Moy Kee Part I: The “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community

Moy Key, courtesy of Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
A Disturbing Question

In 1901, The San Francisco Call urged the renewal of The Chinese Exclusion Act, the only legislation in American history that wholly banned the immigration of a specific ethnic group.  The Call emphatically supported this renewal stating that America ought to be doing everything in its power to “prevent the threatened invasion of Mongol hordes.” Sentiments like this were not uncommon. Racist cartoons, articles calling for Congress to defend America from the “Yellow Peril,” and state conventions or resolutions urging the renewal of the Exclusion Act were a dime a dozen in 1901. That same year, The Indianapolis News ran a very different story. This article criticized the Exclusion Act and threw its support behind Moy Kee, a Chinese immigrant and resident of Indianapolis, as he sought a federal government job, from which Chinese immigrants had been barred. The Indianapolis News noted on March 8, 1901:

Moy Jin Kee, Chinese Merchant and caterer at 211 Indiana avenue, is about to renew with the Government a disturbing question as to the effect of the Garry alien law passed by Congress . . . He has lived in this country over forty years, speaks excellent English . . . he was brought to this country from Canton when a mere child . . . Mr. Moy is an earnest seeker after appointment.

While Moy Kee never received a federal appointment, the Indianapolis community would prove to be staunch supporters of Moy Kee. The Marion County Circuit Court granted Moy his citizenship when federal law forbade it. Newspapers sold Moy ad space for his chop suey restaurant and frequently approached him for interviews. Later, when his citizenship was challenged by the federal government, Indianapolis Mayor Samuel L. Shank personally wrote a letter to President Taft defending Moy as “universally regarded as being one of the city’s best citizens.” These actions across the Indianapolis community demonstrate the level of prominence Moy Kee had attained in Indianapolis during a time when anti-Chinese attitudes in America were at an all-time high. This blog will outline the arduous path Moy traveled to obtain his American citizenship and how he used his personal assets to carve out a place in both the Chinese immigrant and Indianapolis community.

The Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Moy Kee Seeks American Citizenship

Moy Kee immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s as a young boy from Guangdong Province in China. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, his family came to America seeking work and an escape from the political turmoil plaguing China. However, rather than wishing to build wealth and return to China in calmer times like most Chinese immigrants, Moy wanted to stay in America for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he also wanted to become an American citizen. To better assimilate with his new home, Moy converted to Christianity and attained fluency in English. In 1878 he moved to New York and ran a business selling imported Chinese goods. He also became involved in Christian ministry and began proselytizing the New York Chinese community. However, Moy was accused of stealing from one of his employers and jailed. While there are no records of a trial, Moy decided to shed his tarnished reputation by seeking a fresh start in Chicago. Critically, before Moy left New York he filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, the first step of the naturalization process. This would prove to be a watershed moment in Moy’s quest for citizenship because two years later the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is notably the only legislation in American history that provides an absolute ban on immigration against a specific ethnic group. It instated a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration, enacted severe restrictions on current immigrants – now at constant risk for deportation – and effectively blocked all Chinese from American citizenship. In 1892 the Exclusion Act was renewed for another decade via the Geary Act and then in 1902 it would become permanent legislation.

The Magic Washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese Must Go, printed circa 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiments that spurred it would become a constant source of disruption and conflict in Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants’ lives. In Chicago, Moy Kee opened a Chinese tea shop and began his protracted battle for his citizenship. In the community, he helped organize the Chicago Chinese Club, a political group aimed at bettering the lives of the Chicago Chinese and protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Individually, Moy spent years lobbying the local courts, arguing that because he filed his intent to become a citizen two years before the ratification of the Exclusion Act, the law did not apply to him, and therefore he was eligible for citizenship. Year after year the Chicago courts rejected his argument and Moy remained, legally at least, a stranger in his own home.

Moy’s legal luck changed in 1897 when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, setting up a litmus test of Indiana’s proverbial “Hoosier Hospitality.” In Moy’s case at least, Hoosier Hospitality rang true and on October 18th, 1897, eighteen years after Moy had begun the naturalization process (By comparison, the naturalization process today lasts on average 12-16 months), the Marion County Court granted him his coveted American citizenship.

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

While Moy Kee may have obtained his citizenship, his work to be accepted by the Indianapolis community was far from complete. Moy settled down in Indy and eventually opened a Chop Suey and Chinese restaurant at 506 East Washington Street. A sign hung outside his restaurant advertising it as “Moy Kee & Co. Chinese Restaurant,” though the papers frequently referred to it as “Mr. Moy’s Chop Suey House.” He intentionally began inserting himself into as many community functions as possible. There are news articles of Moy hosting large Chinese New Year’s parties, playing Chinese instruments at school functions, inviting local politicians to dine at his restaurant, and selling Chinese palm readings for fifty cents. He even planned to open a Chinese language school, though his idea never came to fruition. Entrepreneurial and outgoing, it seems Moy was willing to try everything at least once.

However, as diverse his activities may have seemed they always shared one common thread. All his actions served to further integrate himself into the Indianapolis community and they all hearkened back to his Chinese roots. In this way, Moy used his heritage as a source of novelty and entertainment for the community. Rather than divorce himself from his culture to “mix in” with the great American Melting Pot, he successfully mobilized his Chinese heritage as a vehicle for his accumulation of wealth and social standing in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 25, 1900, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Compared to coastal states like Californian, Indianapolis had a small Chinese immigrant population. The 1910 Census estimates that only 273 Chinese lived in Indiana and, in Indianapolis specifically, the Indianapolis News, reported that the Chinese had a “local colony” of about 40 or so immigrants including Moy Kee. The miniscule population of Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis may have contributed to the city’s relative receptivity to the Chinese when compared to states with significant Chinese communities. Furthermore, the low population explains why Indianapolis never developed a centralized locale or “Chinatown” like New York or Chicago did. There simply were not enough Chinese to do so. Instead, the Chinese immigrants clustered around Indiana Avenue, a historic strip of downtown Indianapolis that was known primarily for housing a vibrant African American community. The decentralized nature of the Chinese community provided Moy Kee with the perfect opportunity to rise to power as the Chinese representative to the city and, in doing so, ensure his place in Indianapolis.

Moy Kee both stood for and apart from the Indianapolis Chinese community. This allowed him to rise to prominence in a fashion unfathomable for the average immigrant. For one, the census records list his wife Chin Fung as being the only Chinese woman to live in Indianapolis in the late 1890’s. Compared to other Chinese men who had to balance both work and domestic duties alone, Moy Kee’s wife helped him around the restaurant, entertaining guests and managing the house when Moy was away. Chin Fung’s extra support allowed Moy to be more experimental as he could divert attention to other tasks besides running his restaurant and house. Furthermore, as the only Chinese woman in the city, Chin Fung received attention from the news media, who described her as a graceful and poised woman and were fascinated by her traditionally bound feet, which caused a peculiar gait.

Second, Moy Kee separated himself from other Chinese in the community by owning a successful restaurant. He was wealthier than the average Hoosier and even employed his own servants to help run the household and restaurant. This contrasted with most Chinese men, who were stymied by language barriers and Sinophobia and, as a result, toiled in stagnant, low-level service industries such as laundry, cleaning, or construction. With paltry salaries that almost all were sent back to impoverished family in China, this left little wealth for the average Chinese immigrant and, as a result, they often lived hovering just above the poverty line. In contrast, Moy’s wealth allowed him to return home to China fairly frequently and keep in touch with relatives. He even was able to travel to China to marry Chin Fung before bringing her back to America. Moy’s wealth also enabled him to import several Chinese goods for his restaurant including traditional decorations, ebony wood, ivory China table sets, and unusual foods that attracted both Chinese and non-Chinese customers alike.

The Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Moy’s most valuable asset in his rise to prominence was his ability to speak fluent English. This fluency cemented him as the unofficial spokesperson of the Indianapolis Chinese community, and he took full advantage of it. He spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the local newspapers by buying ad space for his restaurant and happily providing interviews and engaging stories about his many endeavors. When reporters wanted to cover a story about the Chinese community, they contacted Moy. This working relationship was a major factor in the divergent coverage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Indianapolis compared to other cities. Most articles about Moy or the community positively portray the Chinese and avoid fear-mongering headlines about “the oriental wave,” or “yellow peril.” Indianapolis was not immune to xenophobic sentiments (Among other questionable coverage, The Indianapolis Morning Star accused Chinese royalty of visiting America to recruit American soldiers for the imperial army and The Indianapolis Journal often referred to the Chinese as “coolies”) but, compared to newspapers in California or other states, negative rhetoric was relatively muted.

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

In 1902, Moy Kee’s ambition to integrate with the Indianapolis community would put him at odds with the city’s Chinese population. In May, the small community would be rocked by the gruesome murder of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. The police immediately arrested Chin Hee, an immigrant who had just moved from Chicago and was employed by Doc Lung. This caused a major rift within the Chinese community, and they fragmented into two groups: Those who protested Chin Hee’s innocence and those who believed Chin Hee committed the murder. Moy Kee found himself in the crossfire of this rift when he began translating for the police and later grand jury and courts in the murder case. Many in the community felt that Moy Kee was betraying them by working as the government’s translator, the same institution that denied them citizenship and deported their people on a regular basis. The situation escalated to the point that Moy started receiving death threats attempting to coerce him into ending his translations for the government.

