Category Archives: Folklore

Hatteras Girl: Dixie Burrus Browning Remembers Island Life During World War II

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When thirty-year-old Brooklyn photographer Sol Libsohn visited Hatteras Island, North Carolina, in 1945 to take a few photos for Standard Oil, he probably didn’t realize that he’d soon end up creating what many consider the definitive portrait of “old” island life on the Outer Banks.  Twenty years later, completion of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet ushered in a new world on Hatteras.  Some things, like health care and education, got better.  But cars, tourism, and the collapse of the old maritime culture have taken their toll.

Made as stock commercial photos for use in the oil company’s magazine, Libsohn’s images are enormously popular on the coast.  His idyllic, romantic vision of island life before the roads came in is far from accurate and leaves much unsaid, but Libsohn beautifully captured the archetypes of the old days and ways, before they began their slow disappearance in the 1960s. Yet the actual stories of Hatteras are still hidden in these pictures.

The engineers and roughnecks who descended on this part of North Carolina in the final months of World War II were coming to one of the more remote and hard-to-get-to parts of the American South in those days.  Culturally distinct from the rest of the state and often at loggerheads with it, the inhabitants of these scrawny barrier islands were both isolated and at the center of a great Atlantic crossroads.

Famous as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Hatteras and the treacherous Diamond Shoals became the deathbed of many a ship in the days of sail.  Some island families even came here by accident, stranded on their way to other ports of call.  Though the mainstay of life was always fishing, a frequent lucky windfall — shipwrecks — brought exotic goods and even scarce household items. Bananas, canned food, clocks, bedsteads, and sometimes cars, all of which could be legally salvaged or auctioned off, came to Hatteras in the hold of wrecks.  In this place where wood is scarce, it is remarkable that many old Hatteras houses were built from doomed ships or the cargo of wrecked lumbering vessels.


dbb 6(NC Route 12, today the only highway on the Outer Banks, was a dirt path seventy years ago.)


Sol Libsohn, who died in 2001, came to Hatteras to illustrate the theme “There’s a drop of oil in everyone.”  Petroleum, in fact, was at the center of a forgotten drama enacted here during the early years of World War II. The little-known “Battle of the Atlantic,” when German U-boats sank hundreds of merchant marine vessels and oil tankers transporting war goods to Allied Europe, was waged from Newfoundland to Texas, but the waters off the Outer Banks became one of the major targets of Hitler’s underwater navy.

Most of the older generation who lived on Hatteras in those years can remember an ominous glow on the horizon, glimpsed over dunes at night, as stricken tankers burned at sea a few miles out.  In a strange boost to North Carolina tourism, recreational divers are now rediscovering and photographing some of these vessels — and their attackers.  In 2014, the German submarine U-576 was found thirty miles off Cape Hatteras.  Forty-five German sailors died when it was sent to the bottom on July 14, 1942.


u-352(U-352 was sunk off “Torpedo Alley” on May 9, 1941, and is one of the most visited dive sites along North Carolina’s coast.  Sumberged Sports.)


Many stories, some surely mythic, proliferated about German crewmen rowing into towns like Morehead City on rubber dinghies at dark to watch movies in local theaters.  A media blackout and the sheer remoteness of the place kept most Americans from knowing much about the war waged off North Carolina’s beaches in 1941 and ’42.  Local lore, now told by adults who were children back then, recalls the horrible fate of sailors at sea.  Bodies — American, English, German — would sometimes wash up on what became Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, horribly disfigured after swimming or floating through burning oil slicks on the ocean’s surface.

At war’s end, Standard Oil began exploring the bottom of Pamlico Sound for domestic petroleum deposits.  For a while, an oil derrick even sat near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, vying with it to be the tallest structure around.  The oil men gave up after drilling shafts down to 10,000 feet and finding nothing.  Recently, plans for another go at offshore drilling along the Virginia and North Carolina coast have sparked controversy, especially after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roy Stryker, who headed the Farm Security Administration’s Information Division and launched the career of many of the great documentary photographers of the 1930s and ’40s, worked with Standard Oil to send the self-taught Libsohn to Hatteras, purportedly to show the uses of oil.  A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Libsohn had knack for getting along with working-class Americans.  He went on to create a great record of many of the stock subjects of Edward Hopper’s America — “late night portraits of drivers and their vehicles,” his obituary in the New York Times runs, “waitresses and diners, roadside attractions, small towns along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. . . the hurly-burly life in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  He taught at Princeton for years.  Most of his images are housed at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in Kentucky.


