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.

z Original-Subscription-Card
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.

z o'neill
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.

Creepy history, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

The first Irvington Halloween Festival and the law.

Original 1946 Irvington Halloween Festival Ticket.

Original publish date:  October 16 2011

Next week, once again, Irvington will celebrate “All Hallows Eve” better than anyplace else in the Hoosier state by hosting the 65th annual Halloween Festival. Trick-or-treating, window painting, house decorating, and a costume parade down the middle of Washington Street are all cherished traditions eagerly anticipated by the participants involved. But what about that first Halloween festival back in 1946? What was that like? And most importantly, were Irvingtonians breaking the law by hosting it?
Disney Trick or treatWe’ve all heard the stories, legends and rumors surrounding that now legendary first event. It was sponsored by the Walt Disney company featuring costumed characters with a Disney based theme. The Disney folks gave away potentially priceless hand painted film production cels right here on the streets of old Irvington town. Walt Disney himself was seen walking down Audubon with Mickey Mouse at his side. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction nowadays.
However, a good place to start would be the history books. What was going on in the world back in October of 1946? Mensa was founded in Great Britain and the United Nations held its first meeting on Long Island. World War II ended a year before, yet the Nuremberg War trials concluded with the execution of ten German war criminals just two weeks before the festival. Among the adolescent ghosts and goblins wandering the streets of Irvington 65 years ago was a spectral leftover from the second world war looming menacingly over the costumed treat seekers. The specter of Sugar rationing. Really? Sugar rationing on Halloween?
When the empire of Japan conquered the Philippine Islands in the early months of 1942 the United States lost a major source of it’s national sugar imports. Sugar shipments from Hawaii had already been curtailed by fifty percent when cargo vessels typically used for transporting sugar from the islands to the mainland were diverted for use by the military. Seemingly overnight, U.S. sugar supply fell by more than one-third. To ensure adequate supplies for manufacturers, the military, and civilians, sugar became the first food item to be rationed during the war. Manufacturers’ supplies were reduced to 80 percent of pre-war levels and that percentage was further reduced over time.
On April 27, 1942, Irvington families registered for ration books at the local elementary schools. One book was issued for each family member. To prove they were serious about wartime rationing, the US Government required that these books were to be surrendered upon death of the recipient. In a drastic move that harkens back to FDR’s closure of the banks and financial institutions during the Great Depression, the sale of sugar was halted for one week to prepare for the program. During that sugarless week, to discourage hoarding, each family was required to report how much sugar they had on hand and a corresponding number of stamps were removed from the ration book.
z WWII OPA Rationing BookletA week later on May 5, 1942, every United States citizen received their much anticipated “War Ration Book Number One”, good for a 56-week supply of sugar. Initially, each stamp was good for one pound of sugar and could be redeemed over a specified two-week period. Later on, as other items such as coffee and shoes were rationed, each stamp became good for two pounds of sugar over a four-week period. The ration book bore the recipient’s name and could only be used by household members. Stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer. If the book was lost, stolen, or destroyed, an application had to be submitted to the Ration Board for a new copy. If the ration book holder entered the hospital for greater than a 10-day stay, the ration book had to be brought along with them. Talk about your red tape!

z dd566a67bf9310d62c9f6f998082922a
World War II War Sugar Ration Stamp.