Despite the threats to his life, Moy Kee persisted, and the Grand Jury ultimately convicted three perpetrators, none of them Chinese, for the crime. The role he played in the court trial benefitted his relationships with the local government and police. He also received more media attention than he ever had before, further elevating his position in Indianapolis. However, this acceptance by local institutions came at the expense of Moy’s relationships with his fellow Chinese. Already separated from them due to his affluence and privileged status as an American citizen, working with the police led to some in community questioning whether Moy was loyal to the Chinese or the Americans. Rumors swirled and some whispered that E. Lung, the leader of the faction that defended Chin Hee, might be a better fit as the Chinese people’s representative. Subsequently, Moy would become increasingly paranoid about being ousted by the Chinese community as their unnamed leader. Later in life, when he was stripped of his high Chinese rank, he would immediately accuse fellow Chinese of engineering his social downfall.

Conclusion

By 1904, Moy Kee was undoubtedly the most prominent Chinese figure in Indianapolis and, despite a factionalized Chinese community, he was still recognized as the de facto leader. Better yet, Moy Kee had a home in Indianapolis that accepted him as both an American citizen and Hoosier. For a Chinese man to achieve this position was an incredible feat. Moy had hopscotched across the country, testified in multiple courts, accumulated a massive amount of wealth, and overcame duplicitous stereotypes to earn his citizenship and social standing. In many ways, it felt like Moy and his wife had achieved everything an immigrant to the United States could dream of.

However, no one could have predicted the actions of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900’s. A royal family infamous for their strict isolationism and rejection of Western diplomacy, they shocked the world by announcing that they would be participating in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Not only that, but they were appointing Prince Pu Lun, nephew of the emperor, as head of the Chinese fair commission. Critically for Moy, the Prince announced he would spend months before and after the fair touring America, including a ten-day visit to Indianapolis.

In the next installment, follow Prince Pu Lun’s royal visit to Indianapolis where he caused much fanfare. Additionally, we explore Moy Kee’s role in Pu Lun’s visit as he vies for an audience with the prince and eventually precipitates his “coronation” as the official Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese.

For further reading, see:

“Chinese,” The Polis Center, accessed May 2022, courtesy of IUPUI.edu.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

“Wants a Federal Place: Moy Jin Kee Raises a Disturbing Question,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

Man and woman canoeing on the swamp behind Fredericks’ Island and Camp Comfort. Syracuse-Wawasee Digital Archives, Indiana Memory.

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands. Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth. Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible [sic] dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, likely J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves. Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active abolitionist during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, guided hundreds if not thousands of African American freedom seekers toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting freedom seekers there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track freedom seekers lost their scent there. And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans travel north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here. Indiana Album.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the freedom seekers hid in. The Indianapolis Journal recalled one story about the place in 1889:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue. Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892 in the Indianapolis Journal:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a freedom seeker, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from the downtown jail and tried to get to the swamp on horseback, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University (as Butler was called) and was  arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the Indianapolis Journal claimed in 1889.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses. The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp? Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today:

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

A writer for the News concurred in 1889:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple. Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier. About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water. As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths. Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.) Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State. Yale University.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped freedom seekers escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, freedom seekers hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by the Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house
Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1931. Indiana Landmarks Wilbur D. Peat Collection, Indiana Memory.

donut shop - bacon's farm
Site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone. Google Maps.

Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918
South Bend News-Times, November 15, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

peat indianapolis 1905 2
Indianapolis News, August 19, 1905. Newspapers.com.

As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article in the Indianapolis News is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and “white flight” led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Walter C. Kiplinger remembered during World War I in the Indianapolis News:

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


Indianapolis News, March 1, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

Dillinger, Denial, and Devotion: The Trials of Lena and Gilbert Pierpont

Harry Pierpont, courtesy of Geocities, and Lena Pierpont, courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

“Harry is a fine boy, he never told me a lie in his life,” Lena Pierpont proclaimed about her son, “Handsome Harry” Pierpont, who was considered the brains of the John Dillinger gang.[1] Like many families, the Pierponts rallied around their son in times of trouble. The extent to which they defended Harry demonstrated both the depths of parental love and the pitfalls of willful ignorance. Harry’s troubles centered on the frenzied period between September 1933 and July 1934, when the Dillinger gang became America’s most wanted criminals for a crime spree that impacted Indiana communities big and small.

While Dillinger became the FBI’s very first “Public Enemy Number 1,”[2] 32-year-old Harry Pierpont was often credited with being the architect of the Dillinger gang’s crimes, and the mentor who helped make Dillinger a skilled criminal.[3]  Born in Muncie in 1902, Pierpont had amassed a lengthy criminal history long before meeting up with Dillinger. Pierpont was linked to a series of 1920s bank and store robberies across the state, including in Greencastle, Marion, Lebanon, Noblesville, Upland, New Harmony, and Kokomo, prior to landing in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City – where he befriended and mentored Dillinger.

Pierpont’s criminal sophistication, however, had not spared him from arrest. By July 1934, he was arrested and awaited execution in Ohio for the murder of Lima County Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The sheriff had been killed in October 1933 as gangsters broke Dillinger out of the county jail. Pierpont’s mother, Lena, and father, J. Gilbert, instinctively believed in their son’s innocence and grew resentful over the “persecution” they said they endured from authorities after they had relocated from Ohio to Goshen, Indiana in April 1934. Pierpont’s beleaguered parents had come to the Hoosier city to try and “make an honest living in a respectable business.”[4]

By mid-July, with Dillinger still at large (although only days away from being slain by federal officers in Chicago), the Pierponts were under constant surveillance in an all-out effort to locate Dillinger. They had rented a “barbeque and beer parlor” on what was then called State Road 2 (now U.S. 33 West). Known as the “Cozy Corner Lunch” spot, the roadhouse was a half mile northwest of the famous A.E. Kunderd gladiola farm just outside the Goshen city limits.[5] Conducting what she called her first “free will interview” given to a journalist, Lena told the The Goshen News Times & Democrat, “I am going to try and open this place and run a legitimate business as soon as these men stop trailing us. Mr. Pierpont (her husband) is ill and unable to work, so all we want is to earn an honest living.”[6]

The Goshen News Times & Democrat reported that the Pierponts had rented the barbeque stand on an one-year lease offered by a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hill. Although summer was nearly half over, the Pierponts had not opened for the year because a requisite beer license was still pending. The Pierponts believed this was held up by local officials facing pressure from federal authorities. Lena bitterly explained that the couple had sold all of their farm goods in Ohio in order to open the Goshen business.

“We should not be persecuted,” Lena explained. “We’re simply unfortunate. The government should call off its detectives and allow us to live as other good American citizens.” She pointed at a car parked about a quarter mile away and said, “See that car down the road? They’re always watching us.” She alleged that “Every minute for 24 hours a day we’re shadowed. They think we know (John) Dillinger and that he may come here. We don’t know him and we don’t want to.”[7] She insisted that her son was hiding in the attic of her home on the night the Ohio sheriff was killed, and while he was a fugitive escapee from the Indiana State Prison at the time, he was no murderer.[8]

Lena suggested that if she and Gilbert did know Dillinger maybe “we could get a deposition from him to the effect that our son, Harry, did not kill Sheriff Jess Sarber at Lima, Ohio.” Harry had assured her that Dillinger would clear him of the murder “and name the real slayer,” thus saving her son from the electric chair in Ohio.[9] The Indianapolis Times reported in September, Lena successfully arranged to meet with him in Chicago. According to her account, when asked who freed him from the Lima jail, Dillinger said “‘I’ll tell you who turned me out. Homer Van Meter is the man who fired the shot that killed Sarber and Tommy Carroll and George McGinnis are the men who were in the Lima jail and turned me out.'”[10]

Members of the Dillinger outlaw gang, Russel Clark, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, John Dillinger, Ann Martin and Mary Kinder, are arraigned in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934, courtesy of the Associated Press.

Although used to letting his wife serve as family spokesperson, Gilbert Pierpont told an enterprising reporter from The Goshen News-Times & Democrat, “Harry (Pierpont) will not die for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. We are looking for a reversal of the Lima verdict by the Ohio Supreme Court. If not, the case will go to the United States Supreme Court.”[11] Harry’s angry and reportedly ill father said he didn’t like talking to reporters “because of so many false statements they have made about my son.” Contrasting her ailing husband, Lena “was jovial during the interview” and “jokingly remarked that the press would have it all wrong” when writing about her son.[12]

State and federal law enforcement officials were quick to impeach the Pierponts. Captain Matt Leach, who headed the effort of the Indiana State Police to bring the marauding gang to justice, actually identified Pierpont as “the brains” of the Dillinger gang. It was Pierpont, Leach said, who came up with the idea of springing Dillinger from the county jail in Lima by posing as Indiana police officers. When Sheriff Sarber demanded to see their credentials, Pierpont reportedly said, “Here’s our credentials,” and fired multiple shots into the lawman, killing him instantly.[13]

It was a short-lived, but “productive” period of freedom for thirty-one-year-old Dillinger after being sprung from the Lima jail. During this stint, he led his gang in a bold April 12, 1934 raid on the Warsaw Police Department, where they seized a cache of guns. The gang also conducted a deadly robbery of the Merchants National Bank in downtown South Bend on June 30, killing a police officer and injuring four others in a brazen sidewalk shootout. Federal agents put a stop to the spree when they gunned down Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, just nine months after the Pierpont-led escape from the Ohio jail.

