We are all familiar with the stereotype of corrupt and power-hungry politicians who do whatever it takes to win and get their party into office. This stereotype has been around for centuries and in fact still influences public perception about candidates’ motivations for running for elected office. This stereotype emerged because there have been corrupt politicians in the past, and the State of Indiana is no exception. For example, in the 1920s, the Indianapolis Times exposed the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana politics via bribes to several high-ranking politicians in the state, including Governor Ed Jackson. As recently as this year, two former members of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA) were sentenced to federal prison for breaking election finance law. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Hoosiers and their fellow Americans to be a bit skeptical regarding the intentions of politicians. Given that citizens are the ones electing politicians, we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and look critically at their actions, since it affects our lives.
But in fairness, however, state legislators have historically come into office via a variety of different means, from different backgrounds, and with different motivations. In the course of my work as a historian for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI), I have found there are many elected officials who essentially stumbled into politics. This has been one of the intriguing aspects of conducting interviews for ILOHI. Take for instance, the former Republican Calvin Didier, who served in the House of Representatives in 1961. Prior to serving in the Assembly, Didier was a minister in La Porte. Members of his congregation began to recruit him to run for office, claiming they did not feel well-represented by the legislature and believed he would be a good candidate. When recounting this story, Didier remembered his puzzled reaction, saying “‘No, I can’t do that.’ I mean, you know a minister doesn’t run very often, but they pushed hard enough, in terms of wanting a candidate and apparently, I had some popularity in that small community. So, you know I said, ‘well okay nothing to lose’ and I agreed.” Subsequently, Didier would go on to win his election, showing how communities can play a major role in determining who runs for office. During his legislative service, he was known for his ability to work with both parties and get along with everyone. He also worked to prevent churches from taking advantage of their tax exemptions, feeling that even as a minister it was unethical.
However, Didier was not the only legislator encouraged to run by their community. This was also the case for former Democratic legislator Earline Rogers. Rogers served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990 and the Indiana Senate from 1990 to 2016. Despite Rogers having no prior interest in politics, she accepted the Gary Teachers Union suggestion that she run for office. Once elected to the Assembly, Rogers proved to be very influential in education reform, such as helping casino legislation get passed to increase government revenue to help fund education.
Alternatively, some legislators were recruited by political parties in their communities but not through the stereotypically “nefarious” ways. In one humorous instance, a former representative was chosen to run for office completely out of the blue when an outgoing representative in the IGA needed a replacement. This was the case for former Democratic Representative Jesse Villalpando, who served in the House from 1983 to 2000. At the time of his recruitment, Villalpando was a student and magician at Indiana University-Bloomington when one of his roommates informed him a man had called about a job offer. As it turned out, this man was Representative Peter Katic, who had met Villalpando only once, after one of Villalpando’s magic shows. However, before he returned Katic’s call, he called his mother. And to Villalpando’s total surprise, his mother informed him that he was running for office. As Villalpando recounts, “I called my mom first and my mom is excitable. She said, ‘I just heard it on WJOB Radio, you’re a candidate for State Representative. . . . I said ‘What did you say?’ . . . I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ultimately, despite being shocked by all of this, Villalpando would run for office, and this former representative’s decision to volunteer Villalpando as his replacement, would lead to Villalpando serving almost twenty years in the House. He was influential in helping create the CLEO bill, which would provide legal educational opportunities for underrepresented students preparing to go to law school.
Lastly, like the recruitment of Jesse Villalpando, State Senator Stephen Ferguson, was also talked into running for office by local members of the Republican Party in his community. Like Villalpando, Ferguson had no interest in running for the Indiana General Assembly and even refused to run when first asked. It was only later that Ferguson was talked into it and then went on to win his election, serving in the Indiana Senate from 1967 to 1974. He played an important role in the creation of Unigov, which had a transformative impact on the city of Indianapolis.
There are many reasons why someone runs for office, as highlighted by the dozens of ILOHI interviews conducted over the past 4 years. The legislative office comes with power and influence certainly, but the ILOHI interviews demonstrate that usually is not the driving factor for why someone runs for the Indiana General Assembly. Many legislators simply get involved because they were convinced that they could help their communities. And despite the long-standing stereotype, financial greed is not likely a motivating factor, as the pay is low in the Indiana General Assembly, since it is a part-time body. As pointed out by the Indy Star in 2021, legislators’ salaries were under $30,000. Based on ILOHI interviews, most former legislators testify to genuinely wanting to help their communities. Whether they succeeded or not is up for you to determine.
 Jordan Fischer, “The Dragon & the Lady: The Murder that Brought Down the Ku Klux Klan,” WRTV, August 22, 2017, accessed wrtv.com.
 Press Release, “Former Indiana State Senator and an Indianapolis Casino Executive Sentenced to Federal Prison for Criminal Election Finance Schemes,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana, August 17, 2022, accessed justice.gov.
 Tony Cook, “Analysis: Part-time Legislators Earn About $65.6K/yr.” Indianapolis Star, August 15, 2021, accessed Indystar.com.
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.
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. She “studied with the best” teachers and was “thoroughly schooled.” 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. The Richmond Palladium, reported that she was “well-known by Richmond Chautauqua goers.” A Wisconsin newspaper called her “one of the greatest artists on the platform today.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While chlorine gas was not usually fatal, the effects could be long lasting or even permanent. Wilmer suffered greatly as the gas “continued burning in her lungs” for weeks. But, she said, “I didn’t want to give up.” 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
 “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience: Was in Battles in Male Attire,” Lake County Times, December 24, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
 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.
 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.
 Pamphlet, First Annual Assembly of the Pleasant Shades Chautauqua to be Held at “The Shades” Near Waveland, Indiana, 1909, Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.
 “Would Have Ranked High as an Actress,” Caney News (Kansas), September 27, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Nephew of President Crossfield Is Dead,” Lexington Herald, August 11, 1915, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Miss Wilmer Goes to France,” Lyceum Magazine (July 1918): 31, accessed Google Books.
 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.
 “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.
 “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” Lake County Times, December 24, 1918, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.
 Ibid.; “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.
 “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.
 “First Usage of Poison Gas,” National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/spotlight-first-usage-poison-gas.
 “War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.
 Ibid.; “Armistice,” National WWI Museum and Memorial, accessed https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/armistice.
 “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1.
