Lovina Streight -- Indianapolis News, June 6, 1910 (5)

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1910

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 bizarre Marion County court case called into question the deceased woman’s “soundness of mind.”  Accusations came out that she had talked to spirits, taken advice from her dead husband, and developed a special love for the color red.

Born in the Finger Lakes region of western New York, Lovina McCarthy married future Civil War General Abel D. Streight in 1849, when she was nineteen and he twenty-one.  Originally a carpenter and lumberman, Streight moved his family to Cincinnati in 1858, then to Indianapolis a year later.  A book and map publisher in Indy, Abel Delos Streight was also a religious freethinker.  For a skeptic whose wife later buried him in their own front yard and was rumored to converse with his spirit, one possible origin of his unusual middle name is ironic:  the Greek island of Delos, which ancient Greek priests purged of dead bodies to keep the place ritually pure.

When the Civil War broke out, Streight was appointed colonel of the 51st Indiana Infantry, an Indianapolis regiment.  Lovina and their five-year-old son John traveled with him as Union troops moved South.  Though the 51st Indiana fought at Shiloh, one of the most terrifying battles of the war, by May 1863, Streight and his soldiers were sitting on the sidelines.  Probably getting bored, he convinced his commander, future U.S. President and assassin’s victim James Garfield, to let him raid a Confederate railroad.   Poorly planned and equipped with temperamental mules, not fast-running horses, Streight’s Raid was a disaster.  Taken prisoner outside Rome, Georgia, by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who later put the Klan on its feet, Streight got packed off to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.  A former ship chandler’s warehouse, Libby was second only to Andersonville in its horrors and one of the worst destinations for Union POWs.

Abel Streight -- LOC

Abel D. Streight. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The Richmond Enquirer penned this unfriendly description of the “notorious” Hoosier officer, who had already tried to break out of Libby.  In January 1864, he was sitting in solitary confinement.

“Streight is a tall, raw-boned, broad-chested, sandy haired, big whiskered, uncouth looking man, with arms swinging like the wings of a windmill in the doldrums.  He has acquired a considerable quantity of disjointed information on a variety of topics, while pasturing in the literary fields of Yankeeland.  Knowing a little of everything, and not much of anything, has made him a free thinker, and ready adherent of all the isms peculiar to his section.  He does not, it is said, believe in a God or a Devil, which is not at all wonderful, considering the locality from which he hails.”

Battling starvation, illness, cold weather, and perhaps even torture, a month after the Richmond Enquirer published its jab at Streight, he and a hundred other Union prisoners tunneled through the rat-infested earth.  Fifty-nine were recaptured, but Streight’s role in the jailbreak launched him to fame.

Libby Prison -- LOC

Richmond’s Libby Prison, scene of Hoosier General A.D. Streight’s 1864 jail break. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Lovina, too, was active on the warpath.  Captured by Confederates three times, the small Hoosier lady once escaped by pulling six pistols from under her petticoats and forcing a guard to drive her away.  She nursed the sick and dying and famously carried a wounded soldier’s musket on a tough march.  Lovina Streight quickly became the beloved “Mother of the 51st.”  For decades, veterans came to Indianapolis to visit and honor her.

After the war, the couple built a huge two-story brick house on the National Road on Indy’s east side.  Designed, ironically, like the spacious Southern mansions that Union troops had just been putting the torches to, the Streight Homestead sat on a 25-acre tract of semi-virgin woods.  The official address was 4121 East Washington Street.  Nestled amid “a beautiful grove of trees,” the Streight Mansion was surrounded by a spacious landscaped lawn, flowers, walkways, and driveways, and is said to have had seven cellars.  The house stood across from what was once called Tuxedo Park, just west of the official boundary of Irvington, at a spot along what later became Gladstone Avenue.  Two miles from downtown, this was rural living in 1866.  Only the road exists today.  A trap door might as well have taken the rest.

