The 1968 Black Market Firebombing: Revolution and Racism in Bloomington, Indiana

 

Protesters at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Parade on January 15, 1968, courtesy of the AP.

“There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.”1968: The Year That Rocked the World

In the very literal sense of the word, 1968 was an extraordinary year. Even situated as it was within a decade characterized by social and political upheaval, 1968 was unique in the sheer number of transformative events: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Apollo 8 mission, anti-Vietnam War protests, protests against racial discrimination. The list goes on.

While the majority of these events occurred on the East and West Coasts of the United States, it would be a mistake to think that the Midwest was immune to the revolutionary spirit sweeping the nation. In fact, many of the movements seen at a national level played out within the confines of the Indiana University Campus in Bloomington. When recruiters from Dow Chemical Company (the company responsible for producing napalm for use in the Vietnam War) visited campus, hundreds of students marched in protest. Following objections to exclusionary judging standards drawn along color lines, the IU Homecoming Queen pageant was permanently cancelled.  African American students demanded more representation in all aspects of campus life and staged a sit-in at the Little 500. That sit-in led directly to the removal of discriminatory covenants from Indiana University’s fraternities.

Clarence “Rollo” Turner at the Little 500 Sit-in, Indiana University, Artubus (Bloomington, Indiana: 1968), accessed Artubus Archives.

While this wave of revolutionary fervor was cresting both nationally and on IU’s campus, another wave was close behind – the “third wave” of the Ku Klux Klan. Rising in response to the Civil Rights Movement, approximately 40,000 Klan members  belonged to the Klan nationally in the 1950s and 1960s. In the spring of 1968, Klan members from nearby Morgan County attempted to establish a chapter of the terrorist organization in Monroe County. A membership drive, which was to consist of a gathering on the Bloomington courthouse square followed by a march through the business district, was scheduled for March 30, 1968. But before events could get underway, Monroe County Prosecutor Thomas Berry requested and was granted an order blocking the event, citing the possibility of violence.

This was neither the first nor the last appearance of the Klan in Bloomington. In Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, Leonard Moore estimates that 23.8% of all native-born white men in Monroe County were members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920. The Indiana Daily Student on November 7, 1922 described the supposed first appearance of the Klan in the city:

Marching with slow and solemn tread, 152 men paraded Bloomington streets, garbed in mysterious robes of white, with tall hoods masking their identity, and carrying aloft the flaming cross of the klan, while hundreds of townspeople and students stood and witnessed [as] the pages of fiction and movie scenarios unfolded before their eyes.

Example of a calling card left by the Ku Klux Klan, accessed Nate-Thayer.com.

Although county officials blocked a similar scene to that described above from playing out in 1968, the Klan still made its presence known in the city. During a Bloomington Human Relations Commission meeting on September 30, 1968, African American commission chairman Ernest Butler showed his fellow commissioners and others present at the meeting a card which had been left on his door. The card read, “The Ku Klux Klan is watching you.” Butler claimed to have received as many as ten such cards, as well as several similarly threatening phone calls. Soon, local Klan affiliates would go further than simply making threats.

In the face of these threats, Black Indiana University students continued to demand more representation and equality, staging protests and demonstrations across the campus. The Afro-Afro-American Student’s Association (AAASA)—an organization formed in the spring of 1968 with the goal of fostering unity among IU’s Black students—frequently encouraged members to participate in this activism. At the forefront of many of these protests was AAASA co-founder and sociology graduate student Clarence “Rollo” Turner.

“Rollo Turner and The Black Market,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

In the fall of 1968, Turner shifted his attention towards a new project – The Black Market. Financed entirely by Black faculty and staff, The Black Market was a shop specializing in products made by African or African American artists. This included “free-flowing African garb, Black literature and records, African and Afro-American fabrics, dangling earrings, and African artifacts.”

As a leader in the African American community at Indiana University, Turner served as the shop’s manager and its public face. He and his backers had two main objectives when opening the shop. First, it was to act as a cultural center for Black students at the university, who had limited recreational opportunities in the predominantly white city. Second, he aimed to eliminate “misconceptions about black people” by exposing IU students and Bloomington locals alike to Black culture.

“Advertisement for The Black Market printed in The Spectator,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

After its late-September opening, it seemed as though the shop would be a success. The campus newspaper, Indiana Daily Student, proclaimed, “suits and ties may eventually join the ranks of white socks and baggy slacks if the immediate success of The Black Market is a sign of things to come.” However, at the same time that the shop was proving a popular enterprise with IU students, factions within Bloomington were pushing back against its very existence. This resistance took the form of violence when, on December 26, 1968 a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window of the store.

