grapple with the current spike in inflation, swelling gas prices, the mounting student loan debt crisis, and pandemic-related housing displacement. Certainly, those who support a social safety net relate to Theodore Luesse’s belief that:

Everybody has the right to live just because they are alive, and in order to live, a person has to have food, clothing and shelter, health and education. When he doesn’t receive that by his own ingenuity it is necessary for the government to help him. That is why we have governments—to help those people who cannot help themselves, not just to make rules and regulations.[54]


* According to this publication, he eventually went by the alias “Jim Moore,” but it is unclear when or why he did so. It appears he employed this moniker after leaving Indiana, so he will be referred to as “Theodore Luesse” during the time he lived there.

Notes:

[1] “Indianapolis Police Battle Riotous Crowd of Radicals,” (Lafayette) Journal and Courier, November 25, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “Theodore Luesse,” 1910 United States Federal Census, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995), p. 5-6.

[5] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 5-6; Obituary, “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, January 7, 2005, accessed Peoplesworld.org.

[6]  “Theodore Luesse,” Indianapolis, Indiana City Directory, 1920, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Hayes Body Strike Ends in Wage Pact,” Indianapolis Times, April 18, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 10-11, 13, 26-34.

[7] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 106-107.

[8] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 32-34.

[9] “To Protest Eviction of Tenants,” Indianapolis News, January 5, 1931, 23, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from How I Got Out of Jail, p. 109.

[10] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[11] Bradford Sample, “A Truly Midwestern City: Indianapolis on the Eve of the Great Depression,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, iss. 2 (June 2001), accessed IUScholarWorks Journal.

[12] United Press, “Leslie Again Blocks Session: Refuses Plea that He Call Legislature,” Evansville Press, March 26, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] James H. Madison, Indiana Through Tradition and Change: A History of the Hoosier State and Its People, 1920-1945 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982), p. 109.

[14] Quote from “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, January 6, 1931, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Communist Agitators Arrested,” Late County Times, January 6, 1931, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[16] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 43-44.

[17] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[18] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 45.

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

[20] “Court Provides Jobs for Orators,” (Lafayette, IN) Journal and Courier, February 6, 1931, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21]  How I Got Out of Jail, p. 41-42, 156.

[22] Ibid., p. 41-42.

[23] “Alleged Red Held Again,” Indianapolis News, April 24, 1931, 37, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hunger Marchers are Home Bound,” Late County Times, May 5, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Trio Arrested at Capital Released,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, May 5, 1931, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Radical Chief Gets Sentence on State Farm,” Kokomo Tribune, May 23, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 48.

[26] Ibid., p. 50-51.

[27] “Leslie Denies ‘Red’ Has Been Abused at Penal Farm,” Garrett Clipper, May 26, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] “Marchers Denied Visit with Luesse at State Penal Farm by Warden,” Kokomo Tribune, November 30, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[30] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Governor Refuses to Release Luesse,” Palladium-Item, October 4, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 57.

[31] “Luesse Gave Blood for Little Girl; Father Asks Release, Promises Job,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1932, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Quote from “Mob of Reds are Led by Women,” Late County Times, April 25, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] “2 Women, 1 Man Held as Rioters,” Indianapolis Star, April 26, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[34] “Two Held at Eviction,” Indianapolis News, May 13, 1932, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[35] “Jobless Army Asks Indiana Legislature for Relief Funds,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1932, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[36] “May Day is Celebrated at Two Meetings Here,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hammond Man is Named for State Office,” Late County Times, September 21, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Townsend for Senate,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1932, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[37] South Bend Tribune, November 10, 1932, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[38] Paul B. Sallee, “The Message Center: ‘Red Scare’ Law Held Communist Aid,” Indianapolis Times, March 15, 1935, 32, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[39] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, March 5, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[40] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[41] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, 9.

[42] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Prepare for Luesse Meeting,” Late County Times, March 20, 1933, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[43] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 62.

[44] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Freed from Grant County Jail,” Indianapolis Star, August 8, 1933, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[45] “Sewage Plant and Richland Creek Project Placed on List,” Belleville [Illinois] Daily News-Democrat, February 5, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 72, 85.

[46] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 85, 190.

[47] Ibid., p. 151, 182.

[48] Ibid., p. 129-130.

