Otis Cox. Auditing a lifetime of public service.

Otis article
Otis E. Cox-Indiana State Auditor from 1982 to 1986.

Original publish date:  August 30, 2012

I received a phone call from an old friend the other day with some shocking news. One of my heroes and mentors in life, former Indiana State Auditor Otis E. Cox, called to tell me that he and his lovely wife Pat were moving from Anderson to Fishers. You may wonder, why is THAT shocking? Well, its shocking to me because Otis E. Cox is as much a part of Anderson as the Wigwam gym (home of all those great Anderson Indians basketball teams), Gene’s root beer stand (home of the Spanish Dog with cheese) and Lemon Drop drive-in (home of the legendary onion burger). Otis Cox might as well be “Mr. Anderson,” at least in my mind. No matter where I go or who I meet, seems everyone has ties of some sort to Anderson.

Otis and Pat have lived in Anderson all of their lives. Otis for 71 years and Pat for considerably less than that. He graduated from Anderson high school and followed that up by graduating from the General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University). Otis, a Democrat, was elected Madison County auditor in 1976 and again in 1980. He was then elected State Auditor in 1981 serving in that post from December 1,1982 to November 30, 1986. Upon leaving office in 1986, Otis went back to his hometown and ran for Mayor of Anderson in 1987 losing by a  mere 94 votes. An astonishingly thin margin in a city of 60,000+, but Otis, true to his humble personality, eschewed a recount on the grounds that “the people had spoken.” Otis would win re-election to the post of Madison County Auditor in 1992, a generation after first attaining the post in 1976. In 1996 and 2000, Otis served as a Madison County Commissioner before retiring in 2004.

I wore this back in 1982 campaigning with Otis in what seemed like every county in Indiana. Lots of miles, lots of heat and lots of rain on this thing.

I first met Otis as a young collector of political memorabilia just barely after I got my driver’s license. He was always honest, patient and kind with this tinhorn, just learning the ropes of collecting history and participating in the Indiana political process. When he was elected State Auditor, Otis kindly appointed me as one of his deputies at the Indiana Statehouse. A post I held from 1982 to 1985. At that time, Otis E. Cox was 4th in line of succession to the Governor’s seat and the highest ranking Democrat in the state.

Otis counted among his deputy auditors; Mary Moriarty (Adams)-District 17 City Councilwoman, Nancy Michael-former 44th district State Representative and Mayor of Green Castle, & Ed Mahern-longtime 97th district State Representative who holds the singular distinction of being the very first babyboomer born in Indianapolis (arriving two seconds after Midnight on Jan. 1, 1946). Otis Cox helped mold the future of Indianapolis politics for decades to come and his strength of leadership resonates in the Capitol City to this very day. During all those years in office in the State Capitol, Otis dutifully went home each night to Anderson in Madison County.

I drove up to Madison County last week to sit and reminisce with Otis and Pat about old times, politics and their next move in life. Otis is what most would call a loyal “Yellow Dog Democrat”, a political term applied to that part of the electorate who vote solely for Democratic candidates. It is believed that the term originated in the South after Republican president Abraham Lincoln led the Union against the Confederacy to describe those voters who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican”. The term is now used to describe any Democrat who will vote a straight party ticket under any circumstances.

PO-dukakis-bentsen-button_busy_beaver_button_museumI often tell friends that I won my wife Rhonda’s heart back in 1988 when I walked into her store wearing a Dukakis / Bentsen for President campaign pin during the election. She gasped and asked me, “Where did you get that?” to which I reached into my pocket, pulled an identical pin out and presented it to her. Pat tells a similar story about meeting Otis for the first time in the early 1960s. “He walked up to me and asked me if I voted for John F. Kennedy” to which I answered “No.”  He asked me “Well, why not?” and I said, “because I wasn’t old enough.” From that point on, the pair were inseparable while working for LBJ, RFK, McGovern culminating with Otis himself being swept into office with the Jimmy Carter election in 1976.

The Cox’s fondly recall that 1976 election, Otis’ first, with several humorous stories about the role Anderson and the state of Indiana played in the Carter victory. “In 1976, there were several people running for the Democratic nomination. Hubert Humphrey, Sargent Shriver, George Wallace, Walter Mondale, Scoop Jackson, Fred Harris, Robert Byrd, Lloyd Bentsen, Birch Bayh, and of course, Jimmy Carter. ” Otis says, “They were all planning to come to Indiana for the primary, back then the Indiana primary really meant something, not like today. All of the candidates advance people were frantically calling Madison County Democrats to find places for these guys to stay. Everyone chose a candidate and Jimmy Carter was the last on the list. A friend of ours took the Carter’s in, (much to the later chagrin of all who’d chosen another candidate), and you know, Jimmy Carter stayed friends with them for decades afterwards. Even invited them to their home in Plains, Georgia whenever the couple traveled down to Florida.”


Jimmy Carter-Larry Conrad-Otis Cox 1976 campaign pins.

Otis was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1976, 1980 & 1984. I asked him about the upcoming conventions to which he replied, “It’s not the same today as it was back then. There are no races anymore. Everything is decided before the convention. It’s more of a formality now than a real convention. In 1980 we had the Carter versus Ted Kennedy fight at the DNC and in 1984 there was the Mondale versus Jesse Jackson delegate fight. Gary Hart was still mixing into that convention as well.” Otis says, “Now its all cut and dried. The Republicans won’t even seat the two delegates pledged to Ron Paul at their convention this week.”

I asked Otis about his time as State Auditor. He smiles that trusting smile that helped sweep him into office back in 1982 and replies simply, “I enjoyed the time I spent there.” When asked if he’d run for office again, he flatly says, “No” then stops and reflects a moment before adding, “Well, if I were twenty years younger, sure.” He talks about the changes he’s seen in the political system during his lifetime of public service. Otis is startled today by the lack of cooperation between members of opposing parties at every level of government. “When I was in the State Auditor’s office both parties worked together, they strive for it. Even though I was the lone Democrat, the other offices bent over backwards to help me. Especially the Governor’s office, whatever we needed, they provided. No questions asked. Mind you, this was on a daily basis. You just don’t see that today at any level.” remarks Otis.

I asked the former State Auditor and his bride how they felt about leaving the only place they’ve ever called home. After all, the Cox’s are moving from a county that many consider to be one of the state’s most economically depressed to a county that is often ranked as one of the most prosperous in the nation. After all, Madison County’s unemployment rate at is nearly 2 points higher than the national average, job growth is 6% lower than the national average, individual income is over $5,000 less than the national average and median household income is over $ 14,000 less than the national average. On the other hand, Hamilton County’s unemployment rate at is nearly 2 1/2 points lower than the national average, job growth is nearly 1% higher than the national average, individual income is over $ 10,000 more than the national average and median household income is a staggering $ 30,000 above than the national average. Although separated by an insignificant distance, that’s a significant lifestyle change.

“Well, we’re not really leaving Madison County,” Pat says “Our friends are here, our bank is here and our doctors are here.” Pat volunteers her time at St. John’s hospital in Anderson (where both of my children and my wife were born). She donates her time making floral arrangements for the patients and plans to continue her duties there. “It’s actually about the same commute for me, 15-20 minutes depending on traffic,” Pat says “Traffic can be bad, but I’m going the opposite direction. I’m going out of Hamilton County when everyone else is coming in.”