Housewives learned to be creative, using saccharine, corn syrup, and even packets of Jell-O as sugar substitutes. Sugar beets became a staple of nearly every American dinner table. Women’s magazines featured recipes with reduced sugar or creative ingredient substitutes. “Victory Gardens” sprung up all over the cities and home canning was strongly encouraged during the war. However, canning requires sugar and to provide for this patriotic need, each person could apply for a one time only 25-pound allotment of lower grade canning sugar each year. Each local war ration board determined the quantity and season of availability based on the local harvest. A special canning sugar stamp was issued and included in the ration book. This special “spare canning sugar stamp 37” had to be attached to the government application. Problem was, that they looked exactly like the household sugar stamp and confusion reigned as many people mistakenly used the regular sugar stamp 37 in it’s place, invalidating it for normal household purchases. Did I mention the red tape?
z photo-1127-2013-conserve-sugar-posterTo make matters worse, just because you had a sugar stamp didn’t mean sugar was available for purchase. Shortages occurred often throughout the war, and in early 1945 sugar became nearly impossible to find in any quantity. As Europe was liberated from the grip of Nazi Germany, the United States took on the main responsibility for providing food to those war ravaged countries. On May 1, 1945, the sugar ration for American families was slashed to 15 pounds per year for household use and 15 pounds per year for canning – roughly eight ounces per week per household. Sugar supplies remained scarce and, just as sugar had the distinction of being the first product rationed at the start of the war, sugar was the last product to be rationed after the war. Sugar rationing continued until June of 1947, over six months after the first Irvington Halloween festival in October of 1946.
So, knowing this, can it be said that every sugary sweet handed out to euphoric trick-or-treaters in Irvington during that first festival was a violation of Federal law? Technically yes, but in reality, it might best be compared to ripping the tag off of your mattress today. Never fear, Irvington is not Australia and you are not descended from a colony of law breakers and felons. By the time of that first Irvington Halloween Festival, war time rationing was on the wane and most Americans were eager to celebrate after a long, hard fought war, too enraptured with the outcome, and their personal survival, to care much about wartime shortages. As evidence, one need look no further than the baby boomer generation, a direct bi-product of that euphoria.
z Halloween Festival (2)An argument can be made that it was events like the First Irvington Halloween Festival that kicked off the tradition of trick-or-treating as we know it today. Although the Halloween holiday was certainly well known in America before that first Irvington celebration, it was predominantly a holiday for adult costume parties and a chance to cut loose with friends playing party games while consuming hard cider. Early national attention to trick-or-treating in popular culture really began a year later in October of 1947. That’s when the custom of passing out the playful “candy bribes” began to appear in issues of children’s magazines like Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities, and in Halloween episodes of network radio programs like The Baby Snooks Show, The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Trick-or-treating was first depicted in a Peanuts comic strip in 1951, perhaps the image most identified with the children’s holiday in the hearts and minds of baby boomers today. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney debuted his Donald Duck movie “Trick or Treat”, and again when Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their popular television show. In 1953, less than a decade after that first festival in Irvington, the tradition of Halloween as a children’s holiday was fully accepted when UNICEF conducted it’s first national children’s charity fund raising campaign centered around trick-or-treaters.
z s-l640Most of this column’s readers are aware that part of my passion for history revolves around collecting, cataloging, displaying and observing antiques and collectibles. There exists in the collecting world a strong group of enthusiasts devoted to the pursuit and preservation of Halloween memorabilia of all types. Costumes, decorations, photographs, publications and postcards in particular. The origins of Halloween as we now know it might best be traced in the postcards issued to celebrate the tradition. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show costumed children, but do not depict trick-or-treating. It is believed that the pranks associated with early Halloween were perpetrated by unattended children left to their own devices while their parents caroused and partied without them. Some have characterized Halloween trick-or-treating as an adult invention to curtail vandalism previously associated with the holiday. Halloween was not widely accepted and many adults, as reported in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Sometimes, even the children protested. As late as Halloween of 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg.” Times have certainly changed since that first Halloween festival 65 years ago.
z 58bdce96102ac.imageA 2005 study by the National Confectioners Association reported that 80 percent of American households gave out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children, teenagers, and young adults planned to either venture out trick-or-treating or to participate in other Halloween associated activities. In 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and other related products accounted for $5.77 billion in revenue. An estimated $2 billion worth of candy will be passed out during this Halloween season and one study claims that “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and containing three pounds of sugar.” Yes, 65-years ago, Halloween looked quite different than it does today. Next week, doorbells all over Irvington will ring, doors will be opened and wide-eyed gaggles of eager children will unanimously cry out “Trick-or-Treat” from Oak Avenue to Pleasant Run Parkway.
z halloween festivalCostumed kids will be rewarded for their efforts with all sorts of tribute in the form of coins, nuts, popcorn balls, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys. As a casual observer born long after that first Irvington Halloween Festival and an active participant in the festivities that will begin next week, I’m glad that our Irvington forefathers skirted government regulations all those years ago. In fact, as a fan of all things Irvington, I’d go so far as to say that this community has played a big part in the Halloween holiday as we know it today. Because, grammar notwithstanding, nobody does Halloween like Irvington do.


Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part II

z Better-Babies-Contest-1930-Greer-IHS-Bass-23300
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.

z Katherine_Rieck-CSHpostcard
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.

z dda34d221500354a85f87cc593eb0fa3
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.

z Better-Babies-Judging-1930-IHS-Bass-217679
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.

z Better-Babies-Building-1926-IHS-Bass-99329
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.

z cfc5936a76dc1242c28c2bb1e2c0f347
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.

z Better-Babies-Contest-Building-Day-Nursery-9-9-1931-IHS-JC-Allen
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

Better_Baby_Contest photo 1
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.

z image_wrapper
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.

z eugenics-exhibit 2
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”.

z Screen-Shot-2017-05-02-at-1.57.12-AM
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!

z Fitter-Families-Contest-Kansas
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.

z eugenics-german-propaganda
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.

Indianapolis, Natural Disasters

Indianapolis, Indiana: The Great Flood of 1913. Part II.

Damage at Indianapolis, Indiana, March 27

Original publish date:  March 20, 2013

Last week, we left Greenfield a century ago; March 25th, 1913, underwater. The “Black Night of Terror”, the “March Flood”, the “Great Flood of 1913” had come and gone through the Hancock County seat leaving devastation in its wake. And it was headed straight for Indianapolis. On Tuesday the National Weather Bureau sent out the following warning: “Below Indianapolis the river will rise rapidly and the public should prepare for higher stages than have been experienced for many years. Every precaution should be taken by those living along the lower course of he river, as the rise will be unusually rapid and will reach a point several feet above the danger line.” Late that Tuesday morning, the first levee failed, flooding Indianapolis via the White River and Eagle Creek.
Fortunately, most Hoosiers heeded the warnings, gathered their families, belongings and pets and fled to higher ground, saving countless lives. Witnesses on the west side of Indianapolis claimed they saw a wall of water more than two stories high when the White River levee burst at Morris Street. Indianapolis’s tranquil Eagle Creek, normally sixty-foot-wide at best, spread to an angry class five rapid half a mile wide. Astonished bystanders watched as the White River tore through its levees at many points. Around noon on Tuesday, Fall Creek jumped its banks, flooding a large part of the city’s north side residential district, ending streetcar service and putting the water works and other public utilities out of commission. Many families living in homes in the danger zones packed valuables into wagons and carried furniture up to the second floors and attics of their homes.

By 3 p.m. the muddy water was beginning to trickle down the levee. Whenever a leak appeared, a brace of men rushed over to plug it using bags of sand and bales of straw jammed in place by telephone poles. Around 4 p.m., as the men were busy shoring up the levee north of the Morris Street bridge, water unexpectedly broke through the sandbags piled on the other end of the bridge at the western corner of Morris and Drover streets. The break, not a massive wall of water as some claimed, but rather a steady flow as if a massive spigot had been opened allowing thousands of gallons of water to pour through the breach while gradually enlarging the opening as each frantic moment trickled past. Now, people abandoned their wagons and tied what valuables and food they could gather into bundles, grabbed their children, and began to flee across the Morris Street Bridge. The evacuation proceeded in agonizing slow motion; the water first rising past their ankles, then up to their knees, finally settling around their waists.
Still, the White River kept rising. By 6 p.m. the river burst through the base of the levee about four hundred feet upriver of the bridge. By early evening, Indianapolis was flooded east of Harding Street, in some places the water cresting as high as 15 feet. By Wednesday, the Washington Street Bridge was destroyed, cutting the main artery between the Circle City and all points West and taking the railroad tracks with it. The recently created suburb of West Indianapolis and valley of West New York Street were the hardest hit areas; a region principally populated by railroad and stockyard workers. Created as one of the cities first suburbs, the southwest annex was roughly bounded by the White River to the east, the Pennsylvania Railroad line to the north, Eagle Creek to the west, and Raymond Street to the south. The residents never knew what hit them.

