Giving Voice to Silent Film Star John Bowers

John Bowers, courtesy of IMDB.

Many dismiss movies made during the silent film era (1885-1930) as farcical or irrelevant. However, this period of great discovery and innovation laid the foundation for modern film-making techniques. One early contributor to this burgeoning new art form was Hoosier actor John Bowersox. He made over ninety films during his career and was among those first honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His versatility and athleticism enabled him to become a leading man in a variety of roles and genres. Off-screen, Bowersox was an extreme sports enthusiast who enjoyed racing his automobile, airplane, and yacht during a novel time for those sports.

Born circa 1884,[1] John Bowersox grew up in the small town of Garrett, Indiana, not far from Fort Wayne. Six feet tall and naturally athletic, Bowersox played football on a local Garrett team.[2] As a young man, he could often be found sailing his boat on nearby Lake Wawasee, the largest natural lake in Indiana. As early as fifteen, he began acting locally in amateur plays. His parents encouraged him to become a lawyer and John enrolled in nearby Huntington Business College. However, John Bowersox was destined for something completely different.

Bowersox continued to act while attending college and he caught the eye of local stock company owner, C. Garvin Gilmaine, who took Bowersox under his wing and eventually recommended him to a touring company performing A Royal Slave.[3] Turning his back on college, John signed an acting contract and left Garrett for rehearsals in Coldwater, Michigan in July, 1904.[4]

As a demonstration of support, his father equipped him with $450 worth of clothes and a trunk that his co-workers joked was worth more than all the show props combined. Bowersox recalled his father’s parting words in an interview with Photoplay Magazine, “If you don’t make [a go of it], come home.”[5] That $450 investment George Bowersox made in his son turned out to be a good one.

The part he played as a Mexican soldier in A Royal Slave introduced Bowersox to a world he could have only dreamed of as a small-town kid. It led to more roles and bigger parts and, by 1912, Bowers had dropped the “ox” from his name and worked as an actor in New York City. [6] Many of his early performances came by way of his relationship with William A. Brady, a prolific producer of both stage and screen.[7]  Under his guidance, Bowers made his Broadway debut in Little Miss Brown on August 29, 1912.[8]

When Bowers was working in New York theater, film studios in and around the city dominated the American motion picture film industry. By today’s standards, “silent era” films can seem campy and amateurish. The acting was often melodramatic and unnatural, a by-product of stage performances. However, a century ago this entertainment medium was every bit as creative and innovative as modern day modes of expression like virtual reality and TikTok.

Image courtesy of IMDB.

As the scale of production increased, the larger studios on the West Coast began dominating the film industry and Bowers eagerly followed the work, moving back and forth between New York, Chicago, and California.[9] It’s impossible to know precisely how many films Bowers made. Early film stock contained highly volatile nitrates that were subject to deterioration at best, and combustion at worst. Some sources estimate that seventy-five percent of early films are forever lost to either decay or disposal.[10] Bowers’s first known credit appears in the short film The Baited Trap (1914), in which he played a criminal.[11] He made two more films that year including one with Tom Mix. It wasn’t long before “John Bowers” was a leading man. He is officially credited with appearing in over ninety films, including Lorna Doone (1922), The Sky Pilot (1921), When a Man’s a Man (1924), and Chickie (1925). His rugged good looks and natural athleticism allowed Bowers to play many different roles.

Although often the love interest, Bowers played heroes, gangsters, cowboys, businessmen, soldiers, and lawyers. He acted in many genres including drama, musical, comedy, romance, crime drama, adventure, action, and westerns. He worked with most of the early silent film stars, such as Mary Pickford, Will Rogers, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Richard Dix. In 1960, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored him with one of the inaugural stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[12] However, acting did not define John Bowers.

Always a bit of daredevil, Bowers took pride in doing his own stunts, believing the audience would appreciate him more if they saw him risking life and limb.[13] Early in his stage career, while acting in A Royal Slave, his over-enthusiastic dueling performance resulted in a sword-jab to his eye, causing serious injury.[14] Years later, while making the film When a Man’s a Man (1924), he broke his leg trying to bull-dog a steer.[15]

He was always athletic and believed that staying physically fit was essential to happiness.[16] As a teenager, he built his own 21’ sailboat that he sailed around Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana. Bowers became so adept at maneuvering it that he would sometimes “turn turtle” just to exasperate his parents watching from shore.[17] Sailing would become central to Bowers’s life. After achieving some success in New York, he purchased a 70’ racing schooner, the Uncas, which he enjoyed sailing up the Hudson River.[18] Sometime in the early 1920s, his friend Doc Wilson sailed it from New York to California in ninety days.[19] Later, Bowers would take his Hollywood friends out for weeks at a time.[20]

An early adopter, Bowers embraced new technology. He became enamored with automobiles and was a known speedster around Los Angeles. In 1924, he took racing lessons from professional driver Ralph De Palma and even entered the 250-mile Thanksgiving Day race at the Ascot Speedway in LA.[21]  In addition to sailing and racing cars, Bowers became an accomplished pilot and even customized his own racing plane. In 1927, Bowers won first place on both days of the Santa Anna air races with his plane, the Thunderbird.[22]

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Western genre began to take off and many film roles required athleticism. Bowers, who was reportedly, “an excellent horseman, can swing a mean lariat, and can bull-dog a steer like a hardened plainsman,” landed many plum roles.[23] The exuberance in which he lived life made for great press. Publicists, either on behalf of the studios or hired by actors for a percentage of their income, carefully crafted the images of movie stars. They arranged appearances, set up photo shoots, and provided copy to trade magazines and newspapers eager to report the off-screen lives of the Hollywood elite. [24]

Bowers and De La Motte on set, courtesy of Motion Picture Classic Magazine.

His third wife Marguerite De la Motte was also a silent film star. [25] De la Motte and Bowers co-starred in the film What a Wife Learned (1923), where they developed a friendship. For quite a while, fans and media speculated about their relationship and, according to most sources, Bowers and De La Motte married in 1924.[26] The couple often entertained and sometimes amused their guests with an exhibition of Bowers’ shooting prowess. De La Motte would place an object on her head and John would shoot it off, an offer he made to anyone willing to participate.[27] It is unclear how many reports about John Bowers are true. Many newspaper accounts reported what he was going to do rather than what he actually did. It’s possible that some accounts of Bowers have been exaggerated. Self-promotion and exaggeration were just as common then as they are today. One thing is certain; John Bowers embodied the spirit of carpe diem.

Bowers worked steadily during the 1920s, but like many silent film stars, he was unable to make the transition to “talkies”. Actors struggled to succeed in the era of sound for many reasons. Sometimes their voices did not match their screen persona, possibly due to an accent or the pitch of their voice. Some actors relied on constant direction that was not possible with the introduction of sound. For whatever reason, by 1927 Bowers’s film career was in decline. To make matters worse, around 1930 John and Marguerite likely separated.[28]

Bowers and De La Motte in Daughters Who Pay, courtesy of IMDB.

The last movie Bowers made was Mounted Fury (1931). By then his drinking had become a problem. Bowers was only forty-five-years-old, but his life was unraveling. A few years later, he returned to Indiana and wrote a weekly fictional serial for the local newspaper, the Garrett Clipper. [30] The serial was a lighthearted coming-of-age story of a small town kid who made good. The protagonist, John Wright, was affable, ambitious and, “If he had fallen into a sewer he would have come out with a bouquet in his hand.” Many of the characters would probably have been familiar to Garret residents, and the serial ran from March until August of 1936.

While in Indiana, John had been caring for his long-ill mother, Ida, in nearby Syracuse when she passed away in July of 1936.[31] Given the new void in his life, John decided to give acting another try. He heard that his old friend Henry Hathaway was directing a film with Gary Cooper and hoped there might be a part in it for him. So, he went back to LA one last time.

The morning after finding out that Hathaway was unable to offer Bowers a part in his movie, Bowers rented a small sailboat in Santa Monica. Two days later, on November 17, 1936, his body washed ashore in Malibu. The coroner reported the cause of death as “Drowned as a result of suicide – jumped off sail boat.” The boat was later recovered adrift.[32] His sister, with whom he was staying at the time, reported that he had recently become despondent.[33]

Although nobody knows what was on the mind of John Bowers when he went overboard, most believed he died by suicide. His mother had recently passed away, his acting career was floundering, and his drinking had become problematic. Despite such a tragic ending, this Hoosier left behind a legacy as a prolific film actor and adventurer.

Notes:

[1] The exact date of Bowers’s birth is questionable. Census records, newspaper articles, and magazine stories report his date of birth differently, but generally around 1885. The DOB from his death certificate is the only official record. “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201 : 22 August 2018), Los Angeles, Death certificates 1936, no. 10100-12041, image 31 of 2142, California State Archives, Sacramento.

[2] “Local and Personal,” Garrett Clipper (Indiana), October 15, 1903, 5, Newspapers.com.

[3] “John Bowers Receives Contract for Royal Slave Company,” Huntington Herald (Indiana), May 20, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[4] “John Bowers Receives Contract for Royal Slave Company,” Huntington Herald, May 20, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[5] “He Hasn’t Been Home Since,” Photoplay, August, 1919, 61, Internetarchive.org.; “The Right Bower,” circa 1920, Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[6] “He Hasn’t Been Home Since,” Photoplay, August, 1919, 16: 3, 61, Internetarchive.org.

[7] Brady produced both plays and films. IMDB credits him for producing forty-three films from 1897-1920. Here are some examples of Brady-produced plays in which Bowers was a cast member: “At the Brady Playhouse,” Brooklyn Citizen, November 30, 1913, 17, Newspapers.com.; “The Family Cupboard” Chat [Brooklyn, New York], January 3, 1914, 16 Newspapers.com.; “Attractions of Current Week in Leading Washington Theaters: Family Cupboard,” Washington Herald [Washington, D.C.], January 18, 1914, 18, Newspapers.com.; “Belasco: The Family Cupboard,” Evening Star [Washington, D.C.], January 20, 1914, 8, Newspapers.com.; “This Week in the Theaters: Alvin,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 25, 1914, 23, Newspapers.com.; “Attractions at the Theatres: The Decent Thing to Do,” Boston Globe, March 8, 1914, 150, Newspapers.com.; “Surpasses Drury Lane,” Brooklyn Citizen, October 8, 1914, 6, Newspapers.com.; “Plenty of New Productions Listed for Future Appearance,” Variety, October, 1914, 36, 10, Internetarchive.org.

[8] David L. Smith, “John Bowers: A Tragedy That Became a Legend,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2017, 4, Indiana Historical Society.

[9]  1920 Census, Los Angeles Assembly District 63, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T625_106; Page: 12B; Enumeration District 167, FamilySearch.org.

[10] Paul Harris, “Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost,” Variety, December 4, 2013, https://variety.com/2013/film/news/library-of-congress-only-14-of-u-s-silent-films-survive-1200915020/.

[11] “King Baggot in ‘The Baited Trapm,’” Great Falls Tribune (Montana), June 21, 1914, 8, Newspapers.com. See IMDB for information on film credits.

[12] “John Bowers,” Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, November 22, 2019, https://www.walkoffame.com/john-bowers

[13] “Movie Facts and Fancies,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1923, 54, Newspapers.com.

[14] “John Bowers Narrowly Escaped Permanent Injury,” August 16, 1904, 4, Newspapers.com.

[15] Bull-dogging refers to the act of wrestling a steer to the ground by holding its horns and twisting its neck.; “Movie Facts and Fancies,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1923, 54, Newspapers.com.

[16] “Sophistication Lends Charm, is Actor’s Theory,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1927, 57, Newspapers.com.

[17] David L. Smith, “John Bowers: A Tragedy That Became a Legend,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2017, 4, Indiana Historical Society.

[18] “The Sport of Kings – and Movie Stars,” Motion Picture Classic, September, 1923, 18:1, 18, Internetarchive.org.