Otis Cox will always retain his love for Madison County but laments the loss of industry to the city and county of his birth. “Sadly, the manufacturing industry is gone and I don’t see it coming back.” he says. The automotive industry has a long association with the city; at one time employing some 25,000 auto workers in nearly twenty different General Motors affiliated plants located all around Anderson, trailing only Flint, Michigan in that regard.  Pat chimes in, “We just lost the Emge meat packing plant (on west 8th street), it’s so sad.”  Ever the optimist and booster for his birth county, Otis points out, “But things are looking up, we got the Nestlé’s plant and 300 new jobs a few years back.”

Otis and Pat are moving to be closer to their adult kids, Angie and Chris, who live in the Noblesville / Fishers area. The Cox’s are moving to Britton Falls, a Del Webb adult resort community for ages 55-and-over located near Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers. Otis proudly chirps, “It’s just like going on a vacation.” He looks forward to no more yard work and no more stairs in their new ranch style home. He continues, “But Anderson will always be home. I will miss Anderson.”

I asked Otis if he had any regrets from his decades of public service. He pauses, leans back in his chair, places his fingertips together with his index fingers brushing the tip of his nose as his thumbs gently touch his chin, “Yes, I had one regret.” he replies. “When I was commissioner, I was always sorry that I couldn’t get a couple roundabouts built in Anderson at places I felt needed them. But you know, now that I’m spending so much time in Hamilton County (which has well over 100 roundabouts) I’m getting sick of seeing them.” followed by a hearty laugh from the man who was once the most powerful Democrat in the State of Indiana. Well, Otis, if that’s your only regret from all those years of public service, I’d say you’ve served your city, county, and state well. Enjoy your retirement my friend, you’ve earned it.

Politics, Presidents

Andrew Jackson’s Hair.

Original publish date:  December 7, 2013               Republished June 1, 2018

Relic lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair.

As many of you know, I collect “stuff.” In particular, historical stuff. Especially, slightly creepy historical stuff. For years, whenever my kids saw a $ 20 bill, they would delightfully squeal out the phrase “That Glorious Mane” and giggle devilishly between themselves. While I always understood the reference to Andrew Jackson’s famous head of hair. I never really understood the origin of their inside joke. It was like reading a New Yorker magazine cartoon, sure, I can read it and smile, but I don’t always get it. And try as I might, I still have not found the source for the “Glorious Mane” quote. So, when I ran across a genuine lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair at several years ago, I had to have it.
The lock of hair is held in place by an ornate wax seal affixed to a descriptive card of provenance and has been professionally framed for posterity. The card reads: “Hair of Andrew Jackson, a portion of lot 96 of the personal relics of President Andrew Jackson consigned and guaranteed genuine by Andrew Jackson the fourth. The item came from the collection of Forest H. Sweet of Battle Creek Michigan, one of the most famous autograph manuscript and relic collectors of his day. Sweet specialized in Abraham Lincoln, so much so that during the years around World War II, he compiled a comprehensive book of Lincoln collectors and their collections that is still prized by collectors today. So, the provenance of the Andrew Jackson lock of hair was beyond reproach.
Currency RedesignLong story short, I won the item. Needless to say, I was excited. Hours turned into days and days turned into weeks as I waited for the General’s lock of hair to arrive. It came via the United States postal service and I could hardly wait to get my first peek at it. Turns out, the item was far more attractive than I expected (for a lock of dead guy’s hair that is). The thick lock of reddish grey hair is about 1.5 inches in length and looks to contain somewhere between 25 and 50 strands of hair. The blue wax seal features an “S” initial that was undoubtedly applied by Forest H. Sweet himself. I could hardly wait to reveal the relic to my children. Sadly, the unveiling was less than I expected. “That’s nice daddy” was the general consensus. It was like buying a kid a Christmas present only to find that they are more interested in playing with the shipping box.
Okay, so my kids weren’t excited, but I was. Macabre as it seems, bestowing locks of hair on friends, family members, and admirers was common practice in the 19th century. Locks of hair from many renowned historical figures can be found in the collections of museums all over the world. I must admit, this is not the first lock of celebrity hair that has found it’s way into my collection. I once owned well documented strands of hair from George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. But this Andrew Jackson blood relic is a full robust lock, a good ole’ hank, a veritable pinch of hair right off the head of Old Hickory himself!
z andrew_jacksonI simply could not resist researching (my wife might say obsessing over) my cherished new relic. Much to my surprise, while searching the net I actually found a website and active blog devoted to “That Glorious Mane“. The website, called “American Lion”, is associated to Andrew Jackson’s hair in name only. But it does touch on the macabre hobby and, more importantly, vindicates my strange purchase by discussing famous locks of hair that have sold recently at auction. In December of 2011, 12 strands of Michael Jackson’s hair, reportedly fished out of a shower drain at New York’s Carlyle Hotel after Jackson stayed there for a charity event during the 1980s, sold at auction in London for around $1,900 to an online gaming casino. The casino plans to use the hair in the construction of a special roulette ball (I don‘t understand it either).
The King of Pop apparently can’t hold a candle to the King of Rock-N-Roll though. For the day after Jackson’s hair was sold, a Chicago auction house sold clumps of Elvis Presley’s hair (cut and saved after Elvis’ 1958 Army induction) in Illinois, selling for $15,000.
Okay, if you’re still creeped out by the thought of collecting hair, which truthfully, I can’t blame you for, keep in mind that the hobby was once considered to be the height of cool. The Victorians LOVED designing and wearing hair jewelry, often weaving strands into intricate designs which they incorporated into necklaces, earrings, and pins. To say nothing about picture frames, paperweights and other household decorations. Seems that Queen Victoria is credited with starting the trend. When her beloved Prince Albert died, the distraught monarch had several rings made out of his hair, which she wore daily. Consider that famous Victorian writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir Walter Scott, and John Keats often referenced locks of hair in their works.