”War’s Glory and Horror as Seen by Chicago Girl,” 4.
 “Hobart Girl, Invalided Home, Tells of Experience,” 1; “Woman War Worker Will Address Big Meeting,” Indianapolis Star, March 16, 1919, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Sarah M. Willmer [sic] Dies; Heroine, Social Worker,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), July 14, 1949, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.
During the peak of labor struggles in the early 20th century, almost no figure was as recognized and loved by workers than Mary “Mother” Jones. An Irish immigrant who dedicated her life to cause of labor, Jones was described by the Evansville Courier as “probably the most widely known woman labor leader in the United States.” During her decades in the struggle, Mother Jones traveled all around the country organizing coal miners for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), catching the ire of mine owners and the political leaders that supported them. However, one member of the political establishment that Jones not only liked but even campaigned for was Democratic Indiana Senator John W. Kern. A dedicated defender of organized labor himself, Kern used his power in the U.S. Senate to advocate for Jones’s release in the summer of 1913 while she was imprisoned for organizing coal miners. Years later, she campaigned on his behalf, reminding labor that Kern stood up for her when very few public leaders would. Their political partnership stands out as one of the most unique pairings during America’s Progressive Age.
Contrasting Journeys, Converging Missions
While Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claimed to be born on May 1, 1830, she was likely born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland to Richard and Ellen Harris. Details about Mother Jones’s birth and childhood are scant. “My people were poor,” Mother Jones wrote in her autobiography, “For generations they had fought for Ireland ‘s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle.” When she was a teenager, Jones and her family emigrated to Canada. “His [Richard Harris’s] work as a laborer with railway construction crews took him to Toronto, Canada,” Jones wrote years later, noting “Here I was brought up but always as the child of an American citizen. Of that citizenship I have ever been proud.” The exact date of their departure to America is unclear, but as biographer Elliot J. Gorn writes, “by the early 1850s, they had saved enough for Ellen and the children to set sail for North America. The family was soon established in Toronto, with Richard Harris, approaching fifty, working on the rapidly growing Canadian railroads.”
Her early education equipped her with skills she would use for decades as a labor organizer. “After finishing the common schools,” she recalled later, “I attended the [Toronto] Normal school with the intention of becoming a teacher. Dress-making too, I learned proficiently. My first position was teaching in a convent in Monroe, Michigan. Later, I came to Chicago and opened a dressmaking establishment. I preferred sewing to bossing little children.” Biographer Elliott J. Gorn corroborates most of this, writing, “Mary learned the skills of dressmaking, but she was intent on another career. Late in 1857, at age twenty, she obtained a certificate from the priest at St. Michael’s Cathedral attesting to her good moral character. With this credential, she took the examinations for admission to the Toronto Normal School, passed, and enrolled in November 1857. She never graduated, but she attended classes through the spring of 1858, getting more than enough training to secure a teaching position.”
She eventually made her way to Memphis, Tennessee, resuming her career as a teacher. It was here that she met and married her husband, George Jones, in 1861. Unfortunately, their lives together were cut short, with tragedy forever reshaping her life and work. In 1867, her husband and four children died in a yellow fever epidemic. She shared her perspective on this in an August 24, 1925 article for the Evansville Press, which was subsequently published in her autobiography:
In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept Memphis. Its victims were mainly among the poor and the workers. . . . One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as was mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart.
After their deaths, she returned to Chicago and set up a clothing business, which was lost in the Great Fire of 1871. “The fire made thousands homeless,” Jones wrote in the Press, “We stayed all night and the next day without food on the lake front, often going into the lake to keep cool. Old St. Mary’s church at Wabash Avenue and Peck Court was thrown open to the refugees and there I camped until I could find a place to go.”
These tragedies caused her to abscond traditionally-female jobs, likely in the search for meaning, and instead she espoused the cause of labor—a consequential role she would play for the rest of her life. “From the time of the Chicago fire,” she declared in the Evansville Press, “I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle [,] and I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived.” She spent the next fifty years of her life dedicated to improving the lives of workers all over the United States.
John W. Kern’s life was very different from that of Mother Jones. Born on December 20, 1849 in Howard County, Indiana, Kern belonged to a solidly middle-class family. His father was a doctor who moved the family to Iowa for a time before moving back to a permanent residence in Howard County. It was in these early years, according to biographer Peter J. Sehlinger, that Kern developed a “strong predilection for politics and education,” likely as a result of his father, who was an “outspoken Democrat and an avid reader who subscribed to magazines and constantly enlarged his varied library collection.” At the age of fifteen, Kern earned his teaching license in Howard County and served as a schoolmaster to save up money for his education in law.
Kern graduated from the University of Michigan in 1869 and settled in Kokomo to establish his law practice and start a family. A year later, he ran for public office for the first time, as a Democratic candidate for the Indiana General Assembly, a race he lost. Despite his defeat, it gave Kern clout with the local political establishment and led to his first public office, that of Kokomo’s municipal attorney, a position he held from 1871-1884. He won his first election in 1884, becoming the reporter for the Indiana Supreme Court, serving in this capacity for four years until he lost reelection in 1888. The move to Indianapolis during his years as court reporter continued to grow his stature, and in 1892, Kern was finally elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a state senator. During his time in the Indiana State Senate he became known for his advocacy of organized labor. He worked tirelessly to pass a slew of bills that championed workers, from a right-to-organize law, a worker’s compensation law, and a child labor law. While not a socialist in the Debsian mold, Kern was a progressive who believed that democratic institutions should curb the excesses of capitalism. As he was quoted saying by biographer Peter Sehlinger, “For years and years and years organized capital was fostered and fed by favorable legislation, until it grew defiant and insolent . . . . As a result labor organized that it might live.”
Despite his growing political profile, Kern lost several statewide and national races. He unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Indiana in 1900 and 1904 and was Willian Jennings Bryan’s running mate in the 1908 presidential election, losing to William Howard Taft and the Republicans. This all changed when the Democrats gained control of the Indiana General Assembly in 1910 and swiftly chose him as the next U.S. Senator from Indiana. (This was before the direct election of senators by voters was added to the U.S. Constitution.) During his years in the Senate, Kern governed as a solid Wilsonian progressive who continued to earn the respect of organized labor as one of their staunchest advocates. He continued to fight against child labor, pressing for the passage of state and federal child labor laws. In 1913, he was elected by the Senate as majority leader; in this role he left his most enduring legacy. He brought the role of Senate majority leader into the modern era, working closely with President Woodrow Wilson to pass a wide range of laws, including the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act, to name a few. Not until Lyndon B. Johnson (also a Democrat) held the role in the 1950s did a majority leader occupy such an outsized role in the Senate.
