Along with many of her fellow 19th-Century sisters of the pen, Susan Elston Wallace and her work are little known to us today. These female authors practiced their craft seriously and sold well, yet were never regarded as important as male writers whose subjects were presumed to be nobler, of higher value. When fine work by women disappeared and men’s work became classics, an unknown cost fell upon our culture and our vision of ourselves as a nation.
As a writer, Susan Wallace (1830-1907) possessed certain attributes that partially set her apart her from the “female writer” stereotype. Initially, as a young woman she had more or less lived the stereotype by publishing poetry on domestic subjects. One of those poems was anthologized and widely circulated in a children’s textbook.
Later in life, she was exempted from ordinary critique as a “female writer” because she was the wife of General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, the best-selling book of the 19th century. (Only the Bible sold more copies). Lew was a prolific writer and a man of great personal accomplishment, who, among other distinctions, was a Civil War general, Governor of New Mexico Territory (1878-1881), and an ambassador to Turkey. Susan, without a doubt, was Lew’s collaborator and co-researcher. She was fully recognized by him as an intellectual and literary equal. Given this unusual and little-known partnership, it is no wonder that deep knowledge of the world and of its peoples mark both of their works. Surely both partners strongly influenced the other’s work. Whether they were living in Crawfordsville, Indiana, or in the New Mexico Territory, or in the Ottoman Empire, both husband and wife engaged in writing projects.
It is the New Mexico piece of Susan’s writing career that I will use to demonstrate Elston Wallace’s talent as a non-fiction writer, whose insights track a line of prescient environmental thinking. Her writing style is not only alive with ideas, it exhibits a freshness and wit that makes it inviting to contemporary readers.
Elston Wallace’s book about her New Mexico sojourn is called The Land of the Pueblos. It is comprised of twenty-seven essays, first published as “travel pieces” in prestigious national magazines and newspapers like the Atlantic Monthly, the Independent, and the New York Tribune. Being published in such influential East Coast periodicals speaks of the high regard in which her writing was held at the time. In these essays, Susan did not write a word about the many social duties—the teas, the formal receptions, entertaining visiting dignitaries—she would have performed as the wife of the Governor of New Mexico Territory. Nor does she write about her husband in his official capacity. Rather, she applied her excellent educational background and her intellectual curiosity to learning and writing about New Mexican natural history and human history.
Elston Wallace also holds the rare honor of having saved much of New Mexico’s written colonial history, which had been forgotten in an outbuilding adjacent to the Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe. There, Elston Wallace came upon and then personally helped salvage much of the Territory’s surviving early recorded history, a topic about which she wrote vividly. These documents tutored her. They spurred her curiosity and inspired many of her essays.
It was New Mexico, though, that made Elston Wallace aware of environmental issues. She was an astute observer of the natural world, learning names and habits of the plants and animals; she studied landforms and how rivers ran. Her ability to write about these things gives her work its most notable signature. Increasingly more knowledgeable about her surroundings and thereby more fully conscious of how human life in New Mexico had been shaped, Elston Wallace soon apprehended how the Spaniards, in particular, had affected the land and its original inhabitants. In her first essay, Elston Wallace makes clear that the “greed of gold and conquest” had despoiled New Mexico.
She also proves herself as an able thinker regarding how land and people’s fates are intertwined, such as this example:
Four hundred years ago the Pueblo Indians were freeholders of the vast unmapped domain lying between the Rio Pecos and the Gila, and their separate communities, dense and self-supporting, were dotted over the fertile valleys of Utah and Colorado, and stretch as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico. Bounded by rigid conservatism as a wall, in all these ages they have undergone slight change by contact with the white race and are yet a peculiar people, distinct from the other aboriginal tribes of this continent as the Jew are from the other races in Christendom. The story of these least known citizens of the United States takes us back to the days of . . . the . . . great Elizabeth.
Note how in this passage Elston Wallace identifies the “vast unmapped domain” of the Pueblos and identifies their communities as “separate,” “dense,” and “self-supporting.” She identifies the land as fertile and the Pueblos as having a distinct culture, comparing them favorably to Jews among Christians. She calls the Pueblos “citizens.”