Locks of Presidential hair on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Keep in mind, the Victorians did not only collect hair from dead people, though. Most often it was the living that handed out their hair to be woven into special keepsakes, as a reminder of life’s fleeting beauty. Remember, hair changes color and falls out in time, so young lovers and fans might ask for a few locks to be woven into watch chains and jewelry so they might think of their idol daily. And in fairness, most locks of the rich and famous were asked for while the subject was still very alive, just like you might ask for an autograph. Hair collecting has been traced all the way back to the 16th century Swedes, who are believed to have started the practice out of sheer boredom during endless Nordic nights.
Nowadays, with the introduction of D.N.A. to the daily lexicon of society, collecting hair takes on a whole new meaning. In the case of “The General” (Jackson’s personally preferred title) a lock of hair could conceivably unlock the mystery of the man himself. With apologies to my dear Irvingtonian friend Dawn Briggs (bring up the name to her and you‘ll understand why I‘m apologizing), it is hard to deny that Andrew Jackson was an interesting man. You either loved him or you hated him. Jackson was long and lean, standing at 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighing between 130 and 140 pounds. He had penetrating deep blue eyes and was known for his unruly shock of red hair, which had turned completely gray by the time he became president at age 61. Jackson was one of our more sickly presidents, suffering from chronic headaches, abdominal pains, and a hacking cough caused by a musket ball in his lung that he carried for most of his life. Jackson had a few bullets in his body, the results of at least two known duels, both of which he won. The lead bullet often caused the General to cough up blood and sometimes made his whole body shake.
andrew jacksonIn addition, Jackson suffered from dysentery and malaria contracted during his military campaigns. He was known to have an addiction to coffee, enjoyed a drink or two on occasion, and incessantly chewed tobacco to the extent that brass spittoons were everywhere in the White House. Despite Doctor’s orders, Jackson refused to give up these three vices, regardless of the fact that they gave him migraines. The afore mentioned bullets undoubtedly caused the General to suffer from lead poisoning, quite literally. Luckily, 19 years after that 1832 duel, the bullet causing the most damage was extracted in the White House without anesthesia. Afterwards, Jackson’s health improved tremendously .
The first recorded attack on a sitting President was against Andrew Jackson. On May 6, 1833 while in Fredericksburg Virginia dedicating a monument to the mother of George Washington, a disgruntled sailor named Robert B. Randolph jumped from the crowd and struck the President with his fist. Randolph fled in hot pursuit by several members of Jackson’s party, including the famous writer (and Irvington namesake) Washington Irving. Jackson did not press charges.
On January 30, 1835, the first attempt to kill a sitting US President occurred just outside the United States Capitol, again against Andrew Jackson. As Jackson exited the East Portico after a funeral, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, aimed a pistol at Jackson, which misfired. Lawrence quickly pulled a second pistol, which also misfired. Legend claims that Jackson then beat Lawrence senseless with his cane. The President’s friend, frontiersman Davy Crockett, restrained and disarmed Lawrence, undoubtedly saving the would be assassin’s life. Lawrence, who claimed to be England’s King Richard III (dead since 1485) blamed Jackson for the loss of his job. Lawrence was judged insane and institutionalized. Ironically, afterward the pistols were test fired again-and-again and each time they performed perfectly.
SAAM-XX107_1For years, Jackson treated his aches and pains by self-medicating with salts of mercury (often used as a diuretic and purgative in the mid 19th century), as well as ingesting sugar of lead (a lead acetate-used as a food sweetener). Historians have long believed that Andrew Jackson slowly died of mercury and lead poisoning from two bullets in his body and those medications he took for intestinal problems. As proof, historians believe that his symptoms, including excessive salivation, rapid tooth loss, colic, diarrhea, hand tremors, irritability, mood swings and paranoia, were consistent with mercury and lead poisoning. One of Jackson’s doctors liked to give the lead laden sugar to both Andrew and his wife Rachel. They not only ingested it, but used it to bathe their skin and eyes. Jackson’s well-documented, unpredictable behavior were textbook signs of mercury poisoning. Historians described these signs as “thundering and haranguing,” “pacing and ranting” and “at one moment in a towering rage, in the next moment laughing about the outburst. “
In an effort to settle the case once and for all, in 1999, two strands of the General’s hair were acquired from the Hermitage for testing. Tony Guzzi, assistant curator at The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, Tennessee said, “We have several samples of Jackson’s hair. Admirers often requested a lock, and he would just cut one off and send it to them.” An account left by one person who visited the retired statesman at his home in 1844 relates, “we were each given a lock of Jackson’s hair, which we received with eagerness, and it will be kept as a rich legacy by each of us.” Over the years, some of the locks of hair were returned to The Hermitage by descendants of the original recipients.
179444858_492e321928_bThe submitted strands were taken nearly a quarter century apart for better comparison to check for elevated levels of the heavy metals. The first sample was from 1815, the year of Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the second was from 1839, toward the end of Jackson’s life. According to the American Medical Association, while the mercury and lead levels found in the hair samples were “significantly elevated” in both samples, they were not toxic, said Dr. Ludwag M. Deppisch, a pathologist with Northeastern Ohio University College of Medicine and Forum Health. Officially, Andrew Jackson died at The Hermitage on June 8, 1845, at the age of 78, of chronic tuberculosis, dropsy, heart disease and kidney failure. In other words, the General died a natural death after leaving an extraordinarily unnatural life.
So, you see, a scientific argument might be made for my acquisition of a lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair. I know, I know, that might be compared to the old “reading Playboy for the articles” argument. But the hobby is not as strange as it may sound, or, as you may think. A quick search of the net will turn up locks of hair belonging to Poet John Keats and our first President George Washington in New York City’s Morgan library, Thomas Jefferson in the Library of Congress and from Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the New York Public Library. Collecting hair may have fallen out of favor nowadays, but it must be noted that hair is one of the few body parts to survive well after the death of the original owner. For the bereaved and the beloved, it presents a direct link of faded youth and lives lost in an intensely personal way that no picture or video could ever achieve. As for my part, I just think its cool.

Abe Lincoln, Indianapolis, Museums, Politics

Mike Pence & The Abraham Lincoln Mallet.

Pence Lincoln Mallet

Original publish date:  February 14, 2016.

Tuesday February 9th was an especially busy day for Governor Mike Pence. It was also an especially happy day for our state’s history-loving Chief Executive. That afternoon, he proudly watched as his protege, Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann, became president of Ivy Tech Community College. Governor Pence then introduced his pick to replace her, former state Republican Party chairman Eric Holcomb. Historic events for our state to be sure, but the Governor’s wide grin that afternoon was due mostly to an event he presided over at the Indiana State Museum earlier in the day.
That morning, Governor Pence unveiled the most important personal artifact ever discovered directly connected to Abraham Lincoln, the Hoosier. The rough-hewn handled relic is referred to by the State Museum as “Abraham Lincoln’s Mallet, 1829.” It was put on display at ISM on Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th) and will remain on view at the museum throughout 2016 to coincide with our state’s 200th anniversary celebration. It was the crescendo of a 188 year journey made almost entirely in secret. So secret that Governor Pence himself was kept in the dark about it until shortly before the unveiling.
z mallet 1The primitive looking hammer seems perfectly matched to the muscular 20-year-old young man who wielded it back in 1829. The mallet is made from the trunk of a tree cut from the virgin timber forest that once populated Spencer County, Indiana. No doubt Thomas Lincoln cut the tree from the unbroken forest surrounding the family cabin for use by his young son Abraham in splitting wood. Those famous “rail splitting” images we all remember from our history books? Well they all picture Honest Abe using this mallet.
State museum Chief Curator Dale Ogden points out that the mallet on display is about one half it’s original size. “It was originally twice this size in diameter. The mallet had a longer handle. The tool saw heavy use and the damage presumably occurred in the course of normal, everyday usage.” Ogden continues “The mallet is an extremely rare and important find that connects Abraham Lincoln to his Hoosier roots and to the rail-splitter legend.”
“This artifact was originally a splitting maul used by Lincoln to drive iron wedges into logs creating split rails for fencing. The maul head, made from a tree-root ball, eventually split in half,” said Steve Haaff, Spencer County resident and foremost expert on Lincoln furniture made in Indiana. “Rather than discard the tool, Lincoln repurposed it into a bench mallet he used to drive pegs into furniture and other fixtures. Lincoln discarded the long handle and relocated a shorter grip into the remaining portion of the maul to create a mallet.”
z mallet 4Before Governor Pence dropped the curtain to reveal the relic, he took off his jacket to reveal rolled up shirt sleeves in a workingman’s fashion to honor the Indiana Railsplitter. “I thought it was appropriate for the occasion,” the Governor explained. Staying in the moment, Pence harkens back to a predecessor by repeating Governor Otis Bowen’s quote, “Lincoln made Illinois, but Indiana made Lincoln.” He made sure to mention his trip to Southern Indiana a couple days before to bury another predecessor, Edgar Whitcomb, who died February 6th. Make no mistake about it, Mike Pence loves Indiana history.
Pence, a history major at Hanover College, could barely contain his excitment as he removed the cover hand-over-hand as if he were climbing a rope. When the cloth cover became stuck on top of the case, Pence was the one to dislodge it. Amid the awe inspiring big reveal, it was Pence himself who scurried to hastily gather the material now piled on the floor in front of the priceless relic and stow it safely, yet reverently, away behind the case. After his official duties were concluded, Mike Pence quickly slipped into a role that was obviously more pleasing to him; that of being a fan of Hoosier history.