The resulting fire destroyed the entire stock of The Black Market and caused structural damage to adjacent businesses. To those most closely associated with the shop, the motive for the attack seemed obvious, especially considering the heightened presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the city. As student newspaper The Spectator commented:

It was not very difficult, of course, to determine a ‘motive’ for the bombing. Since the construction of the Black Market in September, black students involved have been harassed periodically by abusive white ‘customers,’ . . . Larry Canada, owner of the building, had received telephoned bomb threads because he allowed the ‘n––rs’ to use the space for the store.

Black Market after fire, printed in The Spectator, accessed Indiana University Archives.

Two weeks later, 200 students attended a rally on the sidewalk outside of the burnt remains of The Black Market. Amidst calls for action from university and city officials and appeals to Black students to make a stand in the face of violence, Rollo Turner said, “the only reason this store was bombed was because it was a black store.” Behind the rally, hung across the splintered door of the shop a hand lettered sign that read, “A COWARD DID THIS.”

Eight months would pass before those students knew the identity of the man responsible for the attack, though. In the intervening time, IU students and faculty came together to raise enough money to pay back the financial backers of the shop, as the shop’s inventory was uninsured. Rollo Turner also made the decision not to re-open the store – all of the funds raised had gone to pay back investors, leaving none for re-investment in new stock. Additionally, the extensive damage to the structure necessitated its total demolition, meaning a new space would need to be secured and it may have proven difficult to find a landlord willing to risk their property if a repeat attack was carried out.

“The Black Market,” accessed Indiana University Archives.

Details about the search for the perpetrators are limited. An ad-hoc group formed by representatives from the community, university, and local civil rights organizations offered an award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties. The alternative student newspaper The Spectator alluded to a person of interest in their coverage of the attack, saying:

Acting on reports of witnesses, police are searching for a white male with dark hair, about 5’8”, 160 lbs., wearing a light gray finger-length topcoat at the time of the fire.

Whether or not either of these played any part in the search for the perpetrators, or if they were identified in some other way, on August 6, 1969 the Marion County Circuit Court issued arrest warrants for two men in relation to the crime. One of those men, Carlisle Briscoe, Jr., plead guilty to the second degree arson charges while implicating as an accomplice Jackie Dale Kinser, whom he accused of driving the get-away vehicle. Eventually, the charges against Kinser would be dropped, just before he plead guilty to three unrelated crimes.

Both men had strong ties to the local Ku Klux Klan – Kinser was a member who in subsequent years would be arrested multiple times in Klan-related crimes. Briscoe’s Klan connections are slightly less clear. At first, Monroe County Prosecutor Thomas Berry and Sheriff Clifford Thrasher announced that both men were Klan members. An article in the September 19, 1969 issue of the Indianapolis Star, states that Briscoe himself claimed to be a Klan member. The headline of Briscoe’s obituary in the Vincennes Sun-Commercial proclaims, “Notorious Klansman Dies in Prison: Briscoe Led a Bloomington Crime Wave in 1960s and ‘70s.” As late as 1977, he was arrested while committing crimes alongside Klan members, apparently while carrying out Klan business. However, in 1969, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, William Chaney, denied that Briscoe was a member of the organization. Regardless of Briscoe’s official Klan membership status, Briscoe at the very least maintained close ties with the terrorist organization. He was sentenced to one to ten years and was released on April 7, 1973 after serving approximately three and a half years of his sentence.

The story of The Black Market firebombing could have ended there. The structure had been demolished, the investors had been paid back, and a conviction had been made. However, the revolutionary atmosphere on the Indiana University campus stretched beyond the 1960s, and the space would once again be used to make a statement.

YIP Poster Advertising the 1968 Festival of Life, accessed Wikipedia.

In late February 1970, a group of Yippies, or members of the Youth International Party, were looking for ways to bring the community of Bloomington together. One of the ideas that emerged from these discussions was the creation of a people’s park on the vacant lot where The Black Market had once stood. People’s parks, which were spreading across the nation, could trace their roots back to the People’s Park in Berkeley, California. Typically created by activists without the approval of government or other officials, the parks were meant to promote free speech, activism, and community involvement.

