Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part II

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Measuring “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

Original publish date:  August 3, 2012

Last week, we discussed the Eugenics movement in America. The idea that by monitoring, charting and “tweaking” a person’s family tree through systematic genetic engineering in the form of sterilization, society could create a perfect race of people. It should come as no surprise that the movement, most prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, coincides with the birth of the “Superhero” culture so ingrained in the hearts and minds of the baby boomer and succeeding generations. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, the Hulk, and Thing; all genetically enhanced human beings imparted with “Superhuman” powers. The debate continues today in the medical community with genetic testing, “test tube babies”, In Vitro fertilization and stem cell research. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, can you imagine going to the state fair to witness state sponsored “Natural Selection” in person?
The program was called the “Better Babies” program and crowds flocked to the State Fairgrounds to participate, both as spectators and participants. Indiana was one of the leaders in the National Eugenics movement whose goal was the “improvement of the human race.” In those days, supporters of eugenics considered their work humanitarian, today we consider their methods radical, drastic, and even cruel. During the 1920s, Indiana launched a multifaceted program of “child saving” and maternal education, including radio talks, mother’s classes, the screening of hygiene films, statistical reports, and consultation clinics.

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Central State Hospital in Indianapolis.

Indiana’s most relevant participating institution was Central State Hospital, now the Indiana Medical History Museum but others included the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, now Richmond State Hospital, the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville, Indiana Village for Epileptics in New Castle and the School for Feebleminded Youth in Fort Wayne. The Medical and Law Enforcement associated institutional names somehow helped soften the shock of the experimental program. After all, a Eugenics program in the Indianapolis Public School system, area YMCAs and local churches would elicit an entirely different response, wouldn’t it? However, the state was seeking a vehicle to introduce the idea of Eugenics to the masses in a positive public forum.

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Better Babies contestants-Indiana State Fair 1930.

In 1920, the first Better Babies Contest, sponsored by the state’s “Division of Infant and Child Hygiene”, was “born” at the Indiana State Fair. For the next dozen years, these contests were the centerpiece of the state’s “dynamic infant and maternal welfare program” that was really Eugenics in disguise. More than just another exhibit for fairgoers, these contests brought public health, “race betterment,” and animal breeding together for public consumption. For the next twelve years, Better Baby Contests became the most popular expression of public health and race betterment in rural America. Almost a century after that first contest, the Better Babies Contest continues to spark debate about the connection between hereditarian and medical conceptions of human improvement in respect to child breeding and rearing.

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Fair visitors watching the “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1930.

By 1928, the Better Babies Contest had become so popular with Hoosiers visiting the fair that the State Fair board built the program a brand new building all it’s own. The “Better Babies” pavilion was built in the style of a bungalow house and originally housed information and exhibits about infant health literally designed to create “better babies.” As the Eugenics project fell out of favor during the Great Depression, the State Board of Health used the building for exhibits. In 1966, it was remodeled into an old-fashioned drug store and now operates as the Hook’s Drug Store museum. Visitors to the fair have no idea of the building’s dark history as they browse the exhibits it now contains and sip blissfully on root beer floats within it’s walls.

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Better Babies building at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

An early morning Labor Day Week trip to the State Fair during the “Roaring Twenties” would reveal the original building’s dark charter. When the gates opened at 8 AM, dozens of anxious mothers balancing fidgety babies on their hips rushed forward to line up in front of the doors (often the lines circling around the building) in hopes of entering their children in the Better Babies Contest. Within the walls of this unassuming little building, babies from nearly every county in the state were then weighed, measured, and tested by physicians and psychologists affiliated with the State Board of Health’s Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.

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Better Babies building (now the Hook’s Drugstore Museum) at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds as it appears today.

The contest was one of the most spectacular and beloved events at the fair, drawing hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers to the state fair. Visitors watched nurses demonstrate proper infant feeding techniques, collected free pamphlets such as the Indiana Mother’s Baby Book, or perused displays about nutrition and the virtues of sterilized and sparkling bathrooms and kitchens. While individual girls and boys, twins, and triplets competed for blue ribbons, cash prizes and trophy cups. Tired, anxious mothers tried to relax at the rest tent as they fretted about the imagined fate and placement of their children. The families non-contestant children could romp in the playground or nap peacefully in the nursery.

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Dr. Ada Schweitzer (center in black) at the Better Babies Contest Day-September 9, 1931.