z mallet 5
Steve Haaff and Governor Mike Pence.

According to Steve Haaff, the mallet descended through the family of Barnabus Carter, a neighbor of the Lincolns. Haaff explains that he has discovered nearly a dozen and a half original pieces of furniture attributed to Thomas Lincoln and his young apprentice Abraham. Most of the pieces are done in the Federal style but some are quite primitive. “Lincoln made this furniture for his neighbors and priced it according to what they could pay,” says Haaff. Dale Ogden expounds on Haaff’s statement by saying “If a person had $ 5 and a chicken, Thomas Lincoln made a piece of furniture equal to that price. If they had $ 5 and a pig, the quality appreciated accordingly.”
Of those 18 pieces, Haaff believes that half are in museums and half in private homes. Haaff is still turning up pieces today. “The stories behind the furniture are as much fun as discovering the furniture itself. Often, the owner is still using the furniture in their home everyday.” says Haaff. “The University of Michigan has a Lincoln cabinet in their office, not on display, but in their office. The staff had screwed in little gold cup hooks underneath the cabinet to hang their coffee cups from!”
In an attempt to unravel the mallet’s secret journey, I spoke with one of the family members present at the unveiling press conference. Tom Vicki explains that he first learned of the mallet’s existence from his cousin Keith Carter, the Gr-Gr-Gr-Great Grandson son of Barnabus. “I was told that the mallet was a family secret known by only a few. It had been kept hidden for 175 years in the basement ceiling of the Carter’s Richland, Indiana home.” Vicki continues, “It then traveled to Rockport for a few years before it ended up here. 187 years in the same family and Spencer County’s best kept secret the whole time”
z mallet 2The mallet most closely resembles a carnival strongman’s prop,or Thor’s hammer, but a closer examination immediately reveals it’s cryptic secret. Above the handle’s stem lay the initials “A.L.” with a year date of “1829.” Steve Haaff explains that the initials and date are not carved as one may surmise, but rather they are metal inlays. Haaff states, “Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and Abe was his only apprentice. Thomas hoped that his young son would follow him into carpentry, but Abe Lincoln wanted to be a blacksmith. These metal pieces were inserted into the mallet by Abe Lincoln himself.”
z lincoln_logoISM’s Ogden further explains, “He didn’t put those initials and that date into the mallet because he was Abraham Lincoln, he put them there to mark the tool as his own. He was just a Hoosier farm-boy at the time with no idea he was on his way to becoming a legend.” Ogden, whose fervor for Lincoln is rivaled by few, explains the mallet’s secret by identifying it as the only known item that ties Abraham Lincoln to Indiana. “The Lincoln’s were Indiana pioneers, they arrived here just a week before we were made a state in the Union. While they were not poor, they were also not wealthy.” says Ogden. “The Lincoln family used everything they owned, in most cases using it all up. When they moved to Illinois in 1830, they couldn’t take everything with them and this mallet was among those things left behind. Whether Abe gave the mallet to his neighbors, or whether the Carter family simply picked it up from the pile of discards is debatable. But we’re certainly glad it survived and are delighted to be able to display it for our guests.”
Mr. Ogden, a subject of past articles, has an innate ability to blend history with current events. He presides over one of the foremost state-owned collections of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia with an exuberance that borders on fanaticism. The bulk of the ISM collection was obtained from the Lincoln Financial Life Insurance company who began collecting all things Lincoln in 1915 and opened their museum in 1931. The museum closed in 2008 and for a time, the fate of the collection was in doubt. “There was talk of selling the collection at auction.” says Ogden. “One rumor had the collection being bought up by Donald Trump for display at one of his Casinos.”
z mallet 3Ogden explains that the ISM was fortunate to obtain the collection and although it is vast and comprehensive, he says that the question he got the most from visitors was, “Where is the Indiana material? and I always had to reply, There is no Indiana material. This mallet changes all that. Those railsplitter legends were all we had. This mallet confirms that folklore and brings all of those stories together.”
Steve Haaff talked about young Abe Lincoln’s subservient role to his father Thomas. “When Lincoln returned to Indiana in 1844 to campaign for Henry Clay for President, he visited a house of a neighbor who he knew to have a piece of furniture that Lincoln and his father had created.” Haaff continued, “As they passed, the buildings he knew were mostly gone. His wagon passed an empty, neglected saw pit and Lincoln remarked that this was where he and his father hand sawed the planks used to make his mother’s coffin.”
z-lincoln-abraham-youthLincoln’s mother Nancy died of milk sickness in October of 1818. Haaff states that the planks were made from a log from the leftovers pile used to make the family cabin. “Thomas made the coffin while 9-year-old Abe sat nearby and whittled the pegs for his mother’s coffin.” His mother’s death, and that of his beloved elder sister Sarah’s death 10 years later, devastated Lincoln and laid the foundation for the depression that haunted him for the rest of his life. No doubt, Thomas and Abraham made the coffin for Sarah too.
Although it can never be proved and is purely conjecture on my part, is it not hard to imagine that Lincoln may have used this very mallet in performance of those sad tasks. Maybe during one of those moments of melancholy in 1829, Lincoln carefully memorialized his ownership by carefully hammering in the pieces of metal he felt would hold significance to him in the future. Lincoln had issues with his years growing up in Southern Indiana and even deeper issues with his father. Thomas Lincoln never met his grandchildren, did not attend Abe & Mary’s wedding and Lincoln did not attend his father’s funeral in 1851. So, when the fog of depression cleared from 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s tortured soul, maybe he left that mallet behind on purpose. Now it is on display at the Indiana State Museum for you to go visit, examine and daydream about Lincoln the Hoosier.


z pence
Governor Mike Pence and Alan E. Hunter
Homosexuality, Politics, Pop Culture

Joe McCarthy & the Lavender Scare. Part II

Lavender scare II
Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy in 1950.

