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 crate 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/

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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.

The Corn Cob Curtain Controversy in Indianapolis, 1971-1975

Image sent to author from a former Corn Cob reader.

Marty Laubach was an unlikely political radical. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, his working-class Republican parents attended a church with members of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. But several concurrent events placed him at odds with his parent’s conservative values. The 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention, the possibility of conscription into Vietnam, the 1970 shooting of antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University by National Guardsmen, and his older brother’s antiwar views solidified his youthful rebellion. He began attending antiwar demonstrations and started working on an unauthorized publication at Arsenal Technical High School called After Breakfast. The publication, which had a short duration, ceased in 1971, so Laubach and a group of like-minded peers created a new underground newspaper called the Corn Cob Curtain.[1] The paper’s countercultural tone and opposition to school policies about unauthorized publications on campus led students to file a lawsuit that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974.[2]

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy launched the conservative city of Indianapolis and high school students into a battle of free speech. Besides old newspaper clippings, there is no public recognition of the conflict. At its peak, the paper printed around 3,000 copies of a single issue, circulated in over 15 public and private Indianapolis high schools and the surrounding suburbs.[3] It received criticism from school administrators, legal officials, concerned residents who submitted letters to the editors, and the city’s two major newspapers, the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News.

Laubach and his peers were not alone in their efforts in challenging high school’s censorship policies. From mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, a minority of Indiana high school students published and distributed underground publications. Laced with creative drawings, designs, and witty language, they bared the names Blackhawk Broadcast, Desiderata, and the purposely-misspelled New Amerikan Mercury. Constituting a minority of contributors, these publications emerged in urban and rural areas and raised poignant questions about local issues, race, education, and free speech rights.[4] Students remained either indifferent, hostile, or supportive.  School administrators balked at their existence and contributors risked retaliation from school officials.[5] Indiana State Treasurer, most notably, referred to them as “trash so foul as to be beyond normal belief” and claimed they were “flooding” high school and college campuses throughout the state.[6]

Image sent to author by a former contributor.

One contributor, Jeff Jacobs, recalled his experience dealing with hostile school officials while trying to distribute the paper. Although he found Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks High School campuses welcoming, he faced resistance at Southport and Emmerich Manual High Schools. At Manual High, school officials threatened to call the Marion County sheriff. “These little skirmishes, with our oppressors should not discourage us, but should enlighten us to try that much harder,” he told readers. “One of the greatest reasons for the CCC’s exisstance [sic] is to equalize the student with the administrators.”[7]

Within this atmosphere, the Corn Cob Curtain was born in 1971. Using pre-established social networks, activists  met teenagers from other schools throughout the summer, forming a citywide underground newspaper. The witty name originated from two Cold War metaphors—the “Iron Curtain” and the “Bamboo Curtain”—that alluded to geopolitical divisions between communist and non-communist countries in Europe and Asia. Adapting these metaphors, the students argued that their fight for constitutional rights on campus grounds was akin to the ideological battle “between the Free world and the Communist world.” They found themselves “locked behind a kind of ‘curtain’ of Midwestern Provincialism—a curtain of corn cobs.”[8]

The publication covered a multitude of topics. National and local news stories, American history, student affairs, education, music, movies, book reviews, and cartoons all appeared in the pages. Students critiqued their schools, with one contributor writing “All students in the Indianapolis area attending one of the prisons we call high school,” one written claimed. They insisted “high schools are de-humanizing,” and called for the formation of a citywide student union to “raise an effective voice to start the machinery in motions to bring about these changes.”[9] But no such group ever formed.

Generating public support for the newspaper was an arduous task at first. Some students had reportedly claimed the paper “eats shit.” But these complaints had legitimacy. The first two issues were aesthetically unappealing, images were scarce, stories lacked headlines, and the publication was printed on mimeograph paper. The students improved the paper substantially by printing it on newspaper print, incorporating images, and overall, made it look like an actual newspaper. In the third issue, publishers wrote an article titled “On Your Ass” and lambasted students’ lackluster participation and demanded action on their part to improve the paper’s shortcomings. “You, your paper, need to criticize what’s wrong with the Cob, if you don’t like it. You are the only one who can change it,” they exclaimed. If anything, the students wanted their peers to know that the Corn Cob Curtain was a collective effort, not just the responsibility from a small group of volunteers.[10]

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy began after the district Superintendent banned the publication upon the fifth issue’s release. Administrators’ justification for the ban stemmed from a cartoon that appeared on the back page. In a cartoon series called George the Cat, the character George wires up some dynamite in a bathroom while expressing dissatisfaction with the school. Just as he lights the fuse, the principal walks into the restroom, leading George to frantically jump into the toilet. As the principal begins using the restroom the toilet explodes. George survives the explosion with bruises, a broken arm, and human feces on his head. He quips, “I may have gotten rid of the school, but I’m still eatin’  the principals’ shit.” What was intended as a joke infuriated school officials who viewed the entire publication as obscene and wanted it discarded. The district’s attorneys agreed. They cited the cartoon as advocating “violence and the destruction and the school and the murder of the principal.” This gave school officials fodder to justify banning the paper.[11]

