For over 70 years, Hoosiers have told, re-told, printed, and re-printed a story about how basketball came to Indiana. According to the tale, Rev. Nicholas McCay (nearly always incorrectly spelled as McKay) was a protegé of James Naismith at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. McCay allegedly learned the new game of basketball from Naismith, and brought it with him to his first post at the Crawfordsville YMCA.* It was there that the supposed “first” basketball game in Indiana happened on March 16, 1894 between teams from the Crawfordsville and Lafayette YMCAs. Several contemporary newspapers reported on this game, including three of Crawfordsville’s four newspapers, and brief mentions appeared in Lafayette and Indianapolis papers.
There is ample evidence that a Crawfordsville-Lafayette game took place. However, was this game really the “first”? Superlatives (“oldest,” “first,” “last”) are always challenging to historically verify. In 2007, I came across the first shred of evidence to suggest that Crawfordsville’s claim was not undisputed. The evidence was an article in a November 17, 1894 issue of the Crawfordsville Review, which is shown here.
Notice the second sentence: “Basket ball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis association through its physical director.” It seemed odd that a Crawfordsville paper would carry this article; especially if Crawfordsville citizens in 1894 believed that they introduced the sport to the state nine months earlier.
Further research was necessary. Could this statement about Indianapolis basketball be confirmed with contemporary sources? At the time of this article’s discovery in 2007, very few historic Indiana newspapers were digitized. An effort to find corroborative evidence of basketball played in Indianapolis before the Crawfordsville game in March 1894 would have required many, many hours of microfilm research, probably over several weeks (if not months), to search several major Indianapolis dailies (News, Journal, Sentinel, and Sun) from 1892-1894. The time required to conduct the search forced me to delay pursuing the research.
In 2013, IUPUI’s Center for Digital Scholarship digitized and uploaded a large run of the Indianapolis News. Here at last was an easy way to search for evidence to confirm what the Crawfordsville Review published in 1894. After entering the search terms, I received numerous results, which I then sorted by date. Then low-and-behold, there in black and white, tucked between an illustration of an acrobatic hound, and accounts of meetings of the State Board of Health and the Haughville Republicans, was the earliest mention of basketball being played in Indianapolis. The News published this article on March 30, 1893, which was almost an entire year before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game occurred.
The News gave greater attention to the new game in the April 1, 1893 issue (p. 7). They devoted an entire two columns to the sport. The reporter noted that basketball “has taken hold here and is awakening interest and promises to become the all-around game for general fun in the future.” The article credited Indianapolis YMCA physical director, William A. McCulloch, with introducing the game at the Indianapolis branch a few months prior. McCulloch organized a four team league at the Indianapolis Y. However, could the 1894 newspaper claim that “Basket ball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis association” be taken at face value for being accurate regarding “firsts”?
A few months after IUPUI uploaded the News, the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library digitized millions of pages of Evansville newspapers through the commercial firm NewsBank. Researchers can use the resource on site at EVPL. I had also come across mentions of Evansville playing basketball earlier than the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game, so I thought this would be a prime opportunity to check this out. The search results did not disappoint.
Based upon the newspapers currently digitized, Evansville was one of the earliest adopters of basketball. The Evansville Journal and the Evansville Courier both reported on contests as early as November 1892, which was less than a year after Naismith invented the game. Evansville also hosted an inter-city Indiana basketball game several months before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game. In January 1894, the Evansville YMCA squad defeated a team from the Terre Haute YMCA.
It is important to remember that YMCA leaders in Indiana first learned about basketball through the Triangle, the YMCA’s national newsletter. Naismith published an article introducing the game in January 1892, and he later credited this article, and the correspondence that resulted from it, with spreading the game across the nation. By September 1892, the YMCA publication Physical Education advertised a “descriptive pamphlet” on the “new and popular game” available via mail for ten cents. Theoretically, by that time, any of Indiana’s twenty-seven YMCAs could have read Naismith’s original article or acquired the pamphlet, and subsequently implemented the game.
In this context, identifying the “first” game then becomes a somewhat subjective matter, because the sport did not enter Indiana and spread from any single locus. Rather, it originated and developed around the state simultaneously and often independently at multiple YMCAs at roughly the same time. Also, what is the criteria for declaring a “first”? “First” YMCA gym class instruction of basketball? “First” practice? “First” scrimmage? “First” exhibition? “First” YMCA intramural league game? “First” intercity or inter-institutional game? The possibilities of what would constitute a “first” seem endless!
After searching digitized Indiana newspapers in several content management systems, I assembled the following timeline of the earliest-known basketball games, practices, and exhibitions in Indiana (Note: Because Indiana newspapers continue to be digitized, it is likely this timeline will need subsequent revision. In particular, Richmond, Lafayette, Elkhart, South Bend, and Terre Haute newspapers for the early 1890s have not been digitized as of March 2015. Those cities’ newspapers might yield early accounts of the game as well):
If you are interested in reading more about this research, see the 2015 Thornbrough Award-winning article: S. Chandler Lighty, “James Naismith Didn’t Sleep Here: A Re-examination of Indiana Basketball’s Origins,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 110, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 307-323. You can possibly find a print copy at your local library’s local history room, otherwise you can order a copy, or download a copy from JSTOR.
*Research confirms that Naismith and McCay were not contemporaries at the YMCA training school. McCay graduated from the school a full academic year before Naismith arrived. See Fifth Catalogue of the School for Christian Workers (Springfield, Mass., 1890), Springfield
College Digital Collections, http://cdm16122.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/ collection/p15370coll1/id/146.
Part one, covering Bilby’s early life and years working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, can be read here.
Jasper Sherman Bilby’s time in the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (US C&GS) is best remembered for his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. The tower revolutionized the Survey’s procedures, costs, and efficiency. As described by historian John Noble Wilford, the Bilby Tower was used for horizontal-control surveys (measuring latitude and longitude) and allowed surveyors to see over hills, trees, and other impediments to make their measurements more accurate.
In many regions it is not possible to select stations for a scheme of triangulation and have the stations intervisible from the ground, as trees, buildings, and other objects obstruct the line of vision between adjacent points. On geodetic surveys, covering wide expanses of territory, the curvature of the earth must also be taken into account. Towers are, therefore, necessary to elevate above intervening obstructions the observer and his instrument at one station and the signal lamp or object on which he makes his observations at the distant station.
