Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform

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If Roberta West Nicholson has received any recognition at all, it’s been from Men’s Rights Groups, who have praised her revolutionary Anti-Heart Balm Bill. However, the bill, like much of her work, was progressively liberal and centered around equality. As the only woman legislator in 1935-1936, in her work to educate the public about sexual health, efforts against discrimination in Indianapolis, and champion children’s causes, West was a public servant in the purest sense. Despite her tireless work, she struggled to escape the shadow of her father-in-law, famous Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, and to be associated with social reform rather than her “cuteness.” In an interview with the Indiana State Library (ISL) conducted in the 1970s, she did just that, but unfortunately, it has been largely overlooked.

Even as a young college student, the Cincinnati, Ohio native deviated from the norm. Nicholson attended one semester at the University of Cincinnati, leaving after an exasperating experience with the sorority system, which she found “excessively boring.” Unbending to sorority policies which required dating male pledges and attending numerous parties, it became evident that Nicholson interests were incompatible with those of her sisters. After one of several instances of bullying, she proudly returned the sorority pin, withdrew from the college, and went to finishing school.

Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI. In 1926, the two were married and she moved to Indiana, where she was “absolutely bowled over by the fact that it was virtually the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and their vile machinations.” From a politically conservative family, Mrs. Nicholson soon found that in Indiana “the Republican party, as far as I could ascertain, was almost synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. Well, how could you be anything but a Democrat, you know? That was to be on the side of angels so to speak.”

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Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” scene on a mural representing Indiana at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

The day of her wedding, Roberta’s father received two letters, “terrible penmanship-pencil on cheap lined paper-warning him to stop the marriage of his daughter to that ‘nigger loving Jew.'”* Her father spent a large amount of money trying to identify the author of the “vitriolic hatred,” an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The couple’s wedded bliss was also impeded by the Great Depression, in which Meredith Jr. lost everything in the stock market and “this beautiful dream world we’d been living in is all of a sudden gone.” Following the bankruptcy of her husband’s company, Roberta took a job at Stewarts book store, supporting the family on $15 a week.

After the adoption of liberal principles, Nicholson engaged in her first real reform work in 1931. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger solicited Nicholson to establish a Planned Parenthood center in Indianapolis. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

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Margaret Sanger, circa 1917, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Outside of her role in Planned Parenthood, she worked as a public educator, going into cities, sometimes “very poor, miserable ghetto neighborhood[s],” to increase awareness of the “menace of venereal disease.” It became clear to Nicholson that ignorance about sexual health was widespread, including her own lack of knowledge about diseases, which she had referred to syphilis as the “awful awfuls” and gonorrhea the “never nevers.” During these often uncomfortable meetings with the public, Nicholson sought to inspire an open dialogue and a back and forth about taboo subjects. Nicholson also showed reproduction films to middle schoolers a job that provoked titters by students and sometimes outrage on the part of parents.

Her dedication to improve the welfare of children intensified during the Great Depression, when she witnessed impoverished children modeling clothes made by WPA employees. This was an effort to prove to those Indianapolis newspapers highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal that social programs were effective. Seeing these children being used to “get some bigoted publisher to change his views on some very necessary emergency measures” made her think of her own children and brought her to tears. In her ISL interview, she stated that “I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping children that were disadvantaged, and I have.”

In 1932, Nicholson founded the Juvenile Court Bi-Partisan Committee, to convince politicians to reform juvenile justice and “keep the court out of politics and to employ qualified persons to handle the children.” These efforts proved successful, when in 1938 Judge Wilfred Bradshaw reformed the court. Nicholson served as a longtime committee member and in 1946, when other members became frustrated with progress and resigned, Nicholson stayed, saying “I feel that because you are going to sometimes lose your point of conviction doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Nicholson also worked to improve the lives of Indianapolis children as the president of the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency and group home, and in her work on the board of Directors of the Child Welfare League.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In her interview with ISL, she explained her motive for joining the effort to repeal the 18th Amendment:

“These women felt very deeply about the fact that prohibition had inaugurated the era of of the gangsters: the illicit traffic in liquor, with no taxes and everything. They were building this empire of crime…And I said, ‘I am interested in it because these are the craziest days.’ Everybody had a bootlegger. I suppose real poor people didn’t but you never went to a party where there weren’t cocktails. I remember feeling very deeply ashamed to think that my children would be growing up with parents who were breaking the law. How was I going to teach them to fly right? I certainly wasn’t up to bucking the trend. So I thought, ‘All right, Ill work on this, that’s fine.’”

In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition.

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Terre Haute Brewing Company, circa 1934, likely celebrating the repeal of prohibition, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office. In 1934, she was convinced by the county chairman to run for Legislature during the FDR administration because “the Democrats smelled victory, because of the dramatic actions of the president. They wanted to get some names they thought would be meaningful to the voters so they invited me.” Although Nicholson had studied the issues in depth, it turned out that in order to be elected “all that was expected of one was to step up to the podium and say, ‘I stand four square behind FDR.’ That did it.”