Laubach and five friends sought legal assistance from Craig Pinkus of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Ronald Elberger of the Legal Service Organization (LSO). Both young lawyers, Pinkus and Elberger agreed to represent the students. As a publicly funded organization that represented low-income families in Marion County, the LSO received criticism for representing what the local press dismissed as privilege, middle-class youth. Although this description wasn’t entirely accurate, it never halted the conservative editorial board of the Indianapolis Star from alleging the group was seeking to “destroy the power of Indianapolis school officials to ban a smutty underground paper from high school.”[12]

The federal district court ruled in the students’ favor, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals, citing that school officials had failed to show the detrimental effects the publication had on young people. Emboldened by calls to appeal the case by the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News after the district court ruling, the school district appealed the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974.[13] The oral arguments delivered by the school district’s attorney to Supreme Court justices revealed that school officials viewed the issue as a power struggle.

Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1974, 33, accessed Newspapers.com.

Attorney Lila Young insisted the district had “a complete inability to have any rules or regulations of what is going to be distrusted in our schools.” She constantly referred to the Corn Cob Curtain as “filth,” and alleged it contained “filthy cartoons” and “gutter language.” She argued that the distribution of such material contributed “to the delinquency of minors.” The students’ lawyer, Craig Pinkus, juxtaposed the publication to other material students read in schools that also continued inappropriate language, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Catcher in the Rye. But the justices continuously asked him whether the policy applied to elementary schools, and Pinkus stated his organization drew a line between primary and secondary schools.[14]

Since the students did not file a class-action lawsuit, Supreme Court justices ruled the case moot in February 1975. Additionally, the publication no longer existed, partly because the plaintiffs had graduated from high school. The court remanded the case back to the lower court. Justice William O. Douglass wrote a dissenting opinion about the mootness of the case. He believed clashes would continue between students and administrators and the issue might appear in court again.[15] But his prophesy never came to fruition in Indianapolis. Interestingly, no consensus emerged for what the ruling meant. The ACLU argued that students’ rights to distribute an unauthorized publication on campus had not been overturned while the Indianapolis Star viewed the ruling as a victory for the school district, but acknowledged its inconclusiveness. Nonetheless, by 1975 high school underground newspapers were no longer a topic of contention in Indiana.[16]

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy represented the clash of counterculture and conservative politics in a city impacted by the social upheaval of the 1960s much later than other major urban areas. Tame compared to locations such as the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago, and New York, it took little to be declared a radical by city and school officials in Indianapolis. Indianapolis’s high school students infrequently participated in strikes. Instead, they created a citywide student protest movement through an underground newspaper and built a growing, radical political consciousness in the process.

Notes:

[1] Martin Laubach, interview with author, June 9, 2017, Bloomington, Indiana.

[2] Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown: The Corn Cob Curtain Controversy, Free Speech, and 1960s and 1970s High School Activism in Indianapolis,” Indiana Magazine of History 114, no. 3 (September 2018): 202-237.

[3] Oral Arguments, Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis v. Jacobs, December 11, 1974, accessed Oyez.org.

[4] Diane Divoky, How Old Will You Be in 1984?: Expressions of Student Outrage from the High School Free Press (New York: Avon Books, 1969), ix.

[5] Fountain Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 209.; “W.G.U. Responds to Criticism,” Warren Owl (Warren Central High School), December 10, 1971, Warren Central High School Archives, Indianapolis, Ind.

[6] “Snyder Hails Tax Feat of Legislature,” Indianapolis Star, March 26, 1969.

[7] Jeff Jacobs, Corn Cob Curtain 1, no. 3, December 1971, 4, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records.

[8] Corn Cob Curtain1, no. 1, [1971?], copy in author’s possession, used with permission by Deborah Owen.

[9] “Jail Break,” Corn Cob Curtain, 1, no. 5, [1972?], 5, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records, SCRC 175, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[10] “On Your Ass,” Corn Cob Curtain, 1, no. 3, December 1971, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records.

[11] Ibid., 223; “Underground Paper ‘Guidelines’ Sought,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1972.

[12] Fountain Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 223-224.; “Funds for Radicalism?” Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1972.

[13] Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 230-231.

[14] Oral Arguments, Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis v. Jacobs, December 11, 1974, accessed Oyez.org..

[15] Jacobs v. The Board of School Commissioners, 1975, U.S. Supreme Court. LEXIS 30.

[16] Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 232-234.

Richard G. Lugar: Nixon’s Favorite Mayor

“A warm Hoosier welcome on a rather cold day.”

