Original publish date: June 10, 2011 Reissue Date April 2, 2020
2009 was the year of John Dillinger. 75 years after being gunned down in a Chicago alley, the Hoosier bandit was the subject of a hit movie starring Johnny Depp this past summer. Did you know that Dillinger’s only Indianapolis bank robbery occurred just around the corner from Irvington? On Wednesday September 6, 1933, Dillinger, along with Hilton Crouch and his cousin John Vinson, robbed the Massachusetts Avenue State Bank of nearly $ 24,000 in cash. Located at 815 Massachusetts Avenue near the headquarters of the Indiana State Police, Dillinger and Vinson brazenly strolled into the bank with guns drawn. Assistant manager Lloyd Rinehart, seated at his desk chatting casually on the telephone, heard someone yell: “This is a stickup! We mean business.” He later told police that he thought it was a joke and didn’t even look up to interrupt his conversation. “Get off that damned telephone,” Dillinger snarled. Rinehart looked up from his desk to find he was staring into the barrel of a .45 automatic. Two bank patrons, George Alexander and Francis Anderson, upon seeing the 2 armed bandits, instinctively raised their arms into air. Dillinger yelled at them to put their arms down, fearing the overt submissive gesture would draw immediate attention from passersby on the streets outside. While gracefully leaping over the bank railing with his pistol aimed at the teller’s head, Dillinger ordered cashier A.J. Krueger to open the cash drawers and fill the cloth sacks with loot. While nervously adjusting his handkerchief-mask and waving his pistol in the air, Vinson pestered Dillinger to “Hurry Up, Hurry Up.” Dillinger casually emptied all of the cash drawers and made his way to the vault. There he discovered a cache of 1,000 half dollars which he gleefully threw over the top of the teller cage bars to Vinson as the Hoosier bandit giggled like a schoolboy. Unbeknownst to them, the bandits had stumbled upon the payroll of the “Real Silk Hosiery Company”, which was the nation’s largest shipper of c.o.d. parcel post packages whose headquarters were located in the Lockerbie Square area. (The building has since been converted to stylish apartments and condominiums.) From his exterior lookout position, driver Crouch gunned the engine of the recently stolen blue Desoto and the trio made a clean getaway up Michigan Avenue headed for Chicago. Dillinger divided the loot on the way and the trio parted company forever. Crouch openly flaunted his newfound riches, buying a Chicago tavern and marrying a 17 year old socialite after publicly wining and dining her. By December, Crouch was behind bars. Vinson, on the other hand, took his eight grand and disappeared. He was never heard from again. Dillinger, well, you know what happened to him.
Recently, I wrote a two-part series on Carnation Day, the little known holiday created to honor our third assassinated President, William McKinley. While researching that story, I came across a man whose name should rightly echo through the halls of American heroism. Instead, his name is forgotten, his place in history supplanted and his whereabouts remain unknown.
William McKinley’s presence at the the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York was no accident. McKinley loved world’s fairs. The President referred to them as, “the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement.” He attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta two years later. He did not want to miss the Buffalo Expo, planned for the summer of 1901, his first World’s Fair as President.
On September 6, 1901, President McKinley spent his final hours on earth acting like a regular tourist. He awoke early at 7:15 A.M., dressed for the day in his heavy black frock coat and black silk tophat, and stealthily dodged his Secret Service guards for a solitary stroll down Delaware Avenue. Later that morning, William and Ida McKinley boarded a train for Niagara Falls. They visited the falls, walked along the gorge, and toured the Niagara Falls Power Project, which the President referred to as “the marvel of the Electrical Age.” After returning to Buffalo, Mrs. McKinley went to the Milburn house to rest, the president to the exposition and his date with destiny.
The president was scheduled to meet the thousands of people who, in spite of the oppressive heat, were waiting at the Temple of Music on the north side of the fairgrounds. In that line, no one stood out more than James “Big Ben” Parker, a six-foot six inch, 250 pound “Negro” waiter from Atlanta who has been laid off by the exposition’s Plaza Restaurant only days before. One could conclude that “Big Ben” was the angriest man in the room and the one the Secret Service should be watching. However, that sobriquet would belong to the man standing immediately in front of the gentle giant. A stoop-shouldered, nervous little man whose hand was wrapped in a handkerchief.
Parker had been waiting outside the temple all morning. He wanted to be at the head of the line to meet the president. At 4:00 P.M. the doors of the Temple of Music opened and hundreds of people formed an orderly, single-file line to the front of the auditorium. Once members of the public shook hands with McKinley, they would continue on to exit the building. An American flag was draped behind the President and several potted plants were arrayed around him to create an attractive scene. There President McKinley, flanked by his personal secretary George Cortelyou and Fair organizer John Milburn, stood waiting.
The pipe organ began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The room was over ninety degrees. Everybody was carrying handkerchiefs to wipe their brows or to wave at the president. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “zoll-goss”), although sweating profusely, was doing neither. His handkerchief was wrapped around his right hand like a bandage held tightly to his chest. No one suspected there was a revolver hidden underneath. The usual rule enforced by the Secret Service was that all those who approached the President must do so with their hands open and empty. Likely due to the scorching heat inside the breezeless building, that rule was not being enforced as everyone seemed to be carrying handkerchiefs.
McKinley could shake hands with 50 people per minute by first gripping their hands then guiding them quickly past while preventing his fingers from being squeezed at the same time. McKinley, seeing Czolgosz’s bandaged right hand, instinctively reached for his left hand instead. At 4:07 pm, as the two men’s hands touched, the assassin raised the makeshift sling and fired his hidden .32 Iver Johnson revolver twice.
