The Agitator: Theodore Luesse Takes On the Great Depression

Evansville Journal, July 21, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As they awaited the fate of Minor Moon, a legion of anxious men spilled down the stairs of the municipal courtroom, prodded by a “double chain” of Indianapolis patrolmen. Judge Paul C. Wetter had decided: Moon, a Black resident, would pay $50 for trespassing—an almost unfathomable fine for November 25, 1930, especially for a man recently evicted from his home at 409 West North Street. With this sentencing, Theodore Luesse—a white strike-leader in his mid-20s—cried from the front of the court room, “Comrades are we going to stand for this miscarriage of justice?”[1]

His comrades, still lining the stairs, responded, “We want justice!” They rushed back into the courtroom, where they exchanged blows with police officers. The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported, “The raging fighters smashed through the doorways into the corridors. Clubs rose and fell and fists were swung. Everyone was yelling.”[2] Luesse’s comrades, unemployed men attracted by the promise of Communism, eventually fled, leaving Luesse and organizer R.M. Spillman among the “avalanche of blue coats.” Police swiftly escorted Luesse and Spillman to jail, where, from their cells, they cried “injustice!” and “downtrodden proletariat!”

This would be one of dozens of arrests of Luesse for his role in agitating for better living and working conditions during the Great Depression. His actions would eventually culminate in a sentence at the notorious State Penal Farm in Putnamville, known as the “Black Hole of Indiana.” From this bleak environment, Luesse ran for governor on the Communist ticket. While the gubernatorial campaign inevitably failed, calls for Luesse’s release from imprisonment, for what many decried as simply exercising his “freedom of speech,” endeared widespread public support, including from Indianapolis businessmen like Franklin Vonnegut and clergy like Dr. Frank S. C. Wicks, as well as non-partisan groups like the ACLU.[3] His sentence also, to the dismay of judicial and government officials, increased Hoosiers’ interest in Communist ideals and ignited a series of social protests.


Much of Luesse’s inimitable life can be pieced together by pairing his 1995 recollections How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story* with U.S. Census records and newspaper articles, which typically corroborate his memories. The future firebrand, born in 1905 in Batesville to German immigrants, experienced hardship nearly from birth. When his mother died shortly after his first birthday, his father, likely grief-stricken and needing to provide for the family, moved to Indianapolis, where he varnished furniture in a factory. Theodore’s sisters were sent to an orphanage, and Theodore moved in with his aunt on a Batesville farm.[4] The family reunited a few years later, when his father brought his children to the capital city. There, Theodore recalled his father returning from work “full of sweat,” having undertaken grueling labor for pennies. Young Theodore tried to supplement this income with various jobs, like delivering newspapers and selling errant pieces of iron and rags.

The Luesse family, with Theodore in his father’s arms, courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): cover.

This struggle likely informed Luesse’s later work as an organizer, as did attending local political meetings with his father. His experiences certainly cultivated in him a deep empathy for the disenfranchised, which manifested in middle school, when he protested the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras.[5] Having exploited Honduran plantations for years, the U.S. sought to protect its profits after Hondurans denied access to them. Luesse was taught that the Marines were sent under the guise of protecting locals from “gangsters and guerrillas.” However, he challenged this narrative, telling teachers at his Catholic school that Hondurans were “fathers and mothers just like our fathers and mothers.” He recalled the nuns ridiculing his protestations. This incident, combined with their corporeal punishment, caused him to drop out of school.

In his early-teen years, Luesse found work as a messenger. He hauled boxes from “five and tens” and department stores, recalling, “Oh it was a big wagon with big horses and I was so proud of being able to drive that thing right in the heart of Indianapolis just going down the streets and hearing the automobiles and trucks and everything.”[6] According to Luesse, he then got a job at Western Union, where he led his first strike, demanding “equal work for equal pay, although we didn’t call it that.” He led fellow employees under the age of 16 to demand wages equal to that of older teenagers. Here, he demonstrated his signature mixture of intimidation and organizational prowess, threatening and sometimes employing physical harm against anyone who refused to strike. The tactic proved successful in raising wages.

He then leveraged his job as a newsboy to work for social justice in the 1920s. He and some coworkers obtained an anti-Ku Klux Klan paper published in Chicago called The Intolerance.[7] They distributed copies at  Jewish synagogues, Catholic churches, and churches in Black neighborhoods in Indianapolis, hoping to combat the rhetoric and ideals espoused in the Klan’s Fiery Cross paper. According to Luesse, publicizing information about the hate group helped pressure public officials into stemming the Klan’s influence in government.

Curtisville Bottom, Great Depression shantytown located along the west bank of the White River from Oliver Street to Washington Street, May 1935, courtesy of Indy Star, accessed Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

Around 1930, Luesse joined the Communist Party, learning about local cases of unemployment and evictions through the party’s paper. Giving up a house-painting job, Luesse focused solely on combatting the deprivations wrought by the early months of the Great Depression.[8] He organized “flying squadrons,” groups of men who traveled to welfare and unemployment offices to ensure that the agencies were meeting people’s needs. He and his comrades also distributed copies of the communist paper and delivered speeches at Indianapolis factories. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Luesse visited the Kingan meat packing plant, informing workers about evictions around the city, arguing that, “If they can throw her out, they’ll throw us out tomorrow.” Such speeches attracted a crowd of onlookers, some of whom joined organizers in a parade to houses from which residents were being evicted. They hauled furniture back into renters’ homes, relying on a “security squad” comprised of military veterans, to intimidate police if they tried to intervene.