That’s how President Richard Nixon described his reception in Indianapolis on February 5th, 1970. Awaiting his arrival on the tarmac, Governor Edgar Whitcomb and Mayor Richard Lugar received the President and his federal entourage. This was the first presidential visit conducted by Nixon since his inauguration in 1969 and Indianapolis was chosen as their destination due to the new Republican leadership under Mayor Lugar. After exchanging pleasantries and traveling to City Hall, Nixon and Lugar spoke to the crowd of approximately 1,000 Hoosiers before convening for their scheduled conference on urban affairs. During the conference, President Nixon convened with nine Indiana mayors to discuss problems faced by city leadership and the federal government’s role. At 4:30 PM, President Nixon departed Indianapolis to visit Chicago. While brief, President Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis greatly influenced both Lugar’s political future and the city of Indianapolis as a whole.

President Nixon and Mayor Lugar greeting one another, 1970, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives 

After Nixon’s visit, Richard Lugar would experience a meteoric rise in the political sphere, easily winning his mayoral re-election in 1972 and earning a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. Lugar served one of Indiana’s senators for 32 years, garnering a reputation as a foreign policy expert and renowned statesman. He is best known for co-authoring the acclaimed Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which led to the dismantling of thousands of Cold-War era weapons in previous USSR territory and a Nobel Peace Prize Nomination. In 2013, President Barack Obama named Lugar as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient stating:

 “His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers, and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman.” – President Barack Obama, 2013

In examining Lugar’s towering legacy, one must ask, how does a mayor of a landlocked city in the Midwest become the leading statesman in foreign policy for over 30 years?

The answer to that question can be traced back to February 5th, 1970, and a warm handshake on a rather cold day. Lugar transformed an otherwise short and symbolic visit with Nixon into a key political moment, forging an unprecedented relationship between a city mayor and the sitting president. In a Washington Post article, Peter Braestrup aptly dubbed the young Lugar as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.” The name stuck, and Lugar leveraged his new title to enter national politics and foreign affairs. While Lugar’s association as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor” was problematic immediately after the Watergate scandal, his affiliation with the President was overall more beneficial than detrimental to his political career. Ultimately Nixon’s relationship with Lugar was the catalyst for Lugar’s remarkable career in foreign affairs, elevating both Lugar and Indianapolis to national and global prominence.

Nixon’s presidency is remembered, for better or worse, as one of the most consequential administrations in American history. Globally, Nixon found success in foreign affairs, revolutionizing the Cold War by pursuing rapprochement with China. Domestically, Nixon championed New Federalism which facilitated the transfer of power from the federal government to the state level via federal block grants. Conservatives believed this policy would curb the bloated bureaucratic system. However, Democrats believed that New Federalism was an underhanded attempt to dismantle President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Frustrated by a resistant Congress, Nixon sought to prove that his philosophy of decentralization worked. In 1970, Nixon found a prime example of New Federalism in Indianapolis, lead by its newly minted Republican mayor, Richard G. Lugar.

Before Lugar’s election, Indianapolis Democrats had enjoyed a sixteen-year long monopoly on the mayoral office. However, Lugar and his campaign manager, Keith Bulen, capitalized on a rift forming within the Democratic party and, running a tight grassroots campaign, won the 1967 mayoral election. As mayor, Lugar successfully implemented Unigov, a controversial piece of legislation that folded several counties into the city of Indianapolis, increasing the city’s population by 300,000 citizens overnight. Notably, the demographic incorporated into Marion County was mainly white, conservative, suburbanites whose vote solidified the Republican party’s dominance in Indianapolis. Unigov also established Indianapolis as a leader in urban policy, successful city consolidation, and effective “home rule,” a not-so-subtle nod to Nixonian New Federalism.

A caricature of Mayor Lugar ascending into the sky on a rocket titled “Uni-Gov, ” 1971, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

By 1970, President Nixon was embroiled in the Vietnam War and public criticism of his inability to withdraw, a promise he had made on the campaign trail, mounted every day. As the war dragged on, Nixon became increasingly sequestered in the White House, failing to make a presidential visit outside of Washington D.C. for the entirety of 1969. A deeply insecure man, Nixon abhorred the idea of a presidential visit being marred by coverage of anti-war protestors and personally embarrassing him. His administration urged him to leave D.C. and eventually identified Indianapolis as a city where he would receive an enthusiastic welcome and, in turn, positive media coverage. Better yet, Mayor Lugar’s Unigov legislation offered a thriving example of New Federalism and decentralized government. The presidential visit was confirmed in January of 1970 and Mayor Lugar began preparing the local Republican party to receive the president.

The presidential visit was a rousing success with both the media and public. The Indiana GOP had extensively planned this visit, inviting positive coverage of the event and a gathering a crowd of over 1,000 people for Nixon and Lugar’s speeches alone. President Nixon was reportedly delighted by the large reception and in good humor traveling to the conference. The Urban Affairs Conference was more symbolic than practical, cementing Nixon’s commitment to New Federalist Policy. This commitment would later reach Indianapolis by way of generous block grants and federal funding. The visit drew national attention to Lugar’s successes as mayor and the media began connecting Lugar with Nixon in their headlines, eventually bestowing upon Lugar the title of “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.”

Lugar introduces President Nixon with First Lady Pat Nixon and Governor Edgar Whitcomb prominently featured, 1970, courtesy of Indiana University Bloomington: The Richard G. Lugar Senatorial Papers

More importantly, Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis unintentionally precipitated Senator Lugar’s career as a diplomat, statesman, and foreign affairs expert. In WYFI’s documentary on Lugar, the senator reminisces on how he was invited to his first NATO conference by President Nixon. After delivering their speeches in front of City Hall, Lugar and Nixon were heading towards the conference on urban affairs and conversing during the elevator ride.

Upon passing the 25th floor, Nixon pivoted towards Lugar and said:

“Dick, I want you to go with Moynihan…to Brussels to represent the United States at a NATO conference on cities.” – President Nixon as remembered by Richard Lugar

Lugar accepted the President’s invitation. Seemingly a reward for the successful presidential visit, Lugar’s attendance Brussels NATO conference precipitated his transformation from a local, Midwestern politician to a U.S. Senator and global tour de force. During the conference, Lugar attended several diplomatic meetings and, on the second day, proposed that Indianapolis host another NATO conference in May of 1971. Talking points for this Hoosier hosted conference included urban growth, with Indianapolis being the case study, municipal affairs, and urban problems. The proposal was accepted, and Lugar was able to successfully blend his previous experience with urban affairs with his new interests in foreign policy. Both NATO conferences provided the mayor with vital connections and foreign policy experience that Lugar later leveraged to maneuver into the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

A year after hosting the Indianapolis NATO conference, Mayor Lugar was invited to speak at the 1972 RNC where he was introduced by Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan, in his charismatic oratory style, lauded Lugar as:

“A respected spokesman for and practitioner of the very best in workable new approaches to the urban challenge… he has represented the President not only across this country but also within the NATO Community.”- President Ronald Reagan, 1972

Lugar’s rise to national prominence experienced a major setback on August 8th, 1974, when Nixon, unable to escape the Watergate Scandal, became the first and only sitting president to resign. Suddenly the title “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor,” was a curse rather than a blessing. Despite efforts to separate himself from the disgraced president, Lugar lost the 1974 Senatorial election to Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. However, Lugar quickly bounced back in 1976’s election and began his federal career as Indiana’s longest-serving state senator.

Ultimately, the lasting impact of Lugar’s relationship with Nixon as his “favorite mayor” was Lugar’s rapid rise in politics and critical access to foreign policy early in his career. Without Nixon’s 1972 presidential visit, Lugar would not have been able to attend the NATO conference in Brussels, host a similar conference in Indianapolis, and most likely would not have been invited to speak at the 1972 RNC. These cumulative events were significantly more impactful than Lugar’s singular 1974 election loss. Without Nixon’s mentorship, Lugar’s senatorial career would have been vastly different, and his legislation may have been limited to areas more in line with the expertise of a midwestern politician such as agriculture. Instead, Lugar was able to capitalize on the diplomatic opportunities Nixon presented him and pursue an illustrious career in foreign affairs. After losing the primary election in 2012, Lugar would continue to make speaking appearances until his passing on April 28th, 2019. The Lugar Center preserves Senator Lugar’s preeminent legacy by continuing his policies regarding nuclear weapon nonproliferation, global food security, and bipartisan governance.

Richard Nixon Shaking Hands with Mayor Lugar, unknown date, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

In January of 1994, during the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s presidential inauguration, Senator Lugar and President Nixon’s paths crossed one final time. It was another chilly day in Washington D.C., and the weather resembled that of the two statesman’s first encounter nearly 25 years prior. In those two and a half decades much had changed: the Cold War had ended, Bill Clinton was President, and the Republican Party was undergoing a major political transformation and becoming increasingly conservative. This stood in stark contrast to Nixon’s promotion of desegregation and the founding of the EPA. It was during this time that the political topography started shifting under Lugar’s feet and Lugar, once known as a solid conservative, began being known as a bipartisan negotiator or even a moderate. This new reputation would later be weaponized against him in the 2012 primary election. Regardless of the political present and future, Lugar and Nixon were gathered to recount presidential history. Lugar proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “Our prayers today are for the continuing strength and activity of President Richard Nixon,” whom he then referred to as his “foreign policy teacher and counselor.” After the celebration, Nixon, who was now in his 80’s, privately pulled Lugar aside and confided in him saying:

“You know, you really were my favorite mayor.”