Win she did, becoming the only woman to serve in the 1935-1936 Legislature, where she routinely faced sexism. According to the Indianapolis Star, during her time as secretary of the public morals committee, she informed her committeemen, “‘If you you think you’re going to stop me from talking just because I’ll be taking minutes, you’re wrong-I’ve got some things to say, and I’m going to say them.'” Nicholson elaborated that many of her colleagues thought:

“Wasn’t it cute of her. She’s got a bill. She’s going to introduce it just like a man. Isn’t that darling?’ I restrained myself, because after all I was in the distinct minority. I could not offend them. So I would just bat my eyelashes and beam at them and act as if I thought it was the way I wanted to be treated. Wasn’t that the only thing to do?”

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Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.

Not only did she “have” a bill, but her breach of promise bill, dubbed the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” made waves in Indiana and across the country. Nicholson’s proposal would outlaw the ability of a woman to sue a man who had promised to marry them, but changed their minds. She felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be absolutely condemned. Nicholson described her reasoning for the bill,  which had been protested by some women’s groups:

“…it just seemed perfectly silly to me, that from time immemorial, a female being engaged to be married could change her mind and say, ‘Sorry Joe, it’s all off.’ But if the man did, and if he had any money, he could be sued. I thought that was absolutely absurd. . . . The thing that was so amazing and truly surprising to me is that it was widely interpreted as giving free reign to predatory males to take advantage of chaste maidens which, of course, was diametrically opposed to what my conception was. I thought-and I still think-that it was an early blow for women’s liberation. I thought it was undignified and disgusting that women sued men for the same changing their mind about getting married.”

Nicholson’s bill passed the House fairly easily, but was held up in the Senate because, in her opinion, “Something new was being tried and several of the senators felt, ‘Why should we be first?” The bill also encountered resistance by lawyers who profited from breach of promise suits. Eventually the bill passed, inspiring similar legislation in other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing the “Spotlight, Pathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

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Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon, courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

After passage of the “Gold-Diggers bill,” Nicholson was invited to speak around the country. At an address to the Chicago Association of Commerce and the Alliance of Business and Professional Women, she said “It seemed to me that we should say to these gold diggers and shyster lawyers, as did the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Off with their heads!” She added, “I am not a professional moralist, but I have attempted to set up a deterrent to irregular relations by removing the prospect of pecuniary profit from them.”

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The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Nicholson also received criticism during her legislative career for supporting the Social Security Act, for which a special session was called in 1936. The Head of the Indiana Taxpayers Association stopped her near the statehouse and asked if she would be voting for “‘that terrible communist social security.'” When she confirmed she was, Nicholson noted that his face creased with rage and he sped off in his chauffeured car. A state senator shared his conviction, contending that the act’s supporters were “‘Trying to turn this country into a GD Ethiopia!'”

Perhaps the most intense scrutiny Nicholson faced as a lawmaker was in her role as a working mother. The Indianapolis Star noted that nothing made Nicholson madder than “to have interfering friends charge that she is neglecting her family to pursue the career of a budding stateswoman.” The paper relayed Nicholson’s response:

“‘Some of my friends have told me that they think it is ‘perfectly terrible’ of me to get myself elected to the Legislature and spend the greater part of sixty days away from the children. . . . I told them, ‘I don’t spend any more time away from my children than other mothers do who play bridge and go to luncheons all the time.’ I try to be a good mother and so far as my being in the the Legislature preventing me from going to parties is concerned, I don’t care much for parties anyway!'”

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Nicholson with her daughter, Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1941, p.55, accessed Newspaper.com.

Despite criticism, Nicholson proved steadfast in her political convictions and was perceived of as a “force” by many observers; the Indianapolis Star proclaimed “Mrs. Nicholson yesterday wore a modish dark red velvet dress and smoked cigarettes frequently during the proceedings, and if any of her fellow legislators didn’t like it, it was just too bad. It was a pleasure to watch her.” When her term ended, the tenacious legislator ran for reelection, but lost because the political climate swung in favor of the Republican Party. However, this was far from the end of her public service.

Check back for Part II to learn about her WPA work alongside Ross Lockridge Sr.; visit with Eleanor Roosevelt; tiresome efforts to find housing for African American soldiers in Indianapolis who had been turned away; and observations about the Red Scare in local politics.

*The Nicholsons were not Jewish. It is likely that the author of the letter used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term for progressives.

Ben-Hur Races to the Top in Indy

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2016 movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

The release of the new Ben-Hur movie this summer reminded us of the story’s Hoosier origins.  This latest production from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is the fifth time that film producers have interpreted Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel for the screen. Many are familiar with the 11 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Charlton Heston in 1959 and most film buffs know that there were two earlier versions in 1907 and 1925.  The 1907 film prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected copyrighted works from unauthorized motion picture adaptation.  The 1925 film arguably has a better chariot race than the 1959 movie. There was also a forgettable and regrettable Canadian mini-series reboot of Ben-Hur in 2010.