Jones, Kern, and Life in the Mines
Life as a worker in the coal mines was treacherous. Injuries and deaths of miners in Evansville, to name only one city, were chronicled in the papers of its local newspapers for decades. Frank Hudson, a 19-year-old miner who worked at the Diamond Coal Company’s mines in Evansville, was “crushed to death” by “a heavy piece of soapstone” near a worksite entrance in 1888, as reported by the Evansville Courier. In 1897, a miner named William Delgeman was nearly killed at the Diamond coal mine by a premature blast explosion, leaving him with a broken arm and severe burns, the local newspapers Courier and Journal noted. The Courier reported a massive explosion in 1898 that “hurled backward” worker Daniel Breidenbach and “burned both arms from the elbows to the tips of his fingers and also burned his face and the back of his neck.” In 1902, the Journal reported that when Mother Jones was attending the annual UMWA convention in Indianapolis, one coal worker, William Cox, died of injuries sustained when slate fell on him. Three other workers were injured in similar circumstances. Over 20 years later, on November 9, 1921, miner Ben Harper died in the hospital after severe burns from an explosion, as noted by the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram.
Due to the horrific circumstances in Indiana and elsewhere, workers began to organize, and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was founded in 1890. Mother Jones described this organizing work in her autobiography: “The United Mine Workers decided to organize these fields and work for human conditions for human beings. Organizers were put to work. Whenever the spirit of the men in the mines grew strong enough a strike was called.” She worked for the UMWA off and on for over 30 years, speaking at their annual conventions in Indianapolis, organizing workers nationwide, and helping to resolve internal disputes.
The national leader who defended her more than nearly anyone else was Senator John W. Kern. Upon learning of the conditions that she and others imprisoned experienced, Senator Kern opened an inquiry into the mines of West Virginia and read a telegram from Mother Jones on the Senate floor. Jones recounted this telegram in her autobiography:
From out the military prison walls of Pratt, West Virginia, where I have walked over my eighty-fourth milestone in history, I send you the groans and tears and heartaches of men, women and children as I have heard them in this state. From out these prison walls, I plead with you for the honor of the nation, to push that investigation, and the children yet unborn will rise and call you blessed.
He received swift backlash for his actions by his West Virginian colleagues in the Senate, who tried to block Kern’s resolution that called for investigations into the mines and their owners. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “Senators Goff and Chilton of West Virginia bitterly resisted the adoption of the Kern resolution today and a verbal duel took place in the Senate chamber which was little short of sensational.” The men from West Virginia were no match for the Senate Majority Leader, however, and on May 27, 1913, the Senate adopted Kern’s resolution and a “broad investigation” was opened in the Senate on the conditions of the coal mines in West Virginia, the Indianapolis News reported. Three days earlier, on May 24, Mother Jones was released from jail, according to the Appeal to Reason.
Three years after the events in West Virginia, in her speech at the UMWA convention on January 20, 1916, she applauded Kern for his efforts to help her get out of jail. “I presume I would still be in jail in West Virginia if Senator Kern had not taken the matter up,” she declared to the delegates, adding “I want to say to you that every working man in the nation owes a debt to Senator Kern.” She then campaigned vigorously for Kern’s reelection to the Senate and Wilson’s reelection to the presidency. in 1916, stumping in front of 10,000 people in Evansville at the annual Labor Day picnic. As historian Elliott J. Gorn wrote of her Evansville speech, “she declared her socialist beliefs but endorsed Woodrow Wilson for reelection, saying, ‘Socialism is a long way off; I want something right now!’” She also called for a six-hour workday, declaring, “With modern machinery all the work of the world could be done in six hours a day. . . . The worker would have time to improve his mind and body.” Regarding Kern and his efforts to get her out of jail in 1913, Jones said “the miners owe Senator Kern a debt which they can never repay.” Even though Jones campaigned for Kern hard, he lost reelection in 1916 and retired from politics due to ill-health.
On November 30, 1930, Mary “Mother” Jones died at the age of 92 or 93 (despite her claim that she was 100) at her home in Silver Springs, Maryland. Indiana newspapers published Numerous obituaries and tributes. William Green, the head of the American Federation of Labor, said in the Indianapolis Times, “in the death of Mother Jones a unique and picturesque figure has been removed from the ranks of labor . . . . The loss sustained cannot be measured and the services rendered will never be surpassed or excelled.” As Bruce Catton wrote for the Evansville Press, “the workingman these days get a far better break than he did when Mother Jones first entered the arena; and a part of this improvement, at least, is due to Mother Jones herself.” As she requested in 1928, Jones was buried at the United Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, next to miners who gave their lives to the cause of labor. The Indianapolis Times described her funeral train’s procession into Mt. Olive: “A crowd of almost five thousand persons, many of them miners, stood silently Thursday night as the body of Mother Jones was taken from a train which had brought it from Washington. . . . All along the route from the east homage was paid at every stop to the memory of Mother Jones. Miners in many towns placed wreaths upon her coffin.”
John W. Kern died of tuberculosis on August 17, 1917 at a sanitarium in North Carolina. As biographer Peter J. Sehlinger wrote, Kern “died while working on a Labor Day speech he was preparing for delivery in Indianapolis.” Even to the very end, he organized for labor causes. Tributes to the fallen senator poured in from friends and colleagues. Claude Bowers, his personal secretary and future U.S. Ambassador to Chile, said to the Indianapolis News, “Senator Kern sacrificed his life in the service of his country, and when the history of the first of President Wilson’s administration is written and the inner facts are disclosed the greatness of the man will be established.” Indiana Governor James P. Goodrichalso said to the News, “As a statesman he was close to the people and ever sought to represent the best interests of his constituents as he saw them. His death is a loss to the entire state and nation.” William Jennings Bryan, who selected Kern as his running mate for the presidency in 1908, said of the senator, “I never knew a man who had my confidence more completely nor my affection more fully than did this, my departed friend.” He was laid to rest at the family homestead in Hollins, Virginia.