[49] Ibid., p. 184.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] Ibid., p. 180.

[52] “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, 2005.

[53] Linda C. Gugin, “Paul V. McNutt: January 9, 1933-January 11, 1937,” in eds., Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, The Governors of Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2006), p. 296.

[54] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 146.

WWI and the Bathing Suit: “Fashion Decrees Satin and Wool Jersey for Bathing Suits This Summer!”

http://palni.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15705coll8/id/75
“Bathing Beach,” postcard, 1904, Winona Lake Postcard Collection, Grace College & Theological Seminary, Morgan Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Bathing suits and policing decency have often been a topic of discussion and contention, as noted in a previous Chronicles post. However, while looking through reels of newspapers from 1916-17,  we became intrigued by the affect of World War One on the loosening of gendered fashion restrictions, especially as exemplified by the bathing suit. Here we look through articles, illustrations, photographs, and advertisements at the ways Hoosier women reacted to trends in the context of WWI when bathing suits had become shorter and sleeveless, but fabrics were still thick and heavy, a holdover from an older era.

"Mermaids at Brighton" by William Heath (1795 - 1840), c. 1829, in Emily Spivack, "How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back, Smithosonian Magazine, accessed www.smithsonianmag.com
“Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829, in Emily Spivack, “How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back, Smithsonian Magazine.

The Victorian bathing gowns of the previous century were floor-length and made of dark heavy fabric that wouldn’t float up or become transparent.  According to the Smithsonian Magazine, some women even sewed lead weights into the hems to prevent exposure of the calf. By the early 1900s bathing costumes became knee-length dresses or tunics and were paired with bloomers or tights, “all of which were made from heavy, flannel or wool fabric that would weigh down the wearer, not quite convenient for negotiation the surf,” according to the same article.

"Bathers at Bass Lake," photograph, circa 1900, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory, http://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p181901coll014/id/41
“Bathers at Bass Lake,” photograph, circa 1900, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory.

World War One changed fashion dramatically in large part because women’s roles changed  in wartime as they took on physical jobs such as factory and farm work, in addition to nursing. Manufacturing jobs also made shorter hair more practical and the corset impossible.  Gendered fashion rules relaxed in general to the point where it was even acceptable for women to wear pants for manual labor activities — though it would be decades before they were acceptable beyond certain activities, according to Nina Edwards’ Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing & Trappings, 1914 to 1918

"Female employees of the Jeffersonville Quartermaster Depot, New Albany, Ind." photograph, circa 1918, New Albany - Floyd County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/PPO_NAFCHistoricArchive-46C194E1-0380-4F2D-9A10-268786332926
“Female employees of the Jeffersonville Quartermaster Depot, New Albany, Ind.” photograph, circa 1918, New Albany – Floyd County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

The rules of decorum were also relaxing in the world of sports as women took up tennis, skiing, and swimming in greater numbers. Pants were allowed on the tennis court and slopes. While bathing suits generally maintained their dress-like appearance for the average beach goer, athletic and competitive swimmers opted for suits that didn’t impede their sport.  These swimsuits that allowed for actual swimming eventually infiltrated the mass market as well.

"Amateur Acrobats Performing on Bass Lake," postcard, circa 1910, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p181901coll014-59
“Amateur Acrobats Performing on Bass Lake,” postcard, circa 1910, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory.

 

"Frances Owen and Marium Mueller Dressed in Bathing Suits, New Harmony, IN," glass plate negative, 1925, University of Southern Indiana, accessed Indiana Memory https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p181901coll18-2638
“Frances Owen and Marium Mueller Dressed in Bathing Suits, New Harmony, IN,” glass plate negative, 1925, University of Southern Indiana, accessed Indiana Memory.

These images accessed through Indiana Memory show how Hoosier women, following the general bathing suit trends, shifted from dresses layered over tights or bloomers to more formfitting tunics.

Hoosier women found out about these trends and where to purchase their beach attire through newspaper articles and advertisements.  Indiana newspapers regularly ran illustrated articles about the newest fashions from the east coast beaches, such as this snippet from the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, June 7, 1916, 8.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, June 7, 1916, 8.