According to US C&GS documents on his field assignments, Bilby began his designs on the tower as early as December 1926. He then took his early design plans to the Aeromotor Factory in Chicago to make a prototype. Once the prototype proved successful, twelve complete towers were manufactured by the same company and were first tested on assignment in Albert Lee, Minnesota with positive results.
In terms of design, the Bilby Tower was actually comprised of two independent towers. An inner tower carried the intricate instruments for survey calculations and the outer tower supported the surveyors who made the measurements. These towers never connected, so that the vibrations of either one did not disturb the survey calculations. In 1927, it was named the “Bilby Steel Tower” by Colonel Lester E. Jones, then director of the US C&GS.
In a 1927 commendation letter, Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover commended Bilby’s invention for its cost and time efficiency and cited the surveyor’s service as essential to the United States government.
I have just learned, upon my return to Washington, of the excellent results which the Coast and Geodetic Survey is getting in its triangulation from the steel towers which you designed.
The accelerated progress of the work, accompanied by a reduction in its cost, is highly gratifying to me and justify the commendation which this letter conveys.
However, Hoover’s letter was not the only special commendations he received while in the US C&GS. He earned financial promotions through 1915- 1916 and in 1930, the position of “Chief Signalman” was created for him. Understanding Bilby’s work as essential to the US C&GS, President Hoover used an executive order in 1932 to waive the mandatory federal retirement age.
Within the first ten years of use, the Bilby Steel Tower saved the federal government $3,072,000, according to the itemized cost listing of both wooden and steel towers from 1927-1937 by the US C&GS field assignment reports. The 1928 US C&GS annual report explained how the implementation of Bilby Towers cut unit costs down by nearly half, much more than the projected 25-35% savings. It also increased their surveying progress to over “150 miles per month.”
Within a few years of its invention, the Bilby Steel Tower was used in nations such as France, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark. In particular, Major M. Hotine, Royal Engineer of the Ordinance Survey Office in Southampton, England, wrote of his satisfaction with the Bilby Steel Tower in the December 1938 issue of the US C&GS Field Engineers Bulletin:
We have just completed among other work this season, the primary observation for our new triangulation in the Eastern Counties of England. The country here is so flat and enclosed that we had to use Bilby Steel Towers at 34 of the main Stations [sic], to say nothing of several secondary stations surrounding such Steel Tower States, we thought it would be advisable to observe at the same time as the primary work. You may be interested to know that these admirable Steel Towers were entirely satisfactory; and that we were very deeply impressed with the conception, design, and construction of these Towers.
Bilby died on July 18, 1949 in Batesville, Indiana. He was buried in Washington Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. His long career and advancements in geodetic surveying technology, particularly on the 39th parallel, ensured the completion and accuracy of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRP), a first-order triangulation network of the United States.
Jasper Sherman Bilby’s innovation and inventiveness left an indelible mark on surveying in the United States and the world. His Bilby Steel Tower, and the knowledge it advanced, revolutionized mapmaking for generations.
In 1936, Dr. James Naismith, basketball’s inventor, attended the Indiana high school championship game between Frankfort and Fort Wayne Central. In his first exposure to Hoosier Hysteria, he recalled that the sight of the stadium “packed with fifteen thousand people, gave me a thrill I shall not soon forget.” During his visit, Naismith told an Indianapolis audience: “Basketball really had its beginning in Indiana which remains today the center of the sport.” Expanding upon this comment, Naismith associated Indiana’s national distinction in basketball with the popularity and success of the state high school basketball tournament.
The Indiana high school basketball tournament began in 1911, when Crawfordsville High School (C.H.S.) defeated Lebanon High School for the state title. This post provides an historical examination of the first Indiana high school basketball champions’ season, and the beginning of one of Indiana’s most cherished cultural traditions.
EARLY CRAWFORDSVILLE HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL
In 1900, C.H.S. organized one of the earliest high school basketball teams in Indiana. Unfortunately, finding high school opponents in the nascent years of the sport in the Hoosier state often proved difficult. During the 1901-02 season, Crawfordsville defeated Indianapolis’ Shortridge High School, the lone high school team on their schedule. In the opinion of the C.H.S. team, this victory gave them “the championship of the High Schools of Indiana in basketball.” They justified this claim because they defeated Shortridge, and Shortridge defeated Indianapolis’ Manual Training High School. A Crawfordsville newspaper issued a standing challenge on behalf of the local team, “They are willing to defend their title any time and any where,” but no other challengers came calling.
THE BIRTH OF A RIVALRY
More high schools began playing basketball in the subsequent years. In 1907, C.H.S. again styled themselves “the state champions” after finishing the season undefeated, but this time four high schools numbered among their opponents. By the 1908-09 season, all but two of C.H.S.’s opponents were high schools. Lebanon High School debuted on C.H.S.’s schedule that season. Although Lebanon finished with a 22-2 record, both their losses came against Crawfordsville. Because of this, the Lebanon Patriot conceded that Crawfordsville could claim the title of “state champions” yet again.
Any high school’s claim to be the “state champions” based simply upon best record grew more contentious at the end of the following season. In 1910, C.H.S. claimed to be the “state champion” after compiling a 13-1 record, a 92.8 winning percentage. Crawfordsville’s lone loss that season came against Lebanon High School. Lebanon and Crawfordsville split their season series, each team winning on their respective home courts . Lebanon finished their season with a 20-2 record, for a 90.9 win percentage. Even though Crawfordsville had the better winning percentage, Lebanon won seven more games. Consequently, Lebanon refused to concede the “state championship” to Crawfordsville. The Lebanon High School yearbook argued their team’s case, “Lebanon . . . has played more high schools than any other claimant, has defeated them all, and has been defeated only twice.”
Lebanon proposed a solution, and challenged Crawfordsville to a third game on a neutral court to decide the state champion. If Lebanon won they could justly claim the “state title” by virtue of having defeated Crawfordsville twice, and having the overall better winning percentage. Conversely, if Crawfordsville won the third game their claim to the title could no longer be questioned. Crawfordsville refused a re-match.
The controversy over the “state championship” of 1909-10 created strong enmity between the neighboring high schools of Crawfordsville and Lebanon. After Crawfordsville declined to play a third game, Lebanon proceeded to discredit “the motives and actions” of their rival. C.H.S., in turn, threatened to file charges with the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s (IHSAA) Board of Control, charging Lebanon with “unsportsmanlike conduct and unfair criticism.” Thus, the Crawfordsville-Lebanon rivalry was born.