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(Dixie Burrus.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


Dixie Burrus Browning was fifteen years old when Libsohn photographed her in June 1945.  She doesn’t recall why he took her picture.  Her father was Maurice “Dick” Burrus, a Hatteras native who had played professional baseball for teams in Philadelphia, Boston, and Indianapolis and was once scouted in person by the great baseball manager Connie Mack.  After returning to Hatteras Island at the start of the Great Depression, Dick Burrus became a commercial fisherman and a Texaco dealer — perhaps the reason why Libsohn photographed his daughter.

Dixie married Lee Browning at age 20.  They raised their children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the couple lived for forty-nine years before returning to the Outer Banks.  Dixie has written over a hundred romance and historical novels and is a prolific painter who runs a studio in Buxton.  She spoke to me in her home in December 2008 and told me about life in Hatteras back in the ’40s.


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Dixie Burrus Browning:  My daddy was a baseball player.  He played first base with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves and some minor teams.  And he had a hernia.  That ended his career.  Unfortunately, he stocked away everything in the stock market, and he got out of baseball in 1929, so you can imagine what that was like.  Perfect timing.


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If you really wanted to understand Hatteras, you had to be here, living on collards and crokers during the Depression, when most people didn’t even realize there was a Depression, because they went right on living the way they always had.  And it was a subsistence thing, pretty much.  But you could hunt.  You could fish.  You didn’t have to have licenses for everything, because there wasn’t any law down here.  No sheriff.  You didn’t have to have a driver’s license, because there were no highways.  It was a good place to grow up, but Lord, I’m glad my children didn’t grow up here.  And my grandchildren?  Children today, in this generation, they couldn’t handle it.

My brother was a year and a half younger than I am.  When he was about twelve, he became captain of daddy’s shrimp boat.  Daddy was a Texaco dealer, but he had a shrimp boat.  It had a crew of two, a captain and one mate, I guess you’d call them, and they were both Hyde County farmers who didn’t know a whole lot about running a shrimp boat.  And so finally daddy fired them, and my brother Steve at age twelve became captain of a shrimp boat.

And during one of the hurricanes, what you’d do was, you took the boat offshore and anchored it so it’ll swing into the wind.  And so Steve took the trawler off into the sound and anchored it and rode out the storm in it.  And nobody worried about it.  Now can you see a twelve-year-old given that responsibility today?

It was a working thing.  Up at 3:30 in the morning.  And they all headed out, in a row, early in the morning before daylight.  And the first person who found the area where there was shrimp, I can’t remember if they threw a flag over it or what, but then all the trawlers slowly circled, dragging that area all day.  And the first day Steve came in as captain, he sold high man.  He had caught more than anybody else that was out there and that was a big thrill.

He died a good while ago, just before he turned fifty.  [Steve Burrus worked for IBM and helped install computers on nuclear submarines.  He succumbed to a rare brain cancer in 1981.]

And then we hunted, too, when we were children.  We had a bolt action rifle, and for safety’s sake, I carried the bolt and walked behind Steve, who carried the rifle.  And we followed the shoreline looking for geese, ducks, anything edible.  And if we saw something, by the time we got the rifle back together again, they were gone.  So we never shot anything, but people did.  We had stewed goose with rutabagas.  We had sea turtle.  That is the best meat.  It’s un-P.C. to talk about it now, but I don’t give a damn about P.C.  It was delicious meat.  One flipper would feed the family, but it was awful to clean.  It had layers of gobby, sticky fat and leathery skin.  But it was the sweetest, best meat.  It was the color of beef, I guess.  But it was milder than beef.  It was just delicious.  Turtle stew, turtle hash, anyway you wanted to cook it.  Turtle burgers, we had those, too.


dbb 5(Dixie Burrus and Little Lee Peale, 1940s.)


