Author: Stephen J. Taylor

The World League for a Sane Christmas

Indianapolis News, July 18, 1911. Oh, tired Christmas shoppers!  Burned out on commercial Christmases?  So were people back in 1911, when a league that sought to call a halt to unfettered Christmas gift-giving established its national headquarters in Indianapolis. If the date of an Indianapolis News article is any indication, the World League for a Sane Christmas was busy well in advance of that year’s holiday shopping craze.  “Hurrah! Now Cometh Sane Christmas Idea” was published on July 18, 1911. Many religious folks would agree that the true spirit of Christmas has been lost in the welter of shopping malls and fancy gift wrap.  A few...

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Die Weihnachtseinkäufe

Die Weihnachtszeit ist nahe.  Christmas time is near. That’s not an ad from overseas.  At the turn of the 20th century, Indianapolis had a thriving German-speaking population. The major local German newspaper in 1900, the Indiana Tribüne, also happened to be the third most widely read in the city. Before the downtown business district died a miserable death at mid-century, you would have done probably all of your Christmas shopping there.  Black Friday wasn’t a thing back then, but here’s some ads for a few popular Christmas items. While most of these are strictly auf Deutsch, many are actually...

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Grasshopper Jails & Other “Monkey Business”

If you peek into newspapers from any decade, it doesn’t take long to find some downright strange human activity going on.  In spite of the often ego-stroking tales we tell ourselves, human behavior, of course, can be as bizarre as that of any other species.  Perhaps we’re even the weirdest of them all. Animals have often shared a front seat on our rocky ride through life — sometimes literally, as you’ll see in a moment.   Here’s a few stories that came out in the Indianapolis Times and other papers during the last years of Prohibition and the first...

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Bacteria, Blood & Bad Dreams: The Unsolved Murder of Helen Knabe

How did one of Indiana’s pioneer investigators into STDs and rabies come to a gory end?  The mystery of Dr. Helen Knabe’s death remains one of the great cold cases in Indianapolis murder history.  So, too, are the whereabouts of her spirit in the afterlife.  Did she really become a ghost lingering around the Athenaeum — or as it was called in her days, Das Deutsche Haus? The sad tale of the doctor’s demise, which begins one autumn night barely a hundred years ago, is still occasionally told on the local ghost-lore circuit. Future Indiana state bacteriologist Helen Knabe...

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The Rise and Fall of the Billy Goat Beer

If you strolled down the streets of Indianapolis in 1900, you would have needed a bale of cotton stuffed in your ears not to hear a conversation or two auf Deutsch. Thanks to Germany’s turbulent 19th-century history, many Germans had to leave their homeland behind.  In the wake of failed revolutions, some came to Lockerbie Square, a place known colloquially as Germantown.  Both religious freethinkers and religious conservatives — Protestants, Catholics, atheists, and Jews — found Indiana an alluring destination, a place where the government would leave them alone. A few great Indianapolis monuments, in fact, owe their origin...

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Keep Your Sauerkraut Away From My Bicycles

In 1896, readers of the Christmas Eve edition of Cycling Life, a trade magazine for America’s exploding bicycle industry, might have noticed this clever ad.  Probably drawn by an illustrator at an advertising house in Chicago, where the magazine was printed, the ad touted the ideal bike shop. A fictional building to the left conjures up the horrors of the crowded trade emporiums that Americans knew well in the 1890s.  Look at it.  There’s the “sour kraut” department, wedged in just underneath the bicycle department, which probably suffered from the drip-drip-drop of the mixed drink department up above, and maybe...

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Rufus Cantrell, Intruder in the Dust

In 1935, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges weighed in on what mathematicians later called chaos theory: the results of some phenomena are simply impossible to predict, control, or even explain.  Take the freak reasoning of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who helped stop the enslavement of Indians — only to suggest enslaving Africans instead.  As Borges put it: To this odd philanthropic twist, we owe endless things.  The blues of W.C. Handy. . . the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the 500,000 dead of the American Civil War and the $3,300,000 spent in military pensions; the entrance...

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“Escaped Nuns are Myths”: The Roots of a Forgotten Riot

Did you ever hear about the riot sparked by horror tales, a Holiness preacher, and a renegade nun? On October 12, 1924, a man named Lindley wrote this postcard home to his aunt and uncle.  Lindley was headed to Cadle Tabernacle, Indy’s evangelical megachurch of the Jazz Age, to hear a talk by “a minister who was once a R. Catholic priest 25 yrs.  He can tell you things that would make your blood run cold.” The “ex-priest,” it turns out, was a Canadian named L.J. King.  Known to cops all over the U.S. as a “traveling peace-breaker” and...

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When the Man Who Inspired Dracula Caused Blood to Boil in Gilded Age Indy

When the Irish author Bram Stoker penned his popular novel Dracula in the mid-1890s, he drew on many sources of inspiration — from Transylvanian folklore and the real-life figures of Vlad the Impaler and Countess Elizabeth Báthory to English Gothic novels and probably even Irish mythology about the sídhe (fairies), who, contrary to their Lucky Charms image in pop culture, had some unexpected vampiric traits. One man whom literary critics consider as a sort of “proto”-Dracula was Stoker’s own boss, the famous English actor Sir Henry Irving.  After writing a laudatory review of one of Irving’s Hamlet performances at...

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A Ku Klux Quaker?

Daisy Douglass Barr, Imperial Empress of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, circa 1923. Women are often the most fascinating characters in Hoosier history. Their lives continue to be relevant to pressing issues today.  Yet while most notable Indiana women could still be held up as role models, a few figure into the dark side of history. One especially complicated Hoosier woman was Daisy Douglass Barr.  In the mid-1920’s, Barr — a Quaker minister and touring evangelist since the age of 16 — served as the Imperial Empress of the Queens of the Golden Mask, the women’s auxiliary...