The “state championship” controversy demanded a solution. Although the IHSAA began in 1898, the Indiana University Booster Club organized the first Indiana high school basketball tournament. It planned the event to take place at Indiana University in March 1911. The Booster Club’s proposal called for a twelve-team tournament, which would include the teams with the best records from Indiana’s congressional districts. The tournament winner would receive “a suitable trophy, emblematic of the state championship,” and thereby quash any debate as to which team was the rightful title holder.
CRAWFORDSVILLE’S 1910-11 SEASON
During the regular season, Coach Dave Glascock led his team to a 12-2 record. Crawfordsville’s starting line-up was comprised of forwards Carroll Stevenson and Orville Taylor, center Ben Myers, and guards Clio Shaw and Newt Hill. The substitutes were forward Hugh “Buddy” Miller, and guard Grady Chadwick. The team averaged a little over 29 points a game while holding their opponents to 16.5. Myers led the team in scoring with 12.3 points a game, and Stevenson averaged 9.3. Regarding the team’s defensive abilities, the Crawfordsville Journal reckoned Shaw, “As a back guard has no superior in the state,” and Hill many times spoiled what looked like sure goals “by his phenomenal guarding.”
As impressive as C.H.S.’s team and individual successes were, they still had four games to play to prove that they were Indiana’s best.
THE TOURNAMENT: FIRST ROUND
The teams invited to the “First Annual State Interscholastic Basket Ball Tournament” at Bloomington included Anderson, Bluffton, Crawfordsville, Evansville, Lafayette, Lebanon, Morristown, New Albany, Oaktown, Rochester, Valparaiso, and Walton. The tournament teams and fans convened at Indiana University’s original Assembly Hall on Friday, March 10. In the first round of play, New Albany eked past Rochester, 19-18, “Walton walloped Morristown,” 31-23, Bluffton carried “off the bacon” against Evansville, 38-23, Lafayette “romped away from” Oaktown, 31-14, and Lebanon defeated Valparaiso, 23-11.
Crawfordsville’s first round game was against Anderson High School. The game remained competitive in the first half, and at half-time Crawfordsville led 14-10. The pace changed dramatically in the second half. The Anderson Herald described, “The Crawfordsville quintet showed [a] burst of varsity playing which swept the Anderson players off their feet and the ball fell into the basket with great rapidity.” Crawfordsville went on a 22-6 run in the second half, as the “Blue and Gold” won, 36-16.
THE TOURNAMENT: SECOND ROUND
On Saturday, March 11, Lebanon began the second round of tournament play against New Albany at 9 a.m. Although it took fifteen minutes for either team to score, Lebanon led 14-3 at the half, and at the end of regulation Lebanon triumphed, 28-10. Following that game, Bluffton took the floor versus Lafayette at 10 o’clock. In a game “replete with sensational floor work and fine basket shooting,” Bluffton defeated Lafayette, 34-22.
The next game tipped at 11 a.m., and matched Crawfordsville against tiny Walton High School from Cass County. The Daily Student reported, “The first half proved a soul stirrer [with] both teams fighting savagely on the floor.” The half ended with Crawfordsville leading 16-10. In the second half, and held Walton field goalless. Myers continued to shine offensively for Crawfordsville, “playing a speedy, heady and nervy game,” en route to fifteen points. Myers’ teammates, Miller, Hill, and Taylor combined for sixteen more points as Crawfordsville advanced past Walton, 31-12.
THE FINAL FOUR THREE?
Instead of a final four, the first Indiana state high school basketball tournament had a final three, a product of seeding the tournament with twelve teams. Tournament organizers held a drawing with Bluffton, Crawfordsville, and Lebanon to determine which teams would play next, and which team would receive a bye into the final round. The story of Indiana’s first basketball tournament would lose much of its intrigue if Lebanon and Crawfordsville met in the semi-final game. As chance would have it, Lebanon drew the bye, and advanced to await the winner of Crawfordsville v. Bluffton for the championship.
In their first two tournament games, Bluffton averaged 36, but their defense surrendered 5.5 points more than their regular season average. Injuries to key Bluffton players, sustained in their quarterfinal game against Lafayette, further weakened the team. Bluffton’s top-two scorers in the regular season, Doster Buckner and Dwight Fritz, hobbled into the game against Crawfordsville on sprained ankles.Bluffton did what they could against Crawfordsville, and “fought gamely all throughout the fray.” Yet, Bluffton’s scrappiness could not contain Crawfordsville’s “tall, husky lads.” Crawfordsville led 21-7 at the half, and easily won the game, 42-16. Myers again led the offense with sixteen points, despite receiving a “deep gash on his forehead” after colliding with Bluffton center Claude Ware. “Chine” Taylor had his strongest tournament showing with six field goals. Carroll Stevenson saw his first tournament action in the second half, and exhibited no ill effects from his injury, finishing with 12 points. In defeat, Bluffton’s Homer Brumbaugh led his team in scoring with 10 points.
STATE FINAL: CRAWFORDSVILLE VS. LEBANON
After all the antagonism expressed between Lebanon and Crawfordsville the previous three seasons, it was only fitting that these two squads met in the finals. The high school championship would be decided that evening (March 11); “played as a curtain-raiser” to Indiana University’s regular season finale against Northwestern University. Entering the contest Lebanon had a clear advantage of a nine-hour rest, after defeating New Albany earlier that morning. Crawfordsville, on the other hand, must have felt fatigued preparing for their third game in eight hours.
Crawfordsville evidently shook off some of their weariness after the opening tip, and rushed out to a 7-1 lead in the first five minutes. After this opening run, Lebanon responded, and “started some of their brilliant team work. Beautiful passes . . . [left] the Crawfordsville lads . . . utterly bewildered at times in following the ball. Despite their fancy passing the Lebanon men couldn’t score, blowing about four out of five shots right under the basket.” The half ended with Crawfordsville still in control, 13-7. Coach Glascock recalled that at half-time, “The boys said, ‘Coach, if we win this game we’re all going downtown and really celebrate.’ I told them if they won the game I didn’t care what they did.”