But other than what we could catch or hunt here, we depended on the freight boats.  They came over a couple of times a week with whatever didn’t sell on the mainland.  You know, hamburger that was black.  And we grew up having canned milk, because you couldn’t get bottled milk that was fresh.  It would have been sour by the time it got here.  These weren’t refrigerated boats.

And we traveled on the freight boats, too.  My momma was from Elizabeth City, my grandmamma lived there.  And it was about an eight-hour trip.  They had absolutely no passenger accommodation.  One space for cars.

I have a ship model I did of my granddaddy Dozier Burrus’ boat.  The ship was called the Hamlet.  He bought the Hamlet after he retired from the West Indies trade.  He used to take daddy and daddy’s brothers with him on some of the runs.  Occasionally he’d take his daughters, too, to go up to Baltimore City or Washington City.  The West Indies trade was rum and molasses, mostly.  They sailed down to the Caribbean.  I don’t know that he owned the ships that he was captain of.  One of them — I loved the name! — was called the Bessie Mae and Annie.  I named a painting after it.


dbb 11(Almy Burrus and Capt. Ethelbert Dozier Burrus at the wheel of the Bugeye.)


My daddy’s mother was Achsah Williams.  She died when daddy was about six years old.  (He was the youngest of a slew of children.)  And granddaddy brought a new bride home, Miss Maggie.  Maggie Douglass, from Wilmington.  He left her here with his children while he went off to sea again.  So we had Miss Maggie when we were growing up.  And she’d tease us and play with us and walk to the beach every morning with old paint buckets to get gravel for the chickens she kept.  She kept our chickens.  She lived in the back part of our house.  Her clothes she made out of Pillsbury feed sacks.  Bloomers that would tie.  Cotton stockings that she didn’t darn — she would patch them with a gingham patch.  She wore high-top tennis shoes and sun bonnets.

After she died, we were packing away her things, and in the bottom of the trunk, there were two golden earrings and a black chiffon blouse.  And it just struck me:  Miss Maggie was a young woman with dreams, and she married Granddaddy Dozier and he went off and left her at home.  I’ve often wished I could go back and talk to her and just hug her.  I wrote a novel about her, The Mariner’s Bride.

Lots of ships got sunk around here by the German submarines in World War II.  I remember taking a walk on the beach after they blew up the Australia and seeing a metal lifeboat with bullet holes all down the side of it.  It had been strafed, obviously.  There was just a straight line of machine-gun holes right down the length of it.  And part of a carton of containers or something.  K-ration, or C-ration, or one of those rations, small cans.  The container had what looked like blood stains on it.  We didn’t touch any of that stuff.  And there were old pieces painted grey that were part of the deck gear that we recognized as such.  But you know, you’re kids, you can’t drag everything home.  There was stuff everywhere.  The beach was littered.  And we chased a muskrat all around there.

I know Shank Austin found a body there.

It was really rough.  Even as a child, it was the reality at that time.

I remember one specific night when everything rattled.  Everything that was glass in the house, including the window, just rattle-rattle-rattled.  It was enough to wake you up.  I woke up and looked out the window.  It was over the Slash, through the marsh.  We had a pretty clear shot of the ocean.  You couldn’t see the ocean itself, because there were houses and things in between, but you could see three distinct glows at night.  You could see the glow of burning oil.  The German submarines had gotten three of them that night.


the slash(A man, probably Millard O’Neal, walks over “The Slash” in Hatteras Village.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


My uncle, Uncle Almy, was in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station, which at that time was on the north end of Ocracoke Island.  He and his crew went out there in open boats.  I’m not sure if that was when the Australia was torpedoed (you know, I was a child then, I get things mixed up), but Uncle Almy and his crew saw the surviving sailors on one of those ships.  The stern was up in the air looking down at the water and the tanker was surrounded by burning oil.  The surviving crew members had to dive in and swim under.  Not many of them made it.  Somewhere I have pictures of Uncle Almy and I think one or two survivors when they got back to the station.