Original publish date: April 7, 2016

The Joe McCarthy Red Scare era of political repression stands curiously at odds with most Americans memories of the 1950s Ike years where Roy Rogers ruled the range and every kid wore a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Last week’s article explored the anti-communist fervor that led to the name change of the Cincinnati Reds to the Cincinnati Red legs. This article will attempt to tell the story of another aspect of those terrible days that has been mostly forgotten and long neglected by the history books.
From 1950 to 1954, the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” resonated thru the halls of Congress and struck fear in the hearts of even the most hearty of American Heroes. Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly and Ronald Reagan were among those called to testify. The hearings succeeded in destroying the careers of many employed in governmental, motion picture, literary and fine arts communities.
However, there was another question asked more in hushed whispers echoing in the back conference rooms away from the glare of the cameras. While those cacophonous communist accusations grabbed all the headlines out front, security officials posed this question at least as frequently but much more discreetly: “Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?”

April 1956 DARE magazine cover.

During the Cold War, homosexuals were considered to be as potentially dangerous a threat to national security as were the Communists. Rumors abound that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals. Such Scandalous talked proved a perfect addendum to the fervor of the moment and sparked a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare.
During an Era when Lucy loved Desi, Elvis was headed towards an Army haircut and everybody liked Ike, Americans were being secretly questioned about their sex lives in the hallowed halls of Congress. On April 27, 1953 (63 years ago this month) President Dwight Ike Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 into law. Its language was broad: “Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion.” Without explicitly referring to homosexuality, the executive order determined that the presence of homosexual employees in the State Department posed blackmail risks and should not be employed.
Over the next few months, approximately 5,000 homosexuals were fired from federal jobs including private contractors and military personnel. Not only did the victims lose their jobs but they were also forced out of the closet and thrust into the public eye as homosexuals. Many more government employees were dismissed because of their homosexual orientation than because of their left-leaning or communist beliefs. These homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide.
The Red Scare witch hunt, which began as a movement to crush any opposition to the Cold War, also led to the firing, red-listing and public outing of people who didn’t fit the straight-laced classification of main stream America. Quite literally, anyone considered queer were rounded up and branded as subversive, anti-American communist sympathizers. The Lavender Scare’s legacy is that it harmed far more people and continued for a much longer period of time. But most have never even heard of it.
The term for this persecution drew its title from the phrase “lavender lads” used repeatedly by powerful Illinois GOP Senator Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexual males. In 1952, Dirksen said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of “the lavender lads” from the State Department. The phrase was also used back in the day by Confidential magazine, a National Enquirer style gossip rag known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and Hollywood stars.
In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Truman Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign. On April 19, 1950, Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that “Perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years.” Gabrielson charged that the media was not doing enough to alert the population to the “homosexual menace.”
z Prog03-08-770x433The media knew a controversy when they saw it and soon newspapers and magazines helped whip the frenzy into a fevered pitch. The New York Times took the lead, running at least seven stories promoting this anti-homosexual campaign in May of 1950. A month later, the Senate authorized an official investigation, the first of its kind in U.S. history. It was popularly dubbed the “pervert inquiry.”
The politically motivated results of these hearings, issued in December, charged the Truman administration with indifference toward the danger of homosexuals in government. The official “justification” for this witch hunt against gay and lesbian employees was cited as “lack of emotional stability” and “weakness of … moral fiber” that allegedly made them susceptible to Soviet propaganda and recruitment.
438418410_780x439Nebraska GOP Senator Kenneth Wherry concluded in December, “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives… Mind you, I don’t say that every homosexual is a subversive, and I don’t say every subversive is a homosexual. But [people] of low morality are a menace in the government, whatever [they are], and they are all tied up together.” In 1950, a Senate investigation chaired by Clyde R. Hoey noted in a report, “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.”, and said all of the government’s intelligence agencies “are in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”
Between 1947 and 1950, 1,700 federal job applications were denied, 4,380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals. In the State Department alone, security officials bragged about firing one homosexual per day, more than twice the rate of those charged with political disloyalty to capitalism.
Strangely absent in voice or written opinion on the homosexual debate is the man the movement was named for; Senator Joe McCarthy. While the domestic witch hunt of lesbian, gay men and gender-variant people became an integral component of McCarthyism, Joe McCarthy himself was not the main power behind the anti-homosexual frenzy. True, the senator from Wisconsin did pepper his tirades with references to “Communists and queers.” But as the political crusade took off, McCarthy was nowhere to be seen.
Though he was a member of the congressional committee that spent several months examining the homosexuals-in-government issue, McCarthy mysteriously recused himself from those hearings. Websters defines recuse as a challenge by a judge, prosecutor, or juror as unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality. So was Joe McCarthy excusing himself from the issue because he was biased or was he excusing himself because he was gay?

Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.

McCarthy, the middle-aged, confirmed bachelor, may have considered himself vulnerable to questions about his own sexuality that were sure to circulate soon. After all, it was McCarthy who hired Roy Cohn–who died of AIDS in 1986 and is widely believed to have been a closeted homosexual–as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn, with the enthusiastic support of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (also believed by many to have been a closeted homosexual),

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Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and legal counsel Roy Cohn.

vigorously prosecuted any and all accused homosexuals who came before them.
McCarthy did get married in 1953, but it was late in his career and his bride was his longtime secretary. Many viewed the union as a ruse designed to deflect rumors about his sexuality that were beginning to surface. No credible evidence has ever surfaced to confirm (or deny) that Joe McCarthy was gay, but the 1940-50s Era Milwaukee underground (where Joe was from) are filled with stories of the Senator’s escapades in the gay clubs and bars of that Era. Rumors must not be confused with history and should be relegated to files of speculation, gossip and innuendo.
z a5ddb6b06f432e1379d5558762e2b0aaUntil the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President, no other politician of Irish descent had achieved a national impact comparable with McCarthy’s in twentieth century America. McCarthy took a serious issue, undermined it through reckless behavior and destroyed the lives of many people in the process. McCarthy’s Red Scare didn’t come to an end until he dared to attack the Army with his accusations. A very bad idea when the Oval office is occupied by the most famous General of his generation.
One of the victims of McCarthyism was sexologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University. The McCarthy hearings investigated links between non-profit organizations and the Communist Party, but Kinsey and his principal funding source, the Rockefeller Foundation, were clearly the primary targets. The Committee sought testimony criticizing Kinsey’s work and publicized exaggerated tales of his alleged sexual depravity and links to communism, while barring witnesses who might defend Kinsey or the Institute. The Committee ferociously condemned his work and made headlines across America. The Rockefeller Foundation soon withdrew its financial support, which crippled and effectively ended Kinsey’s work. Dr. Kinsey died a short time later in August of 1956 followed by Joe McCarthy some 9 months later in May of 1957.
Most Americans view Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare as a forgotten relic of the Cold War Era. But the Lavender Scare lived on into the Bill Clinton administration. Ike’s Executive Order 10450 baring gays from entering the military was not rescinded until 1995.

Baseball, Politics

Joe McCarthy & the Cincinnati Red Legs Scare. Part I.