The Akron Beacon Journal, March 8, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

While Dillinger met his “death sentence” on a Chicago street, Pierpont remained on Ohio’s death row for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. Lena said she and her husband would continue to make the journey of more than 200 miles from Goshen, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, “every weekend” to see their son. “We will continue to do this as long as we have any money,” she said.[14] Lena also declared she would continue to challenge state and federal authorities for their alleged harassment of her family. She had reportedly talked to an Elkhart attorney about bringing suit against state and federal authorities.

“We are unfortunate that our son is in prison under sentence of death,” Lena said, adding “No other members of our family have a criminal record. We should not be persecuted. They tell us that these men, who are constantly nearby in parked automobiles ready to follow us at any time we may leave, are federal government men.”[15] Lena’s claim that her son Harry was the only member of her family who had run afoul of the law was not accurate. The Pierponts’ younger son, Fred, 27, and Lena herself, were both arrested and held on illegal possession of weapons charges and vagrancy in Terre Haute in December 1933. A car driven by Lena on the day she was arrested contained almost $500 in cash and a sawed-off shotgun.

To publicize her claims of harassment, a day after granting an exclusive interview to The Goshen News Times & Democrat (picked up by the Associated Press and reported by newspapers across the nation), Lena marched into the Elkhart County Courthouse at Goshen, demanding that she be granted her long-delayed beer license and that an “order of restraint” be placed against detectives following them.[16] Despite his family’s attempts to win over “the court of public opinion,” as summer gave way to fall in 1934, Harry’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were coming to no end other than delaying his execution. Surprisingly, in late September, Pierpont and fellow Dillinger gang member, Charles Makley, staged a spectacular, yet unsuccessful escape attempt from the Ohio Penitentiary. Fashioning realistic-looking handguns made of soap (and blackened with shoe polish), Pierpont and Makley were immediately “outgunned” by prison guards, who killed Makley and critically wounded Pierpont in a shootout.[17]

By October, Pierpont could no longer escape his fate. As one reporter noted, Pierpont “whose trigger finger started the John Dillinger gang on its short but violent career of crime that blighted everything it touched, must die in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.” Prison officials reported “the doomed man has reconciled himself to death and embraced his former faith, the Roman Catholic religion.”[18]

Sullen and weakened by the gunshot wounds sustained during his failed prison escape, Pierpont strongly contrasted with “the braggart who once boasted he would kill every cop on sight.” Now, jailers said, Pierpont wished out loud that he too had been fatally wounded in the prison shootout.[19] “Pierpont’s mother, Lena, by this time living near Goshen, Indiana, and his sweetheart, Mrs. Mary Kinder, an Indianapolis gang ‘moll,’ are remaining true to the fallen gangster to the last,” one newspaper account told. Kinder, whom reporters were quick to point out was previously married, “even went to Columbus recently[,] determined to marry Harry in prison before he dies.”[20]

South Bend Tribune, October 19, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

On October 17, 1934, the “fair-haired brains of the dissolved Dillinger mob” was executed. The Associated Press noted, “Quietly, unaided and with the ghost of a smile on his lips, the 32-year-old killer sat down to death in the gaunt wooden chair within the high stockade of the prison guarded in unprecedented fashion.”[21] Reporters who witnessed the execution said Pierpont “was not asked for any ‘last word,’ and he volunteered none. He just sat down with a rueful smile, closed his eyes, strained the muscles of his lanky, six-foot-two frame, as the current struck, clenched one fist – and that was all.”[22] A national wire photo showed Kinder comforting Lena and Gilbert at their new home along U.S. 31 in Lakeville in St. Joseph County, where they had moved after their failed attempt to start a roadhouse near Goshen.

A funeral was conducted for Harry inside the Pierponts’ home, led by a priest from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Lakeville. The services were held an hour earlier than was announced to keep reporters away. Harry Pierpont had told Ohio prison officials that he desired a “simple, but lavish funeral” and wanted his remains be released to his parents in Indiana.[23] The South Bend Tribune reported, “His casket was adorned only by a small wreath of artificial flowers, and lay grotesquely surrounded by canned goods and automobile accessories in his parent’s home store.”[24] Harry was eventually buried at the Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Lena Pierpont would appear in the news one more time for her resilience. In the summer of 1937, Lakeville town authorities took court action to rid the village of “a band of roving coppersmiths” who had settled at Lena’s White City Inn. Surely she refused to oust them because she needed the income in the lean Depression years, but perhaps she also related to those on the fringes of society, trying their best to survive.[25]

The Pierponts suffered another tragedy when Harry’s younger brother, Fred, died in March 1940 at the age of 33 from injuries suffered in a car crash near South Bend. Perhaps being forced to hone the art of resilience due to the upheaval wrought by Harry helped them survive this second blow. Lena died in her Lakeville home on October 21, 1958 at the age of 78. Her long-suffering husband Gilbert, died three years later also at Lakeville at the age of 80. They were buried alongside their infamous son in Indianapolis.[26]

Police booth, courtesy of the Goshen Historical Society.

* Interestingly, the Goshen connection to the Dillinger gang, beyond the Pierponts’ battles there, is forever enshrined in the city’s limestone police booth opened in 1939. The impressive octagon structure sits on the corner of the Elkhart County Courthouse square, opposite Goshen’s two largest banks. Complete with bulletproof glass (donated by two of the city’s banks), the booth (partially funded by Works Progress Administration dollars) was never called into duty as Goshen’s banks escaped being robbed.

Sources:

*Primary documents were accessed via Newspapers.com, the Goshen Public Library, and the Goshen Historical Society. 

[1] Associated Press, July 12, 1934.

[2] Andrew E. Stoner “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” in Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds., Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015), 96.

[3] Patrick Sauer, “Harry Pierpont: John Dillinger’s Mentor” in Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, eds., The Who, the What, the When: Sixty-Five Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC., 2014), 42.

[4] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[5] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 19, 1934.

[6] Goshen News Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[7] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[8] United Press, July 13, 1934.

[9] Associated Press, September 23, 1934.

[10] Indianapolis Star, July 13, 1934.

[11] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[12] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[13] Paul Simpson, The Mammoth Book of Prison Breaks: True Stories of Incredible Escapes (London Constable & Robinson, LTD., 2013).

[14] Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[15] Associated Press, December 14, 1933.; Goshen News-Times & Democrat, July 12, 1934.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Associated Press, September 22, 1934.

[18] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[19] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[20] Massillon (Ohio) Evening Independent, October 4, 1934.

[21] Associated Press, October 17, 1934.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1934.

[24] South Bend Tribune, October 18, 1934.

[25] United Press, June 8, 1937.

[26] Muncie Evening Press, October 22, 1958.; Muncie Star-Press, October 4, 1961.; Associated Press, March 6, 1940.

“Coed Mayhem”: Roller Derby in Indiana

 

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:

Roller Derby.

Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport?  Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.

“Two women’s league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallend,” World-Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, March 10, 1950, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Leo Seltzer, Courtesy of Jerry Seltzer’s blog, rollerderbyjesus.com

Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.

Dance Marathon, Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]

Photo courtesy of Made in Chicago Museum.

The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans.  Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary).  One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]

Martin and McKay, Courtesy of the National Roller Skating Museum.

The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]

For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation.  However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters.  According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however.  Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937, Accessed via ProQuest.

The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]

But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.

“Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium,” 1937, Lane Brothers Commerical Photographers, Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections, Digital Public Library of America

Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]

Damon Runyon, 1938. Courtesy of the Irish Times and Getty Images.

Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers.  Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.

Courtesy of the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), October 9, 1936, Accessed via Newspapers.com
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1949. Accessed via ProQuest.

This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, October 31, 1954. Accessed via ProQuest.

Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 4, 1941. Accessed via ProQuest.

Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]

Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.

Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!

Sources:

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.

[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.

[iv] Marino, 18-22.

[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.

[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.

[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.

[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;

[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.

[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.

[xi] Marino, 30.

[xii] Marino, 30-32.

[xiii] Marino, 30.

[xiv] Marino, 30.

[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.

[xvi] Marino, 38, 128-130

[xvii] W. Blaine Patton, “Playing the Field of Sports,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1940; Marino, 39.

[xviii] Frank Anderson, “Mayhem on Skates: Roller Derby Squads Follow Wrestling Cue,” Indianapolis Star, Sun. Oct. 31, 1954.

[xix] Anderson.

[xx] Anderson.

[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949;  “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxiii] Anderson.

[xxiv] “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field.”

Indianapolis’s Foreign House: “A Mixture of Protection and Coercion”

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

As John H. Holliday strolled through Indianapolis’s Hungarian Quarter, he observed windows caked with grime, street corners lined with rubbish, and the toothy grin of fences whose boards had been pried off and used for fuel. While reporting on the nearby “Kingan District,” Holliday watched plumes of smoke cling to the meat packing plant, for which the area was named. The philanthropist and businessman noted that in the district “boards take the place of window-panes, doors are without knobs and locks, large holes are in the floors, and the filthy walls are minus much of the plastering.”[1] Houses swollen with residents threatened outbreaks of typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

Those unfortunate enough to live in these conditions were primarily men from Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Hungary who hoped to provide a better life for family still living in the “Old World.”[2] Alarmed by what he witnessed, Holliday published his report “The Life of Our Foreign Population” around 1908. He hoped to raise awareness about the neighborhoods’ dilapidation, which, in his opinion, had been wrought by landlords’ rent gouging, the city’s failure to provide sanitation and plumbing, and immigrants’ inherent slovenliness (a common prejudice at the time). Holliday feared that disease and overcrowding in immigrant neighborhoods could spill into other Indianapolis communities.[3] Perhaps a bigger threat to contain was the immigrants’ susceptibility to political radicalism, given the squalor in which they had been reduced to living. Holliday wrote, “If permitted to live in the present manner, they will be bad citizens.”[4] 

Dan and Mary Simon’s Romanian parents settled in Indiana Harbor, ca 1915, Jane Ammeson Collection, Indiana Album.