The political partnership between Mother Jones and John W. Kern represented two sides of the democratic coin, with Jones the rabble-rousing labor organizer who worked from the bottom up and Kern the Senate majority leader pushing for reform from the top down. Each had a vital role to play in the Progressive Era, a time of massive social, political, and economic change, and their pairing represented a real shift in attitudes regarding organized labor and labor organizers. Mother Jones understood and reflected on this years later in her autobiography, saying of Kern (whom she mistakenly refers to as “Kearns”):
The working men had much to thank Senator Kearns [sic] for. He was a great man, standing for justice and the square deal. Yet, to the shame of the workers of Indiana, when he came up for re-election they elected a man named Watson, a deadly foe of progress. [The man who defeated Kern was Republican Harry New, not a man named Watson.] I felt his defeat keenly, felt the ingratitude of the workers. It was through his influence that prison doors had opened, that unspeakable conditions were brought to light. I have felt that the disappointment of his defeat brought on his illness and ended the brave, heroic life of one of labor’s few friends.
Kern’s friendship with labor represented his long-held view of democracy, which stemmed from a Jeffersonian antipathy towards wealth, position, and privilege. He deeply believed that Americans were better off, and capitalism was better off, when the balance between capital and labor was more equal. In his alliance with Mother Jones and organized labor, John W. Kern embodied his own commitment to a freer and more equitable society.
The Indiana Historical Bureau is celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the passage of Title IX all week! Title IX, which was authored by Hoosier Senator Birch Bayh, provided that:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”
As Title IX legislation worked its way through Congress, many questions arose – would this affect sororities and fraternities? Would colleges and universities be able to comply with the non-discriminatory laws while still turning a profit?
Many Hoosiers turned to their elected officials to voice their concerns in the lead up to the passage of Title IX and in the immediate aftermath. The Indiana State Library Rare Books and Manuscripts collection contains several of these letters in the Earl F. Landgrebe collection. In reading these letters, you can get a glimpse into the worries of average Americans and see how their elected officials addressed their concerns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
The article notes the relationship between sportswear trends and swim wear:
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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
Last week, IHB staff joined Ball State University faculty and students for the Making History Blog-a-Thon, hosted by the Delaware County Historical Society and the Ball State University Library. The event encouraged researchers to bring to life the stories of notable women from Muncie and Delaware County. Not only was it a fun and productive day, but an active, hands-on way to celebrate Women’s History Month. So, we wanted to share a little more here about the event, as well as the story of one bold Muncie women whom I had the pleasure of researching at BSU. Her story is below the event description.
“Making History” Blog-a-Thon
When my colleague Nicole Poletika and I arrived at the lively GIS Research and Map Collection room at Bracken Library, several Ball State students and professors were already at work. The collection supervisor Melissa Gentry, who we admiringly refer to as the “map queen” for her incredible mapping and imaging skills, helped us select a “notable woman of Muncie and Delaware County” to research. We were challenged not to just collect facts, but to tell a story. We had limited time (just over an hour) and space (entries were to be less than a typed page), but we were determined to try to bring some color to the story of at least one Muncie woman. Thanks to the extensive advance research undertaken by the organizers, we had information on scores of women that helped us choose someone who piqued our interest. I was drawn immediately to the story of a young aviator named Marjorie Kitselman, who defied convention to forge her own path.
All of the posts created for the Blog-a-Thon, including some written in the form of obituaries and even imagined diary entries, will eventually be posted on the Notable Women of Muncie and Delaware County website. Organizers will also begin posting the submissions on their Instagram account (@themuncienotables) starting on April 6. Make sure to follow them, as they hope to announce an upcoming virtual Blog-a-Thon soon. Until then, learn more about notable woman, Marjorie Kitselman.
Aviator Marjorie Kitselman on Her Own Terms
Marjorie Kitselman became a local celebrity practically from a birth, enthralling the Muncie press with her every move. She was born to Leslie Curtis Kitselman, an author and philanthropist, and Alva L. Kitselman, a wealthy industrialist. The family lived in a large home and estate known as “Hazelwood,” now a National Register site.
Kitselman was front page news at the age of two. The Muncie Evening Press printed a picture of her on vacation with her family, calling her the “society belle of the ‘younger set.’” As she grew up among the elite of Muncie and Indianapolis, where she attended Tudor Hall, the papers reported on her participation in school plays, attendance at parties, visits to friends, and vacations. The press continuously commented on her appearance, referring to a 16-year-old Marjorie as the “attractive young daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. L. Kitselnman.” Even as a teenager she was a public figure.
When Kitselman came of age in the 1930s, a rather austere and Victorian set of expectations of decorum for women reemerged. After the increased freedoms many women found during the 1920s, the 1930s saw a partial return to domesticity and homemaking as ideals. For Kitselman, these social rules were applied to everything from the people she associated with, to how she presented herself in public, to which philanthropic causes she supported. A search of Muncie newspapers shows that everything about her was up for discussion and judgement. She must have known that she was under scrutiny from the press and Muncie society, but she seems to have made up her own mind about what was important to her.
In September 1932, sixteen-year-old Marjorie Kitselman earned her pilot’s license at the Muncie airport. The Muncie Star Press reported that this accomplishment made her “the youngest pilot in the state.” The reporter explained:
Miss Kitselman was required to make several ordinary landings, a deadstick landing, do a spiral from a height of three thousand feet, make figure 8’s and other flight requirements in addition to taking a written examination on air traffic rules and regulation.
The deadstick landing was an especially death-defying stunt. In this practice for an aircraft malfunction, the engines are turned off and the pilot attempts to glide into the landing. It was not for the faint of heart. She continued to fly throughout the 1930s, sometimes visiting the Muncie airfield where she earned her license “to see the boys and prove that she hasn’t forgotten all she learned as a student here.”
Kitselman continued to live on her own terms, surprising the public by marrying an Olympic athlete and later a famous aviator. She finished school, traveled, stayed close with her family, and eventually died in Curnavaca, Mexico in 1953 after a very short illness. She was gone much too young, at the age of 37, but she lived a full life on her own terms, leaving the expectations assigned to her far beneath her flight path.
More Women’s History! Hoosier Women At Play Conference
Join us for the next exciting women’s history event: the Hoosier Women at Play 2022 women’s history conference. This year’s event is a week-long series of lunch and learn talks Monday, April 18 – Friday, April 22, 2022.