In the second half, Crawfordsville’s “Athenians” continued at an “undying pace.” Lebanon never got closer than three points in the entire game. Shaw and Hill’s “close guarding . . . kept [Lebanon’s] score down” while Crawfordsville’s frontcourt kept a “continual attack on the basket.” Lebanon’s defense concentrated on keeping Taylor “completely smothered,” but he still managed two field goals. Myers, after averaging more than seventeen points in the first three tournament games, only mustered six points in the finale. He was exhausted as a result of being “battered up in nearly every scrimmage.” Fortunately for Crawfordsville, Stevenson was fresh. The Daily Student praised Stevenson as “a marvel in finding the net from the foul line and also hot when it came to making field goals.” He finished with a game-high fourteen points. At the end of regulation, Crawfordsville prevailed over Lebanon, 24 to 17. The Daily Student proclaimed, “Crawfordsville . . . [won] the first state high school championship basket ball tournament and is now undisputed state champion.”
At half-time of the IU-Northwestern game, Booster Club chairman, Charles H. Nussell, presented to Coach Glascock the tournament trophy: “a handsome oak shield decorated with metal letters describing the event.” The newspaper articles do not report the players being present at the trophy presentation. Glascock remembered, “I had no idea where the players had gone.” He perhaps thought they stuck to their half-time promise and went downtown to celebrate. Nevertheless, Coach Glascock stayed and watched the second half of the IU-Northwestern game. After the game, Glascock recalled, “When I went back to the fraternity house where we were staying, I found them all sound asleep, worn out completely.”
Crawfordsville High School’s basketball team’s three year run of “state championships” would end the next season. C.H.S. finished the 1911-12 season with an 11-4 record, but “for the first time in the school’s history, [their] colors fell before Lebanon,” not once, but twice. If that was not enough humiliation, Clinton High School clinched the district invitation to the tournament, and thereby denied Crawfordsville High School the opportunity to defend the state title in 1912, which Lebanon, incidentally won. Furthering the irony, the 1912 tournament was the first Indiana high school basketball tournament that the IHSAA sanctioned. Consequently, Lebanon, for many decades, claimed to be the first IHSAA basketball tournament champion.
In 1957, Crawfordsville High School found their place in Indiana basketball history restored. The IHSAA accepted a resolution from Indiana University, whereby the university transferred its claim to recognition of the first Indiana high school basketball championship to the IHSAA’s Board of Control “for inclusion in the official records of that body.” At halftime of the forty-seventh annual high school basketball championship, played between South Bend Central and Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks at the Butler University Fieldhouse, the IHSAA recognized Crawfordsville’s 1911 high school basketball team as Indiana’s first state tournament champions.
For that feat, and for being the first state tournament champion, they will be remembered as long as high school basketball is played and celebrated in Indiana.
Indiana’s history is rich with inventors and pioneers. Philo T. Farnsworth, who lived in Fort Wayne for over a decade, invented the television and designed an early model of a fusion reactor. Elwood Haynes, Kokomo native and scientific prodigy, designed and assembled one of the first horseless carriages in the United States. Another Hoosier whose scientific mind for innovation proved indispensable to the nation was Jasper Sherman Bilby. His steel surveying tower radically reshaped the accuracy of map making and left a permanent mark on the way we view the United States.
Jasper Sherman Bilby (known as “J.S.”) was born in Rush County, Indiana on July 16, 1864 to Jasper N. Bilby and Margaret E. (Hazard) Bilby. Bilby’s early life has a rather tragic side; his father committed suicide in 1877 after being arrested for the sexual assault of one of his daughters. This hardship forced Bilby to leave school and to work on the family farm for a number of years in Fayette County to support his widowed mother. After his marriage to Luella Cox in 1891, Bilby moved to Ripley County as early as 1893, according to Ripley County deed index books.
Bilby joined the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey in September of 1884. Congress established this agency, originally called the United States Survey of the Coast, on February 10, 1807. Initially under the purview of the Treasury Department, the survey was reorganized under the US Department of Commerce in 1878 and renamed the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey (US C&GS). Today, it is under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and called the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).
Geodetic surveying is the geographical analysis of an area of land or bodies of water, accounting for the shape and curvature of the Earth. According to the NGS official website, the National Geodetic Survey, from its inception in 1807, has ensured accurate data for government and commercial purposes, such as “mapping and charting, navigation, flood risk determination, transportation, [and] land use and ecosystem management.” Additionally, the National Geodetic Survey’s work provides “authoritative spatial data, models, and tools [that] are vital for the protection and management of natural and manmade resources and support the economic prosperity and environmental health of the Nation.”
Bilby conducted his first survey work in Illinois along the 39th parallel. According to surveyor Raymond Stanton Patton, the 39th parallel was a line of latitude that spanned from Cape May, New Jersey to Point Area, California, and was the “first great piece of geodetic work accomplished by the Survey….” His official position within the US C&GS for most of his career was that of “signalman.” A signalman uses flags or signal lights to indicate points within a geometric calculation between two survey points, usually between a point on shore and a point within a body of water. This practice ensures that those making the calculations on shore accurately represent the point in water.
Bilby traveled 511,400 miles during his 53 years in the US C&GS, from Illinois to California, according to his career field reports. Newspapers throughout the country recorded his cross-country traveling for the US C&GS, notably his work in states like Louisiana and Texas. Department of Commerce publications also chronicle his time in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Georgia, detailing his work in specific counties. In 1920, Bilby and his team surveyed the majority of Wisconsin and Illinois, providing exact coordinates for most regions adjacent to water. In these surveys, Bilby used the Traverse method of surveying, which is less accurate but quicker to calculate than Triangulation. (The traverse method uses pointed lines for measurements while triangulation uses angular measurements based on triangles.) Bilby and his team completed surveys within the Rio Grande valley in 1917, specifically from Harlington to Dryden. His efforts in the eastern area of the Rio Grande ensured more accurate measurements, adding to the US C&GS’s triangulation of the American west.