Motivated by a desire to both aid and control immigrants, a coalition of local businessmen-including Holliday-philanthropists, and city officials formed the Immigrant Aid Association in 1911.[5] Later that year, the association established the Foreign House on 617 West Pearl Street, which provided newcomers with social services like child care and communal baths, but also worked to assimilate and “Americanize” them. The Foreign House reflected the dual purposes of immigrant settlements in this period: what historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker called “a mixture of protection and coercion.”


The first week of April 1908 was one of discord for northern Indiana. Hundreds of immigrant laborers stormed the Lake County Superior Court, “crying for bread” after the closing of Calumet Region mills. In Hammond, armed immigrants drilled together, causing police to fear the emergence of a riot. In neighboring Indiana Harbor, masses of desperate immigrants, many living in destitution, thronged the streets in search of employment. Blood spilled in Syracuse, when Hungarian laborers stabbed Sandusky Portland Cement Co. employee Bert Cripe. Apparently this was retribution for local employers’ refusal to hire Romanians, Hungarians, and “other laborers of the same class.” The stabbing set off a sequence of street fights between immigrants and locals, and resulted in the bombing of a hotel where laborers stayed. The Indianapolis News reported that the explosion “wrecked a portion of the building, shattered many windows, and not only terrified the occupants, but also the citizens of the town and country.”[6]

These alarming events made an impression on a nameless employee at Indianapolis’s Foreign House, who referenced the Indianapolis News article in the margin of a ledger three years after the foment.[7] The employee seemed acutely aware of the potential for unrest if the basic needs of Indianapolis’s estimated 20,000 immigrants went unmet.[8]

South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to Crocker, by 1910, 80% of Indianapolis’s newcomers had originated from Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. Many of those who had recently settled in the Hoosier capital had migrated from Detroit, Kentucky, and Chicago, in search of jobs.[9] Many Americans viewed such immigrants with derision, believing, as Holliday did, that they “‘differ greatly in enterprise and intelligence from the average American citizen. They possess little pride in their personal appearance and live in dirt and squalor.'”[10] The 1911 Dillingham Commission Reports, funded by Congress to justify restrictive immigration policies, was designed to validate these beliefs. Using various studies and eugenics reports, the commission “scientifically” concluded that Eastern and Southern Europeans were incapable of assimilating and thereby diluted American society.[11] 

Reflecting the Report’s conclusions, a 1911 South Bend Tribune piece noted urgently, “A big portion of the immigrants are undesirable—very undesirable. . . . Mark this. If we don’t begin to really exclude undesirable immigration, the Anglo-Saxon in this Government will be submerged.” Its author continued that these “undesirables” would “soon become voters. Men who need votes see to that.”[12] The founders of Indianapolis’s Foreign House hoped to bring together various nationalities, as their isolation made them a “political and cultural menace.”[13]

Indianapolis Star, December 15, 1929, 75.

In fact, the House’s very foundations belied the American ideals of business philanthropy and civic volunteerism. Kingan & Co. essentially donated the settlement’s structure, the local community funded citizenship classes, and work was furnished partly through “personal subscriptions and the assistance of teachers who have volunteered their services.”[14] The settlement house would be modeled after YMCAs, offering baths, “reading and smoking rooms,” a health clinic, and night classes in which patrons could learn English.[15] Additionally, civics courses and an information bureau, where “all the dialects of the foreign population will be spoken,” helped immigrants understand American laws and navigate the citizenship process.

These classes were crucial, as ignorance about American customs resulted in many newcomers placing their money and trust in corner saloons, whose owners often mismanaged or pocketed the funds.  Immigrant Aid Association officers hoped that “opportunities for grafting and theft among the gullible class of foreigners will be reduced when the settlement house is in working order.”[16] An understanding of the English language and the legal system could also help challenge the stereotype that immigrants were criminals because most offenses were committed due to their “ignorance of the law.”[17]  Furthermore, the Star noted in 1914 that, according to those in charge, classes about American government “have given the students an increased earning capacity and have been of great benefit in fitting them for work in this country.”[18]

Questions about their intellectual aptitude persisted, as noted by the Indianapolis Star‘s 1915 observation of immigrants in night school: “It is an interesting sight to watch the swarthy men bending over their books and making awkward attempts to follow the pronunciation of their teachers.” Despite such evaluations, it is clear than many immigrants were grateful for the quality of education afforded in America. As relayed by an interpreter and printed pejoratively in the Indianapolis Star, a young Macedonian man who had recently arrived to Indianapolis “says he thankful most for the education he is gettin’ in America. He wants to bring father and mother here to free country.”[19]

Indianapolis News, February 21, 1916, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the Foreign House introduced men to American cultural and political norms through these courses, immigrant women were indoctrinated through home visits by Foreign House staff.[20]  Ellen Hanes, resident secretary of the organization, made 2,714 trips to women’s homes in 1913, “teaching the care of children and teaching domestic economy as practiced by American housewives.”[21] Historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker contended that such services:

were the medium for teaching ‘correct’ ideas about a variety of subjects, from the meaning of citizenship to the best way to cook potatoes; thus they always involved the abandonment by immigrant women of traditional ways of doing things.[22]

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1915, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

In addition to providing instruction about American customs, the House offered a space for fellowship and recreation. Likely feeling isolated in their new country, immigrants could socialize there and enjoy musical programs, as well as literary clubs with fellow newcomers. They could don costumes from their homeland, often “rich and heavy with gold and embroidery,” and perform folk dances and native music. Conversely, much of the entertainment centered around American patriotism, like a program for George Washington’s birthday, in which men dressed like the first president and women the first lady. The Indianapolis Star noted, “Probably at no place in Indianapolis are holidays celebrated more earnestly.”[23] Crocker contended that this blended programming “showed the settlement in the dual role of Americanizer and preserver of immigrant culture.”[24]

Recreational opportunities also lowered the possibility that immigrants would become a societal “liability.” One man who dropped by the house said, “‘We used play poker and go saloon and dance when we come Indianapolis. . . but now we read home books in our library, read English, do athletes, play music and do like Americans.'”[25]


Sidney Joseph Greene, Newman Library, CUNY, accessed Wikipedia.

America’s entry into World War I in 1917 intensified suspicion of immigrants and spurred questions about their loyalty. This hostility impacted foreign institutions like Indianapolis’s German-language paper, the Täglicher Telegraph und Tribüne, which, despite trying to present balanced war coverage, ceased publication by 1918. In the years following World War I, the Foreign House was “practically abandoned,” perhaps another victim of xenophobia surfacing from the war’s wake. The emerging nationalist impulse likely accounted for the organization’s name change.[26] The Foreign House became the American Settlement House in 1923, when the organization merged with the Cosmopolitan Mission and moved to 511 Maryland Street (where the Indiana Convention Center now sits).[27]

Post-war labor strikes, anarchists’ bombing of American leaders, and fears that Eastern European immigrants would replicate the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution increased suspicion of and reduced support for immigrants. It also helped inspire the 1924 Immigration Act, which set an annual immigrant quota of 150,000 and drastically curtailed admittance of people from “undesirable” countries.[28]  A sense of isolation must have intensified for Indianapolis’s immigrants, now deprived of the settlement house’s resources and contending with renewed nativism. That is until Mary Rigg, a young, idealistic social worker was put in command of the American Settlement House in 1923. While conducting research for her thesis about the settlement, Rigg developed an affinity and deep empathy for its visitors. She began to envision a robust image of their future. With the assistance of the House, immigrant neighborhoods blossomed with colorful flowerbeds, giggling children shimmied up gleaming jungle gyms, and neighbors shared the bounties of a communal garden.

Mary Rigg, courtesy of the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, accessed Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

The goal would not simply be to help newcomers find employment, obtain citizenship papers, or avoid disease, but to experience, as Rigg stated, “true neighborliness,” where they “could play the game of daily living together in peace and harmony.” Rigg would be chief architect of this idyllic vision, in which immigrants could taste the fruits of capitalism, while embracing their native customs, language, and dress. After all, she believed that living “in a country in which we have the privilege of climbing higher” applied to its immigrants and that it was the settlement’s responsibility to help them ascend its steps. [29] 

* Read Part II to learn how “Mother” Mary helped engineer a vibrant urban community and hear from those who thrived in it.

Sources:

*All newspapers were accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Sarah Wagner, “From Settlement House to Slum Clearance: Social Reform in an Immigrant Neighborhood,” 1-4 in 1911-2001: Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, 90 Years of Service, given to the author by Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center staff.

[2] Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 47.

[3] Wagner, 2-6.

[4] Crocker, 49.