Streight Home

The Streight Homestead at 4121 East Washington Street. (www.whatwasthere.com)

In the 1870s and ’80s, Abel Streight served as a state senator, then ran unsuccessfully for Governor on the Republican ticket in 1880.  A man like him could have expected an impressive grave site at Crown Hill Cemetery.  Yet when he died in 1892, his trip to Crown Hill took ten years.  Lovina had him buried out in front of the house, in a northeast corner of the yard.  “I never knew where my husband was when he lived,” she is said to have quipped on the day of the funeral, “so I buried him here. Now I know where he is.”  The Indianapolis Journal reported that General Streight was to be buried in “a solid copper coffin to be inclosed in a red cedar casket, covered with black broadcloth, and trimmed with oxidized silver and gold handles.”

Lovina Streight

Lovina Streight at a Civil War reunion, circa 1907 – 1910.  (Courtesy Indiana State Archives)

Around 1885, Lovina and her husband had started hosting veterans’ reunions at their home, a tradition that lived on after his death.  The able Lovina was definitely a “favorite” of old soldiers.  When the Soldiers & Sailors Monument downtown was dedicated in 1902, she marched alongside the increasingly doddering survivors of the 51st Indiana.  At her own funeral in June 1910, Lovina was the first Hoosier woman ever to receive full military honors.  A huge crowd gathered for her burial that day — at Crown Hill.

In 1902, General Streight’s body had been dug up and moved to the city’s largest burying grounds.  One would think that, consigned to the earth and their Maker, the Streights’ tale was told.  Yet when Lovina’s will came out, the press started picking up on some strange stories.

The trouble started when Lovina’s sister, Sophia D. Hughes, found out that she would only be getting $2,000, while the generous and public-minded Lovina had bequeathed about $100,000 and her large property to help establish a home for aged women and, if possible, a cemetery for old soldiers.  (The Streights’ son John had died in 1905, reportedly after a long mental breakdown.)  Lovina was quite the philanthropist.  She had already helped the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum get established on a stretch of land just west of her property.  And her affection for veterans was famous.

In April 1911, however, Lovina’s will went on trial in Marion County Court.  The dead woman’s generosity stood threatened to be tripped up by accusations that she was “eccentric,” “mentally unsound,” and even “half-witted,” said the papers.

Indianapolis News, April 4, 1911

Indianapolis News, April 4, 1911

Around a hundred witnesses testified before a judge and jury.  Some were convinced that Lovina’s mind was fit and that her “eccentricity” had merely been cooked up or exaggerated by greedy relatives who wanted a bigger piece of the pie.  The testimony of others suggests a more complicated picture.

The gist of the court proceedings was that Lovina had fallen under the influence of a prominent Indianapolis spiritualist, B. F. Schmid.  With Spiritualism’s heyday gone, it might sound to the uninformed today that “Frank” Schmid was some kind of sorcerer or wizard.  In fact, a hundred years ago, Spiritualism, while never exactly mainstream, wasn’t far from it.  Some folks argue that, to its credit, Spiritualism was a valiant attempt at “scientific religion,” relying on direct experience, not faith.  Famous writers like Irish poet William Butler Yeats — who spoke at Butler College in Irvington in 1904 — and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took a serious interest in spirit-rapping, Ouija boards, and séances to communicate with the dead.  So did the well-known Indianapolis reformer and women’s rights advocate, May Wright Sewall.

Frank Schmid helped run the Indianapolis Furniture Company.  His family built the apartment flat called Emelie at the corner Senate and Capitol Avenues, now home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.  Schmid, who died in 1905, also served as president of the Indianapolis Association of Spiritualists and helped found the First Spiritualist Church.  Camp Chesterfield, just east of Anderson, was another major gathering place for central Indiana “spiritists.”  While their “paranormal” investigations definitely weren’t illegal and even elicited a fair amount of fascination from the local press, whose reporters sometimes attended séances, a wealthy, aging woman’s involvement with folks who claimed to talk to ghosts did cause suspicion.  If psychics, etc., weren’t raising the dead, they were getting raised eyebrows.