By May 1970, work had started on the project. Anyone who was interested in the enterprise was encouraged to join in helping to prepare the land for its future intended use. The Bloomington People’s Park was to be a mix of gathering space, community garden, and a place for “everyone to sing, dance, rap, and generally ‘do his own thing,’” and by the next summer, it was being put to good use, as reported by the Indiana Daily Student:

About 250 blue jeaned “freaks,” tapered-legged “straights,” the bell bottomed curious and two guys with rolled-up sleeves, greasy hair and tattoos celebrated the 4th in People’s Park Sunday evening.

Student protest in People’s Park, Artubus, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana: 1981, accessed Artubus Archives.

Over the next five years, various issues threatened to put an end to the whole affair. The city threatened to shut it down over “public health” concerns. The property owner, Larry Canada, had various plans to develop the property. In the end, though, People’s Park became legally sanctioned after Canada deeded the land to the city in 1976.

Throughout the years, the park has carried on the site’s democratic heritage, hosting anti-Vietnam War protests, protests against the US involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s, music festivals, flea markets, and, more recently, Occupy Bloomington protests. Today, the park serves as a reminder of the revolutionary ideals that swept through Indiana University’s campus in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2020, IHB, in partnership with the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, will commemorate those events by installing an Indiana state historical marker.

How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s

The Works, January 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Heart racing, 31-year-old Steven Ott escaped the aggression of his companion, whom he met at Our Place (now Greg’s), by jumping out of the car near 34th and Georgetown Road. He fled to a nearby Taco Bell and ran towards three Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) cars parked in its lot. Ott recounted the frightening experience to the officers, who offered to call him a cab, but refused to do anything about the assault.

“Faggot,” stated one of the officers as Ott waited for his cab. Ott took down the license plate number of the offending officer only to be arrested. According to Ott, when asked why he was being arrested he never received a reply. He spent the night in Marion County’s jail and when he appeared before a judge the next morning he was told simply “that he could go—no hearing, no formal charges.” Reportedly, the officers initially charged Ott with public intoxication, although they never filed an affidavit with the court. [1] 

The Works, December 12, 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Indianapolis’s LGBTQ community encountered and protested numerous challenges posed by law enforcement in the 1980s, including police surveillance of cruising sites, harassment at safe spaces, and possible prejudiced police work as homicide rates increased for gay men. Bars served as a popular safe space or third space environment where members of the queer community could socialize. But they were also the site of harassment, surveillance, and violence. Gay rights activist Mike Stotler recounted police harassment at Terre Haute’s gay bar, R-Place. [2] He reported “You can be in the bar for maybe just one hour, and be asked to present ID to a police officer four or five times. The police also routinely copy down license plate numbers in an attempt to intimidate the bar’s patrons.” Stotler also described violent harassment, stating that one man en route to R-Place alleged that two police officers picked him up, drove him from the bar, and beat and verbally assaulted him. Despite broken ribs and a hospital stay, “The victim has so far been afraid to report the crime, for fear of losing his job and coming out to his family.”

Michael Petree, courtesy of The Works, February 1983, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Mistrust of police following such encounters would stymie efforts to solve a string of murders, tracked back to 1980 but most likely earlier (either not reported by the news or not explicitly stating the victims were associated with an LGBTQ identity). There was fifteen-year-old Michael Petree, murdered in 1980 and left in a ditch in Hamilton County. [3] Then it was twenty-five-year-old Gary Davis, murdered in 1981 on the Southside of Indianapolis. [4] The following year, twenty-six-year-old Dennis Brotzge was murdered on the Northside of Indianapolis. [5] The body of Delvoyd Baker, an eighth-grader who was last seen in an area of Monument Circle known for teenage prostitution, was found in a ditch in Fishers. [6] With his death, police ramped up efforts to find the perpetrator. Police Chief Joseph G. McAtee stated, “I believe as chief of police when a 14-year-old boy gets picked up downtown and murdered, and young teen agers are getting money for prostitution on the Circle, we have an obligation not to let this happen to our young people.”