In a world of constant movie reboots, one ponders: if Lew Wallace were alive today and re-wrote Ben-Hur in a contemporary setting, would he have Ben-Hur racing in the Indianapolis 500?

What if we told you that Ben-Hur did, in fact, race at Indianapolis?  Of course, the race did not take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; instead it took place in 1902 at English’s Theater during the BenHur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.

The stage race as explained and illustrated in pages of Scientific American. Image from General Lew Wallace Study and Museum website.

On November 13, 1902, the Indianapolis News reported “J.J. Brady is here in advance of ‘Ben-Hur,’” and “brings with him a corps of stage carpenters and mechanics, who have practically to reconstruct the stage . . . so that the play may be given properly.”  Although English’s stage was new, crews needed to rebuild it in order to accommodate the chariot race. Producing that scene called for eight live horses running at full gallop on treadmills, cycloramic scenery and, other apparatus.  All this equipment and animals imposed an estimated weight of over 50 tons on the stage, which required pouring a special cement foundation. The public was anxious to see the spectacle, even if it meant staking out a place in line many hours in advance.  The Indianapolis News reporter observed:

“A few individuals sat and shivered all night in the lobby of English’s waiting in patience and with an unwonted supply of cash in their pockets for the box office to open.  They were men who had been hired to buy seats for some of the performances of ‘Ben-Hur.’”

Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents to two dollars. Even at that rate, a day after the tickets went on sale, the English Theater reported “over $10,000 was taken in at the box office window” and representatives for the producers of the play (Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger) announced that the sales “beat all records for the play in advance sales.”  The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur, a national benevolent society headquartered in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville, nearly bought out one performance by itself.  The Tribe planned to run an excursion via train for its members from Crawfordsville to see the play.

Basill Gill as Messala (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 Indianapolis production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Ben-Hur and Messala face off in a promotional picture for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, a few members of the Hoosier public were dubious about purchasing tickets.  In particular, one woman was of the opinion that the play was to take two weeks to complete.  When the box office manager informed her that the entire play was presented every night, she remained quite suspicious that anyone “could put all that book into a one-night drama.”

Production managers sought to cast extras from Indianapolis’s denizens, advertising a salary of $4.25/week. That was enough to encourage a crowd of men, women, and children to stand outside in a late Indiana autumn for an hour and a half waiting for their opportunity at show business.  An assistant stage director eventually made an appearance and sorted through the crowd.  One “gray beard” was turned away because the assistant director believed him not to be “nimble afoot.”  The rejected man futilely protested to the assistant director and argued “he could get around faster than two-thirds of the younger fellows that had been accepted.”

With the extras cast, the production opened on Monday, November 25, 1902.  After witnessing opening night, an Indianapolis reporter wrote, “There [will] be critics who see nothing good in the American stage or in the works of American dramatist: if the American stage had done absolutely nothing worthy in its long career but this, had its fame to rest solely on this production of ‘Ben-Hur’ it has justified its existence.”

Mabel Bert in costume for theatrical production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the Digital Public Library of America.
Mabel Bert in costume as the mother of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The cast, as it appeared in Indianapolis, included William Farnum as Ben-Hur and Basil Gill as Messala.  Farnum’s performance was described as realizing the part to the fullest degree.  Among the other actors and actresses in the production, Mabel Bert’s portrayal as the mother of Hur is worth noting because she was the only cast member with a major role to be with the company continuously since the production opened on November 29, 1899 in New York City.  Mrs. Bert told a reporter,

“I have always been the mother of Ben-Hur – various Ben-Hurs, however, for Mr. Farnum is the third I have mothered on the stage…It does make me a trifle lonely sometimes to lose my stage children and stage friends that way.  But then, too, it affords a certain amount of variety that is interesting and keeps my work from becoming at all monotonous.”

Ellen Mortimer as Esther (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Esther and Ben-Hur in a promotional photo for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

The public certainly found nothing monotonous about the play.  In fact, the production was originally slated to run for two weeks in Indianapolis, but four days after opening night the Indianapolis News reported that the high demand for tickets had prompted producers to extend the play for another week.  Box office receipts for the first two weeks alone were estimated in excess of $35,000.  That figure broke all box office records for Indianapolis and was the highest figure for all productions of Ben-Hur to that date.

The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis News attempted to describe the sales phenomenon in Indianapolis:

“‘Ben-Hur’ occupies a unique position on the native stage, since it appeals alike to habitual theater patrons and those who seldom find enjoyment in offerings of the stage.  While the elaborate scenic equipment and realistic chariot race command the admiration of the spectators, the rare beauty and force of ‘Ben-Hur’ as a drama give a lasting distinction to this most uplifting, inspiring and soul-stirring play.”

