Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part II

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Alan E. Hunter on the last Indianapolis Street Car, Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Original publish date:  July 23, 2018

At 11:59 pm on Thursday July 12, 2018, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville, Indiana ceased to exist when the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office swarmed the grounds at Forest Park and sealed the property. The closing, although known by all parties involved, still came as a shock to the system for the dedicated volunteers working furiously to save the engines, railcars and equipment they have so lovingly cared for over the past half-century. Even though everyone knew it was coming, no one really expected it to happen.
As an intensely interested (but uninvested) observer of what happened that week after Independence Day, I immediately recognized the politics involved on both sides. There can be no doubt there were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Like all parties involved, I have my own opinion. However, I am neither a train-guy nor an investigative journalist. I have a background in historic preservation, particularly when it comes to my birth state of Indiana, and I write about Hoosier history. I don’t think it’s my place to take sides in this debate. What’s done is done, what’s right is right and in the words of Buffalo Springfield, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
From the moment that I walked into that chaotic scene one week before it’s closing, I was struck by the dedication of the people working on those trains. Whether talking about on-site volunteers from the ITM or those from neighboring rail museums, one thing was clear from the start, when it comes to trains, these people are passionate about preservation. The people I’m talking about don’t have PhD’s, don’t serve on boards of directors and don’t give a damn about self-promotion or the politics involved. They love trains, period. So when I heard the news of the ITM’s closing, I felt it would be best to honor these folks rather than add to the chatter of discontent.

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The last Indianapolis Street Car. Photo by Kris Branch.

In part one of this article, I detailed the quest that brought me to the ITM in the first place: the search for the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. I had been tipped off to the car’s presence at ITM by Meg Purnsley, friend and dedicated Indianapolis preservationist. My first inquiries about the fate of car # 153 were met with puzzled looks on the greased streaked faces of the first few people I encountered. Finally I was directed to the trolley barn just east of the Hobbs station depot where I found Craig Presler hovering over a couple wooden trolley cars located there. As it turned out, locating Craig was my first good find of the day, but certainly not my last.
When I asked Craig about the fate of Indy streetcar 1-5-3, he answered, “Well I can take you to where it was but it was crushed some time ago.” What? I was gobsmacked by the news and immediately sick to my stomach. Thank goodness my wife Rhonda was there to prop me up else I may have fainted dead away on the spot. Craig walked us a couple hundred yards past another trolley barn and pointed to a train car parked near the tree line. “The car you’re looking for was located right behind this one,” said Craig. “But it was crushed some time ago.” I’m no Indiana Jones, but as I looked into the trees several yards past the wood line, I saw the gleam of a window. “What’s that? Is that it?” I asked Craig. Then, time slowed down like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie as Craig said, “Maybe, I guess it didn’t get crushed after all.”
In a flash, Rhonda and I found ourselves blazing a trail through the thick overgrowth towards that window. With each step, the shadowy silhouette of car 153 emerged from the wilderness. It was in pretty bad shape, but it was there. Knowing that time was not on my side, my every thought went to getting this car out of these woods before it was too late. As I said before, I am not a train guy and have no idea what it would take to get this relic out of these woods. Craig assured me that it could be done and pledged to help in any way that he could. Meantime, the hour was getting late and I needed to try and find a home for this historic streetcar. I arranged to meet Craig the next day to talk more about saving the car.
Once home, I fired up the lines of communication to anyone I thought might be able to help save this car. I updated former Indiana National Road Association Presidents Meg Purnsley and Ron Sanders on the dire situation. Both assured me that INRA might be a suitable home. I contacted Stevi Stoesz Kersh, Executive Director of Indianapolis City Market, who enlisted her help and counsel. I even contacted Dale Harkins of the Irving theater for his advice. The Facebook community chimed in with concern and caring comments. The support was there, no doubt, but we were running out of time.
The next day Rhonda & I returned to the ITM. Once again I sought out Craig Presler. As detailed in part one of ths story, Craig directed me towards Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum and William Whitmer of the “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” who met us at the car in the woods. Both agreed that the car could (and should) be saved. The only question was, how could we do it?

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Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

We spent the rest of that second day walking and talking with Craig Presler. Although my focus was on the last surviving Indy streetcar and how to save it, I could plainly see that news of the museum’s closing was devastating Craig. Turns out Craig Presler’s history with the ITM is nearly as old as the museum itself. He came to Noblesville in the early 1970s and worked at Firestone for over three decades while volunteering his time to the ITM on nights and weekends. He lives within walking distance of the museum and when he retired last year he made plans to devote the lion’s share of his time guiding visitors through the train cars at the ITM. In particular the lavish railcar known as “The Flagler Car.”

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Craig Presler inside the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.

Craig Presler knows every square inch of Henry Flagler’s 1898 private railcar. The name Flagler is familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting St. Augustine Florida but really, Flagler is second only to Walt Disney when it comes to the state of Florida’s prominence as a tourist mecca. Henry Morrison Flagler (January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was a founder of Standard Oil and an early partner of John D Rockefeller in Ohio. He almost singlehandedly developed the Atlantic coast of Florida and he founded Florida’s East Coast Railway. Today, he is known as the father of Miami and Palm Beach, Florida.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Holman bought this car for his wife’s birthday in 1968 and in turn we got it several years ago,” says Craig. “The wood is all Canarium which is a blonde mahogany native to the Canary Islands. Henry Flagler pretty

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Tim Poynter inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

much owned the whole east coast of Florida and he told the builders of the car that he wanted it to look sunny like Florida. The rail line continued to operate the car until about 1951 – 52 when it was purchased by a man from Anderson named Ike Duffy who managed a meatpacking plant but who, more importantly, is remembered today as a founding father of the NBA. He started one of the inaugural franchises known as the Anderson Packers. Ike use the train to promote his business and rode it around to all his meatpacking plants in Noblesville, Lebanon, Anderson, Muncie and Brazil. He would serve his employees lunch that he actually cooked in the kitchen of this car. When Ike Duffy died in 1968, Tony Hulman bought it. I’m told that he took it to Chicago twice and that Mrs. Hulman never rode in it.”

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Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

Craig delighted showing visitors (like us) all of the secret compartments and high-end accouterments that were found all over the Flagler car. It had self-closing windows, drawers and beds all over the place. Zinc lined compartments to hold and chill champagne bottles and the finest blinds, carpeting, curtains and Persian rug styled monogrammed blankets money could buy. It was easy to see that this car was a large part of Craig Presler’s life. When I asked him what would become of the car after the museum closed, he said, “I’m told the car is being moved to our affiliate in Logansport and that I will be able to go up on the weekends and continue to give tours.”
As Rhonda and I exited the the railcar following Craig’s impromptu tour, two officials I had been talking to previously about the ITM’s closure pulled me aside and informed me that while we were touring the car, it had been sold. It was going to be moved to a museum in Monon Indiana some 90 miles away. They finished by saying, “Don’t tell Craig, he does not know yet.” Knowing how much Craig loved this car, I knew this was going to be devastating news. As we left that day we arranged to meet Craig the next morning.

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Craig Presler, Rhonda Hunter, Kris & Roger Branch & Alan E. Hunter  in the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter

We showed up on Saturday, but this time with reinforcements: Kris and Roger Branch, Tim Poynter and Steve Hunt. One way or another we were going to save this car. I noticed that Craig had a plastic bag hooked on his belt loop. It contained a spray can of adhesive and some specialty tools. Craig said he brought them to fix a small piece of woodwork in the Flagler car he had pointed out to us the day before. The damaged area was so small as to be indiscernible to anyone else but Craig. The sad part is that the sight of that bag made me realize instantly that no one had yet told Craig his beloved Flagler car had been sold. He insisted on showing the Flagler car to the new additions in our group. That was Craig’s last tour. (the Flagler car made it out at 11:45. It was the last train out before the gate were locked.)