The first floor of the newly opened St. Vincents hospital at Fall Creek and Illinois flooded and Sister Mary Joseph and her staff moved their patients to the second and third floors for safety. Articles titled “$500,000 Loss at Peru,” “Over the Muncie Levee,” “Boats in Carmel Streets,” “Danville Cars Stopped,” “Bloomington is Cut Off, ” and “Shelbyville Levee Breaks” appeared on a single page of The Indianapolis News Wednesday edition. The flood crested in Indianapolis on the morning of Thursday, March 26th. As the water receded, the damage was unveiled and the residents were left to comb over the debris of the worst flood the state ever saw. A six-square mile area was destroyed displacing 4,000 Hoosier families. Because of the early warning, the loss of life was tallied at five known fatalities, however witness stories swear that total had to be much higher.
It was Easter week and Indianapolis was not alone in their soggy sorrow. Levees burst all around the state-on the Mississinewa River in Marion, on the White River in Muncie, on the Wabash River in Lafayette, and on the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg-flooding the cities they were supposed to protect. In the southern part of Kokomo, Wildcat Creek flooded over its levee to saturate city streets with eight feet of water. Thousands of telephone and telegraph poles and wires were downed by the flood making an organized relief effort nearly impossible. To obtain the necessary food, shelter, and medical supplies for the injured and suddenly homeless, Governor Sam Ralston appealed for help to cities around Indiana as well as to other states. Donations of money, blankets, food, and even coffins poured in just as quickly as the water poured out.

Indianapolis was not only the geographical center of the Midwest’s monumental winter storm system in March of 1913,with a population of 235,000, it was also the single largest city affected by the natural calamity. So what kind of storm caused the Great Flood of 1913? It began like any other normal Midwestern winter storm, but soon developed special characteristics conducive to flooding. A strong Canadian high with its accompanying windstorm stalled off Bermuda, thus halting the normal eastward travel of its trailing low bringing all the rain. Then another Canadian high moved in from the west, squeezing the low into a long, low-pressure trough between the two highs, its center stretching diagonally from southern Illinois, across southern and middle Indiana, and across northern Ohio. Up that diagonal path, at least two lows moved in fast succession, the rain of one merging together into the next. But nothing in the weather observations or theories of the day prepared the U.S. Weather Service, or any other body, for the unprecedented volume of water that fell out of the sky during those four days of March 1913.
Regardless of how the flood waters had arrived, and receded, perhaps the true horror of the Great Flood of 1913 was the aftermath. The flood waters were now stagnant pools of sick water filled with raw sewage, rotting food, dead pets and livestock, bugs, snakes, and disease carrying rodents. Day after day, Hoosiers were bombarded with newspaper headlines warning of looting and arrests, water borne disease wielding parasites, guards posted to keep away opportunistic invaders, health agencies warning of the dangers to unsuspecting children and dangerous siphons caused by clogged drains. For a time, the city was under siege. Luckily, the flood brought about changes in national weather forecasting by identifying the presence of stalled lows as the major factor in localized flooding, local government with the passage of stricter code enforcement in response to the flood’s aftermath, and the resurgence of the Red Cross as a National relief agency. Statewide, more than 90 people drowned and at least 180 bridges were destroyed when up to 11 inches of rain fell across the state in a five-day period. Could it happen again? Sure, but until that day, the Great Flood of 1913 remains our state’s worst ever.

Indianapolis, Pop Culture

Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Betty & Benny Fox
Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox. in Indianapolis.