After the Australia was sunk, they had a vendue.  That’s traditional down here.  They’ve been doing that for the past couple of hundred years.  There was a wreck commissioner who came down.  He would oversee the sale of things.  And daddy bought some things off the Australia.  He bought the Texaco flag.  Big, bedspread-sized, wool bunting.  And he bought some of the semaphore flags, but not all.  Momma put an old quilt in between the layers and quilted them together.


dbb 15 - mv australia(The Texaco tanker Australia went down off Diamond Shoals on the night of March 16, 1942, en route from Texas to Connecticut.  Four crewmen were killed in the explosion.)


dbb 8(Two survivors of the Australia at Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station.)


dbb 7(Local Hatteras islanders next to the wreck of the Australia.)


dbb 16 - uboat(U-332, which torpedoed the 11,000-ton tanker Australia in 1942, was sunk by an RAF Liberator bomber in May 1943 off Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain.  All 45 of its crewmembers died.  This photo shows the crew of a similar boat, U-576, found off Cape Hatteras in 2014.)


The first time I went to New York was with Ernal Foster and my daddy.  I was maybe ten or eleven years old.  I had long pigtails.

I remember coming out of the Holland Tunnel.  There was a woman standing outside the tunnel dressed in a man’s suit.  That made such an impression on me.  There was nobody else in sight.  No cars, no traffic, no nothing.  It must have been in the wee hours of the morning.  I thought that was the strangest place, New York.

Out on Long Island, we stopped at a place called Pop’s Pony Yard for me to ride a pony.  Never mind that I had ridden bareback on the beach here at Hatteras.  There was me in a dotted Swiss dress with a long sash and my pigtails, sitting on the back of the pony, jogging along.


dbb young 1(A young Dixie Burrus, around 1940.)


I graduated in a class of three at Hatteras High.  It would have been more, except that the boys, as soon as they got to be sixteen, they’d leave here and go sign up with the Merchant Marine.  So our class kind of leaked.  I think we got the kind of teachers that couldn’t get a job anywhere else.

Just about the sickest I have ever been (and I was always prone to sea-sickness) was traveling back from Elizabeth City on one of those freight boats.  There were two boats named the Cathleen and the Mallinson, but I can’t remember which one it was.

Anyway, it was a freight boat, loaded up to the gills except right up in the forepeak.  And then there was all that cargo.  There were just planks like this that held it back.  We left late in the afternoon, and it was already rainy and stormy, and the water was real rough.  I think there were two other girls and me.  We had been to Louisburg to a Methodist youth retreat or something like that.

So when it started getting kind of rough — and, as I said, there were absolutely no amenities — they sent us below.  We opened the hatch up in the forepeak, and climbed down a ladder, and sat on upturned cases or crates or whatever.  And by then the water was sloshing about mid-way up our shins and we just sat there.  And the bow was rocking back and forth.  And we were getting sick.  And every time the boat would go like this, with all that freight piled up behind us, the boards would creak and groan.  And like I said, it was an eight-hour trip.  In pitch darkness.

First one and then other of us would get sick.  It was hot, miserable, stifling, stinky and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  So I climbed up the ladder and just got this much of me outside and closed the hatch over here.  And it was real foggy then.  Still rough, not raining, but just foggy.  But I could breathe, and the seas would wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over.  And it was refreshing.  Then all of a sudden this figure materialized, just head and shoulders, because the rest of it was foggy, and he said: “SON. . . You got to go back below!”

Several of the old men called all children “son,” male or female, it didn’t matter.

But they haven’t called me “son” in a few years.


dbb 10(Dixie Burrus heading out to Diamond Shoals.  More of her photos are available at the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society’s website.)


Stephen Taylor, staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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The Terre Haute Madstone

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In 1858, Terre Haute, Indiana, was beginning to have an odd distinction:  bite victims from all over the Midwest were coming here for a cure.

In that year, Isaac M. Brown, editor of the Terre Haute Daily Union, suggested to the city council that the town purchase for public use a “madstone,” a curious leech-like hair ball found in the guts of deer (preferably an albino buck).

For centuries, folk doctors on both sides of the Atlantic believed such madstones to be helpful in warding off rabies infections and poisonous bites.  (Queen Elizabeth I of England apparently kept a madstone hanging around her neck.)  To back up his support for this pubic health measure in Terre Haute, Brown quoted a letter from the Mount Pleasant Journal in Iowa, which tells the wild story of one settler there, Seth Stanton, bitten by a rabid feline at his home near the Missouri state line.