A 1926 article published in Popular Mechanics provides some of Bilby’s own words about his job, especially its difficulty before his invention and some personal stories. One of Bilby’s tasks within the US C&GS was reconnaissance, which is the practice of marking triangulation stations before the main survey party arrives. This cuts down on their work and ensures accuracy in their measurements. He told the magazine about the harsh weather and loneliness that often accompanies a surveyor’s life:
Especially…when the wind is howling through the trees, and the rain is pattering down on the tent, and you know there’s little change of anyone dropping by.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed his work and appreciated how radio was improving the public’s knowledge of the work of the US C&GS. Bilby notes:
Radio has made the coast and geodetic survey known more than it used to be. A few years ago people were always asking what the name meant, but now I often find they know us pretty well, from talks they’ve heard on the air. One lecture on mountain building which was broadcast from Washington was the means of getting me a fine dinner. I had stopped at a farmhouse to make inquiries and the farmer noticed my ‘geodetic’ tag. He mentioned this talk he’d heard, and when I said it must have been given by the chief of my division, Major Bowie, he became so interested that he made me stay to dinner and answer his questions. However, that wasn’t unwelcome after eating my own cooking for so long.
This story was published a year before the first usage of the Bilby Steel Tower, when wooden towers were still standard equipment.
His early years as a geodetic surveyor, particularly his negative experiences with wooden survey towers, would influence his greatest contribution to the field: the invention of the Bilby Steel Tower.
Bilby’s influential invention, the Bilby Steel Tower, will be covered in Part II.
By 1939, the Great Depression had ended and Hoosiers had a little more money in their pockets. More folks had access to automobiles and most had a little bit of free time after church on Sunday afternoons. So rural Hoosiers gathered at each other’s homes, turned on the radio, and listened to variety and comedy shows and country music. Sometimes they got out their own fiddles, rolled back the rugs, and danced, much as they had since the previous century.
They also gathered at schools and halls for more organized concerts and dances. Despite such diversions, down in the quaintly-named town of Bean Blossom in Brown County, locals reported there was still the feeling that there was nothing to do. According to an August 10, 1941 Indianapolis Star article, Bean Blossom had no movie theater and the town’s only tavern was closed Sunday, so the locals “must provide their own entertainment.”
Bean Blossom, originally spelled “Beanblossom,” is located in Brown County just four miles north of Nashville. The history of the descriptive moniker is clouded with folklore. There are at least two different accounts of men with the name of Bean Blossom or Beanblossom who almost drowned in the creek which was then named for them. An alternate explanation is that it is a translation from the Miami name for the creek. Still another tradition holds that the town is named after the wild bean plants that grew along the stream and provided sustenance for early settlers.
In the late 1930s, early 1940s, there still wasn’t much to the little town, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t excitement to be had – especially at the intersection of Indiana Highways 135 and 45, where there was a lunch counter at a filling station owned by Dan Williams. Sometimes musicians gathered there to play country and “hillbilly” music. They played some tunes they grew up with, and some they heard on the radio – country music popularized by the broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. One day a man was passing through town with a speaker system set up on top of his truck through which he could amplify records. This drew people to the filling station to listen to music and some of the locals got the idea to put on a free show. In 1941, the Brown County Democrat recalled: “The Brown County Jamboree, which it has been commonly named, was not formally planned but just grew out of an evening when a passing truckman with a loudspeaker system proposed that he connect it up and play records which he was allowed to do.”
According to recollections gathered by historian Thomas Adler in his thoroughly researched workBean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival, the first show was modest, but successful. There was one microphone set up on a stand and a small amplifier for the musicians who played popular songs both live and on recordings. One of the original founders and performers, Guy Smith, had some experience organizing country band performances and dances. Another, Denzel Ragsdale, also known as “Spurts” or the “Silver Spur” was a performer and took on the role of soundman and promoter. He created a series of “ballyhoo cars” to advertise the free show. Painted with the words “Brown County Jamboree,” the cars had horn speakers on the roof that projected sound from the record player and a microphone located in the car. Jack McDonald, an early Jamboree attendee, recollected the events but not the names in an interview collected by Adler:
Sometime in the early forties when life in the country was a little slow, some men decided that Bean Blossom needed a little country music to lighten things up a bit. One person had an old station wagon with a sound system including a couple of big horn-type speaker mounted on the roof of the car. . . they [The car owner and two others] went through Bean Blossom and other towns, called out to those they say standing near their path or sitting in yards and porches for them to ‘Come to Bean Blossom for a free music show!’” Now, a short time earlier, about a week or two, these same country music buffs had set a microphone and speaker system up on the grassy area in front of the local filling station . . . In those days and nights were at a slow pace so a little thing like someone singing into a microphone and telling stories created a little excitement.
The “free” aspect of the free show didn’t last long, as the organizers couldn’t help but see how the crowd was growing. The lunchroom business was booming and there was no reason the promoters and performers shouldn’t make a little money too. They built a small stage, fenced in the area, and started to charge twenty five cents per show. Soon, they put up a tent as can be seen in the only known photograph of the Jamboree from this period.
The admission fee didn’t dissuade the crowds. The Brown County Democrat reported August 18, 1941, “Large crowds have been attracted to the place and each evening the performance has been staged the crowds have been becoming larger. Attendance was estimated at over 4,000 for last Sunday night.” The Indianapolis Star covered the boom in attendance at the Jamboree as well, even noting that the State Police had to get involved with traffic control. Lester C. Nagley, reporting for the Indianapolis Star August 10, 1941, wrote:
Thousands of furrriners who have been touring Hoosierdom on their vacations and have been visiting Brown county’s hills are writing postcards to send back-home, telling their acquaintances about this rustic program of Sunday evening recitals of Brown County Music . . . Well, the fiddling and the ballad singing has gone over big for the last six weeks and traffic jams at this crossroads village in the Bean Blossom valley from sundown to almost midnight have required special duty by state police. Cars bearing many foreign tags . . . are thronging the village. Parking space is becoming a problem too.
In addition to drawing large crowds, the Jamboree drew the attention of radio stations. According to the Brown County Democrat in August 1941:
Brown County talent may soon be heard over the air, and believe it or not it will be broadcast from Beanblossom, according to Dan Williams, proprietor of the lunch room at the south edge of Beanblossom. Mr Williams states that representatives of Indianapolis broadcasting stations have been to Beanblossom several times in efforts to make satisfactory working arrangements to broadcast the programs which are being held there each Sunday night.
Just before the Jamboree launched, locals Francis and Mae Rund had been making improvements to their nearby property and building cabins with some sort of tourism-related business in mind as early as August 1940. By the summer of 1941, as the large crowds coming to the Jamboree were causing traffic and parking problems and more seating was needed at the outdoor venue, the Runds saw an opportunity to construct a permanent building (as opposed to a tent) so the programs could continue be held in the winter. Construction began in October. The barn-like building was funded by residents and was to seat 2,500 attendees. On October 23, 1941, the Brown County Democrat reported:
Plans for a large permanent building to be used for the Brown County Jamboree in Beanblossom to replace the tent which is now being used have been completed. . . It is to be located on the land owned by Francis Rund just north of Beanblossom where the tent which houses the jamboree now stands.