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Tim Poynter in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

The realization was all the more ironic because the object of my quest, the dilapidated shell of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was moldering away in the woods not 20 yards away from that opulent Flagler car. Before I could ponder the dichotomy of the situation any further, I received a text message from William Whitmer telling me that the streetcar had been saved. We met at the streetcar and William delivered the good news.
William explained how he had stepped up and bought the car just in the nick of time. William had arrived at the streetcar, receipt in hand, just as the wrecker was creeping slowly towards it. “I couldn’t believe it,” William said, “I literally had to stand in front of the streetcar and wave my arms to get them to stop. They had been told the streetcar was scrap and that they were there to break it up. Five more minutes and the streetcar would have been crushed. The driver didn’t want to believe me until I showed him the receipt.”
William said that after our discussion the day before, “We did a very preliminary examination on the car body. The frame and car bolster (where the truck/wheels attach) is in solid shape. The actual structural steel is not too rotted. Side bracing is acceptable, and a lot of the upright steel frame is acceptable. The car is in overall better condition than we thought originally, making restoration far more likely.”
Then he shocked me by saying, “If it hadn’t been for you Al, this car would have been lost.” I was unprepared for that statement. Although humbled, I had to admit that it was not entirely my doing. First, I was there on a story for the Weekly View. Secondly, I was acting on a tip from Meg Purnsley. So without the paper and the heads up from Meg, this story would never have happened. And most importantly, without the quick action by William Whitmer and his Hoosier Heartland Trolley Group , the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar would have been lost forever. Will informs me that it may take up to 10 years to restore the car. He insists that he will keep us updated on the progress.
The streetcar has been saved but the museum is lost forever. While I no longer worry about the fate of the engines and cars, I do worry about the people. In particular my new friend Craig Presler. What is to become of him? His baby, the Flagler car, now resides nearly two hours away. The museum that was his passion is no more. The site will undoubtedly be plowed under and a swing set, waterpark or zip line will take its place in a year or so. All of the sabre rattling by the city of Noblesville about the ITM’s chemical hazards will be forgotten and no environmental cleanup will take place. Because none was needed. Another historical treasure lost to the temporal winds of political folly.
Luckily, William Whitmer assures me that his group has a place for Craig Presler and any other displaced ITM volunteer looking for a place to land. One thing can be sure, after the dust settles in the woods of Forest Park, much soul searching will be needed in the preservation community. In my opinion, it certainly smacks of just another backdoor “eminent domain” situation in Hamilton County. What I can say for sure is that I met many hardworking volunteers during the last days and hours of the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville. Their individual flames burned bright. Some were warmed by the flame. Others were burnt by it. And although the flame of the ITM has burned out, that of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar burns on.

 

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Back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
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The Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
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The washroom of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Bedroom in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Fireplace inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Interior of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.
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Hallway of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

 

Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part I

 

ITM train

Original publish date:  July 16, 2018

By the time you read this, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville will be gone. If you are a fan of trains, or a lover of history in general, no doubt you’ve been keeping tabs on the sad demise of this central Indiana institution. Reports of problems at the ITM have been circulating for quite some time now. Over two years ago, the port authority ordered the museum to halt one of its most popular excursions, the Indiana State Fair train from Noblesville to the fairgrounds, deeming the tracks unsound.
Before the issue could be addressed, Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced plans to remove a 9-mile section of the tracks and turn the rail bed into a walking trail. Soon after that, the port authority and the Noblesville Parks Board terminated its 50+ year lease agreement with the ITM at Forest Park. In early 2018, the City of Noblesville accused the ITM of contaminating the site. The city reportedly based their accusations on unfounded complaints about leaking oil drums, which turned out to be trash cans used by the Forest Park garage, not belonging to the ITM. By late June, the ITM had been given two weeks to vacate the property. The decision was signed off on by Mayor John Ditslear, who was the chief critic of the way the museum had maintained the property.
“The ITM has not shown good stewardship with the resources entrusted to them for more than fifty years,” Ditslear said in a statement. “The City of Noblesville is taking these proactive measures now to protect our residents and our heritage, to ensure Forest Park is cleaned up and to bring the trains back to our community with a new operator.” Former museum Chairman John McNichols claimed the move was part of a strategy by the city to bankrupt the museum and seize its equipment. It should be noted that McNichols resigned the day of my initial visit.

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Photo by Kris Branch.

I was contacted Friday morning July 6th by my former President Meg Purnsley, late of the Indiana National Road Association. I seved as Meg’s INRA Vice-President some time ago and we have kept in touch in the years since. Meg sent me a message informing me that the museum was closing and inventory was being liquidated, and in some cases, destroyed. A tragedy to be sure, but what made Meg’s message most disturbing was the revelation that the ITM was home to the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. Within minutes, I was in my car and on my way to the museum.
When I arrived at the ITM, located at the back of Forest Park, the site was a frenzy of activity. Paver bricks were being pried up in front of the Hobbs Station depot, the sign was being removed, massive cranes were crawling into position and workers in hardhats were scurrying about the grounds in a controlled panic. Workmen armed with acetylene torches and driving backhoes grimly stalked the yard. Everyone was doing something. The scene must have resembled a busy rail yard from the turn of the last century. Train cars of every type and era littered the rails like silent sentinels over last stand hill. In short, it was a sad sight. If there ever was a railroad triage, this was surely it.
Before we go any further, I think it is important to understand just what was lost here.The Indiana Transportation Museum dates back to 1960. It began as an all-volunteer effort to preserve the state’s history of railroads. The museum signed its first lease with the city of Noblesville on Jan.1,1965. The group operated over the former Nickel Plate Road line stretching over a distance of about 38-miles from Indianapolis and Tipton originally built for the Indianapolis and Peru Railroad. The rail line originally connected to the Norfolk Southern railroad in Tipton, the CSX railroad in Indianapolis, and the Belt Railroad owned by Eli Lilly and Company. The rail line operated as a freight railroad hauling coal to the Cicero power generating plant until 2003.

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Photo by Kris Branch.

Today it is the property of the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority which is owned by the cities of Fishers, Indianapolis, and Noblesville. Aside from the ITM’s excursion trips (State Fair train, corporate outings & the seasonal Polar Bear Express) they also ostensibly operated a working museum of engines, railcars and trolleys for interested tourists and school groups for decades. The ITM’s all-volunteer not-for-profit facility was dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the railroads of Indiana. The ITM’s charter was to inform and educate the public by operating trains to demonstrate how people traveled in the past. The ITM’s train yard stored around $3 million in equipment on site, tallying 100 pieces on it’s roles, including eight locomotives, innumerable box cars. historic tolleys and countless historical artifacts. About 30,000 people visit the museum each year.
The museum is home to many pieces of railroading history, with an emphasis on locomotives and equipment connected to the Nickel Plate Railroad. As of this date, the fate of many of those pieces remains uncertain. A number of pieces in the ITM collection have been cut up, as the museum struggles to obey a local circuit judge’s order to vacate the property by July 12. Technically, anything left on the site after that deadline is considered abandoned and, according to the court order, would become the property of the city of Noblesville.

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The last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods. Photo by Kris Branch.