The program was supervised by Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer, the newly appointed director of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene. Before the division was disbanded in 1933, Dr. Schweitzer counted 4 physicians, 4 nurses, and 5 assistants on her state funded payroll. To her credit, Dr. Schweitzer worked tirelessly to lower infant and maternal death rates and convince Hoosiers of the importance of scientific motherhood and child rearing. She lectured to hundreds of neighborhood and civic associations, authored countless articles and poems, assessed the physical condition of babies in all 92 counties; all while she diligently managed the state’s newest public health division. Dr. Schweitzer’s efforts proved fruitful as Indiana’s infant mortality dropped by one third, from 8.2% in 1920 to 5.7% in 1930. (Compared to the rate of 4.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births today)
The State Fair’s newest building was the pride and joy of Indiana health reformers who were collectively frightened by what they perceived to be an escalating menace of the feeble-minded. The Better Babies Program was created by Indiana Progressives who sought to control procreation and promote the birth of only the “best” and healthiest babies. For many Hoosiers, born and raised as farmers, breeding superior children was a natural extension of producing heartier crops and livestock.
z eugenics-exhibitIf the criteria were based solely on demography and topography, Indiana was the perfect test case for the larger National Eugenics movement. In 1920, the state’s population approached 3 million residents, 95% of whom were native-born and 97% of whom were White. The bulk of Indiana’s African American and immigrant communities lived in segregated communities within the cities of Indianapolis, Gary, and East Chicago. Unlike other more racially diverse, multilingual states such as New York, Illinois, and California, Indiana’ Eugenics project did not have to translate their message into foreign languages or tailor their “Americanization” campaigns to foreign speaking populations. Instead, the Hoosier project targeted poor and working-class Whites, especially impoverished farm dwellers living in undeveloped rural communities. (Keep in mind that most rural Hoosier farms and homes did not have indoor plumbing or electricity until the 1940s.)
Despite the rural setting, the 1920s were an important time in Indiana history. The steel and iron industries enjoyed success. Despite stiff competition from Henry Ford’s Model T, Indiana car makers Marmon, Duesenberg, and Studebaker continued to pump out high-end vehicles. It is no mere coincidence that the Indiana Eugenics project’s Better Babies Contest coincides directly with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in state and local politics. Klan members espoused 100-percent Americanism by seeking to rid the state of immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African-Americans. The Eugenics theory fit right into the charter of the KKK. The Indiana Klan embraced eugenics as a vehicle for destroying crime, pauperism, and bad behavior.
z eugenicsMarker1As a Hoosier, although others may argue otherwise, the connection between Eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan cannot be denied. Implicit to be sure, both organizations shared undeniable common goals, the first being the assurance of racial purity and the second being the improved survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. Luckily for us, the fall from favor of the Eugenics movement in our state and nation coincides with the fall of the KKK.
Every good eastside historian knows how Irvington facilitated the death of the Klan with the sacrifice of one of her own back in 1925. But the death of the Better Babies Contest and the Indiana Eugenics project was much less spectacular. As the Depression droned on throughout the 1930s, the good citizens of Indiana figured out that putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads was far more important than breeding perfect Aryan babies. When the newly elected Democratic Governor Paul McNutt took office in 1933, he fired Dr. Schweitzer and replaced her with a male director. He then wrested control of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene and turned it over to the Indiana University School of Medicine, who ironically use the amphitheatre in the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the old Central State Hospital as a teaching facility today. The program faded from the public eye and the State Fair Better Babies Contest was discontinued. Adolph Hitler cinched the deal by taking Eugenics to horrific new heights in the gas chambers of rural Germany. So next time you visit the fair and amble through the old Hook’s museum at the State Fairgrounds, take a good look around and try to imagine that building full of perfect little babies, Eugenics style.


Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part I

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Nurses examining :Better Babies” at the State Fair in 1931.

Original publish date:  July 27, 2012

Eugenics: The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. Most Americans think of eugenics as something that happened a long time ago in Nazi Germany. What many are not aware of is that eugenics was a very real part of our countries past, and for awhile, Indiana was the national test study. In fact, ours was the very first state to pass a “sterilization statute,” which authorized surgical sterilization of citizens seen as a threat to the nation’s gene pool, whether they were deemed criminally insane, “feeble-minded,” afflicted with “pauperism,” or otherwise undesirable. Yikes! Enough to send shivers up your spine isn’t it?
z p2eugenics-copyThe sad truth is that 2,424 people were medically sterilized in Indiana institutions. There was near parity between males and females in that number: 1,167 males and 1,257 females were sterilized. 1,751 of these people were considered mentally deficient and 667 mentally ill. That figure does not reflect the number of sterilizations performed in the years before the law was passed. As many as 800 of those sterilizations were carried out in the Indiana State Reformatory by one man, Dr. Harry Sharp. It was Dr. Sharp who is credited with performing the very first vasectomy in the United States and the procedure has changed little since he created it in 1899.
The idea of Eugenics as the sterilization of prisoners somehow softens the practice to the ears of most people. After all, these guys weren’t in jail for singing too loud in the choir. However, consider that the public face of the Eugenics movement in Indiana was known as the “Better Babies” program and the stage set for the Hoosier experiment was none other than the Indiana State Fair.

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Eugenics Medical Certificate from the late-1920s.

The eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, dating from the 1880s. Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species could direct its own evolution. Eugenicists tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation (race mixing) laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral”. The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, cereal magnate J.H. Kellogg , and the Harriman railroad fortune.
By the turn-of-the-century, Eugenics was quickly accepted by the U.S. academic community and by 1928 there were 376 separate university Eugenics study courses in many of the nation’s leading schools, enrolling over 20,000 students. By 1910, there was a large network of scientists and educators engaged in national eugenics projects while actively promoting eugenic legislation. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded” from marrying. The state of California led the way in the eugenics movement in America by performing an estimated 20,000 sterilizations, or one third of the 60,000 nationwide from 1909 up until the 1960s.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

In 1906, the American Breeder’s Association became the first official eugenic body in the U.S. The “ABA”, as it was known, was formed specifically to “investigate and report on heredity in the human race, and emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” Membership included Alexander Graham Bell, California pioneer Luther Burbank and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, a former Irvington resident and graduate of Butler College who would ascend to the Presidency of Indiana University (1884-1891) before moving on to become the first President of California’s Stanford University (1891-1913). When Jordan assumed his post at I.U., he became the nation’s youngest university President at age 34. The California connection cannot be understated for it was at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that Eugenics was formally introduced to the world.
better_baby contest KentuckyOver 19 million people attended this “West Coast World’s Fair Exposition” during 10 months from February 20 to December 4, 1915. The fair was devoted to extolling the virtues of a rapidly progressing nation, with particular emphasis devoted to new developments in science, agriculture, manufacturing and technology. The display generating the most interest among fairgoers was devoted to medical developments concerning health and disease, particularly theories on race betterment or, the promotion of eugenic studies. Expo promoters noted the interest of excited visitors and soon, Eugenics, billed as the advancement of civilization, became the main theme of the fair.
The “Immigration Restriction League” was the first American entity associated officially with eugenics. Founded in 1894 by three Harvard University graduates, the League sought to bar what it considered inferior races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock (upper class Northerners of Anglo-Saxon heritage). They felt that social and sexual involvement with these less-evolved and less-civilized races would pose a biological threat to the American population. The League lobbied for a literacy test for immigrants, based on the belief that literacy rates were low among “inferior races”.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

The League allied themselves with the American Breeder’s Association to gain influence and soon were using their money to find immigrants from specific ethnic groups and deport, confine, or forcibly sterilize them. In 1907 Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty U.S. states would soon follow their lead. Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, some states continued to sterilize those deemed to be “imbeciles” for much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those it thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A 1927 Fortune magazine poll found that two thirds of respondents supported eugenic sterilization of “mental defectives”, 63% supported sterilization of criminals, and only 15% opposed both.
Although looking back on it, the notion of engineering a superior race seems misplaced when applied to the image most identified with the United States today, in the decades between the world wars America seemed to be obsessed with the idea. One of the most commonly suggested methods to get rid of “inferior” populations was euthanasia. A 1911 Carnegie Institute report mentioned euthanasia as one of its recommended “solutions” to the problem of cleansing society of unfit genetic attributes. The most commonly suggested method was to set up local gas chambers. Yes, gas chambers. However, calmer heads in the eugenics field realized that Americans were not ready for a large-scale euthanasia program, so many doctors found more subtle methods of implementing eugenic euthanasia inside the walls of state run medical institutions. For example, a mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk infected with tuberculosis (reasoning that genetically fit individuals would survive), resulting in 30-40% annual death rates. However, the most common form of medical assisted eugenicide was simple, lethal neglect.
Eugenics for the populace was introduced on a large scale when Mary deGormo, a former teacher, married ideas about health and intelligence standards with competitions at state fairs, in what she called “better baby” contests. She developed her first “Scientific Baby Contest” for the 1908 Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. She billed these contests as a contribution to the “social efficiency” movement, which was advocating for the standardization of all aspects of American life as a means of increasing efficiency. deGarmo was assisted by the pediatrician Dr. Jacob Bodenheimer, who helped her develop grading sheets for contestants; combining physical measurements with standardized measurements of intelligence. Scoring was based on a deduction system (think golf scoring), in that every child started at 1000 points with points deducted for every physical measurement that fell below a designated average. The child with the least defections was awarded the most points, resulting in the most ideal, or perfect, baby. Ah, Lord of the Flies at the State Fair!