The first bullet sheared a button off of McKinley’s vest, the second tore into the President’s abdomen. The handkerchief burst into flames and fell to the floor. McKinley lurched forward as Czolgosz took aim for a third shot. Within seconds after the second pistol shot, Big Ben Parker was grappling with the adrenaline charged assassin. Secret service special agent Samuel Ireland described the scene: “Parker struck the assassin in the neck with one hand and with the other reached for the revolver which had been discharged through the handkerchief and the shots had set fire to the linen. While on the floor Czolgosz again tried to discharge the revolver but before he got to the president the Negro knocked it from his hand.” A split second after Parker struck Czolgosz, so did Buffalo detective John Geary and one of the artillerymen, Francis O’Brien. Czolgosz disappeared beneath a pile of men, some of whom were punching or hitting him with rifle butts. The assassin cried out, “I done my duty.”
A Los Angeles Times story said that “with one quick shift of his clenched fist, he [Parker] knocked the pistol from the assassin’s hand. With another, he spun the man around like a top and with a third, he broke Czolgosz’s nose. A fourth split the assassin’s lip and knocked out several teeth.” In Parker’s own account, given to a newspaper reporter a few days later, he said, “I heard the shots. I did what every citizen of this country should have done. I am told that I broke his nose—I wish it had been his neck. I am sorry I did not see him four seconds before. I don’t say that I would have thrown myself before the bullets. But I do say that the life of the head of this country is worth more than that of an ordinary citizen and I should have caught the bullets in my body rather than the President should get them.” In a separate interview for the New York Journal, Parker remarked “just think, Father Abe freed me, and now I saved his successor from death, provided that bullet he got into the president don’t kill him.”
Parker clearly prevented Czolgosz from firing a third time, thereby saving McKinley’s life. However, poor medical technique would ultimately cause McKinley’s death. The wound was closed without disinfecting (sterilization being a fairly new concept at the time) so McKinley died of gangrene on September 14, 1901. Prior to McKinley’s death, when his outlook for recovery appeared promising, the Savannah Tribune, an African-American newspaper, trumpeted of Parker “the life of our chief magistrate was saved by a Negro. No other class of citizens is more loyal to this country than the Negro.” A Sept. 12 , 1901 Buffalo Times article described “Big Ben” as a “plain, modest, gentlemanly person”.
Later, Parker told a slightly different version of his story to the Buffalo Times. “I went to the Temple of Music to hear what speeches might be made. I got in line and saw the President. I turned to go away as soon as I learned that there was to be only a handshaking. The crowd was so thick that I could not leave. I was startled by the shots. My fist shot out and I hit the man on the nose and fell upon him, grasping him about the throat. I believe that if he had not been suffering pain he would have shot again. I know that his revolver was close to my head. I did not think about that then though. Then came Mr. Foster, Mr. Ireland and Mr. Gallagher. There was that marine, too. I struck the man, threw up his arm and then went for his throat. It all happened so quickly I can hardly say what happened, except that the secret service man came right up.Czolgosz is very strong. I am glad that I am a strong man also or perhaps the result might not have been what it was.”
James Benjamin Parker, an American of African and Spanish descent, was born on July 31, 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia to enslaved parents. Educated in Atlanta schools, he also traveled as far north as Philadelphia, but returned south to live in Savannah. At one time he had been a salesman for the Southern Recorder newspaper. While in Savannah Parker was a well respected constable for a Negro magistrate. Big Ben had the reputation of never returning an unserved warrant. The citizens of the East Side of Savannah also knew that he was man of few words and a command to submit to arrest was always quietly obeyed. For a time, Big Ben lived in Chicago and worked as waiter in the Pullman Car organization. He returned to Atlanta in 1895. When he relocated to New York City, Ben had only one living relative, his mother in Savannah. Prior to coming to Buffalo, he was in Saratoga, New York and came to Buffalo only days before the assassination to work at the Exposition for the Bailey Catering Co.
According to a September 10, 1901 newspaper article, after the incident Parker appeared near the west gate of the Pan American Exposition Mall. As details of his heroism began to circulate through the crowd, a group of people surrounded him and asked the avenger to sell pieces of his waistcoat and other clothing. He recounted the story of the assassination and sold one button off his coat for $1.00 (equivalent to $30 today). After the shooting, Parker was approached with several commercial offers, including one from a company who wanted to sell his photograph. He was asked to work on the Midway at the Exposition recounting his story and signing autographs. He refused, telling the Sept. 13, 1901, Buffalo Commercial newspaper, “I happened to be in a position where I could aid in the capture of the man. I do not think that the American people would like me to make capital out of the unfortunate circumstances. I do not want to be exhibited in all kinds of shows. I am glad that I was able to be of service to the country.”
The Atlanta Constitution ran a story in the September 10 edition relating how the Negroes of Savannah were planning to set up a substantial testimonial for Parker. On September 13 another article ran titled “Negros Applaud Parker. Mass Meeting in Charleston Hears Booker Washington.” Booker T. Washington delivered an address to a mass meeting of 5,000 African Americans including a resolution denouncing the reckless deed of the “red handed anarchist” and rejoiced that a southern Negro “had saved the President McKinley from death.”
Historians agree that Czolgosz’s trial was a sham. Sadly, what should have been Big Ben Parker’s time to shine instead became his disappearing act. Prior to the trial, which began September 23, 1901, Parker was expected to be a major character in the assassination saga. Instead,the trial minimized Parker’s participation in the events of three weeks prior. Parker was never asked to testify and those few participants who did never identified Big Ben as the person who first subdued the assassin. Czolgosz’s sanity was never questioned and the case was closed twenty-four hours after it opened. Newspaper reports after the trial failed to mention Big Ben’s role and witnesses, including lawyers and Secret Service agents, began to enlarge their own roles in the tragedy by going as far as saying they “saw no Negro involved” whatsoever.