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Of Spirits and Soldiers

Fall is here.  So it’s time to keep on the spectral side of life. On June 6, 1910, the Indianapolis News carried the obituary of a woman once hailed as the patron saint of Hoosier Civil War veterans.  Appearing above a death notice for the great William Sydney Porter — pen name “O. Henry” — who died the same day, it’s tempting to think the short story writer famous for surprise endings couldn’t have improved much on hers. Within a year of her passing at age eighty, Lovina Streight’s reputation for color took on a rather literal twist.  A...

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The Scientific Scrapper Who Played Uncle Tom

If you’re into sports history, you’re probably familiar with the great cyclist “Major” Taylor, who was all but exiled from his hometown of Indianapolis, where he helped spark a craze for bicycles.  Coming up against the barriers black athletes faced in America, Taylor went overseas to France, New Zealand and Australia — and won global fame. Yet the Land Down Under had already sent athletes to the U.S.  Though born in the Caribbean, one of the best-known black boxers of his time came to Indy from the Southern Hemisphere.  At English’s Opera House in 1894, the “great and scientific...

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A German Firebug?

Most Americans know nothing about the time Nazi submarines stalked the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.  But if you’re ever on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and see anyone old enough to remember the year 1942, strike up a conversation.  Chances are, they remember an eerie glow on the sea at night, seen from childhood bedrooms or the beach.  Torpedoed by Hitler’s U-boats a few leagues offshore, cargo ships and burning oil tankers cast these fires.  Burned bodies of sailors often washed ashore.  In 2008, I interviewed romance novelist Dixie Burrus Browning, whose father Dick Burrus once played...

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A Bathing Revolution at the Indiana State Fair

The Locomotive, 1853. (Photo Stephen J. Taylor from the collections of the Indiana State Library.) You might have a hard time imagining Abraham Lincoln taking a shower — and not just because the wild-looking man was too tall for the spout.  While Americans before the Civil War understood the concept of bathing and sometimes even practiced it, their common mode of getting clean wasn’t the shower. In summertime, nude bathing in lakes and streams was a possibility. . . the farther from cities the better.  In 1869, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who dug up ancient Troy a year...

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Curb Cooties and Their Moveable Porches

Ever wonder about the history and folklore of cooties?  Around 1950, these mysterious critters evolved into a fictitious bug or imaginary microbe infesting American elementary school playgrounds.  Getting cured had nothing to do with proper medical treatment and everything to do with social standing.  In most cases, you could just unload them onto somebody else, then you were cootie-free.  But sometimes they’re permanent.  As I’ve just been reminded by a girl, “all boys have cooties.”  (“All boys?!”  “Mm hmm. Every. Last. One of them.”) Though the make-believe variety of this classic contagion was part phobia, part children’s “infection tag game,”...

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A Chinese Gravestone and a Murder Mystery at 207 Indiana Avenue

Crown Hill — America’s third-largest public cemetery — has a few hundred thousand stories to tell.  One of its more extraordinary burials took place in 1902, when a Confucian ceremony officially ushered Doc Lung, a murdered Chinese laundryman, into whatever mystery awaits us on the yonder side of death. That summer, August Diener & Sons, tombstone makers, erected a “modest white marble marker” over the dead man’s grave.  The carved inscription, later inlaid with gold leaf, was written and traced onto the stone by a man named Moy Kee.  Official leader of Indianapolis’ tiny Chinese community at the turn of...

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Yeats in Irvington

W.B. Yeats in 1903, just before he visited Irvington. Photo by American photographer Alice Boughton. It’s fascinating to reflect on the list of world-famous artists, writers and performers who once walked down Indy’s own streets.  The trail they left behind in the newspapers is often frustratingly small, but here’s a few visits that might surprise you. In January 1904, the Irvington Athenaeum nabbed a visit by one of Ireland’s rising young poets, 36-year-old William Butler Yeats, who was on a two-month trip to America.  Yeats began his tour in late 1903 in New York, then spoke at various East...

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Women Take to the Skies in Jazz Age Indy

“You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.”  That was Amelia Earhart’s verdict on rising up to the aerial view, where she thought the soul changes after a glimpse of the world from above.  Earhart also said that “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”  Here are a few stories from the early days of flight in the Hoosier State. When folks in Indianapolis wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of their city circa 1915, they had several airports to choose from.  At a time when aircraft were small enough to land in cow pastures, on...

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Misc Monday: Moses in Wonderland

One amazing local business coming to the rescue in the midst of the “food desert” of Indy’s East Washington Street corridor is Tlaolli, an incredible lavender house of tamales in a sea of post-industrial gray.  Almost directly across the street from Tlaolli is an advertisement for help of a different sort.  If you’re familiar with the Near East Side, you’ve probably seen a large billboard outside an old abandoned battery factory there.  Located near the intersection of East Washington with Rural Street, this side of the block, at least, needs all the help it can get.  The colorful billboard...

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Misc Monday: On Liberty and Whiskers

Lajos Kossuth in a daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, 1851 The list of famous visitors to Indianapolis would probably surprise you.  Oscar Wilde came in 1882.  Mark Twain came four times.  Sergei Rachmaninov, the composer, nine times.  One of the lesser-known visitors to saunter into young Indianapolis — but famous in his day — came in March 1852, when the town wasn’t much more than a backwoods clearing.  That man was the wild-whiskered Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. Europe’s 1848 revolutions are mostly forgotten today, but they were once big news in America.  Like the recent Arab Spring, several nations erupted...

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