Luesse helped organize the Communist-based Unemployment Council of Indianapolis because the jobless had received “very little help from these organizations like the Socialist Party, the Workman’s Circle, and the Death Benefit Society. They were evolutionary and we were revolutionary. The Socialist Party believed that you could get everything on a ballot.”[9] The Unemployment Council, however, embraced public demonstrations and confrontations with public officials. Luesse contended that these were necessary in early 1931, as the socioeconomic privilege of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers shielded them from the realities of daily life for the unemployed. He noted, “They didn’t know about people having to pull things out of swill cans to eat, how people had to steal food to eat or things to live, how they had to burn up furniture in order to keep warm.”[10]

Citizens tried on one of the 2,500 pairs of shoes at the Indianapolis Salvation Army, donated by the city’s children via the Circle Theater, courtesy of the Indianapolis Times, November 24, 1930, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations during the early years of the Depression. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, Governor Harry G. Leslie and Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan refused to authorize relief bonds.[11] In fact, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'”[12] Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to preeminent Indiana historian James H. Madison.[13]


As inaction pitched Hoosiers further into destitution, their public protestations intensified. On January 6, 1931, the Indianapolis Times reported that Luesse and Council members led hundreds of unemployed men, about 60% of whom were Black, to the statehouse.[14] They failed in their attempt to meet Governor Leslie, whom they’d hoped would reconsider his stance on relief and housing. After this, Luesse led the men, desperately in need of warmth, to Tomlinson Hall. The group hoped that they could possibly find work there, as Tomlinson housed the Office of the Unemployed. Leading the delegation with Luesse was J.C. Moon (possibly a relative of Minor), dressed “fantastically in a dark blue uniform resembling that of hotel bellboys, and his head was topped by a scarlet fez hat with a flowing tassel.”[15]

Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 77, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

As the marchers approached the building, they sustained momentum by chanting “When we see a cop we use him for a mop.”[16] They immediately encountered a police squadron at Tomlinson Hall, which culminated in a clash like that in the municipal courtroom. Banners bearing slogans like “Deliver Us From Starvation” and “To Hell With Your Lousy Charities” soon littered Delaware and Market Streets as some marchers fled and others attempted to occupy Tomlinson.[17] According to Luesse, police officers threw him on top of the gatherers and “motioned for the streetcars and automobiles to cut through the crowd.” After sustaining a blow to the nose, police again hauled him to jail. “My twenty-eighth ride!” he proclaimed.

Such conflicts demonstrated the painful dichotomy between the urgency of citizens’ needs and the inadequacy or unwillingness of governmental and societal structures to meet them. The fraught circumstances are likely why some lawyers continued to aid Luesse and why Judge Paul Wetter was fairly lenient in his punishment of him. In a serendipitous twist, Luesse had dated Wetter’s sister, establishing a friendly rapport with the future judge.[18] During their many courtroom encounters, Luesse and Judge Wetter exchanged perspectives, both seemingly perplexed by the other’s stance. Judge Wetter wanted to know why Luesse engaged in such provocation, and Luesse asked why Judge Wetter sentenced Hoosiers the way he did. Luesse recalled telling the judge:

‘There was this here old man that stole a pig and you put him one hundred and thirty days on the rock pile [penal farm]. You didn’t ask him why he stole the pig. You didn’t ask him about anything, but because of the fact that the law says that he should go to jail for one hundred and thirty days for stealing a pig you sent him. . . Now he’s got four breadsnappers at home. . . . he stole that pig in order to feed those children.’ (p. 47)

Luesse added, “You live in a world of hypocrisy. You go to church. . . . I’m up to here with all your bullsh*t, all your people’s bullsh*t, the priest’s and bishop’s and pope’s and everybody else.'” Apparently he earned Judge Wetter’s begrudging respect because, according to Luesse, Wetter ordered the turnkey to release him.[19] Just one month later, Luesse came again before Judge Wetter for having made “inflammatory speeches to a crowd assembled at a soup kitchen.”[20] Rather than fining or sentencing Luesse, Judge Wetter ordered him to report to City Hall for work digging ditches the following day.

Picture
The Unemployed Workers’ Movement Anti-Eviction Committee protesting the eviction of a women and her family of 5 children in Norfolk St, Ponsonby, Auckland, 1931, accessed The Great Depression Riots of 1932.

Luesse employed another tactic to draw attention to the plight of Hoosier families. In How I Got Out of Jail, he described a “Mrs. Allen,” whose husband was unable to work due to tuberculosis. Having four children to care for, Mrs. Allen walked two to three miles to the welfare office for “gold soup,” so called because of the carrots that floated to the top of the broth.[21] She supplemented this paltry meal with rotten vegetables gathered from around the city. Luesse noted:

She was a fighter in every capacity and I loved that. So she was being evicted from her place and I convinced her that we were gonna get her a house. . . . We’re gonna have a big demonstration on the state house lawn and we’re going to have a house built there.