Original publish date:   July 23, 2012

Recently, I was sorting through an old box of paper purchased at an antique show in Indianapolis some time ago. I ran across an interesting little leaflet from the 1940s World War II Era that piqued my interest. The flyer pictured a pretty young blonde haired woman in the foreground surrounded by 3 images of a dapper looking man. It reads, “Help win the War. Buy War Bonds and Stamps. The Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox. Best wishes to our dear friends. Betty and Benny.”
I have an abiding affection for wartime homefront items and often find myself lamenting that I was born too late. As I looked closer at the brochure, I noticed that there seemed to be an image of the duo standing atop the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument “ghosted” into the background. Naturally, my curiosity shifted into overdrive and I had to know what this all meant.

Nik Wallenda over Niagara Falls.

As I pondered the significance of this little piece of paper, a news report fluttered across my TV screen about a dispute between the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y. and tightrope walker Nik Wallenda. It seems that Nik Wallenda promised the city that his recent tightrope walk across Niagara Falls would bring much needed publicity and generate untold millions to this struggling community in upstate New York. Wallenda’s June 15 crossing went off without a hitch physically, but the city is now looking to the daredevil to pay about $25,000 in unpaid overtime bills for police officers and firefighters.
As I looked away from the television to the flyer in my hands, it suddenly hit me like the cold light of dawn, Betty and Benny Fox were barnstorming daredevils! This flyer must have been created for a visit to Indianapolis and a planned stunt involving our cities most identifiable landmark. I did a quick internet search but could find no record of the duo ever coming to Indianapolis. However my suspicions were confirmed when it was revealed that Betty and Benny were in fact high wire aerial artists.
Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Benny and Betty Fox, the famous death defying sky dancers pictured on the flyer, were billed as a brother and sister act but they were not related. And Betty was not always the same person nor was she actually named Betty. Benny chose the name for his partner because he liked the sound of it. (That explains why Betty is pictured only once and Benny is pictured three times.) Whoever she was, she was willing to put her life in Benny’s hands while they danced on an 18-inch wide disc affixed to the top of a pole extending 100 feet up in the air.
Contemporary newspaper articles claimed that Benny had been born into a circus family, known as the “Flying Foxes”, near Berlin, Germany. Another article from the 1950s stated that Benny was part of an international circus family, either of Lithuanian or Polish, and lived with his family in Flushing, N.Y. According to that article, “For a time it was feared, because of Benny’s small stature, that he would not be able to carry on for the “Flying Foxes,” but Benny’s father, who was old school, said “I will build him in body, mind and strength.” And that he did.

Benny and Betty Fox (2)
Benny and Benny Fox pose for a photo, October 6, 1937.

A little research reveals that the Betty from the brochure was the very first one; Nano Clifford, Benny’s wife, who quit the act in 1945 to raise their children. No wonder, she must have been exhausted after a 22-month tour in World War II performing for troops at 187 hospitals in Europe. The next Betty’s real name was Clara, who worked with Benny for a few years until she gained weight, (Benny claimed anything over 120 pounds was too heavy for skydancing), she was replaced by yet another Betty, whose real name was Alice. Undoubtedly, there were many other Betty’s because Benny performed well into the 1970s. But those “Betty’s” are lost to history.
The duo’s most documented performance took place 3 hours to the west of our city in Springfield, Illinois. On October 6, 1937, they did six performances throughout the day from the roof of a building at 313 S. Sixth Street. The last performance at 8 p.m. was lit by four powerful floodlights. It seems that the couple were hired by the Illinois State Journal newspaper and the perch upon which they performed was atop the Journal building itself. The stunt was arranged and staged by the paper in hopes of boosting lagging circulation numbers. The act proved so successful that the daredevil duo was asked back to the land of Lincoln in 1946.
The newspaper reported that the streets below the Journal building were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with anxious spectators watching the duo as they danced, whirled, stood on their hands, and performed acrobatics that evening. “Streets, windows, roofs and fire escapes all through the downtown area were jammed for the night show.” The Journal estimated the crowd at 100,000, but that figure seems improbable at best.
The crowd stared in disbelief when the aerial artists pulled off their “death whirl,” which had Betty face down with her legs clasped around Benny’s waist while he swirled her “around and around” on the small disc. The crowd cheered with approval as the couple danced the Charleston & the Lindy Hop atop their beach ball sized disc 100 feet off the ground with no fear. According to the Journal, “the blindfolded waltz, fast fox trots and Charlestons at the afternoon shows drew a great round of applause, but that became a mere whisper in comparison to the ovation which greeted them at the conclusion of the death whirl.”

Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Benny’s loudest cheers came when he stood upside down on his hands for 30 seconds. The couple’s most daring stunt involved Betty, supported by Benny, bending over the edge of the platform backwards to pick up a handkerchief 3 feet below the 18-inch disc. The act concluded with Benny calling down to the crowd that Betty had fainted. The drama built at a frenzied pace until Betty was revived and waved to the anxious crowds below.
During pre-publicity for the event, the newspaper ramped up the drama by explaining that a physician and two nurses would be on the roof of the building during all performances should the couple miss a step in their dangerous setup. “An ambulance will wait at the curb to rush them to the hospital if Death fails to take his expected holiday.”
Apparently, although I had never heard of them before picking up this flyer, Betty and Benny Fox were the bomb back in the day. They toured Europe pretty extensively during the War and the other cities besides Lincoln’s hometown that I could find reports of their shows include: the Westin Hotel in Detroit, the Morning Call Newspaper building in Allentown, Pa., the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and The Mint Hotel in Las Vegas. However, despite the flyer, I can’t find a record of the daredevil duo ever passing through our fair city.
It seems that, as the Great Depression dragged on, Betty and Benny Fox were just one of many traveling sideshow acts whose outlandish feats of stamina, spectacular stunts and bizarre competitions were popular entertainment. As dance marathons and flagpole sitting became passé, slowly fading from the headlines, and as the Roaring Twenties came to a crashing end, Betty and Benny skipped from town-to-town to entertain the saddened masses, starved for free entertainment.

Nik Wallenda
Nik Wallenda waves to tourists in Niagara Falls, N.Y., May 2, 2012. 

Which brings us back to Mr. Wallenda, a seventh-generation circus performer, and the claim that he owes money to the city that he promised his high-wire act would help revitalize. City officials say Mr. Wallenda’s team took advantage of their hospitality. Mr. Wallenda says he was stabbed in the back. Mr. Wallenda’s 1,800-foot crossing transfixed a national television audience and generated a wave of publicity that the falls had not experienced in decades. It seemed like a particular coup for the economically depressed American side of the falls, creating an instant hero and a point of pride for a city that has lost more than half its population in the last half century. Now the City of Niagara Falls is not so sure. Mr. Wallenda, for his part, said he had been hoping to open a Wallenda-themed exhibition (perhaps someday a full-scale museum) in Niagara Falls, N.Y. But he suggested he might have to rethink the location. I wonder what Betty and Benny Fox would think?


Snakehead at Arsenal Tech.

snakehead pic
Rebar “snakehead” on Oriental Avenue in front of Arsenal Technical High School.

Original publish date:  March 1, 2018

Last Thursday a young eastsider by the name of Trevor McCoy was driving south on Oriental Avenue when he was startled by a large piece of rebar as it came knifing through the floorboard of his car. The steel bar curled towards the sky as it traveled up and out the back window before McCoy’s car came to a halt, ripping off the muffler in the process. The incident happened around midnight in front of Arsenal Technical high school. The driver was shaken, but unhurt.

oriental pothole 1
Rebar “snakehead” on Oriental Avenue in front of Arsenal Technical High School.

The news story piqued my interest because it happened on Oriental Avenue. My dad, Robert E. Hunter, grew up on Oriental and graduated from Tech in 1954. He delighted in taking detours whenever possible to point out the stoop that was once his family home. “That’s my stoop, that’s all that’s left.” he would say. However, as I learned the details of the incident, one word popped into my mind: Snakehead!
As an imaginative, history-loving kid, snakeheads were fodder for my nightmares. A snakehead is the term used to describe iron rails which would curl up and come loose from their wooden rails. Often, snakeheads took center stage in ghoulish tales where rails would pierce the bottom of a car, crashing upwards into the wooden floorboards like a knife through butter, sometimes impaling some poor unsuspecting passenger.