[19] “The Sea-Going Actor,” Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[20] “The Owner of the Uncas,” Motion Picture Classic, January, 1920, 20, accessed Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/motionpicturecla1920broo/page/n25

[21] “Notes from Movie Land,” Knoxville Journal and Tribune (Tennessee), August 10, 1924, 17, Newspapers.com. This article establishes that he began taking racing lessons.; “Famous Driver Adopts Novel Training Stunt,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1924, 11, Newspapers.com.; “Floyd Roberts Adds to Fame,” Van Nuys News (California), September 16, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com. The previous two articles establish that Bowers became involved in the professional auto racing world in 1924.; “50 Daredevils Gamble Lives Against Time in 250-Mile Speed Battle,” Los Angeles Evening Express, November 27, 1924, 1, Newspapers.com. This article reveals that Bowers did not race in the Thanksgiving Day race but rather contributed as an track official.

[22] “Planes are Hobby of Bowers,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1927, 46, Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[23] “Yachts and Autos His Hobbyhorses,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1924, 48, Newspapers.com.

[24] “Publicity and the Film Star,” Film Reference, February 27, 2020, http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Publicity-and-Promotion-PUBLICITY-AND-THE-FILM-STAR.html.

[25] “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201 : 22 August 2018), Los Angeles, Death Certificates 1936, no. 10100-12041, image 31 of 2142, California State Archives, Sacramento.

[26] The couple were cagey about announcing their marriage. The consensus at the time was they were married in 1924. Although IHB has been unable to unearth their marriage certificate, Marguerite was listed as Bowers’s wife in his death certificate. “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9SF-P9BR-Y?cc=2001287&wc=SJ5X-JWG%3A285174601%2C285330201.

[27] “Hollywood’s Halls,” Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1927, 136, Newspapers.com.

[28] Solid proof of the separation of John and Marguerite may not exist. Exactly when they married and when they separated is uncertain. “Romance of Screen Pair Disrupted,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1930, 8, Newspapers.com.

[30] “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, March 9, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, July 6, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, August 10, 1936, 3, Newspapers.com; “Middle West,” Garrett Clipper, August 17, 1936, 2, Newspapers.com.

[31] “Mrs. Ida Bowers,” Garrett Clipper, July 16, 1936, 1, Newspapers.com.

[32] “Body of Former Film Star Found,” Cushing Daily Citizen (Oklahoma), November 19, 1936, 12, Newspapers.com. After his death, a local newspaper reported that Bowers had been depressed and wanted to get back into movies. “John Bowers,” Indiana Historical Society, David L. Smith Collection, Collection #P568, Box 1, Folder 3.

[33] “How Bowers Met Death,” Hammond Times (Indiana), November 19, 1936, 4, Newspapers.com.

THH Episode 28: Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Transcript of Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Jump to Show Notes

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Today on Giving Voice, I talk with Chris Newall, co-founder and Director of Education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. In our last full episode, we covered roughly the first half of the life of Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet. Throughout the episode, we talked about danger of relying on sources produced in large by white colonizers to tell Native history, and how IHB and other history organizations are learning to broaden our ideas of what a source can be to include more Native voices in Native history.

To give you some more information on this topic and some context about why it’s so important, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who is working to bring these issues to light every day, and Chris Newall and the Akomawt Educational Initiative are doing just that.

And now, Giving Voice.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Chris Newell from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and I’m gonna let you go ahead and introduce yourself, Chris.

Newell: Hi, Lindsey, hi everybody! My name’s Chris Newell and I’m a cofounder – one of three cofounders – of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. We’re located in the southeast corner of Connecticut, based out of Ledyard, Connecticut but we have roots all over Indian Country. I am originally Passamaquoddy from [place name], which is known as the Indian Township Preservation in Maine and live in Mashantucket and work at the Pequot Museum and do a lot of work – a lot of the focus of what we do is working with the Indigenous histories, helping with places that want to teach them in a culturally competent fashion to do so and hopefully create some resources, change some thinking in the future and make sure that when we talk about Indigenous histories that we include the voice of Indigenous people. So that’s the focus of what we do at Akomawt.

And just a little background – Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word. It comes from my language. It translates in English to the snowshoe path. It’s the symbol of our mission. Essentially, in the winter time, up in my territory, the snow shoe path was how you got out to where you needed to do work. When you needed to get back home, you found it again and traversed back on it. The more you used it, the easier it becomes to use and every season it renews. So that’s what we think about when we think about the educational initiative that we have brought forth here, is creating new learning paths for people to engage with Native content in a way that will be impactful as well as culturally competent, you know, trying to erase some of the old habits of Indigenous history in colonial spaces that have crept up and are still pervasive to this day.

Beckley: That’s great. And I know that we really admire your work. I know that one of the people here at the Historical Bureau saw you at the National Council on Public History and came back and we had a lot of really good conversations from that so, thank you for the work you’re doing and you continue to do and thank you for being here, of course.

Newell: Oh yea, absolutely love being here.

Beckley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those old habits you had mentioned. What are some of the habits that you were seeing and still see that you want to address with your initiative?

Newell:  So, when it comes to museums, you know, essentially museums are places that were created by the colonization of America so when it comes to Indigenous histories told in museums, museums are essentially really colonial artifacts. Places of public history are oftentimes colonial artifacts and oftentimes tell the history of Indigenous people through that lens. American anthropology has a long history from the time it was founded of doing things like collecting human body parts, collecting material culture, and portraying a myth of saving the idea of the vanishing Indian, back in the early days of anthropology. Thoughts have changed over time but, you know, that’s kind of the basis of how these spaces were created in the first place and how a lot of these earlier books were created. And, so, there are some things that – some habits that were created back then. A lot of times, the use of generalized terminology – so Native, Native American, American Indian – to kind of put all Native peoples under one umbrella oftentimes appears and it’s not clear enough to a lot of people that there are literally, in existence right now in America, 573 separate, sovereign Native communities recognized by the government and over 1000 Native communities just in general in America – we’re not talking Canada and other places.

So there’s a really complex – there’s a serious complexity when it comes to Indigenous histories and when it comes to Indigenous contemporary issues and things of the sort. And unfortunately, museums generally still give the kind of general impression that we can put everything under the box of American Indian or Native American. If you visit a fine arts museum that has collections of fine art from around the world, literally all the Americans – the art of Americas – are usually places in one small room. So all of these 1000 different communities being represented in one small room. You know, it’s just – it give the general idea that we can put everything in one box and everything fits there when in fact there is no box that can contain the complexity of Native existence as well as our history and our arts and our cultural ways. So those old habits still exit today. We see changes happening when we see places like the MET have gotten rid of their Native American collection and have incorporated their Native American find art into their American wing. That was a big move there from a major museum of kind of rethinking how we present Native art as simply art, rather than cultural artifacts.

Also, the idea at a lot of public historical places, of presenting Native peoples as only existing in the past. That’s another old habit that is kind of pervasive today. I work at a major Native museum, and it’s not uncommon for a 4th grader to come into our museum, have a Native educator in front of them, and the first question they ask is, innocently, “When the Natives were alive …” and that’s how they begin their question. So there is literally a section – a significant portion of the population – that sees us as all dead and gone and vanished. And it’s largely due to the way public history is taught and the way it approaches Native Histories as if we are still having to be saved from being vanished, rather than incorporating the very vibrant ways that we have found ways to exist in the modern times and kept our culture alive and been very dynamic through history. And also, involved with all of American history.

That’s another thing with the story of America is that Native people are often so left out. And yet, the American Revolution was largely aided by Native peoples. All the way from that time – the industrial revolution was largely aided by work efforts in Native communities and things of that sort. And military times – you know, Native people have participated in the military in higher numbers per-capita than any other ethnicity in the United states and as a result, Native cultures were actually used in military structure and strategy to overcome things such as the code talkers from about 33 different tribes during World War II, which was a big part of the success of America in that war. So, in the story of America, Native people are, unfortunately, often let out as if we are a separate part of something else. And those are things that we at Akomawt are looking to address and looking to bring all together, so when we’re talking about the history of this land, we don’t just start at the time of colonization and think of it as only 400 or so years old. But rather, we think about people living on this land back 13,000 years at least, which includes Indigenous history as well and not erase that part of the history of this land here. Because Native people did exist here and thrive and subsist in a sustained fashion well – for millennia prior to any colonization. So, the idea that colonization saved Native people in some form is also something that we look to address as well. You know, so we really want to give Native perspective to a lot of these things. And that includes bringing Native voices and changing the framework by which Native history is taught inside of these colonial artifacts of public history such as museums to present them in a different framework that would expand the thinking outside of that box that we are constantly put inside of.

Beckley: That’s great. I know that we at the Historical Bureau have been  thinking a lot about that and trying to come to terms with what we’ve done in the past and how we can improve ourselves going forward. And I think one of the major, I wouldn’t say blocks, but one of our – something that intimidates us about going forward is that, as public historians, we’ve gone through school. We’ve gone through, you know, some of us up to PhD level and all of it is learning how to use primary sources and how to read primary sources. And when we think of primary sources, we primarily think of written materials, weather that be documents or newspapers – things like that. Obviously, a lot of Native history isn’t written down in the same way European history was. And if it is, it was probably written by a European person. What are some of the sources that you turn to, to look at Native history?

Newell: Ok, so, the sources that I look forward to are really those conversations that I have in Native communities talking to people that have history there through multiple multiple multiple generations. And oftentimes, there are a lot of stories – a lot of oral histories that you can delve into that can really teach you a lot, especially when it comes to Native perspectives. So things like the name of the land, prior to colonization. Prior to the renaming of it. How did Native people name different aspect of land or the land that they live on? What was the lens that they viewed land through? So language is an important tool – so important for the view into the Native perspective. Native languages are so different from the English language. And that’s one of the things that I’ve delved into the most. So that requires from people that are language speakers and people that have that frame of mind of thinking through and Indigenous lens though language. And those are oftentimes elders, but not always, so sometimes you’ve got to spend some time and you’ve got to search out who is the respected person and who has these stories. Have conversations and just kind of let things come out as naturally as they would.

So oral histories for me are a bit part of what drives me because a lot of what they tell is not written down and what writing it down would do is kind of photograph it and freeze it in time because the stories do change over time, but that’s also part of the history. Viewing how to stories do change over time as well. So there is a way to view oral history that you can gain knowledge from that can be factual. But there is a method for viewing oral history that really takes some experience. You really need to be able to talk to a lot of people that have these histories and kind of get a sense of what a broad swath of how they’re viewing things, rather than just talking to one single person, which is the same as looking at one single primary – a piece of paper – a primary source document. It’s really the perspective of one person. So it’s kind of a failure of a primary document is that it does give an accurate photograph of that person’s view at that time. But it’s only that person and we’re not getting the swath of information across a broad perspective of people. So that’s why for me oral histories are one of the ways that I go and also I pay attention to the particular language. And just to give you a window into how different that is – the English language, when it was introduced to this land when the English arrived – has the blueprint of England. The ideas of land improvement – and I’m gonna put quotes around that word improvement – in 17th century English knowledge meant cutting down trees, planning crops, raising cows, chickens, and pigs – which are very different from the 13,000 years of sustainable farming and hunting practices and fishing practices that Native people had done for millennia. And would actually destroy the environment, upset the natural balance of things. And we’re currently still living under that and so that’s not sustainable here. You know, we’re seeing America return to Indigenous ways of knowing. So the Indigenous language has words that – of viewing land as property, and even viewing people as property. In the Algonquin language, at least in my language, land is not considered something that we can possess as an object. In fact, when we pick up a handful of dirt, the way we translate what would be the English equivalent of dirt really translates to “the molecules of our ancestors,” which shows Indigenous knowledge of the cycle of life and the science of all of that. And under that framework, with that translation, we see land as literally life. So if you pick up a handful of what would be in English dirt and you let that to fall out of your hand, that’s literally in our viewpoint, the molecules of your ancestors falling to the earth or literally life falling out of your hand and back to the earth. Therefore, how can you own life – if your framework, you cannot. And the land sustains everybody, not just people, but all animals, all life, is sustained by the land. Therefore, in our viewpoint, it cannot be owned. A lot of Native languages have similar kinds of concepts in them in that land is oftentimes considered in some shape or form alive. Or a version of substance. So elders, oral history, and language especially. Very very important to pay attention to the language of the people that lived on that land for thousands of years and have an intimate knowledge of it and developed a language around the way the land required them to live – to really have a knowledge of that history there. So please be sure you include knowledge of language and language keepers when talking about Native history there because of the importance of the framework.