Delvoyd Baker, courtesy of The Indianapolis News, October 4, 1982, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

However, president of LGBTQ civil rights organization Justice Inc. Wally Paynter told The Indianapolis News in 1998, “‘The police put this on the back burner. They didn’t discuss it across jurisdictional lines. . . . If these had been CEOs’ bodies scattered across the community, there would have been a manhunt the likes of which you had not seen.'” Out & About Indiana author Bruce Seybert had a different take and told the News that he believed “some police officers honestly didn’t know how to plug into the gay community for help, but that they learned along the way and established longer-term contacts because of the investigation.” [7] Regardless of the extent of their efforts, police found questioning possible witnesses “extremely difficult” due to LGBTQ mistrust of the police. [8] This led the police to a new strategy—surveillance of cruising sites. Police undertook surveillance in the hopes of deterring similar crimes and catching the perpetrator, but also to “cut down prostitution, assaults and harassment of tourists.” [9]

In an era before dating apps, cruising sites provided common areas where LGBTQ members could congregate and meet other people. They tended to be associated with gay men gathering with the intention of a sexual encounter. In an article about why homosexual men took part in cruising, the New York Times quoted an anonymous participant, who stated “Society doesn’t accept us and it’s hard to meet people, sexually or socially.” In Indiana, areas like the downtown public library branch, Monument Circle, Fall Creek, and Skiles Test served as common cruising sites. In addition to surveillance, police went undercover in an attempt to arrest men for breaking “vice laws.” These efforts furthered suspicion of police motives among the queer community, especially because some officers conflated prostitution with homosexuality. With announcement of surveillance following Delvoyd Baker’s murder, the LGBTQ community expressed concerns that police would violate their rights by filming patrons frequenting gay bars, the videotapes of which police promised to make available to the public.

The Works, March 1983, 30, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

In 1983, at the initiative of the queer community, leaders of the Indianapolis Gay/Lesbian Coalition (IGLC)—comprised of fourteen educational, religious, political, business, and social organizations—met with police officials to volunteer their help in solving the murders and improve relations with the IPD. They also made seven recommendations to police, including establishing a liaison to communicate with the homosexual community; cease video surveillance; train officers to be more sensitive in their interactions with the LGBTQ community; and educate the police force about homosexuality. Public Safety Director Richard Blankenship noted that the meeting “‘opened the door to better communication between gays and the Department of Public Safety. . . . We feel we can resolve our problems much quicker and more effectively than we have in the past.'” [10]

IGLC made progress in opening a line of communication between law enforcement and the queer community, which in turn may have improved efforts to solve gay-related homicides. This progress was intermittent however, and Stan Berg reminded readers of The Works “We must remember the conservative political and sexual climate of Indiana.” [11] In 1984, plainclothes policemen wrongly accused gay men of prostitution, an incident IPD officials described as “well-motivated but unfortunate.” [12] Three LGBTQ organizations in Indianapolis, as well as those in Muncie, Columbus, and Bloomington, either attended or endorsed a press conference denouncing harassment and the resumption of video surveillance.  Twenty-three individuals issued harassment complaints with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. One of these was David Molden, who claimed officers choked and slapped him during his arrest for using false identification. [13]

The Works, August 1984, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

The New Works News noted in 1988 that, again at the initiative of the queer community rather than police officials, the IPD and LGBTQ community came together regarding a string of robberies of Indianapolis gay bars. Detective Don Wright invited representatives from all of the affected bars, as well as victims and witnesses. The New Works News described the meeting’s turnout as “heartening” and that “Each of the victims present at the meeting was asked to tell their version of the incident in which they were involved. All did so in detail and apparently in all of the incidents the attitude and discretion of the responding officers was exemplary, with one exception.” [14]

Detectives at the meeting pledged to dispatch more plainclothes officers at the affected businesses to deter future robberies. The LGBTQ community’s earlier efforts to help the IPD solve LGBTQ-related murders resulted in this more collaborative spirit. It is unclear if their assistance helped the police investigation, as some of the murders were not solved until 1998 with the discovery of Westfield serial killer Herbert Baumeister. In the case of some victims, police never identified the perpetrator. However, the murders resulted into closer communication between the queer community and the IPD.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act signaled that the struggle for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. endured into the 21st Century. However, the efforts of the IGLC and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s removed some of the stigma in seeking recourse against discrimination.

The Works, January 1985, 22, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

A note on sources:

This piece used materials gathered by Indiana Landmarks’ Central Indiana LGBTQ Historic Structures & Sites Survey, a project to compile information associated with Indianapolis-area queer history, architecture, and places. The research materials have been provided to the City’s Historic Preservation Commission for incorporation into new local historic district neighborhood plans.  Additional sources include the following. All newspaper sources can be accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] “More Police Harassment,” The Works, November 1985, p. 11, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[2] “Trouble in Terre Haute,” The Works, December 1982, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[3] Susan M. Anderson, “Officials Identify Dead Boy,” The Indianapolis Star, June 24, 1980, 17.

[4] “Friends Questioned About Davis Slaying,” The Indianapolis News, August 13, 1981, 39.