Elston Wallace’s use of the term “conservative” in this passage may be accurately rendered as “stable.” So, the nature of the Pueblo peoples, she says, have “undergone [only] slight change by contact with the white race.” By using this terminology, she points toward stabilizing forces that were afoot in 19th-Century America, when colonies promoting shared, stable agrarian living were being intentionally created. The Shakers, New Harmony, and the Amanas were and are communities so notable that their names and accomplishments come down to us today. In the previous passage, Elston Wallace describes the Pueblo communities, their governance, and their farming practices with phrases admired by her own culture and era. New Mexico’s native peoples were freeholders; they were self-supporting; they formed communities; they were citizens. Few other historians of the period write about the Pueblos at all, let alone view them as central to the history of the land they inhabit, and as admirable people.
It can be argued, of course, that Elston Wallace’s progressive fellow citizens of the period had a habit of idealizing Native Peoples and had a strong aversion (call it prejudice) against Catholic Spain. That being said, Elston Wallace’s analysis and her rich empathy supported by historical knowledge and argumentation make her work stand apart. Her brave voice stands in strong contrast to typical histories of her day and those written through the middle of the 20th century. A pertinent example is Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe (1956), which presents the conquest version of New Mexico’s history as thoroughly Eurocentric. In this version, the Mexicans succeeded the Spanish and the Americans succeeded the Mexicans until the New Mexican piece of America’s Manifest Destiny fell into place in 1846.
Given this widely accepted version of conquest history that Horgan and other historians espouse, it is no wonder that he not only displaces the Pueblos, he displaces Elston Wallace as a New Mexican historian who understands and chronicles their worth and richness. Ironically, Horgan credits Governor Lew Wallace, not his wife, as saving “what he could of the collection of [New Mexican historical] documents already scattered, lost, or sold.”
Horgan’s “authoritative” reporting, so common among mainline historians of the 20th century, renders the Pueblo peoples, their land, and the intelligent woman who told their stories in the l880s invisible. No matter how accurate and astute Elston Wallace’s argument was, it had no efficacy since it was not “remembered” in mainstream histories of New Mexico and the West. Such an argument, had it been heard and then acted upon, might have reshaped our history.
In an era of unstoppable exploration and exploitation of the West and its mineral resources, Susan Elston Wallace saw, understood, and wrote about a broader, deeper story, one which speaks of how we as people can best live on the land. She vividly chronicles what happens when natural patterns are disrupted. In our century, we would regard Elston Wallace’s vision as a strongly environmental one, central to our 21st-Century understanding of essential sustainability.
So, while Elston Wallace certainly did entertain the intellectual readers of the East Coast and Midwest with tales of Montezuma and adventures of travel in the Wild West, in The Land of The Pueblos, she also boldly introduced her readers to what happens when “a native self-sustaining people, independent of the Government, the only aborigines among us not a curse to the soil” are abused along with their land through the claims of colonialism.
During the late 19th century, it was widely assumed that men make history. Elston Wallace challenges that point of view and deserves a place in our history as an excellent non-fiction essayist. She also deserves a place as a dissenter to colonial history’s single, obliterating story of man as controller of nature. Susan Wallace was an early environmentalist: she gave voice to New Mexico’s landscape and to its original peoples. Researchers have exciting work to undertake in the Susan Elston Wallace archives.
A farmer woke up on a cool fall day in the 1820s, not long after Indiana became a state, with a lot on his mind. He worried that he might not get all of the crops in before the first frost and that his hogs wouldn’t fetch as high a price at the market this year. His wife worried about whisperings in town that the milk sickness had claimed another neighbor. Their children didn’t have much time to worry though. They were up before the sun to feed the animals and clear the wild back acres. Whatever their specific trials, they had more immediate concerns than learning algebra, astronomy, philosophy, or the history of ancient Greece.
For many Hoosiers, education was not a priority compared to the immediate needs of the family farm or business. But others craved knowledge beyond the basic reading and arithmetic taught in one-room school houses. These ambitious students desired knowledge of the wider world, and fortunately for them, the State of Indiana worked to provide institutions of learning to meet their aspirations. In the case of the Wayne County Seminary, in the small but thriving town of Centreville (later Centerville), the mission was an incredible success. Over several decades hundreds of young men and women pursued advanced education within its walls.
The 1816 Indiana Constitution and subsequent acts of the Indiana General Assembly encouraged and provided for the creation of an educational center in each county open to all citizens (although not free of tuition) known as a “county seminary.” By the late 1820s, many Indiana counties had established such an institution. While today “seminary” refers to a theological school preparing students for ministry, the county seminaries were non-denominational. They included primary and secondary classes and in some cases even collegiate and classical courses of study. In counties where the township schools flourished, the seminaries offered only the higher education classes . In January 1827, the Indiana General Assembly passed an act requiring the appointment of “County Seminary Trustees,” who were charged with acquiring land and contracting a building. Wayne County appointed its trustees in June 1827. Over the following year and a half, the trustees secured a location and built a fine brick structure that would house eager students for over sixty years.