Beckley: That is incredibly interesting. I have, of course, heard through my traditional education all about “Native people didn’t believe in land ownership,” but I never heard anybody, I don’t think, explain why they didn’t believe that. It’s always kind of a given of “of course they didn’t believe that. We believed that and they were different so that’s why.” Thank you for explaining that. That’s incredibly interesting to me.

Newell: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Absolutely.

 Beckley: I wanted to ask if you think that our current methods of historiography are adequate for doing Native history. They’re just so based in a Eurocentric worldview and they’re roots are in Europe. So I want to know if you think that we just need to rethink the very foundations of how we’re doing history or is there a way to make our methods fit in with doing Native history?

Newell: Yea, so we really do need some radical thinking amongst historiographers and the way that we retell histories. And sometimes, in historical tellings we really try to achieve objectivity, which has its own merit and is valuable in its own right. However, there is something to be said for the subjective history. So to tell a story from a Native perspective completely is going to have a completely different ring to it than the primary source document history that was likely written by early Americans or people of European ancestry. And so, that’s one of the ways that we can rethink the way that we do these things. And technology is really affording us ways to bring back or to rethink how we do things. Some of these old things – one of the things that would often happen is that a lot of these things that were kept in collections were actually kept in the collection and you had to have special access to get to a collection to get that knowledge. And guess what? Some of that knowledge that was recorded by Europeans and early Americans is actually really factually and very valuable to Native communities who, through colonization, have in some way shape or form maybe have been forced to lose that knowledge. And by keeping it from native communities, you’re actually putting a block in front of them from getting a sense of sovereignty for themselves. Which includes not just self-governance, but also sovereignty in the way they tell their history.

For them to be able to look at those documents and then for them to be able to frame that information through their lens now allows historiographers who are largely translating it from one point of view, to see an opposing point of view, and when it comes to objectivity – that’s how we’re going to get to a more objective route there is by hearing both sides, which sometimes are opposed to one another. Which is totally find because not all things in history are very clear cut and we should discuss and debate. But we should also make sure that we are including all perspectives while we’re doing so and be aware when we’re not. So those are all things to consider for going forward there. And also creating long term relationships with tribal communities. For these colonial spaces of public history telling, that is such an important thing as well because when you bring a Native perspective into your museum, you can – there are ways to re frame the work essentially, decolonizing your museum. I know we use that term a lot these days, “decolonizing,” that’s really a way of re framing things back to an Indigenous perspective. My preferred word, when it’s applicable in actually re-indiginizing. So, what we’re doing is we’re taking a colonial space telling a story from a colonial perspective, and we’re going to take that history and then re-indiginize it because prior to colonization, this is the way the history was told was through an Indigenous lens, just not in a museum. So we’re taking that history and we’re re-indiginizing it through that fashion.

Beckley:  So, for our last question, I think it might be a little bit redundant, but I keep on – I hear you talk about the importance of community engagement and including Native perspectives. Can you just elaborate on why it is so important to do these things and why it’s important for everybody who’s listening to be thinking about some of these questions?

Newell: Absolutely, So, in native communities, there is a lot of knowledge that gets passed down through the generations, and these types of things – that type of knowledge being passed down – doesn’t get a degree passed with it. There’s not a piece of paper that goes with that knowledge and these people become respected knowledge keepers in their communities. And when we approach these communities and we find these knowledge keepers and we’re going to bring them into these academic or public history spaces – the common thing is, if we were to bring in another academic, we would pay them for their service of research or knowledge in helping that institution to accumulate – we should also think of Native knowledge keepers who don’t have a master’s degree of a PhD to be on the same level of knowledge as somebody with a masters or PhD. It’s just that they have that level of knowledge on their own community and therefore, we should compensate them appropriately when we do involve their knowledge. Too often, one of the old habits of old anthropologists was to go into a Native community, extract knowledge, not give any compensation to the people they extracted the knowledge from, and then leave the community, write books, and develop careers based on what they have extracted from that community. And that really needs to change. There really needs to be some collaboration. Some equity. If we go back to the presentation that we did for NCPH, there really needs to be some equity in the collaboration and these colonial spaces really need to recognize Native knowledge keepers on the same level as the PhD’s that they have in their institutions and make sure that we treat their knowledge equally as well as compensate them properly because in this modern day world, unfortunately we cannot live necessarily off the lands we used to, and therefore, the use of money to get food and things – that’s what we all live under these days. Therefore, we should consider these traditional people with that compensation or, possibly maybe doing something for the community if they would choose not to have money because some of these people don’t want money. So when that happens, there should be some sort of give and take going with the community as well to acknowledge what is that, to make sure we’re lifting it up and putting it on the same level as those that would write about it that come from outside the communities.

Beckley: Thank you. I think, Chris, I think we’re running up against our time limit here but I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you wanted to say that I’ve left out – address any concerns that you have, or just promote yourself or your institute.

Newell: So, yes, once again we are the Akomawt Educational Initiative. You can find our website at www.akomawt.org. That’s the Passamaquoddy spelling. I know that the “k” sounds like a “g,” so that Akomawt, but it is a “k” in there. So, you can find out more information about what we’re doing and what we’re up to. We’re also on social media at Akomawt, on twitter at Akomawt as well as on Facebook, and those are the places that you can really see an up-to-date of what we’re up to in real time. And we have some other things that are coming up in the near future so follow our social media and keep an eye on our efforts – one of the things that we’re looking to do in the very near future is provide a database for Native American mascots for people who want to have conversations about that and to see the data about those schools and which ones have changed and all of the information. And in the future, possibly, a Native sourced website on treaties. So, once again, a very subjective history – we’re going to let tribes tell their own view of how treaties were historically signed with the U.S. government or with British government history. So, get a different side of the story as well. So that’s things you can look forward to from Akomawt. We look forward to this work – this is really something we’re all impassioned about, endawnis, Jason and I feel very strongly about this work and thank you so much for having us here to bring our voice to your podcast.

Once again, I want to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us for this segment. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, we will include a link to a great reading list compiled by Akomawt in our show notes, which you can find by going to blog.history.in.gov and clicking on Talking Hoosier History at the top.

We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow IHB on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Chris Newell:

Learn more about the Akomawt Educational Initiative at their website: akomawt.org.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, Akomawt has put together a phenomenal resource list, including websites, books and more. Find it here.

In the episode, Chris mentioned a database for Native American mascots that Akomawt was working on. In the intervening time since we spoke, that database has gone live and is a greats resource to learn about the history surrounding Native American Mascots, the conversations going on about the topic and ways to approach conversations on the topic. You can see that here.

The “Destruction of an Icon:” Wrestling with Complicated Legacies

Rev. Oscar McCulloch, courtesy of IU Newsroom; Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a researcher, few things are more disheartening than coming across that blemish on an otherwise inspiring legacy. But it happens more often than not in the messiness of human history. Events and actors often occupy an ambiguous position between right and wrong, progressive and stagnant, heroic and indifferent. We wish the loose ends of the stories could be tied up into one neat moral bow, but often it’s more complex. In wrestling with this phenomenon, I concluded two things: that context is everything and that we must remember that the historical figures we idolize—and sometimes demonize—were, in fact, evolving humans. The visionary and controversial leadership of Indianapolis Rev. Oscar McCulloch and Gary, Indiana Rep. Katie Hall inspired these conclusions.

In the early 20th century, Oscar McCulloch’s misguided attempt to ease societal ills was utilized to strip Americans of their reproductive rights. Born in Fremont, Ohio in 1843, McCulloch studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary before assuming a pastorship at a church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He moved to Indianapolis in 1877 to serve as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, situated on Monument Circle. On the heels of economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1873, he implemented his Social Gospel mission. He sought to ease financial hardship by applying the biblical principles of generosity and altruism. To the capital city, Brent Ruswick stated in his Indiana Magazine of History article, McCulloch “brought a blend of social and theological liberalism and scientific enthusiasm to his work in Indianapolis.”[1] He also brought a deep sense of empathy for the impoverished and soon coordinated and founded the city’s charitable institutions, like the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, Flower Mission Society, and the Indianapolis Benevolent Society.

In 1878, McCulloch encountered the Ishmael family, living in abject poverty. He described them in his diary [2]:

composed of a man, half-blind, a woman, and two children, the woman’s sister and child, the man’s mother, blind, all in one room six feet square. . . . When found they had no coal, no food. Dirty, filthy because of no fire, no soap, no towels.

Disturbed by the encounter, McCulloch headed to the township trustee’s office to research the Indianapolis family, who lived on land known as “Dumptown” along the White River, as well as in predominantly African American areas like Indiana Avenue, Possum Hollow, Bucktown, and Sleigho.[3] He discovered that generations of Ishmaels had depended upon public relief. According to Ruswick, McCulloch came to believe that the Ishmaels, “suffering from the full gamut of social dysfunctions,” were not “worthy people suffering ordinary poverty but paupers living wanton and debased lives.”[4] Over the course of ten years, the pastor sought to discover why pauperism reoccurred generationally, examining 1,789 ancestors of the Ishmaels, beginning with their 1840 arrival in Indiana.

Pamphlet, “The Tribe of Ishmael: diagram,” 1888, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The blemish. McCulloch’s nationally renowned 1888 “Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation” concluded that heredity and environment were responsible for social dependence.[5] He noted that the Ishmaels “so intermarried with others as to form a pauper ganglion of several hundreds,” that they were comprised of “murderers, a large number of illegitimacies and of prostitutes. They are generally diseased. The children die young.” In order to survive, the Ishmaels stole, begged, “gypsied” East and West, and relied on aid from almshouses, the Woman’s Reformatory, House of Refuge and the township. Assistance, he reasoned, only encouraged paupers like the Ishmaels to remain idle, to wander, and to propagate “similarly disposed children.” In fact, those benevolent souls who gave to “begging children and women with baskets,” he alleged, had a “vast sin to answer for.” McCulloch’s sentiment echoes modern arguments about who is entitled to public assistance.

In addition to revoking aid, McCulloch believed the drain on private and public resources in future generations could be stymied by removing biologically-doomed children from the environment of poverty. Ruswick noted that McCulloch, in the era of Darwin’s Natural Selection, believed “pauperism was so strongly rooted in a person’s biology that it could not be cured, once activated” and that charities should work to prevent paupers from either having or raising children. This line of thought foreshadowed Indiana’s late-1890s sterilization efforts and 1907 Eugenics Law. The Charity Organization Society, consulting McCulloch‘s “scientific proof,” decided to remove children from families with a history of pauperism and vagrancy, essentially trampling on human rights for the perceived good of society.

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1910s-1920s, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

But McCulloch had a change of heart. He began to rethink the causes of poverty, believing environmental and social factors were to blame rather than biological determinism. Ruswick notes that “Witnessing the rise of labor unrest in the mid-1880s, both within Indianapolis and nationwide, McCulloch began to issue calls for economic and social justice for all poor.* To the ire of many of his Indianapolis congregants, the pastor defended union demonstrations and pro-labor parties. He no longer traced poverty to DNA, but to an unjust socioeconomic system that locked generations in hardship. McCulloch believed that these hardships could be reversed through legislative reform and organized protest. To his dismay, McCulloch’s new ideology reportedly resulted in his church being “‘broken up.'”