After Mrs. Allen agreed to this plan, Luesse and his comrades transported a dilapidated house to the statehouse grounds and distributed leaflets encouraging people to come “see how the unemployed has to live.” Two sides of the shanty were without walls, so for four days people observed Mrs. Allen care for her children and complete routine tasks with meager resources. Based on the publicity generated by the demonstration, Luesse was able to secure permanent housing for the Allen family.[22]

Throughout the spring, Luesse returned to jail several times for halting evictions and leading public demonstrations. His luck ran out after his thirty-fourth arrest, for which he interfered with the “eviction of a destitute Negro family,” and finally faced legal consequences. [23] Judge Frank P. Baker sentenced Luesse to one year at a penal farm in Putnamville, stating “‘no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Any such man is a menace to society. I believe this man has tried to stir up resistance against the law and crate disrespect for it, which in turn might lead to dangerous riots.'”[24]


“Oh, Goddman, that was a hell of a place,” Luesse recalled about the jail.[25] In a sweltering quarry, he worked alongside men incarcerated for a spectrum of transgressions, including drunkenness, theft, and “social crimes”—meaning imprisonment for the crime of simply being a person of color. One man reportedly died because of the brutal work environment, a tragedy Luesse tried to expose by tying a letter to a kite.[26] For this attempt, he was placed in “the hole” for twenty days, where guards handcuffed and hung him out on a door for hours. Such allegations were confirmed by former prisoners, who presented Governor Leslie with affidavits testifying to such treatment.[27] Glenn Emmett Mulford wrote that after Luesse was released from solitary confinement, he “‘looked sick, worn-out and was bleeding from the nose.'” According to the Garrett Clipper, Governor Leslie dismissed the claims, declaring that Luesse was treated with “‘exceptional kindness.'”

The support Luesse engendered via his activism endured throughout his incarceration, as downtrodden Hoosiers continually demanded his release. In fact, the Evansville Press noted that his “case caused nationwide protests.”[28] At the end of November 1931, hunger marchers en route to Washington, D.C. stopped at the Putnamville prison farm, demanding to see Luesse.[29] Rebuffed, the automobile detachment continued on to Indianapolis, where they attempted to confront Governor Leslie about Luesse’s release and about authorizing war funds for the unemployed. By the spring of 1932, prominent Indianapolis clergymen and business leaders signed a petition for the Hoosier Communist’s release.[30] Indianapolis citizen Samuel Nathanson appealed to the governor after Luesse—who happened to be born with the unique “No. 1 count”—donated pints of blood to his sick daughter in an attempt to save her life.[31] Although Nathanson “was not in sympathy with Luesse’s political and economic beliefs,” he felt that Luesse’s punishment did not fit the crime, and that his generosity demonstrated his fitness as a citizen. He went so far as to offer Luesse a job at The Store Without a Name, for which he was manager.

“News of the Day as the Pictures Record It,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

After these efforts failed, local women led the charge to free Luesse. In April, they organized a protest of about one hundred supporters at the statehouse and defied police orders to relocate to Military Park. The Lake County Times reported that police had to forcefully remove a number of women “after they had climbed to the top of ornamental urns and had harangued their male companions to remain.”[32] Among the three arrested and charged with “inciting to riot and resisting arrest,” was a “Mrs. Fay Allen.” Described by the Indianapolis Star as a “mother of four children,” she was likely the same woman aided by the home demonstration organized on the statehouse grounds.[33] She appeared to take up the mantle for Luesse while he was behind bars, as she was arrested again the following month for “inciting a riot and interfering with legal process” during an eviction.[34] In July, a similar protest materialized at the statehouse, this time organized by unemployed men from The Region, who sought relief measures and the release of Luesse.[35] Hammond spokesman Wenzel Stocker told legislators that “‘mass starvation and suicide'” would occur in Gary if relief funds were not issued.

Given the apparent futility of such demonstrations, organizers hoped to effect change through electoral politics. In 1932, the Communist Party nominated Fay Allen for Secretary of State, Stocker for Lieutenant Governor, and Theodore Luesse, still serving time at the penal farm, for governor.[36] Luesse reported that some guards were sympathetic to his ideology and even supported his gubernatorial run. The candidates earned the public’s sympathy and respect, but not their electoral support, as born out by the 1932 returns. All three Communist candidates came in sixth out of seventh place, earning just over ninety votes each.[37]

Despite the loss, Luesse and his comrades increased interest among Hoosiers in the Communist Party, which as editorialist Paul B. Sallee noted in 1935, “could not develop a membership sufficient to muster a corporal’s guard.”[38] However, Luesse’s imprisonment—a veritable “miscarriage of law”—and the suppression of free speech wrought by his incarceration helped the Party grow by “leaps and bounds.” Sallee alleged that if the two major parties denied Hoosiers their “political rights and civil liberties . . . it is clear to any intelligent person that the people will throw off such restraint by any method.” While Hoosier voters did not forsake the two major parties, they did signal the desire for change by electing the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, Paul V. McNutt. Indiana’s new head of state had apparently been sympathetic to Luesse’s plight and in March of 1933 released him from Putnamville.[39]


Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 71, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

“Assured that Luesse would leave the state” upon his release, Gov. McNutt likely breathed a sigh of relief. Although progressive in his politics, McNutt surely preferred not having to contend with Luesse’s agitation.[40] But Luesse, dogmatic as ever, returned to Indianapolis the day after he left the penal farm. He stood on the courthouse steps before an audience of 200 women and men, most of whom the paper noted were African Americans, and “urged concentrated action of his followers against governmental officials to force them to favor demands of workers and the unemployed.”[41] Upon request, he made similar speeches in cities like Evansville, Munster, and Hammond in the following months.[42] According to Luesse, after his incarceration he worked with Indiana volunteers to organize a C.I.O. branch, made possible by passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act.[43] In August of 1933, while preparing to speak to a crowd of unemployed residents in Marion, he was arrested and transported to the Grant County jail, where a mob forcibly removed and lynched two young Black men in 1930.[44]

It appears that Governor McNutt could breathe a bit easier by 1935, as Luesse had transferred his organizational talent to other midwestern cities, like Belleville, Illinois.[45] Some time after leaving Indiana, Luesse assumed the alias “Jim Moore” and worked as a machinist. Shedding his association with the Hoosier state, he resided in St. Louis for a time, channeling his revolutionary spirit into protesting the Vietnam War.[46] After decades of activism, Moore joined his son, Stan, in San Francisco around 1967. They circulated 50,000 leaflets throughout the Bay Area, “telling the workers to organize stoppage of work for five minutes, ten minutes or any amount as a memorial to the people that died” in the war. After permanently relocating to the West Coast, Moore fought for equal representation in law enforcement and county government.[47] In the late 1980s, he served as a U.S. delegate to the World Peace Convention in Denmark, relying on young peers to help him travel to Copenhagen, as a lifetime of activism had worn down his body.[48]

Image of Luesse/Moore courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): inside cover.

Moore appeared to have tempered his radical impulses later in life, telling interviewer Claire Burch in 1995, “We’ve got enough anarchy! We don’t need no more anarchy. We need organization. We need discipline. We need to be moved to do things in order to be able to get legislation passed.”[49] Despite a philosophical shift, the nonagenarian continued to work for societal change.  An average weekend for Moore meant rising at 7 o’clock, getting in some light exercise (mindful of his pacemaker), and walking over to the local hospital cafeteria for breakfast before folding copies of The People’s World. He then distributed them at the University of California, Berkley and in boxes throughout the city. Some Saturdays he breakfasted with college students to “talk over what is necessary for them to do” and on Sundays attended Humanist meetings or American-Soviet Friendship Society gatherings.[50] He ran a petition drive to convince the Montgomery Ward Company to donate one of its buildings to the City of Oakland, so it could be repurposed as a trade skill training center or housing for those experiencing homelessness.[51] Moore distributed leaflets at local welfare and unemployment offices and attended Bay Area demonstrations almost until his death.[52]


With characteristic resolve, Moore achieved his goal to reach the age of 100, passing away in 2005 just two weeks after the milestone birthday. Despite playing a large role in Indiana’s labor tradition and making an indelible impact on his native state during the Depression, he has largely been forgotten. Crusaders such as himself helped centralize Indiana government and cultivate a new generation of organizers, who demanded more from their government during those tumultuous years.

While some Hoosier leaders disapproved of Luesse’s resistance, it helped catalyze necessary change during unprecedented circumstances. After all, the New Deal was not a foregone conclusion and many state lawmakers were slow to recognize the scope of constituents’ needs. Luesse’s many public protests and his vociferous criticism of Governor Leslie’s inaction infused some Hoosiers with the spirit of reform. Primed for change, voters decided not to elect Gov. Leslie to a second term, instead electing progressive candidate Paul V. McNutt in 1933. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, Gov. McNutt’s “liberal social-welfare programs . . . marked a significant shift in the direction of assistance to those in need” and created a “more centralized, modernized, and professional welfare system.”[53]

Luesse’s unflinching demand for accountability and relief measures may resonate with modern Americans, as they grapple with the current spike in inflation, swelling gas prices, the mounting student loan debt crisis, and pandemic-related housing displacement. Certainly, those who support a social safety net relate to Theodore Luesse’s belief that:

Everybody has the right to live just because they are alive, and in order to live, a person has to have food, clothing and shelter, health and education. When he doesn’t receive that by his own ingenuity it is necessary for the government to help him. That is why we have governments—to help those people who cannot help themselves, not just to make rules and regulations.[54]


* According to this publication, he eventually went by the alias “Jim Moore,” but it is unclear when or why he did so. It appears he employed this moniker after leaving Indiana, so he will be referred to as “Theodore Luesse” during the time he lived there.

Notes:

[1] “Indianapolis Police Battle Riotous Crowd of Radicals,” (Lafayette) Journal and Courier, November 25, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “Theodore Luesse,” 1910 United States Federal Census, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995), p. 5-6.

[5] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 5-6; Obituary, “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, January 7, 2005, accessed Peoplesworld.org.