The Wayne County Seminary opened humbly. Teacher and administrator Nathan Smith announced via local newspapers that he would, “commence teaching a school in the Seminary in this town” on October 26, 1829, for a term of “three months, or longer, if the pleasure of those concerned requires it.” Tuition during this first term ran parents two dollars if their young scholar studied geography and English grammar and two dollars and fifty cents if mathematics was included. At the time, this was a good amount of money. For comparison sake, on the same page of the Western Times that the seminary announcement appeared, the Centreville Market advertised a dozen eggs for three to four cents and “Hams, good” for four to five cents, while whiskey would have cost you a whopping eighteen to twenty cents for a gallon. So, in 1829, fifty good hams could get you into Wayne County Seminary. This calculation is more than an exercise. Over the following years, the school would allow the mainly agrarian locals to trade produce and farm products for education.
By 1835, the school blossomed into a more advanced academy, though several newspaper articles imply this did not happen with ease. The greatest challenge was likely promoting the need for higher education to the residents of the surrounding regions. In a public announcement, the Wayne County Seminary Trustees stated: “An academy in which the higher branches are taught has long been wanted in our county, and we should be pleased to see the present attempt to establish one, patronized.” By this point, the school was attracting some students “residing distant from Centreville” and the trustees noted that boarding could be found in town for “as cheap as in any other town in the west.”
By this point, the school was “under the superintendence” of Giles C. Smith. The new superintendent had a stronger educational background than the average Indiana teacher at this time, evidenced by the fact that he went on to become a respected Methodist minister and leader within the Methodist Episcopal conference. In fact, for much of the school’s history, notable Methodist leaders made up the board and administration. The school, however, remained non-denominational, with no religious classes and with boarders attending the Sunday church service chosen by their parents. The trustees described the growing institution as “commodious and pleasantly situated,” and noted that the seminary trustees, if they did say so themselves, were “gentleman of liberality and integrity.”
This “liberality and integrity” was not simply promotional. It extended into the trustees’ educational philosophy as evidenced by one important element of the school: Wayne County Seminary provided young women the same educational opportunities as the young men. In 1835, the trustees made their case to local parents in the Richmond Palladium:
Considering, that the reputation and utility of the Seminary stand closely allied with the literary interests of this county, and knowing that the location of the one is nearly equidistant to the boundaries of the other, [the trustees] do earnestly invite those gentlemen, who know and appreciate the worth of a good education in the youth of the country, to place their sons, daughters and wards within this institution.
From the casual tone of appeal to parents to send their daughters, it seems likely that women had been included for some time, if not from the start. This 1835 trustees’ statement is no declaration that the school recently started accepting young women. Instead, it assumes some sort of general knowledge that young women had already been attending the school and expresses their hope that more young women would enroll.
Also from this 1835 announcement, we’re offered a look at the elementary and higher education curriculum. The elementary students could study reading, penmanship, orthography (spelling), and arithmetic. The secondary classes included English grammar, history, bookkeeping, geography, “and the use of the Globes.” Finally, the higher education classes included algebra, geometry, surveying, astronomy, Greek and Latin, and “Natural and Moral Philosophy.”
The trustees also announced in 1835 that superintendent Smith would “be aided in his labors by the additional services of Mr. S. K. Hoshour.” By the following year, Samuel K. Hoshour took charge of the seminary and became perhaps the school’s most influential administrator. During Hoshour’s time at the Wayne County Seminary, he mentored several students who went on to become important Hoosiers, including Jacob Julian, Oliver P. Morton, and Lew Wallace. It’s worth stepping away from the seminary story to look briefly at the careers of these Wayne County luminaries.
After completing his schooling, Jacob Julian became a prominent Centerville lawyer and briefly the law partner of his brother George Washington Julian. Jacob was involved in local politics as a staunch supporter of the Whig party. In 1846, Wayne County residents elected Jacob Julian to the Indiana House of Representatives and reelected him in 1848. Later Julian co-founded the town of Irvington, just east of Indianapolis.
