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 in revolt almost back to back. They all failed. When Kossuth, going into exile, landed in New York in December 1851, crowds hailed him as a friend of liberty. (Pronounced LY-osh KO-shoot, by the way, his unfamiliar name was usually just spelled Louis in print.) Kossuth’s reception in the Big Apple had been equaled only by the great Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American and French Revolutions, who made a grand tour of America in 1825 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolutionary War.
With that war still in living memory, Americans loved to honor romantic rebels against perceived tyranny, especially if that tyranny was European — though America’s strange tolerance for slavery struck most European visitors as the worst hypocrisy. As migrants pushed west, new settlements got named after “freedom fighters.” Two counties in northern Indiana have the Polish fighters Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko as their namesakes. Simón Bolívar, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the great Lafayette were also inscribed onto the American map.
Kossuth’s revolt against the Austrians, sparked by a push for democratic reforms, crumbled in 1849. He and some of his followers fled into Turkey, where they sought political asylum. The Sultan, however, insisted that they convert to Islam. Raised a strict Lutheran, Kossuth refused and spent two years in an Anatolian prison. He put his jail time to good use, though, teaching himself an archaic, theatrical and probably woefully mispronounced English by studying Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible, books he would have already known in German. The U.S. government pressured the Sultan to release him, and in 1851, Kossuth sailed to Gibraltar on the steamship USS Mississippi — soon to be Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship in Japan — then to England. In December, New York City gave him a triumphal welcome.
Not to be outdone, Hoosier legislators invited him out to Indiana. The Midwest was a popular destination for the German and Irish radicals who fled Europe after their own 1848 revolutions failed. Many of the German freethinkers who settled Indianapolis were “Forty-Eighters” — including Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., Kurt Vonnegut’s great-grandfather. German radicals usually sympathized with Kossuth. The Irish, however, disliked him, since he admired England.
In February 1852, the exiled Hungarian leader and his entourage took the train west to Columbus, Ohio, then down to Dayton and Cincinnati. On February 26, a delegation of Indianians met Kossuth at the Burnet House in Cincinnati, then sailed with him on the steamboat Wisconsin thirty miles downstream to the old river town of Madison, Indiana. Crowds lined the banks of the Ohio in small Hoosier towns like Aurora, Rising Sun, and Patriot, firing off cannons and muskets as the European rebel stepped out on the deck and waved. American, Hungarian and Turkish flags flew from the boat’s stern.
Kossuth’s main host aboard the Wisconsin was Indiana’s hatchet-faced Lieutenant Governor, James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. A ferocious Free Soiler, “Jim” Lane later became a U.S. Senator from Kansas, one of the most famous Jayhawk border fighters in the brutal 1859 war over Bleeding Kansas, and was the target of the Confederate raid that burned down Lawrence in 1863. With Lane was the famous Welsh social reformer from New Harmony, Robert Dale Owen.
Jim Lane’s unkempt head, so memorably preserved in an old daguerreotype, was the perfect image of pioneer Indiana. Just nine years before the Civil War, Madison was still the great Hoosier metropolis — not Indianapolis. Most visitors agreed that once you got past Madison and New Albany, “creature comforts” disappeared fast. Yet in Madison, Kossuth found plenty of Europeans — he was even welcomed by a German brass band and delivered a speech in German. Kossuth’s speech was translated for the Madison Daily Banner by Louis Dembitz, an immigrant Jewish lawyer from Prussian Poland. Dembitz was the uncle of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who later changed his middle name to honor him. (Brandeis’ parents were married in Madison, where a synagogue, no longer extant, was organized in 1855.)
Leaving Madison, the Hungarians boarded a train for Indianapolis. Pushing up the famously steep Madison Railroad Incline Cut, they went on to Vernon, Columbus, Franklin and Indianapolis. At Columbus, a boy came on the train and sold them sugar made from maple sap, eliciting praise from the great revolutionary for this “Hoosier production.”