[6]  “Theodore Luesse,” Indianapolis, Indiana City Directory, 1920, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Hayes Body Strike Ends in Wage Pact,” Indianapolis Times, April 18, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 10-11, 13, 26-34.

[7] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 106-107.

[8] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 32-34.

[9] “To Protest Eviction of Tenants,” Indianapolis News, January 5, 1931, 23, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from How I Got Out of Jail, p. 109.

[10] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[11] Bradford Sample, “A Truly Midwestern City: Indianapolis on the Eve of the Great Depression,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, iss. 2 (June 2001), accessed IUScholarWorks Journal.

[12] United Press, “Leslie Again Blocks Session: Refuses Plea that He Call Legislature,” Evansville Press, March 26, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] James H. Madison, Indiana Through Tradition and Change: A History of the Hoosier State and Its People, 1920-1945 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982), p. 109.

[14] Quote from “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, January 6, 1931, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Communist Agitators Arrested,” Late County Times, January 6, 1931, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[16] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 43-44.

[17] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[18] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 45.

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

[20] “Court Provides Jobs for Orators,” (Lafayette, IN) Journal and Courier, February 6, 1931, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21]  How I Got Out of Jail, p. 41-42, 156.

[22] Ibid., p. 41-42.

[23] “Alleged Red Held Again,” Indianapolis News, April 24, 1931, 37, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hunger Marchers are Home Bound,” Late County Times, May 5, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Trio Arrested at Capital Released,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, May 5, 1931, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Radical Chief Gets Sentence on State Farm,” Kokomo Tribune, May 23, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 48.

[26] Ibid., p. 50-51.

[27] “Leslie Denies ‘Red’ Has Been Abused at Penal Farm,” Garrett Clipper, May 26, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] “Marchers Denied Visit with Luesse at State Penal Farm by Warden,” Kokomo Tribune, November 30, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[30] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Governor Refuses to Release Luesse,” Palladium-Item, October 4, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 57.

[31] “Luesse Gave Blood for Little Girl; Father Asks Release, Promises Job,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1932, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Quote from “Mob of Reds are Led by Women,” Late County Times, April 25, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] “2 Women, 1 Man Held as Rioters,” Indianapolis Star, April 26, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[34] “Two Held at Eviction,” Indianapolis News, May 13, 1932, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[35] “Jobless Army Asks Indiana Legislature for Relief Funds,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1932, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[36] “May Day is Celebrated at Two Meetings Here,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hammond Man is Named for State Office,” Late County Times, September 21, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Townsend for Senate,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1932, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[37] South Bend Tribune, November 10, 1932, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[38] Paul B. Sallee, “The Message Center: ‘Red Scare’ Law Held Communist Aid,” Indianapolis Times, March 15, 1935, 32, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[39] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, March 5, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[40] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[41] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, 9.

[42] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Prepare for Luesse Meeting,” Late County Times, March 20, 1933, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[43] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 62.

[44] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Freed from Grant County Jail,” Indianapolis Star, August 8, 1933, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[45] “Sewage Plant and Richland Creek Project Placed on List,” Belleville [Illinois] Daily News-Democrat, February 5, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 72, 85.

[46] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 85, 190.

[47] Ibid., p. 151, 182.

[48] Ibid., p. 129-130.

[49] Ibid., p. 184.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] Ibid., p. 180.

[52] “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, 2005.

[53] Linda C. Gugin, “Paul V. McNutt: January 9, 1933-January 11, 1937,” in eds., Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, The Governors of Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2006), p. 296.

[54] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 146.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

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

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

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

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

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

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

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

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

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

The Fort Wayne Visiting Nurse League

Josephine Shatzer, first paid nurse, image courtesy of Visiting Nurse Archives.

With a staff of over 155 and over 170 volunteers, today’s Fort Wayne Visiting Nurse is a far cry from its humble beginnings. In 1888, a group of Fort Wayne women organized the Ladies Relief Union with a mission to “help the sick poor of Ft Wayne.”  Calling themselves the Visiting Nurse Committee, they soon discovered a link between poverty and disease.  Dr. Jessie Calvin, a Fort Wayne sanitation and indoor plumbing pioneer, encouraged women’s church groups to raise money for a qualified nurse that could meet community needs.

Prior to the 1860s, nursing was “typically considered a domestic responsibility provided in the home by family members.” Nursing as a profession evolved after the Civil War, when women gained experience caring for wounded soldiers. Historian Clifton J. Philips noted that in the post-war period, women’s religious orders were “especially active in establishing hospitals in an attempt to extend to the general public, and the poor in particular, some of the services formerly rendered to sick and wounded soldiers.” As hospitals materialized, so too did nursing groups and training programs. By 1897, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette noted that “modern nurses” wished to “be given her proper position as a skilled assistant in serious illness.”

Nurse with a Ford Model T purchased in the 1920s, so that nurses could more efficiently reach patients, image courtesy of Visiting Nurse Archives.

The paper added that:

The daily or visiting nurse is a recent development of modern nursing and meets the needs of many people who find it inconvenient to have a nurse stopping in the house and requiring more or less attention from servants perhaps already overtaxed. The visiting nurse comes in for an hour or so every day to perform those services for which her skill is needed.