Oliver P. Morton also began his career as a lawyer in Centreville. He represented Wayne County at the seminal first convention of the new national Republican Party in 1856. He was elected lieutenant governor of Indiana in 1860, but almost immediately became governor when Henry S. Lane left the position for a U.S. Senate seat. Morton served as governor throughout the Civil War and won election to a second term in 1864. He completed Lane’s term in the U.S. Senate in 1867 and was reelected again in 1873.
Lew Wallace, the son of an Indiana governor and grandson of a congressman, began a law practice in 1849, and settled in Crawfordsville in 1853. With the start of the Civil War in 1861, he volunteered for service and before the war’s end was a major general. Wallace later served as governor of the New Mexico Territory and U.S. minister to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire). He is best remembered and acclaimed as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880).
Later in life, Wallace expressed how important his time at the Wayne County Seminary was to his creation of his famous novel. In his autobiography, Wallace described the profound influence that Professor Hoshour had on his writing. Wallace remembered attending the seminary in his “thirteenth year” because “there was a teacher of such repute that my father decided to send me to him.” Wallace wrote:
Professor Hoshour was the first to observe a glimmer of writing capacity in me. An indifferent teacher would have allowed the discovery to pass without account; but he set about making the most of it, and in his method there was so much wisdom that it were wrong not to give it with particularity… The general principle on which the professor acted is plan to me now. The lack of aptitude for mathematics in my case was too decided not to be apparent to him; instead of beating me for it, he humanely applied to cultivating a faculty he thought within my powers and to my taste.
Hoshour gave Wallace great works of literature and advice on writing. Wallace remembered Hoshour explaining the most important rule of writing: “In writing, everything is to be sacrificed for clearness of expression – everything.” Finally, Hoshour encouraged Wallace to read the Bible through a literary lens as opposed to a dogmatic focus. Wallace recalled:
This was entirely new to me, and I recall the impression made by the small part given to the three wise men. Little did I dream then what those few verses were to bring me – that out of them Ben-Hur was one day to be evoked.
Wallace referred to his time with Hoshour as “the turning-point of my life.”
While the seminary forged some great Hoosier men, the young women of the Wayne County Seminary thrived as well. Although the prejudices and legal obstacles of the period kept them from the public successes of their male peers, sources show the female students equaled the male students’ academic achievement, and perhaps even exceeded them in some areas. The young women took classes on the same subjects as the young men, but their classes were separate and taught by female teachers.
Several sources show that these women were highly respected in their community, praised by newspaper writers, and in in many ways treated as peers by their male colleagues. For example, when the county’s teachers formed the Wayne County Education Society in the early 1840s, seminary teachers Mary Thorpe and Sarah Dickson were not only included, they served on various committees that decided appropriate school texts, punishments, and funding. They served side by side with their male colleagues and prominent community members such as Levi Coffin, George Washington Julian, and Solomon Meredith.
Female teachers also served as the administrators of the girls’ school, which maintained a surprising degree of autonomy. Evidence of this autonomy can be gleaned from Wayne County newspapers. For example, in February 1842, the Richmond Palladium reported that a new principal, Rawson Vaile, had replaced the former seminary administrator, George Rea. The following month, Rea placed an announcement in the Wayne County Record somewhat dramatically decrying his removal and announcing his plan to open a rival school. Through this unrest at the seminary, teacher and administrator Mary Thorpe, calmly steered the girls’ school through the storm. She ran her own advertisement in the Wayne County Record, assuring her students:
Miss Thorpe Respectfully informs the Citizens of Centreville, that the late change in the Wayne County Seminary, will in no way affect her School; but that it will, as heretofore, remain under her exclusive control.
Throughout the 1840s, the Wayne County Record covered the “public examinations” of both the male and female students. During these student exhibitions, parents and other Wayne County residents packed into the nearby Methodist church as it was the only building large enough to hold the interested crowds. The program featured original essays, debates, as well as musical and dramatic performances. In March 1842, the Wayne County Record covered the examination of the male students and praised Principal Vaile, focusing on his penchant for strict discipline. However, the newspaper was harshly critical of the enunciation and articulation of the male students.
In contrast, a month later on April 13, the same newspaper raved about the “Female Department of the Wayne County Seminary” and called their public exhibition “one of the best examinations we have ever attended in this place.” The writer noted that the students did not just repeat rote, memorized facts, but had a deep understanding of their subject matter. The article stated:
From the lowest classes, studying the simple elements of Geography, or numbers, up to those in the higher branches of Natural Philosophy, Grammar, Astronomy, Algebra and Political Geography, all, as far as they had severally* advanced, seemed to understand the ground over which they had traveled. They did not possess a mere smattering knowledge but could readily tell the why and wherefore of the question propounded to them.