[5] “Cause of the Brotzge Death Unknown,” The Indianapolis News, June 2, 1982, 49.

[6] Wanda Bryant-Wills, “Leads Come Slowly in Homosexual Killings,” The Indianapolis News.

[7] David Remondini, “Police Start Using Cameras to Help Cut Midtown Crime,” The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[8] George Stuteville, “‘Gay’ Area Probed for Clues to Youth’s Death,” The Indianapolis Star, October 5, 1982, 1.

[9] The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[10] The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, January 11, 1983.

[11] “Second IGLC/Police Meeting Yields Few Results,” The Works, May 1983, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[12] George Stuteville, “Harassment Charges Worry Some Police as well as ICLU,” The Indianapolis Star, June 30, 1984.

[13] “Gay/Lesbian Groups Blast ‘Harassment’ on Circle,” The Indianapolis News, July 12, 1984, 12.

[14] E. Rumbarger, “IPD Holds Meeting to Investigate Gay Bar Robberies,” The New Works News, January 1988, p. 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

The Indelible Ross Lockridges

final jr sr
Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. camping, photographed by three-year-old Ernest (son of Sr.) in the summer of 1942, image courtesy of Evansville.edu.

Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. left an indelible mark on Indiana history through traditional history publications and fictional depiction. However, the father and son have yet to be cemented in the annals of state history. We hope to contribute to that reversal.

The senior Lockridge was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. He married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and worked as employment manager and welfare director at Wayne Knitting Mills. He also served three years as executive secretary of the Citizen League of Indiana, which lobbied for a new state constitution and advocated for women’s suffrage.

mills
Wayne Knitting Mills, 1910, courtesy of History Center Notes & Queries.

While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr. helped organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a writer of pioneer Indiana history. According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather, Ross Sr.,”developed his own brand of ‘Historic Site Recital,’ combing public speaking, drama, and local history.” Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge Sr. served as a director of IU Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his published works include: George Rogers Clark (1927),  A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level.

The historian also wrote about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, and Indiana’s trails, rivers, and canals. Another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. He worked tirelessly to mark the state’s landscape with monuments and markers, preserve records, and execute historical pageants. His clear and concise writing style has added to Hoosier’s knowledge of their past.

marekrs paper
The Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, IN), March, 23, 1936, courtesy of Newspapers.com.

According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather “didn’t exactly whitewash history,” but he “certainly edited it. He attempted to bind people to their own local history through heroic narrative.” After the tragic drowning of Ross Sr.’s 5-year-old son, Bruce, in Fort Wayne, his dedication to historical work intensified. Larry contends:

“Preaching history as resurrection of the worthy dead was his idealistic, nonmetaphysical challenge to time and mortality, grounded in the tragedies of his own life and the pettiness of the contemporary scene.”

Ross Jr. assisted his father with historical projects, but according to Larry was “not his father’s puppet at such performances” and “never approached his father’s ease of performance and lack of self-consciousness.”

Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana and moved to Fort Wayne. When he was 9-years-old the family returned to Bloomington and his literary dreams took root.

According to an Indiana Public Media article (IPM), Junior attended Indiana University, where he was known as “A+ Lockridge,” graduating with the highest GPA ever awarded by the school (4.33). Scarlet fever precluded his plan to join IU’s English Department, leaving him bedridden for eight months. He was later accepted as at doctoral student at Harvard University, where he began his famed novel.

kasdl;fkl;sdfk
Raintree County cover, courtesy of Goodreads // Ross Lockridge Jr. signing copies of Raintree County in Indiana, courtesy of Altered Book Arts.

According to an Altered Books Arts article, he withdrew from his studies and taught at a nearby college, so he could focus on his literary magnum opus. The IPM article reports that he studied abroad in Europe in 1934, where he “first had the vision of writing a novel that would draw upon the would-be literary heritage of his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher and poet who had lived in Indiana’s Henry County.” This evolved into the character of John Shawnessy, who after losing his wife went on to fight in the Civil War, attempted to write the Great American Novel, and ended up in the fictional Raintree County.

tree
Photo of a raintree planted in honor of Ross Jr. behind the Lockridge house, image courtesy Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Although Johnny had his successes, the character flashed back in memory wondering about the country’s future. He is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree, supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County. The tree Lockridge sought to feature is based on a real Golden Rain Tree, which blooms in the summer with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust.