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

Soon, these “better babies” contests were expanded to include the entire family in “Fitter Family competitions” combining the ideas behind positive eugenics for babies with a determinist concept of biology to come up with fitter family competitions. There were several different categories that families were judged in: Size of the family, overall attractiveness, and health of the family, all of which helped to determine the likelihood of having healthy children. At the time, it was believed that certain behavioral qualities were inherited from your parents. This led to the addition of several judging categories including: generosity, self-sacrificing, and quality of familial bonds. Additionally, there were negative features that were judged: selfishness, jealousy, suspiciousness, high temperedness, and cruelty. Feeblemindedness, alcoholism, deformities and paralysis in the family tree were “Zonks” sure to result in low scores.
Doctors and specialists from the community would offer their time to judge these competitions, which were originally sponsored by the Red Cross. The winners of these competitions were given Bronze Medals and trophies. The perks of entering into the contests were that the competitions provided a way for families to get a free health check up by a doctor as well as some of the pride and prestige that came from winning the competitions.

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German Eugenics poster. Translation: “the right choice spouses”

After the eugenics movement was well established in the United States, it spread to Germany. By 1933, California had subjected more people to forceful sterilization than all other U.S. states combined. Some historians surmise that the forced sterilization program engineered by the Nazis was partly inspired by California’s. Of course, in the hands of a mad man like Adolph Hitler, the Eugenics program was easily twisted into persecution of religion, and ultimately, the attempted genocide of an entire people. Who would ever believe that Eugenics could take root in the Hoosier heartland, and worse, at the State Fair?


Next week: Part II-Better Babies at the Indiana State Fair.

Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Dave Wilson & John Andretti: A Friendship.


Original publish date:  May 18, 2017

Last week I traveled out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to catch up with an old friend. Most people know Dave Wilson from his many appearances on the Q-95 Bob & Tom show, others from his longtime gig as an Indy 500 radio man, and still more know him as “The King” of the Circle City stand-up comic scene. What most don’t know about Dave is his devotion to his hometown of Indianapolis.
Dave and his wife Peggy are now running the club room of the Speedway American Legion Post # 500 at 1926 Georgetown Road. The post is literally a stone’s throw from the track and, as you might guess, the interior is decked out in a black and white checkered flag design. “This will be my 51st Indy 500,” says Dave. “My dad brought me to this post for the first time even before I saw my first race.” Turns out that both Dave’s and Peggy’s fathers were high ranking members of Post 500. “In the past 5 years, we’ve lost 300 members to father time.” Dave continues. “We were really afraid that this post might not be able to continue.”

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Speedway American Legion Post # 500. 1926 Georgetown Rd, Indianapolis.

Now, with the Wilson’s steady management alongside the leadership of Post Commander John Hannon, the Speedway Legion Post 500 is on the upswing. “In the old days, if you didn’t get here by 5 o’clock on a Friday or Saturday night, you didn’t get a table.” Wilson says. “Those numbers fell way off in the in late 1990s-early 2000s, but we’re attracting younger members now and things are looking up.”
Wilson is a busy man during the month of May. Along with his daily management chores at Post 500, Dave reports from the Pits at the Speedway for the Bob & Tom Show. While race fans are accustomed to seeing Wilson on patrol in Gasoline Alley, Dave’s biggest impact may well be his work for the “Race for Riley” which celebrates its 21st year in 2017. Wilson started the charity go kart race back in 1995 with his longtime WIBC radio show host (and former Indianapolis Colt) Joe Staysniak and NASCAR / Indy Car driver John Andretti. The race is always held at the New Castle Motorsports Park the week before the Brickyard 400.
Wilson has known John Andretti since the late-1980s. Dave recalls that inaugural Race for Riley event, “John called into my radio show every Tuesday. At the time he was driving in the NASCAR series for Cale Yarborough Motorsports. Somehow we came up with the idea of a go-kart race for charity and we picked Riley Children’s Hospital as our beneficiary. We raised $ 36,000 for Riley that first year. As of this year, we are up over $ 4 million.”