On March 1, 1900, an organizational meeting was held in Fort Wayne and the Visiting Nurse League became a reality. At a salary of $10.00 a week, Josephine Shatzer was hired as the League’s first nurse.  During harsh weather she took a trolley, but normally she could be seen making her rounds on her bicycle.  Regardless of transportation, it was clear that she wasted no time.  On her first day she saw six patients.  Next she established a baby milk station at First Presbyterian Church, instructing new moms how to prepare formula.

Fort Wayne Daily News, September 29, 1900, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

She also volunteered at free immunization clinics, bathed patients, delivered meals, changed bedding, dressed wounds, cared for the elderly and ill in their homes and endeared herself to all she served. At the end of her first year she had made hundreds of calls, utilizing supplies donated by local churches, relief societies, and drug stores. For those patients who could pay, the charge of a one-hour visit was fifteen cents.

The Fort Wayne Daily News praised the program in 1900, noting that the league “found favor with all classes of people” and that visits to the “sick poor” conveyed not only “help and benefit, but hope and good cheer to every member of the family.” In 1913, the Public Health Nursing Association appointed a visiting nurse to serve African American patients at the Flanner Guild. Dr. Calvin continued to guide the League, through the years of World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic, which took the lives of 3,266 Hoosiers.

Nurse treating a young burn victim, image courtesy of Visiting Nurse Archives.

By 1919, a nurse named Dixon had reached a salary of $100.00 a month. League expenditures in 1920 stood at $1,300 annually and in 1922 the Community Chest offered its support.  Insurance companies began to hire nurses from local visiting nurse groups to assess policyholders who were ill, and paid the League seventy-five cents a visit.  By 1923, the League reorganized and served in an advisory, instructional health teaching capacity. The Great Depression wrought poor health conditions: eight nurses made over 29,000 visits to 4,477 patients.  One made 3,255 orthopedic visits to 104 crippled children, many of whom were victims of polio.  Sisters of Saint Joseph Hospital provided free hospitalization in the pediatric ward for those who could not pay.  In the 1940s, World War II increased demands for nursing schools to produce eligible Nurse Corps candidates.

In 1954, the agency changed its name to Visiting Nurse Service, Inc.  By 1956, it undertook a program that cared for stroke victims in their homes, which served to collect data on medication, exercise, loss of function and the need for expanded therapy service. By 1962, the agency’s director Eva Rosser introduced a State Board of Health-funded program that focused on treating the chronically ill in their homes, instead of a hospital or nursing home.  Later the group provided care as home health aides and the agency became certified for Medicare on July 1966.

Nurse visiting a patient, likely just after World War II, image courtesy of Visiting Nurse Archives.

With certification came additional paper work.  According to History of Visiting Nurse, by 1983, “a record number of visits for a single month occurred (2,200), due to earlier hospital releases and greater technology used in the home.” During this period, the glucometer was used for the first time, registered nurses were trained to perform phlebotomy services, and around-the-clock care was made available for all patients. In 1984, Medicare Hospice Benefit became available and Visiting Nurse Service merged with Hospice of Fort Wayne, Parkview, and Lutheran Hospices.  The agency introduced computerized billing and, by the end of the decade, services for the frail and disabled.  By 1990, Hospice service visits totaled 38,177, a forty percent increase over previous months.

History of Visiting Nurse noted that in 1990 the agency moved to the “Moellering Unit of the nearly vacant former Lutheran Hospital.” In 1995, the 1984 merger dissolved and Visiting Nurse Service and Hospice became a free standing agency. By February 2001, a new Hospice Home facility opened and in 2006 a building expansion added patient rooms. In 2011, nurse practitioners joined the staff and the “Watchful Passage” program began, in which trained volunteers remained at patient’s bedside during the last few days of life. In 2018, Visiting Nurse staff and volunteers can proudly stand tall celebrating 130 years of community service.

“A Satirist with a Heart, a Moralist with a Whoopee Cushion:” Kurt Vonnegut in Indiana

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “The Annual,” Shortridge High School Yearbook, 1940, accessed Indy Public Library.

Indianapolis author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would have turned 95 on November 11, 2017, just five  years shy of his centennial.  Few people on this earth have had a birthday of such significance; a World War veteran himself, Kurt was born on the 4th anniversary of Armistice Day.  The writer who was once described as “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion,” was born into an incredibly prominent Indianapolis family. His great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, founded Vonnegut Hardware Store and was a major civic leader. His grandfather and father were both prominent architects, responsible for the former All Souls Unitarian Church on Alabama Street, the Athenaeum, the clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian, and many more Indianapolis landmarks. (Visit the Vonnegut Library and pick up a copy of our Vonnegut Walking Tour pamphlets).

Kurt’s childhood home in Indianapolis at 44th and Illinois streets, courtesy of Century 21 Sheetz, accessed Indianapolis Monthly.

Kurt was raised in luxury at 4401 North Illinois Street, a house designed by his father Kurt Vonnegut Sr. in 1922. According to Indianapolis Monthly, “original details like a stained-glass window with the initials ‘KV’ and Rookwood tile in the dining room” still remain. Kurt Jr. spent summer vacations at Lake Maxinkuckee, located in Culver, Marshall County. The Vonnegut family owned a cottage at the lake, where, according to the Culver-Union Township Library, Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson conceived of the idea for his The House of a Thousand Candles.