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Original publish date: April 4, 2016

It’s that time of year again. The rosters are set and the boys of summer have oiled their gloves and taped their bats for another season. Springtime has always been the zenith of hope for Cubs fans (and usually their best chance of winning a pennant) but this year the Cubs are picked by many to win the title so there’s no story in that. The once mighty Reds held a fire-sale over the winter so 2016 could be a long season for Reds fans (my wife among them). This is also an election year and the airwaves are hot with news from the campaigns. Trump, Cruz and Kasich are battling for the GOP nomination. Clinton and Sanders are chasing the Democratic nomination. Charges of sexism, elitism, racism and socialism pepper nearly every news story and blog. Politics and the Reds? That reminds me of a story.
In the decade or so after World War II, the idea of communist subversion at home and abroad seemed frighteningly real to many people in the United States. These fears would define the era’s political culture and spark a worldwide Cold War that lasted over half a century. Then, as now, some took advantage of those fears to advance their own personal agenda or further their career. The Cold War paranoia sparked a dastardly era in America that became known as the “Red Scare” and the demagogue Du Jour was Republican Senator Joseph P. McCarthy of Wisconsin.
Beginning in 1950, McCarthy spent nearly five years trying in vain to expose communists and other subversives working in the U.S. government. In the hyper-suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War, the mere insinuation of disloyalty was enough to convince many Americans that their government was packed with traitors and spies. McCarthy’s accusations were so intimidating that few people dared to speak out against him. While McCarthy’s Red Scare accusations were focused on national and foreign communists in the government, it quickly became a witch hunt for Commies influencing society thru the media, music, art, literature and motion picture industry.

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Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.

It seemed like no-one was safe from accusation. McCarthy accused icons of the government of supporting communism including two of Harry S Truman’s Secretaries of State; General George Marshall and Dean Acheson. McCarthy eventually insinuated that President Truman himself was soft on Communism after he made the decision to remove General Douglas MacArthur from power during the Korean War. In time, McCarthy targeted many names you might recognize: Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Pete Seeger, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leonard Bernstein, Danny Kaye, Linus Pauling, Burgess Meredith, Edward G. Robinson and Orson Welles. All targets of McCarthy’s Red Smear.
McCarthy contended that all of these individuals (and more) worked within communist organizations and/or belonged to the Communist Party of America. Additionally, McCarthy’s reckless accusations ruined careers of those who were not famous and worked in the private sector. Many of those who were black-balled remained ostracized from their respective profession long after the Red Scare subsided. The fear of association with anything “Red” became so pervasive that even a professional baseball team from Cincinnati decided to change their name.
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The Cincinnati Reds name is a colloquial abbreviation of the Queen City’s original team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, which was the first fully professional baseball team. The Red Stockings had ten men on salary for eight months to play baseball in the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). It was organized in 1869 by Harry Wright, who also played center field for the team and managed the defensive positioning, something typically unknown at that time. The Red Stockings were wildly successful early on, going 57-0 in league play and posting a perfect 65-0 record overall (still the only perfect season in professional baseball history). The team barnstormed the nation coast-to-coast, challenging (and defeating) every base ball club it played that inaugural season.
They followed this up by winning 24 straight games the next season. On June 14, 1870, after 81 consecutive wins, the Cincinnati Red Stockings lost 8-7 in 11 innings to the Brooklyn Atlantics before a crowd of 20,000. Apparently, the novelty of an undefeated team wore off quickly with attendance declining substantially after that first loss. Although they only lost 6 games that second season, the Red Stockings Executive Board recommended that the club not employ a team for 1871, citing that it was just too expensive.
Five years later in 1876, the National League is formed in New York City with Cincinnati as a charter member. In October of 1880, Cincinnati is expelled from the league, due in part to its refusal to stop renting out their ballpark on Sundays and to cease selling beer during games. The next year, the American Association is formed and the Reds would play their next eight seasons in the league which included (for a short time) a team from Indianapolis known as the Hoosiers. In 1889 the Red Stockings rejoined the National League where they remain to this day.
MR-RED_53Irregardless of all that storied history, in 1953 the Reds decided to rename themselves the “Cincinnati Redlegs” to avoid the social stigma, potential money-losing prospects and career-ruining repercussions of being viewed as the “Reds”. Think about it, newspaper headlines like “The Reds bomb St. Louis” or “Reds murder Senators” might spread War of the Worlds style pandemonium. Okay,okay the Senators and Yankees were American League teams, but you get the idea.
So, for a four year stretch from 1956-1960, the name “Reds” was removed from the team’s logo and no longer appeared on team uniforms. Programs, tickets, pennants, buttons, and all team memorabilia was changed from Reds to Red Legs. The club’s logo was altered to remove the term “REDS” from the inside of the “wishbone C” symbol. In short, Cincinnati’s beloved Reds were no more.
Ironically, the term Red Legs, at least in the pages of history, was viewed as no better than the Red Stain nickname of the Reds. Red Legs derogatorily described guerrilla raiders in the Civil War, a 1670s Scottish pirate or a specific group of poor white people living on various islands in the Caribbean who generally originated from Ireland and Scotland and were most commonly known as “white slaves”. Guerrillas, pirates or slaves seemed to be a more prudent choice for the Reds during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare.

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It was not until Joe McCarthy attacked Ike’s Army in 1954 that his actions earned him the censure of the U.S. Senate. Even so, it took four years for the team to change the name back to the “Cincinnati Reds” after the 1958 season. By the start of Spring training in 1959, the team would be known as the Reds again. The cultural back-peddling inspired one unnamed exasperated team executive to remark: “If the communists don’t like it, let them change their name. We were the Reds before they were.” It didn’t take long for the anti-communist fears to fade. One need only consider those Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s (during the Cold War) as evidence. And would did the Reds beat in the 1976 World Series? The Yankees. Yep, the news headlines read “Reds defeat Yankees”. What would Joe McCarthy say about that?
Next week: Part II- Joe McCarthy’s Lavender Scare.

Abe Lincoln, Irvington Ghost Tours, Politics

Abraham Lincoln & the angels of Community North Hospital.

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Original publish date: March 21, 2016

This past October while leading a ghost tour through historic Irvington, I met a pair of lovely young women who posed an interesting question to me. The query came after I concluded my version of the Lincoln funeral train story, a tale fraught with emotional imagery and historical fancy that has been the last story on the tour for over a decade. As the group dispersed into the Irvington night, the young women sheepishly approached to ask their question. They introduced themselves as nurses at Community North hospital, not just any nurses, these were critical care nurses working in the hospice unit there.
As part of their duties they were often in charge of patients in the final stages of life and both had sadly witnessed firsthand the dying of the light many times. They wanted to share personal experiences with me, witnessed by both independently and together, that they hoped I might have an answer for. They explained that on more than a few occasions, patients would suddenly see the figure of Abraham Lincoln moments before dying. One instance in particular involved a recent near comatose patient arising with arms outstretched proclaiming that Abraham Lincoln was there in the room to deliver him up to heaven.