The Wayne County Record also praised Sarah Dickinson, the able teacher of these impressive young women: “We feel assured that no one has ever taught here, either Male or Female, that has given more general satisfaction.” Let’s hazard a guess that the young women would have been quite pleased with their success, and maybe even by their besting of the young men in the press’s estimation.
The Wayne County Seminary continued to flourish and grow in both enrollment and size. By 1843, the school expanded classroom space and lodging and the addition of more upper level classes in languages and sciences. The women could also now pursue a music focused curriculum if desired. The article noted that the seminary included “Three several Schools,* one Male and two Female,” and reiterated that “Pupils, in either the Male or Female departments” could pursue “the ordinary branches of an English Education” or the higher level courses of “Astronomy, Botany, Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, Geology, and the Latin and French Languages.”
By the late 1840s, the institution reorganized and the new board of trustees changed its name to Whitewater Female College and Academy. Despite this somewhat misleading name, the school continued to educate both young men and women. While the board was now under the administration of the Methodist Episcopal Northern Indiana conference, classes remained secular and boarding students could still attend the church of their parents’ choice on Sundays. Notably, in 1849, the female students founded the prestigious Sigournian Society, a literary organization with its own library at the school. The society held exhibitions of original essays, hosted lively political debates, and performed music. The crest of the society featured an open book with a halo of light with their motto: “Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased” (Daniel 12:4).
Over the following decades the school saw many changes but ardently continued its lofty educational mission. By the 1850s, the school, still under the “patronage” of the Methodist Conference, became known simply as “White Water College.” By this point, over 200 students attended the institution. In the early 1860s, after some financial trouble, the board sold the institution to Wiliam H. Barnes who remodeled and reopened the school and served as its president for a time. In 1865, the academy again changed administration and name, reopening in September 1865 as the Centerville Collegiate Institute. In the early 1870s, the site that once hosted the prestigious Wayne County Seminary became a public school. All signs of the original school were destroyed by fire in 1891.
Today, not far from the site of the seminary, local kids attend Centerville Elementary School. If the teachers were to have their kids look out of the school’s east facing windows, perhaps they can imagine their distant relatives walking into the old seminary carrying “McGuffey’s Eclectic Series of School Books” and maybe even “country produce or building materials . . . in payment of Tuition.” And the teachers can appreciate that, while they might still have the same problems that Professor Vaile had in 1842 in getting his students to enunciate clearly, at least they don’t have to “procure all the fuel necessary” this icy winter as Professor Smith did back in 1829 at the opening of the ambitious, progressive, and democratic Wayne County Seminary.
Most secondary information came from: Richard G. Boone, A History of Education in Indiana (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), 42-86.
*I came across scattered mentions of the term “several schools” in the contemporary newspapers. Though I was not able to find a precise definition, I gleaned from the context of the articles that the term refers to the level of education after primary and before college, roughly equivalent to what would be middle school through high school today.
“Yes, it was me! I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! And I’d do it again-,” cried Roxie Hart, the achingly beautiful murderess conjured up by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. Inspired by crimes she covered for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, Watkin’s 1926 play “Chicago” became an instant hit and has been continuously reinterpreted, from Bob Fosse’s 1970s production to the Oscar-winning 2002 Miramax film. The Crawfordsville, Indiana native’s take on women murderers, who employed charm and theatrics to convince sympathetic male jurors of their innocence, earned the praise of critics and theater-goers. The Los Angeles Times noted that year “critics claim that the play is without a counterpart in the history of the American stage.” In an era of instant, often fleeting social media-derived celebrity, Watkins’ fame-obsessed murderesses who kept the press enraptured seem more relevant than ever.
Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, Watkins moved with her family to Indiana and attended Crawfordsville High School. According to a 1928 Indianapolis Star article, she started writing dramas from a young age. At 11-years-old, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church presented her “Hearts of Gold,” which generated $45. The St. Louis Star and Times described Watkins in 1928 as “simply dressed, with big, innocent-looking blue eyes and an exceedingly shy manner.”