The African American community was outraged. Apparently, the Secret Service and the military were embarrassed that a private citizen, a black man at that, essentially brought the assassin down instead of them. When Parker was asked for comment, he said, ” I don’t say it was done with any intent to defraud, but it looks mighty funny, that’s all.” Parker remained humble, telling another reporter, “I am a Negro, and am glad that the Ethiopian race has what ever credit comes with what I did. If I did anything, the colored people should get the credit.”
The African American community of Buffalo held a ceremony to honor Parker at the Vine Street African Methodist Church on September 27, 1901. The church was packed to standing room only and the Buffalo News reported that the audience was incensed that no credit or recognition was given to Parker. The speaker, a church fellow named Shaw, delivered a short testimonial concluding by saying, “The evident attempt to discredit Parker is a sign of conspiracy and should we fail to emphatically resent it, I claim we are a disgrace to our race. ” When Big Ben entered the hall, he refused all demands to make a speech and sat down amidst cheers.
Methodist preacher Lena Doolin Mason wrote a poem praising Parker for his actions, “A Negro He Was In It”, casting Parker as the latest in a long line of African Americans who risked their lives in service to their country and admonishing white Americans to recognize that bravery with the cessation of lynchings. To quell the simmering pot of racial tension, the U.S. Government publicly promised a lifetime government job for Big Ben Parker, but no such job ever materialized. James A. Ross, the “colored mason”, Buffalo politician and publisher of the “Gazetteer and Guide” (a magazine for Negro railroad porters and hotel workers), supported Parker’s heroism by hiring him to be a traveling agent (magazine salesman) for his publication. With this, Parker left Buffalo after the trial and dropped from public view.
The April 4, 1908 edition of the Richmond (Virginia) Planet newspaper reported, “Before a class of students at the Jefferson Medical College the body of James B. Parker, colored, was placed upon the dissecting table Thursday. Parker was the man who beat Louis Czolgosz to the ground and disarmed him after the latter had fired two shots into the body of President McKinley at Buffalo on September 6,1901. At the time of the President’s assassination Parker was a Pullman car porter. Like many other heroes of the present day, Parker died penniless, his death came almost two weeks ago at the Philadelphia Hospital, where he was a patient in the insane department. He was moved to the West Philadelphia institution several months ago, after having been picked up by the police. As far as known he had no friends in this city at the time of his death and the body was turned over to the State Anatomical Board. In this way it came into possession of the college authorities. Parker was petted by thousands of persons in Buffalo. Everybody praised him, and it was thought for a time, that his act had saved the President’s life. Senator Mark Hanna, of Ohio, presented Parker with a check for $1,000 in appreciation of his bravery. Parker was well proportioned and was six feet four inches in height. In his earlier days he was employed as a letter carrier in Atlanta, Ga. More than a year ago he came to this city, and the last heard of him before his death was his arrest in West Philadelphia. In speaking of his tussle with Czolgosz, Parker said the assassin fought like a tiger and was one of the most powerful men he had ever tussled with. His brain will be examined by a noted alienist of the city within the next few weeks and it is expected that it will prove one of the most interesting studies ever made in Philadelphia.” His final resting place remains unknown.
Just as Big Ben is the forgotten figure in the McKinley assassination saga, Leon Czolgosz is the least known of all presidential assassins. Prior to his execution Czolgosz met with two priests and said, “No. Damn them. Don’t send them here again. I don’t want them. And don’t you have any praying over me when I’m dead. I don’t want it. I don’t want any of their damned religion.” Czolgosz was electrocuted on October 29, 1901 at Auburn penitentiary. Initially, Czolgosz’s family wanted the body. The warden convinced them that it would be a bad idea, that relic hunters would disturb his grave, or worse, that unscrupulous carnival promoters would want to display the body in traveling sideshows.
His family agreed that the prison should take care of the funeral arrangements by giving the assassin a decent burial within the protection of the prison grounds. When Leon Czolgosz was buried in the Auburn prison cemetery, yards away from where he was executed, unbeknownst to the family, the decision was made to have his body destroyed. The local crematorium refused to undertake the job. So the assassin’s body was placed in a rough pine box and lowered into the ground which had been coated with quicklime. The lid was removed and two barrels of quicklime powder was caked on top of the body. Then sulfuric acid was poured on top of that followed by another two layers of quicklime.
Their intention was to make the anarchist’s body dematerialize. What the prison officials did not know was that when quicklime (calcium oxide) and sulfuric acid are combined, a chemical reaction occurs which creates an exterior coating best compared to plaster of paris. Since the shell is insoluble in water, the coating acts as a protective layer thus preventing further attack on the corpse by the acid. It is entirely possible that the body of Czolgosz was preserved in perpetuity accidentally.
So what did you do last Wednesday? Did you place a red carnation in your lapel or buy a small arrangement for your table? Most likely, like most Americans, you did nothing remarkable at all. Our neighbors one state to the east probably joined you in your average humpday activities. Well, most of them anyway. Some were busy celebrating Carnation Day. What? You’ve never heard of that holiday? Well, don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Carnation Day was created to honor our country’s third assassinated President: Ohio’s favorite son, William McKinley. And, it was created by an Ohioan who lived and died in Richmond, Indiana.