[5] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[6] “Foreigners Clamoring for Something to Eat,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.; “Riot at Syracuse Ends without Loss of Life,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.

[7] Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records, 1911-1979, L130, Indiana State Library.

[8] Foreign population estimate is from “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.

[9] Crocker, 14, 47.

[10] Wagner, 5-6.

[11] “Dillingham Commission Reports (1911),” accessed Immigrationhistory.org.

[12] “The Latin Will Overcome the Anglo-Saxon in this Country in a Few Year,” South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3.

[13] Crocker, 48.

[14] Wagner, 6.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.; Quotation from “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[15] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[16] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.; “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.; “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[17] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[18] “Scope of Night Schools for Foreigners Broadened,” Indianapolis Star, August 13, 1914, 16.

[19] “Thankful to be Free,” Indianapolis Star, December 1, 1911, 8.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.

[20] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[21] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[22] Crocker, 59.

[23] Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[24] Crocker, 58.

[25] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[26] Crocker, 60.; German Newspapers’ Demise historical marker, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.; “Xenophobia: Closing the Door,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, accessed pluralism.org.

[27] Crocker, 60-61.; Wagner, 7-8.

[28] “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Red Scare of 1919-1920,” accessed Mass.gov.; “The Immigration Act of 1924,” Historical Highlights, History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed history.house.gov.; David E. Hamilton, “The Red Scare and Civil Liberties,” accessed Bill of Rights Institute.

[29] Crocker, 60-65.; Master’s thesis, Mary Rigg, A.B., “A Survey of the Foreigners in the American Settlement District of Indianapolis,” (Indiana University, 1925), Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.;  Bertha Scott, “Mary Rigg Busier Since ‘Retirement,'” Indianapolis News, November 3, 1961, 22.; Laura A. Smith, “Garden and Home First Wish of New Americans,” Indianapolis Star, July 6, 1924, 36.;  Letter, Mary Rigg, Executive Director, Southwest Social Centre to Mr. Joseph Bright, President, City Council, May 15, 1953,  Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.

Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | Leedy Manufacturing Company and Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”

Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”, made by Indianapolis’ Leedy Manufacturing Company in 1921, has been involved in many rivalries over its size. Learn more about its unique history from our latest video.

Learn more Indiana History from the IHB: http://www.in.gov/history/

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Visit our Blog: https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/

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Please comment, like, and subscribe!

Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Music: “Regimented Instinct” by Teknoaxe, “Jumpin’ Boogie Woogie” by Audionautix, “Anchors Aweigh” by US Marine Corps Band, “National Emblem” by US Naval Academy Band, “Low Tide” by Silent Partner, “Jazz Bar” by Doug Maxwell, Media Right Productions, “Hail, Purdue” by Purdue All-American Marching Band

Continue reading “Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | Leedy Manufacturing Company and Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum””

“Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:” Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community

Famous Door Kick Line
Performers at The Famous Door, an Indianapolis club known for its drag shows, ca. 1975, accessed The Michael Bohr Collection of the Indy Pride Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

“In our endeavors to attain social justice, we cannot afford the
destructive luxury of discriminating against one another.”

Justice, Inc., an LGBTQ+ rights organization, issued this statement in 1989 after some gay bars in Indianapolis refused to serve cross-dressing and transgender individuals.[1] The city’s queer community had already encountered and protested numerous challenges posed by law enforcement, including police harassment, surveillance of cruising sites, and possible prejudiced police work as homicide rates increased for gay men. Although gay bars afforded a degree of shelter from discrimination, not all were afforded the opportunity to patronize them.

While examining Indiana’s gay newsletter The Works, I came across recurring incidents of discrimination within Indianapolis’s queer population. In 1973, outspoken transgender rights activist Sylvia Rivera drew attention to these incidents on a national level at New York City’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. Rivera had helped found the Gay Liberation Front and, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in NYC, which provided desperately-needed shelter and food for homeless trans youth.

In addition to advocating for people of color and the impoverished, Rivera advocated for white, middle-class men and women jailed because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. She also fought for the women’s liberation movement. Despite this, she was shunned for her attempts to include trans individuals in the broader gay rights movement. She famously addressed this ostracism after pushing her way on stage at the Liberation Day Rally. There, she passionately addressed the crowd, stating “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way?” Her speech was met with a smattering of jeers and applause.

However, marginalized individuals within the queer community have been increasingly recognized through public artwork, Netflix documentaries, and seminars like The New Republic’s recent “Sex Workers as Queer History”. Cecilia Gentili, founder of Trans Equity Consulting and transgender actress in the Netflix show POSE, recalled in the seminar that gay men had significant power over transwomen and if you “weren’t fabulous enough” then you couldn’t get in the bar. She likened these experiences to the “criminalization of gender.” In this post, I examine similar incidents in Indianapolis, as well as strategies employed by the victims of discrimination to help secure rights for all.


Kerry Gean, dressed as the “woman I am deep inside of my biological male self,” and friends went to the Varsity Lounge in February 1989. After they were seated, their server singled out Gean with a request for identification. The server then informed her that she was breaking the law because the photo on her I.D. did not identically match her face. Humiliated and hurt, she returned home, changed into “male” clothes, and upon return was immediately served. After Gean’s experience, she asked readers in an editorial for The New Works News “Are we now turning against ourselves? Can we forget what it feels like to be barred from a public place by the owner, or even a bartender, who has some reason to hate us for the hard but true choices we have made?”[2]

Roberta Alyson, courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

By June, things were no better for Roberta Alyson, described by The Works as a “pre-operative transsexual.” Alyson was denied entrance to the gay bar Our Place on the grounds of not meeting dress code and identification not matching Alyson’s face, despite having a doctor’s note confirming the necessity of dressing as a woman. Bar officials got an off-duty officer who worked security to check the 31-year-old’s ID. He crumpled up the doctor’s note and Alyson “regrettably began to panic,” walking away from the parking lot. When the officer pursued and arrested Alyson, who later said one of the back-up officers was abusive and tried to lift Alyson’s skirt. Alyson was charged with and fined for fleeing an officer.[3] 

Alyson addressed the implications of such discrimination in a letter to the editor of The New Works News, noting Our Place’s dress code “flies in the face of the Stonewall Riots and sends a terrifyingly repressive message to the ‘straight’ community.” Alyson noted, “There were ‘genetic females’ in the bar on the night I visited it” and asked “Am I somehow more of a ‘threat’ to the bar’s image than a woman born?” Reflecting Gentili’s recollection, Alyson wrote “We, the greater gay community, are seeing a disturbing trend in that ‘gay rights’ seem only to apply to gays and lesbians who ‘fit in.’” Simply put, “Gay rights are human rights, and they apply to all of us!”[4]

Indianapolis police liaison Shirley Purvitis, one of the first to be appointed in the nation, organized a meeting to try to resolve issues between “certain segments of the gay community” and local gay bars. These bars included Our Place, 501 Tavern, and The Varsity. She noted later that “one of the most effective ways to fight discrimination was to ‘shut up and listen to what the other person has to say.’” Bar Owners, members of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Justice, Inc., IPD vice officers, and members of the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE) attended the meeting, which was, “as expected, confrontational from beginning to end.”[5]

Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

As to claims that individuals were being denied entrance due to discrepancies between their photo I.D. and their physical features, Excise Chief Okey stated that “the only requirement that excise has for a person being served alcohol is that they be 21 years of age or older. . . . crossdressing, either male or female, is not grounds for refusal of service.” Other bar owners stated blatantly that they refused to admit these patrons, not because they feared breaking excise laws, but because they intended to “‘preserve the established atmosphere of their bars.'”[6] A 501 Tavern spokesperson stated that these individuals “‘were not wanted there,’ and if they had been admitted violence might have resulted. The bar owners also voiced the fear that if they admitted people in drag their regular patrons might leave.” Gay TV producer Gregory McDaniel denounced this reasoning, stating, “‘What I’m hearing now is exactly what I heard 20 years ago when attempts were being made to keep blacks out of Riverside Park and other public places.'”[7] Aside from being morally wrong, McDaniel alleged this discrimination halted momentum in the broader fight for gay equality, noting, “The wire services have picked up these stories. This shows the dominate [sic] society that we are not unified and that they are safe in oppressing us.”

David Morse, manager of Our Place, stated at the meeting that he felt “‘very much trapped in the middle.’” He tried to reconcile the needs of both parties, “perhaps naively,” by establishing the dress code and I.D. policy. However, he noted that he “‘learned many lessons'” from the ensuing discussions. [8] Perhaps fear of losing the bars they fought so hard to establish—whether by mistakenly breaking excise laws or drawing unwanted attention to the establishment—owners implemented discriminatory policies. Unfortunately, the meeting to discuss these policies ended without much resolution.

Members of IXE, Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

IXE met separately with Justice, Inc. to address the issue and one observer at the meeting speculated that “perhaps one reason that the crossdressers were causing such a stir in the ‘male’ bars” was because they looked:

‘too good and too much like natural, normal women and a far cry from the narrow gay-oriented perception of what “drag queens” look like. Perhaps some of the shakier ‘male’ egos couldn’t handle this unaccustomed image.’ [9]

By September, there seemed to be a bit more acceptance, as Our Place admitted Roberta Alyson, who by then had two pieces of “‘official’ feminine'” identification. The newsletter reported that Tomorrow’s and Jimmy’s had also been more welcoming.[10] McDaniel also commented that the The New Works News‘s extensive coverage of the discrimination showed that the community could be “introspective and self-correcting.”[11]

The New Works News (July 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archive, IUPUI Library.