Close-up of Rebar “snakehead” n front of Arsenal Technical High School.

Traveling through the South in 1843-44, Minnesota clergyman Henry Benjamin Whipple wrote on page 76 of his diary: “The passengers are amused on this road by running off the track, sending rails up through the bottom of the cars and other amusements of the kind calculated to make one’s hair stand on end” Likewise, in his book “Southern Railroad Man: Conductor N. J. Bell’s Recollections of the Civil War Era (Railroads in America)”, Bell wrote: “It is said that one of these snakeheads stuck up so high that it ran over the top of a wheel of a coach and through the floor, and killed a lady passenger”
As anyone who has ever taken one of my tours knows, my Grreat-grandfather was a lifetime railroad man. He spoke of snakeheads often and always in the most terrifying terms. I searched every book, magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on looking for clarification on this dread phenomenon. Let me tell ya, researching in the years before the internet wasn’t for sissies. It took me years to discover the truth behind snakeheads and it turns out, they weren’t as scary as they were made out to be. Unless you were a first generation Hoosier.
Although the engine is the undisputed king of the rails, nothing is more important to a railroad as the track. After all, without rails, ties, and ballasting, freight and passengers do not move. Even though the image of the railroad is most closely tied to the American west, the railroad was born in France in the early 1700s. Or England in the mid 1700s. Depends on which version you believe. There are even those that say it was developed in Boston in the late 1700s. Regardless, that is an argument this article will not settle. The 4-feet width and 8 1/2-inch height were reportedly based upon ancient Roman chariot roads, that much is known.

Old flat iron rail snakehead.

In the United States, the Granite Railway of Massachusetts is credited as the very first, opening on October 7, 1826. It used early strap-iron rails atop a wooden base with thin strips of iron added for increased strength. During that first decade, virtually everything about railroading was an experiment learned on the fly. Early on, the strap-iron method worked best and engineers eventually learned that dense hardwoods, like oak, proved the most economical material for the supporting base. It was determined that cross-ties be at least 8-10 inches thick and about 8-10 feet in length.
Snakeheads reared their ugly heads, literally, as the straps holding the flat iron rails began to wear out after a decade or more of almost constant use. While crews of laborers were employed to inspect and replace any worn straps, the mass expansion of the railroad severely taxed the time and resources of railway inspectors. Strap failures caused the rails to become dislodged and the shock and bounce of the trains caused them to curl up. One train might pass over a dislodged rail without incident, while the next might encounter an entirely different rail situation as the loose end of the rail flew up violently under spring tension. One need only think of the last time they got a splinter, then magnify it, to imagine the result.
The prospect of an iron rail ripping through the bottom of a rail car is terrifying, but it seems to be confined solely to railroads is use before the Civil War. The reason snakeheads are so hard to research is the lack of comprehensive statistics for antebellum railroads. There was no federal agency collecting data and state interest was even less. Railroad companies sometimes self-reported accidents, but they had an obvious incentive to under-report.
To determine how prevalent and dangerous snakeheads actually were, the best way is to examine contemporary reports, if you can find them. The April 7, 1841 Newport Rhode Island Republican newspaper reported an accident near Bristol, PA: “As the train of cars were going from New York towards Philadelphia, near Bristol, one of the wheels struck the end of an iron rail, which was loose, and erected in the manner generally called a snake’s head.—The bar passed through the bottom of the car, and between the legs of a passenger, (Mr. Yates, of Albany) tearing his cloak in pieces, grazing his ear, and thence passed out the top of the car. An inch difference in his position on the seat, and he must have been killed.”

Bent rails from General Sherman’s March to the Sea. during the Civil War.