Most Americans remember President William McKinley solely for the way he died. His image a milquetoast chief executive from the age of American Imperialism who was at the helm for the dawn of the 20th century. McKinley’s ordinary appearance belied the fact that he was the last president to have served in the American Civil War and the only one to have started the war as an enlisted soldier. It is long forgotten that McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War, protected American industry by raising tariffs and kept the nation on the gold standard by rejecting free silver. Most notably, his assassination at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York unleashed the central figure who would come to personify the new century; his Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt.
McKinley’s favorite flower was a red carnation. He displayed his affection by wearing one of the bright red florets in his lapel everyday. The carnation boutonnière soon became McKinley’s personal trademark. As President, bud vases filled with red carnations were conspicuously placed around the White House (known as the “Executive Mansion” back then). Whenever a guest visited the President, McKinley’s custom was to remove the carnation from his lapel and present it to the star struck visitor. For men, he would often place the souvenir blossom into the lapel himself and suggest that it be given to an absent wife, mother or child. Afterwards, he would replace his boutonnière with another from a nearby vase and repeat the transfer again-and-again for the rest of the day. McKinley was superstitious about these carnations, believing that they brought good luck to both him and his recipient.
One account alleges that McKinley’s “Genus Dianthus” custom began early in his presidency when an aide brought his two sons to the White House to meet the President. McKinley, who loved children dearly, presented his carnation to the older boy. Seeing the disappointment in the younger boy’s face, the President deftly retrieved a replacement carnation and pinned it on his own lapel. Here the flower remained for a few moments before he removed it and gave to the younger child, explaining “this way you both can have a carnation worn by the President.”
However, McKinley’s ubiquitous floral tradition can be traced to the election of 1876, when he was running for a seat in Congress. His opponent, Dr. Levi Lamborn, of Alliance, Ohio, was an accomplished amateur horticulturist famed for developing a strain of vivid scarlet carnations he dubbed “Lamborn Red.” Dr. Lamborn presented McKinley with a “Lamborn Red” boutonniere before their debates. After he won the election, McKinley viewed the red carnation as a good luck charm. He wore one on his lapel regularly and soon began his custom of presenting them to visitors. He wore one during his fourteen years in Congress, his two gubernatorial wins and both 1896 and 1900 presidential campaigns.
Years later, Dr. L.L. Lamborn recalled, “We differed politically but were personal friends. Fate decreed that we looked at political questions through different party prisms. We canvassed the district together, and jointly discussed the issues of that campaign.
The contest was fervent but friendly. I was then raising the first carnations grown in the West. In our contests on the political forum, McKinley always wore carnation boutonnieres which were willingly furnished from my conservatory. I have distinct recollection of him expressing his admiration for the flower. It was doubtless at that time he formed a preferential love for the divine flower. That love increased with his years and honors of his famous life. Through it he offered his affections to the beautiful and the true.”
Ohio Senator Mark Hannah recalled, “Oftentimes the President would wear 100 flowers in one day. Mr. McKinley always appeared at the executive office in the morning with a carnation in his buttonhole, and when it became necessary to turn down a candidate for office who had succeeded in obtaining a personal interview he frequently took the flower from his own buttonhole and pinned it on the coat of the office seeker. It was generally understood by the officials in the outer rooms that when a candidate came from the President’s office thus decorated the carnation was all he got.”
After his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, William and Ida McKinley departed on a six-week train trip of the country. The McKinleys’ were to travel through the South to the Southwest, and then up the Pacific coast and back east again, to conclude with a visit to the Buffalo Exposition on June 13, 1901. However, the First Lady fell ill in California, causing her husband to limit his public events and cancel a series of planned speeches. The First family retreated to Washington for a month and then traveled to their Canton, Ohio home for another two months, delaying the Expo trip until September.
On September 5, the President, wearing his trademark red carnation, delivered a speech to a crowd of some 50,000 people at the Exposition. One man in the crowd, Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “zoll-goss”), was close enough to the President that he could almost smell the fragrant blossom. Czolgosz, a steelworker and anarchist from Alpena, Michigan, hoped to assassinate McKinley. Although close to the presidential podium, unsure that he could hit his target, he did not fire. Instead, Czolgosz waited for the next day at the Temple of Music, where the President was scheduled to appear for a one-hour meet-and-greet with the general public.
The President stood at the head of the receiving line, pleasantly shaking hands with visitors, and wearing his ever-present lapel flower. A little 12-year-old girl named Myrtle Ledger, standing in line with her mother, asked the President, “Could I have something to show my friends?” True to form, McKinley removed the red carnation, bent down and handed it to the child. Years later, Myrtle recalled that McKinley said, “In that case, I must give this flower to another little flower,” as he gave over his personal good luck charm.
However, this time McKinley was not in his familiar surroundings and had no replacement flower at hand. Ida, who usually sat in a chair next to the President armed with a basket full of carnations during such events, though in Buffalo, was not present at the event. Meanwhile, Leon Czolgosz edged closer to the President, his handkerchief wrapped hand concealing a .32-caliber Iver Johnson “Safety Automatic” revolver. At 4:07 P.M., the President smiled broadly and extended his hand to greet the next person in line. Czolgosz slapped it aside and shot the President twice, at point blank range: the first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in McKinley’s jacket; the other, seriously wounding the carnation-less President in the abdomen.
As McKinley fell backwards into the arms of his aides, members of the crowd immediately attacked Czolgosz. McKinley said, “Go easy on him, boys.” McKinley urged his aides to break the news gently to Ida, and to call off the mob that had set on Czolgosz, thereby saving his assassin’s life. McKinley was taken to the Exposition aid station, where the doctor was unable to locate the second bullet. Ironically, although a newly developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, doctors were reluctant to use it on the President because they did not know what side effects. Worse yet, the operating room at the exposition’s emergency hospital did not have any electric lighting, even though the exteriors of many of the buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs. Amazingly, doctors used a pan to reflect sunlight onto the operating table as they treated McKinley’s wounds.