Knowing this, it can be easy to understand the depth of my concern for the streetcar that brought me here, the last survivor: Indianapolis Street Railway car # 153. During my visit, I was fortunate to run into Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum who generously shared his wealth of streetcar knowledge with me. It should be noted that the old car is in pretty rough shape. The seats are gone, as are the wheels, doors, steering wheel, many of the windows and just about anything else that would make it track worthy. But the shell is there and it is easy to see the ghost of the old trolley hidden in the leafy environs of Forest Park.
Thankfully, the roof of the streetcar was tarped by some forward-thinking ITM volunteer, undoubtedly saving what was left of the old trolley. I noticed what appeared to be two gas tanks, one on each side. Laddie corrects me by saying, “Those aren’t gas tanks, they’re sand tanks. The conductor could release sand onto the rails for traction when needed. After all, it was an electric streetcar.” Did I mention I’m a preservation minded amateur historian, not a train guy? Laddie crawls under the trolley and slaps his hand on a massive steel plate. “Plate’s solid, the wheels could still attach here.” he says.
Laddie informs me that this was a Peter Witt design front entrance, center exit car made by the Brill Company out of Philadelphia in 1935. “This was a 600 roll PCC Dynamic Friction car, wooden tongue-in-groove and brass window sashes. Very sturdy and very restorable.” he explains. In laymen’s terms that means it ran on 600 volts of electricity, using a dynamic friction brake system and the ceiling was made of intricate wood parquet fitted tightly together. Brass window sashes, I understood. “It could be saved.” said Laddie.
It should be noted that while the fate of this particular car is still in limbo, a number of important cars and locomotives have been saved. While perusing car 153, I was joined by William Whitmer, a longtime museum volunteer and dedicated train enthusiast, who understood the importance of saving this car. He explained that he and his group, “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” are already in the process of saving three other historic trolley cars in the museum’s collection.
William reports, “Cars # 429 and # 437 are both cars built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1925. They are both considered to be standard coach interurban cars. # 437 is known as the Marion and car # 429 is known as the Noblesville. # 81 is a car built by Jewett for the Indianapolis & Martinsville in 1902. Also a coach interurban.” William is not sure whether the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was built in 1932 or 1935 but confirms that is was built by Brill for the Indianapolis Street Railway. “If we find out that it was built in 1932, that would make it even more important historically.” Regardless, the importance of saving this particular car cannot be understated.
However, the crown jewel of the museum is the 1898 private railcar of Henry Morrison Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) #90. Fortunately, I had the good fortune to have Craig Presler as my tour guide for the Flagler car that day. I met Craig in the trolley barn where he introduced himself kindly, “That’s Presler, like Elvis with an r instead of a y.” he said. Craig knows as much about the ITM and these rail cars as anyone else on the property. Most importantly, Craig knows more about the Flagler car than anyone else at the ITM. And fortunately for you, Craig will tell us all about that car and the current situation at the ITM next week, in part two of this article.

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Photos of the interior of the last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods.

Photos by Kris Branch.

Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. John Scott Harrison-The Unquiet Corpse. Part II.

 

Grave robbers part II

Original publish date: August 5, 2011

Last week, I told you a little about the macabre grave robbing profession and subsequent black market medical cadaver trade that once flourished in our capital city. What most Hoosiers don’t know is that Indianapolis has a Presidential connection to the dark art of body snatching. Former Ohio Congressman John Scott Harrison (October 4, 1804 – May 25, 1878) is the only man in American History whose father and son both became President of the United States. A former United States Senator in his own right, John Scott Harrison’s father was our nation’s ninth President William Henry Harrison and his son Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States. Harrison was also the grandson of Benjamin Harrison V signer of the Declaration of Independence. Sadly, hardly anyone alive today has ever heard of John Scott Harrison or is aware of the story of his unquiet corpse.

 

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Death of President William Henry Harrison.

On May 25th, 1878 John Scott Harrison died suddenly at his Point Farm estate located near North Bend, Ohio, about 16 miles west of Cincinnati. He was 73 years old. Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church in Cleves, Ohio on May 29th. His body was interred in the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial in North Bend with his parents and other family members. The Harrison family plot was located on a hill in the Congress Green Cemetery that featured a commanding, panoramic view of the Ohio River Valley below.

The bereaved family filed past the open coffin to cast a last glance upon the man who had so frequently and so successfully influenced their lives. Among them was his highly successful lawyer / US Senate candidate son from Indianapolis Benjamin Harrison, who was already at the helm of the State’s Republican party and just 19 years away from becoming President.

But far from resting in peace, his corpse became the central figure in one of the most widely heralded and distressing examples of grave-robbery in the history of the United States. During Senator Harrison’s memorial service, as the funeral party walked to John Scott’s grave they could not help but notice that the nearby grave of 23-year-old Augustus Devin, a nephew of Benjamin Harrison who had died suddenly and been buried there just a week before, had been disturbed. Though placed in his grave only the Saturday before, it appeared that young Devin’s grave had been robbed by body snatchers. At first, family members thought that wild hogs had been at work uprooting the earth. However upon closer examination, it was revealed that indeed there had been a theft of the corpse.

z McConnellJGraverobThe first order of business was to hide the fact from Devin’s widowed mother until the body could be recovered, and the second was to take precautions for safeguarding John Scott Harrison’s remains. Benjamin Harrison and his younger brother John carefully supervised the lowering of his father’s body into an eight-foot-long grave. At the bottom, they placed the state-of-the-art metallic casket into a secure brick vault with thick walls and a solid stone bottom. Three flat stones, eight or more inches thick were procured for a cover. With great difficulty the stones were lowered over the casket, the largest at the upper end and the two smaller slabs crosswise at the foot. All three of these slabs were carefully cemented together. The brothers waited patiently beside the open hole for several hours as the cement dried. Finally, with their father’s remains still under guard, a massive amount of dirt was shoveled into the hole and the brothers departed secure in the notion that their father would rest in peace for all eternity.

Benjamin Harrison took a train back to Indianapolis late that day so that he might have a few days to finish his address which would open the Republican State Convention on Wednesday, June 5th. The Harrison family saw Benjamin and his wife off at the depot and then all returned to North Bend except for the younger brother John. He remained in Cincinnati in order that he might begin a search in the morning for Augustus Devin’s body.

In the morning, John Harrison, his cousin George Eaton, and a couple of Cincinnati policemen began their search at the Ohio Medical College on 6th Street between Vine and Race on the city’s south side. It was common knowledge that “Resurrectionists” (the name the public gave to grave robbers) were in collusion with the medical school and routinely supplied research cadavers. A close search of the college was begun led by an obnoxious protesting janitor named A.Q. Marshall who toured the group around the building assuring them that they would find no bodies there. Thrusting their lantern into every dark corner of the building, true to the cranky janitor’s predictions, they found no trace of any body. As they were preparing to exit, one of the policemen noticed a rope stretched tight into a darkened well hole. Immediately he began to haul it up and it soon became evident that there was a heavy weight attached to the end of the rope. The tug-of-war continued until at last there emerged from the darkness a lifeless body with a cloth covering the head and shoulders of what was obviously the body of a very old man.

z grave_robbingJohn Harrison shrugged off the discovery knowing that his cousin Augustus Devin, the subject of their search, was a very young man. Still, the body was lain flat on the floor and the cloth was cast aside with the aid of a nearby stick. As the dead man’s face was revealed, John Harrison gasped in horror that the dead body was none other than that of his father, John Scott Harrison.