The shows during the Rund decade (1941-51) generally featured a variety show format hosted by an emcee which included comedic performers as well as music. However, the country and “hillbilly” music was always the main draw. Adler writes, “Brown County Jamboree shows were professional, fast paced, and entertaining. From the beginning, the music, comedy, and ambience of the site combined to present a nostalgic and entertaining whole.” The Indianapolis Star on August 10, 1941 described the Jamboree as “a co-operative program providing real, homespun talent, rail-fence variety of music and frivolity . . . old fiddlers and rural crooners, who would sing and warble Brown county ballads brought over the mountains by their pioneer ancestors.” The Indianapolis Times noted October 10, 1941 that in addition to “singing and dancing” the Jamboree included “vaudeville skits.” The Runds ran large advertisements for the Jamboree in the local newspaper and partnered with nearby radio stations, notably WIRE and WFBM, Indianapolis. On October 23, 1941, the Brown County Democrat reported that the Indianapolis radio station WIRE referenced the Jamboree many times during its programs.
Even gas rationing during World War II couldn’t keep the attendees away. One participant joked that the limited gasoline only kept people from leaving Bean Blossom. Adler explained, “Rationing took effect locally in late 1942, but audiences never abandoned the Jamboree. Weekly attendees from inside the county sustained the show through the war and the following years; that pattern remained unchanged until late-1960s bluegrass festivals began to draw national and international fans.” According to Adler, however, the advertising and perhaps the Rund’s interest waned by 1951. The Jamboree needed a new owner and would soon find it in Bill Monroe, one of the biggest country music stars of all time, and the “Father of Bluegrass.”
Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah Tittle Barrett was born in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Commonly known as Sarah Bolton, she moved to Indiana as a young child, when much of the state was still unsettled. According to theLife and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.
The Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton reports that she published her first poem in the Madison Banner when she was not yet fourteen and that she later wrote regularly for the papers of Madison and nearby Cincinnati. Bolton authored over 150 poems during her lifetime, many of which were featured in newspapers across the country. Her writings were included in numerous anthologies in the 1800s and 1900s, and several of the melodic verses were set to music, including Bolton’s “Indiana.”
In 1831, she married Indianapolis Gazette co-editor Nathaniel Bolton and the couple moved from Madison to Marion County, Indiana soon after. Between 1836 and 1845, they owned and operated a tavern, “Mt. Jackson,” on the National Road. In 1845, the Boltons sold their property to the State and it eventually became the site of the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, later renamed the Central State Hospital.* While in Indianapolis, Sarah’s poetry output continued to increase, and she wrote some of her most popular works there. She lived in the city for many years by the time she became involved in the women’s rights movement.
Bolton aided social reformer Robert Dale Owen in his fight for women’s rights of personal property in the 1850 State Constitutional Convention. Owen sought to add a provision to the new constitution that would allow women to retain control of their personal property after they entered into the contract of marriage. Bolton wrote letters to women across the state to build support for the movement, but Owen’s measure was voted down.
Bolton summarized her involvement in the effort to secure personal property rights for married women in a letter to William Wesley Woollen, stating:
“I was writing articles setting forth the grievances resulting from women’s status, as under the common law, and the necessity of reform and scattering these articles through the newspapers, over the state to make public opinion. At length the measure passed, but was reconsidered and voted down. Then we rallied the few women who were in favor of it and went to the Convention in a body to electioneer with the members. The measure was brought up and passed again, reconsidered the next day & again voted down. This, to the best of my recollection, was repeated five or six times before it was finally lost.”
In a July 6, 1851 letter to Bolton, Owen credited her efforts, stating “by dint of perseverance through many obstacles, you have so efficiently contributed to the good cause of the property rights of your sex.” Decades later Bolton reflected on her work, writing in 1882 “I am not a ‘woman’s rights woman’ in the common acceptation of the phrase. I have taken no part in the present crusade, but am proud of my action in that long ago battle for the property rights of my sisters.”
In 1855, Bolton’s husband was confirmed as Consul to Geneva, Switzerland, and she spent the next three years dividing her time between Missouri and Europe. She spent her final years, 1871-1893, at her home “Beech Bank” in the community of Beech Grove, focusing on her family and writing. Bolton died August 4, 1893 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. The legacy of the “Hoosier poetess” endures through her poetry, such as “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” which has been translated into several languages and sung around the world.
Learn more about Sarah Bolton from the sources cited in this IHBreport, and plan a visit to Bolton’s historical marker.
*IHB staff is currently conducting research for a Central State Hospital marker. Stay tuned to learn more!
Learn about Charlestown’s rapid transformation resulting from the WWII smokeless powder plant in Part I.
Employment of women and African Americans at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.
WWII defense needs quickly brought women into the labor force, particularly later in the war as men left factories to enter into combat. The New York Times reported on October 19, 1941 that “entry of women into the defense factories of the nation is something that is just beginning on a considerable scale . . . now they are utilized for a wide variety of tasks by at least nineteen large plants.” The article asserted that women surpassed male workers in “finger dexterity” and “powers of observation” and possessed “superior traits in number memory,” completing tasks like painting planes, covering oil lines and packing powder bags. The article also reported that thousands of women had begun to produce smokeless powder at plants in Indiana, Alabama and Virginia and that “care is taken to select only women who are emotionally stable for these hazardous tasks.”
As with the nation, Indiana began employing women en masse at munitions factories and by 1944 the Indianapolis Star reported that while industrial work was once considered “unsuitable for women . . . this view has been abandoned since employers have found that women can and have been willing to adjust themselves to practically any type of labor if given the opportunity.”
Women were hired in large numbers at Charlestown’s ordnance facility and, while originally serving as mail runners and lab technicians, they eventually replaced men as powder cutting machine attendants. The bag-loading plant known as HOP employed 3,200 workers by December 1941, most of whom were women, who sewed bags and packed them with powder. By 1942, so many women worked at the Charlestown plants that the town had to rapidly expand child care facilities, enlarging the community center nursery at Pleasant Ridge Project.