In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve and newspapers were full of optimistic reports. Eight days after the shooting, on the morning of September 13, McKinley’s condition deteriorated and by afternoon physicians declared the case hopeless. It would later be determined that the gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood.
McKinley drifted in and out of consciousness all day. By evening, McKinley himself knew he was dying, “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” Relatives and friends gathered around the death bed. The First Lady sobbed over him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” Her husband replied, “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours” and with final strength put an arm around her. Some reports claimed that he also sung part of his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while others claim that the First Lady sang it softly to him. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, President McKinley died. Czolgosz was sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
The light had gone out of Ida McKinley’s life. She could not even bring herself to attend his funeral. Ida & William McKinley’s relationship has always been a marvel to me. She was an epileptic whose husband took great care to accommodate her condition. Contrary to protocol, he insisted that his wife be seated next to him at state dinners rather than her traditional position at the opposite end of the table. Guests noted that whenever Mrs. McKinley encountered a seizure, the President would gently place a napkin or handkerchief over her face to conceal her contorted features. When it passed, he removed it and resumed whatever he was doing as if nothing had happened. A story of true devotion that is rarely remarked on by modern day historians. Ida’s health declined as she withdrew to the safety of her home and happier memories in Canton. She survived her husband by less than six years, dying on May 26, 1907 and is buried next to him and their two daughters in Canton’s McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.
Loyal readers will recognize my affinity for objects and will not be surprised by the query, “What became of that assassination carnation?” In an article for the Massillon, Ohio Daily Independent newspaper on Sept. 7, 1984, Myrtle Ledger Krass, the 12-year-old-girl to whom the President gave his lucky flower to moments before he was killed, reported that the McKinley’s carnation was pressed and kept in the family Bible. Myrtle, at the time a well-known painter living in Largo, Florida, explained how, many years later while moving, “The old Bible had been put away for years, when I took it out to wrap it for moving, it just crumbled in my hand. Just fell away to nothing.”
In 1902, Lewis Gardner Reynolds (born in 1858 in Bellefontaine, Ohio) found himself in Buffalo on business on the first anniversary of McKinley’s death. While there he found that the mayor of Buffalo had declared the day a legal holiday. Gardner recalled, “without thinking at the time that I was doing something that would become a national custom, I purchased a pink carnation which I placed in the button hole of my coat after tying a small piece of black ribbon on it. As I went through Buffalo I explained to questioners the reason for the flower and the black ribbon. Many of those who questioned me followed my example.” On his return to Ohio he explained to his friend Senator Mark Hannah what he had done in Buffalo. Later, in Cleveland, Reynolds met with Hannah and Governor Myron T. Herrick. Soon plans were made to celebrate Jan. 29, the anniversary of McKinley’s birth, as “Carnation Day.”
In 1903, Reynolds founded the Carnation League of America and instituted Red Carnation Day as an annual memorial to McKinley. Standing for patriotism, progress, prosperity and peace, the League encouraged all Americans to wear a red carnation on McKinley’s birthday. Not only did the new holiday honor the martyr’s birthday, it also encouraged people to patronize florists. In Dayton alone that year, more than 15,000 carnations were sold on McKinley’s birthday. On February 3, 1904, to honor McKinley, the Ohio General Assembly declared the scarlet carnation the state flower. After the U.S. entered World War I, people started wearing an American flag instead of a carnation on January 29. In 1918, Red Carnation Day celebrations began declining and eventually stopped altogether.
Today, the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus continues observing Red Carnation Day every January 29 by installing a small display honoring the assassinated President. Last year, the Statehouse Museum Shop and on-site restaurant offered special discounts to anyone wearing a red carnation or dressed in scarlet on that day. Yes, the sentimental association of the carnation with McKinley’s memory is due to Lewis Gardner Reynolds.
However, that is not the only claim to fame to be made for Mr. Reynolds. He would meet and fall in love with a girl from Richmond and, after moving there, he would spearhead the Teddy Roosevelt memorial effort and post-World War I European Relief Commission efforts in Wayne County. He would travel to Washington DC and take over curatorship of the Lincoln collection after it’s owner Osborn Oldroyd sold it to the US Government in 1926. He would supervise the collection’s move across the street to Ford’s Theatre, where it remains today. And, he would survive to the dawn of World War to stake his claim as the last living person to have met Abraham Lincoln.
Nearly thirty years ago, I was cutting the grass on an ancient, unreliable Sears Craftsman riding lawn mower when my new bride came rushing out of the door of our first apartment excitedly waving her arms. Of course, I shut the mower off to see what was the matter. I was chagrined when Rhonda said, “You’ve got a phone call.” I should point out that it took me 45 minutes to get the mower started in the first place and I was not sure that I could replicate that action. “A phone call? Couldn’t you have taken a message for me to call them back?” I asked. “It’s Baretta,” she answered, “Robert Blake is on the phone…for you…Baretta’s on the phone.”
I was certain someone was pulling my leg as I walked inside and picked up the phone. “Alan, this is Robert Blake” the voice on the other end of the line responded. “I just found a letter you wrote me several years ago,” he said. “I have moved around a lot over the years and it got packed away in a box and forgotten. I have it now.” I was stunned. It really was Baretta! Turns out I had written a long forgotten fan letter to Mr. Blake years before, while still a teenager, asking him to sign a photo of the Our Gang crew. Blake (real name Mickey Gubitosi) had been part of the cast from 1939 to 1944 as well as Red Ryder’s sidekick “Little Beaver” from 1944 to 1947.