Women’s activities have been undervalued throughout history by patriarchal economic, political, and social systems. Women’s play, pleasure, and creativity have even been treated as dangerous and devious, challenging demands that women’s worth was defined only through their roles as wives and mothers or later as (still undervalued) workers in the capitalist marketplace. This conference challenges presenters to explore women’s play and what it means for individual and collective happiness, health, liberation, and value.
This year’s conference features two keynote speakers.
Dr. Tony Jean Dickerson will speak on the significance of quilting in Black history throughout the African Diaspora and on her motivations and experience in founding the Central Indiana Akoma Ntsoso Modern Quilt Guild, which she serves as president. She will also address the importance of this art, traditionally upheld and passed on by women, in linking the younger generations to the past and, from the Akan (West Africa) name Akoma Ntoso, linking “hearts and understanding.”
Dr. Michella Marino will be presenting her personal experience as well as the extensive research she conducted for her new book Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport (published in October 2021, University of Texas Press). She will speak to the unique gender relations and politics of roller derby, which historically centered women athletes, while struggling to be accepted as a mainstream sport. Dr. Marino will shine a feminist light on how participants used roller derby to navigate the male-dominated world of sports along with their identities as athletes, mothers, and women at play.
Learn more about and register for the Hoosier Women at Work Conference here.
The San Francisco Chronicle asked Americans “who have a wide experience and many points of contact with 1922” to predict the trials and triumphs Americans would experience 100 years later.* Probing prominent individuals like a pastor, architect, social reformer, author, film producer, educator, and politician, the paper concluded that there are “plenty of ifs and buts, but in general the prospect for a century hence seems rosy.” As a historian at the dawn of 2022, some of the predictions seem amusingly off-base, like author and critic Henry L. Mencken’s certainty that the U.S. “will be a British colony. . . . The American who will be most agreeably discussed by Anglo-American historians in 2022 will be Woodrow Wilson, the first premier of the United American Colonies.” Notorious moving picture producer D.W. Griffith was equally shortsighted when he stated, “I do not foresee the possibility of instantaneous transmission of living action to the screen within 100 years.” (Inventor-turned reluctant Fort Wayne businessman Philo Farnsworth would transmit the first “electronic television image” just a few years later in California).
Some musings proved surprisingly prescient, like those of architect Thomas Hastings, who wondered, “Will civilization relapse, perhaps through the medium of another world war, into semi-barbarism?” The telephone was only just beginning to be used in households—World Wide What?—when Hastings urged readers to consider “the probability of revolutionizing inventions—even the discovery of forces which we know nothing about now.” Famed birth control activist Margaret Sanger—who reportedly called upon Indianapolis reformer Roberta West Nicholson to help found the city’s first Planned Parenthood clinic—was arguably correct in her belief that access to birth control would result in:
happier homes, greater mutual respect between husband and wife, honeymoons lasting two or three years before children arrive, with husband and wife thoroughly equilibrated to one another, because there has been time for mutual understanding and development before parenthood is entered upon.
Among the soothsayers was Mary Garrett Hay, a Charlestown, Indiana native, trailblazing suffragist, and, by 1922, head of New York City’s League of Women Voters. The accuracy of her predictions prompt a look back at her life and career, both of which were far ahead of her time, so to speak. Hay informed the San Francisco Chronicle that in 2022:
The life of even the average woman will be broader and better. Woman’s drudgery in the household will be eliminated, her care of the family will be lessened, as new inventions come in and new methods of work. Women, like men, will do the tasks for which they are best fitted by temperament, gifts and training.
Technological advancements have certainly liberated women from household drudgery. And women have increasingly stepped away from the home and into the public sphere due to a redefinition of the “tasks for which they are best fitted by temperament, gifts and training.” Hay occupied this sphere throughout her life, beginning around 1880, when as a young woman she worked as a drug clerk in Charlestown. Hay later supported herself as a writer, reform speaker, and political consultant in New York City, having eschewed the institution of marriage and accompanying division of labor (Again defying gender norms, she had a long-term relationship with renowned suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt).
Described as a “born executive,” Hay flexed her entrepreneurial skills when in 1908 she formed the Women’s Travel Bureau. Drawing on twenty years of navigating railroad networks across the U.S. for her suffrage campaign, Hay formed a company that appealed to the unique needs of female travelers, such as featuring safe accommodations and advertising women’s events. Hay told the New-York Tribune that since the 1893 Columbian Exposition, women increasingly used rail travel for a brief reprieve from the demands of family life. This was made possible, she said, because “‘women have for the first time in history begun to earn good salaries.'” The Travel Bureau is one of many examples of Hay carving out opportunities in a male-dominated field by pairing her expertise with public demand.
While Hay’s prediction alluded to shifting gender norms, she made clear in the Buffalo Times that the shift must be more immediate, telling the paper, “‘It is the right of every human to have a career in the home and in the field-and the two are not mutually exclusive.'” She stated bluntly, “‘If men are willing to let their wives go out in quest of careers in the field as well as in the home they are reasonable husbands.'” The paper added that Hay “advocates women taking paid positions even after they are married and employing servants to do the housework far more efficiently than they could ever do it themselves.” In 1926, she argued that not only should women be allowed in the workforce, but that some were better suited for it than the home, noting:
I’ve known many women who were very inefficient mothers but excellent business women. They could manage what we call a man’s job and make a conspicuous success of it, and be absolutely beaten by housework or the rearing of their children.
Of course, in order to work in the professional field, jobs needed to be available. Hay worked to create these as a member of the Committee for Extending Business Opportunities to Women, formed around 1915, because “the entrance of women into various fields of work has been effected with so much difficulty.”
In the second half of her prophesy for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hay predicted:
Politically, women will be powerful. They will share with men the real constructive work of government. Many will hold office. If there is not a woman President, the thought of one will shock no one. It will seem natural and proper to elevate women to whatever positions they have the ability to fill. Co-operation will be the magic word in 2022.
Confirming Hay’s point, many Americans in 2016 were shocked not that Hillary Clinton was poised to become the country’s first female president, but that she lost the election in a stunning upset—despite winning the popular vote. The glass ceiling came closer to being shattered when Kamala Harris was elected the first female U.S. Vice President in 2020 and when she briefly became the first woman imbued with presidential power in 2021 when President Joe Biden went under anesthesia for a medical procedure.