Vonnegut-Mueller cottage, pictured in an 1898 edition of the Culver City Herald, accessed Culver-Union Township Library.

Reportedly, Kurt noted in an Architectural Digest article:

“…I made my first mental maps of the world, when I was a little child in the summertime, on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, which is in northern Indiana, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, where we lived in the wintertime. Maxinkuckee is five miles long and two and a half miles across at its widest. Its shores are a closed loop. No matter where I was on its circumference, all I had to do was keep walking in one direction to find my way home again. What a confident Marco Polo I could be when setting out for a day’s adventures!”

Kurt’s parents lost a significant amount of money during the Great Depression, resulting in Kurt leaving his private gradeschool and attending James Whitcomb Riley School, named after the Hoosier poet. He received an excellent education at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Here, he badly played clarinet in the jazz band, served on the school newspaper and, upon graduation, was offered a job with the Indianapolis Times.  His father and brother talked him out of accepting it, saying he would never make a living as a writer.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. next to Madelyn Pugh, headwriter of I Love Lucy, “The Annual,” Shortridge High School Yearbook, 1938, accessed Indy Public Library.

According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis’s schools started him on the path to a writing career. . . . His duties with the newspaper, then one of the few daily high school newspapers in the country, offered Vonnegut a unique opportunity to write for a large audience – his fellow students. It was an experience he described as being ‘fun and easy.’” Kurt noted, “‘that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.’ In his case that something was writing.” He also admired Indianapolis’s system of free libraries, many established by business magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Fall out from the Dresden bombing in 1945, courtesy of Walter Hahn/Library of Congress, accessed theAtlantic.com.

Kurt ended up attending five total colleges, receiving zero degrees for the majority of his life, and ending up in World War II.  It’s no coincidence that he spent his life writing about the unintended consequences of good intentions! Captured at the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden, he survived the bombing that killed (by modern day estimates) 25,000 people, while held in a meat locker called Slaughterhouse-Five.  He survived the war, though stricken with combat trauma, and returned here to marry his school sweetheart Jane Cox. After they moved to Chicago, he would not return to Indianapolis to live, although he visited with some frequency.  Suffice it to say, the Hoosier city was where he learned the arts and humanities and loved his family dearly. It was a place of tragedy as well, as his family had lost their wealth and his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day Eve in 1944.  He had to move on.

Advertisement for book signing, Indianapolis News, May 1, 1969, accessed Newspapers.com.

Kurt spent the next twenty-four years writing what many would call one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five. The semi-autobiographical satire of his experiences during World War II was released at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. With this novel, Kurt became quite famous, at the age of 46.  His books, short stories, essays, and artwork have provided comfort to those who have grown weary of a world of war and poverty.

Kurt’s work affected me profoundly, first reading Breakfast of Champions as an undergraduate.  I continued to read Kurt Vonnegut constantly, throughout life’s trials and triumphs, always finding very coherent and succinct sentences that seemed to address exactly how I was feeling about the world at the moment. As an individual growing up in Indiana, I loved how my home state featured as a character in nearly all of his work, from the beautiful, heart wrenching final scene in the novel The Sirens of Titan, to the hilarious airplane conversation in Cat’s Cradle, to the economically downtrodden fictional town of Rosewater, Indiana in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to the planet Tralfamadore from Slaughterhouse-Five (I personally think he took it from Trafalgar, Indiana.  While I have no proof, his father did spent the last two years of his life living in Brown County, not very far away)!

Kurt Vonnegut mural in Indianapolis, courtesy of Flickr, accessed National Endowment for the Arts.

So it was the honor of a lifetime in 2011 to join the staff of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in downtown Indianapolis.  Throughout the years we have tirelessly drawn attention to issues Kurt Vonnegut cared about, the struggle against censorship, the war on poverty, the desire to live in a more peaceful and humane world, campaigning to help veterans heal from the wounds of war through the arts and humanities. These pursuits are inspired by a man who wrote about these issues for eighty-four years, until a fall outside his Manhattan brownstone “scrambled his precious egg,” as his son Mark Vonnegut described it. To me, Kurt Vonnegut is not gone, he is alive in the minds of our visitors, who themselves all have interesting stories about how they came to the work of Mr. Vonnegut, or are simply curious to learn more.  Time being flexible is an idea Kurt himself seemed to espouse in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

In 2017, the Year of Vonnegut, we focused on the issue of Common Decency. Our 2018 programming will focus on the theme Lonesome No More, which we took from Kurt’s criminally underrated 1976 novel Slapstick, in which he runs for President under that slogan, in attempt to defeat the disease of loneliness.  We’re going to give it our best shot, I humbly request that you join us!

Edited and co-researched by Nicole Poletika, Research & Digital Content Editor at the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Irene Ray: Alleged “Witch” of Rochester

Irene Ray. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

In the spring of 1692, a small village in Massachusetts was swept with a hysteria that started after a group of young girls accused several local women of participating in witchcraft and forging pacts with the devil. That hysteria, of course, would lead to the infamous Salem witch trials and in the following months, approximately 150 people would face witchcraft accusations; over 20 of those would be found guilty and put to the gallows.

The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 12, 1938, accessed Newspapers.com

Two hundred and forty-six years later, newspapers across the country would once again run headlines including words like “witch”, “hex”, and “spells” and yet another woman’s life would be ruined due to false accusations of witchcraft.

On May 11, 1938, Irene Ray and her husband Charles were driven from the town of Rochester, Indiana due to allegations that Irene was a practitioner of witchcraft and had hexed several town folk. It was alleged that her hexes had caused personal property damage, serious illness, and even death. Irene and Charles had moved to the town six years prior to this unfortunate episode along with their daughter, Iloe, and their cat (a strange fact that many of the newspaper stories were sure to include). What could have happened in the intervening years that would cause the townspeople to call for her removal?

When the Ray family moved to Rochester, they settled in a shack on the outskirts of town. One article in the Logansport Tribune even claims that the couple were forced from the nearby town of Plymouth, Indiana before finding themselves in rather dire circumstances in Rochester. Soon, they applied for and were given “relief” or welfare support. They were placed in a house on Audubon Street, where their neighbors soon came to resent them. They were seen as outsiders who were living off of the tax money of the citizens of Rochester who, although themselves poor, did not apply for relief.

Georgia Conrad, “victim” of Irene Ray, The Tennessean, June 19, 1938, accessed, Newspaper.com.

It may be that Irene herself started the rumors of witchcraft as a way to scare people away from her, relieving the family from taunts and other attacks. No matter how the rumors started, though, soon they spread like wildfire. At first, the townsfolk merely murmured about the witch but after the sudden illness of Georgia Knight Conrad, those murmurs became shouts. Irene had been trying to purchase some antiques from Georgia and had made several visits to her house to pressure the 24-year-old into selling them. On one of these visits, it is said that Irene slipped into Georgia’s bedroom and plucked some hairs from her brush. When leaving, Irene pronounced, “You’ll be sorry soon!” That evening, Georgia fell into a faint and was soon diagnosed as having a “leaking heart valve.” It wasn’t long before the family connected the dots.

Another alleged victim of Mrs. Ray was Chief of Police Clay Sheets. After the chief oversaw the removal of Irene’s granddaughter from her home due to charges against the “morals of the household,” newspapers reported that “dancing with rage, Irene screamed: ‘You are just a tool of that Knight Woman and you will be sorry, too!’” A few days later, Chief Sheets died of what appeared to be a heart attack.

In addition to human hearts, she was accused of hexing one man’s crops. Mrs. Ray made a habit of taking a shortcut through a field owned by Mr. “Friday” Castle, who didn’t appreciate the alleged witch trespassing on his property. When he confronted her she “ran her eyes back and forth over the patch until they had covered every inch of it. Then she . . . said ‘It won’t make a bit of difference now whether anybody walks on it or not.’” According to Castle, no potatoes sprouted that spring.

Other accusations included Mrs. Ray inducing insomnia, nervous indigestion, fires, floods, and more. The alleged methods of hexing ranged from using voodoo dolls to taking hairs of the victim, intertwining them with hairs from her cat, placing them in vinegar and burying them. It was also said that she consulted a more powerful witch from Plymouth when the hex she wanted to perform was above her ability. This consultant would “chew a dime into somewhat the shape of a nail to drive it into a dead tree, by blows of the horny heel of his palm . . . the victim would surely drop dead as soon as the magician had time to say three times: ‘Black Jack of baccarat, hominy domini, corpse.’”

The allegations against Irene Ray mounted and police were increasingly pressured to charge her with witchcraft. Fortunately, unlike Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Indiana had no laws against witchcraft. The state did have vagrancy laws, in essence making it illegal to be homeless. Irene was charged with vagrancy and arrested, only to be released when she promised the new Chief of Police that she and her family would leave town.

Irene Ray press release, May 12, 1938. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

Although Irene denied the accusations against her, saying “The whole thing is wrong. I can’t do anything like that,” she and her husband Charles moved from the town and settled near Manitou Lake. The story of a “witch” being driven from town spread across the country and appeared in newspaper headlines from California to New York. Most were skeptical of the allegations and cast the whole affair in a grim light. In many of the articles, it is mentioned that Irene was of American Indian descent, although Irene admitted that even she wasn’t sure if this was accurate. The inclusion of this fact, along with that of her alleged consultant was African American, suggests that the incident was as much about race as it was about the financial situation of the family.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 05, 1938, Accessed Newspaper.com.

Just six months later, Irene was hit by a car and died from the injuries. The accusations of witchcraft would outlive the alleged witch. In every article about the accident, her death takes a backseat to the story of her being forced out of Rochester as a witch. Later, when her daughter petitioned to have her stepfather declared of unsound mind (he had sustained a head injury in the accident which killed Irene) the headline focused on the fact that he was the widower of “Rochester’s Noted ‘Witch-Woman.’” It is safe to say now that Irene Ray was no witch, but rather a woman whose neighbors’ dislike and resentment ran so deep that they convinced themselves that she was at the root of their problems.