Kossuth’s trip was chronicled in a fascinating book called White, Red, Black, based on the diaries of his companion Ferenc Pulszky and his wife Theresa. The Pulszkys’ account of Indianapolis in the winter of 1852 is only a sketch, since they stayed for just a few days, but what they wrote about the young city is both funny and profound.
With his slicked-back hair and radical Romantic appearance, Ferenc Pulszky, who later became a great Hungarian statesman, was one of Kossuth’s co-revolutionists and would also fight alongside Garibaldi in Italy in the 1860s. His wife was equally fascinating. Born Therese von Walter, she came from Austrian nobility and grew up in the Vienna of Schubert and Beethoven. Marrying a Hungarian, Theresa learned the language, wrote a book about Hungarian folklore, and supported the revolution.
On the steamer and train, Theresa Pulszky debated with Robert Dale Owen over women’s right to own property and whether free African Americans should be allowed to vote and settle in Indiana. Owen was a great supporter of women’s rights, but Pulszky found his and Hoosiers’ ideas about free blacks blatantly hypocritical. “The most striking feature of the New [Indiana] Constitution was, to me, that whilst it begins with the declaration that all men are created equal, it contains an article forbidding any negro or mulatto to come into the State of Indiana.” Owen recommended that blacks be shipped back to Africa. Though a liberal and a reformer, he supported keeping blacks disenfranchised, telling his Hungarian guests “Our children shall not have helots before our eyes.” Theresa Pulszky clearly thought Owen’s views were ridiculous.
She was more impressed with Indiana’s “pioneer poet laureate,” Sarah T. Bolton, who shared poetry with her on the steamboat. Bolton was known both as a writer and singer in Indianapolis, advocated in the legislature for female property rights, helped her husband found the city’s first newspaper (the Gazette), and donated 180 acres for the Central State Hospital, the great mental asylum that’s supposedly haunted. Theresa Pulszky shared one of Bolton’s poems in her book.
Arriving in Indianapolis on a frigid March 1, Theresa — without being arrogant — wasn’t very impressed: “In the afternoon we reached the capital of Indiana, a very small place, whose resources are not yet sufficient to provide for drainage and pavement. The aboriginal mud of the rich soil reminded me here of the streets [of the Hungarian city] of Debreczin.”
Unlike Madison, whose sudden decline after the Civil War made it too poor to tear its architecture down, with just a few exceptions Indianapolis has destroyed all of its antebellum buildings. Virtually nothing Kossuth’s party could have seen in 1852 still stands today — least of all the vast forests and marshes they traveled through.
The Hungarians stayed at the Capital House — according to R.L. Polk’s Directory, the “most stylish” hotel in town. Run by proprietor John Cain, the building later became the printing offices of the Indiana State Sentinel and a bookbindery. Theresa Pulszky called it “very far from nice” and said service there was almost non-existent. Eating in the “dark dinner room,” they found the table covered with “pies, celery, mashed potatoes, sour wheat-bread, tough cow-meat and cold pork. In the bottles muddy water.” She called the soup “an infusion of hay” and thought Hoosiers ate their food too fast. Their waiter was an Englishman from Worcestershire who said he wanted to go back to Europe as soon as possible.
Later they visited the house of Indiana Governor Joseph Wright. A Rockville lawyer raised in Bloomington, his name survives at Indiana University, where Wright Quadrangle, the undergraduate dorm, was named after him. Wright later became the U.S. ambassador in Berlin and died in Germany in 1867. Kossuth and the Pulszkys attended a Methodist church service with Wright. The Methodists “sang unmusically,” said Theresa, “but prayed earnestly.” On a comic and more positive note, the Pulszkys remarked that the enthusiastic Hoosiers shook hands so vigorously, the visitors’ arms hurt. “I yet feel Western cordiality in my stiff arm,” wrote Theresa.