This description of the popularity of Ben-Hur, while no doubt true, neglects that a major reason for the large turnouts was because the author of Ben-Hur was a native Hoosier son.  Some Indiana cities, such as Covington, Franklin, and Noblesville, brought large numbers of their population and sold out individual performances.  In fact, Covington could not secure as many tickets as they had citizens who wanted to attend; the Indianapolis Sentinel reported that a small riot broke out as a result.

While various Indiana cities were hoping to witness the performance, Crawfordsville was no exception, as it was Ben-Hur’s birthplace.  A contingent of Athenians and Montgomery county residents had the theater to themselves for a performance on December 2.  Among those in attendance at that performance was James Buchanan Elmore, aka the Bard of Alamo.  After witnessing the arrest of the Hur family, Buchanan leaned over to a newspaper reporter and said, “Seems to me if I was bossing that show I would make the actors speak softer and not so rough, it don’t seem like Scripture voices.”

An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.
An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.

Although the December 2 performance hosted one Montgomery County literary celebrity, another one was conspicuously absent, that being General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur.  Wallace was recovering from an illness during the Crawfordsville excursion.  However, he was sufficiently recovered to attend a matinee with his son, daughter-in-law, and his two grandsons on December 12.  Wallace watched most of the play from a private box and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, lest he be called upon to deliver a speech.  Wallace and his party were invited behind the stage so that they could witness how some of the scenes were produced, especially the chariot race.  Wallace took special interest in watching the race and all of the mechanization that was involved.  While backstage, Wallace met the starring members of the cast and reportedly chatted for several minutes with the actor incarnating his literary creation.  Before returning to his box Wallace remarked to a stage manager that the production had reached a state of perfection. Ben-Hur ended its stay in Indianapolis the day after Wallace’s visit, before moving to Milwaukee for a two-week engagement.

Eleven years later, when Ben-Hur was making another visit to Indianapolis, Hector Fuller aptly noted in the Indianapolis Sunday Star,

“If Indiana had contributed nothing else, save this one play to the American stage it might be counted that the Hoosier state had done its part.  For ‘Ben-Hur’ is the dramatic marvel of the age.  It has held the stage now for fourteen years, and in that time over 10,000,000 people have seen it.”

Learn more about Lew Wallace, his father David Wallace, his stepmother Zerelda Wallace, and his mother Esther Test Wallace with other IHB historical resources.

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Stop by our exhibit in the Indiana State Library to see memorabilia from productions of Ben-Hur.

James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the “Natural Rights of Man”

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Prior to the Civil War, Indiana experienced a swell in its African American population due to the migration of free persons of color from other states. The arrival of recently emancipated people and freedom seekers also contributed to the growth in Indiana’s black population. As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans. The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring African Americans to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior. They were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.

Certificate of Purchase, image courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.

Overall was also notable for his efforts to aid escaping slaves. One such slave from Tennessee, Jermain Loguen, was told to seek the help of “Mr. Overrals of Indianapolis.” After escaping slavery, Loguen became a well-known New York Underground Railroad activist. He described Overall as “an educated man, and had a large character and acquaintance among colored people; and was much respected by white ones, for his probity, industry and good sense. He received and befriended the fugitives, as was his custom with all other who came to him.”

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Jermain Wesley Loguen, image courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Indianapolis in the 1830s was a violent place, as described by early Indianapolis historian Ignatius Brown:

The work on the National road . . . had attracted many men of bad character and habits to this point. These, banded together under a leader of great size and strength, were long known as ‘the chain gang,’ and kept the town in a half subjugated state. Assaults were often committed, citizens threatened and insulted, and petty outrages perpetrated.

The events of the night of March 18, 1836 reflected the tense atmosphere. According to Overall, David Leach and other members of a white gang came to Overall’s door carrying arms and fence rails, trying to break into the home and threatening to kill Overall and his family. Overall defended his property and family by shooting the white gang member. White allies came to Overall’s aid and his testimony was corroborated by prominent white Indianapolis citizen Calvin Fletcher.

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Transcription of Surety of Peace document, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall sought legal protection from further attack. His affidavit of the attack put Leach in jail for a short time. He was released on bond, pending a hearing in Marion County Circuit Court. On the first day of the Term, May 2, 1836, Overall declined to proceed with his complaint against Leach. However, public outcry about whether Overall, a black man, could “make an oath against Leach, a white man,” prompted Marion County Circuit Court Judge William W. Wick to write a lengthy statement that was printed May 7, 1836 on the front page of the Indianapolis Journal.

The judge’s opinion affirmed Overall’s “natural rights” to defend his family and property from attack. He wrote:

The sages who formed our constitution did not leave those rights undefined. On the contrary they have declared them in language so clear as to set at defiance the mystification of sophistry, and all perversions, but the blind misapprehensions of visionary philosophy, stupid bigotry, or mistaken violence. The rights thus secured are, 1st. The defence of life and liberty. 2d. The acquisition, possession and protection of property; and 3d. The pursuit and obtention of happiness and safety.