The terrible sight sickened him physically and tortured him emotionally. He had came looking for a widow’s son, and found instead the corpse of his own father, whom he had personally entombed less than twenty-four hours before. The scene was surreal, his illustrious father’s body hung by a rope around his neck swaying back-and-forth in a black hole in the Medical College of Ohio right in downtown Cincinnati. In his daze the youngest of the Harrison’s thought only of the family and how, above all else, this must be kept secret.

Secrecy proved impossible, then as now, when an event like this took place, word was bound to get out. A Cincinnati Commercial newspaper reporter heard the story from the members of the fire department located next to the medical college. The reporter tracked down Harrison, Eaton, and the two policemen, but they weren’t talking. The undertakers had been sworn to silence and would not even admit that a corpse had been discovered. However, before long the news leaked out from three relatives from North Bend who had visited the Harrison tomb and found that the grave had been disturbed. Apparently, the ghouls had broken the glass seal and unceremoniously dragged the body from the box out feet first.

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Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison had just arrived in Indianapolis when he was urgently called back to Cincinnati. Before “Lil’ Ben” arrived, his brother Carter swore out a warrant for the arrest of A.Q. Marshall the surly janitor at the Ohio Medical College. The janitor was arrested on the charge of receiving, concealing, and secreting John Scott Harrison’s body which had been unlawfully and maliciously removed from its grave. The medical school posted the $5,000.00 bond for the janitor’s release, andering the citizens of Cincinnati even more. Things went from bad to worse when the Medical College took the position that the adverse attention was hurting the school’s chances of obtaining additional cadavers for dissection. All of which made fantastic headlines for the local press.

Reports of the horrific crime brought out curious crowds who milled about the alley behind the medical school hoping to peer into the macabre cadaver chute. Local reporters interviewed as many people as possible quickly fueling the hysteria among Queen City citizens who wondered, “If this can happen to such an illustrious hero as John Scott Harriosn, what is to become of our loved ones?

Above all else, what became of Augustis Devin’s body? That question would go unanswered for another three weeks. On June 14th a janitor from the nearby Miami Medical School confessed that a notorious resurrectionist named Charles Morton (alias Dr. Gabriel, alias Dr. Morton, alias Dr. Christian, and alias Dr. Gordon) had bribed him to use the medical building basement as headquarters for preparing and shipping bodies to nearby cities. It was an excellent hiding place, for except for two hours each day, no member of the faculty was ever near the school. This veil of secrecy allowed Dr. Morton to work unmolested for nearly a month and in that time Augustus Devin and John Scott Harrison were two of his victims. The janitor’s confession basically indicted the entire medical profession across the United States.

The janitor revealed that most of the misappropriated bodies were shipped from Cincinnati to the Medical College at Ann Arbor, Michigan in barrels reading: “Quimby and Co.” The police left for Ann Arbor immediately and found a vat of brine containing several bodies already prepared for use in the fall and winter school sessions. Soon, the police identified one of the cadaver’s as that of Augustus Devin and a telegram was sent immediately to the family in North Bend. Young Devin’s remains were sent home and the body was reburied. The Harrison’s, including Benjamin, were counted among the one hundred and fifty prominent citizens assembled to pay final tribute to young Devin four weeks to the day after it was buried the first time.

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Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes (far left)

In December, 1879 the body of John Scott Harrison was reburied without fanfare in the Harrison family tomb where he rests peacefully to this very day. Benjamin Harrison never publicly spoke of the incident. However, an interesting footnote to the story with yet another tie-in to Irvington? Remember those bodies packed in pickle barrels from “Quimby & Co.” sent to the University of Michigan Medical School mentioned earlier? One of those Michigan students who undoubtedly participated in the dissection of those wayward cadavers was non-other than Herman Webster Mudgett, a graduate of the school in 1873. You might know Mudgett better by his alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

Creepy history, Criminals, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. Part I.

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Original publish date:  July 29, 2011

I speak often about America’s first serial killer, the evil Dr. H.H.Holmes, and his demonic doings in 1894 Irvington including his habit of selling the cadavers of his victims to Chicago area universities for $ 75.00 each. Today, these stories elicit gasps and disbelief from all who hear them. However, there was a time when grave robbing in our capital city was a very real threat indeed.
The act of grave robbing was so common that perpetrators began to look upon themselves as businessmen providing a much needed service rather than the night creeping, gutter crawling slags of humanity that they truly were. Often these ghouls ruled the nightlife scene holding court in local bars and taverns while regaling customers with their tales of dread from the boneyards of our dear city, with no real fear of retribution, much less prosecution, for their dastardly deeds. After all, their skill and services were in demand by uber-educated medical school professors, upper-crust physicians and high-bred college students from all four corners of the city, no questions asked.

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University students working on a cadaver.

In January 1875, a reporter for the Indianapolis Herald newspaper interviewed one such ghoul for an article on grave robbing titled, “How the Business is Managed at Indianapolis. Twelve ‘Resurrectionists’ engaged in it.” Sadly, the name of the intrepid reporter is lost to history, but his words live on and are offered here as proof that this gruesome occupation did in fact exist. Here is the article as it appeared almost a century-and-a-half ago.
A reporter for the Indianapolis Herald recently fell in with a resurrectionist, or body snatcher, who relates the following story: “Yes, I know it’s a shameful business. But I have no longer any capacity for shame. This (holding up his glass) has done the business for me. It has made me what you see me. Once I was a reputable physician with a diploma from ——– College, and a fair practice, and now I am a body snatcher, sneaking through the graveyards by night, and spending the proceeds of grave robbery in low down thief kennels by day. You don’t often see me here. Hunger-hunger for whiskey brought me here tonight, because I am more apt to sponge a drink or two among such tipplers as you than I would be among ruffians of my own sort. As I said, I have no shame, but I know how low it is. I know that a man capable of grave robbing for gain is cutthroat enough at heart to do murder if he were not too cowardly. Why don’t I reform? That’s a good joke. I look like it don’t I? I tell you it’s impossible. There’s no retreat for me. The only road open to me is in front, and it ends in hell. Another drink …..and a big one, to settle these grinning devils that have been dancing around me all night, and I will tell you all about the business. As the season is over and Dr.——– has promised to buy me a ticket to Memphis, I don’t care.”