On the morning of the 15th of March last I arose early, walked out to the gate in front of my house where I was attacked by a mad animal — a mad cat.  It sprang upon me with all the ferocity of a tiger, biting me on both ankles, taking a piece entirely out of my left ankle, clothing flesh and all. [Perhaps it was a wildcat, not a domestic creature.  Stanton is not specific.] I saw at once my hopeless condition, for the glairing eyes of the cat told me at once that it was in a fit of hydrophobia.  I at once resolved to start forthwith to Terre-Haute, Ind., expecting there to find a mad stone.  Accordingly in a few hours, myself and wife were under way, crowding all sail for that port.

Though rabies can take as much as a year to incubate and show any of its awful signs, Stanton wasted no time in traveling by train or river boat back east to Indiana.  When he discovered there was a madstone seventeen miles from Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, he stopped there.  Eight days after he was bitten, he wrote, “My leg turned spotted as a leopard to my body, of a dark green color, with twitching of the nerves.”

[I] drank no water for eight days.  The stone was promptly applied to the wounds.  It stuck fast as a leech until gorged with poison, when it fell off volunteerly.  It was then cleaned with sweet milk, salt and water, and was applied again, and so on, for seven rounds, drawing hard each time, when it refused to take hold any more. — The bad symptoms then all left me, and the cure was complete, and I returned to my family and friends with a heart all overflowing with thanksgiving and praises to God for His goodness and mercy in thus snatching me from the very jaws of death.


terre haute madstone


American medical history is full of strange tales and oddball personalities — full as any old folktale.  In some cases, medicine and folklore come together.

Though my family has been in Terre Haute since the mid-1800s, I certainly had never heard anything about a famous “madstone” there.  The “Terre Haute madstone,” however, shows up over several decades in American and even Canadian newspapers.  At one time, journalists made Terre Haute out to be a virtual “madstone” mecca.

Madstones definitely weren’t Blarney Stones, and people who came looking for them weren’t tourists.  Madstones, it turns out, weren’t even rocks at all.  Once used as part of a rare but geographically widespread folk medical practice, they are also termed bezoars in both folklore and medical science.  Categorized according to the type of material that causes their formation — usually milk, seeds, or plants mixed with an animal’s own hair from licking itself — bezoars are calcareous masses found in the gastrointestinal tracts of deer, sheep, goats, horses and even walruses. In folk usage, these masses were mistaken for actual stones, sometimes polished to look like beautiful grey hen’s eggs, and often thought to have nearly-miraculous properties.

Frontiersmen believed that when applied to the bite of a rabid animal, and in some cases even that of a poisonous snake, madstones could draw out the rabies virus or poison before the tell-tale symptoms set in.  (Rabies is almost always fatal and one of the worst ways to die, for the record.  Get your vaccination now, as victims of the infection will suffer from extreme, deathbed-splintering spasms as the virus wreaks havoc on the nervous system.  Hydrophobia, characterized by frothing at the mouth and intense fear of water, follows from the inability to swallow.  Even in 2015, there is no rabies cure.  According to Dr. Charles E. Davis in The International Traveler’s Guide to Avoiding Infections, the World Health Organization knows of only one case of a human with rabies escaping an excruciating death once the virus reached the brain.)


Try_a_Mad_Stone(Farmer’s Almanac.)


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(www.fineartamerica.com)


While the madstone has been thoroughly debunked, one can hardly fault the practitioners of early madstone “medicine” for giving it a go.  In some parts of America, use of these stones lingered on into the 1940s.

One of the better pieces of writing about American madstones appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Bittersweet, a magazine published by high-school students in Lebanon, Missouri.  Called the “Foxfire of the Ozarks,” Bittersweet was a spin-off of the hugely popular books written by students in Georgia in the early 1970s.  Based on interviews with Appalachian and Ozark old-timers, Foxfire and Bittersweet were a major spur to the countercultural back-to-the-land movement that came about during the days of the Vietnam War.

In “Madstone: Truth or Myth?” student Dena Myers looked at the old folk belief, once common far outside the Ozarks.  She tapped into a vast repertory of tales claiming the stone’s effectiveness.