Sharon Allan, of IXE, decided to affect change by sitting down with bar employees. She met with Brothers manager Michael David to ask if their policy that identification had to match one’s appearance was implemented uniformly. After he said yes, Allan informed him that she “had been in the bar four times, after work and in a tie and had never been asked for ID.” Allan reported to the New Works News that “Michael immediately saw the lack of universality in their policy and promised to speak with the owner at the next staff meeting.”[12]

Capitalizing on the positive momentum, Justice, Inc. hosted the second “Discrimination Within the Gay Community” workshop in December.[13] While the turnout was low, and bar employees noticeably absent from the meeting, attendees reported that most bars had “reversed” their discriminatory policies. At the meeting, Gary Mercer, of Goshen, quipped “’Before you judge other people in the gay community, you better walk a mile in their pumps.’” Gay Cable Network’s Eric Evans agreed, noting that “‘discrimination is usually the result of ignorance.'” He suggested ongoing education for “both the gay and straight communities.” This, he said, could be accomplished through television programming and by forming a Gay Community Center.[14]

While awareness and dialog did not end prejudice entirely within Indy’s queer community, reported incidents diminished in The New Works News. Genny Beemyn notes in “Transgender History of the United States,” that in the early 1990s a “larger rights movement” emerged, “facilitated by the increasing use of the term ‘transgender’ to encompass all individuals whose gender identity or expression differs from the social norms of the gender assigned to them at birth.”[15] Still, activists fought an uphill battle for inclusion, as the “March on Washington” steering committee voted overwhelmingly to leave them out of the  1993 “Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” march, despite support from bisexual allies.[16]

New York dedicates East River State Park to LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson
Rendering of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, courtesy of the New York State Parks, accessed timeout.com.

Discrimination and violence against transgender individuals, especially those of color, endures, although largely waged by those outside of the queer community. However, public recognition of those marginalized within the community has increased, to some extent. In 2019, New York City announced it would honor drag queens and transgender rights activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson with monuments. Scott W. Stern and Charles O’Malley noted in their 2019 “Remembering Stonewall as It Actually Was—and a Movement as It Really Is” that the decision:

reflects a dawning awareness (among those in positions of power) that the LGBTQ movement was always more diverse, more radical, and more closely connected with other social movements than is commonly believed.

Along with the statues of Rivera and Johnson, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in August 2020 that the Marsha P. Johnson State Park, located along the East River, would be dedicated. This will be the first state park in the US honoring an LGBTQ+ individual, as well as a transgender woman of color. Stern and O’Malley argue that we should examine and commemorate those at the margins of equal rights movements not simply for history’s sake, but because “More accurate renderings of the past inform the way we act in the future; they inform whose lives we prioritize in the present.”[17] That is why we should be aware of Roberta Alyson and Kerry Gean, whose determination to transform humiliating experiences into policy change helped open the door to acceptance for other transgendered and cross-dressing individuals in Indianapolis. They remind us of the importance in engaging in conversations with “the other.”

*The professional study of LGBTQ+ history is relatively new.  We welcome feedback regarding accuracy and terminology, especially given the challenges in locating primary sources and the evolving conception of what comprises the queer community. We are especially interested in documenting lived experiences from a variety of perspectives.

[1] “Justice Investigation Calls for Uniform Bar Policies,” The New Works (October 1989): 8, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[2] “Varsity Drag,” The New Works News (July 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[3] “O.P.’s Dress Code Causes Arrest of TS: Transsexual Arrested Trying to Gain Admittance,” The New Works News (August 1989): 1, 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[4] Roberta Alyson, “Crossdresser’s Visit to Our Place,” The New Works News (July 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[5] “O.P.’s Dress Code Causes Arrest of TS: Transsexual Arrested Trying to Gain Admittance,” The New Works News (August 1989): 1, 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “IXE Meets with Justice,” The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[10] Gregory McDaniel, “Courageous Clear Thinking,” The New Works News (September 1989): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Sharon Allan, “No Discrimination Intended at Brothers,” The New Works News (October 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[13] “Justice Discrimination Workshop,” The New Works News (December 1989): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Genny Beemyn, “Transgender History of the United States,” in Laura Erickson-Schroth, ed., Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 28, accessed umass.edu.

[16] Ibid., 29.

[17] Scott W. Stern and Charles O’Malley, “Remembering Stonewall as It Actually Was—and a Movement as It Really Is,” The New Republic (June 24, 2019), accessed newrepublic.com.

[18] Ibid.

“Leaving Party Politics to Man:” How Some Hoosier Women Worked Against Suffrage

Anti-suffrage booth at the 1915 Old Home Days in Skaneateles, New York, courtesy of New York Heritage Digital Collections.

It is easy to assume that women unanimously supported woman’s suffrage, while men, clinging to their role as the households’ sole political actor, opposed it. However, this was not the case. In 1914, suffrage leader Alice Stone Blackwell wrote, “the struggle has never been a fight of woman against man, but always of broad-minded men and women on the one side against narrow-minded men and women on the other.”[i]

With the centennial of women’s suffrage upon us, we celebrate the determination of those women who fought for so long to secure their own enfranchisement. Understandably, many examinations of the suffrage movement only briefly touch on organized opposition of the movement, if at all. This is likely because it is much easier for us to identify with suffragists than it is with their counterparts. However, this lack of coverage can lead to the assumption that the anti-suffrage movement was weak or inconsequential compared to that of the pro-suffrage masses. That assumption would be incorrect. According to Historian Joe C. Miller, organized anti-suffragists outnumbered organized pro-suffragists until 1915, just five years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. [ii]

Suffrage Madonna postcard from 1909, showing the fear of anti-suffragists that women with the vote would leave men to care for their families. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

In the wake of suffrage gains in western states, anti-suffragists began to organize in 1895, forming the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women. Later, women formed similar organizations in New York (1895) and Illinois (1906). In 1911, leaders within these groups came together to establish the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS), which led to increasing organization on a national scale. By 1916, when pro-suffragists finally outnumbered antis, NAOWS claimed to have organized resistance in 25 of the 48 states.[iii]

You may be wondering why so many women felt strongly about legislation that we would consider to go against their best interests. That’s a difficult question to answer since, as with any movement, each woman would have had her own reasons to oppose suffrage. The various pamphlets and broadsides distributed by NAOWS, such as the one below, shed light on their reasoning.

“Why We Oppose Votes for Women,” courtesy of Tennessee Virtual Archive.

Views like those expressed in “Why We Oppose Votes for Women” became even more pervasive throughout 1916 and 1917 in response to a national spike of suffrage activity across the nation.[iv] Some Indiana women belonged to this opposition movement. Hoosier suffragists were working tirelessly to promote three separate bills that could lead to their enfranchisement. In the midst of the 1917 legislative session, anti-suffragists made their appearance in the form of “The Remonstrance,” a petition sent to State Senator Dwight M. Kinder of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, January 20, 1917, 7.

This “Remonstrance,” presented to the Indiana General Assembly on January 19, 1917, and subsequently reprinted in Indianapolis newspapers, laid out arguments against suffrage in three broad strokes:

  1. We Believe it is the demand of a minority of the women of our state.
  2. We are opposed to woman suffrage because we believe that women can best serve their state and community by leaving party politics to man and directing their gifts along the lines largely denied to men because of their obligations involved in the necessary machinery of political suffrage.
  3. We believe that with women in party politics there will arise a new party machine with the woman boss in control.

While these are the core arguments presented in the petition, it’s worth reading it in its entirety, as the supporting statements are fascinating. The petition’s arguments are similar to some of those put forth by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and there is a reason for that. On January 13, the Indianapolis News reported that anti-suffragists from Boston had been in the city for two weeks,

prepared to do a big and brave work. They went from house to house telling the poor misguided women of Indianapolis what a dreadful thing would befall them if they obtained equal suffrage. They asked that the women sign a petition against this particular brand of punishment the men of the legislature might mete out to them.

This was the same petition that would land on Senator Kinder’s desk days later. These East Coast anti-suffrage activists, either from the national organization or the closely-related Massachusetts group, came to Indiana, where no anti-suffrage organization existed, to turn women against their own enfranchisement.

While this work did convince some Hoosier women to submit the petition, it wasn’t particularly successful—if anything, the petition generated more support than ever for the suffrage bills before the Indiana General Assembly. While the document claimed to represent the “great majority of women” in the state, it was signed by just nineteen women, all of whom lived in the same upper-class Indianapolis neighborhood and who would likely have traveled in the same social circles. The response from suffrage activists around the state was swift.

Just two days after “The Remonstrance” appeared in Indianapolis papers, the Indianapolis News published an article penned by Charity Dye, an Indianapolis educator, activist, and member of the Indiana Historical Commission (which eventually became the Indiana Historical Bureau). Responding to the antis’ claim that they represented ninety percent of Hoosier women, Dye released the results of a poll taken in the fall of 1916. The women polled were all residents of the Eighth Ward of Indianapolis and each woman could select from “pro,” “anti,” and “neutral,” options. Of 1,044 women polled, 628 (60%) were in favor of suffrage. Dye ends the article, “In view of the fact that nineteen Indianapolis women asserted in The News Saturday that 90 per cent of Indiana women are opposed to suffrage, this is interesting reading.”[v]

Indianapolis News, January 23, 1917, 3.