In fact, Hay’s own name had been floated as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1910s. This was, in large part, because of her organizational and political prowess, particularly in recruiting members for the Republican Party. Described as “the big boss of New York,” the G.O.P. appointed Hay to influential positions, soliciting her insight about issues important to women and strategies for mobilizing them to the polls. Friend and fellow Hoosier— and Warren Harding’s presidential campaign manager—Will Hays appointed her chairman of the Republican Women’s National Executive Committee. In this role, she was tasked with organizing “the women in the nation for the Republican Party as she had organized for suffrage. She was sought after at all political gatherings, and was made a delegate to every kind of convention.”
From lobbying for Indiana W.C.T.U. branches to heading a West Coast speaking tour organized by Susan B. Anthony to bringing to the Albany legislature “tenement house suffragists to illustrate how much women need the vote on the lower East Side,” Hay evolved from a social reformer to a political organizer. She envisioned women’s influence extending beyond ratification of the 19th Amendment and viewed the political realm as a source of women’s professional fulfilment.
In her “Politics, A Profession for Women” essay for Catherine Filene’s 1920 Careers for Women, Hay wrote that politics “lacks the stultifying effect attaching to most occupations for women. Politics for women means a life of real vitality and worth.” She noted that “women who were trained by suffrage campaigns” were qualified for “good positions” within political parties. Strengths inherent to women, Hay argued, intersected well with those required of the political sector, such as the “ability to judge and handle people . . . sagacity, resourcefulness, power to discern the true from the false, common sense, imperturbability, [and] wide experience with human nature.” Having earned a reputation as an exceptional orator, Hay delivered a speech in 1926 in which she stated governmental work was tantamount to “housekeeping on a large scale.” Because of these convictions, Hay used her sway within the Republican Party to bring more women into politics, although, the Times-Tribune noted, “she frequently found herself a[t] storm center by her insistence that leaders of the party permit women workers to join in the inner councils.”
While she predicted that “Politically, women will be powerful,” Hay wanted not only “political equality between the sexes,” but “equality in every single thing in life.” This sentiment paralleled U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s belief that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Hay worked for their systemic inclusion, including in higher education, law enforcement, jury duty, and prison reform.
In this sense, Hay’s approach to equality was unique for the period, as historian William O’Neil argued, “’the postsuffrage feminists failed to see that the woman problem was part of a larger social question involving sex roles in American society and the entire order.’” Furthermore, these reformers “’asked only for legal equality without addressing themselves to the whole range of problems facing women who tried to make a notch for themselves in a man’s world.’” Hay, “one of the best known leaders in the fight for the emancipation of women,” proved the rare exception.
Her 1928 death would exacerbate this void in leadership for women’s equality. But in the nearly 100 years since her passing, her vision has been realized to a meaningful extent, as women increasingly occupy significant roles in the workplace and government. Perhaps she was able to envision the ideals and gender norms that would become fairly commonplace by 2022 because she embodied them herself.
This post draws on the research notes for the Mary Garrett Hay historical marker.
* Unless otherwise specified, all material is drawn from the San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1923, p. 10, accessed via Newspapers.com.
 “Mary G. Hay,” Clark County, Indiana, Census, 1880, accessed Ancestry Library Edition.
 Departure of Trains Schedule, National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, New Orleans, March 19th to 25th, 1903, Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911, Scrapbook 3 (1897-1904), Rare Book and Special Collections Division.; “Women Conduct Tourist Bureau,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 21, 1908, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Women Who Travel,” New-York Tribune, August 4, 1908, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Cynthia Grey, “Cynthia Says Home and Country Should Be Managed Jointly,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), April 19, 1926, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Mary G. Hay,” Clark County, Indiana, Census, 1880, accessed AncestryLibrary.; “Mary G. Hay,” 1910 United States Federal Census, New York, accessed AncestryLibrary.; “Women Form to Open New Fields,” Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News, January 2, 1915, accessed HeinOnline.
 Joan Moody, “What Will They Do With It?,” Everybody’s Magazine (November 1919): 113, accessed GoogleBooks.
 “Cheers Greet Women as They Enter Politics,” Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1919, 1, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Mary Garrett Hay’s Watchword to Women in Politics Was: ‘Be Nice to the Men’; Fought for Suffrage from Girlhood,” Brooklyn Eagle, September 2, 1928.
Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1919, 1, 8.; Brooklyn Eagle, September 2, 1928.
 “Suffrage Leaders Get Together Now,” Star-Gazette
(Almira, NY), March 5, 1910, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Cynthia Grey, “Cynthia Says Home and Country Should be Managed Jointly,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), April 19, 1926, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Mary Garrett Hay,” The Times Tribune (Scranton, PA), September 1, 1928, accessed Newspaper.com.
 “They Will Stand on Their Rights,” Boston Globe, February 27, 1908, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Mainly About People,” Daily News (New York), January 6, 1922, 41, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Women and the Jury System,” The Scranton Republican, February 28, 1922, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Leagued Together for Law Enforcement,” Oakland Tribune, November 29, 1927, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Quoted in Winifred D. Wandersee, Women’s Work and Family Values, 1920-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 119-120.
Buffalo Times, July 9, 1922, 52, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Harry is a fine boy, he never told me a lie in his life,” Lena Pierpont proclaimed about her son, “Handsome Harry” Pierpont, who was considered the brains of the John Dillinger gang. Like many families, the Pierponts rallied around their son in times of trouble. The extent to which they defended Harry demonstrated both the depths of parental love and the pitfalls of willful ignorance. Harry’s troubles centered on the frenzied period between September 1933 and July 1934, when the Dillinger gang became America’s most wanted criminals for a crime spree that impacted Indiana communities big and small.
While Dillinger became the FBI’s very first “Public Enemy Number 1,” 32-year-old Harry Pierpont was often credited with being the architect of the Dillinger gang’s crimes, and the mentor who helped make Dillinger a skilled criminal. Born in Muncie in 1902, Pierpont had amassed a lengthy criminal history long before meeting up with Dillinger. Pierpont was linked to a series of 1920s bank and store robberies across the state, including in Greencastle, Marion, Lebanon, Noblesville, Upland, New Harmony, and Kokomo, prior to landing in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City – where he befriended and mentored Dillinger.