However, Judge Wick’s interpretation of an Indiana law in 1836 did not affect any change in the actual law. African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in causes where only black testimony was available against a white party.

*Check back with us for information about the September 29, 2016 dedication ceremony of a historical marker commemorating Overall.

The King’s Final Bow: Elvis’s Last Concert in Indianapolis

Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is the final one, at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His final performance, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.

Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com
Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.

An article in the Indianapolis News on June 25 listed it as a requisite event for music fans. The Indianapolis Star noted playfully “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” While $15 doesn’t sound like much, that’s the equivalent of nearly $60 today.

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A ticket stub from Elvis’s final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
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Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The concert began at 8:30 p.m., but Elvis didn’t perform until 10 p.m.; warm-up acts of brass bands, soul singers, and a comedian filled time before the King. Then for about 80 minutes, Elvis sang both his classic tunes like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” and his more somber numbers, like “Hurt” and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He closed the concert with “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” one of his most poignant ballads.

He reportedly told the audience “We’ll meet you again, God bless, adios” as he left the stage. Based on filmed footage, the crowd appeared enthusiastic about the performance; the local press, however, was a bit skeptical.

A ticket stub from Elvis's final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The Indianapolis press seemed divided on the quality of his performance. Rita Rose’s piece in the Indianapolis Star provided a sympathetic take of the show, even as it criticized his appearance. Rose wrote comically:

The big question was, of course, had he lost weight? His last concert here, nearly 2 years ago, found Elvis overweight, sick and prone to give a lethargic performance. As the lights in the Arena was turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: Please, Elvis, don’t be fat.

She assuaged readers, writing “At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection, but it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.” She noted glowingly how well he sang some songs, including “It’s Now or Never,” and “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain.” Rose’s piece emphasized the better elements of the concert and the excitement of the crowd.

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Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Conversely, critic Zach Dunkin’s piece in the Indianapolis News was the consummate bad review:

“Elvis Presley led another crowd of screamers in bananaland last night during his concert at Market Square Area and the question is why,” wrote Dunkin at the start of his piece. He added, “He obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.”

The first page of Zach Dunkin's critical piece on Elvis's last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
The first page of Zach Dunkin’s critical piece on Elvis’s last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Dunkin went on to call Elvis’s mix of opening acts and his performance a “sideshow,” writing:

“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room.” He also heavily criticized the “hawking” of souvenirs by vendors, who he said “came on the P.A. three times and urged the crowd to visit the souvenir stand. He even listed the prices.”

However, Dunkin’s strongest criticism was of the King himself, who he said could “sing when he tries.” His best numbers, in Dunkin’s view, were his renditions of “Hurt” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” even though Elvis “for some reason had to read the lyrics from a sheet.” Dunkin’s lackluster impression of the King ended with this final take: “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.”

Sadly, Presley never got the chance to do better, for his show in Indianapolis was his last. After the concert at Market Square Arena, Elvis took a break from touring and returned home to Graceland. Nearly six weeks after his Indianapolis concert, Elvis died in his home on August 16, 1977 from heart failure, likely caused by years of prescription drug abuse.

Elvis's casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis’s casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

For months afterward, Dunkin received scores of angry letters from fans of Elvis for his unfavorable review. In an interview with John Krull, Dunkin talked about the hate mail he received, particularly attacks against his personality and his supposed “envy” of Elvis. Yet, other letters (in his estimation about “20 percent”) were sympathetic, with one letter saying the King “should’ve stayed home.” Dunkin’s review still receives attention from fans of Elvis and students of music history.

A historical marker commemorating Market Sqaure Arena and Elvis's final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pintrest.
A historical marker commemorating Market Square Arena and Elvis’s final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pinterest/ElvisCollector.info.

Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001 and it is now a parking lot. A memorial marker for the arena commemorates its history and importance as the venue for Elvis Presley’s final concert.

Elvis Presley’s mark on American music and culture is permanently etched into stone, but his controversial final concert showed the complications and problems associated with his final years. Regardless of the quality of the concert, it will be remembered forever as the place where the King took his final bow.

Carole Lombard: From Fort Wayne Flood to the Silver Screen

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Jane Alice Peters became one of America’s favorite movie stars of the 1930s as Carole Lombard. She was born in Fort Wayne in 1908 and spent the first six years of her life in the shingle-style house on Rockhill Street that was built about the year 1905. Her grandfather was John Clouse Peters, one of the founders of the Horton Washing Machine Company, and her mother, “Bess” Knight, was a vivacious and strong actress descended from “Gentleman Jim” Chaney, an associate of the notorious robber baron of the 1880s, Jay Gould.