“I wanted to ask a favor of you,” Mr Blake responded, “I have never seen this photo before. Could I swap you for it?” Well, uh yes, you can, you’re Baretta was my thought. “I’ll send it out today,” he said. “Here’s my phone number. Call me when you get it.” Sure enough, a week or so later, the package arrived and it was full of several photos of Blake as Mickey in Our Gang, from Red Ryder, from Baretta, from Electra Glide in Blue and there were a couple images of his character Perry Smith (playing the guitar) from the Truman Capote classic “In Cold Blood.” All hand signed and inscribed to me. I called him back to thank him for the photos and we talked for quite some time.
Turns out, he was a collector of Lone Ranger memorabilia. “My folks never saved anything. My old man was a drunk. My mom stole all my money and sold all my stuff. I ran away at fourteen and never looked back.” Blake’s father ultimately killed himself and he cut off all ties with his mother. Turned out to be the first in a series of several phone conversations. So, from that time forward, anytime I went out “junkin” and found a Lone Ranger item, I’d send it to him. Posters, photos, adverts, movie programs, even one lobby card written entriely in Spanish. He would call and share some great Hollywood trivia. For instance, he informed me that he turned down the role of Little Joe on Bonanza, a role that made Michael Landon famous. He also turned down roles in The Godfather, The Wild Bunch, All That Jazz, Funny Lady and Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Over the years, we lost touch and, well, soon he had bigger issues to deal with.
He also shared stories of the Lone Ranger from movie, television and real life. “The closest I ever got to the part was in 1945 when I played Little Beaver with Wild Bill Elliott in the Red Ryder serial “Lone Texas Ranger.” Blake said, “I always modeled Little Beaver after Tonto you know.” Keep in mind, this was WAY before Google in an age when these tidbits were only known to the participants. It was Robert Blake who first told me the true story of the Lone Ranger.
The real Lone Ranger, it turns out, was based on an African American man named Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Reeves worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Indian Territory. During his long law enforcement career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons and he shot and killed 14 people (in self-defense of course). Although Reeves the man is mostly unrecognizable in much of the Lone Ranger legend, some of the basic aspects remain intact. Both were lawman hunting bad guys, both were accompanied by a Native American, both rode a white horse, and both gave away a silver trademark to people they encountered. Historians of the American West have, until recently, mostly ignored the fact that this man was African American, a free black man who headed West to find himself less subject to the racist structure of the established Eastern and Southern states.
Reeves, born a slave in July of 1838, accompanied his “master” Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves’ son, Colonel George R. Reeves, as a personal servant when he went off to fight with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Col. Reeves, of the CSA’s 11th Texas Cavalry Regiment, was a sheriff, tax collector, legislator, and a one-time Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. During the Civil War, the Texas 11th Cavalry was involved in some 150 battles and skirmishes. Records are sketchy, but one report states that although 500 men served with the unit, less than 50 returned home at the end of the war.
It is unclear how, and exactly when, Bass Reeves gained his freedom during the Civil War. One account states that Bass Reeves and his owner had an altercation over a card game. Reeves severely beat his owner, and, knowing that there was no way he would be allowed to live if he stuck around, fled to the Indian Territory (today known as the state of Oklahoma). Here Bass lived harmoniously as a fugitive slave among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles. Bass stayed in the Indian Territories, assimilating to their culture and learning their languages, until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, on January 31, 1865.
Interestingly, like a plot from a Hollywood serial, in 1882, Bass Reeves “owner” Col. Reeves was bitten by a rabid dog while protecting a young child from danger. During his final days, Col. Reeves was placed in a wooden shed padded with mattresses to protect him from the potential self-inflicted violent tendencies associated with the disease. He died of hydrophobia in September of that year. During those intermittent years, his former slave, Bass Reeves, married and eventually fathered ten children (five boys and five girls) and tried his hand at farming.
Bass Reeves big break came when former Missouri Congressman Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory and Reeves was assigned as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker, known as the “Hanging Judge”, hired 200 deputy U.S. marshals and the Reeves hire was highly prized because he knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Indian languages. In 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to death (out of 344 charges carrying the death penalty that came before him); 79 of them were executed. Many of these men were brought to justice by Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves.
Like the Lone Ranger, Reeves was a master of disguises. He often used these disguises to track down outlaws by dressing similarly and adopting their mannerisms to infiltrate the fugitive gangs, ultimately to identify and arrest them. Just like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets, Bass Reeves always carried, and often gave out, silver coins as a personal trademark or calling card of sorts. Reeves handed out these valuable coins with a dual purpose; to ingratiate himself to the townspeople and as a future incentive for intel while collecting bounties. Thus insuring that a visit from Bass Reeves, the real Lone Ranger, brought only good fortune for the town by virtue of a criminal off the street and the gift of a lucky silver coin. Reeves was an expert with a gun who, according to legend, was barred from entering shooting competitions, not because of his race, but rather because no one could beat him. Reeves rode a white horse throughout his career, riding a light grey horse for a short while only. In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career, some of which are still in use by law enforcement today.
And, like the Lone Ranger, Reeves worked with a Native American companion. Reeves’ “Tonto” was a capable Deputy U.S. Marshal in his own right named Grant Johnson. Johnson was an expert tracker and posse man who often accompanied Reeves into the Indian Territory in search of the most wanted outlaws hiding there. Johnson was a Native American Indian whose lineage included two tribes; his father was a Chickasaw, his mother a Creek. Born in north Texas during the Civil War, Johnson began his career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1888 working out of Judge Parker’s court at Fort Smith, Arkansas where he teamed up with Bass Reeves. Judge Parker often cited both men as his best deputies ever to work for his court.