In a nearly complete reversal of his stance on pauperism, McCulloch wrote a statement titled “The True Spirit of Charity Organization” in 1891, just prior to his death. He opined [6]:

I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. . . . It is the spirit of love entertaining this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. . . . It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for method for the restoration of every one.

But after McCulloch’s death, Arthur H. Estabrook, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Research Office, repurposed McCulloch’s social study (notably lacking scientific methodology) into the scientific basis for eugenics. Historian Elsa F. Kramer wrote that Estabrook revised McCulloch’s “casual observations of individual feeblemindedness” into support for reforms that “included the institutionalization of adult vagrants, the prevention of any possibility of their future reproduction, and the segregation of their existing children—all to protect the integrity of well-born society’s germ-plasm.”[7] McCulloch had unwittingly provided a basis for preventing those with “inferior” genetics from having children in the name of improving the human race. Kramer notes that co-opting the Ishmael studies for this purpose reflected “the changing social context in which the notes were written.”[8] In fact, Estabrook resumed the Ishmael studies in 1915 because “of their perceived value to eugenic arguments on racial integrity.”[9]

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1921, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

McCulloch’s work influenced Charles B. Davenport’s report to the American Breeders Association and Dr. Harry C. Sharp’s “Indiana Plan,” an experimental program that utilized sterilization to curtail unwanted behaviors of imprisoned Indiana men. Sharp also promoted Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law, the first in the U.S., which authorized a forced sterilization program “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” in state institutions. Twelve states enacted similar laws by 1913 and approximately 2,500 Hoosiers were sterilized before the practice ceased in 1974.[10] Even though McCulloch moved away from his problematic beliefs, for decades they were utilized to rob Americans of the ability to have a family. His legacy proved to be out of his hands.

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

The complexities of African American Rep. Katie Hall’s legacy could not be more different. In 1983, Rep. Hall, built on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday, including musician Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. But it was the Gary, Indiana leader who spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes and successfully led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

2018 birthday card by Emyha Brown, student at McCullough Girls School.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. In 1938, she was born in Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws barred her from voting. Hall moved her family to Gary in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Hall trained as a school teacher at Indiana University, and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Gary’s first Black Mayor, Richard Hatcher. She broke barriers herself when, in 1974, she became the first Black Hoosier to represent Indiana in Congress. Two years later, she ran for the Indiana Senate and won. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

The blemish. In 1987, voters elected Hall Gary city clerk, and it was in this position that her career became mired in scandal. In 2001, suspended city clerk employees alleged that Hall and her daughter and chief deputy, Junifer Hall, pressured them to donate to Katie’s political campaign or face termination. Dionna Drinkard and Charmaine Singleton said they were suspended after not selling tickets at a fundraiser for Hall’s reelection campaign. Although suspended, the Halls continued to list them as active employees, which meant Drinkard was unable to collect unemployment. The U.S. District Court charged the Halls with racketeering and perjury, as well as more than a dozen other charges. At trial, a federal grand jury heard testimony from employees who stated that the Halls forced them to sell candy and staff fundraisers to maintain employment. Allegedly, the Halls added pressure by scheduling fundraisers just before pay day. Investigators discovered cases of ghost-employment, noting that employees listed on the office’s 2002 budget included a former intern who was killed in 1999, a student who worked for the clerk part time one summer two years previously, and Indiana’s Miss Perfect Teen, who was listed as a “maintenance man.”

The Times (Munster), May 18, 2002, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Munster Times, the Halls alleged their arrest was racially motivated and their lawyers (one of whom was Katie’s husband, John) claimed that “the Halls only did what white politicians have done for decades.” Josie Collins countered in an editorial for the Times that “if they do the crime, they should do the time. This is not an issue of racial discrimination. It is an issue of illegal use of the taxpayers’ money.” Whether or not the Halls’ allegation held water, it is clear from phone recordings between Junifer and an employee, as well as the “parade of employees past and present” who testified against the Halls, that they broke the law.

In 2003, the Halls pled guilty to a federal mail fraud charge that they extorted thousands of dollars from employees. By doing so, their other charges were dropped. They also admitted to providing Katie’s other daughter, Jacqueline, with an income and benefits, despite the fact that she did not actually work for the city clerk. The Halls immediately resigned from office. In 2004, they seemed to resist taking accountability for their criminal actions and filed a countersuit, in which they claimed that Gary Mayor Scott King and the Common Council refused to provide them with a competent lawyer regarding “the office’s operation.” The Munster Times noted “The Halls said they wouldn’t have broken the law if the city of Gary had provided them sound advice.” Instead, they lost their jobs and claimed to suffer from “‘extreme mental stress, anxiety, depression, humiliation and embarrassment by the negative publication of over 500 news articles.'” For this, they asked the court to award them $21 million.

The Times (Munster), July 9, 2003, 112, accessed Newspapers.com.

The City of Gary deemed the Halls’ Hail Mary pass “frivolous,” and a “‘form of harassment,'” arguing that “the Halls had no one to blame for their troubles but themselves.” The countersuit was dismissed. Junifer served a 16-month sentence at the Pekin Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Katie Hall was placed on probation for five years. According to the Munster Times, one observer at her trial noted:

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

Thus ended Katie Hall’s illustrious political career, in which she worked so hard to break racial barriers and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This leads to the perhaps unanswerable question: “Why?” Maybe in the early 2000s no one was immune from being swept into Gary’s notoriously corrupt political system. This system arose from the city’s segregated design, one which afforded white residents significantly more opportunities than Black residents. Possibly, the Halls sought to create their own advantages, at the expense of others. Either way, it is understandable that some Gary residents opposed the installation of a historical marker commemorating her life and work.

In many ways, McCulloch’s and Hall’s stories are not unique. It seems almost inevitable that with such prolific careers, one will make morally or ethically questionable decisions or at least be accused of doing so. Take African American physician Dr. Joseph Ward, who established a sanitarium in Indianapolis to treat Black patients after being barred from practicing in City Hospital. He forged professional opportunities for aspiring African American nurses in an era when Black women were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor. In 1924, Dr. Ward became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. With his appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan. The blemish. In 1937, before a Federal grand jury he pled guilty to “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” The esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud” after over eleven years of service. However, African American newspapers attributed his fall from grace to political and racial factors. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.” Again, context comes into play when making sense of blemishes.

If nothing else, these complex legacies are compelling and tell us something about the period in which the figures lived. Much like our favorite fictional characters—Walter White, Don Draper, Daenerys Targaryen—controversial figures like Katie Hall and Oscar McCulloch captivate us not because they were perfect or aspirational, but because they took risks and were complex, flawed, and impactful.  They were human.

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

Elsa F. Kramer, “Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael: The Role of Indianapolis’s Nineteeth-Century Poor in Twentieth Century Eugenics,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 54.

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

Brent Ruswick, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877-1891,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 9.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

[5] Oscar C. McCulloch, “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation,” (1891), accessed Archive.org.

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Learn more about the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law and Indiana Plan with IHB’s historical marker notes.

“Do Fish Think, Really?” And Will Cuppy’s Other Musings

Will Cuppy, accessed Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2014).

Humorist Will Cuppy’s witticisms tended toward, as his biographer Wes Gehring put it, “dark comedy that flirts with nihilism.” Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, published posthumously in 1950, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list and enjoyed eighteen reprints in hardback. Decline and Fall typified Cuppy’s life’s work, which satirized human nature and utilized footnotes to great comedic effect. He spent sixteen years researching the historic figures featured in Decline and Fall, but, after years of battling depression, passed away before its publication.

Young Cuppy, 1902, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, accessed Gale Academic OneFile.

The Auburn, Indiana native spent a lot of time on his grandmother’s South Whitley farm. There, he developed a love of animals and a curiosity about life. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Cuppy found himself wondering if fish think—and no one he knew was curious enough to similarly wonder or care if indeed fish do think. In search of more inquisitive conversationalists, Cuppy moved out of Indiana as soon as he could. Upon graduation from Auburn High School, Cuppy departed for the University of Chicago where he would spend the next twelve years taking a wide array of courses. He completed his B.A. in philosophy and planned to get his Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature.

While at university, Cuppy worked for the school paper. As a result, the University of Chicago Press hired Cuppy to “create some old fraternity traditions for what was then a relatively new college” to give the school more of an old east coast university feel. This assignment evolved into Cuppy’s first book, Maroon Tales, published in 1910. Eventually, Cuppy’s college friend Burton Rascoe invited him out to New York City, where Rascoe was an editor and literary critic for the New York Tribune. After agreeing to move to New York City, Cuppy decided to get his M.A. in literature and leave the University of Chicago rather than complete his Ph.D. He was ready to move on.

Illustration from How to Become Extinct (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), 31.

In 1921, Cuppy moved into a tarpaper and tin shack on Jones’ Island in New York. Suffering from hypersensitivity to sound, Cuppy wished to escape the noise of the city. He lived on the island year-round for eight years, with occasional visits to the city for supplies. The men of the Coast Guard station a few hundred feet down the beach befriended him and shared food, as well as fixed his typewriter. Cuppy called his beach home Tottering-on-the-Brink, giving insight into his mental health. But despite his seclusion, Cuppy’s career progressed. By 1922, he was writing occasionally for the New York Tribune, and in 1926 he joined the staff there as a book reviewer (by which time the Tribune had become the New York Herald Tribune).

End paper art from How to be a Hermit, courtesy of Simanitis Says.

Then, in 1929, Cuppy had to leave his shack because New York designated the area to become a state park, although he received permission to visit his hermitage for irregular vacations. Cuppy moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, but even after he left his residence at Jones’ Island he would sometimes be referred to—and refer to himself—as a hermit because he continued to maintain an isolated lifestyle. Predictably, Cuppy found it difficult to stand the noise of the humming city. He tended to sleep during the day and work during the night to minimize his exposure to the cacophonous sounds. When it all got to be too much, Cuppy would blow on noisemaker as hard as he could out an open window.

Cuppy published a book about his experience living on Jones’ Island in 1929, How to Be a Hermit (Or A Bachelor Keeps House). The book was a best-seller—reprinted six times in six months—and put Cuppy on the map as a humorist and author. In traditional Cuppy fashion, he quipped “I hear there’s a movement among them [architects] to use my bungalow as a textbook example of what’s wrong with their business. The sooner the better—that will give the dome of St. Paul’s a rest.” And then there was this telling jest:

Coffee! With the first nip of the godlike brew I decide not to jump off the roof until things get worse—I’ll give them another week or so.

Cuppy followed up Hermit with How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931.

Cuppy at a broadcast for CBS Radio, circa 1942, courtesy of Gale Academic OneFile, accessed Simanaitis Says.

The 1930s were a busy time for Cuppy. In 1930, he tried to establish himself as a comic lecturer; however, after a brief stint of talks, it appeared the venture did not work out. A few years later Cuppy hosted a short-lived radio program on NBC called “Just Relax.” It proved too difficult to sustain a radio program with Cuppy’s singular brand of comedy and socially anxious tendencies—radio executives simply told him he wasn’t funny. Though his program didn’t last, Cuppy continued to appear in radio broadcasts sporadically through the years. He went on the radio to promote his next book, How to Become Extinct (1941).

Numerous reviews of mystery and crime novels had garnered Cuppy the distinction of being “America’s mystery story expert” as early as 1935. It was earned—in the course of his career Cuppy published around 4,000 book reviews. He secretly admitted that his heart wasn’t in it and he’d never particularly enjoyed the mystery and detective genre, but reviewing these books in his New York Herald Tribune column “Mystery and Adventure” was Cuppy’s steadiest income stream over the years. Nevertheless, in the 1940s Cuppy used his genre expertise to edit three anthologies of mystery and crime fiction. His freelance writing also picked up in this decade.  National publications like McCall’s Magazine, The New Yorker, College Humor, For Men, and The Saturday Evening Post printed Cuppy’s essays that would later be compiled in his books, like How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

In a reflection that brings to mind Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cuppy was fond of saying:

I’m billed as a humorist, but of course I’m a tragedian at heart.