HOW STIFFS ARE RAISED: “A ressurectionist’s kit is not very expensive, sir. All he needsz Grave_Robber is a rope with a hook at one end, a short crowbar, and a spade and a pick. He generally has a “pard,” as it is easier to hunt in couples. He is notified of the “plant” (body), and by personal inspection makes himself familiar with all the surroundings, before the attempt is made. The pick and spade remove the earth from the grave as far as the widest part of the coffin, and with the crowbar, the coffin is shattered, and the rope with the hook end fastened around the cadaver’s neck, when it is drawn out through the hole without disturbing the earth elsewhere. As soon as the cadaver is sacked, the earth replaced, and the grave made to look as near like it was as possible. There are some bunglers however, who have been guilty of leaving the grave open, with fragments of the cadaver’s clothing lying around. They are a disgrace to the profession, and have done much to foster an unfriendly public sentiment in this city.”
HOW A SALE IS NEGOTIATED: “No, there’s not as much difficulty in negotiating the sale of a stiff as you would imagine. The resurrectionist has no dealings with any member of the colleges. They are too smart for that. The janitor does the business. A wagon with two men in it drives up in front of a college. Maybe the streets are full of people….maybe not. It makes no difference any way. The wagon barely stops a moment, and one man shoulders the sack containing the stiff and shoots into the college basement, and the wagon drives off. Police? (The resurrectionist here shook like a mass of jelly with inward chuckles.) Why, bless your simple soul, there is no more danger of being interrupted by the police than there is of me dying a sober man. The police on the college beats are friendly to science. They wouldn’t, for two dollars a stiff, make a row about it, you bet. So all the digger has to do is put a mask on his face and slip in to see the janitor, who is provided with funds, and shells out without being too particular about identification.”
THE NUMBER OF RESURRECTIONIST: “There are at least a dozen diggers engaged in anticipating the tooting of Gabriel’s horn in this city. Some of them are working for other cities. There is Mr. ——-, a tall man, with long, dark hair, seedy clothes, and a sinister expression of countenance. He’s a man of education, and has respectable connections in the city. What brought him to it? What brings us all to it? Whiskey, of course. He works with Mr. ——-, a lanky, long haired fellow, with rebel looking clothes, and long, light, lousy looking hair, mustache, and goatee. Yes, it was him that was kicked out of the boarding house for talking “stiff” at the table. Then there is the brother of a well-known doctor, and a doctor out in the country, and others too tedious to mention. Some of the students, too, raise their own stiffs as a matter of economics. Material is getting costlier every year.”
z Milwaukee-Journal-August-3-1903THE MOST FRUITFUL FIELDS: “The most of the stiffs are raised at Greenlawn cemetery (in Franklin, south of the city), at the Mt. Jackson cemetery (on the grounds of Central State hospital), and at the Poor Farm cemetery (Northwest of the city). So far as I know Crown Hill has never been troubled. Many of the village cemeteries in the neighboring counties are also visited, however, and made to contribute their quota to the cause of science. Some of these village cadavers are those of people who moved in the best society, and besides their value in material for dissection, are rich in jewelry, laces, velvets, etc. The hair of a female subject is alone worth $25. Nothing is wasted, you may be sure. Even the ornaments on the coffin lids are used again..”
SMART ALECKS: “There is a good joke on the Marion County Commissioners. You may remember that, on account of so many complaints against body snatchers, these Smart Alecks had a vault built, in which to deposit bodies, and put a padlock on the door. You may believe the resurrectionist didn’t stop long for a common padlock. It didn’t take long to get an impression with a piece of wax, and any darn fool can make a key that will unlock a padlock. And the vault business saves a heap of hard digging. Many a stiff has been cut up in our colleges without having been buried at all. I know of one case where it came pretty near making a rumpus, and there was lively skirmishing for a time, I tell you.”
FURTHUR (sic) PROSPECTS: “Allred? Him? Why he could not stop a worm. He is devoted to science, and if he wasn’t, all we’d have to do would be to get him a bottle of Rolling Mill rot gut, and he would neither see nor hear. Do you s’pose that there could have been so much resurrection in Greenlawn, right in the heart of the city almost, if somebody hadn’t been fixed? I don’t know. Do you?” (Allred was apparently the superindendent of Greenlawn cemetery)
A MEAN TRICK: “Now I’m goin’ to tell you about what I call a mean trick. A stiff had been raised out of grounds supposed to be the peculiar property of one of the colleges, and sold to another. It wasn’t much of a stiff, a poor, miserable, emaciated Negro, that didn’t weigh more’n ninety pounds……but it made the faculty of ——– college madder’n hornets to think that a stiff out of their ground had been sold to a rival college. You know they hate each other like pizen anyhow. Well, Tuesday night of this week they broke into the college vault and stole the stiff, and the next day a Professor of the rival college lectured over it. Go to the law about it? Not much. They know how to leave well enough alone. But they were not about it, you better believe. Goin’, are you? Well, good night. The chances are that we’ll never meet again, an there’s nothing doing here, and I want to get to a warmer climate. Good night, Sir.”
z PhotoDeskThe night was a graverobber’s best friend. He lived in it, worked in it, played in it and hid in it. Late at night, these ghouls would steal into cemeteries where a burial had just taken place. In general, fresh graves were best, since the earth had not yet settled and digging was easy work. Laying a sheet or tarp beside the grave, the dirt was shoveled on top of it so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Most body snatchers could remove the body in less time than it took most people to saddle a horse. They would carefully cover the telltale hole with dirt again, making sure the grave looked the same as it had before they came. Then hurriedly take the body away via the alleyways and sewers of the city, finally delivering the anonymous dearly departed to the back door of a medical school. In time, several of these ghouls began to furnish fresh corpses for sale by murdering the poor, homeless citizens of the city who once stood silent vigil in the alleys as the graverobbers crept past with their macabre cargo in tow.
Many tactics were employed to protect the bodies of relatives, mostly to no avail. Police were engaged to watch the burying grounds but were often bribed or made drunk. Spring guns, or “booby-traps” were set in the coffins but was an option available only to the wealthier citizens. Poorer families would leave items like a stone or a blade of grass or a shell at the head of the grave to show whether it had been tampered with or not. During this era, “Burglar proof grave vaults made of steel” were sold with the promise that loved ones’ remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.” Despite these efforts, body snatchers persisted.
Grave robbers part IIn the late 1800s in Indiana, it has been estimated that between 80 to 120 bodies each year were purchased from grave robbers to be used for medical instruction at medical schools and teaching facilities in Indianapolis. An end to the “big business” of grave robbing came as a result of twentieth-century legislation in Indiana which allowed individuals to donate their bodies for this purpose. In 1903, the Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation that created the state anatomical board that was empowered to receive unclaimed bodies from throughout the state and distribute them to medical schools. The act was “for the promotion of anatomical science and to prevent grave desecration.”
Before that landmark 1903 legislation, Indiana medical schools had access to only one type of corpse for dissection — the bodies of executed criminals, which provided a fairly small pool of available subjects. Only 9 people were executed in Indiana from 1897 to 1903, not nearly enough to supply the medical schools of the city. Strangely, there were 41 lynchings over the same period (26 whites and 15 blacks). As the number of medical students in Indiana grew, the demand for bodies for dissection became greater. As there were simply not enough bodies legally available, medical schools resorted to back door arrangements with resurrectionists. Occasionally, the grave robber was a doctor, teacher or medical student. For the most part, the medical community wrestled with the morality issues surrounding the procurement of corpses for dissection purposes, but it cannot be denied that the practice yielded dividends. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States led the world in advances made by anatomical studies through the use of the cadaver appropriation system.
By the way, on special occasions during the Irvington ghost tours, I sometimes bring along a battered, faded sepia-toned cabinet photo from the 1880s. In this photo, several University of Michigan medical students are posed standing around an emaciated, nearly naked corpse splayed out on a wooden table. The students pose somberly for the camera but one of them, a handsome derby hat wearing young man with a large walrus style mustache, stands with one hand behind his back and the other with fingers resting on the table surface near a pocket knife that he has obviously just pulled from his pocket. His expression seems to say, “Hurry up and snap that photo so I can cut into this body.” The subject, Michigan medical student Herman Mudget, better known as H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.
Next week: An Indiana body snatching connection to the United States Presidency and Irvington.

Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART II

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Original publish date:  August 18, 2009

On April 14, 1943- Four Alcatraz prisoners, Indianapolis bankrobber James Boarman, Harold Brest (a kidnapper serving life plus 50 years), Floyd Hamilton (Bonnie & Clyde gang member), and Fred Hunter (partner of Alvin “Creepy” Karpis & member of Ma Barker’s gang) took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water’s edge.
One of the overpowered guards, Henry “Bullethead” Weinhold wriggled free and began to blow his whistle. At that moment, tower officer Frank L. Johnson saw the men heading for the water and sounded the alarm. Within seconds, Johnson trained his powerful Springfield 30-06 rifle towards the water where he could see the bobbing heads of the escaping inmates through the fog. The shots from the powerful gun spattered the waters around the escapees with tiny geysers. Within 30 yards from shore, the first rain of bullets grazed Hamilton, who shuddered and sank beneath the choppy waves with the sounds of the island’s sirens wailing shrilly through the eerie fog.

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New Industries Building from which the Alcatraz inmates escaped.

Brest and Boarman were swimming side by side traveling swiftly stroke by stroke like two athletes in an Olympic race just a few hundred yards from shore when Boarman suddenly stopped. Brest reached out to assist his now silent friend as slowly, the water surrounding them began to turn a bright crimson red. Brest recalled that Boarman’s eyes were open but glazed over with saltwater and it was a struggle to maintain a grip on the sinking, silent form beside him. Brest managed to get hold of the dying man’s leather belt, which ironically had been Boarman’s own idea for the escapees to wear as an attachment device for the canisters, just as the Alcatraz Island boat appeared from the fog with guns of the on board officers aimed at Brest’s head. Instinctively, Brest loosened his grip in preparation for his eminent apprehension just as the belt snapped and James Boarman’s body sank slowly into the green waters of the bay. As the body turned over, Brest could plainly see the fatal bullet hole behind Boarman’s left ear. It would be the last time anyone would see James Boarman’s body, which presumably rests somewhere on the bottom of San Francisco Bay to this very day.
Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston announced to reporters; “Brest was nicked by a bullet before he was captured. Boarman is gone.” and continued with, “We’re positive that Hamilton is dead. He was shot, and we saw him go under.” The fourth escapee Hunter, shivering in his underwear, was discovered hiding in a cave located in the cliff wall so near the escape scene that it was filled with discarded tires from the prison mat shop. Hunter had injured his back and chest in his leap over the fence and his journey down the sheer cliff wall had cut his hands to pieces. He gave up trying to swim, entered the cave and covered himself with the floating tires to avoid discovery. “Guards took a boat to the entrance of the cave, where they found bloodstains on the entrance—as if someone had been leaning on the rocks for support,” the Warden said. “One of the guards called for Hunter to come out. He refused. Then the guard fired a pistol shot and Hunter came out. Both the recaptured men disclaim knowledge of leadership in the attempt. Each says he ‘just got in on it a couple of days ago. We will probably never find the bodies of the other two. Sometimes bodies come up in the bay after nine days, sometimes after 30 days—but usually they don’t come up at all.”

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Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston inspecting his officers.

However, the warden was hasty in his proclamation, for Hamilton wasn’t dead at all. During the frenzied shooting, the former Bonnie & Clyde cohort managed to swim to a small rock located about a hundred yards offshore known as “Little Alcatraz”. Here he caught his breath and swam back to shore underwater as bullets whizzed above his head, surfacing only briefly to gulp for air before continuing on his panicked journey. Hamilton ended up hiding in the same cave with Hunter, but did not surrender when the warning shot was fired into the cave. Hamilton would hide in the tires as the guards hauled Hunter out of the cave. He would remain there for three days dressed only in his underwear as the 58 degree waves crashed against his body. Hamilton recalled the most harrowing ordeal of his 3 day brush with freedom was battling the many aggressive crabs in the cave that constantly nibbled away at him whenever he tried to sleep. On April 16th, Hamilton crept back into the old electrical shop where, cold and weak from hunger; he curled up in a pile of rags and was found lying in a fetal position by old “Bullethead” himself who must’ve thought he was seeing a ghost.
z 7010813_1039845019What didn’t change was the fact that 24-year-old Indianapolis resident and “baby” of the Alcatraz escape outfit, James A. Boarman was dead, the victim of the prison guards’ gunfire. Ranger John Cantwell took me to the old Model Industries Building, now off limits to the public and home to the protected nesting California waterfowl that populate the island in summertime, to show me the approximate place of Boarman’s demise. Over his years of service, Cantwell has become an expert on Alcatraz escapes and the 34 men who attempted them. One former inmate, “Alcatraz from the Inside” author Jim Quillen, was a close friend of Cantwell’s. The dedicated park ranger did not miss the opportunity to ask Quillen about that 1943 escape. Quillen, a bank robber and kidnapper imprisoned on the island for ten years from 1942 to 1952, knew James Boarman.
Cantwell was aware of the official Alcatraz version told by tower gunner Frank Johnson, who claimed he was firing warning shots in front of the escapees and that Boarman “accidentally” swam into the fatal bullet. According to Cantwell, Quillen quickly dismissed this version saying that Boarman was a “good con” who didn’t deserve such a fate. Quillen, who died in 1998, remained convinced that Boarman was intentionally “murdered” by Johnson, claiming bluntly that the gunner “took the top of his head off…that was no warning shot”. If you read Quillen’s book, it’s easy to understand his motivation in sticking up for his fellow con, for Jim Quillen’s life story might as well be Jim Boarman’s life story. A couple of Depression era kids who wandered into a life of crime as a means to survive until a line was crossed that sent both men to America’s own Devil’s Island known as “The Rock”. Boarman didn’t murder anyone, he was just a thief, a thief that paid his Alcatraz tab with his life.

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Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

Cantwell, who was a pall bearer at Jim Quillen’s funeral, wanted me to know that his friend had no disillusions about himself or his fellow inmates, recalling how Quillen often told him that “We were all young and we were all bad boys who didn’t know any better. We all deserved to be here.” But Quillen used the lesson of the ill fated breakout and death of his fellow con in part to turn his own life around, eventually becoming a good family man and successful medical technician in San Francisco after his release from Alcatraz. An opportunity Jimmy Boarman never got.
As I stood there with Ranger John Cantwell in front of the “Old Modern Industries Building” on Alcatraz Island, looking at the last site on earth that my fellow Hoosier, James Arnold Boarman ever gazed upon, I could not escape the overwhelming feeling that permeates this dilapidated old building now existing in a state of “arrested decay” as that of sheer hopelessness. The drop over the fence is treacherous, the face of the cliff is steep and foreboding, the waters of the bay crash and swirl in whirlwind fashion and the land across the bay is forever away. What would it take to cause a man to attempt such a foolish escape? Hopefully, none of us will ever know.

Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART I

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Indiana Alcatraz inmate James A. Boarman

Original publish date:  August 11, 2009

I first ran this article in 2009 on the 75th anniversary of an Alcatraz escape attempt by a desperate inmate with ties to fountain square. I thought it might be worth another read. Next week will mark the 84 years since the escape escape attempt. Since the time of my visit, the Island has changed much. The area where the escape attempt occurred, closed to the public back then, is now open to visitors.

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Alcatraz Prison and lighthouse.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened on August 11, 1934, exactly 75 years ago last week. I visited “The Rock” last Tuesday morning for an exclusive “Behind the Scenes” tour led by arguably the most famous face on the island, Emmy award winning park ranger John Cantwell. If you’ve ever seen a television program on the subject of Alcatraz, Cantwell’s face should be very familiar as he’s appeared in nearly every taped segment made on the island over the last dozen or so years. A Wisconsin native, Cantwell has worked for the National Park Service for almost 20 years having started as a clerk in the Alcatraz book store while still in high school. During his tenure, he has befriended over two dozen former inmates, countless former island residents and more than a dozen former guards, several of whom were like family to Cantwell often staying with John and his wife in their home while visiting the island for reunions and book signings. Sadly, the ranks of these former alumni have dwindled drastically in the last few years to the point that during the official 75th reunion ceremonies, only 5 former inmates and 2 former guards were in attendance.