The next day, women from around the state began sending their own list of nineteen names to newspapers—all in favor of suffrage. First, nineteen librarians and stenographers declared their support for suffrage “for what it will mean to them in the business world.”[vi] Next came nineteen Vassar College graduates, who signed their names “in protest against the assertion of nineteen anti-suffragists that women do not want suffrage.”[vii] Finally, nineteen “professional women,” who held medical degrees added their names “just because it is right.”

As lists of names continued to pour in from around the state, Joint Resolution Number 2, which would have granted Hoosier women full suffrage if passed, was winding its way through the Indiana General Assembly session. Just as enthusiasm for the bill reached its zenith, a new, even more promising prospect appeared when the legislature enacted a Constitutional Convention bill on February 1. According to Historian Anita Morgan, “A new Indiana Constitution could have full suffrage included in the document and eliminate the need to rely on a state law that could be overturned.” Pro-suffrage support for the convention flooded in.

Anti-suffragists saw this as possibly their last chance to block the enfranchisement of women in Indiana and called for a legislative hearing, where they could voice to their grievances.  Their goal was to persuade future members of the Constitutional Convention not to add women’s suffrage to the newly penned constitution. They got their hearing, but it didn’t exactly go as planned. On February 13, 1917, men and women, who supported and opposed suffrage, flooded the statehouse. What followed was hours of “speeches for and against votes for women [which] flashed humor, keen wit and an occasional bit of raillery or pungent sarcasm that brought laughter or stormy cheering.” First, state representatives heard from pro-suffragists, who pointed out that both the House and Senate had already expressed support for suffrage – all that was left now was to hammer out the details. The crowd, overwhelmingly composed of suffrage supporters, cheered throughout the address. Then Mary Ella Lyon Swift, leader of the original nineteen anti-suffrage remonstrants, spoke. She opined:

Suffrage, in my opinion, is one of the most serious menaces in the country today. With suffrage, you give the ballot to a large, unknown, untested class – terribly emotional and terribly unstable. . . If you thrust suffrage upon me you dissipate my usefulness, and in the same way you dissipate the usefulness of the most unselfish, most earnest and most capable women, who are working in their way, attracting no attention to themselves for the good of their country and mankind.

When one representative asked Swift to explain that last statement, she replied that suffrage would make “it necessary for us to fight the woman boss and the woman machine.”

Minnie Bronson, Buffalo Times, March 27, 1909, 2.

There again appears that talking point from the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, that once women get the vote, they’ll be irrevocably corrupted, with all-female political machines being run by female political bosses. One of the only other female speakers opposing women’s suffrage was Minnie Bronson, the secretary of NAOWS. Bronson addressed the overwhelming presence of pro-suffragists, quipping, “[Anti-suffragists] are not here pestering or threatening you, but are at home caring for their children.” Finally, after hours of  debating, Charles A. Bookwalter, former mayor of Indianapolis, delivered the decisive line, “It is 10:35 o’clock. Suffrage is right and hence inevitable.”[viii]

This hearing seems to have been the last gasp of the anti-suffrage movement in Indiana. While suffrage detractors continued to voice their opposition from time to time, the organized efforts of NAOWS in Indianapolis had come to an end. The nineteen women who sent “The Remonstrance” to the Indiana General Assembly went back to hosting parties, attending literary club meetings, doing charity work and, presumably, not exercising their newly-granted rights when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.

[i] Joe Miller, “Never a Fight of Woman Against Man: What Textbooks Don’t Say about Women’s Suffrage,” The History Teacher 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 437.

[ii] Ibid., 440.

[iii] Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge, “Keynote of Opposition to Votes for Women,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1916, 54, accessed Newspapers.com.

[iv] Dr. Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2020), p. 137-138.

[v] Charity Dye, “Gives Suffrage Vote for the Eighth Ward,” Indianapolis News, January 22, 1917, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vi] “Petition of ‘Nineteen’ Stirs the Suffragists,” Indianapolis News, January 23, 1917, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vii] “Protest of Vassar Women in Factor of Equal Suffrage,” Indianapolis News, January 24, 1917, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[viii] “Sparks Fly at Hearing for Women,” Indianapolis Star, February 14, 1917, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:” How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals

Friends Meeting House on Talbott Street, courtesy of the North Meadow Circle of Friends.

Before same-sex marriage was legally recognized across the United States in 2015, Quaker organizations in Indianapolis had upheld their roles as LGBTQ allies by marrying same-sex couples, like Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, in informal religious meetings. From their advocacy of the abolitionist movement to more modern issues of social justice, the Religious Society of Friends—or Quakers—have a unique relationship with marginalized communities. In Indianapolis, this relationship becomes even more intriguing when looking at Quaker connections to the LGBTQ community, specifically the activism of the North Meadow Circle of Friends, located at 1710 North Talbott Street, in the 1980s. Their meeting house served not only as a site for political engagement, but also as a location where same-sex couples could be wed long before same-sex marriage was legalized. The North Meadow Circle of Friends’ devotion to and involvement in issues central to the LGBTQ community provides a contrasting narrative to the prevailing one that all religious groups have historically opposed same-sex marriage.

Quakers believe God resides in every individual, providing them the ability to discern the will of God. They see each human life as possessing an unique worth, and they rely on the human conscience as the foundation of morality.[1] Throughout history, Quakers have sought to improve their own lives by placing an emphasis on education and the improvement of the lives of others. Friends have co-existed with Native Americans and supported the abolition of slavery. Activism involving abolitionism began with the adoption of strict policies regarding slavery, and by 1780, all Quakers in good standing had freed their slaves.[2] In addition, many Quakers’ homes, including that of Indiana residents Levi and Catharine Coffin, served as “stations” on the Underground Railroad.[3]

This legacy of embracing underrepresented communities is one reason many LGBTQ individuals in the 20th and 21st centuries have found acceptance in the Religious Society of Friends, including the North Meadow Circle of Friends. While generally the Quaker faith has a long history of inclusion, the religion itself has split over LGBTQ inclusion and issues. Some Quaker churches continue to view “the grouping of homosexuality and transsexuality with sexual violence and bestiality” and will only acknowledge a marriage between a man and a woman.[4] This has caused a divide in the Quaker community, as other Quaker churches view being an LGBTQ ally as a foundation of their faith. The North Meadow Circle of Friends has chosen to position itself as one of those allies through association with national queer-friendly organizations and conferences.

“’March On Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

One such organization is the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC), a North American Quaker faith community that gathers twice yearly and is a proponent of Quaker support for the LGBTQ community. The FLGBTQC has collected minutes of same-sex marriages and other commitment ceremonies from across the nation, one of which happens to be of the North Meadow Circle of Friends. On April 12, 1987, the North Meadow Circle of Friends wrote to the FLGBTQC that they “affirm the equal opportunity of marriage for all individuals, including members of the same sex.”[5]

In addition to the official beliefs expressed by the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Quaker conferences, their community involvement during the 1980s and beyond demonstrates their commitment to marginalized communities. The Friends engaged in political activism by offering their meeting house as a place in which to mobilize and plan protests. The location on North Talbott Street is mentioned several times in articles in The New Works News, a gay Indianapolis periodical, as a location for meetings in preparation for a “March on Washington” to protest violence against the LGBTQ community.[6] The planning committee held at least two meetings there in the course of organizing the march, which was broadly intended to “show that ‘we are out of the closet and we are not going back.’”[7] In addition to using the meeting house for activism, Indianapolis Friends published the phone numbers of Quaker organizations, like the Friends for Lesbian & Gay Concerns, in gay business and service directories.[8] This Quaker support network appeared numerous times in LGBTQ directories around the early 1990s, indicating the connections between the Friends and the larger LGBTQ community in the city.

“Quaker Group Leaves Church Over Lesbian Marriage,” The New Works News 8, no. 1 (October 1988): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

At times, the North Meadow Circle of Friends’ devotion to the LGBTQ community superseded even their own relationships with Quaker organizations. The Friends at Talbott Street chose to withdraw from the Western Yearly Meeting after controversy followed the 1987 wedding for two women at the Indianapolis meeting house. Since North Meadow refused to rescind their statement on same-sex marriage or promise not to hold future same-sex weddings, they chose to withdraw from the meeting to prevent further fractures among the Friends.[9] The 2004 wedding of Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, a same-sex couple married at an Indianapolis Quaker meeting, would reaffirm support for the LGBTQ community and the recognition of same-sex relationships.

An interview conducted by the Indiana Historical Society illuminates Mary Byrne’s and Tammara Tracy’s connection to the Quaker church. Tracy recalled learning that Byrne was a Quaker early on in the relationship, explaining “I kept asking her to take me to a Quaker meeting because they are a little different than just going to a church service where you can walk in the door and be anonymous and sit in the back pew and do that kind of thing.”[10] Tracy described her first meeting as “a really big click,” and recalled that it was a  “wonderful experience because it truly is the first religious experience in which every single part of myself felt welcomed. Not tolerated, not passed over, but actually, genuinely welcomed.”[11] Through the Quaker meetings, Tracy and Byrne were able to get to know each other better and, according to their recollections, they even attended a Quaker lesbian conference.