One gets the sense from reading Cuppy’s material that he used humor as a coping mechanism. Quoting Cuppy, Gehring wrote that the dark humorist “believed humor sprang from ‘rage, hay fever, overdue rent, and miscellaneous hell.’” You could say that, like his humor, Cuppy’s life was tragic. Though he had long suffered from depression, multiple sources noted Cuppy’s declining health in mid-1949. Then, threatened with eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment and reeling from the end of a decades-long friendship, Cuppy followed through on decades of casual talk about self-harm. He died on September 19, 1949, due to suicide. He was buried in Auburn, Indiana’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Illustration from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 38.

After Cuppy died, his editor, Fred Feldkamp, took on the task of assembling Cuppy’s numerous notes into The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy took his research seriously, and this is where Cuppy’s extensive education shined through. He would spend months researching a single short essay, reading everything he could find on the topic and amassing sometimes hundreds of notecards on each subject. Having worked on Decline and Fall for a whopping sixteen years before his death, Cuppy had collected many boxes of notecards filled with research. Decline and Fall was an immediate success when it was published in 1950. Locally, the Indianapolis News named it one of the best humor books of the year, and listed it as the top best-seller in Indianapolis in non-fiction for the year. In 1951, Feldkamp used more of Cuppy’s notes to edit and publish How to Get from January to December; it was the final publication in Cuppy’s name.

Footnote from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 154.

Cuppy’s style was characterized by a satirical take on nature and historical figures. Footnotes were his comedic specialty—they were such a successful trademark that he was sometimes hired to add his touch of footnote flair to the works of fellow humorists. In Decline and Fall there is one footnote in particular which is emblematic of Cuppy’s unique dark humor: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” Before the publication of Decline and Fall, Cuppy was frequently asked why he always wrote about animals—when would he write about people? But, of course, he had been lampooning humanity all along.

Courtesy of Amazon.com.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in the last decade of his life, Cuppy befriended William Stieg, the man who would go on to create the character Shrek in his 1990 children’s book by the same name. A young cartoonist, Stieg was hired to illustrate How to Become Extinct and Decline and Fall. Cuppy and Stieg struck up an extensive correspondence, and Cuppy influenced Stieg’s style. The notion of a humorous curmudgeon living in isolation and drawn out into the world by both necessity and outgoing friends strikes a familiar chord that echoes in Shrek.

Cuppy was a famous humorist in his time, and the acclaim of his better-known comedy contemporaries, like P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, certainly helped to heighten his renown. When Decline and Fall came out, a reviewer for the New York Times insisted that “certain people, at least, thought [Cuppy] among the funniest men writing in English.” Beyond his work as a humorist, Cuppy’s career as a literary critic had been impactful; the managing editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he had “given up reading whodunits” after Cuppy’s death because he didn’t trust any other critic to guide his mystery selections. The sadly serious humorist is less widely known today, but his quips seem more relevant than ever.

Be sure to see Will Cuppy’s state historical marker at the site of his childhood home in Auburn after it is unveiled in August.

 

Further reading:

Wes D. Gehring, Will Cuppy, American Satirist: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013).

Norris W. Yates, “Will Cuppy: The Wise Fool as Pedant,” in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964).

Al Castle, “Naturalist Humor in Will Cuppy’s How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” Studies in American Humor, 2, 3 (1984): 330-336.

Walter Dorwin Teague’s “World of Tomorrow”

Walter Dorwin Teague, courtesy of North Carolina State University.

Visit the ultra-sleek website of the industrial design firm TEAGUE and you will see the echoes of company founder and namesake Walter Dorwin Teague. TEAGUE touts “we design experiences for people and things in motion.” This could easily have been declared in 1939 when Teague applied his experience as an industrial designer to the New York World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow.”

Walter Dorwin Teague’s story starts in the house of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in Decatur, Indiana. Here, Walter was born on December 18, 1883, the youngest of six children to Reverend M.A. Teague and Hettie Teague. By late 1889, the family had settled in Pendleton, where Teague graduated high school in 1902. Teague credits his time in Pendleton, and particularly a book on the history of architecture from the Pendleton High School library, with setting him on the path that would eventually lead him to become a dominant force in American industrial design.

Walter Dorwin Teague designed the Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and its packaging, seen here. The Baby Brownie, sold for just $1, is credited with helping popularize amateur photography. Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Soon after his graduation, Teague moved to New York City to study at The Art Students League of New York. However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Teague discovered his life’s passion: industrial design. He was early to the game – in the decade after Teague scored his first major contract with Eastman Kodak in 1928, mentions of the phrase “industrial designer” in printed material increased 40 fold. Many sources consider Walter Dorwin Teague to be one of the five founders of industrial design in the United States, along with Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes.

In the decade after his first contract with Kodak, Teague designed for the likes of Boeing, Texaco, the Marmon Motor Company, and Ford Motor Company. He built lasting business relationships with many of these companies, and in some cases those relationships went beyond the designing of products. In the early 1930s, Henry Ford turned to Walter Dorwin Teague to design a cutting-edge exhibit hall for the 1934 re-opening of the Chicago World’s Fair, themed “Century of Progress.” The exhibition featured a wide array of elements, including a museum, industrial barn, and gardens tied together by–what else–design.

Interior of the Ford Pavilion at the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress. This diorama shows the extraction of different materials used in automobile production. Image courtesy of Hemmings Daily.

According to historian Roland Marchand, the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress:

ushered in a period of striking convergence between an increasing corporate sensitivity to public relations and the applications of designers’ expertise to display strategies. More than ever before, the great fairs became arenas for the public dramatization of corporate identities.

Gone were the sales-driven exhibits of the past, in which company representatives pitched the latest and greatest Ford products. With Teague at the helm, salesmen were replaced by young, affable college students. Product demonstrations were replaced by art, dioramas, and museums. Pressure to buy was replaced with entertainment, as well as information about the concepts behind and benefits of featured products. These innovations made the exhibit a hit of the fair and Walter Dorwin Teague a highly sought after exhibition hall designer.

In the wake of the successful Ford project, Teague designed exhibits for a number of regional fairs. He designed for Ford in San Diego (1935), Dallas (1936) and Cleveland (1936), and for Du Pont and Texaco in Dallas (1936). These smaller exhibits were a trial of sorts for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which would become Teague’s crowning achievement in the realm of exhibit design.

Cover, New York World’s Fair 1939 Brochure, from the Collections of The Henry Ford.

For the New York World’s Fair, which was themed “The World of Tomorrow,” Teague designed the exhibition halls for heavy-hitters like Ford, U.S. Steel, Du Pont, National Cash Register (NCR), Consolidated Edison Company, Eastman Kodak, A.B. Dick, Bryany Heater Company, and parts of the United States Government Building. In addition, Teague served on the official Design Board, the lone industrial designer among a group of architects.

One might assume that with so much on his plate, Teague would have moved towards a more hands-off approach at the 1939 fair. However, he was deeply involved in the conceptualization process. While on previous projects he had simply put the finishing touches on an already developed idea or perhaps added design elements around an existing exhibit plan, by 1939, Teague was involved in “the fundamental work of determining what [the] exhibit should be.” Employing lessons learned at the 1934 Century of Progress, Teague determined that exhibits should include animation and audience participation whenever possible. He and his team also began using phrases such as “visual dramatization” and “industrial showmanship” to describe their work. The resulting 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibits reflected the evolution of his design approach.

Exterior of Du Pont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry,” designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. Image courtesy of Curbed New York blog; The “Tower of Research,” from the cover of the June 1939 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, accessed with the Hagley Digital Archive.

Du Pont, the company responsible for developments such as Kevlar, Teflon, neoprene, and Freon, had high expectations for their exhibit. In the November 1938 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, the company promised, “a panorama of man’s triumphs over his environment, of the progress he has made in building a new nation and a new civilization, of the hopes and plans he has for creating a better world in the future” and to illustrate “chemistry’s part in making the United States more self-sufficient.”

The resulting exhibition building, featuring a 120-foot “Tower of Research” inspired by test tubes, literally towered over passersby. The essential element of animation was incorporated through lights and bubbles that flowed through the test tubes and brought the structure to life. Inside the building were a variety of displays that highlighted the role of chemistry in the modern world–and painted a picture of what the “World of Tomorrow” could look like with further investments in the sciences. Displays followed the production process from raw materials to laboratory testing, and finally to manufacturing. Still other exhibits featured technicians weaving rayon, making cellophane, and demonstrating various techniques used in producing Du Pont materials. From the Tower of Research to fully functional displays to a plethora of dioramas, every aspect of Teague’s design employed the tenets of visual dramatization, industrial showmanship, and educational entertainment.

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Ford Building Model, courtesy of New York Public Library New York World’s Fair (1939-1940) Collection.

The same tenets were present in Teague’s development of the Ford building. Whereas a tower drew visitor’s eyes towards the Du Pont building, a metallic sculpture of the Roman god Mercury–symbolizing “fleet, effortless travel”–attracted exhibit-goers. Inside the exhibition hall, a 70-foot-high moving mural made of automobile parts, planned by Teague and designed by Henry Billings, welcomed visitors to the Ford building. The theme, “From Earth to Ford V-8,” was depicted in the “Cycle of Production,” a massive revolving wedding cake-like structure with three tiers. On the bottom tier, small animated figures harvested raw materials such as cotton, wool, and wood. On the next tier, figures processed those raw materials into cloth and boards. Finally, on the top tier, those products were incorporated into the final product – the wildly popular 1939 Ford V-8, a finished version of which adorned the top of the turntable. Surrounding the “Cycle of Production” were live demonstrations of the production process depicted in the display.

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Even more so than in the Du Pont exhibition, Teague incorporated a plethora of entertainment elements into the Ford pavilion. The same figures from the Cycle of Production were featured in a Technicolor film, telling the story of Ford production. Visitors watched the history of transportation unfold in the form of a live musical drama and ballet. They also watched race car drivers demonstrating the abilities of Ford cars on an outdoor track. Teague united these seemingly disparate parts through design to tell the story of Ford’s impact on the world–whether that be in job creation, technological advancement, or simply as an amusing diversion.

The features seen in these two exhibition buildings could be found to varying degrees in Teague’s other designs at the fair. The U.S. Steel building consisted of a 66-foot-high stainless steel hemisphere, an early example of a building designed to highlight, rather than mask, its steel structural supports. The National Cash Register exhibit was perhaps the least innovative, yet most striking of Teague’s 1939 World’s Fair designs–it was simply a gigantic, working cash register which displayed the fair attendance numbers. Inside, various models of NCR registers were shown being used in exotic locals around the world. For Consolidated Edison’s “The City of Light” display, Teague recreated New York City by building 4,000 scale buildings. The diorama came to life to depict a day in the city–the printing press of the Brooklyn Eagle whirred, a family lounged on a porch listening to the radio, and a six-car subway sped through the display.  These innovative features developed by the industrious Hoosier and his design firm would be the central design elements in exhibition halls for decades to come.

Walter Dorwin Teague is best remembered as the “Dean of Industrial Design.” His impact on corporate exhibitions has largely been forgotten with the diminishing role of exhibits in modern life. But at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the impact of this industrious Hoosier was impossible to ignore.

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Republican Game-Changer: 1908 Taft Rally in Indiana

Today, we expect presidential candidates to come to us. They speak on the capitol steps, at memorials, and in high school gyms. They shake hands, meet local leaders, and in Indiana at least, make sure they’re seen eating a homemade pie or pork tenderloin of local renown. Beyond these appearances, however, campaign ads, emails, and social media posts bring candidates into our living rooms, our inboxes, and our daily lives.