Described as a tomboy in her youth, Jane Alice fondly remembered her young days in Fort Wayne, attending the Washington Elementary School a few blocks to the south and playing rough games with her brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootie.” While the actress is remembered for her WWII work promoting war bonds, her philanthropic efforts began in Fort Wayne during the Great Flood of 1913. Under the direction of her mother, Bess, her house became a rescue center for flood victims, among other reasons, because the family had one of the only telephones in the area. Jane Alice also remembered helping her mother collect supplies, run errands, and help care for those displaced by the rising waters.

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Flooding in Fort Wayne, 1913, image courtesy of The History Center, accessed Fort Wayne News Sentinel.

Jane Alice and her mother left Fort Wayne in 1914, eventually settling in Hollywood. At age 12, she made her film debut and by 1924 was a glamorous actress for Fox Studios. She changed her name to Carole Lombard, in recollection of an old family friend, Harry Lombard, a relative from Fort Wayne living in California. A 1940 Collier‘s article wrote about the move from Indiana life to early Hollywood stardom:

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Her dynamic Hollywood career was highlighted by roles in Mack Sennett films, steamy romances, marriage to William Powell, exotic parties, outstanding comedy roles in major movies opposite the best actors in the business, and, marriage to actor Clark Gable. She starred in films such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred.

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Photo of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable courtesy of theredlist.com.

On January 15, 1942, Lombard revisited to her Hoosier roots for a war bond rally in Indianapolis. Approximately 12,000 turned out for the event on Ohio and New Jersey streets; millions others viewed the rally through newsreels. While in the city, Lombard attended tea at the governor’s mansion, a flag-raising ceremony at the Statehouse, and ribbon-cutting at an army recruiting office. According to the Indianapolis Star, Lombard exclaimed to the crowd:

“As a Hoosier, I am proud that Indiana led the nation in buying Liberty Bonds in the last war. I want to believe that Indiana will lead every other state again this time — and we will! We won the last war, and with your help we will win this war!”

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Lombard with Indiana Governor Henry Schricker, courtesy of caroleandco.wordpress.com; Hammond Times, January 16, 1942, accessed NewspaperArchive.org.

Lombard sold a record $2 million in bonds to Hoosiers. Tragically, the following day, her plane crashed in Las Vegas, where she lost her life at age 33. Twenty-two people were killed in the accident, including Lombard’s mother, young servicemen en route to war duty, and agent Otto Winkler, who had begged her to return to California by train.

The Indianapolis Star reports that following her death, Lombard was honored by “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a tribute to patriotic spirit, [who] declared Lombard the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war and posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Learn more about Lombard’s life and the devastating way in which husband Clark Gable found out about her death via Photoplay’s 1942 article.

The Lincoln Funeral Train in Indiana

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Map of the Funeral Train Route, Lincoln Highway National Museum and Archives, http://www.lincoln-highway-museum.org/WHMC/WHMC-LFTR-01.html

On the evening of April 14, 1865, an assassin shot President Abraham Lincoln.  He died the next day at 7:22 a.m. While Union soldiers hunted the conspirators, the nation went into mourning. The funeral for the assassinated president took place April 19, 1865 at the White House.  The New York Times reported that “thousands wended their way up the capitol steps, into the grand rotunda, by the bier and coffin of the President… their homage was silent and tearful.”  On the morning of April 21, a military guard placed Lincoln’s casket in the ninth car of a funeral train which was draped in black. The casket of Lincoln’s son William who had died in 1862 was also aboard for the trip back to the Midwest.

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IHB state historical marker, learn more here.

The train, which also carried friends, family, high ranking officials, and a military guard, left Washington D.C. destined for Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, on April 21. The War Department directed the procession which declared the tracks along the route to be “military roads.” On April 30 the Lincoln funeral train passed into Indiana where Lincoln spent much of his youth (1816-1830).  The War Department directed: “The route from Columbus to Indianapolis is via the Columbus and Indianapolis Railroad, and from Indianapolis to Chicago via Lafayette and Michigan Railroad.  In order to guard against accidents, trains will not run faster than twenty miles per hour.”

The train stopped in Richmond first, at 3 a.m., to the sound of tolling bells and a crowd of somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Here, Governor Oliver P. Morton and almost 100 elected officials paid their respects. The governor and other several other high-ranking officials boarded the train for the trip to the state capital.

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Image courtesy of Lincoln Highway National Museum and Archives, http://www.lincoln-highway-museum.org/WHMC/WHMC-LFTR-01.html

At 3:41 a.m. the train arrived in Centreville, home town of Congressmen George W. Julian, a steadfast abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. Next it passed through Germantown and Cambridge City, home of Union General Solomon Meredith. As the train passed through Dublin at 4:27 a.m., almost the entire town was standing on the platform in the rain. Next the train stopped in Lewisville and afterwards it slowed as it passed through the small village of Charlottesville, where reportedly a large number of African Americans gathered in mourning. The train passed through Greenfield at 5:55 a.m. and then paused in Cumberland on the Hancock-Marion county border.