Articles could be more extensive as well, taking up almost an entire page such as this 1917 article from the South Bend News-Times with the intriguing headline:

fashion-decrees-headline

The article notes the relationship between sportswear trends and swim wear:

South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

This season sees the bathing suits carrying out the same colorful note that predominates in all sports clothes and in materials there is also a similarity, namely, in the use of one of the most favored of fabrics — wool jersey. This versatile material seems to make itself at home in any sphere. After having made its importance felt in sports clothes, one-piece frocks and semi-informal suits, the bathing suit has been lately added to its conquests.

The article continues to describe  and illustrate the season’s other popular fabrics:

South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, other materials compare very favorably with jersey cloth at the fashionable beaches. Black satin has lost none of its usual charms; taffeta, mohair, alpaca and poplin still retain their popularity; and the rubberized cloths are likewise favored to a great extent.

In the summer of 1917, the Lion Store in Hammond, Indiana, encouraged its neighbors to “spend Sunday in the cool, refreshing waters of Lake Michigan” through this advertisement in the Hammond Times [below].  And what is more cool and refreshing on the skin than dark-colored wool?  The women’s “All-Wool Bathing Suits” were available with a fitted waist, wing sleeves, and “piping and trimmings in contrasting colors” for the low price of $3.98.  However, one would still need the appropriate matching rubber “Swim Kap” ($.50) and “Beach of Swim Shoes, made of sateen with canvas covered soles” ($.25). For just a bit more, however, one could purchase one of “The New ‘Liberty’ Swim Caps, made of all rubber, red crow, blue band with white stars, finished with rubber rosette. As the South Bend News-Times reported:

A complete bathing outfit by no means ends with the selection of the suit. Beach wraps, hats and caps, shoes and stockings, are quite as important.

Hammond Times, August 3, 1917, p. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, August 3, 1917, p. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Also in the summer of 1917, the nearby competing department store, the E. C. Minas Company, advertised that they could beat the Lion Store’s prices! As advertised also in the Hammond Times, some of their suits were only $2.00 and they offered Bathing Tights.  Bathing tights were usually dark in color and meant to compensate for the shorter hemlines and sleeveless styles of the era’s new suits. They could be worn instead of the looser bloomers.  If you weren’t quite ready for such a propriety-challenging costume, however, they also offered the “bathing corset.”

Hammond Times, July 2, 1917, 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 2, 1917, 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.

E. C. Minas also had the gentleman bather covered.  They could choose between the “all-worsted,” aka wool, one-piece suit pictured in this advertisement in the Hammond Times [also below] or a two-piece version with flannel pants. The straw hat was a must as well, apparently.

Hammond Times, July 2, 1917 p. 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 2, 1917 p. 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Besides loosening rules for women (and to a lesser extent) men to keep pace with changes in work and sport, the war changed the outlook of those affected by it and, in turn, the way they dressed.  The horrors of war and personal loss contributed to a greater consciousness  mortality and feeling that anything could happen at any time.  For some, this meant that they should live for today and in the moment, thus setting the stage for the fashions and attitudes of the Jazz Age, when fashion would “decree” much different aesthetic rules.  Search Hoosier State Chronicles for more articles on bathing suits!  Combine terms “beach” and “bathing” with “suit,” “outfit,” and “costume.” Let us know what you find on Twitter: @in_bureau

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

Man and woman canoeing on the swamp behind Fredericks’ Island and Camp Comfort. Syracuse-Wawasee Digital Archives, Indiana Memory.

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands. Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth. Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible [sic] dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, likely J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves. Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active abolitionist during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, guided hundreds if not thousands of African American freedom seekers toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting freedom seekers there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track freedom seekers lost their scent there. And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans travel north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here. Indiana Album.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the freedom seekers hid in. The Indianapolis Journal recalled one story about the place in 1889:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue. Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892 in the Indianapolis Journal:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a freedom seeker, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from the downtown jail and tried to get to the swamp on horseback, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University (as Butler was called) and was  arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the Indianapolis Journal claimed in 1889.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses. The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp? Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today:

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

A writer for the News concurred in 1889:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple. Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier. About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water. As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths. Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.) Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State. Yale University.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped freedom seekers escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, freedom seekers hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by the Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house
Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1931. Indiana Landmarks Wilbur D. Peat Collection, Indiana Memory.

donut shop - bacon's farm
Site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone. Google Maps.

Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918
South Bend News-Times, November 15, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

peat indianapolis 1905 2
Indianapolis News, August 19, 1905. Newspapers.com.

As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article in the Indianapolis News is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and “white flight” led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Walter C. Kiplinger remembered during World War I in the Indianapolis News:

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


Indianapolis News, March 1, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

C. Mervin Palmer and the Civilian Public Service Camps in World War II

Hoosier C. Mervin Palmer was one of 12,000 conscientious objectors who served their country in Civilian Public Service Camps during World War II.

Learn more Indiana History from the Indiana Historical Bureau: http://www.in.gov/history/

Search historic newspaper pages at Hoosier State Chronicles: www.hoosierstatechronicles.org

Visit our Blog: https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/

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Please comment, like, and subscribe!

Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Images and footage courtesy of Internet Archive, the New York Public Library, the American Friends Service Committee, and John Thiesen.

Music: “Act Three” by Audionautix

Continue reading “C. Mervin Palmer and the Civilian Public Service Camps in World War II”

John T. McCutcheon’s Wartime Valentines

On Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be a great time to share a different side of Indiana culture during the tumultuous years of World War I, in the form of valentine cartoons. John T. McCutcheon was one of Indiana’s most celebrated cartoonists from the era, and his “wartime valentines” help us understand how the home front viewed this integral time in world history.

Cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, Hammond Times, December 26 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

John T. McCutcheon was a Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for 43 years. Born in South Raub, Tippecanoe County, Indiana on May 6, 1870, McCutcheon grew up “in the rural areas surrounding Lafayette.” He attended Purdue University where he was “a founding member of the University’s first fraternity, Sigma Chi” and the “co-editor of the University’s first yearbook, the Debris.” After graduating college in 1889, he worked as a cartoonist for the Chicago Morning News and Record-Herald until he moved to the Tribune in 1903. His artistic style mirrored his experiences growing up the Midwest; he developed a character called “A Boy in Springtime” who would appear in front-page pieces having small-town fun with friends and his dog (the dog first appeared in a William McKinley presidential campaign cartoon, and became much beloved by readers). As R. C. Harvey of the Comics Journal noted, McCutcheon’s cartoons were “the first to throw the slow ball in cartooning, to draw the human interest picture that was not produced to change votes or to amend morals but solely to amuse or to sympathize.”

George Ade, Indianapolis News, May 20 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Paralleling his more personable cartoons, McCutcheon partnered with another Hoosier author, George Ade, to create a series of valentines for charity during World War I. The idea originated from the Indianapolis Branch of the American Fund for French Wounded and its contributors were a who’s who of Indiana arts, including Ade and McCutcheon as well as Meredith Nicholson, Kin Hubbard, and William Herschell. As reported in the South Bend News-Times on January 28, 1918, “Prominent Indiana artists and authors this year have been making comic valentines . . . and are guaranteed by those who have seen them to send grins and cheer to soldiers at home and abroad.” The article also outlined the American Fund for French Wounded, noting that “the proceeds will go for furthering the work in France among wounded soldiers and destitute families, which is the committee looking after the funds is carrying on.” Ads even ran in the Indianapolis News to promote the Valentines, published by Charles Mayer & Company, once they were available.

Indianapolis News, February 5, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Four of McCutcheon and Ade’s valentines are publicly available through Indiana Memory/Digital Indy and the Digital Public Library of America.

George Ade and John T. McCutcheon,”From Her Mother.” IMCPL/Digital Indy.

The first valentine in the digital collection, entitled “From Her Mother”, shows a concerned mother writing to a “Mr. Soldier Man” while a variant of McCutcheon’s iconic dog looks on in the background. The photos on and above the desk in the cartoon are important to context, as the photos of the mother’s daughter and her soldier beau face each other longingly, while a portrait of the mother sternly oversees over both of the photos. In the cartoon, the mother’s letter reads:

Mr. Soldier Man.

       Dear Sir:

                I can not send what my daughter wrote,

               It might set fire to the darned old boat.

                                         Yours truly,

                                                – The Night Watch.

The mother’s face shows a concern not only for her daughter’s overly passionate words. McCutcheon’s style of strong lines and warm, humane features also comes through in this valentine.