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Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

The subject of my visit was a young man by the name of James A. Boarman, an Indianapolis bank robber with eastside ties who served two and one half years on “The Rock” from 1940 to 1943. James Arnold Boarman was born on November 3, 1919 in Whalen, Kentucky, the sixth of eight children. His father was a carpenter who died of an accidental drowning when James was only seven years old. His mother moved her brood to Indianapolis where all 9 family members shared residence in a small apartment on the cities’ southeast side. Young Jimmy Boarman attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Fountain Square until dropping out at age 14 when he got a job as a gardener to help support the family. His mother recalled that he was a “good boy” who didn’t mind turning his earnings over to her to help support the impoverished family.
At the age of 16, Jimmy was arrested for stealing an automobile, placed on probation and released to the custody of his sickly mother. However, he quickly stole two more cars (one in Indianapolis and another in Oklahoma) and, with two accomplices, headed to California where the trio was quickly apprehended. Unbeknownst to James, with this crime, he had graduated from a small time car thief to an enemy of the Federal Government by transporting a stolen car across state lines. His mother traveled west to plead for mercy for her son to no avail as James was sentenced to three years in Federal Prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. Boarman quickly became involved in several escape attempts and was considered such a high flight risk that he was transferred to the more secure facility at Lewisburg less than a year after arriving in the Sooner state. Unrepentant, James continued to fight, plot escape and hoard weapons until his release right up to his release in Christmas of 1939.
James headed back to Indianapolis and tried to “go straight” by getting a job at the RCA plant on Sherman Avenue. A series of layoffs and rehires pushed Boarman back into a life of crime. James was later quoted as saying: “When I came out of Lewisburg, I intended to go straight. I got me a job and did go straight. I lost that job, and couldn’t find another one for hell. I tried to join the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps and didn’t get in, so I went and got me a gun and started robbin’.” A sympathetic parole officer attempted to help Boarman in his quest to join the military by contacting recruiters directly, but the armed forces representatives felt that James’ past criminal conduct made him an unsuitable prospect for military induction. In August of 1940, James began what would be his last crime spree by stealing a car a gunpoint from an Indianapolis auto dealer and robbing the “Fletcher Trust Company” bank of $ 12,812 in cash. He was quickly arrested in Frankfort, Ky. after drawing attention to himself by spending over $1,000 of the stolen cash on a new car, firearms and several suits of flashy clothing.
When questioned by police, Boarman proudly claimed that while in town, he had amused himself by holding up several gas stations, grocery stores and “two ladies in a parking lot.” His F.B.I. report describes James as a “vicious menace to society… a highly unstable and impulsive youth…quite proud of the fact that he committed the instant offense without the aid or advice of others…He is convinced that he is entirely capable of whipping the whole world.” Sentenced to 20 years in Federal prison, true to form, James would again attempt escape while enroute back to Lewisburg by violently kicking the back of the driver’s seat of the police car transporting him, causing the car to veer off the road into a ditch. James struggled in a vain attempt to wrest the revolver away from the officer earning instead a one way ticket to Alcatraz, arriving 2 days before Halloween of 1940.
Boarman was a “Con’s Con”, generally well liked by his fellow inmates and always on the lookout for a viable escape plan. Ironically, Boarman would hatch his plan for freedom in early 1943 while working in the Island’s mat shop manufacturing cement ballast blocks for submarine nets used by the military during the war, the very same military that denied him employment as a citizen before his incarceration. Boarman, along with three other inmates, Harold Brest, Fred Hunter and Floyd Hamilton, would plan their escape for April of 1943. Brest was a kidnapper and bank robber destined to serve two separate stretches on the rock, Hunter was a member of the Ma Barker / Creepy Karpis kidnapping and robbery gang who made it to the F.B.I.’s legendary “Public Enemy” list, and Hamilton was one of the most famous men on Alcatraz at the time, a bank robber intimately linked to the famed 1930s outlaw couple “Bonnie & Clyde” and former “Public Enemy # 1” on the F.B.I. most wanted list of 1938. The four inmates planned their escape carefully and by April fool’s day were ready to go. However, Hoosier James Boarman insisted that they wait until the time and conditions were perfect for them to “Do the Houdini” and escape.
z 1d0f1fbf-0205-3d74-354f283f1068d086-masterTuesday April 13, 1945 dawned unusually cold with a dense layer of fog blanketing Alcatraz Island. The four convicts walked nervously down the narrow gravel road that led from the cell house to the mat shop located in the old “Model Industries Building” on the far northwest corner of the island. The building was built by the U.S. Military in the years that Alcatraz served as a disciplinary barracks before the Federal prison arrived in 1934 and as such was filled with many hidden corners and blind angles, not to mention a design flaw that seemingly allowed the back corner walls to drop directly into San Francisco Bay. The inmates had previously cut through the steel mesh covering the windows in preparation for their big moment. At 10:00 am, they made their move.
One of the guards, Custodial Officer George Smith, was overpowered by Hamilton, quickly tied up, gagged and dragged into a back room just as the Captain of the Guards, Henry Weinhold, a former Marine that the inmates called “Bullethead”, rounded the corner. James Boarman, armed with a knife and a hammer, began to beat the massive officer repeatedly with the heavy carpenter’s tool until finally subduing and tying him up to join his fellow guard now lying helpless on the floor. The inmates pushed the metal bars off the window and placed a cloth covered wooden ramp over the barbed wire fence located just a few feet from the window. The fugitive foursome then scooted carefully across the makeshift bridge and dropped to the narrow ledge below. The desperadoes, clad only in their underwear and leather belts, miraculously escaped grave injury during their bare-footed 30-foot plunge down a sheer cliff to the rock-strewn shore below. The quartet brought with them two empty cans designed to keep them afloat in the bay, each stuffed with stolen Army uniforms with which they hoped to make good their escape. Keep in mind that 1943 was the height of World War II and the shores of San Francisco Bay were lined with Army units and defense gun crews as well as being a major debarkation point for U.S. soldiers heading off to war in the Pacific theatre. Armed with the false confidence of their makeshift flotation devices and oblivious to the fact that they were surrounded by enough guns to fill an armory, the quartet hit the water.

Hollywood, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

The Emperor Jones.

Emperor Jones poster

Original publish date:  September 9, 2011            Reissued: July 5, 2018

It was Wednesday night March 16, 1921, St. Patrick’s Day Eve, and Indianapolis was stretching the boundaries of the cultural heartland. That is, with the help of recent Pulitzer Prize winning playwrite Eugene O’Neill. The state and nation were in flux; World War II was still fresh in the hearts and minds of Americans (the United States officially declared peace with Germany in August of that year), newly minted President Warren G. Harding had been in office less than two weeks, and the Indiana Ku Klux Klan was officially chartered by the state. Worldwide, Adolph Hitler assumes leadership of the Nazi party, Albert Einstein wins the Nobel Prize in Physics, and 5 million people die in the Russian Famine brought on by the Russian Civil War.

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Original membership card from 1915-16 to The Little Theatre in Indianapolis.

Out of this atmosphere and into the footlights of the Little Theatre in Indianapolis stepped “The Emperor Jones”, an expressionist play by Eugene O’Neill featuring a controversial unlikable black protagonist in the lead role. The play tells the story of Brutus Jones, an African-American train porter who kills a man, is sentenced to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and cons his way to the Emperor’s throne. The story is told from the prospective of Jones himself in a series of eight acts that are written in flashback style and scripted in the vernacular of Jim Crow America in a decidedly unflattering colloquial tongue. So dominant is the lead character, that scenes two thru seven feature only Rufus Jones himself speaking in a rambling retrospective of his two year sojourn to the top.
The play had premiered off Broadway in 1920 and was so well received that it eventually had to be moved to a larger theatre on Broadway to accommodate demand. It was Eugene O’Neill’s first critical and financial success and is credited with launching the future Nobel Prize winner’s career. While there can be no doubt that Eugene O’Neill took daring chances with his plays that would ultimately change the face of American theatre, we must also tip our cap to the “Little Theatre” of Indianapolis for the risks assumed by staging this one-time performance.
“The Little Theatre Society” was founded in the Fall of 1915 to showcase productions by American and European authors / playwrites heretofore unable to garner recognition by mainstream producers. The Society was unique in that it had no theatre of its own. During the earliest years, plays were performed in the sculpture court of the John Herron Art Institute. Although beautiful, the acoustics were poor and the venue could only seat 200 guests. Soon, performances were soon moved to the Masonic Temple. The Temple was beautiful and could seat 1,000 guests, but the stage was shallow and there were no dressing rooms. Each member of the society paid a $ 5 annual membership fee which entitled them to 12 tickets for every performance. Members could use the tickets themselves or sell them to the public at an average cost of between twenty-five and fifty cents each.
According to the Society’s literature, their purpose is to: “encourage the production of new plays, plays which cannot be produced by commercial stage, either because of their content or lack of commercial possibility-in short, to encourage all community endeavor of an original character in the field of the theatre.” The Little Theatre Society was among the first to shine a spotlight on Hoosiers Theodore Dreiser and W.O. Bates. Other productions included George Bernard Shaw, Booth Tarkington, Jack London, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, and James Whitcomb Riley. And that was just in the Theatre’s first two years.
z 6b90f7f2801f80121cede26010e5597dWith the choice of O’Neill’s work, “The Emperor Jones”, the Society was taking an enormous risk if only for the fact that it required an elaborate stage for a one night performance. And then there was the Klan. The KKK was growing by leaps and bounds despite the fact that it had just been formally recognized in the state that same year. Soon, one third of the native male white born citizenry of the state would belong to the Klan. This was a play solely centered around a strong, murderous black man in a position of absolute authority in production in the principally white governed center of the WASP-ish Midwestern cornbelt.
On the contrary, in defiance of its cornbelt stereotype, the Little Theatre Society was chartered for just such bold experimentation and modeled after such avant-garde venues as the Moscow Art Theatre, the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, the Manchester Players in England and Théâtre Libre in Paris. Local critics, like Walter D. Hickman of the Indianapolis Times, applauded the company’s brave undertaking immediately: “Last night at the Masonic Temple, an Indianapolis audience witnessed for the first time a local presentation of The Emperor Jones. No legitimate theatre in Indianapolis would ever think of presenting this play…the title role was played by a local negro educator, Mr. Arthur T. Long…Mr. Long dominated every scene last night and gave to the role the great beauty of expressive inflection which the part demands. I forgot that a local man was playing the role and I surrendered myself to the grim tragedy which was unfolded on the Masonic stage. A grim tragedy told in a volcanic way.”
300px-Poster-The-Emperor-Jones-Marionettes-1937W. F. McDermott, drama editor of the Indianapolis News, wrote this about Long: “a colored actor, played the role of the emperor with several moments of great naturalness. He was able to portray the negro fear of “ha’nts” with unusual power.” But McDermott was less kind to the playwrite, “O’Neill writes darkly of brooding, inscrutable fate; of black and stormbound heights, of man, stripped savage and terrified; of man tragically at odds with his environment and foredoomed.”
However, it was the local black owned press that was perhaps hardest on the production, routinely denouncing O’Neill’s work for its stereotypes in the form of the backwards (certainly by today’s standard) dialog. Although groundbreaking when viewed within the context of the time, today, O’Neill’s so called “Negro plays” are seldom performed nowadays because of their perceived negative stereotypes. Much the same as Mark Twain’s historic works have been routinely revised and censured by modern day pundits. In truth, racial issues were never O’Neill’s focus. His aim was the human soul in its tragic destiny. His ultimate goal was to provide opportunities in mainstream theatre for talented black actors. Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, an actor whose “Romeo” character was described as the best ever, making him one of the countries first matinee idols. O’Neill was determined to revolutionize what he called the “hateful theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up.”
z the-emperor-jones-b2skuw13.znxPerhaps the most unusual feature of the Indianapolis production was the choice of the lead actor chosen to portray Brutus Jones. Arthur Theodore Long was born on December 31, 1884, the son of Henry and Nattie (Buckner) Long in Morrillton, Arkansas. According to the 6th edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America (1941-1944)”, Long graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. He entered the University of Illinois at age twenty and earned a BA degree in 1908. Arthur then went on to further his education at both Indiana and Butler universities. He then studied at the University of Chicago, presumably in pursuit of his master’s degree. Long earned teaching credentials in history, civics, English, music and mathematics.
In 1909 Long was hired to teach at I.P.S. 26 (one of the “colored schools”) in Indianapolis. There he served as assistant principal (1910 to 1915) and as principal (1915 to 1923). Long served as principal at a high school in Crawfordsville and later as a supervisor for principals in Indiana. Long then took a similar position at Lincoln School in Trenton, New Jersey, where he served for a decade. Wherever he went, Arthur T. Long promoted the arts (dance, music, and drama) and was described by people who knew him as a “tall, light skinned serious minded disciplinarian who liked to play the piano for the students in the mornings.” In good weather, he often lit up the school playground at night to stage impromptu school productions featuring black heroes like Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Banneker. Long left his position in Trenton in November of 1933, just two months before his fiftieth birthday and was never heard from again.

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Playwrite Eugene O’Neill

What became of O’Neill’s social masterpiece, “The Emperor Jones?” Although it struck the theatre world like an electric shock nearly a century ago, it is relatively forgotten today. Personally, I believe it to be as socially relevant today as it was when it made its debut back in 1920, regardless of color. The story could easily serve as a parable for many of the problems facing every facet of today’s society. O’Neill’s Brutus Jones is a desperate man facing a hopeless situation who is thrust into an opportunity he sees as his only chance at survival. He arrives on an isolated island and is immediately elevated to a position of authority and power by the island’s uninformed, superstitious inhabitants. In time, he abuses his position, becomes careless and is punished (in this case killed) by his “subjects” who have caught on to his game.
Is this not unlike today’s ninety-day wonders: rookie corner drug dealers who operate freely and undetected for brief periods of time with more money than they can spend and more friends than they can count before law enforcement catches up to them? Or perhaps a modern day investment banker or securities trader spending the money of trusted friends and clients for his own whims before he is discovered and prosecuted? Both of these examples speak their own language and justify their own actions in the same coarse way as Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones did all those years ago. Although you can easily look up “The Emperor Jones” on the web and decide for yourself, its unlikely that you’ll be seeing it on Broadway anytime soon. But, like me, you can take pride in the fact that nearly a century ago, a brave little theatre troupe in Indianapolis had the guts to stage the saga on St. Patty’s Day eve when other, allegedly more “Cosmopolitan” cities wouldn’t touch it.