President Ronald Reagan Eating Peach Cobbler at Mac’s in Mooresville, Indiana, June 19, 1985, photo located in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Justin Clark for his research into Reagan’s visit.

This was not always the case, however. In fact, for much of U.S. history, such active campaigning was seen as power hungry, uncouth, and beneath the dignity of the office. While they didn’t hit the campaign trail, the candidates were still working hard to win over voters with events and promotional material. If we start our story in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1888 and close it twenty years later in Brook, Indiana, we see a sea change in Republican Party campaign tactics. And believe it or not, our modern barrage of presidential politicking owes a lot to the 1908 presidential campaign of William Howard Taft.

Republican Politics from the Front Porch

“Harrison and Morton Campaign Ball,” 1888, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, accessed University Library, IUPUI.

During the 1888 presidential campaign, Hoosier candidate Benjamin Harrison and incumbent President Grover Cleveland mostly stayed home. That’s not to say they weren’t politicking. Harrison ran a “front porch” campaign, speaking to crowds that gathered at his Indianapolis home and the reporters he invited to cover the event. Political organizations produced “posters, political cartoons, speeches, rallies, parades, brass bands, and torchlight demonstrations” in support of their candidates (Miller Center). And while Harrison stayed in Indianapolis, his supporters took the campaign on the road for him with a memorable publicity stunt. Inspired by a gimmick used for his grandfather William Henry Harrison‘s successful 1840 campaign, a Maryland supporter built a steel and canvas ball and rolled it 5,000 miles across the country to Benjamin Harrison’s home. In an attempt to draw comparisons between the two Harrisons, the campaign slogan became, inevitably, “Keep the Ball Rolling.” Harrison won the presidency, losing the popular vote, but carrying the electoral college. During the rematch in 1892, Cleveland declined to campaign out of respect for Harrison’s wife’s illness and Harrison made only a few public appearances. However, the Republican Party only tenuously backed Harrison because of “his failure to resolve three national issues,” and Cleveland won easily in 1892. (more here: Miller Center).

“Photograph of Campaign of 1888 in Front of House,” 1888, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, accessed University Library, IUPUI.

In 1896, the Democrats, with the support of the Populist Party, ran former U.S. Representative William Jennings Bryan for president. (Remember him; he’ll be back later). Bryan was a dynamic speaker and hit the campaign trail with enthusiasm, covering 18,000 miles in three months. Still, the Republican candidate and former Governor of Ohio William McKinley stayed home. Having raised four million dollars mainly from business and banking interests, the party organization dumped money into the printing and distribution of campaign pamphlets. Meanwhile, McKinley delivered 350 speeches to 750,000 people – all from his front porch- resulting in his election. McKinley won easily again in 1900, bringing New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt with him to the White House as his vice president.  (Miller Center)

Library of Congress Caption: “Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Cannon, members of the Republican Nomination Committee, and guests in front of Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, N.Y.,” Underwood & Underwood, publisher, c. 1904, August 4, accessed Library of Congress.

After McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt served out McKinley’s presidential term and was the clear choice of the Republican Party to run in 1904. (Roosevelt picked Indiana Senator Charles W. Fairbanks as his running mate.) The Democrats selected New York Supreme Court Judge Alton B. Parker as a safe choice for presidential candidate, appealing to those who opposed TR’s progressive domestic politics and expanding foreign agenda. Parker refrained from campaigning as was the norm, but heavily criticized his opponent in the press. TR made a thirty day tour of Western states after his nomination was announced, but also refrained from actively campaigning for election. By the summer of 1904 he began speaking from his Sagamore Hill front porch at Oyster Bay, New York. Like McKinley, large campaign donations helped  TR secure the presidential office. (Miller Center)

Taft V. Bryan: The Game Changer

William Howard Taft doesn’t get a lot of love as a president. He was indecisive, easily railroaded by Congress, and never wanted the office as badly as his wife or TR wanted it for him. However, the strategy crafted by Taft and his advisers to win the 1908 election was brilliant and the fierce showdown of the two major party candidates changed campaigning forever. And for the Republicans, it started just outside tiny Brook, Indiana.

Muncie Evening Press, June 24, 1908, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

Taft was TR’s handpicked successor to the presidency and thus had the backing of a beloved president and the powerful Republican political machine. He easily won the nomination at the June 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago. However, Taft had an image problem – one that could lose him the essential votes of farmers, laborers, and African Americans. As an U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, he made several anti-labor decisions. In 1894, Taft had ruled against the railroad workers of the Chicago Pullman Strike. Taft’s Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan, (remember him?) on the other hand, was a Populist who appealed to laborers and farmers by promising to protect their interest from the Republicans, who were backed by exploitative big business.

During the 1908 campaign, Bryan, now on his third presidential run, again stormed the U.S. like an evangelist, talking directly to the people and criticizing Taft’s anti-labor record. This time, it seemed, the Republican candidate was not going to be able to stay home. Taft needed to defend his record, assure workers that the Republican Party backed their interests, and smile and shake as many hands as possible.

Library of Congress caption:
Mitchell, S.D. (1909) [i.e. 1908] Wm. Howard Taft shaking hands
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Bryan should really get credit for launching the whistle stop campaigning that became standard practice. He had been touring the country for some time advocating for the silver standard. However, it wasn’t until Taft began actively campaigning on the road – in order to rehabilitate his image and make himself likable to voters, as opposed to simply spreading an educational message – that we get the kind of spectacle politics we recognize today. [Bourdon, 115-6.]

The campaign was strikingly modern in other ways too. Speeches by presidential candidates were traditionally quite long – an hour of expounding on the party platform was not unusual. However, Taft kept it short, speaking for thirty minutes at major events, but sometimes spending only five minutes joking with crowds on train platforms. Bryan, known for lengthy rhetoric, was not to be outdone. He recorded a series of two minute speeches on a wax cylinder for Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company. Of course, Taft then had to do the same. Thus, we get the modern sound bite. [Listen here: NPR]

George Ade: Reluctant Republican Ringleader

Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Republican Party was in danger of being torn apart over temperance (prohibition versus local option). Leaders thought that a visit from a national candidate could unify the party at least for long enough to push through a Republican state ticket. Charles S. Hernly, Chairman of Indiana’s State Republican Committee, could see that the base needed a flamboyant event to generate enthusiasm for the Party. Recalling a promising conversation from the previous spring, he formed a plan. It involved George Ade, a native of Newton County, a beloved Indiana author, and a dabbler in local politics.

By this time, Ade had achieved financial success as the writer of clever and observant fictional stories for books and newspapers. He gained fame as the wit behind several popular comedic Broadway plays. Ade was known for using humor and rustic, slangy language and was often compared to Mark Twain. He had done well for himself and wisely trusted his brother William to invest his money in real estate.

“George Ade,” photograph, n.d., Indiana State Library Photograph Collections, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

In 1902, William secured 417 acres near the small town of Brook for his brother to build a cottage as a writer’s retreat. George named the estate “Hazelden.” By 1904, when he began to stay at Hazelden more regularly, “it had grown into an Elizabethan manor house . . . complete with cow barn, greenhouse, caretaker’s cottage, dance pavilion, several smaller outbuildings, swimming pool, softball diamond, and forty foot water tower,” plus extravagant landscaped gardens. (Indiana Magazine of History)

Town of Brook, “Historic George Ade Home,” http://www.brookindiana.com/historic-george-ade-home/

When Ade awoke at Hazelden the morning of August 20, 1908 and settled in to read the day’s Indianapolis Star, he received somewhat of a shock. The front page headline read, “Ade’s Farm Rally Will be Big Event.” Ade later wrote that he recalled a casual conversation with Chairman Charles Hernly about the possibility of a political picnic. However, they had not had formally planned any kind of function, let alone one that Hernly described to reporters as “the biggest Republican event Indiana will see this campaign.”

Indianapolis Star, August 20, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hernly had colorfully expounded on the day’s details for reporters. He listed the names of prominent state and national politicians who would likely speak, “all the big guns,” and promised a meal of “roast beef, potatoes, bread and butter and coffee” for the Midwestern farmers who were invited to attend. Hernly emphasized that Ade was “enthusiastic in his support of the Republican ticket,” and the reader assumed, the event to take place at his estate. “The only thing that is bothering Mr. Ade is the fact that it is going to take forty of his best beef cattle to satisfy the hunger of the crowd,” Hernly claimed.

Ade was now in an impossible position. He would have liked to “have headed off the barbecue idea,” but was also an enthusiastic Republican who wanted to help his party. [Indiana Magazine of History] He had served as a visible delegate to the Republican National Convention where Taft was nominated – a fact that made headlines even in the New York Times – and as a member of the notification committee that formally told Taft of his nomination. Ade was a respected figurehead for the party. If he were to refuse to host this now public event, he risked further demoralizing the already troubled Indiana Republican Party. If Hernly meant to force Ade’s hand, it worked. The “biggest Republican rally of the coming campaign” would be held in George Ade’s backyard.

The Taft Special to Ade Station

Through the summer Taft was hanging back, assessing the political climate, trying to determine how best to campaign. By September 1908, however, it was clear that he was going to have to defend his labor record from Bryan’s attacks. Taft needed to align himself with the more progressive agenda of the Republican Party as announced at the June convention. He had also been briefed on the tenuous situation in Indiana and knew he needed to appeal directly to Hoosier farmers if he wanted to win the state. The rally planned at Ade’s farm was an opportunity the candidate could not pass up. Taft accepted the invitation sent to him by Chairman Hernly.

New York Times, September 17, 1908, 3, accessed https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1908/09/17/issue.html

On September 16, the Taft campaign announced the tour itinerary. The candidate would leave Cincinnati the morning of September 23 to travel though Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas over several weeks. The New York Times reported:

Judge Taft’s first address on his Western speaking tour will be made at Brook, Ind., on Sept. 23. It will be at a big Republican rally on the farm of George Ade, the Hoosier humorist and politician.

Notably, the newspaper reported that Taft would be following the route that William Jennings Bryan had undertaken in his campaign.

The morning of September 23, Taft and his staff boarded a five car train dubbed “The Taft Special” and headed for Indiana. The train stopped briefly in Indianapolis, where Taft shook hands with local politicians and waved to the approximately 200 people gathered to greet him. He joked with the crowd, forgoing a formal speech. The Taft Special stopped again briefly in Lafayette and switched tracks at Sheff before arriving at Ade station just west of Brook. Ade and a welcome committee arrived in a six car caravan to take Taft, staff, and guests to Hazelden.

Library of Congress caption: Crowd to greet Wm. H. Taft, De Witt, Nebraska, 1908,
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

As the caravan drove through Brook, a large sign made of evergreen reading “Welcome” framed in marigolds and goldenrod greeted them. “Triumphal arches” also made of evergreen spanned the main street and supported large pictures of Taft and the other Republican candidates. Newspapers around the country described the scene in detail. The New York Times reported:

All forenoon, from miles around the countryside, buggies, family carryalls, hay racks, and farm vehicles of every description crowded the roads leading to Hazelden, the country home of George Ade. When the candidate, seated in the humorist’s automobile, reached the farm he was driven through a veritable gauntlet of vehicles hitched to telephone poles, fence posts, trees, or anything else calculated to restrain the horses.

Indianapolis News, September 24, 1908, 4, Newspapers.com.

The Indianapolis News described the scene that greeted Taft upon his arrival at Ade’s estate:

Before the arrival of the Taft party there was a concert by the Brook Band and later by the Purdue Military band, followed by short speeches from some of the local statesmen. At noon the Second Regiment Band, of Chicago, gave a great display of daylight Japanese fireworks. When the Taft party appeared in sight down the road, a dozen bombs were hurled in the air the explosions resembled a salute by a gun squad and the air was filled with smoke as if from a battle.