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Lincoln’s Funeral on Pennsylvania Avenue, April 19, 1865, Library of Congress Digital Collections, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/brh2003004934/PP/

The train reached Indianapolis on April 30 at 7 a.m. in the pouring rain. The city was decorated with arches, evergreens, and flags. The Indianapolis city band played the Lincoln Funeral March while soldiers moved the casket to the hearse. The hearse, which was an ornately decorated carriage drawn by six plumed white horses, delivered the casket from the train to the State House through streets lined with people. The Indianapolis Daily Gazette noted “the archways and mourning festoons across the streets, the public and private buildings draped in the habiliments of grief, the funeral procession, the solemn dirges, and, above all, the patient multitude that stood for hours in the drenching rain waiting an opportunity to look upon the earthly tenement so lately vacated by the spirit.”

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The coffin was placed in the interior hall of the State House which was lined in black cloth.  The Indianapolis Guard of Honor protected the flower-surrounded coffin. The Indianapolis Daily Gazette estimated that 15,000 troops and 60,000 private citizens passed through the rotunda that day.  Rain prevented the elaborate ceremonial procession from the State House back to the train depot which had been planned for that evening.  Instead, the casket lay in state until 10 p.m., which was longer than planned, and then the hearse carried the casket directly back to the train depot.  Mourning Hoosiers followed the carriage and the train left Indianapolis at midnight.

It passed through Augusta, Zionsville, Whitestown, Lebanon, Hazelrigg, Thorntown, Colfax, and Stockwell, before reaching Lafayette. The New York Semi-Weekly Times reported on the trip through these towns: “These are small places, but it seems the inhabitants are on the roadside. Some of them hold torches in their hands, and the surroundings are solemnly lighted. Men stand with uncovered heads as the train hurries on its way.”  At Lebanon the residents “hung over the track, suspended from two uprights, a hundred variegated Chinese lanterns.”

The train reached Lafayette at 3:35 a.m. and the Indianapolis Daily Journal reported that in Lafayette “The houses on each side of the railroad is [sic] illuminated, and; as elsewhere, badges of mourning and draped flags are displayed; bonfires are blazing and bells tolling; mournful strains of music are heard, and the people are assembled at all the stations to view the train.” After leaving Lafayette, the train traveled through Tippecanoe Battle Ground, Brookston, Chalmers, Reynolds, Bradford, Francisville, Medaryville, Kankakee, La Crosse, Wanatha, Westville, and Lacroix.

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S. M. Fassett, President Abraham Lincoln’s hearse, Springfield, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91732556/

The train reached Michigan City at 8:25 a.m.  The Indianapolis Daily Journal reported that it “stopped under a large and beautiful temporary structure, trimmed with black and white and ornamented with evergreens and choice flowers.”  The arches were decorated with black and white fabric, evergreens, and flowers. Over each arch were the words “Abraham Lincoln” and a motto.  These included, “Our guiding star has fallen” and “Though dead he yet speaketh.” Young women sang the hymn “Old Hundred.”  The Times reported, “Many persons are affected to tears.” The paper concluded its description of the Michigan City stop: “Meantime, guns are fired, and the subduing strains of music are heard. The scene is gilded by an unclouded sun.” The Chicago Tribune reported that the morning was “clear and beautiful.”

Finally, it had stopped raining.

Read about the train’s journey to Chicago and then to Lincoln’s home of Springfield, where the President was laid to rest, here.

Finding the “First” Indiana Basketball Games

For over 70 years, Hoosiers have told, re-told, printed, and re-printed a story about how basketball came to Indiana.  According to the tale, Rev. Nicholas McCay (nearly always incorrectly spelled as McKay) was a protegé of James Naismith at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts.  McCay allegedly learned the new game of basketball from Naismith, and brought it with him to his first post at the Crawfordsville YMCA.*  It was there that the supposed “first” basketball game in Indiana happened on March 16, 1894 between teams from the Crawfordsville and Lafayette YMCAs.  Several contemporary newspapers reported on this game, including three of Crawfordsville’s four newspapers, and brief mentions appeared in Lafayette and Indianapolis papers.

Crawfordsville Daily Journal, March 17, 1894. Click the image to view a PDF of the entire article.
Crawfordsville Daily Journal, March 17, 1894, reported on the game. Click the image to view a PDF of the entire article.

There is ample evidence that a Crawfordsville-Lafayette game took place.  However, was this game really the “first”?  Superlatives (“oldest,” “first,” “last”) are always challenging to historically verify.  In 2007, I came across the first shred of evidence to suggest that Crawfordsville’s claim was not undisputed.  The evidence was an article in a November 17, 1894 issue of the Crawfordsville Review, which is shown here.

