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The first Irvington school began as one room in 1874 and grew to two stories with a tower by the time this picture was taken in the late 1890s. The building stood immediately east of Irving Circle Park on the south side of Grand Avenue, later renamed University. Photo: courtesy Larry Muncie collection, Irvington Historical Society

Drama Teacher?

By all accounts, Miss Lydia R. Putnam, school mistress, was no push-over. In the fall of 1877, the quiet and comparatively upscale community of Irvington where Putnam made her home would soon be able to testify to her grit.

A 40-year-old disciplinarian originally from New England, Putnam would play no favorites among her students in her first year of teaching. She seemed to some to have “eyes in the back of her head,” and a no-nonsense disposition. Regardless, pupils liked her.

Other Irvington personalities, however, did not share this positive regard. At the end of her contract year at the school, Miss Putnam was invited to return. Curiously, though, changes in the school board caused a duplicate contract to be issued to another teacher, a Mr. T. J. Burton…

… And thus began the great Battle of Irvington!

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Fashion 1877. The search for a photo of Miss Putnam has proven fruitless but a school mistress might have worn such an outfit if she had means. Photo credit: Metmuseum.org

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Fashion 1877. For a few years toward the end of the 1870s, dresses were bustle-less. If Miss Putnam followed fashion and had a comfortable income, she might have worn such a dress. Photo credit: Metmuseum.org

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Fashion 1877. If Miss Putnam had simpler tastes or reduced means, a country frock might have been worn to work. Image credit: Metmuseum.org

Feeling fully in the right–because her contract was issued and signed first–Miss Putnam circulated a petition on her own behalf. Refusing to be thwarted in their authority, the school board circulated a competing petition. At the end of the exercise, the village of Irvington was truly divided — 17 families signing the petition for Miss Putnam, 14 for Mr. Burton.

While the grown-ups were choosing sides, the summer flew by without a solution. On September third, the first day of school, the students found Miss Putnam in the school room, dusting and rearranging the furniture. The morning’s lessons were begun without delay, but peace and order were soon disturbed by the arrival of three school trustees who asked Miss Putnam to hand over the keys and control of the classroom.

“Only under due process of the law,” was her reply.

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A view of Irvington from the original school house. Photo: courtesy the Larry Muncie collection, Irvington Historical Society.

After an animated exchange which greatly disturbed some of the younger students, the trustees attempted a more physical approach. One “gentleman” even used his knee to give Putnam a “boost.” When they finally got her outside after a protracted struggle, Miss Putnam ran around to the back door and returned to her seat. Again, the trustees hauled her outside, but this time she grabbed the door hasp and hung on until her fingers gave way.

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What’s a “door hasp,” you ask?

Now sporting minor injuries, Miss Putnam relented and joined a small crowd of Irvington residents who had gathered in front of the school, mid-hubbub. Divisions in opinion were apparent: one cluster of Irvingtonians surrounded Miss Putnam and another encircled the trustees.

School would not return to session for several days while tempers cooled.

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A very public drama. Image credit: Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1877. Indiana State Library newspaper archives

Lydia September 5 Indpls JournalFurious and feisty, Miss Putnam petitioned to have two trustees arrested for assault and battery. A week later when the children returned to school, the offending trustees had each been fined $15 and an epic civil law suit had just begun.

The battle played out prominently in local newspapers for months. “War to the knife has been declared and no quarter will be given or taken,” commented The Indianapolis News, in apparent delight.

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Photo credit: Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1877. Indiana State Library archives

Lydia Putnam eventually prevailed. A lower court awarded her $800 in damages and the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the judgment the next year.

It’s a still a mystery: What sparked hostility towards Miss Putnam? One theory is that community co-founder Sylvester Johnson didn’t support her initial election or that she may have crossed him at some point during the school year. At any rate, life gradually got back to normal in the village.

Miss Putnam thrived in the community but never married. She continued teaching in Irvington schools but also developed skills as a respected writer of children’s literature and a typesetter. She passed away at the age of 58 and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

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Obituary from the Indianapolis News. Image courtesy of Bob Alloway.

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Crown Hill Cemetery at the approximate site of Putnam’s unmarked grave. Image credit: Tom Davis

So, Irvingtonians… check those dusty photo albums under your beds and in your attics. If you find a photo of our stalwart Miss Putnam, won’t you please share it with us here… and also with the Irvington Historical Society?

Special thanks to Don Flick of the Irvington Historical Society and the Facebook group MARION COUNTY INDIANAPOLIS HISTORY. 

Can’t get enough Irvington? Check out other articles on this beautiful, historic neighborhood:

Indianapolis Then and Now: Irvington School of Music

A Room with a View – The Bona Thompson Memorial Building – Irvington Historical Society

A Room with a View – Irvington Masonic Lodge #666

6 responses to “Friday Favorite: The Battle of Irvington”

  1. Julia Rutland says:

    Yay – Go on Miss Putnam!!! LOVE to hear stories of strong women who fought for justice. Makes it even better that she did it right here in our own backyard – thanks so much for sharing – made my day 🙂

  2. Duane Palmer says:

    A CPI generator estimates that $800 in 1877 dollars multiplied by the percentage increase in inflation would be equal to $18,400 in 2013 dollars.

  3. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Thanks, Duane! This certainly illustrates that $800 was no small chunk of change in 1877, and that this “dust up” was considered more than a minor infraction in the court’s eyes. I wonder what she did with her windfall…

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    So right, Julia! Almost 140 years ago, the ideas of propriety were quite different than today’s. I can’t imagine her indignation at being carried and “boosted” from a school room full of students — a middle-aged, single woman making her way in what truly was a “man’s world,” back then. (Even today it would be an outrage.) I also marvel at her fortitude. Thanks for reading!

  5. Tom says:

    A great tale well told, Lisa! Thanks for doing the research and sharing this story. I find it particularly interesting that she stayed in Irvington after the case was settled.

    By the way, the CPI in recent years underestimates the real inflation rate. The equivalent amount today would probably exceed the $18,400 figure that Duane produced with the CPI calculator.

  6. Anonymous says:

    4.5

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