Pierpont’s criminal sophistication, however, had not spared him from arrest. By July 1934, he was arrested and awaited execution in Ohio for the murder of Lima County Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The sheriff had been killed in October 1933 as gangsters broke Dillinger out of the county jail. Pierpont’s mother, Lena, and father, J. Gilbert, instinctively believed in their son’s innocence and grew resentful over the “persecution” they said they endured from authorities after they had relocated from Ohio to Goshen, Indiana in April 1934. Pierpont’s beleaguered parents had come to the Hoosier city to try and “make an honest living in a respectable business.”
By mid-July, with Dillinger still at large (although only days away from being slain by federal officers in Chicago), the Pierponts were under constant surveillance in an all-out effort to locate Dillinger. They had rented a “barbeque and beer parlor” on what was then called State Road 2 (now U.S. 33 West). Known as the “Cozy Corner Lunch” spot, the roadhouse was a half mile northwest of the famous A.E. Kunderd gladiola farm just outside the Goshen city limits. Conducting what she called her first “free will interview” given to a journalist, Lena told the The Goshen News Times & Democrat, “I am going to try and open this place and run a legitimate business as soon as these men stop trailing us. Mr. Pierpont (her husband) is ill and unable to work, so all we want is to earn an honest living.”
The Goshen News Times & Democrat reported that the Pierponts had rented the barbeque stand on an one-year lease offered by a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hill. Although summer was nearly half over, the Pierponts had not opened for the year because a requisite beer license was still pending. The Pierponts believed this was held up by local officials facing pressure from federal authorities. Lena bitterly explained that the couple had sold all of their farm goods in Ohio in order to open the Goshen business.
“We should not be persecuted,” Lena explained. “We’re simply unfortunate. The government should call off its detectives and allow us to live as other good American citizens.” She pointed at a car parked about a quarter mile away and said, “See that car down the road? They’re always watching us.” She alleged that “Every minute for 24 hours a day we’re shadowed. They think we know (John) Dillinger and that he may come here. We don’t know him and we don’t want to.” She insisted that her son was hiding in the attic of her home on the night the Ohio sheriff was killed, and while he was a fugitive escapee from the Indiana State Prison at the time, he was no murderer.
Lena suggested that if she and Gilbert did know Dillinger maybe “we could get a deposition from him to the effect that our son, Harry, did not kill Sheriff Jess Sarber at Lima, Ohio.” Harry had assured her that Dillinger would clear him of the murder “and name the real slayer,” thus saving her son from the electric chair in Ohio. The Indianapolis Times reported in September, Lena successfully arranged to meet with him in Chicago. According to her account, when asked who freed him from the Lima jail, Dillinger said “‘I’ll tell you who turned me out. Homer Van Meter is the man who fired the shot that killed Sarber and Tommy Carroll and George McGinnis are the men who were in the Lima jail and turned me out.'”
Although used to letting his wife serve as family spokesperson, Gilbert Pierpont told an enterprising reporter from The Goshen News-Times & Democrat, “Harry (Pierpont) will not die for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. We are looking for a reversal of the Lima verdict by the Ohio Supreme Court. If not, the case will go to the United States Supreme Court.” Harry’s angry and reportedly ill father said he didn’t like talking to reporters “because of so many false statements they have made about my son.” Contrasting her ailing husband, Lena “was jovial during the interview” and “jokingly remarked that the press would have it all wrong” when writing about her son.
State and federal law enforcement officials were quick to impeach the Pierponts. Captain Matt Leach, who headed the effort of the Indiana State Police to bring the marauding gang to justice, actually identified Pierpont as “the brains” of the Dillinger gang. It was Pierpont, Leach said, who came up with the idea of springing Dillinger from the county jail in Lima by posing as Indiana police officers. When Sheriff Sarber demanded to see their credentials, Pierpont reportedly said, “Here’s our credentials,” and fired multiple shots into the lawman, killing him instantly.
It was a short-lived, but “productive” period of freedom for thirty-one-year-old Dillinger after being sprung from the Lima jail. During this stint, he led his gang in a bold April 12, 1934 raid on the Warsaw Police Department, where they seized a cache of guns. The gang also conducted a deadly robbery of the Merchants National Bank in downtown South Bend on June 30, killing a police officer and injuring four others in a brazen sidewalk shootout. Federal agents put a stop to the spree when they gunned down Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, just nine months after the Pierpont-led escape from the Ohio jail.
While Dillinger met his “death sentence” on a Chicago street, Pierpont remained on Ohio’s death row for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. Lena said she and her husband would continue to make the journey of more than 200 miles from Goshen, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, “every weekend” to see their son. “We will continue to do this as long as we have any money,” she said. Lena also declared she would continue to challenge state and federal authorities for their alleged harassment of her family. She had reportedly talked to an Elkhart attorney about bringing suit against state and federal authorities.
“We are unfortunate that our son is in prison under sentence of death,” Lena said, adding “No other members of our family have a criminal record. We should not be persecuted. They tell us that these men, who are constantly nearby in parked automobiles ready to follow us at any time we may leave, are federal government men.” Lena’s claim that her son Harry was the only member of her family who had run afoul of the law was not accurate. The Pierponts’ younger son, Fred, 27, and Lena herself, were both arrested and held on illegal possession of weapons charges and vagrancy in Terre Haute in December 1933. A car driven by Lena on the day she was arrested contained almost $500 in cash and a sawed-off shotgun.
To publicize her claims of harassment, a day after granting an exclusive interview to The Goshen News Times & Democrat (picked up by the Associated Press and reported by newspapers across the nation), Lena marched into the Elkhart County Courthouse at Goshen, demanding that she be granted her long-delayed beer license and that an “order of restraint” be placed against detectives following them. Despite his family’s attempts to win over “the court of public opinion,” as summer gave way to fall in 1934, Harry’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were coming to no end other than delaying his execution. Surprisingly, in late September, Pierpont and fellow Dillinger gang member, Charles Makley, staged a spectacular, yet unsuccessful escape attempt from the Ohio Penitentiary. Fashioning realistic-looking handguns made of soap (and blackened with shoe polish), Pierpont and Makley were immediately “outgunned” by prison guards, who killed Makley and critically wounded Pierpont in a shootout.