The Viennese visitor also asked the governor a question many Hoosiers still ask. Linguists have never concurred with Wright’s answer:
Kossuth’s party might not have been “Hoosas,” but they were dressed like “Hussars.” A reporter for the Terre Haute Wabash Express wrote that Kossuth “wears a dress sword under a sack coat, most of the others are generally in military costume, with swords dangling at their sides. This is mere pretension, and in bad taste in a republican country.” An Englishman traveling with Kossuth sold bonds in order to raise “material aid” for another revolution in Europe. A group of Indianapolis printers and other supporters gave him financial donations. Kossuth gave an oration to Center Lodge No. 23, the local Freemasons. Ferenc Pulszky talked to schoolchildren about the value of good religion.
The highlight of the Hungarians’ visit, however, was a speech at the old Indiana State House. Designed by the New York architectural firm of Town & Davis and built in 1835, the old legislature — demolished in 1877 — was an almost exact replica of the Parthenon in Athens, except for the large dome in the middle. Coming in a parade with a brass band and firemen, Kossuth gave a long speech, barely audible because of noise in the chamber and his thick accent, and tried to persuade Americans to intervene militarily against Austria. The event concluded with three cheers for Hungary. The Wabash Express called it “the most interesting scene ever witnessed within our halls of legislation.”
On March 3, the visitors took the train back down to Madison, then went by steamboat to Louisville and St. Louis, where Theresa Pulszky wrote about the exiled Europeans she knew who had already made it out to the Mississippi Valley. One of them was László Ujházy, who led a group of former revolutionaries to southern Iowa, where they founded a short-lived settlement called New Buda. The American government gave the Hungarians free land on the prairie, angering other settlers who had to pay for their land there. The colony lasted about a year before the group moved to Texas. Lajos Kossuth’s former revolutionary minister of police, however, László Madarasz, stayed in Iowa for sixty years and died near the tiny town of Leon in 1909, aged 98. Originally it was hoped that Kossuth himself would settle down in Iowa and give up his dreams of liberating Hungary. Kossuth County, Iowa, was named for him — as was a small farming town near Salem in southern Indiana. Kossuth, Indiana — like New Buda — scattered to the winds.
The travelers went on through the American South, visiting cities like Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, Montgomery, Wilmington and Richmond, then headed up to New England, the part of America they liked the best. Like Charles Dickens, who traveled through America in 1842, the Pulszkys were appalled by slavery and the contradictions of American democracy.
There’s some irony in the coverage that newspapers gave to Kossuth’s American travels. The Madison Daily Banner, probably the best paper in Indiana, hated Governor Wright, Kossuth’s host in Indianapolis. Kossuth visited America not long after passage of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While Wright was toasting freedom, the Daily Banner printed a clip about the famous case of Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist minister from New York who helped slaves escape from Kentucky. Once over the river, he would often help them reach the farmhouse of Quaker Levi Coffin near Union City, Indiana — one of the great stops on the Underground Railroad. When Fairbank defied federal law, Governor Wright cooperated with Kentucky’s governor Lazarus Powell to arrest him. Kidnapped by Kentuckians in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Fairbank was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on February 24, 1852, four days before Lajos Kossuth came to Indiana to promote freedom. Beaten by guards in jail, Calvin Fairbank, the real hero of freedom, who is almost unknown today, was said to have received over 30,000 lashes during the twelve years he spent rotting in a Kentucky penitentiary. The governor in Indianapolis had signed his arrest warrant.
Kossuth went back to Europe, but never saw Hungary again. He died in exile in Italy in 1894, though he did live long enough to appear on one of the first phonograph recordings in 1890 — a strange record of a voice that once rang out in the old Indiana State House. Theresa Pulszky, who chronicled his American travels, died in a cholera epidemic in Budapest in 1866, the same year Jim Lane committed suicide by shooting himself in the head while jumping out of a carriage.
It’s hard to say what kind of lasting impact Kossuth had on Americans’ ideas about freedom during the dark days of the Fugitive Slave law. Most of it was probably superficial. The Madison newspaper complained about how quickly other editors forgot about Kossuth to turn their attention to “spirit rappers” (séances) and the singer Jenny Lind. A new steamboat on the Ohio was christenned The Hungarian in Kossuth’s honor. He also had an impact on facial hair. The Madison Daily Banner reprinted this clip from the Indiana State Journal: