Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

A Hoosier Guard on Alcatraz Part I

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NPS Ranger John Cantwell and the author with Jim and Cathy Albright at Alcatraz fpr the 75th anniversary of the prison’s opening on August 11, 2009.

Original publish date:  October 23, 2009                Reissue date:  July 9, 2020

 

This column was first published 11 years ago. Last weekend, I traveled to Terre Haute to check on it’s subject. Next, week, in Parts 2, 3 & 4, I will bring you up to speed on Jim Albright, the last guard to leave the notorious San Francisco Bay island prison know as “The Rock.”

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened 75 years ago on August 11, 1934. I covered my visit to the “The Rock” in an earlier “Eastside Voice” article. As I stood on the same Alcatraz boat dock that received the likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Stroud aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz” my attention was caught by a distinguished looking gentleman with what appeared to be a uniform draped over his arm and an Alcatraz prison guard hat in his hand. I asked one of the Park Rangers standing near me what the story was and he identified the man as a former Alcatraz guard from Terre Haute, Indiana and realizing that I was on the island for a story on an Indianapolis inmate, he followed that up with, “Oh yeah, you might want to talk to him. He was the last guard off the island.” I barely heard the last line as I was race walking across the dock towards him.

            As soon as I approached, the man saw my Indiana University hat and immediately extended his hand in a friendly greeting. “Indiana, huh? I’m from Terre Haute” he said, “I’m Jim Albright and I was here for 4 years until the prison closed in 1963.”  He went on to tell me that he gained a unique designation as the last guard off the island when he and his family left on June 22, 1963, over 3 months AFTER the prison closed on March 21, 1963. At that moment, the V.I.P. tram arrived to escort Jim and his lovely wife Catherine up the winding 130 foot hill that covers a steep quarter mile series of roads up to the cell house where Jim was here to sign copies of his book’ “Last Guard Out“.  You can imagine my distress at having just heard and comprehended this tasty nugget as the tram was pulling away. Just as I was contemplating the idea of chasing after the tram to complete the interview, I was whisked away into the bowels of building 64 under the old officer’s quarters that act as the backdrop for arrival.

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Alcatraz Island.

            Here I awaited Alcatraz park ranger John Cantwell in what once was a gun port of old “Fortress Alcatraz” with the gun ports still plainly visible in the walls. The building now acts as the Ranger’s research station and library. Cantwell graciously answered all of my questions and then led me on a tour of several areas that are strictly off limits to the general public. A dedicated public servant and a true asset to the National Park Service, Cantwell then took me up to meet up again with Jim and his wife Cathy who were busily autographing copies of the book for guests on the island in the huge new bookstore humorously referred to as the “Alcatraz Wal-Mart” by island employees. It’s interesting to note that the bookstore is located in the basement below the old kitchen, an area previously off limits to visitors probably best remembered by true Alcatraz buffs as the area where inmate / author Jim Quilllen attempted his breakout through the tunnel housing the steam pipes for the cell house. Jim greeted me wearing his original Alcatraz guard’s uniform from head to toe and looking pretty sharp I must say. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could fit into the same clothes I wore 20 years ago, let alone 50 years after I wore them.

            Jim and Cathy had driven across country from Terre Haute to San Francisco with their nine grandchildren in tow (complete with sleeping bags & luggage) to attend the 75th anniversary celebration on “The Rock“. The grandkids got the thrill of a lifetime when the whole family spent the night in the cells on “D block” together with the other guests and families attending the official ceremonies. With a sparkle in his eye, Jim told how he made sure the family slept in the cells on the middle tier of D block because “that’s the only tier that you can see all of the San Francisco shoreline from.” He paused for a moment to make sure that I knew it was the first time he’d ever slept in a cell. Jim lamented how he sometimes runs into young people who have never heard of Alcatraz, which is hard to imagine.

            In between autographs, Jim told me the story of his time on Alcatraz. He proudly pointed out that he was hired as a guard 50 years ago that very month (August 1959) as a 24 year old Iowa farm boy with no previous law enforcement experience. He was loading milk cans for Sealtest Dairy in Denver, Colorado when his corrections officer brother-in-law asked if he had ever considered a change of career. Alcatraz sounded a lot more exciting than milk cans, so in 1956 Jim, Cathy and their son Kenneth packed everything they owned into the back of a 1956 Chevy Nomad and drove out to the city by the bay. Jim took one look at the fog covered rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay and wondered what they had gotten themselves into. He was proud of the fact that both of his daughters, Vicki Lynn (Harland) and Donna Sue (Hinzman) were born on the island and their birth certificates list “Alcatraz” as their place of birth.

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The author, Jim Albright & Addison Hunter at Alcatraz.

            As Jim signed books, took pictures with guests and chatted with fans, I was able to talk to Cathy about her time on the Island. Most people unfamiliar with Alcatraz do not realize that the families of the guards lived on the island alongside the inmates; although Catherine pointed out that they rarely came into contact with each other. “There were 3 inmates that worked in the mess hall and from our windows we could see the 5 inmates that worked on the dock, but that was about it. Of course, there were no women employed on the island. The only women here were housewives and mothers.” she said. When asked what, if anything, made Alcatraz special, Catherine replied that it was the feeling of “Community” that she remembers most. Everyone knew everyone and there was always someone willing to help whenever you needed it. She remembers that she had one of the girls at 3 am and before she could pack an overnight bag for her trip to the hospital, 2 neighbors were in the apartment to help.

The Albrights remembered that the island had its own grocery store, bowling alley and movie theatre with a new movie showing every Sunday night. Jim & Cathy lived in an apartment in San Francisco for the first 6 weeks while waiting for housing to open up on the island, Cathy remembers that it was hard to find housing in the city by the bay as most apartments would allow pets, but no children. Someone had told the Albrights that the apartments on the island were furnished, so the family sold all of their furniture only to find that, when they moved in, the rooms were bare. Jim smiles broadly when he recalls that rent on the island apartment was $ 27.50 per month and included laundry, dry cleaning and utilities. Along with his uniform, Jim brought along several artifacts from his years on Alcatraz including his 1959 ID card, whistle, leather key strap, Alcatraz key “chit” tag that was exchanged for cell door keys and perhaps most interesting a couple of shiny brass Post / PX / Store tokens from the old military post years. Jim recalled how the launch boat used to dock on the west side of the island where he found the tokens shining in the moonlight in about 6 inches of water near the dock one night.

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Jim Albright’s Book.

            Jim then told me the story of how he gained the designation as Alcatraz Island’s “Last Guard Out“. When the prison closed on March 21, 1963, the Albright’s daughter Donna Sue was only 11 days old and suffering from a foot abnormality that required surgery. The child could not be moved in her fragile condition, so the family remained on the island for 3 more months before leaving on June 22, 1963. The Albrights were the only family left on the island aside from a night watchman and a handful of government workers left behind to remove any useful equipment that could be transferred to other prisons or facilities. In late June of 1963, Jim was one of 10 Alcatraz guards handpicked by the Warden to be transferred to the new “Supermax” prison in Marion, Illinois which was built to replace “The Rock“.

            I asked Jim if being known as a former Alcatraz guard carried any weight at other facilities and he quickly replied “Oh, yes. With both guards AND Prisoners.” He remembered how he went from Alcatraz, which had 1 guard for every 3 inmates, to Marion where he worked alone from Midnight to 6 am watching 212 inmates armed only with a telephone in a prison so new that it had no doors on the cells and the containment fence that was supposed to surround the prison was incomplete. “That’s when the Alcatraz reputation made a difference. The inmates just didn’t mess with that.” He said. After Marion, Jim worked for a time at the Federal Prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Jim and Cathy Albright were transferred to the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1972 and, aside from 4 years spent at a Milan, Michigan facility (1979 to 1983), they’ve been Hoosiers ever since. Jim retired as a Terre Haute Federal Prison guard in 1985.

            It was on a visit to Alcatraz Island in 1998 that Jim’s identity as an Alcatraz treasure was discovered. Jim was visiting “The Rock” as a tourist with his family, having purchased a ticket just like everyone else to visit his old home and workplace. Ranger John Cantwell asked the crowd if there were anyone present with a connection to the island and Jim, humble as always, didn’t say anything. It was Jim’s brother-in-law, John Peters, who finally spoke up to reveal Jim’s past as an Island guard. For years, everyone who knew Jim’s story urged him to write a book, now Ranger Cantwell himself contributed his voice to those urgings. The end result is the 2008 book “Last Guard Out –A riveting account by the last guard to leave Alcatraz” covering Jim Albright’s years of service on “The Rock.”

In case you’re wondering, yes I bought one and gleefully asked Jim & Cathy to sign my copy and date it on that historic 75th anniversary day. Now you will have the same opportunity as I did to meet and talk with Jim and Cathy Albright right here in Irvington. The Albrights will be in Irvington for the Halloween festival, signing copies of his book “Last Guard Out” at Book Mamas book store located at 9 South Johnson Avenue in Irvington from 3 PM to 4 PM on Saturday October 31. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet a true Hoosier legend.

The book’s a great read made even better now that I know the author and his wife. Of course, I would not be true to the “spirit” of this column if I didn’t ask Jim about the ghosts of Alcatraz. Jim thought for a moment and said, “You know, I worked on this Island for 4 years at all hours of the night and day. Midnight, 3 am, 4 am, every possible time slot and I never heard anything that I could call a ghost.” It does make me wonder though, what do you think those 9 grandkids who spent the night in Alcatraz’s legendary spooky cells of D block would say if I asked them the same thing?

 

food, Health & Medicine, Medicine, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

When it rains, it pours.

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Original publish date:  July 2, 2020

It is summertime in Indianapolis and once again, Hoosier eyes cast skyward as they ask, “When is it gonna rain?” Recently, I stumbled across an old brochure from Morton’s salt that was handed out at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. The brochure features the logo of a little umbrella-carrying girl walking with a cardboard can of salt tucked under her arm, the salt pouring out of the spout as she walks beneath the raindrops, blissfully unaware. The brochure notes that “One-third of our weather is rainy!” and offers “100 ways to predict rain, compliments of Morton’s Salt” and closes with the familiar slogan “When it rains it pours.”
The brochure opens to a list of 100 of “Mother Nature’s Weather Signs” and notes that these “time-tested” signs of rain are not “mere superstitions” and that “back of every sign is a common-sense explanation.” “For instance, fish leap from water and birds skim close to the ground just before a rain in order to catch insects forced down by the moisture in the air. Smoke hangs low before rainy weather because held down by nature; a cow attempts to scratch its ears because flies are more troublesome when rain is approaching, and shoe strings become difficult to untie because moisture-laden air has caused them to swell.” The brochure urges its reader to “memorize as many as you can so that you can surprise your friends by accurately predicting rain even though the sun may be shining brightly.”
So here you go, get ready to amaze your friends with these 100 ways to predict rain, as seen through the eyes of Great Depression corporate America. After each assertion, simply add the dictum; “look for, expect, or followed” by rain.
x rainbow rainWhen animals huddle together in open fields…when ants travel in straight lines (or are unusually active)…when the “Northern Lights” are visible in the sky…when bats cry much, or attempt to fly into the house…when more bees enter than leave the hive (every notice that bees never get caught in a shower?)…when distant bells sound close…when birds skim close to the ground…when boiling water evaporates more rapidly than usual…when dead branches fall to the ground in calm weather…when bubbles rise from marshy ground or appear on pools of stagnant water…
There is almost always a calm before a rainstorm…Camphor gum dissolved in a bottle of alcohol forms feathery crystals before a rain (Camphor gum was a farmhouse staple back in the day with many uses)…when canaries dress (oil) their feathers, or are wakeful at night…when cats sneeze, lie with their heads on the floor, or wipe themselves behind the ears…when many centipedes are seen…when your chairs begin to creak…when chickens huddle together outside the hen house instead of going in to roost (hence the old adage, “If fowls roll in the sand, rain is at hand”) …when distant objects look close (hence the saying, “The farther the sight, the nearer the rain”)…heavy clouds in the west and cloud streamers pointing upward… when a clover contracts its leaves…
z coffeeeIf coffee bubbles cling to the cup instead of floating in the center…when corns are more painful than usual… when cottonwood trees turn the undersides of their leaves upward…when a cow thumps its ribs, or attempts to scratch its ear, with its tail…when crabs leave the water and remain on land… when cream or milk sours during the night…an old adage states that a new (crescent) moon with horns tilting downward can’t hold water so…when crickets chirp loudly and more persistently than usual… when crows caw loudly and continuously or when a crow is seen flying alone… when curly hair becomes more unruly than usual…
When dandelions close their blossoms…complete absence of dew in the morning… when dogs eat grass or are uneasy and change position while lying down…when a donkey scratches itself against a wall…when doors stick in fair weather… when ducks quack unusually loud… when dust whirls around the street… ringing in the ears is seen as a warning… when worms appear in large numbers on the surface of the ground…a strong east wind means rain withing a day-and-a-half.
x rain 3When grate fires crackle and throw sparks to a greater degree than usual…when fish jump from the water, or swim close to the surface…when oiled floors “sweat”…when flowers stay open all night (and some say when the fragrance is stronger)… when frogs assume a brownish hue and croak louder and longer…when there are two full moons in a single month…when geese are particularly noisy…when glow worms shine brighter…when goats bleat a great deal…
When a clear sky has a greenish hue…when seagulls fly inland…when a halo (or ring) encircles the moon, like the old saying states, “The bigger the ring, the nearer the rain”…when a hazy twilight appears during the summer…when horses sweat in the stable, sniff loudly and switch their tails violently…many flies in the house are a sure sign as are flies that bite harder and more often…when your joints appear to feel stiff… when burning lamps and lanterns sputter continuously…a great many meteors, or shooting stars, in one evening…when mice run about more than usual…
Three misty mornings in a row bring rain…A pale moon doth rain-a red moon doth blow-a white moon doth neither rain nor blow…when both pleasant and unpleasant odors are more pronounced than ordinary…whistling by parrots, which rarely whistle, is a good sign…whenever pigeons return slowly to roost…when pigs carry straw and litter in their mouth…when a man’s pipe smells stronger than usual…when pitchers and glasses “sweat”…A rainbow before noon means rain by nightfall…The ancient adage, “Morning red, of rain’s a sign; Red in the morning, sailor’s morning” translates today as “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky at morning, sailors take warning”…
Rheumatic twinges frequently portend rain…Robins near houses, or singing on the ground…when a rooster crows at night hence the say, “If the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head.”…when circus men find their ropes growing tighter…when a sheep turns its back to the wind…when shoe strings knot stick, knot and become difficult to untie…when smoke hangs close to the ground…when snails come out abundantly…when you notice your laundry soap beginning to sweat…Whenever soot falls down the chimney…
When sparrows begin to chirp louder than usual…when spiders desert their webs…when sponges do not dry out rapidly after using…when stars are unusually dim and dull or if there is a star very close to the moon…An “uneasy” stomach is a seen as a sign…when stoves and iron objects rust over night in fair weather…when heat comes suddenly…when the sun sends out shafts of light, sometimes called “the sun’s fingers”…a white, pale yellow or gray sunset, described in Poor Richard’s almanac as “If the sun should set in gray, the next will be a rainy day.”
When a bad tooth begins to act up…when the down of the thistle flies about when there is no wind…if many toadstools spring up overnight…if cellar walls “sweat”… when the temperature rises at night instead of falling…when washrags remain damp long after using…when far off factory or locomotive whistles sound as if they were only a short distance away…when windows become hard to open in fair weather…when woodpeckers are particularly noisy and building themselves shelter… If you have a wren house, you can tell whether or not it is going to rain by whether the birds stay in or out.
x rain 2And lastly, when ordinary salt begins to lump, cake and clog the saltcellar, get ready for rain. According to Morton’s, their salt is not made this way because, “When it rains it pours.” Morton’s explanation: “Because of its unique cube shaped crystals, which tumble off one another in damp weather instead of sticking together like the flake crystals of ordinary salt…every grain is usable-there are no wasteful lumps to throw away. If you have children between 6 and 18, be sure to use the iodized variety and thus protect them simple goiter.” Goiter is a swelling in the neck resulting from an enlarged thyroid gland. Before iodized salt hit the grocery shelves on May 1, 1924, iodine deficiency was the main cause of goiter in the U.S. and even though it has nothing to do with rain, I couldn’t resist throwing that last part in. So much information packed into such a little brochure.

Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

Little Orphant Annie.

 

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 Original publish date:  January 25, 2011           Reissue date: June 25, 2020

To most Hoosiers, nay Americans, the name Little Orphan Annie conjures up images of Sunday morning comic strips, ghost story telling nannies or a tiny prepubescent red headed girl singing “The sun will come out tomorrow” in a voice that could shatter glass. But to me, when I hear the name Little Orphan Annie I think of a lonely little graveyard a few miles from Indianapolis’ eastside between Cumberland and Greenfield on the Historic National Road.
Its in this forgotten little graveyard, known locally as Spring Lake cemetery, that you will find the mortal remains of an Indiana legend. On the west edge of the small signless boneyard, rests the gravestone of Mary Alice Gray with a plaque behind it identifying her as the inspiration for the 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie” by Poet James Whitcomb Riley. It is likely that you’ve driven past this innocuous little burial ground many times never caring it was there, much less aware of the story of its most celebrated internee.
Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was born the youngest of 10 children near Liberty Indiana on the 25th day of September in 1850. By all accounts, she lived happily on her small family farm until both of her parents died by the time Allie was about nine years old. What we know is that during the American Civil War in the winter of 1862, Mary Alice came to live with the Riley family in Greenfield. Allie was an orphan and the Rileys took her in to help with some of the work.
z Mary-Alice-Gray-tombstoneWhat we don’t know is how Allie came to the Riley home. Depending on who you talk to, Allie was; a friend of the family, a castoff of the Orphan Train movement (1854-1929), or she was brought to the home by her uncle, John Rittenhouse, who brought the young girl to Greenfield where he “dressed her in black” and “bound her out to earn her board and keep”. Ultimately, Mary Alice was taken in by Captain Reuben Riley as a servant to help his wife Elizabeth with the housework and her four children; John, James, Elva May and Alex.
At first, the Riley family referred to Mary as a “guest”, but soon she was as loved as any other member of the family. The good-natured Ms. Riley taught her young charge how to do housework so that she would have a trade to sustain her. Mary quickly developed a strong bond with young James Whitcomb Riley or “Bud” as the family called him. Mary became like an older sister and soon her tales of “fairies, wunks, dwarfs, goblins and other scary beings” became part of the budding poet’s life.
On her first night in the Riley home, Allie refused to go to sleep and kept returning to the front hall to walk up and down the curved, handmade staircase, talking to herself all the while. One of her duties was to polish these stairs and as she did, she would kneel down and place her face close to each step as she gently rubbed it and called it by name. She was so fascinated with the steps, she told the children that fairies lived under each tread and she made up names for each of the fairies.”This one’s Clarabelle, and this one’s Annabelle, and here is Florabell.”
Although the names of the steps have been lost to history, tour guides at the Riley home believe some of them may have been Biblical names because Allie’s mother so often read the Bible to her daughter. By all accounts, Allie was a bright, creative youngster who kept herself entertained during the drudgery of everyday common household chores by making her work fun. Allie was an ideal babysitter who made up wild tales about the world around her and shared them with the Riley children, who were both thrilled and horrified by her stories. Her tales had a huge impact on young James and the imaginative verses changed the way he looked at the world forever.
z bb6e86a01fddf9216a11d5ba05509d35When James was eleven, he asked Allie what he would be when he grew up. “Perhaps you’ll be a lawyer, like your father,” she suggested. “Or maybe someday, you’ll be a great poet.” Allie may have been the first to put this idea in James’ mind, but it is known that his mother and father were both gifted storytellers. Riley often shared his vivid childhood recollection of Allie climbing the stairs every night to her lonesome “rafter room” in the attic. And with every careful step leaning down and patting each stair affectionately as she called them by name.
Young Allie used her storytelling gift to entertain the Riley children as they sat around the fireplace at night “listening to witch tales.” She used her fertile imagination to invent characters for use in her whimsical stories that resonated with the Riley children for the rest of their lives . She left the Riley home after only a year and never saw James again. On October 2, 1868, when she was 18, Allie married a local farmer named John Wesley Gray and lived on his farm not far south of Philadelphia until her husband’s death.
Although gone from Riley’s life at a young age, Allie’s impression on the poet was undeniable and years later he wrote a rhyme to honor his former friend, which he titled “Little Orphant Allie.” Published November 15, 1885 in the Indianapolis Journal and first titled “The Elf Child”, Riley changed the name to “Little Orphant Allie” at its third printing. Ironically, the publisher (Indianapolis Bobbs-Merrill) made an error and the poem was released with a typo and “Allie” became “Annie.” But for that typographical error she would have been known throughout the world as “Little Orphant Allie.” But when James Whitcomb Riley’s famous poem about the little homeless girl who “washed the cups and saucers up” was published and Riley found out how well it was selling, he decided not to tamper with revisions and Little Orphant Allie became Little Orphant Annie forever.

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James Whitcomb Riley by T.C. Steele 1891

The “Hoosier poet” wrote his poems in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the language he’d heard growing up in the wild frontier of Greenfield. “Little Orphant Annie” contains four stanzas of twelve lines each; the first introduces Annie and the following three are stories she is telling to young children. The stories each tell of a bad child who is snatched away by goblins as a result of their misbehavior. The underlying moral and warning is announced in the final stanza, telling children that they should obey their parents and be kind to the unfortunate, lest they suffer the same fate. It remains one of Riley’s best loved poems among children in Indiana and is often associated with Halloween celebrations.
During the 1920s, the title became the inspiration for the names of the Sunday Funnies comic strip character Little Orphan Annie and the popular Raggedy Ann doll, created by fellow Indiana native and onetime Irvington resident Johnny Gruelle. And of course, in more modern times, it was made into a stage play and major motion picture called simply “Annie.”
z 011I, like many fellow Hoosiers, am drawn to this particular poem because it was written to be recited aloud and not necessarily to be read from a page. Written in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the words can be difficult to read in modern times. Riley dedicates his poem “to all the little ones,” which immediately gets the attention of his intended audience; children. The alliteration, phonetic intensifiers and onomatopoeia add sing-song effects to the rhymes that become clearer when read aloud. The exclamatory refrain ending each stanza is urgently spoken adding more emphasis as the poem goes on. It is written in first person which makes the poem much more personal. Simply stated, the poem is read exactly as young “Bud” Riley recalled Allie telling it to him when he was a wide-eyed little boy.
z imgRiley wrote another poem about her titled, “Where Is Mary Alice Smith?” In this poem he depicts the little orphan girl falling in love with a soldier boy who was killed during the war which caused her to die of grief. In truth, after leaving the Riley’s employ, Mary Alice went to work in a Tavern on the National Road in the town of Philadelphia where she met her husband John Gray and their marriage produced seven children.
Mary Alice Gray never realized that she was “Orphant Annie” until years after the poem was published. Riley tried in vain to locate her during his final years, going so far as to advertise widely in newspapers all over the Midwest. All the while never knowing that she was living just a few miles southwest of the old Riley homestead, leading the quiet life of a farmer’s wife. Riley was near death in Florida when Mrs. L.D. Marsh, Mary Alice’s daughter, saw one of the advertisements and contacted Riley to let him know the whereabouts of her mother. But by this time, the poet was too ill to make the trip to see her before his death.
Mary Alice Gray spoke of Riley frequently and delighted in telling about young “Bud’s” habit of writing verses and drawing pictures on the walls of the house, the porch, and the fence. Mary Alice passed away on Friday, March 7, 1924. Funeral services were held at 1 o’clock Sunday afternoon in Mrs. Marsh’s residence at 2225 Union Street and her burial was in Spring Lake Cemetery in Philadelphia. When she died, Ms. Gray’s obituary made the front page of The Indianapolis Star. Above her photo the headline read, “Little Orphant Annie Dies Suddenly.” On October 7, 1922, two years before her death and on what would have been Riley’s 73rd birthday, Ms. Gray took part in the ceremonial laying of the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children. The legacy of “Little Orphant Annie,” however, has outlived both the poet and his muse.
The old Riley homestead in Greenfield is open to the public. The historic home is filled with lovely black walnut harvested from trees on the original property. After all these years, the deep brown, curving staircase still glistens in the morning sun making it very easy to imagine Allie sweeping the dirt off the steps and speaking to each one as she ascends. If you pause at the bottom of the stairs, you can almost imagine you hear the fairy voices.
12-6-09-GFR2Jut remember, as you travel out to the old Riley home on U.S. Highway 40 (the old National Road) you’re bound to pass through the remains of a little pike town called Philadelphia. The road starts to rise just past the Philadelphia signpost and there on the right is a small cemetery. Stop your car and walk towards the oldest headstones under the tall trees in back of the old burial ground. It is there that you will find the final resting place of Mary Alice Smith Gray, Riley’s beloved “Little Orphant Annie.” Its best you go before twilight though because should you delay past nightfall, “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

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Black History, Music, Pop Culture

Robert Johnson and the Devil.

Robert Johnson

Original publish date:  August 12, 2013                Reissue Date: June 18, 2020

“The Devil went down to Georgia. He was lookin’ for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind. He was willing to make a deal.” If you’ve ever listened to the radio in your lifetime, these lyrics are very familiar to you. And chances are, after reading this, they’ll be bouncing around in your brain for the rest of the day. But did you realize that there is a school of thought out there that believes these lyrics are not just musical fantasy, they are autobiographical in nature?
z Daniels thumbLegend claims this song tells the story of the most famous guitar player you’ve probably never heard of. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He died under mysterious circumstances 75 years ago this week, on August 16, 1938. Johnson’s life has ascended into legend and it is often hard to separate fact from fiction, where this Mississippi bluesman’s life is concerned.
Robert Johnson was born to the Delta blues like a fish was born to water. Although he grew up dirt poor, one of 10 children, and was sparsely educated,no less an authority than Eric Clapton called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Johnson was married at age eighteen in 1929. His wife, 16-year-old Vergie Mae Smith, died in childbirth a year later. He married Caletta Craft in May 1931 and a year later, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ musician. He spent the rest of his life traveling from town to town, playing on streetcorners, at picnics, Saturday night dances and juke joints.
z 976a8d34ef5e0338e1693cc971245069Johnson’s haunting, spiritual lyrics survive in songs such as “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Me and the Devil Blues”. Robert Johnson’s shortlist of 29 landmark recordings from 1936 & 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that influenced future generations of musicians. The American Record Corporation released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one more after his death.
If you doubt his impact on modern music, I suggest you Google Robert Johnson and take a few minutes to listen to any one of his many recordings that can be found on YouTube. Johnson’s music has been acknowledged as the driving influence behind the careers of guitar legends like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin and the Allman Brothers. Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”, which allegedly tells the story of how he sold his soul to devil, has been covered by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Steve Miller Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and The Doors, among others.
As an itinerant performer, Johnson experienced little commercial success and remained relatively unknown during his lifetime. From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between large cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas to smaller towns on the Mississippi Delta. On occasion, he traveled much farther to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and here in Indiana. Johnson’s records sold poorly during his lifetime. It was only after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on an album called “King of the Delta Blues Singers” that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson fifth on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

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This rare photo of Johnson, discovered in a box at a swap meet,  was recently discovered and sold on ebay.

Johnson’s songs documented the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the deep South during the Great Depression. Never before had the hardships of the world been transformed into such a poetic height; never had the blues plumbed such an emotional depth. Johnson transformed his specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once said: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by what little we know about him. Johnson was the first guitarist to use the guitar as ‘the other vocalist in the song’, a technique later perfected by B. B. King. Johnson mastered the guitar using an approach that was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson’s music by bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”, not realizing it was Johnson alone playing one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards, who would later add “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
z rj lfContemporaries described him as well mannered, soft spoken, and most often, indecipherable. As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way. Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average—except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. During these live performances Johnson did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead performed more well-known pop standards of the day to encourage bigger tips. Johnson had an uncanny ability to pick up a tune after hearing it just one time. Johnson had no trouble establishing a rapport with his audience and in every town he played, he established ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
z 220px-Cross_Road_Blues_single_coverJohnson’s poorly documented life and shadowy death at age 27, fueled the Faustian myth that he sold his soul to the devil to achieve success. This self-perpetuating legend states that sometime in the early-1930s Johnson strolled down a Clarksdale, Mississippi county road and was stopped at the intersection of highways 61 and 49 by Lucifer himself. It was here that he sold his soul to become the best blues guitarist that ever lived. Robert Johnson actually recorded songs alluding to this legend of the devil’s crossroads, and his untimely death only fed the legend.
Several different accounts of what really happened in Mississippi can be found on the net: it happened in the graveyard in Beauregard; it happened at the intersection of highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale; it happened at the crossroads of Old Highway 8 and Dockery Road in Clarksdale. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” in both Clarksdale and Memphis, so locating the “official” signposts that commemorate the event can be a challenge.

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Purported death shack of Robert Johnson at “Three Forks.”

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson developed a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous. Another version places the meeting not at a crossroads but at midnight in a graveyard.
z 352168530590The capstone to Robert Johnson’s legend is cemented by the details of his early death at the age of 27. On the night of Saturday, August 13, 1938, Johnson was playing in a juke joint 15 miles outside of Greenwood, Mississippi when he was allegedly murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, where she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned (reportedly with strychnine or lye) by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand and advised him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.”
Soon after, he was offered another tainted bottle and accepted it. Johnson began feeling ill the next evening and had to be helped back to his room in Greenwood Mississippi in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. Some say the poisoned whiskey killed him, other stories range from pneumonia to syphilis. Regardless of cause, by all accounts, Johnson’s death was a violent array of howling and convulsions.
As you might expect, the mystery of Johnson doesn’t end with his death. The biggest mystery of all might be his final resting place. Three graveyards claim the musical legend’s tombstone: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City; Payne Chapel near Quito Mississippi; and the Little Zion M.B. Church north of Greenwood. Visit any of the sites today, and you’ll see all kinds of memorabilia, liquor bottles and music-related trinkets left atop the headstones by adoring fans from around the globe.
z from-spirituals-500Ironically, 75 years ago this week, while Robert Johnson was thrashing back and forth in agony on his deathbed in 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond was frantically searching for Johnson to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Robert Johnson’s “Big break” never reached him.

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So mysterious is Robert Johnson that he has three grave markers in three different cemeteries.
Abe Lincoln, Civil War, Indianapolis, Politics, Presidents

General Ulysses S. Grant earned his stripes here!

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Original publish date:  April 19, 2009             Reissue date: July 4, 2020

So you think you’re a Civil War buff ? Well, so did I. I’ve read, researched and written about many things connected to the American Civil War most of my life. Yet, I recently found out a factoid from my beloved home state and city of my birth that I had never heard before and I’d like to share it with you here. On Saturday October 17, 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant is given orders to travel to Indianapolis from Cairo, Illinois by General Henry Halleck, who also tells the General to bring his staff with him in preparation “for immediate operations in the field.”

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Generals Grant & Halleck

The General, his wife Julia Dent Grant, and his staff arrived in Indianapolis in the early evening and checked into the Bates House Hotel on the old National Road (Present day Washington Street). On the morning of October 18th, the party prepared to leave for Louisville, where Julia Grant expected to meet old friends. The train was just about to roll out of the Indianapolis Union Station when word came to delay it’s departure pending the arrival of an important passenger. It was non other than Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who traveled west from Washington, D.C. to confer with Grant. Secretary Stanton made his way to Grant’s car and seeing a group of officers, strode forward with his hand outstretched and said, “How do you do, General Grant? I recognize you from your pictures.” Unfortunately, the man Stanton greeted so vigorously was not General Grant but his medical director, Dr. Edward Kittoe. The staunch Quaker lawyer was nonplussed by his mistake and as Stanton was pointed in the right direction by Grant’s staff, the General struggled to conceal his amusement. Before this Indianapolis meeting, Stanton had only communicated with Grant via telegraph.

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General U.S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln & Edwin Stanton by sculptor William Rogers.

Stanton handed Grant a telegraph from President Abraham Lincoln that read: ” By direction of the President of the United States, the Departments of the Ohio, of the Cumberland, and of the Tennessee, will constitute the Military Division of the Mississippi. Major General U.S. Grant, United States Army, is placed in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, with his headquarters in the field.” These orders that Stanton felt necessary to travel the nearly 600 arduous, bone shaking miles by rail in order to hand deliver to a man he had never met, General U.S. Grant, placed Grant in command of three armies that would now be known collectively as “the Military Division of Mississippi.” Grant was thus in charge of all military operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, more or less.
z ChickamaugaGrant immediately relieved Rosecrans in Chattanooga and replaced him with Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, soon to be known as “The Rock of Chickamauga”. Devising a plan known as the “Cracker Line”, Thomas’s chief engineer, William F. “Baldy” Smith opened a new supply route to Chattanooga, helping to feed the starving men and animals of the Union army. Upon re-provisioning and reinforcing, the morale of Union troops lifted and in late November, they went on the offensive. The Battles for Chattanooga ended with the capture of Lookout Mountain, opening the way for the Union Army to invade Atlanta, Georgia, and the heart of the Confederacy.

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U.S.Grant (left corner) atop Lookout Mountain.

Grant’s willingness to fight and his ability to win impressed President Lincoln, who appointed him lieutenant general in the regular army-a rank not awarded since George Washington- which was recently re-authorized by the U.S. Congress with Grant in mind-on March 2, 1864. On March 12, Grant became general-in-chief of all the armies of the United States. The rest is history. It’s also noteworthy to remember that Edwin Stanton was appointed by President Grant to the Supreme Court, but he died four days after he was confirmed by the Senate and never took the oath to become a Justice.
Why is this important? This was the first official step taken by General Ulysses S. Grant on his road to fame that ultimately ended at the White House. In U.S. Grant’s memoirs, the General remembered that the train arrived in Louisville at night in a cold drizzling rain. Secretary Stanton told Grant that he had caught a miserable cold from that trip from which he “never expected to recover from”. Grant believed that Stanton never fully recovered from this cold and that it contributed to Stanton’s death in 1869. The Galt House Hotel in Louisville always takes the credit for this important announcement meeting, although it actually happened right here in Indianapolis on a south bound train leaving Union Station on a crisp Hoosier autumn Sunday morning .

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