The spectacle of this political theater was not lost on the Indianapolis News. The newspaper referred to the rally as a clever “stunt” and a “big play” put on by Ade. It continued to draw comparisons between the playwright’s craft and the political event:

The frameup of Ade’s latest act was all that could be desired. It was elaborately staged, and the scenery was all that nature could do for one of the prettiest places in northern Indiana, and the actors were of a pedigree out of the ordinary.

Upon arrival, the official party had lunch in the Ade home while the crowd purchased “full dinner pails,” a reference to the 1900 Republican slogan that appealed to the labor vote and helped William McKinley defeat William Jennings Bryan. At 1:15 p.m., Ade and Taft appeared on the decorated speaker’s platform. Ade introduced the candidate, and Taft officially kicked off his campaign.

Brook Reporter, September 25, 1908, 1, Newspapers.com.

Taft had not only remembered Ade from the notification committee, he was a fan of the writer’s work, “The Sultan of Sulu,” which was set in the Philippines. Taft had presided over the U.S. commission overseeing the new U.S. protectorate of Philippines under McKinley and spent a great deal of time there. National newspapers reported that Taft referred to Ade as “the Indiana Sultan of Sulu” and stated that “the Philippine original had no advantage over Ade.” Then, Taft got down to brass tacks.

He looked out at the faces of the farmers, the constituents that brought him to Indiana, and addressed them directly. He wanted this point to hit home, stating:

I was told if I came here I should have the privilege of meeting 10,000 farmers of the State of Harrison and [former Indiana Governor Oliver P.] Morton, and I seized the opportunity to break my journey to Chicago to look into your faces and to ask you the question whether your experience as farmers with Mr. Bryan and your recollection of his course since 1892 is such as to command him to you as the person into whose hands you wish to put the executive power over the destinies of this nation for four years.

Library of Congress Caption: Taft Crookston, Minn. [Minnesota], Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
In other words, Taft implied: I came here to talk to you directly and honestly, unlike Bryan, who didn’t stop between big cities and doesn’t have your interests in mind. Taft continued to attack Bryan’s record in the House as a supporter of tariff bills that hurt the working man and policies that prevented democratic discussion of amendments to such legislation. And, Taft continued, when these tariffs negatively affected the economy, what did Bryan do to fix it? Taft claimed that Bryan toured around the country advocating for the silver standard and ignored the needs of “the farmers of the country, who were groaning under a very heavy weight of obligations.” Thankfully, Taft continued, Bryan was defeated and gold remained the standard, something that helped the farmers return to prosperity. [More here on gold versus silver standard, if that’s your thing.]

Taft then espoused the progressive policies of the Republican administration that had directly improved farmers’ lives. He especially focused on the administration’s introduction of free rural mail delivery, which helped to connect farmers to new ideas, keep them up-to-date on news, and reduce the feeling of isolation from which many rural people suffered.

Lake County Times, September 24, 1908, 1, Newspapers.com

Taft’s direct appeal to the farmers worked. The Brook Reporter could scarcely believe that “Mr. Taft would notice a small town like Brook.” The Indianapolis News ran the headline: “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade.” In November, Hoosier farmers went to the polls. And while the split in the Indiana Republican Party proved fatal to the state ticket, Hoosiers chose Taft by over 10,000 votes. Taft was inaugurated March 4, 1909 as the twenty-seventh President of the United States.

(Richmond) Palladium-Item, November 4, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Conclusion

Taft’s Indiana stop marked a sea change in campaign strategy. At Hazleden, Taft introduced the political tactics into his repertoire that he would hone through the rest of his tour and helped win him the election. He promoted the Republican platform as a progressive agenda that would benefit farmers and laborers. He crafted a likable, jovial, and personable image by speaking casually and humorously with crowds, while still seriously addressing their concerns. He went on the offense against his opponent in a manner the Baltimore Sun called “aggressive,” stopping in many places where Bryan had recently spoken in order to rebut his opponent’s statements. And perhaps, most importantly, he shook hands and flashed that unbeatable Taft smile at as many voters as his schedule would allow. Through sheer spectacle and tenacity, the man who had squashed labor strikes as a judge was now the candidate of the working man. A little support from Teddy didn’t hurt either, but Taft’s tour of the Midwest shaped him as a speaker and directly led to his election. And the 1908 election became the first where the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigned actively – an irreversible break with convention, as we see each election season through social media, a steady stream of ads, and even late night shows. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the ol’ front porch.

Newspapers on the Rally

“George Ade’s Rally at Hazelden Farm,” Indianapolis News, September 23, 1908, 1; “George Ade As Sultan,” Buffalo Mourning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, September 24, 1908, 3; “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade,” Indianapolis News, September 24, 1908, 4; “Taft Appeals To Labor,” Baltimore Sun, September 24, 1908, 2; “Taft Defends His Record On Labor,” New York Times, September 24, 1908, 3, accessed TimesMachine; “Taft at Brook,” Brook Reporter, September 25, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Secondary Sources

Peri E. Arnold, “William Taft,” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, https://millercenter.org/president/taft.

Jeffrey Bourdon, “‘Just Call Me Bill:’ William Taft Brings Spectacle Politics to the Midwest,” Studies in Midwestern History 2, no. 10 (October 2016): 113-138, accessed Grand Valley State University.

Howard F. McMains, “The Road to George Ade’s Farm: Origins of Taft’s First Campaign Rally, September, 1908,” Indiana Magazine of History 67, no. 4 (December 1971): 318-334, accessed Indiana University.

Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.

The Underground Railroad at Slavery’s Banks: An Unlikely Alliance

Wilson Armistead, “The friends of humanity laying the axe to the upas tree of slavery, which is ever loaded with the sum of all villanies,” (1853), courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, accessed via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In 1833, an enslaved African American man named Samuel Barkshire received his freedom in Boone County, Kentucky, manumitted (or legally freed) by slaveholder Joseph Hawkins for the cost of one dollar.  He would go on to become the patriarch of a group of Underground Railroad (UGRR) activists who helped freedom seekers along the Ohio River for over thirty years.  What makes his story distinctive, is that he was joined in this cause by his family and their own former slaveholder.

The Ohio River acted as a boundary between slavery and freedom.  For nearly 40 miles, it forms the northern border of Boone County, separating it from neighbors in Indiana and Ohio. This proximity to freedom caused local slaveholders to become hyper-vigilant for signs of pending escapes.  The county’s riverfront was under near-constant scrutiny of patrollers and slave hunters. In the event of an escape, the first to come under suspicion were any free African Americans living in the area. With the exception of the elderly and infirm, most formerly enslaved people left for friendlier communities immediately after manumission.

Deed of Manumission for Samuel Barkshire, Boone County Deeds, Book I, p. 28.

Samuel Barkshire chose to stay in Boone County, perhaps because his family was still enslaved there.  He bought a 100-acre farm bordering the land of his former slaveholder, Joseph Hawkins.  The land once owned by Samuel’s first slaveholder, Dickey Barkshire, was also nearby. Part of the land Samuel once owned runs along a ridgeline overlooking the Ohio River.  The ridges near the river were often used by freedom seekers as safe routes leading to several crossing points from Boone County to free states.  In addition to the heirs of slaveholders Joseph Hawkins and Dickey Barkshire, Samuel’s neighbors also included the Universalist Church and some of its anti-slavery members.  This placement put Samuel in a position to help freedom seekers while still living in a slave state.  This was a dangerous endeavor, but a strong possibility, considering his level of involvement in the UGRR in Rising Sun.

R.G. Williams for the American Anti-Slavery Society, “Cruelties of Slavery,” (1835), courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, accessed via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

When Joseph Hawkins died in 1836, his widow Nancy was his only heir. Little is known about Nancy’s early life, but she appeared in Joseph’s life sometime around 1817, and they had no children. Hawkins’ will is a simple document; he left all of his land and property to Nancy.  There was no inventory taken of the estate, but tax lists of the year of his death show he was the owner of ten enslaved people and about two hundred acres of land.

Before her marriage to Joseph, Nancy was the consort of Dickey Barkshire for a period of years following his first wife’s death.  Though this relationship is referenced in her probate, no marriage document has surfaced; she may have been Dickey’s wife in name only. This connection to the Barkshires indicates she knew Samuel Barkshire for years before marrying Joseph. Nancy’s relationship with Samuel and his family was very close, so it’s likely she asked her new husband to acquire ownership of the man, in order to free him.   This also may have been the case with Violet, a woman once listed as a slave of Hawkins, who was later freed. Violet and Nancy were baptized together upon joining Middle Creek Baptist Church, and lived either in the same home or nearby one another until Nancy’s death in 1854.

Nancy Hawkins’s Rising Sun house, which was owned by Barkshire’s sons after her death. Photo courtesy of the author, taken January 2017.

Two days after the probate of Joseph Hawkins’ estate, Nancy purchased a home in Rising Sun. The Barkshire family, Violet and several other bondsmen moved across the river at the same time.  Nancy, now living in a free state, began to manumit the enslaved people she had brought from Kentucky. Nancy seemed cognizant of the dangers faced by African Americans, even those legally manumitted and living on free soil. They could be kidnapped and sold back into slavery, or bound as an indentured servant, if debt or need came into play. If the former slave was not yet of age, and had no guardian, one would be assigned by the courts, without consent of the minor. In order to avoid these pitfalls, Nancy Hawkins filed manumissions only after there was some sort of protection in place, should something happen either to her or to Samuel and his wife.

This fall marks the 180th and 170th anniversaries of two rounds of manumissions filed by Nancy Hawkins in Indiana.  In August, 1838, the first group: Harriet Frances Barkshire (Samuel’s wife), a man named Sandy and Mariah Hawkins (listed together), and a woman named Catherine were manumitted by deed.  All were adults, but the manumission did not get filed until after Catherine was married in Dearborn County.  This is important, a single woman would have been more vulnerable than the married women in the group.  The second round of manumissions was filed in September of 1848, and included the Barkshire children:  Arthur, Garrett, Matilda, Emily, Woodford and Minerva.  One curious detail of their manumission papers was that each person’s exact birthdate was given. At the time of their manumissions, the two eldest boys, Arthur and Garrett, were both over 21 years old, and could therefore act as guardians for the younger children if something were to happen to their parents or to Nancy Hawkins.  This was no light concern, considering the involvement of the family in UGRR activity in the area.

Levi Coffin, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Samuel Barkshire acted as a coordinator and point of contact for Rising Sun’s UGRR network. He was well-known to local anti-slavery activists, and was acquainted with Levi Coffin, the “President of the Underground Railroad.” His participation is also mentioned in the memoirs of abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland, who sought his help in freeing a Boone County family who were enslaved in Rabbit Hash.

The three Barkshire sons acted as conductors, both on the river and over land.  Their reach stretched from New Orleans all the way to Ontario, with Rising Sun serving as their base of operations.  The three daughters’ involvement is not clear, but their parents and Nancy Hawkins, (with whom they sometimes lived), ran “stations” or temporary hiding places. The clandestine nature of this work would require both the help and complicity of the three girls.

The Journal-Courier (Louisville, Kentucky), March 18, 1837, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

Though Nancy’s involvement was not discovered during her lifetime, it was later revealed in a remembrance printed in the newspaper. As a well-heeled widow and former slaveholder herself, it was likely she wasn’t suspected by slave hunters.  The author of the newspaper piece written in the 1880s, describes in great detail an episode in which five freedom seekers were kept hidden in Nancy’s home for days on end, unbeknownst to their Boone County slaveholders just across the river. It’s probable that this event was not an anomaly; she may have helped many times over.