George Ade and John T. McCutcheon, “Her Choice This Year.” IMCPL/Digital Indy.

Another great valentine in the collection entitled, “Her Choice This Year”, ties the romantic love normally associated with Valentine’s Day with love of country. Ade’s poem reads:

Columbia wants you to know,

That you’re her particular beau.

She’s likewise “particular.” So

That’s why you’ve been picked as her beau.

The young woman, aptly named Columbia, holds the hand of her uniformed soldier as he looks at her lovingly. She’s also dressed in a shirt and skirt of the red, white, and blue with a pair of roman sandals. And of course, McCutcheon’s iconic dog looks up at them in the foreground. This valentine exhibits the strong patriotic fervor during the period, but in a charming, homespun way.

George Ade and John T. McCutcheon, “Some One Has Not Forgotten.” IMCPL/Digital Indy.

The next valentine captures a woman’s longing for her partner who is off at war. Named “Some One Has Not Forgotten,” it depicts a young woman knitting in a chair while thinking of her partner trekking across Europe in a snowstorm. Here’s Ade’s text with the valentine:

My heart to-day

Is far away

Across the rolling brine.

So while I sit

And knit and knit

You’re still my valentine.

This depiction of men and women evokes a more traditional assumption of gender during the period than say “Columbia” and her beau above. The woman’s thoughts of her partner, floating above her head and colorless, attempt to convey the arduous and grim task of war. In contrast, McCutcheon’s drawing of the young woman is clear and with beautiful coloring. Ade and McCutcheon’s valentine cleverly renders the feelings of many young women while their partners were at war.

George Ade and John T. McCutcheon, “To You Somewhere.” IMCPL/Digital Indy.

The final valentine in the digital collection is called, “To You Somewhere,” and it depicts one of Valentine’s Day’s most enduring symbols, Cupid. In this version, a nude Cupid braves the cold weather to deliver a valentine to a soldier in the snow. The message reads:

I don’t know just where you are to-day,

I don’t know how many miles away;

Whether you’re out where the bullets fly,

Or safe and sounds at the good old “Y.” [Y.M.C.A]

I have no message from o’er the sea

To let me know that you think of me,

But I’ll make an oath and my name I’ll sign,

That you are my only Valentine.

The soldier’s delight at receiving the message from a saluting cupid is evident. He even has his gun down and his hands up, perhaps in surprise that the symbol of love is in a war zone, or perhaps the soldier is in the act of accepting the valentine from Cupid. Of the four digitized valentines, this is the only one without a female main subject, despite the text being from the soldier’s love. It shows the perspective of the soldier receiving a valentine, rather than a woman creating or imagining one.

During a time of immense destruction, political revolutions, and domestic instability, Ade and McCutcheon’s valentines provide us with a more homespun, sometimes humorous, quaint and patriotic view of the home front during World War I.

When Indiana Banned the German Language in 1919

Warren Times Mirror (Warren, PA), February 26, 1919
Warren Times Mirror, Warren, Pennsylvania, February 26, 1919. Newspapers.com.

On February 25, 1919, three months after the armistice that ended World War I, the Hoosier State banned the teaching of German to children, one of 34 states to institute English-only requirements by the early 1920s.

Anti-German propaganda
“Times are hard your majesty – you leave us nothing to do” by Louis Raemaekers,

From 1914 to 1918, the U.S. and its allies in Britain, France and Italy took dehumanizing propaganda to new heights.  Cartoonists, U.S. Army posters, and newspapers stoked a bizarre, irrational distrust of Germans that engulfed America. The results were sometimes petty, like renaming sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and German measles “liberty measles,” but the U.S. and Britain could also engage in acts of brutality.

One of the stranger instances of violence resulting from First World War propaganda was the war on dachshunds, considered to be a German breed. At the time the German language was being driven out of schools in England and the U.S., dachshunds were sometimes stoned or stomped to death in front of their owners.  (Novelist Graham Greene remembered this in his autobiography, A Sort of Life.) When “patriots” harassed a Chicago dog breeder, he shot every dachshund in his kennels. Bulldogs, a symbol of Britain and the mascot of the U.S. Marines, were turned loose to attack and kill the “German” pets.  The Jasper Weekly Courierprinted in a heavily German town in southern Indiana, carried a syndicated story about this:

Jasper Weekly Courier, August 30, 1918
Jasper Weekly Courier, August 30, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Help Your Uncle Sam Do This
WWI Anti-Dachshund Poster by Bernhardt Wall. Pinterest.