Ironically, Bass Reeves was himself once charged with murdering a posse cook. At his trial before Judge Parker, Reeves was represented by former United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton, who had been his colleague and friend. Reeves was acquitted. On another instance, Reeves arrested his own son for murder. One of his sons, Bennie Reeves, was charged with the murder of his wife. Although understandably disturbed and shaken by the incident, Deputy Marshal Reeves nonetheless demanded the responsibility of bringing Bennie to justice. Bennie was eventually tracked and captured, tried, and convicted. He served his time in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas before being released, and reportedly lived the rest of his life as a responsible and model citizen.
Bass continued to serve as a U.S. Marshal in the Indian Territory until 1893. That year he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas in Paris, Texas. In 1897, he was transferred again, serving at the Muskogee Federal Court in the Indian Territory where he once again teamed with Grant Johnson. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, 68-year-old Bass Reeves became an officer of the Muskogee Police Department. He served for two years before he became ill and retired. Reeves worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territory, and during his career he brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.
In 1909, Bass Reeves’ health began to fail, and he died of Bright’s disease (nephritis) on January 12, 1910. That day, a comet of almost unrivaled brilliance burst onto the celestial stage. Known historically as the “Great January Comet of 1910, it is most often referred to as the “Daylight Comet”. As Deputy Bass Reeves breathed his last, it was already visible to the naked eye. At its brightest, it outshone the planets Venus and Mercury, and was possibly the brightest comet of the 20th century. The comet’s approach had been slightly hidden by the daylight until its growing luster pierced the approaching dusk by unfurling a gossamer tail against a pure azure sky. One hundred and ten years ago this Sunday, the real Lone Ranger died as his silver Deputy star streaked brightly across the sky one last time.
Politics. No matter where you go, you can’t escape it. No doubt last week Thanksgiving tables all across the Hoosier state either artfully dodged or spiritedly discussed politics in one form or another. Luckily, if you don’t like the political situation in this country, you can do your part to change it by exercising your right to vote. But what about the influence wielded by those most powerful “influencers” who never ran for office nor received a single vote? I’m not talking about the Kardashians, Oprah, Ellen or Taylor Swift. They may influence style and pop culture, but they do not steer public policy.
An argument could be made that today we are living within the most powerful unelected government in history of the United States. I would imagine that the average citizen could name more unelected policy influencers than they could legislators. Doubt that? Names like Buffet, Gates, Zuckerberg, the Koch Brothers, Limbaugh, Hannity, Maher, O’Reilly, Soros, Bezos, Musk ring a bell? However, any child of the sixties would counter those examples with names like Dylan, Lennon, Leary, Ali, Malcolm X, and Chavez. The difference is that today’s policy influencers attempt change through money while baby boomer influencers attempted change through ideals. In the case of the sixties, the two most powerful unelected influencers came from opposite ends of the spectrum. They were FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover and Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although J. Edgar Hoover was never elected to any office, for decades, he was every bit as powerful as any person in the country. Hoover’s power emanated from his leadership of the FBI but was enhanced by his ready use of blackmail and, ironically, other criminal practices to stay in power. Since his death in 1972, Hoover’s legacy remains in conflict. Hoover’s critics say he harassed civil rights leaders, discriminated against gays (particularly federal workers) and gathered incriminating evidence to blackmail political figures; friend and foe. While his supporters point to Hoover’s modernization of law enforcement methods, his standardization of the the FBI’s fingerprint database and for bringing forensic science into criminal investigations as his legacy.
During a three week period 55 years ago, the dichotomy of the Hoover-King affair was defined. On Nov. 18, 1964, Hoover told a gathering of women reporters, “In my opinion, Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.” Hoover’s statement was in response to Dr. King’s suggestion that the F.B.I. was not doing enough to protect Freedom Riders fighting Jim Crow racism in the South. That “Freedom Summer” campaign to get African Americans to register to vote was marred by violence, including the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
Hoover’s comments prompted a request by Dr. King for a meeting with the Director. “I was appalled and surprised at your reported statement maligning my integrity,” King wrote in a telegram to Hoover. “What motivated such an irresponsible accusation is a mystery to me.” King turned the tables on the Director by telling reporters: “I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure….I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.” In contrast, privately Hoover called King “the burrhead” and “a tom cat with degenerate sexual urges.”
But before that meeting could be arranged, FBI assistant director and head of the Domestic Intelligence Division at the time, William C. Sullivan, sent an anonymous letter to King, threatening to make public the civil rights leader’s sex life. Hence known colloquially as the “suicide letter” for its suggestion that King kill himself to avoid the embarrassing revelations, it is unknown whether the letter was sent at Hoover’s direction. However, a full and uncensored copy can be found in Hoover’s confidential files at the National Archives. The letter dictated: “There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation”.
On Dec. 1st, Dr. King meets with J. Edgar Hoover to discuss the perceived slander campaign by the Director. Hoover later told Time magazine, “I held him in complete contempt…First I felt I shouldn’t see him, but then I thought he might become a martyr if I didn’t.” Hoover hated King for several reasons, first, because he believed King was a Communist, but also for King’s criticism of the FBI for failing to solve civil rights-related crimes. And, as Wm. Sullivan wrote in his memoir, “Hoover was opposed to change, to the civil rights movement, and to blacks.”