John Andretti and Dave Wilson alongside Trix the Rabbit and Lucky.

Dave notes that while John Andretti has been the name draw for the Race for Riley over the years, Andretti does it all without the use of a foundation. What does that mean? Dave answers, “That means that all of the money raised goes directly to Riley. Since there is no foundation, there are no administrative fees and no overhead. Everything is donated.” As for the expenses involved in this 3 or 4 day event, “John pays most of those out of his own pocket.” states Wilson. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.” Wilson pauses for a moment to reflect about his friend of 30 years.
John Andretti has been in the news lately. On April 28th, Andretti revealed to the world that he is battling stage four colon cancer. The 54-year-old Andretti made 393 starts in NASCAR’s premier series from 1993-2010, scoring 13 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes. He also won four poles- at Darlington, Talladega, Atlanta and Phoenix. He made the last of his 10 Indy 500 starts in 2011, with a best finish of fifth in 1991. He has two NASCAR and one IndyCar wins in his career, and was last a full-time driver during the 2009 NASCAR season. Andretti, the nephew of famed racer Mario Andretti, is currently undergoing chemotherapy and will have surgery in June.
“At first, John wanted to keep his diagnosis private,” says Wilson. “But word got out and John decided he was going to use his personal battle to spur others to get themselves checked out for colon cancer.” The Andretti family has started using the hashtag #checkit4Andretti on social media to encourage people to take the easy test for colon cancer. Their goal is to keep other families from suffering their pains by getting a colonoscopy before it’s too late.
When asked how he feels about his friend’s prognosis, Wilson replies,”Well, if anybody can do it, John can. He’s tough. One of the toughest guys I know.” Wilson notes that Andretti is getting some good advise and counsel from NASCAR engine builder and team owner Robert Yates, who is himself battling stage 4-B cancer.

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Big Joe Staysniack, Dave Wislon & John Andretti.

Wilson relates how his friend John Andretti, who makes his home in North Carolina, would often drop into Riley Children’s hospital unannounced whenever he was in town. “After every race, we have a party in the lobby at Riley. John always goes upstairs to visit with those kids too sick to attend and he would spend hours up there. Do you remember the pro wrestler Bobby “The Brain” Heenan? I had him on my radio show once and I took him out to Riley to see the kids. He didn’t last 10 minutes.” says Wilson. That’s how dedicated John Andretti is.
The Andretti family has a rich history in our city. They are as much a part of our racing tradition as the Unser’s, the Bettenhausen’s, the Vukovich’s, the Foyt’s and the Hulman’s. We owe it to those racing families, just as much as our own, to go and get ourselves tested. Guys, if you are 50 years old or older, the time to get a colonoscopy is now. When you make your appointment, reach out to John Andretti on social media and let him know your date. Don’t tell him you’re thinking about it, give him the date. That will make John Andretti smile and it might just save your life.

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Pop Culture

Raggedy Ann and the Anti-Vaxxers.

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Original Publish date: August 16, 2015

The Tribeca Film Festival in New York City opens this weekend. Recently, news that Robert De Niro, co-founder of the festival, announced he was pulling an anti-vaxxer film came as a shocker to the medical and science community as much as it did for fans of the festival. The documentary, titled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Conspiracy, is directed by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who published a study in 1998 linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism.
De Niro, who himself has a child with autism, first zealously defended the choice of the film for the festival. The decision to pull the film has restarted the anti-vaxxer movement in a big way. What does anti-vaxxer mean, you ask? Strictly defined, an Anti-vaxxer is any person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child. Some believe, myself included, that the anti-vaxxer argument started right here in Irvington. And what’s more, that the first symbol for the anti-vaxxer movement is a beloved little doll that is as American as apple-pie: Raggedy Ann.

Johnny Gruelle.