(A website on pet health claims that “In the United States the poor Dachshund went from one of the ten most popular breeds in 1913 to being represented by 12 survivors in 1919.”  A “lonely dachshund” showed up in Topeka, Kansas, that year in search of a home.)

With Allied print media insisting that the Kaiser’s soldiers were bayoneting and committing other outrages, it’s easy to see how anxiety got out of hand, even in areas like Pennsylvania and the Midwest, which had large German-American populations.

Indiana’s 1919 anti-German law wasn’t the first of its kind.  Parents and school boards had already been striking German classes from school curricula before the U.S. even entered the war.  And devaluing the German language was a coast-to-coast phenomenon.  Evanston, Illinois, banned the language in its schools in 1918.  California kept up a ban on high-school German into the 1920s and in 1941 banned it in churches.  At a speech on Long Island in 1917, Theodore Roosevelt urged Americans to rid the country of German, otherwise America risked becoming “a polyglot counting house for dollar chasers.”

A sign painter in Indianapolis who opposed Gothic lettering mentioned that Americans were already burning German textbooks. At Indianapolis’ Shortridge High School, a newspaperwoman connected to the Red Cross was applauded during a speech when she criticized the administration for not canceling German classes there.  The German teachers switched to teaching Latin.  Meanwhile, a new course on “contemporary war history” began and a hundred students enrolled.  At a time when the U.S. was claiming to oppose German militarism, Shortridge considered its military history course to be the first ever offered at an American public high school.


Lake County Times -- September 10, 1918 (2)
Hammond High School was already planning to phase out German by 1919 and was just waiting for the legislature to catch up. Lake County Times, September 10, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On the eve of the vote for banning German in schools, a visitor from Iowa spoke at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Iowa’s Governor William L. Harding is considered one of the most controversial politicians in Iowa’s history.  Though he had curried favor with Iowa’s foreign-born citizens during his election campaign, when the war broke out he turned against them. Proponents of Indiana’s German-language ban were later accused of the same kind of hypocrisy.


WIlliam L. Harding
Iowa’s William L. Harding in 1915. Wikipedia.

Harding’s 1918 “Babel Proclamation” in Iowa did more than simply ban German instruction, though. The infamous law banned the speaking of all foreign languages in public, including Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and Czech, which were still common in the Midwest.  Fearing “spies,” Harding made having a foreign-language conversation on the telephone, on street corners, and in churches and schools a criminal offense.  Iowa’s law was no empty threat. Violators were arrested and jailed.

Harding had plenty of admirers.  “Liberty Leagues” and “councils of defense” wanted laws to keep German off the streets and even ban it in private homes.  The author of the “Babel Proclamation” spoke in Indianapolis on February 13, 1919, a few days before Indiana outlawed the teaching of German in Hoosier elementary schools.


The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), February 13, 1919
Call-Leader, February 13, 1919. Newspapers.com.

The main proponent of Indiana’s bill was State Senator Franklin McCray of Indianapolis.  As Lieutenant Governor Edgar Bush reminded the General Assembly, this bill would overturn a long-standing law dating back to the 1860s.  Bush told the Senate:

Journal of the Indiana State Senate 1919
Journal of the Indiana State Senate, 1919. Google Books.

Indiana’s 1869 law likely had to do with teacher shortages and the fact that in German communities, it just made sense.

One of the most glaring oversights of the anti-German law was that many speakers of the language were Mennonites and Amish, Christian pacifists highly unlikely to be working as secret agents.

Though the German army committed real outrages in World War I and the bill’s proponents mentioned fear of “future German propaganda” aimed at American children, focusing on the atrocities of Germans was a sly way to pass a law that was deeply entangled with immigration, prohibition and labor unrest.  As 1919 dawned — one of the most turbulent years in American history — “wet” and “dry” advocates, capitalists and socialists, anarchists, pacifists and suffragettes battled for the “soul” of the country.