Indianapolis News, February 19, 1894

Indianapolis News, February 19, 1894

Sample testimony published in the News and Star tried to shed light on Lovina Streight’s apparently unorthodox behavior and religious beliefs in the decade or so before she died.

Anna B. Wolf, of Indianapolis, said she had attended Spiritualist meetings at the Streight home, and that Mrs. Streight received business instructions from the spirit of Colonel Streight, and that she believed B.F. Schmid to be the best man to attend to her business transactions for her.  Witness said that Mrs. Streight often used liquor, and that she was all right until she drank to excess; then, according to the witness, she became ill tempered.  The witness said she had been at the Streight home when there had been spoiled meat on the table, and butter “strong enough to walk away.”

Mrs. L. Sims said that Mrs. Streight had told her that her husband used her hand to write messages.  She said she had seen Mrs. Streight go downtown in a red flannel dressing gown and wearing a little black bonnet trimmed with red roses.

B. F. Hozier, a neighbor of Mrs. Streight, said he did not believe the woman was insane.  He told of her peculiar tastes in dress and of her apparent affection for old soldiers.

Mrs. Daisy Graham said that Mrs. Streight wore bright colors, and that there was always a dash of red among them…

At another time the witness said Mrs. Streight told him she had intended to remove the body of Gen. Streight to Crown Hill Cemetery, but that his spirit told her to leave the body alone for a year… The witness said he frequently noticed her ‘outlandish’ manner of dress.  In summer, he said, he had seen her wearing woolen dresses, while in winter her outer garments were often very thin.  He also said he had noticed that she liked an abundance of showy colors… and said that in his opinion, she was a person of unsound mind.

Indianapolis News, April 7, 1911 (8)

Indianapolis News, April 7, 1911 (9)

Indianapolis News, April 7, 1911

Lovina’s preference for red clothes, red ribbons, a red wagon and — notwithstanding all that coffee — her apparent weakness for whiskey and wine (surely it was red wine!) would never be an obstacle to fulfilling her last wishes today.  But in 1911, unfortunately, the judge and jury concluded that she was, in fact, of “unsound mind.”  The will that bequeathed her money and spacious home for use by elderly women was thrown out.

Within just a few years, the Streights’ sprawling property was already slated for sale.  Though purchased by prominent tire manufacturer Miner E. Haywood — one of the kings of Indianapolis industry when Indy was still a major rubber-producing town — the home was torn down around 1917.  That April, developer Charles M. Cross & Company ran an ad for a new subdivision on the old Streight land.  With the city of Indianapolis pushing ever outward, the farm and woods along Pleasant Run rapidly got devoured by new homes, at a time when this part of the East Side was booming.

Indianapolis News, December 28, 1915

Indianapolis News, December 28, 1915

Indianapolis News, April 21, 1917

Indianapolis News, April 21, 1917

Many, perhaps most, of the homes still standing along this stretch of East Washington Street sprouted up in the 1920s, when several major factories operated nearby.  By the 1970s, however, the neighborhood had gone into serious decline, as Hoosier factories closed and white flight shifted the bulk of investment out to the suburbs.  The site of the old Streight Homestead is currently a residential block just east of Shepherd Community Center and an Advance Auto Parts.

4121 e washington st

4121 East Washington Street. (Googlemaps)

A portrait of a younger Lovina Streight, painted by Hoosier artist Julia Cox in 1880, once languished in a forgotten corner of the Indiana Statehouse.  Recovered and restored in 2013 by Meredith McGovern, a conservator at the Indiana State Museum, the painting is the subject of a good documentary funded by the Lockerbie Square Questers.

Though nothing remains of their old homestead, you can still visit the impressive grave of the Streights and their son John at Crown Hill.