After studying at Butler University in Indianapolis and Hamilton College in Lexington, Kentucky, she sought experiences about which she could write and contacted the city editor of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper, convinced by Watkin’s zeal, hired her to write about the city’s crimes from a “woman’s angle.” Her eight month stint as a “sob sister,” or women journalists who wrote about female criminals and were often sympathetic to their crimes (although not in Watkins’ case), inspired her to write “Chicago.” She described the piece as “‘a composite of many different happenings, while Roxy the heroine, was drawn from one of our leading ‘lady murderesses’-the loveliest thing in the world, who looked like a pre-Raphaelite angel, and who shot her lover because he was leaving her'” (Ind.Star).
This murderess was one Mrs. Beulah Annan of Chicago, who confessed to killing her lover Harry Kalstedt. She was pronounced not guilty by a jury, swayed by her innocent persona and “man-taming eyes.” While Annan served as the inspiration for “Chicago,” the name of the play’s protagonist Roxie Hart was likely borrowed from a 1913 murder in Crawfordsville involving the lover of the deceased Walter Runyan. Like Annan, this lover was also praised for her captivating eyes and delicate features.
The St. Louis Star and Times noted that Watkins enjoyed this work for a period of time “because the psychological reactions interested her.” With literary inspiration in hand, she moved to New York and worked as a movie critic for the American Yearbook. She attended Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class “47” at Yale University, drafting “A Brave Little Woman.” According to The Best Plays of 1926-27, upon completing the play Watkins, “being a thorough feminist,” approached play broker Laura Wilck, who “promptly bought it for herself and announced an intention of producing it. But before she got around to this the men interfered.” Well-known producer Sam Harris soon bought and changed the play’s name to “Chicago.” Best Plays attributed the piece’s success to Watkin’s “freshness of viewpoint,” “natural gift for writing,” and “interview with a lady murderess.” The Roaring Twenties provided the perfect canvas for Watkin’s literary skills and, as the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News noted in 1927, “No period ever left itself wider open to lampooning than this in which the absurd antics of bootlegging, publicitizing, exploitation, crime and all the rest are commonplaces.”
The play achieved immediate stage success. According to a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, it ran for 172 Broadway performances. Its debut generated widespread anticipation and the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1927 that preparations were being made at the city’s Music Box Theater, “with stage and screen stars, literary prominents, civic officials and society leaders in attendance, the opening promises to develop into a social event.” The showing featured an undiscovered Clark Gable (who later married Hoosier actress Carole Lombard), portraying “Jake the reporter.”
A review published by the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted that “Chicago’s” text was “so packed with knowledge and seasoned irony that any one could picture for himself the kind of toughened old buzzard of a sob-sister who would have knocked about enough to know how to write it.” The Arizona Republic published one of the more colorful and insightful reviews of the play’s impact on the public, noting that Watkins filled her “drama with comedy of terrific realty and, with never a word of preachment . . . and sends the audiences home converted to a skepticism that can hardly fail to have important results when enough people have seen the play.” As the scintillating third act concluded, the “audience staggers home, laughed out, yet somehow sadder and wiser, and realizing with tragic wonder that tomorrow the headlines will brazen forth some new female criminal.”
The Republic suggested that Watkin’s drama could change the public’s perception about these “pretty demons.” It added that her work was a “tremendous denunciation of the sacrilege by which the juryman, who should be the wisest and sanest of our guardians, is easily turned into a blithering come-on.” And, “best of all,” the satire was written by a woman “on the folly of men in their false homage to woman, their silly efforts to protect her while she dupes them.”
The IndianapolisStar reported that the reverend’s daughter still considered Indiana home, despite moving to New York following the success of her play. She recalled upon a return visit “‘I love it out in the country-life’s terribly complicated! You count the rings of the telephone to see if it is your number, and you have to go and meet the postman.'” The woman who wrote about a “flashy negligee of blue Georgette with imitation lace,” kept her hair “unbobbed” due to her father’s dislike of short hair.
Following the success of “Chicago,” Watkins continued to write, but never achieved the same level of literary acclaim. She was commissioned to dramatize Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel Revelry, about the Harding administration’s Ohio Gang, for which she conducted research at the White House. In April 1927, the newspaper hired her to cover the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband. The paper noted that Watkins, a sobless sister, would “deal with facts, without tears, in a notable author’s inimitable way, from her place at the trial table in Queens courtroom.” She reportedly moved to Hollywood, writing screenplays and articles for Cosmopolitan magazine. The author later settled in Florida, where she died of lung cancer in 1969. Watkin’s three act play cemented her legacy among the pantheon of accomplished Hoosier writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, I Love Lucy‘s Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Crawfordsville colleague Lew Wallace.