Many German-Americans were farmers or industrial laborers and had a history of being Socialists, pacifists and isolationists.  When the Socialist Party tried to steer America away from entering World War I, arguing that American entry would play into the hands of wealthy industrialists and bankers, pro-war advocates countered that anyone who opposed the war supported the Kaiser.  In 1924, Progressive Party presidential candidate Robert LaFollette carried Wisconsin, a heavily-German state, partly as a result of his anti-war record.

The perception of German fondness for beer and liquor also earned the hostility of many Prohibition advocates, who had spent decades slowly “shutting off the tap.”  A nationwide ban on booze was just around the corner, coming in January 1920.  Yet as Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot back in 1855 proved, the history of Prohibition was closely tied to anti-labor attitudes.  Squelching the German language was part of the process of extinguishing German sociability at a time when workers got together in pubs and beer gardens to talk about labor grievances and organize.


Hun Rule Association
A World War I-era cartoon slanders “Huns” — Germans — as booze-lovers who cause crime, poverty and waste. Historic Indianapolis.

Kaiser Wilson, 1916
Suffragist Virginia Arnold holding “Kaiser Wilson” banner, August 1917. Library of Congress.

While fear of “Huns” and “traitors” prompted anti-German legislation, America’s social problems were reflected in the Indiana bill. That year, Gary would be shut down by a national steel strike, a federal raid on Communists led to the deportation of hundreds of European immigrants (including Hoosiers), and an anarchist bomb plot nearly killed several major U.S. officials.

Although the language of the Indiana law would be more formal,  State Senator Luke W. Duffey, speaking on the Senate floor, lashed out at the “stupid heads” of Germany and their sympathizers in America, who threatened to strangle education and spread disloyalty.  Duffey finished off with a call for deporting traitors.  He didn’t know it yet, but he was sounding the keynote of 1919:

Journal of the Indiana State Senate 1919 (2)
Journal of the Indiana State Senate, 1919. Google Books.

The anti-German bill was about more than bigotry against German culture; it was also about stamping out the perception of political radicalism. Many people who supported the law had German last names, after all, like Speaker of the House Jesse E. Eschbach.  Lieutenant Governor Bush read a letter at the Statehouse from “150 residents of Seymour of German extraction” who favored the language ban and asked why it was taking so long.  The Germans of Seymour probably didn’t want to be associated with those deemed “subversives,” “traitors” and “terrorists.”

Urged by the Lieutenant Governor to enact “100 percent American” legislation, the Senate put the elementary-school bill up for a vote on February 17, 1919. Only one legislator, Senator Charles A. Hagerty of South Bend, voted against it.  Yet even Hagerty’s opposition seems to have been against the political opportunism of the bill’s promoters rather than a real concern for education. On February 25, the House also passed the bill and Governor James P. Goodrich signed the legislation.

The South Bend News-Times, a liberal paper, thought the bill a classic case of legislative overreach, since most German-Americans were already trying hard to adopt English in their churches and schools.  McCray had insisted that it would not interfere with the use of foreign languages in religious worship.  (Many Lutheran churches still used German, and it was the main language of instruction at a few major Catholic seminaries.)

The 1919 law completely banned German-language instruction up to the eighth grade.  The penalty for instructing children in German?  A fine of $25 to $100,  a jail sentence of up to six months, or both. It was followed by a law prohibiting high-school German courses.

Indianapolis News, February 18,1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ironically, the anti-German bills were overturned in 1923 by another man named McCray — Governor Warren T. McCray, who also butted heads with the Klan.

A few months after Governor Goodrich signed Indiana’s law, an anti-German bill passed through Pennsylvania’s legislature, also by a large margin.  Pennsylvania Governor William C. Sproul, however, vetoed it Sproul’s remarks to the press were probably the most intelligent words to come out of the whole debate. They are below and well worth reading in full:

Mount Carmel Item, May 6, 1919. Newspapers.com.

Indiana’s anti-German bills were overturned in 1923 by another man named McCray — Governor Warren T. McCray, who is best remembered today for taking on another wave of intolerance in Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan. Despite their removal almost a century ago, Indiana’s anti-German laws serve as a powerful example of how extreme nationalism during wartime can lead to discriminatory government policy.

Hoosier State Chronicles has digitized over 8,000 issues of the Indiana Tribüne, once a major German-language newspaper. Published by The Gutenberg Company in Indianapolis, the Tribüne was silenced on June 1, 1918.