Crawfordsville Review, November 17, 1894
Crawfordsville Review, November 17, 1894. Click on the image to view a larger picture.

Notice the second sentence: “Basket ball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis association through its physical director.”  It seemed odd that a Crawfordsville paper would carry this article; especially if Crawfordsville citizens in 1894 believed that they introduced the sport to the state nine months earlier.

Further research was necessary.  Could this statement about Indianapolis basketball be confirmed with contemporary sources?  At the time of this article’s discovery in 2007, very few historic Indiana newspapers were digitized.  An effort to find corroborative evidence of basketball played in Indianapolis before the Crawfordsville game in March 1894 would have required many, many hours of microfilm research, probably over several weeks (if not months), to search several major Indianapolis dailies (NewsJournalSentinel, and Sun) from 1892-1894.  The time required to conduct the search forced me to delay pursuing the research.

In 2013, IUPUI’s Center for Digital Scholarship digitized and uploaded a large run of the Indianapolis News.  Here at last was an easy way to search for evidence to confirm what the Crawfordsville Review published in 1894.  After entering the search terms, I received numerous results, which I then sorted by date.  Then low-and-behold, there in black and white, tucked between an illustration of an acrobatic hound, and accounts of meetings of the State Board of Health and the Haughville Republicans, was the earliest mention of basketball being played in Indianapolis.  The News published this article on March 30, 1893, which was almost an entire year before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game occurred.

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Indianapolis News, March 30, 1893. The acrobatic hounds garnered more attention than the first mention of basketball played in Indy.

The News gave greater attention to the new game in the April 1, 1893 issue (p. 7).  They devoted an entire two columns to the sport.  The reporter noted that basketball “has taken hold here and is awakening interest and promises to become the all-around game for general fun in the future.”  The article credited Indianapolis YMCA physical director, William A. McCulloch, with introducing the game at the Indianapolis branch a few months prior.  McCulloch organized a four team league at the Indianapolis Y.  However, could the 1894 newspaper claim that “Basket ball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis association” be taken at face value for being accurate regarding “firsts”?

A few months after IUPUI uploaded the News, the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library digitized millions of pages of Evansville newspapers through the commercial firm NewsBank.  Researchers can use the resource on site at EVPL.  I had also come across mentions of Evansville playing basketball earlier than the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game, so I thought this would be a prime opportunity to check this out.  The search results did not disappoint.

Based upon the newspapers currently digitized, Evansville was one of the earliest adopters of basketball.  The Evansville Journal and the Evansville Courier both reported on contests as early as November 1892, which was less than a year after Naismith invented the game.  Evansville also hosted an inter-city Indiana basketball game several months before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game.  In January 1894, the Evansville YMCA squad defeated a team from the Terre Haute YMCA.

It is important to remember that YMCA leaders in Indiana first learned about basketball through the Triangle, the YMCA’s national newsletter. Naismith published an article introducing the game in January 1892, and he later credited this article, and the correspondence that resulted from it, with spreading the game across the nation.  By September 1892, the YMCA publication Physical Education advertised a “descriptive pamphlet” on the “new and popular game” available via mail for ten cents. Theoretically, by that time, any of Indiana’s twenty-seven YMCAs could have read Naismith’s original article or acquired the pamphlet, and subsequently implemented the game.  

In this context, identifying the “first” game then becomes a somewhat subjective matter, because the sport did not enter Indiana and spread from any single locus.  Rather, it originated and developed around the state simultaneously and often independently at multiple YMCAs at roughly the same time.  Also, what is the criteria for declaring a “first”“First” YMCA gym class instruction of basketball? “First” practice? “First” scrimmage? “First” exhibition? “First” YMCA intramural league game? “First” intercity or inter-institutional game?  The possibilities of what would constitute a “first” seem endless!

After searching digitized Indiana newspapers in several content management systems, I assembled the following timeline of the earliest-known basketball games, practices, and exhibitions in Indiana (Note: Because Indiana newspapers continue to be digitized, it is likely this timeline will need subsequent revision.  In particular, Richmond, Lafayette, Elkhart, South Bend, and Terre Haute newspapers for the early 1890s have not been digitized as of March 2015.  Those cities’ newspapers might yield early accounts of the game as well):

timeline part 1

Timeline part 2

timelines part 3

If you are interested in reading more about this research, see the 2015 Thornbrough Award-winning article: S. Chandler Lighty, “James Naismith Didn’t Sleep Here: A Re-examination of Indiana Basketball’s Origins,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 110, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 307-323.  You can possibly find a print copy at your local library’s local history room, otherwise you can order a copy, or download a copy from JSTOR.

*Research confirms that Naismith and McCay were not contemporaries at the YMCA training school.  McCay graduated from the school a full academic year before Naismith arrived.  See Fifth Catalogue of the School for Christian Workers (Springfield, Mass., 1890), Springfield
College Digital Collections, http://cdm16122.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/ collection/p15370coll1/id/146.