Everyone is familiar with the cute little rag doll known as Raggedy Ann but most don’t know the real story about her creator or his inspiration. John Barton Gruelle was born on Christmas eve 1880 in Arcola, Illinois. A the age of two, he moved with his family to Indianapolis, where his painter father, Richard Gruelle, became associated with the Hoosier Group of painters, many of whom lived in Irvington. Undoubtedly, the elder Gruelle introduced his son Johnny to Irvington at an early age and he never forgot it.
Johnny married Myrtle J. Swann on March 23, 1901 and a little over a year later, 18-year-old Myrtle gave birth to a daughter, Marcella Delight Gruelle on August 18, 1902. Gruelle was working as an illustrator for the Indianapolis People newspaper and would soon leave to join the Indianapolis News. Around 1903, the couple had saved up enough money to buy a lot at 5630 Lowell Ave (early records show the address variously as “5606” and “5696”). The family would eventually build a 3-story home on the lot.
Johnny spent long hours at the drawing board, hurrying home each night to play with baby Marcella, whom he called Muggins. Popular legend claims that Raggedy Ann was born in suburban Indianapolis (Irvington perhaps?) when Marcella brought from her grandmother’s attic a long forgotten faceless rag doll upon which her father drew a face. The myth further states that Gruelle suggested that Marcella’s grandmother sew a shoe button for a missing eye. He then suggested naming the doll Raggedy Ann by combing the names of two James Whitcomb Riley poems, “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie”. The legend is further bolstered by the the knowledge that Poet Riley had been a close friend of the Gruelle family.

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The Original Raggedy Ann Doll from 1915.

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to Raggedy Ann is made all the more difficult because Gruelle was a prankster with a puckish sense of humor who was known for initiating many of these legends himself. What is known for sure is that Johnny Gruelle received US Patent D47789 for his Raggedy Ann doll on September 7, 1915. The character was introduced to the public in the 1918 book Raggedy Ann Stories based on tales that Gruelle drew from playtime episodes and stories shared with daughter Marcella. By this time, Gruelle had left Indianapolis for good and his beloved daughter Marcella was not there to share the stories she had inspired.
The year is 1915. America is marching towards World War I and smallpox is hot on its heels. Mass inoculation was the public response. It seemed that the easiest solution to the epidemic was to inoculate all public school children against the dreaded disease. Perhaps unbelievably nowadays, obtaining consent from the parents prior to inoculation was not necessary back then. Children were routinely inoculated at school, sometimes several times for the same disease without parents even knowing it.

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Marcella Gruelle and Raggedy Ann.

Marcella Gruelle was one of those young schoolchildren receiving a hypodermic smallpox inoculation at school. Almost immediately, she loses her appetite, becomes feverish and fatigued. Instead of notifying her parents, the school nurse administers another round of shots to little Miss Gruelle. Marcella’s health continues to decline and she quickly becomes bedridden. She loses her muscle control, “becoming listless and lifeless like a rag doll.”
Marcella dies a slow and painful death, every moment of which witnessed by her loving parents. After her death in November of 1915, seven leading physicians were called upon to opine about the cause of her death. Six of them determined that death was caused as the result of vaccine induced poisoning and call it malpractice. The seventh, being the head of the school board and a supporter of vaccination, declined to comment.
In spite of this, Marcella’s death certificate cited vascular heart disease of several years duration as the cause of death. The secondary (or contributory) cause was listed as oedema with a duration of about 90 days. Oedema is defined as a condition characterized by an excess of watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body. Nowhere on the certificate was a vaccination, or infected vaccination for that matter, listed as a cause of death. For the rest of their lives, Myrtle and Johnny Gruelle staunchly maintained that either a bad vaccination or a dirty needle had killed their daughter.

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Johnny Gruelle’s original Anti-Vaxxer letter and sketch from 1921.

Not long after his daughter’s death, the still grieving Gruelle was commissioned to create an illustration for an article in Physical Culture magazine titled “Vaccines Killed My Two Sisters.” The cartoon is a clever and effective work, reflective of Johnny’s style which is familiar to the readers of the magazine. Mr. Gruelle enclosed the following handwritten note along with his submitted illustration: “Feb. 28, 1921. Dear Mrs. Williams, Having recently lost our only daughter through Vaccination (in public school, without our consent) you may realize how terribly HUMOROUS the subject of vaccination appears to Mrs. Gruelle and myself. Of the seven physicians called in on the case, six pronounced it in emphatic terms MALPRACTICE. The seventh did not commit himself, being the head of the school board and a firm advocate of vaccination. Sincerely, Johnny Gruelle.”
The tragic vaccine-induced death of Marcella propelled Johnny to become a staunch member of the anti-vaccination movement of the time. Shortly after Marcella’s death, Johnny puts the finishing touches on a doll much different than the more popular, rigid, ceramic and composite dolls of the time. Rather than create a rigid doll that stands up straight with a healthy and happy glow, in a fitting tribute to his only daughter, he designs a soft cloth rag doll to represent her limp and dying body. Raggedy Ann is a stark contrast to the Era’s Kewpie doll’s erect posture and healthy demeanor.