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 Ben–Hur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“‘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.”
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.”
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.
He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”
To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.
On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:
[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.
Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”
Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mailand the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.
Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story. However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel. Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”
For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place. In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.” This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.
While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.
Lew Wallace is widely renowned as the Hoosier author of Ben-Hur, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. What many people don’t know is that Lew’s wife, Susan Elston Wallace, was also a well-known writer in her day.
Born on December 25, 1830, Susan was the fourth of nine children born to Maria Aiken and Major Isaac Compton Elston. Major Elston was instrumental in creating a private school where his children could be educated. Susan was described as “petite and studious.” She often climbed to the top of a sturdy bookcase to read, and later retreated to the attic for privacy.
Susan’s mother appreciated and encouraged Susan’s studious nature. In her teens, Susan was sent for either one or two years to a Quaker school in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was run by two sisters, the Misses Robinson. Lew and Susan met in 1849 at a party held in Crawfordsville by her sister. They courted for four years and were married in 1852.
Harper & Brothers published Susan’s first poem, “The Patter of Little Feet,” in February 1858. Over the years, the poem has raised a great deal of speculation. Susan and Lew had one child, Henry Lane Wallace. “The Patter of Little Feet” was such an evocative piece about a parent’s love for her son and loss of her daughter that many readers wondered if they had originally had twins.
The poem itself describes a little boy and his wanderings and play, but one stanza in particular raised questions:
The poem goes on to describe the mother’s longing that she will someday reach heaven and hear the patter of her daughter’s feet on heaven’s floor.
Not only readers but researchers have also been fascinated with the poem. One biography in our research files at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum states that Susan had twins, but that the daughter died after two days. A paper written about Susan in the 1950s, possibly citing this biography, also makes the same assertion. Wallace scholars have found no cemetery records to support this. Additionally, one Wallace scholar discovered a letter in which Susan referred to the “Twinborn little girl” as a literary invention. Nevertheless, the pathos of her writing certainly complicated scholarly research.
Before the Civil War, Susan’s writings consisted largely of sentimental musings about women and children, flowers, romance, and lives cut short. During and after the war, her writings took a more mature and incisive tone as she continued to write about women and their situation in life.
The poem “Divorced,” written in January of 1868, is a prime example of this:
Interestingly, this poem does not seem to have raised any speculation regarding Lew’s faithfulness to Susan.
Susan also wrote a great deal of nonfiction about her travels, which originally appeared in weekly and monthly publications. Later, they were collected in her books: The Storied Sea, Land of the Pueblos, Along the Bosphorus, The Repose in Egypt, and The City of the King. (Many of her books are available from Amazon in commemorative edition paperbacks published by the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.) Her short book Ginevra: A Christmas Storyis a gothic story about a young noblewoman and the man she loved. It was published with illustrations by Lew Wallace.
Lew Wallace died in 1905 at the age of 77. After his death, Susan poetically wrote to a relative: “The love of my life is gone. I am now 76 years old and my heart is a tired hour glass. It seems hardly worthwhile to watch the slow dropping of the sands… the past is ever present with me, and though I look through all the faces in the world, I shall never see another like that of my first, last and only love.”
Susan died in Crawfordsville on October 1, 1907, leaving behind an body of literary and nonfiction work overshadowed by that of her husband. Learn more about Susan’s life and work here.
While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious. Bierce’s own agnosticism aligned with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an Illinois politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory. He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, that were critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors and their counter-cultural thinking became an indelible part of 19th century Freethought (broadly understood during the period as an open, reasoned evaluation of religion and spirituality).
In his essay, “A Dead Lion,” Bierce defended the agnostic orator and responded to his critics. When Ingersoll died in 1899, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country paid their respects to the infidel, but they also continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator. Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defended Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” as Bierce wrote in the aforementioned essay, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.”
Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argued that it was, “keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar.” While his pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, Bierce’s essay does show a deep intellectual kinship between the two.
Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. In one passage, Bierce defends Ingersoll’s position:
It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.
Both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays reflected a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.
Bierce also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.” Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.” In other words, he had to see it to believe it.
Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s free thought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.” He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.” Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired critical lectures by clergymen. This work influenced journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who wrote clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.
Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some veterans discovered interests in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given him an immortality he may have never imagined.