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Luckily, I was able to tell them that this was not the first time I had heard this story. As a lover of history, ghost stories, writer and folklore, I have become somewhat of an ersatz authority and repository of Abraham Lincoln ghost stories and sightings. Interestingly enough, most accounts I hear of Abraham Lincoln as a secular saint are rooted within the baby boomer generation although the roots of this belief can be found in his assassination on Easter weekend of 1865.
The assassination had occurred on Good Friday, and on the following Sunday, known colloquially as “Black Easter,” hundreds of church speakers found a sermon buried in the tragedy. Some men of the cloth viewed the act as more than mere coincidence that assassination day was also crucifixion day. One preacher declared, “Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” The meteoric posthumous growth of his reputation was influenced by the timing and circumstances of his death, which won for him a kind of saintly aura.
Although Lincoln enjoyed public popularity during his life, it was his death which erased all opposition and cemented his mythic identity. Lincoln’s shooting on Good Friday and death on Holy Saturday were his first steps on the stairway to heaven. Just moments after he breathed his last breath, Lincoln began his ascension to sainthood. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kick-started the heavenward trip by stating, “Now he belongs to the angels.”
Churches across the country were now faced with the difficult task of celebrating Easter and mourning the death of Lincoln at the same time. The resulting nationwide church services devoted to Lincoln on Easter Sunday began his posthumous religious transformation from man of the people to Godlike status. Many Americans, North and South, came to believe that his death was the price we paid for the bloodshed of the Civil War. In fact, it became the capstone for America’s greatest internal sin: slavery.
The sermons preached on Easter Day, 1865 painted a theologically enigmatic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Barely twenty-four hours after his death, Lincoln’s memory was already being defined as superhuman. Lincoln, as a symbolic figure, was revered not only by those who had supported him during his life, but now by all Americans, and soon by the whole world.
z 71.2009.081.0258_lbWithin forty-eight hours of his passing, the association of Lincoln’s character with American tradition began. The clergy, alongside their biblical images of Moses and martyrdom, also invoked the images of Lincoln and the founding fathers. In addition to grouping the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence as sacred texts, these sermons also established a link between Lincoln and the nation’s first President George Washington.
The timing and tragic nature of Lincoln’s death underscored the accomplishments of his life. Lincoln quickly became a central figure-perhaps the central figure-in the unfolding epic of America as a nation post 1865. Who else but Lincoln, the rough-hewn man forged on the prairies of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, could have seen us through the sectional conflict pitting brother-against-brother? The plain speaker-unpolished, unschooled, and untutored- somehow managed to master a situation that was in his own words “piled high with difficulty.” He did so with a rhetorical mastery that no other American political figure has come close to matching since.
Generations of schoolchildren were taught to memorize two things: the Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg address. Lincoln’s image graces both our paper money and our coinage. Lincoln is referred to as Father Abraham, Honest Abe and the Great Emancipator. Therefore it should come as no surprise to even the most casual observer that Lincoln’s evolution into a religious figure was / is inevitable. Couple that with the realization that more and more late 20th / early 21st century Americans are drifting further away from organized religion and the church, and these visions of Lincoln in the last moments of life become more easily explained.

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If Abraham Lincoln does not assume the identity of God to these folks, he must certainly signify the most positive prospects of heaven. I have studied Lincoln’s complicated religious beliefs over the years through conversations with Lincoln scholar and author C. Wayne Temple, whose 1995 book “Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet” is considered the definitive study on the subject. It appears that Abraham Lincoln was a deist, making the view of him as a prophet, angel or Godlike figure all the more ironic. A deist is defined as “a person who accepts the belief in god,but does not believe in the religion.” To a deist, the concept of God is rhetorical with a belief in his power of creation and omnipotence, but unrelated to organized religion.
The religious views of Abraham Lincoln remain a matter of interest among scholars and the public. Lincoln grew up in a highly religious Baptist family. He never joined any church, and sometimes (as a young man) ridiculed revivalists. He often referred to God and had a deep knowledge of the Bible, regularly quoting from it. Lincoln attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, and after two of them died he became more intensely concerned with religion. In short, Lincoln was the “thinking man’s” Christian whose religious ambiguity makes him a perfect candidate for a last second spiritual visitation.
When the sermons of April 16, 1865 asked the American people to “pledge not only to the affectionate memory of our MARTYR but to the imitation of his character and the perpetuation of his principles” a spiritual place was created for Lincoln in the American mind which has existed ever since. The Lincoln of legend has grown into a temporal god available to assume a shape to please almost anyone at anytime.
A 2015 Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in organized religion is on the decline, continuing a gradual, decades-long trend. Gallup noted in their commentary on the poll that “Once reliably at the top of Gallup’s confidence in institutions list, [organized religion] now ranks fourth behind the military, small business and the police, and just ahead of the medical system.”
The poll shows that only 42% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion or the Church, well below the high of 68% in the 1970s. This coincides with a 2014 Pew Study showing Americans are becoming increasingly unlikely to identify with any particular religion and that America is building fewer churches. The amount of construction spending on religious structures has dropped by 62% since January 2002. Therefore, it stands to reason that more and more people are apt to view Abraham Lincoln as a savior at the closing moments of their life.

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Dr. Charles A. Leale in 1865.

As for me, I think it important for all people to believe in something bigger than themselves, whatever or whomever that may be. So to the nurses of Community North Hospital’s Hospice care unit I want to say thank you for sparking this conversation. Thank you for caring enough to recall with kindness and concern the plight of your beloved patients. It is good for us all to know that you care as deeply as you do right up until the last moments of precious life. One of my personal heroes of the Lincoln assassination saga is a 23-year-old U.S. Army Surgeon named Dr. Charles Leale. For most of that tragic night, Leale held the dying president’s hand. He later said “I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend.” Ladies, it cheers me to think that the patients of Community North know that they too have angels in the darkness.

Indianapolis, Medicine, Politics

First Lady Caroline Harrison. Death in the White House.


Original publish date: October 20, 2013

121 years ago this Friday, America lost it’s first lady, Benjamin Harrison lost a wife and two weeks later, he lost the Presidential election. Caroline Scott and Benjamin Harrison were married on October 20, 1853. The newlyweds lived at the Harrison family home at North Bend, Ohio for the first year until Benjamin completed his law studies and they moved to Indianapolis and set up his first practice.
During the first few years of their marriage, the couple rarely spent time together, as Benjamin worked to establish his law practice and became active in fraternal organizations to help build a network. In 1854, their first child Russell Benjamin Harrison was born. Not long after, a fire destroyed the Harrison home and all their belongings. Benjamin took a job handling cases for a local law firm and the family managed to recover financially. In 1858, Caroline gave birth to Mary Scott Harrison. In 1861 she gave birth to a second daughter, who died soon after birth.
While Benjamin Harrison’s star rose rapidly in his profession, Caroline cared for their children and was active in the First Presbyterian Church and Indianapolis orphans’ home. Benjamin’s long hours at the law office and his pursuit of a living drove a wedge between the young couple and although Caroline did not complain, the strain showed.
At the onset of the Civil War, both Harrison’s sought to help in the war effort. Caroline joined Indianapolis groups that raised money for supplies to help care for wounded soldiers. In 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for more troops, Benjamin recruited a regiment of over 1,000 men from Indiana. When the regiment left to join the Union Army at Louisville, Kentucky, Harrison was promoted to the rank of colonel, and his regiment was commissioned as the 70th Indiana Infantry.