On June 22, 1841, the Boston Daily Atlas reported a similar accident in New Jersey, but later retracted the story after the president of the railroad wrote that the injury was caused by the passenger falling on a “fragment of the seat,” not from a rail springing through the floor. A careful (and exhausting) internet search reveals some 20 newspaper accounts of snakeheads in antebellum era newspapers. In one, a woman was slightly injured when a piece of iron entered a car in New York around 1848, and in another, a workman was killed on a construction train of the Jersey Central some years earlier. Most injuries usually stemmed from passengers being shook up from the jolt as the train left the tracks rather than being directly injured by the rail, but some of the injuries were frightening nonetheless.
In 1845, John F. Wallis of the Virginia legislature was injured on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. According to the Baltimore Sun on July 21: “It lifted Mr. W. completely off his seat, coursing up the surface of his leg and abdomen, lacerating him in several places and injuring his hand severely.” The New London, Connecticut, Morning News gave a more vivid description of the same accident: “One of the bars of iron becoming loosened from the rails, it shot up through the car at the seat where Mr. Wall was sitting, severely lacerating the back part of the hand, cutting his breast and pinning him up to the top of the car.”

The Staats injury. 

Only one fatality could be found and that was reported in the August 22, 1843 Baltimore Sun newspaper. It happened to a “young man named Staats” killed on a train in New Jersey on the way to New York City, “the bar entered under the chin of this young man, and came out at the back of his head. He was instantly killed, but no other person injured. The cars went back to Boundbrook, left the body, and then after an hour’s delay, started for the city.” As macabre as it may sound, a description this gruesome was exactly what I needed to justify those nightmares of my youth.
While 20 snakehead reportings in a 30-year period might not qualify as a catastrophic transportation epidemic, it does make the snakehead newsworthy. These numbers do not take into account unreported snakehead incidents where no injury resulted. The vagueness of most reports and the difficulty of finding them in newspapers must be viewed as a sign of the times. Obviously, snakeheads were bad for business. However, the railroad workers knew the stories and they were quick to spin their tales to unsuspecting, impressionable laymen. That’s how folklore starts in the first place; part fact, part fiction and all imagination.
By the time of the Civil War, strap-iron rails fell out of favor, deemed too costly to maintain (and too dangerous) by the railroads. In 1831 solid iron, “T”-rail had been introduced but were not yet widely in use. By 1839, American railroads ran on tracks of a wide variety of gauges and shapes: 101 railroads were still using strap iron on sleepers, forty-two were using some form of shaped rail, and twenty-nine were using an unspecified method.

Modern T-Rail track.

That all changed when, on October 8, 1845, the Montour Iron Works of Danville, Pa. rolled the first iron T-rails in the United States and the age of standard gauge track was born. The rail looked like a capital “T,” only inverted; the top was placed on the ground, providing a solid base of support while the narrow end was the wheel’s guideway. Within a single generation, American railroads replaced every foot of iron rail track with stronger and more durable steel T-rails. Interestingly, even today, some lightly used branch lines can still be found carrying rail rolled during the late 19th century.

The Arsenal Building at Arsenal Tech High School
Arsenal Technical High School.

That brings us back to the Arsenal Tech snakehead that appeared last week. The piece of rebar that swept up and out of the pothole to pierce young Trevor McCoy’s car has been cut off and the pothole has been filled. No doubt some of you may be wondering what a piece of rebar was doing there in the first place. Rebar (short for reinforcing bar) is used in roads to make the concrete stay in place after it cracks, not really to make the road stronger. Rebar gives tensile strength, nothing more. Pot holes are caused by tiny cracks in the concrete that allow water to seep in. The water destroys the concrete from inside the crack during the freeze / thaw cycle.
Antebellum Americans viewed the “terror” of the snakehead as a risk they were willing to accept and in time, snakeheads faded into folklore. The winter of 2017-18 saw an estimated 10,000 potholes on over 8,000 miles of city streets. By most accounts, this season’s more radical than usual freeze / thaw cycle has contributed to the worst pothole season ever. These rebar reinforced concrete streets are reaching social security eligibility age. Rebar snakeheads may well be on their way to becoming the folktales of Uber and Lyft drivers in years to come.