By October, Pierpont could no longer escape his fate. As one reporter noted, Pierpont “whose trigger finger started the John Dillinger gang on its short but violent career of crime that blighted everything it touched, must die in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.” Prison officials reported “the doomed man has reconciled himself to death and embraced his former faith, the Roman Catholic religion.”
Sullen and weakened by the gunshot wounds sustained during his failed prison escape, Pierpont strongly contrasted with “the braggart who once boasted he would kill every cop on sight.” Now, jailers said, Pierpont wished out loud that he too had been fatally wounded in the prison shootout. “Pierpont’s mother, Lena, by this time living near Goshen, Indiana, and his sweetheart, Mrs. Mary Kinder, an Indianapolis gang ‘moll,’ are remaining true to the fallen gangster to the last,” one newspaper account told. Kinder, whom reporters were quick to point out was previously married, “even went to Columbus recently[,] determined to marry Harry in prison before he dies.”
On October 17, 1934, the “fair-haired brains of the dissolved Dillinger mob” was executed. The Associated Press noted, “Quietly, unaided and with the ghost of a smile on his lips, the 32-year-old killer sat down to death in the gaunt wooden chair within the high stockade of the prison guarded in unprecedented fashion.” Reporters who witnessed the execution said Pierpont “was not asked for any ‘last word,’ and he volunteered none. He just sat down with a rueful smile, closed his eyes, strained the muscles of his lanky, six-foot-two frame, as the current struck, clenched one fist – and that was all.” A national wire photo showed Kinder comforting Lena and Gilbert at their new home along U.S. 31 in Lakeville in St. Joseph County, where they had moved after their failed attempt to start a roadhouse near Goshen.
A funeral was conducted for Harry inside the Pierponts’ home, led by a priest from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Lakeville. The services were held an hour earlier than was announced to keep reporters away. Harry Pierpont had told Ohio prison officials that he desired a “simple, but lavish funeral” and wanted his remains be released to his parents in Indiana. The South Bend Tribune reported, “His casket was adorned only by a small wreath of artificial flowers, and lay grotesquely surrounded by canned goods and automobile accessories in his parent’s home store.” Harry was eventually buried at the Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Lena Pierpont would appear in the news one more time for her resilience. In the summer of 1937, Lakeville town authorities took court action to rid the village of “a band of roving coppersmiths” who had settled at Lena’s White City Inn. Surely she refused to oust them because she needed the income in the lean Depression years, but perhaps she also related to those on the fringes of society, trying their best to survive.
The Pierponts suffered another tragedy when Harry’s younger brother, Fred, died in March 1940 at the age of 33 from injuries suffered in a car crash near South Bend. Perhaps being forced to hone the art of resilience due to the upheaval wrought by Harry helped them survive this second blow. Lena died in her Lakeville home on October 21, 1958 at the age of 78. Her long-suffering husband Gilbert, died three years later also at Lakeville at the age of 80. They were buried alongside their infamous son in Indianapolis.
* Interestingly, the Goshen connection to the Dillinger gang, beyond the Pierponts’ battles there, is forever enshrined in the city’s limestone police booth opened in 1939. The impressive octagon structure sits on the corner of the Elkhart County Courthouse square, opposite Goshen’s two largest banks. Complete with bulletproof glass (donated by two of the city’s banks), the booth (partially funded by Works Progress Administration dollars) was never called into duty as Goshen’s banks escaped being robbed.
*Primary documents were accessed via Newspapers.com, the Goshen Public Library, and the Goshen Historical Society.
 Andrew E. Stoner “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” in Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds., Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015), 96.
 Patrick Sauer, “Harry Pierpont: John Dillinger’s Mentor” in Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, eds., The Who, the What, the When: Sixty-Five Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC., 2014), 42.
Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:
Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport? Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.
Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.
Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]
The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans. Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary). One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]
The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]
For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation. However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters. According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however. Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]
The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]
But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.
Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]
Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers. Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.
This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]
The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]
Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]
Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]
Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.
Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!
[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.
[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.
[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.
[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.
[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.
[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;
[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.
[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.
[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.
[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft.
Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.
Pearl Bassett and Civil Rights
Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper TheIndianapolis Recorder for these efforts. Her work included how helping the Red Cross reach its quota for war relief, serving as chairman for the war service commission, and serving as a board member for the Carver Community Center. In her interview, Bassett talked about how she helped organize the NAACP Auxiliary, Women in NAACP, and the Urban Gild, all of which would play a role in desegregation efforts throughout the city.
She also described the discrimination that Black citizens in Marion faced because of segregated of swimming pools, such as Matter Park. Before its 1954 integration, African Americans had to travel to Anderson to swim. When they did get to swim in the Marion pools they would be drained and refilled afterwards. While it is unclear how directly Bassett was involved in these efforts, it is certainly possible as she was a member of the Marion Urban League, one of the two civil rights organizations that worked to desegregate the swimming pool.
We do know that she participated in anti-discrimination efforts through civil disobedience, as she stated: “When we could not go into the restaurant and eat. . . we formed a committee, and we just read the civil rights law, which has always been right. . . . And if they didn’t open up the place, when they were charged $100 a person in their restaurant. So they opened it up the day we walked in there.”
She also joined an NAACP march in 1969, recalling “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to confront them at the courthouse, but were told by the city that “they would need a permit and that they [the KKK] would have to take their hoods off.” This was not the only experience that Pearl Bassett had with the Klan. While president of one of the many organizations she was involved in, she received a call from the Klan members. She said, “Many a time they told me they were coming out and burn up my house.”
While in the NAACP, The Indianapolis Recorder reported in the 1960s that Bassett was elected secretary and chaplain for the Marion branch. Bassett was also the President of Women and “wore her tiara as the state queen of the NAACP” during a visit to Kokomo in 1982. She was also the first Black secretary of the Democratic Committee in Grant County. Pearl Bassett also received numerous awards from the NAACP and The Fort Wayne Frost Illustrated reported in 2004 that she received the Region Three Rosa Parks Women of the Year award for her work in civil rights. The Mayor of Marion made a Proclamation for Pearl Bassett Day and gave her a key to the city. In June 2021, Pearl Bassett passed away at the age of 110. Her first-hand accounts help humanize tragic events and shape the identity of Black citizens in Grant County. Her documented memories are invaluable because traditional media often mischaracterized or neglected to record minority history.