After being together for almost four years, in 2004 they asked to be married at their Quaker meeting. Byrne explained that a “Quaker meeting is un-programmed . . . whoever wanted to speak during it could speak and then at some point we got up and spoke our vows to each other and then we had a party.”[12] As the wedding was not legally recognized, all 135 attendees signed a certificate saying that the marriage occurred. After a federal judge ruled that Indiana’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional in 2014, the couple legalized their marriage.

Tammara Tracy holds up her wedding license as her wife Mary Byrne (back) is congratulated inside the City County Building, June 25, 2014, accessed IndyStar.

While many churches still grapple with whether to accept or wed LGBTQ individuals, decades ago the North Meadow Circle of Friends was unwavering in its support of both. In fact, North Meadow demonstrated how a church could actually enrich same-sex relationships. For the queer community, Indianapolis’s Circle of Friends provided another safe or third space environment, in addition to bars and public parks, in which they could find acceptance and gain equal recognition of their rights and relationships.

Sources:

[1] “What Is Quakerism?,” accessed Berkeley Friends Meeting.

[2] Rae Tyson. “Our First Friends, The Early Quaker,” Pennsylvania Heritage, 2011.

[3] “About Levi Coffin,” accessed Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site.

[4] Megan Creighton, “Quaker Church Splits Over Disputes on LGBT Issues,” The Crescent, November 10, 2017, accessed George Fox University.

[5] Marriage Minutes, “North Meadows Circle of Friends,” April 12, 1987, accessed Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns.

[6] “’March on Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[7] “The ‘March’ Is Thus Far A ‘Stroll:’ ‘A Report on the March on Washington Committee,’” The New Works News 6, no. 5 (February 1987): 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“The ‘March on Washington’ Gains Momentum,” The New Works News 6, no. 6 (March 1987): 5, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“’March On Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[8] “NWN’s Gay Business & Service Directory,” The New Works News 10, no. 2 (November 1990): 21, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“NWN’s Gay Business & Service Directory,” The New Works News 10, no. 4 (January 1991): 16, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[9] “Quaker Group Leaves Church Over Lesbian Marriage,” The New Works News 8, no. 1 (October 1988): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[10] Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, interview by Mark Lee, January 17, 2015, 57, Indianapolis/Central Indiana LGBT Oral History Project, Indiana Historical Society.

[11] Ibid., 57-58.

[12] Ibid., 60.

Did an Indianapolis Local Help Inspire “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Photograph by M. B. Parkinson (New York: 1890), Special Collections, University of Virginia.

This has been adapted from its original August 22, 2019 publication in the Weekly View.

Was a Hoosier the inspiration behind the book that sold more copies in the 19th century than any other book except the Bible—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly? It’s a distinct possibility. Stowe penned the novel during a fearful time in America for persons of color. Fleeing intolerable conditions wrought by enslavement, many risked a perilous journey to the North. This was America after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that residents of free states return fleeing slaves to their masters or face imprisonment or fines. The country was at odds over the issue of slavery and as to the responsibility of individuals in protecting the peculiar institution. It appeared America was edging ever closer to being torn in two.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher
Harriet Beecher Stowe, daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, c. 1856, courtesy metmuseum.org, accessed Britannica.org.

Moved by these events, young abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe put pen to paper and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hoping to appeal to the heart and conscience of the nation. The National Era serialized the narrative, with the first of forty chapters appearing on June 5, 1851.  A year later it was published in book form and quickly became the most widely-read book in the U.S., selling 300,000 copies in 1852 alone. Stowe’s realistic depiction of American slavery through the character of “Uncle Tom” mobilized support for abolition, particularly in the North.

Playwrights adapted the popular story for the stage, but in doing so distorted Stowe’s original depiction of Tom in order to attract bigger audiences. Readers encountered a benevolent, but deeply convicted character, who would rather lose his life than reveal the location of two enslaved women hiding from their abusive master. The stage version depicts Tom as a doddering, ignorant man, so eager to please his master that he would sell out fellow persons of color. Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, notes that because of the “perversion” of Stowe’s portrayal, today “in many African American communities ‘Uncle Tom’ is a slur used to disparage a black person who is humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people.” Despite the modern implications of the term “Uncle Tom,” the Antebellum stage productions further propelled Americans to take action against the plight of enslaved people in the mid-19th century.

Theatrical Poster of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Poster, ca. 1880, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

While Stowe acknowledged that the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from an 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, she’d had personal interactions with former slaves who she had met while living in Cincinnati. She was also familiar with Quaker settlements, which “have always been refuges for the oppressed and outlawed slave.” [1]  In a companion book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe documented “the truth of the work,” [2] writing that the novel was “a collection and arrangement of real incidents . . . grouped together . . . in the same manner that the mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture.” [3]

Although Stowe does not mention him by name, Indianapolis residents and newspapers credited a local man with influencing her book: Thomas “Uncle Tom” Magruder. Tom had been enslaved by the Noble family.  Dr. Thomas Noble gave up his medical practice and became a planter in Frederick County, Virginia when his brother gave him a plantation sometime after 1782.  Tom Magruder was probably one of the slaves on this plantation who, in 1795, were forced to move with Dr. Noble to Boone County, Kentucky, where he established “Bellevue” farm.

Tom managed the farm during his enslavement until 1830, when both Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Noble had passed away.  He was “permitted to go free” [4] and he moved his family to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, likely to a free slave settlement.  In 1831, Dr. Noble’s son, Indiana Governor Noah Noble, brought the aged Tom and his wife, Sarah, to Indianapolis. There, he had a cabin built for them on a portion of a large tract of land that he had acquired east of the city.  The dwelling that became known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was located on the northeast corner of Noble (now College Avenue) and Market Street.  Eventually Tom and Sarah Magruder’s daughter, Louisa Magruder, and granddaughter Martha, known as “Topsy,” joined the household.  Tom was a member of Roberts Park Methodist Church and was an “enthusiastic worshipper—his ‘amens,’ ‘hallelujahs,’ and ‘glorys’ being . . . frequent and fervent.” [5]

Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1868, Lenox Library Association, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.

Living a few blocks from Tom at the southwest corner of Ohio and New Jersey in the 1840s was Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, white pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. [6]  He was “a constant visitor of Uncle Tom’s, well acquainted with his history, and a sincere admirer of his virtues.” [7]  Like the main character in Stowe’s novel, Tom Magruder was a “very religious old Negro;” [8] of commanding appearance, his “open, gentle, manly countenance made him warm friends of all persons, white and black, who became acquainted with him.” [9] 

It is known that Rev. Beecher mentioned the venerable gentleman in a sermon, which may have been when he preached on slavery on May 34, 1846. [10]  Harriet Beecher Stowe visited her brother in Indianapolis that summer and may have accompanied him on one of his frequent visits to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  It is possible that she left the city with the future title of her novel and its main character in mind.  It is likely that the names of the Magruder sons—Moses and Peter—and the name of their granddaughter Topsy remained with Stowe to later find their way into her tale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [11]

Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis; The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Indianapolis Public Library, 1910), 242, accessed Archive.org.

Tom Magruder died on February 22, 1857 at about 110 years old. He was buried in the Noble family lot at the city’s Greenlawn Cemetery.  At the time of his death, there was a universal belief in Indianapolis that “there are some circumstances which give it an air of probability” [12] that “Old Tom” is “Stowe’s celebrated hero.” [13]  Among other things, “‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’ . . . was a familiar phrase here long before Mrs. Stowe immortalized it.” [14] Local papers “stood up for the claim” [15] in the immediate years after Tom’s death.  The Daily Citizen wrote in April 1858, “It is believed here that Thomas Magruder . . . was the ‘veritable Uncle Tom,’” [16] and the Indianapolis News in March 1875 bluntly stated, “[Josiah Henson] is a fraud.  The original Uncle Tom lived in this city and his old cabin was near the corner of Market and Noble Street.” [17]

In his 1910 book Greater Indianapolis, historian Jacob Piatt Dunn thought it unlikely that Tom Magruder would ever be confirmed as the inspiration behind Stowe’s legendary fictional character. However, he noted that “it is passing strange that none of the numerous friends and admirers of the Beechers in this city received any denial of it, which would necessarily have broken the uniform faith in the tradition.” [18] What Dunn was certain about is that nearly everyone in Indianapolis at the time knew Tom Magruder, “‘for he was noted as an exemplary and religious man and was generally respected.'” [19]

 

SOURCES USED:

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe,  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (John P. Jewett & Co, Boston, 1858), Part I, Chapter XIII: The Quakers, p. 54.

[2] Ibid., title page.

[3] Ibid., Part I, Chapter I, p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacob Piatt Dunn,  Greater Indianapolis, vol. 1 (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 243.

[6] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol II, 1838-1842 (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1973), p. 164, p. 340.

[7] “An Old Resident Dead,” The Indianapolis Journal, February 24, 1857, 3:1.

[8] Jacob P. Dunn, “Indiana’s Part in the Making of the Story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History 7, no. 3 (September 1911), 115.

[9] “Early Recollections. Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Daily State Sentinel, December 31, 1862, 2:4.

[10] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. III, 1844-1847, (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1974), p. 62, p. 259.

[11] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852), title page.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, vol. I (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 244.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Scraps,” The Indianapolis News, March 27, 1875, 2:3.

[18] “‘Uncle Tom’ Was Resident of City,” The Indianapolis Star, July 22, 1912, 19.

[19] Ibid.