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Modern day Raggedy Ann doll.

In 1920, Chicago department store giant, Marshall Field, markets the Raggedy Ann doll. It becomes an instant best seller and customers have no clue about the tragic inspiration behind it. To generations of consumers, Raggedy Ann is their colorful little friend with a candy heart. To the anti-vaxxers, Raggedy Ann symbolizes a century of childhood vaccine injuries and deaths.

Health & Medicine

Robert Rayford America’s First Aids Victim.

AIDS hiv-ribbonOriginal publish date:  May 12, 2014

45 years ago this week, May 16,1969, the face of modern medicine changed forever when 15-year-old Robert Rayford, sometimes identified as “Robert R.” due to his age, died in a St. Louis, Missouri hospital. He was a slender, uncommunicative street kid whose condition left doctors distressed, perplexed and…scared. Although no-one knew it at the time, Robert R’s was the earliest confirmed case of HIV/AIDS in North America. Rayford’s death was a mystery to doctors, who could not account for his symptoms. The true cause of his death remained unidentified until 1987.
Like the disease itself, this young man’s story is one of tragedy. He spent all fifteen or sixteen years of his life (some sources list his birth date as February 3, 1953 but no one knows for sure) in a poor African American ghetto in St. Louis. Of his enigmatic life, little else is known. Described by medical personnel as being “mildly retarded”, Bobby Rayford first checked himself into Barnes Hospital in St. Louis in the early Spring of 1968. His doctors were baffled by his symptoms. His swollen loins were covered with open, infected sores. He struggled while breathing, was razor thin and pale as a ghost.
Doctors suspected some form of cancer at first, but subsequent tests revealed the patient had herpes, genital warts, and a severe case of chlamydia. The infection spread, in the form of purple colored lesions, to his legs, causing a misdiagnosis of lymphedema, an infection of the lymph nodes. He said that he had been suffering from these symptoms for at least two years, or since he was about thirteen years old. When doctors suggested a routine rectal exam, Rayford steadfastly refused. The doctors, like most of America at that time, did not think to ask about homosexual contact. It wasn’t until later that the doctors noted in Robert’s medical charts that that he was likely gay and speculated that the young man refused the exam for fear of confirmational “evidence” being found therein.
When asked about his sexual history, Rayford became dodgy, at first calling himself “the stud of all time” and later claiming absolute celibacy. Still later he claimed to have had sex just once, “with a neighborhood girl,” and that he started to feel sick shortly after that encounter. Strangely, although doctors suspected that Robert was highly promiscuous, they never considered the possibility that he had been molested. All moral judgments aside, clinicians were helpless as they watched the teenager slowly waste away before their eyes from a disease they were unable to diagnose and powerless to treat. During his first months in the hospital, doctors tried everything they could think of to stop the spread of this mysterious malady. They cut back on his water and salt intake, administered drugs to promote water loss, wrapped and elevated his legs, all intended to reduce the swelling. Nothing worked, and the inflammation moved up his body and into his lungs. Finally they tried powerful antibiotics and were cheered in late 1968 when Rayford’s condition seemed to be stabilizing.
By March 1969 the patient’s symptoms returned with a vengeance and his condition steadily deteriorated. He had increased difficulty breathing, and his white blood cell count plummeted. The doctors determined that his immune system was shutting down. By all accounts, this uneducated street kid maintained his dignity in the face of inevitable demise. In the words of Dr. Memory Elvin-Lewis, who attended to him during his final days, “He barely said ‘boo.’ Finally, he developed a raging fever and at 11:20 pm on May 15, 1969 Robert Rayford died, never knowing of his place his history.
For lack of a more precise diagnosis, Robert’s death was attributed to loss of vitality, intractable fluid imbalance and lung disease. An autopsy revealed numerous other problems, including evidence of a rarely seen cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. In this case, “KS” manifested itself in the form of small purplish lesions discovered on Rayford’s left thigh and within his soft tissue. Doctors concluded that the lesions were Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer most often found in elderly men of Mediterranean or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Today KS is taken as almost certain proof of AIDS, but in 1969, its significance was not understood.
For the next 18 years, doctors and researchers continued to search for a solution to the mystery of Bobby Rayford. So mystified were they that they saved samples of Robert’s tissues and blood for nearly two decades, hoping that future advances in medical science and technology would help them solve this puzzle. Finally in October of 1987 , the riddle of Robert R.’s illness was solved, and the answer was nothing short of astonishing. New tests of the dead boy’s preserved blood, brain and organ tissue samples led to a grim conclusion: Robert R. almost certainly died of AIDS, making his the earliest case of the killer disease ever discovered in the United States.