In addition to child care, transportation proved an obstacle to women hoping to enter Charlestown’s workforce. The Charlestown Courier reported that women were prohibited from riding the “four special trains bringing employes to the Powder Plant. They have to find some other way to get to their jobs here.” Additionally, the New York Times reported that women working industrial jobs made “only about 60 percent of that of men doing comparable work.”
“Trailer wives” in Charlestown felt they too contributed to defense efforts by relocating their families to ordnance towns where their husbands found employment. The Indianapolis Star described these women as a “gallant band who ‘follow construction’ in order to keep the family life being lived as a unit and not subject themselves and their husbands to the hardships of separation.”
Much like women in WWII, defense needs partially opened the labor force to African Americans. A questionnaire from the Indiana State Defense Council reported that from July 1, 1941 to July 1, 1942 those firms reporting African American employment experienced a net increase of 82% in the number of blacks employed. Initially African Americans worked at Charlestown’s smokeless powder plant primarily in janitorial and unskilled fields. However, by the end of 1942, due to a labor shortage, they found employment in various roles, such as chemists, plant laborers, and plant operators.
Former plant employees stated in interviews that they witnessed little or no segregation, but that separate restrooms may have existed at one time. However, housing and schooling for African Americans in Charlestown was segregated and often in poor condition. Due to protests by some white residents regarding mixed housing units, a section of 130 units were separated for black workers with a 300 foot wide area. A 1942 Louisville Courier-Journal article about the deplorable state of Clark County African-American schools, particularly in Charlestown Township, stated that grade school students:
were broken out in a rash of goose pimples yesterday morning as they shivered at their antiquated desks. . . . A not unbitter wind whistled thru broken window panes and thru cracks in the walls of the sixty-five year old frame building as twenty-three students . . . huddled together and with stiffened fingers signed up for a year of ‘education.’
The boom afforded limited employment opportunities for African Americans outside the plant, despite earlier employer prejudice, which often barred them from working at local Charlestown businesses.
In the spring of 1945, after deliberation by the Army, War Production Board, and union officials, approximately 1,000 German prisoners of war were transferred to Charlestown to supplement construction of the rocket powder plant (IOW2), the third WWII ordnance plant at the facility. The Charlestown Courier described the POWs:
“Far from supermen, the German POWs employed on the Rocket Plant are predominantly youthful, many never having required a razor to date. They seem to be in good spirits and are healthy and husky. A surprisingly large number speak English and don’t hesitate to say they would rather remain in this country.”
The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19, 1945 that the POWs had left the plant and returned to Fort Knox and other camps where they were “obtained.” Newspapers located by IHB staff did not report on the POWs’ contributions, but Steve Gaither and Kimberly Kane state in their report on the facility that it was “doubtful that the POWs contributed directly to construction.”
The massive Charlestown ordnance facility produced more than one billion pounds of smokeless powder in World War II, nearly as much as the “total volume of military explosives made for the United States in World War I” (Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1948). Output levels were so high that the military nationally recognized the facility’s production and safety records, conferring upon the plant the Army-Navy “E” Award, awarded to only 5% of the estimated war plants in the country during WWII.
National munitions production wound down with termination of the two-front war, which concluded first on May 7, 1945 with German surrender and Japan’s informal agreement to surrender on August 14, 1945. The plants at Charlestown gradually reduced payroll in August before eventually shutting down. The Richmond Palladium noted that after reductions “scarcely a wheel turned, or a hammer fell. Now there are just a few thousand ‘running out’ the powder which was in process, and putting the whole installation in weather-tight conditions.”
The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19 of that year that Charlestown is “dying with the same gusto with which it was born.” The Richmond Palladium described Charlestown folding up “like an Arabian tent village,” as trailer caravans departed and workers returned to various states across the nation. Although the abrupt exodus shocked local residents, worried about maintaining their postwar economy, a trickle of new residents soon arrived, including veterans and their families. Boom town activity returned to Charlestown during the Korean and Vietnam wars when the ordnance facility again began producing powder, reuniting workers from the WWII era.
Charlestown’s 1940s ordnance plants illustrated how WWII energized local economies and afforded women and African Americans job opportunities. Accommodating the massive facility transformed Charlestown from a town to a city and led to its first sewage system,the resurfacing and improvement of miles of roads, and two major housing projects.
The Indiana Historical Bureau recently completed research and marker text for the massive WWII smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, Indiana known as the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. The plant received multiple military awards for production, transformed the local community and bolstered its economy, and provided job opportunities for women and African Americans. This historical marker helps fill a void in the State Historical Marker Collection by commemorating Indiana’s WWII home front and the contributions of Hoosier men and women to the war effort.
At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the Allied Powers desperately needed war supplies to combat Germany’s war resources, as the country had been producing material since the early 1930s. In response, the U.S. established an extensive ordnance system, hoping in part to stave off their own involvement in war. The Evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 and Fall of France in June greatly hastened U.S. efforts to construct ordnance plants and resulted in the establishment of the smokeless powder plant in Charlestown. Smokeless powder was crucial to combat because traditional smoke obscured combatants’ vision and revealed their location. Smokeless powder, made from colloided nitrocellulose, acted as the primary explosive propellant for various war ammunition.
Former Charlestown resident Mary T. Hughes described Charlestown to the Indianapolis Times in November 1940 as a “quiet, easy going upland town-one of those southern Indiana towns where rambling homes line the shaded streets and the still peace of the afternoon is like Sunday.” Walter A. Shead similarly profiled the town in a December 1940 Madison [IN] Courier article, stating that Charlestown “has watched the years slip past through the century without even the quickening of a pulse-beat . . . most of whom are retired farmers, has lived the simple life undisturbed by modern conveniences or the quickened tempo of present-day life.” Unsurprisingly, the influx of thousands of workers and rapid industrialization shocked the small town.
Shortly after Congress passed funding for munitions production on July 1, 1940, the federal government awarded E.I. deNemours DuPont Co. a war contract to establish IOW1. The arrangement, known as a Government-Owned Contractor-Operated (GOCO) collaboration, was undertaken frequently in WWII. In GOCO collaborations, the federal government owned the ordnance plant and a business experienced in mass production was responsible for plant design, construction and operations. Soon after DuPont was awarded the contract, agents arrived in Charlestown to purchase properties including businesses, churches, farms and private residences to build the plant, affording local residents unheard of economic opportunities.