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Brigadier General Benjamin Harrison of the XX Corps, 1865

In May 1864, the 70th Indiana regiment joined General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and moved to the front lines, and Harrison was promoted to command the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corps. Harrison’s brigade participated in the brutal Battle of Nashville in December 1864, considered by historians to be the “Gettysburg of the West”. On March 22, 1865, Harrison earned a promotion to the rank of brigadier general.
The horrors of the Civil War taught General Harrison what was really important in his life and the tone of his letters to Caroline during the war are filled with a deep passionate tone. When he returned home, she would never again reproach him for neglect. His law practice and his fame grew, and he became a political force.
After the war, Benjamin Harrison spent the next decade practicing law and getting involved in politics. He ran for governor of Indiana in 1876, but lost. The Harrison home on North Delaware Street was built in 1874-75, and soon became a center of political activity. Her husband’s election to the Senate in 1880 brought Caroline to Washington, DC, but a serious fall on an icy sidewalk that year undermined her health. In 1883, she had surgery in New York that required a lengthy period of recovery. She had also suffered from respiratory problems since a bout with pneumonia in her youth, and did not participate much in Washington’s winter social season.
In the fall of 1887 Harrison was nominated for President by the Republican Party. In the campaign, Caroline was a definite asset. Her natural charm and open manner offset her husband’s chilly reserve (He often wore gloves to protect him from infection from others, and it bothered him to shake the hands of White House visitors), and the press loved her. In November 1888, Harrison defeated the incumbent Grover Cleveland.

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First Lady Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison was 56 years old when she became first lady. Historians regard her as one of our most underrated First Ladies who, in contrast to her husband’s conservative policies, was earnestly devoted to women’s rights. She became known for her many “firsts” as First Lady. Caroline was the first first lady to deliver a speech she had written herself after she became the first president of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Caroline’s sister died in early December 1889 at the executive mansion and Mrs. Harrison decided to have the funeral in the east room of the White House. It would be the first funeral in that room since Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In spite of the family tragedy, Caroline went ahead with her plans to raise the first Christmas tree in the White House that same month. She had John Phillip Sousa and the Marine Band play and, for the first time since Sarah Polk was First Lady, there was dancing in the White House.
Perhaps her biggest first came when she had electricity installed in the White House, even though she was terrified by the new technology. Seems that President Benjamin Harrison received a shock from an Edison dc current light switch, after which his family feared touching the switches. Mrs Harrison rarely operated the light switches herself, choosing instead to sleep with the lights on when neither she nor her husband were willing to touch them for fear of electrocution. Servants were often made to turn the lights on and off for the Harrison family.
The First Lady was noted for her elegant White House receptions and dinners, but she is most remembered for her efforts to refurbish the dilapidated White House. She was horrified at the filth and clutter and thought the White House was beneath the dignity of the Presidency, describing it as “rat-infested and filthy.” She brought in ferrets to eat the rats, and lobbied to have the White House torn down and replaced with a more regal Executive Mansion. Instead the old building was refurbished from basement to attic, including a new heating system and a second bathroom. The old, sagging worn-out floors were replaced.
She hated the crowded living area and the tourists made it impossible to use the first floor. In 1889 Caroline Harrison found fault with the “circus atmosphere” in the mansion when she found visitors wandering uninvited into the family quarters. Harrison complained about the lack of privacy on the White House grounds, saying, “The White House is an office and a home combined. An evil combination.” She was the first to suggest the addition of office space to the Executive Mansion when she made up very detailed plans to add an East and a West Wing so that the original mansion could be used for entertaining and the family’s living area. Caroline Harrison’s plan was the first to move the office spaces out of the house.
As she worked to remodel the White House, Caroline was careful to inventory the contents of every room. She cataloged the mansion’s furniture, pictures and decorative objects, working to preserve those that had historical value. Caroline unearthed the chinaware of former presidential administrations found hidden away in closets and unused attic and basement spaces. She personally cleaned, repaired and identified which pieces belonged to which past President. She used their items to create a popular museum display case that remains in the White House to this day.
Artistically talented, Caroline taught classes in painting to anyone who wanted to learn and became the first First Lady to design her own White House china. She wanted new china that would be “symbolic and meaningful to Americans.” The first lady placed the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center ringed by a goldenrod and corn motif etched in gold around a wide outer band of blue. The corn represents Mrs. Harrison’s home state of Indiana and 44 stars, one for each state in the Union at the time, made up the inner border.
In the winter of 1891-1892 while she tried to fulfill her social obligations, Mrs.Harrison was frequently ill with bouts of bronchial infections. In March of 1892 she developed catarrhal pneumonia, followed by hemorrhaging of the lungs and was moved to a three-bedroom cottage on Loon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains in July. Following a brief rally, her doctors diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis, which at the time had no known cure or treatment other than rest and good nutrition. Although she briefly recovered at the mountain retreat, she suffered a setback in September and asked to be returned to the White House.

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The Death of First Lady Caroline Harrison in the White House.

On September 20, she returned to her favorite pale green and silver bedroom in the White House. It was sometimes used as a music room, furnished in pale green plush. One account states that Mrs. Harrison’s bedroom was: “Daintily appointed in pale green and silver, it stands just as Mrs. Harrison left it, and like the rest of the beautified White House, is a memorial to her refined and artistic taste.” Caroline must have been fond of the pale green palate as many of the multi-colored fabric pieces are done in green tones.
Caroline did not live to see her husband’s defeat for a second term as President. On October 25, 1892, Caroline died at the age of sixty of Typhoid fever. It was an election year, and out of respect for the president’s lady, after her death neither Harrison nor Cleveland actively campaigned for the presidency. Two weeks following her death, Harrison lost his bid for reelection. Daughter Mary Harrison McKee was already living at the White House with her family, and she took up the responsibilities of first lady for the last few months of Harrison’s term.
After private services were held in the East Room, the family brought her back to Indianapolis for interment. An official funeral service was held at the First Presbyterian Church. After the service, the cortege proceeded past the Harrison’s Delaware Street home before going on to Crown Hill Cemetery for burial.
Caroline Harrison’s legacy has proved to be historically important. The current architectural plan of the White House, in particular the East and West Wing, reflects the plan suggested by her in 1889, and the White House china room is certainly a testament to her historical sensitivity in rescuing, repairing and identifying artifacts from previous administrations. Caroline Harrison was not able to use the china she had ordered. She died before it was delivered. It arrived at the White House in December of 1892.


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Benjamin Harrison home at 1230 North Delaware Street in Indianapolis.

You can honor Caroline Harrison’s memory with a visit to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site at 1230 North Delaware Street. The home offers tours daily. Another option, perhaps more consistent with the season, would be to visit her final resting place at Crown Hill Cemetery at 3402 Boulevard Place. Tour Guide and historian Tom Davis will be reprising his popular “Skeletons in the closet” tours (there are 2 different) on October 24, 25, 26 and November 2. Check their web site for specifics. Although I don’t think Caroline’s gravesite is particularly featured on Tom’s tours, I’m pretty sure he’ll take you there if you were to ask him. After all, Tom knows where all the bodies are buried.

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Benjamin Harrison Grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.
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Caroline Harrison Grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.