In addition to Allen County, Monroe County is represented in the book. Larry noted, “We have county fairs and patriotic programs and outdoor sex and footraces and weddings and temperance dramas and rough talk . . . all of this he picked up in the culture of Bloomington” (IPM). Ross Jr.’s wife, Vernice, did the final typing of the novel, an 18 month endeavor and, unlike many writers, her husband gave her full credit for her help in constructing the 1060-page novel.

Altered Books Arts summarizes the novel’s themes, stating:

“In the course of its thousand pages philosophy, religion, sex, and history all flow together in a narrative that spans 40 years, recollected in a single day. In some ways it is an Indiana Ulysses, though Lockridge said that whereas Joyce wished to make the simple obscured, he wished to make the obscure simple. When it came out Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman were frequently cited for comparison, but it seems closer to in technique and feeling to the panoramic narrative of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.

by river
Ross Lockridge Jr. by river, image courtesy of Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Ross Jr.’s labor of love was met with much anticipation from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, in order to win MGM’s high-profile contest for best new literary work, an award of $150,000, he was pressured to revise and cut several sections from his masterpiece. His likely selection as Book of the Month club winner, meant that he had to make many more extensive cuts. He conceded reluctantly and worked tirelessly to trim it for publication. His publisher Dorothy Hillyer wrote “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.” (He ended up cutting out a 356-page dream sequence, which is retained at Bloomington’s Lilly Library).

These compromises, the killing of his darlings, so to speak, and the completion of his life’s work plunged him into a deep depression. Despite generally rave reviews about the novel and winning MGM’s literary award, Lockridge’s depression worsened and he returned to Bloomington. His son regarded this as a mistake, “not because of Bloomington’s particular atmosphere but because it felt to him as if he had come full circle. . . . It was the symmetry of fate that he was returning home to die.”

Larry noted that his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior, inspecting knives in the kitchen and opening and closing cupboards, claiming he was “looking for a way out.” Public backlash about the book’s sexuality and irreverence, especially by his Bloomington neighbors, made him doubt the quality of his work and worsened his fragile state. (According to IPM, the publication of his neighbor Alfred Kinsey‘s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male promoted Lockridge to quip “It seems Mr. Kinsey and I have succeeded in making Bloomington the sex center of the universe”).

snake pit
The cover of Mary Jane Ward’s autobiographical novel about her own struggles with mental illness, image courtesy of IPM.

Ross Jr.’s father hoped to combat his son’s malaise with recitation, the memorization of the Declaration of Independence, hearkening back to their old historical endeavors. Ross Jr. reluctantly entertained his mother’s Christian Science ministrations, but remained in a debilitated state. Ross Jr. was not alone in his distress; his cousin Mary Jane Ward suffered from mental illness, which she depicted in her successful autobiographical novel The Snake Pit.

Witnessing her husband’s ongoing suffering, Vernice convinced him to seek treatment at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital, where he underwent electroshock convulsive therapy and insulin-induced coma. Further distressed and embarrassed by the procedures, he gave staff the impression he had recovered and was released.

According to Larry, his father tried to write a second novel, a “thinly disguised autobiography, from Fort Wayne days to the present.” He had planned to begin the story with his young brother’s tragic death and,

“the tranquil Avenue of Elms, Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne, whose backdrop was the Great War. It is in this city that his brother Bruce drowns, that his house catches fire, that there is a great strike at the mill, that he falls in love with Alicia Carpenter, that he decides to become a writer, and that through ‘the brutality of fate’ his personality is set by the age of ten.”

He was never able to finish a second novel. On March 6, 1948, the day after Raintree County was declared a number one best seller, Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life at age 33 in Bloomington. Unable to locate her husband, Vernice went out to their garage. There she discovered his limp body in the running car, a vacuum cleaner hose piping exhaust into the car. The death of the new literary star stunned the nation, attracting over 2,000 to his funeral and prompting an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

poster
Movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

In 1957, MGM produced a big screen depiction of Raintree County, featuring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint.

Weeks after the death, Vernice found a note written by her husband, stating “‘Dearest, Have gone for early morning walk to clear head. Love, Ross.” On the back side he wrote:

“The purpose of Raintree County is to present life in its many-sided variety with idealism triumphant. An irreverent character in a book does not mean an irreverent book. In any event it is an old and good rule that every reader is entitled to his own opinion of a book.”

Surviving the death of a second son, Ross Sr. passed away a few years later in 1952.

marker rain
Henry County plaque, courtesy of IU Press Typepad.

Learn more about the remarkable Lockridges with Larry Lockridge’s 1994 Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Rain Tree County.