In 1963 Hoover used the King Communist accusation to convince Attorney General Robert Kennedy to allow the FBI tap King’s phones and bug his hotel rooms. Although Kennedy only gave written approval for “limited wiretapping” of Dr. King’s phones “on a trial basis, for a month or so”, Hoover extended the clearance so his men were “unshackled” to look for evidence in any areas of King’s life they deemed worthy. The bugs revealed that King was having extramarital affairs, which disgusted Hoover, a lifelong bachelor whose own sexuality remains a mystery. The bug also picked up King describing Hoover as, “old and senile.” Hoover shared his tapes of King’s sexual romps with President Lyndon Johnson, who then allegedly played them for his aides. Hoover also directed his assistants to leak the details of King’s sex life to reporters. A tape was also sent anonymously to King’s wife Coretta.
Around Thanksgiving, Newsweek reported that President Johnson had decided to “find a new chief of the FBI.” FBI agent Sullivan wrote that it was “Johnson who ordered Hoover to meet with King and patch things up.” Hoover ordered his aide Cartha DeLoach, “Make sure the meeting is in my office. And no press. Do you hear me, no press!” While DeLoach followed orders no-one informed Dr. King’s aides, and when the civil rights leader arrived at Hoover’s office, there was a mob of reporters waiting outside.
The 69-year-old Hoover met with the 35-year-old Dr. King and his aides, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with you,” King said. He told Hoover that he appreciated the work the FBI had done in civil rights cases and said that while “Many Negroes have complained that the FBI has been ineffective but I, myself discount such criticism. And I want to assure you that I have been seriously misquoted in the matter of slurs against the FBI.” Dr. King’s statement took about two minutes. After which, Hoover spoke without stopping for the better part of an hour extolling the virtues of the FBI and denouncing the communists. Meanwhile, America’s greatest Civil Rights orator sat quietly and listened.
During the meeting, Hoover was asked why the FBI didn’t have more black agents. “The problem is, we require not only a college diploma, but in most cases an advanced degree,” Hoover said. “We won’t water down our qualifications because of the color of a person’s skin.” The meeting ended without addressing the issues that had prompted the meeting. “We never got around to discussing the ‘most notorious liar’ business. Nor did we even get to mention the FBI surveillance,” Andrew Young later wrote in his memoir. “In fact, nothing happened except that Hoover rambled on and on about the virtues of the FBI.”
In 1970, two years after King’s assassination, Hoover told a Time reporter. “King was very suave and smooth. He sat right there where you’re sitting and said he never criticized the FBI. I said, ‘Mr. King’-I never called him reverend- ‘stop right there. You’re lying….If you ever say anything that’s a lie again, I’ll brand you a liar again.’ Strange to say, he never attacked the Bureau again for as long as he lived.” Nobody else present that day remembered that confrontation-not Young, not Abernathy, not even Deputy Director Deke DeLoach, who was taking notes that afternoon.
In the years after that meeting, Hoover tasked several FBI agents to 24-hour monitoring of the activities of Dr. King. The FBI Director directed his agents to set up wiretaps, monitor travel, conduct surveillance, and record all of King’s activities- including those he met with, what they discussed, how long they stayed, and how often they interacted- in an attempt to discredit or charge him with something.
President Truman once said, “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction.” J. Edgar Hoover used his power to further his own agenda and secure his position as leader of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country. And black people were a favorite target of Hoover’s FBI. Legal scholar Randall Kennedy said that Hoover “viewed protest against white domination as tending toward treason.” This view of the world led Hoover to align himself with all of the forces of racial oppression, but he may have done his greatest damage not through action, but through inaction. He relentlessly pursued high profile targets like the Black Panthers, but neglected to protect the basic human rights of “ordinary” black citizens.
Because Hoover hated communists as much as he hated black people, he often equated one with the other, claiming that the civil rights movement was a tool of the communist party. Make no mistake about it though, J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list did not end with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. The great crime fighting G-man’s other targets included Ralph Abernathy, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Tom Hayden, Ernest Hemingway, Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton and wiretappings and illegal break-ins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King headed.
While the Hoover-King meeting was deemed unremarkable and went mostly unnoticed by the American press, it was viewed otherwise by the citizens of the world at large. On Dec. 10th, 1964 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr Martin Luther King Jr., making him the youngest winner of the prestigious award. Officially, it was awarded to him for leading nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in the U.S. At Dr. King’s acceptance speech in Oslo, he remarked, “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice…I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men…I still believe that We Shall overcome!”
After King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover wrote his reaction on a news clipping: “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize.” And even by 1969, a year after Dr. King’s death, FBI efforts to discredit the Civil Rights leader had not slackened. The Bureau furnished ammunition to opponents that enabled attacks on King’s memory, and tried to block efforts to honor the slain leader. The campaign to tarnish Dr. King’s legacy persisted until Hoover’s death in 1972.
Hoover’s meeting with Dr. King 55 years ago did nothing to enhance his personal legacy. Today, he is remembered as a cross-dressing closet homosexual suffering from paranoid delusions. But could self-loathing also qualify as a symptom of Hoover’s obsession of Dr. King, the Civil Rights movement and personal persecution of the black race?
In his 1993 book “Official and Confidential” author Anthony Summers said that ,in some black communities in the East, he discovered that it was generally believed J. Edgar Hoover had black roots and was even referred to as a “soul brother” in some circles. Writer Gore Vidal, a contemporary of the Director who grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s also said in an interview: “It was always said in my family and around the city that Hoover was mulatto. And that he came from a family that passed.”
So, as you contemplate the many layers of political intrigue addressed in this article and populating the headlines, airwaves and social media today, keep in mind that things may not always appear as they seem. As the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan said way back in 1939. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Oftentimes it is the legacy that reveals the real truths of an age or era. And that legacy can only be accurately deciphered through the lens of time.