When construction began that summer thousands of workers from around the nation flooded the small community, hosting 30,000 transient workers at the peak of construction. An article in the September 13, 1940 Louisville Courier-Journal vividly described the transformation, stating:
“. . . farm houses were being wrecked. In that wreckage could be seen bruised and tangled masses of cultivated flowers, some in bloom, and imported shrubbery. The fields which this spring were planted in corn, soybeans and other crops were being subjected to the same treatment as if they had contained ragweed. Ears of golden yellow corn were being trampled underfoot by the workmen or ground under the wheels of motor cars.”
In addition to the smokeless powder plant, the federal government worked with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in early 1941 to establish a bag-loading plant known as the Hoosier Ordnance Plant (HOP). HOP workers weighed, assembled and packed smokeless powder into silk bags. HOP, along with an uncompleted double-base rocket powder plant, Indiana Ordnance Works 2 (IOW2), drew thousands of construction and production workers to the area.
Housing these workers became the town’s most immediate problem, as Charlestown had approximately 235 existing homes and one hotel so crowded that “you can’t get a room for love or money” (Gary-Post Tribune, December 1940). Indianapolis newspapers reported that new arrivals were so desperate for housing that they lived in trailers, cars, chicken coops, barns, lean-tos and even the town jail. A Charlestown Courier article colorfully reported in February 1941 “It may have been a hen house, wash house, wood house, garage or what have you for lo, these many years, but the minute it has been insulated, windows and chimney installed and Powder Plant workers have moved in and hung lace curtains, it becomes a guest house.”
Another immediate problem facing Charlestown was the town’s lack of rudimentary sanitation systems. According to a 1942 public health survey, prior to the plants’ establishment the town had no systematic trash or human waste disposal program. Additionally, Charlestown lacked a public water supply, depending primarily on private wells and cisterns. The absence of sanitary accommodations caused residents and officials to worry about epidemics. The 1942 survey reported “The dangers to health flowing from a congestion of workers drawn from north and south and east and west, eating and sleeping under the most elementary conditions, crowded into inadequate quarters and served by water, milk, and sanitary facilities designed for a small community can hardly be exaggerated.” The establishment of trailer camps, accommodating hundreds of workers and their families in close proximity, worsened these fears. Conditions proved so precarious that even the town jail was condemned and closed by the State Board of Institutions for sanitation reasons.
The overcrowding of local businesses, infrastructure and sanitation facilities generated tension between local residents and transient workers regarding who should shoulder the burden. A Madison [IN] Courier article explained that “Native folks in Charlestown are a little dazed, for they hardly know just what to make of this hub-bub which has come to shake the even tenor of their ways, a manner of life which has endured for more than a century.” Locals often labeled newcomers “du Ponters” and their children as “powder children” in an effort to differentiate themselves. Conversely, Margaret Christie reported in the Indianapolis Star that many migrant workers resented the implication that locals considered them “’trailer trash.” Debates between local residents and transient workers played out publicly in letters to editors of local newspapers. For the most part, however, locals adjusted to the influx of transients and Charlestown permanently benefited from their patronage.
Check out Part II to learn about how the ordnance facility led to permanent improvement of the town, the use of German POWs, and how the plants ushered women and African Americans into the WWII labor force.
While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious. Bierce’s own agnosticism aligned with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an Illinois politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory. He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, that were critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors and their counter-cultural thinking became an indelible part of 19th century Freethought (broadly understood during the period as an open, reasoned evaluation of religion and spirituality).
In his essay, “A Dead Lion,” Bierce defended the agnostic orator and responded to his critics. When Ingersoll died in 1899, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country paid their respects to the infidel, but they also continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator. Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defended Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” as Bierce wrote in the aforementioned essay, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.”
Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argued that it was, “keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar.” While his pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, Bierce’s essay does show a deep intellectual kinship between the two.
Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. In one passage, Bierce defends Ingersoll’s position:
It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.
Both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays reflected a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.
Bierce also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.” Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.” In other words, he had to see it to believe it.
Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s free thought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.” He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.” Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired critical lectures by clergymen. This work influenced journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who wrote clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.
Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some veterans discovered interests in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given him an immortality he may have never imagined.
The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, both from the pages and their authors. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Hoosier Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late-19th century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views about life and religion.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Bierce’s early life, after he and his family moved to Indiana, remains shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the Republican newspaper, the Northern Indianan. Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.
After returning from Kentucky, Bierce reportedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months. He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861. He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War inspired much of his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.
Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californianand Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.” One critic referred to his writing as “humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne.” Another review considered his early works, “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke,” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”
For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of his unorthodox pen name came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a pen name while in England. As biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”
Bierce’s columns appeared in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.
After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonautand the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.” This column gave Bierce a platform to express his views on politics, current events, literature, and history, often with a humorous slant. As an example, this short quip about a millionaire’s dining habits appeared in the March 13, 1886 issue of the Wasp:
There is a man in San Francisco—a millionaire who has revived a very ancient custom, I am told. This gentleman is rather fond of dining people at his house—mostly men. Between the courses, now and then during the meal, he introduces various uncouth monsters, whose antics are supposed to amuse and edify the guests. I am told they don’t. A friend of mine has asked me to complain of the infliction—which I willingly do, although it is not the simplest method of relief that my friend could have thought out. If he does not relish monsters with his dinner why does he not dine at home and ask to have the monsters sent over to him afterward, as a separate entertainment?
In 1887, he worked for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald. Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom, a growing antagonism existed between them. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906. Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.
In 1891, he compiled many of his Civil War tales into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The book included “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story.” The widely anthologized tale excellently displays Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war. Film maker Robert Enrico adapted the story into an Academy Award winning short film (1963), which Rod Serling subsequently used as a Twilight Zone episode.
In this excerpt from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce reflects on death in war:
Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
Many reviewers praised the Tales of Soldiers and Civilians after its publication. A New York Tribune reviewer noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].” New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called Bierce a “genius” and considered the anthologythe “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”
It is somewhat fitting that an author known for his unexpected plot twists would have a surprise coda to his own life. Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1914 proved to be as complicated as his early years in Indiana. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source (a letter to a friend) that suggests that he went to Mexico. The other indication that he was headed that way is in letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington places him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best. Therefore, it is more likely that he disappeared after 1914 and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913. Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.