Violet’s participation may have been comparable to that of the Barkshire daughters.  She lived either with or next door to Nancy in Rising Sun over the years. Sandy Hawkins, who was freed along with Mariah, moved to New Orleans after his manumission. In 1851, he was accused of harboring a fugitive slave in his New Orleans home.  Like many UGRR conductors, he also worked on riverboats, traveling from slave territory to free states regularly.  Joseph Edrington, the man Catherine married in Rising Sun shortly before her manumission, was also named in Laura Smith Haviland’s memoir, as an agent of the UGRR.

The relationship between Nancy Hawkins, her friend Violet and the Barkshire family is clear in the will she left in 1854.  The entirety of her household possessions were divided between the three Barkshire girls, and Violet received personal items and money. The three Barkshire sons were to share in the profit from the sale of her house, which they promptly bought back at auction. Though an unusual group, these Rising Sun activists did much to further the cause of freedom from bondage.

Vivian Carter: From Gary Roosevelt High School to Introducing The Beatles

Accessed via the Calumet Regional Archives.

In an era when African Americans, especially women, were often professionally sidelined, Vivian Carter forced herself onto the field. Through her ingenuity and personal popularity, the musical “matriarch” became a business owner and record producer. Her company, Vee Jay Records, recorded and popularized many successful musicians of the mid-20th century, ranging from Rhythm-and-Blues to Pop Rock, Doo-Wop, Gospel, Soul, and Jazz artists. Although music had been strictly segregated along racial lines, Vee Jay introduced both black and white artists to mixed crowds of local teenagers first, and then to a national audience between 1953 and 1966. The company released recordings of some of the nation’s most prolific musicians, including Little Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Four Seasons.

Beginnings

Born in 1921 in Tunica, Mississippi, Vivian Carter moved with her brother and parents to Gary at age 6. As a child and teenager, she was competitive, outgoing, and self-confident. These qualities helped her win a 1948 contest for the “best girl disc jockey in Chicago,” which was the beginning of Vivian’s radio career. Eventually, Vivian had a five-hour nightly radio program in Gary, called “Livin’ With Vivian,” referring to female listeners as “Powder Puffs” and male callers “Sponges.” The “hostest who brings you the mostest” played music by black artists and much of what she played was not available on commercial records. Since Vivian owned a record store in the heart of Gary, along with her future husband Jimmy Bracken, she knew that recordings of this music would sell.

Courtesy of the NWI Times.

Teenagers of all races from several Calumet Region schools would gather after school to watch Vivian through the glass store window while loudspeakers broadcast her favorite Rhythm and Blues recordings, as recalled by Jerry Locasto, a future radio executive who was one of those kids. While the records played, Vivian would come out and mingle with the kids to find out what they liked or disliked about each one. Kids could request songs, and she would play them. In 1953, Vivian and Jimmy started their own record label, called Vee Jay Records from the initials of “Vivian” and “Jimmy,” to record the music of local black artists.

Their first group was the Spaniels, a group of crooners from Gary Roosevelt High School, Vivian’s alma mater. The boys walked into the record shop after winning a talent contest at school, to ask if Vivian knew how they could get a recording made. Vivian listened to the group, then gave the impoverished boys a place to practice – her mother’s garage –and arranged to record them at Chance Records, a studio in Chicago. She later bought suits for their publicity photos and a station wagon for their travels.

Best Years of Vee Jay Records

Vivian Carter-Bracken, James Bracken, and Ewart Abner at work, 1961, courtesy of the Made-in-Chicago Museum.

The Spaniels’ first record, “Baby, It’s You” reached #10 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Then the Spaniels hit #5 with their second record, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” The record “crossed over” from the Race Records category to become a hit with white purchasers as well. But Vivian was disappointed when the McGuire Sisters, a “white girl trio,” sold more copies with their “cover” of the same song. She asked her brother, Calvin, to put more of a white-sounding background on the future records, to appeal to broader audiences. And the young company learned to print and register publishing rights to all their performers’ original songs, so they still made money when other performers covered them.

Ewart Abner, courtesy of Discogs.

In 1954, Vee Jay moved to Chicago and eventually opened on Michigan Avenue’s “Record Row.” Vivian, Calvin, and her husband Jimmy remained the heads of the company. But according to Bob Kostanczuk of the Gary Post-Tribune, Vivian was always “viewed as the company’s matriarch and driving force.” They hired the knowledgeable Ewart Abner, accountant for the former Chance Records, after Chance went out of business. Abner started as manager and eventually worked his way up to president.

In the next ten years, Vee Jay Records released successful recordings of black and white performers, including hits like The Four Seasons’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Dells “Oh, What a Night,” and The Beatles’s “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout.” Since radio stations wouldn’t play several records from one company label in the same time slot, Vee Jay also recorded under the labels Falcon, Conrad, Tollie, and Abner, from the middle names of the company’s principals. Vee Jay opened a Los Angeles studio, and Vivian and Jimmy soon drove around in luxury convertibles and fur coats.

The Beginning of the End

Courtesy of the Made-in-Chicago Museum.

Vee Jay’s best (and worst) luck came in 1962 when they tried to buy distribution rights for Australian singer Frank Ifield’s European hit single “I Remember You.” The Gary Post-Tribune on August 23, 1998, noted that the British agent insisted they also take a quartet named The Beatles, unknown at that time in the United States. Vee Jay released several Beatles singles and their first U. S. album, to lukewarm success until the group appeared on the nationwide Ed Sullivan Show.

Then Beatles’ sales skyrocketed. Capitol Records, who had earlier turned down the Beatles, started filing lawsuits against Vee Jay to get the group back, as reported by Mike Callahan in “The Vee Jay Story” in Goldmine (May 1981). The cost of defending the lawsuits, in addition to Ewart Abner’s poor financial management and gambling habit, wiped out Vee Jay’s money and credit, and put the company out of business.

Vee Jay president Randy Wood presenting a gold record to John Lennon, courtesy of the Made-in-Chicago Museum.

In a life story that Vivian called “rags to riches to rags,” Vivian and Jimmy lost everything, even their little record store, and divorced. Jimmy died and Vivian worked days at the county trustee’s office and hosted a late-night radio program in Gary from 1967 to 1982. According to Dr. James B. Lane’s Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History article, when her best friend from high school, Yjean Chambers, asked how Vivian felt about the spectacular rise and fall of her recording business, Vivian replied that she had “learned too late the art of looking over the shoulder of those who work for you.” Then Vivian added, “But I don’t miss a thing. That’s all behind me now.”

After several years of illness, Vivian died of complications from diabetes and hypertension in 1989. Lane says one of Vivian’s last visitors was James “Pookie” Hudson, her first recording artist, who sang Vivian to sleep with his hit song, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”

Further Reading

For photos and a brief history of Vee Jay Records, see Andrew Clayman’s article for the Made-in-Chicago Museum.

Learn more with James B. Lane’s article in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 2011, Vol. 23, pp 48-55.

The “Symbolic Rape,” Arrest, and Defense of Sojourner Truth in Indiana

Sojourner Truth Indiana
Sojourner Truth, courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/Photographs and Prints Division/The New York Public Library, accessed Mapping the African American Past.

In May of 1861, as men throughout the state answered Governor Oliver P. Morton’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, well-known abolitionist and evangelical speaker Sojourner Truth visited Indiana to speak in support of the war. This would ultimately lead to her arrest. The reformer was born a slave in Ulster County, New York, sometime in the late 1790s, and named Isabella. She became free in 1827 under New York’s gradual emancipation law, and took the name Isabella Van Wagenen, after her last master.  That year, she had a religious conversion experience and became a Methodist. In June, Isabella Van Wagenen was inspired to change her name to Sojourner Truth and became an itinerant preacher. She settled among the Northampton Association and for the remainder of her life spoke widely on behalf of spiritual, anti-slavery, feminist, and temperance causes.

Sojourner Truth first visited northeastern Indiana in 1858, probably because it was not far from her new home in the Harmonia community near Battle Creek, Michigan. By setting foot in Indiana she broke the law, as Article 13 of Indiana’s 1851 Constitution provided that “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.”  This was of no concern for a woman of her ideals and determination. It was at the small town of Silver Lake in Kosciusko County that a hostile crowd insisted that she was really a man in disguise.  Challenged to reveal her breasts to women of the audience, she uncovered her breasts for the entire audience, saying that she “had suckled many a white babe.” Accounts of this “symbolic rape,” as modern scholars describe it, were published both locally and in the nation’s leading abolitionist newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.

Her 1861 appearance at the Steuben County courthouse in Angola was, according to abolitionist accounts, disrupted by a drunken mob, which pushed and cursed her, threatening tar and feathers or even worse. Reports noted that she made a dramatic figure:  unusually tall (some said nearly six feet), thin, very dark complexioned, and dressed for this occasion in red, white, and blue.  According to the Steuben Republican, “Sojourn Truth” did speak, although her words were not recorded.  Local residents were divided on her right to speak, but the Republican said nothing about a mob or threats of violence.  Its seven headlines tell a story of confusion in five distinct typefaces:

A BLOODLESS VICTORY.

Free Speech Tolerated in Angola.

GRAND MILITARY DISPLAY!

NEGROES NOT TOLERATED IN INDIANA.

Arrest for Harboring Negroes.

Arrest and Trial of Sojourn Truth.

ANGOLA BECOMING HERSELF AGAIN.

Apparently many local Republicans were reluctant to allow Sojourner Truth to speak, although they were equally opposed to allowing anti-abolitionist Democrats to prevent her from speaking.  The Republican seemed to be more concerned with the community’s reputation for law and order than for printing a clear account of what actually happened:

Although the freedom of speech had not been questioned here, yet the free speech of colored persons was not thought advisable at this time and under the excited state of the country, which met with opposition by some and encouragement by others, which resulted in favor of free speech, although but of short duration.

Sojourner Truth was arrested “by her would be friends on a charge of being in the State contrary to the laws of the State,” tried before a friendly justice of the peace, and set free.  Other local residents, dissatisfied by this “mock trial,” had her arrested again and taken before a less-friendly justice, whereupon her friends won a change of venue to a court ten miles to the north in Jamestown, very near the state line.  As she told the story afterward, she and her white companion Josephine Griffing were called before the courts on six occasions, but she was never convicted.  A local abolitionist named Horatio Roby was arrested and bound over to the circuit court “for harboring a negro.”  He was released on bail set at $500, but there is no record that he was ever brought to trial.

Sojourner Truth lecturing, January 2, 1860, Illustration from the Film, ‘The Emerging Woman’, Produced by the Women’s Film Project, 1974, accessed gettyimages.com.

Sojourner Truth remained for about a month during her 1861 visit, and she certainly spoke at a number of places in northeastern Indiana, not only in favor of the war itself, which was not a matter of great controversy in that part of the state, but also on the evils of slavery and the necessity for its destruction.  Abolition did not become government policy until President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862.

Sojourner Truth’s visit emphasizes how divided was public opinion in Indiana in the late spring of 1861.  Most Hoosiers were enthusiastically in favor of preserving the Union, far fewer favored the abolition of slavery, and few of those would have welcomed freed slaves to live in Indiana.  Although it was unenforceable during and after the Civil War, Article 13 was not formally repealed until 1881.  Nevertheless, despite accusations of intimidation by a drunken mob published by the abolitionist press, Sojourner Truth did speak publicly in Steuben County.  She was threatened but not injured, she was protected by armed members of the Scott Township Home Guard, and she was never convicted for the crime of entering the state although obviously guilty of the charge.  The Steuben Republican believed that “Negro excitement has run very high in Angola for the last ten days, very much to the discredit of the town.”   Those who invited, sheltered and defended Sojourner Truth on her visits to Indiana held a much different opinion.

The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of Peg Dilbone of Angola, independent researcher and Steuben County Historian.

 

Bibliography

Painter, Nell Irvin, editor, Narrative of Sojourner Truth.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1998.

Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth:  A Life, a Symbol.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1996.

Steuben Republican [Angola, Indiana].

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