However, as you may imagine, Bobby Rayford’s most awful claim to fame is not without controversy. Although a review of the case was eventually published in the medical journal “Lymphology” in 1973, many believe that the perceived immorality of the disease’s alleged contraction stifled the search for a cause, treatment and a cure. After the autopsy, blood and tissue samples were kept in cold storage at the University of Arizona but after the October 1987 revelation there was no further follow-up, in part because the samples disappeared.
Robert R’s case is the classic chicken or the egg argument. After all, his illness had to come from somewhere. Rayford said he never traveled outside the Midwest and had never received a blood transfusion. Since doctors concluded that Rayford’s AIDS infection was contracted through sexual contact, it must be presumed that AIDS was present in the US before Rayford’s symptoms arose in 1966. Rayford told doctors he had never visited big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, where the HIV-AIDS epidemic was first observed in the United States. The commonly accepted trajectory of HIV / Aids epidemic is Africa to Haiti to US to Europe and finally to the rest of the Americas. But Robert never left the region, much less the country.
Doctors, investigating the case in the early 1980s, speculated that Rayford may have been a male prostitute. That assumption was made when the medical community believed the progression from initial infection to the diagnosis of AIDS took only two and a half years. Ironically, researchers believe that it was precisely because the St. Louis gay population was small in number by comparison that enabled the Bobby Rayford strain of HIV / Aids to die out. Therefore, St. Louis did not become a hotbed of Aids activity.
The saddest aspect of this entire story is that all of this happened before anyone had ever heard the term “AIDS” (which stands for “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome” by the way). Robert Rayford has been described variously by history as mildly retarded, sexually promiscuous or as a male prostitute. I have yet to find any account, and believe me I have read many, that calls him a man. In his case, the medical community is operating under the same social mores society was slogging through in the Nixon years. Modern day scientists have found the same telltale “KS” evidence in African children as young as three years old. If we accept this scientific fact, could it be possible that Robert R. was born with it, rather than contracting it through nefarious means?
In one of his rare communicative moments, Rayford told the doctors that his grandfather “had the same symptoms.” This might suggest a congenital “immunodeficiency”, and that other factors may have exacerbated this problem rather than caused his illness and eventual death. So even if Robert were lying about his sexual history, there is little else to suggest that he contracted his KS lesions from gay sex. Instead, based on his statement about his grandfather’s similar symptoms, Robert’s lesions may well have developed from the inside outward.
There is one final theory about this first Aids case in America that I will put forth for all of those who love to sink their teeth into a good conspiracy theory. In the book “The River” a theory is advanced that Robert became vulnerable to the illnesses during the 1950’s when the Army Chemical Corps conducted open-air chemical warfare tests in American cities. These included thirty-five aerosol releases in and around St. Louis. Most of those tests were conducted in low-income neighborhoods, allegedly to minimize public resistance to such tests. One of those test areas was only half a block from the house in which Robert was born. These tests, conducted at the height of the Cold War, were explained away to local officials as being simple smoke screen experiments designed to shield US cities in the event of a Soviet attack.
Decades later it was revealed that those tests involved zinc cadmium sulfide, a mixture of zinc sulfide and cadmium sulfide. It’s frequently referred to as a fluorescent particle because it glows in ultraviolet light. This quality makes it easy to trace for efficacy after the fact. However, cadmium is a highly toxic metal that is even more pernicious when spread through the air. Because the kidneys absorb it quickly, it is commonly associated with kidney failure, leads to cirrhosis of the liver and causes severe damage to the lungs and body cavities. All of these conditions were noted in Robert R’s report. Also, the effects can be passed by a mother to her fetus, so it’s entirely possible that Robert may have developed the seeds of his illness while still in the womb.
We’ll most likely never know the whole truth about the death of Robert Rayford. In part because we weren’t looking for the answers in the Aids context we’re so familiar with today. We are content to label him as the first victim of a terrible epidemic that ran unchecked through our nation during the Moral Majority driven Reagan Revolution. Most of the knowledge gained about Aids in the two decades between Robert Rayford’s death and ultimate diagnosis came from research and development, not from doctors and hospitals, but from the victims themselves. We Americans owe a great debt of gratitude for our understanding of this dread disease to those who have suffered, and often died, while searching for a cure. Robert Rayford, a mere medical footnote in history, among them.