Drawing on interviews, Myers describes the actual use of the madstone:

People using the madstone for treatment boil the stone in sweet milk, or sometimes alcohol. While still hot, they apply the madstone to the wound.  If the victim has rabies, the stone will stick to the wound and draw out the poison.  Once the stone adheres to the wound, it cannot be pulled off.  After the stone is filled with the poison, it drops off by itself.  It is then boiled again in the milk which turns green the second time.  The process of boiling and applying is repeated until the stone no longer sticks to the wound.

French scientist Louis Pasteur pioneered a rabies vaccine in the 1880s, but its side-effects were so terrible that many people avoided it.  (“Some Ozarkians say they would rather use the madstone than take the shots,” Myers wrote.)  References to a “Pasteur treatment” or “cure” at the turn of the century are misleading.  Once symptoms appear, “treatment” for rabies can do little but lessen the agony of death.  Those who “recovered” from rabies after a madstone treatment never had it to begin with.

Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller, set in the Texas Hill Country around the time Pasteur was working on the first rabies vaccine, captures the real tragedy of the disease, which was common before vaccines, muzzling and the “destroying” of animals brought it under control in developed countries.  In the U.S. today, rabies rarely occurs in dogs and cats, but still occasionally shows up in bats, who transfer it to livestock, pets, and humans, often un-vaccinated spelunkers.

Belief in a madstone remedy for rabies goes back centuries.  (Bezoar, in fact, is based on a Persian word, and use of the stone was recommended in Arabic medical manuals in medieval Spain.)  Scottish settlers seem to have been mostly responsible for bringing it to the American South, where they met American Indians who also used the rare stones.  (A madstone owned by the Fredd family in Virginia allegedly came from Scotland and was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Talisman.)

The Cajuns in Louisiana practiced madstone healings.  (Many Cajun folk beliefs came from African Americans and American Indians also inhabiting the bayous.)  A stone yanked from the gut of an 18th-century Russian elk ended up in Vernon County, Missouri, on the Kansas state line, sometime before 1899.  A madstone used in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in 1913 was dug out of an ancient Indian burial mound.


gravois madstone

“Ernest Gravois, left, owner of the famous ‘madstone’ of Vacherie, [Louisiana], reminisces with his nephew, S. F. Gravois, over some of the miraculous cures credited to the stone which is reported to have saved 2000 persons from death by poison.”


One of the first European practitioners of madstone healing in Indiana was John McCoy, an early settler of Clark County.

In 1803, McCoy married Jane Collins (known as “Jincy” McCoy) in Shelby County, Kentucky, just east of Louisville.  As a wedding gift, or maybe as part of her dowry, Jincy’s family gave her a madstone in preparation for the couples’ move into the dangerous Indiana wilderness.  It was “the best insurance they could offer against hydrophobia.”  These are the words of Elizabeth Hayward, who edited John McCoy’s diary in 1948.  “In giving their daughter the only remedy then known,” Hayward wrote, “the Collins gave her the best gift in their power as well as a rare one.”


jincy mccoy

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John McCoy is best known for leading the Charlestown militia after the Shawnee attack on settlers at Pigeon Roost in 1812, one of the bloodiest events in Indiana history, which happened near his home.  (Ironically, McCoy was the brother of the Rev. Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary and land rights advocate for the Potawatomi and Miami.  When they were evicted from Indiana in 1838, Rev. McCoy accompanied them to Kansas and Oklahoma.)  A deacon in the Baptist Church himself, John McCoy helped found Franklin College at a time when “Baptists were actively opposed” to higher learning, Hayward wrote.  What is less well known is his battle against rabies in southern Indiana.

McCoy kept a laconic record of his days.  On at least ten occasions recorded in his diary, he was called on to apply his wife Jincy’s madstone to victims of animal bites.

Hayward believes the McCoy madstone might have been the only one in that corner of Indiana at the time.  True to a common superstition about proper use of the stone, McCoy “never refused [when asked to use it] and never accepted payment, apparently regarding the possession of the rarity as a trust.  The victims were boys and men.  Probably the circumscribed lives led by the women of his times, centered on their homes, kept them out of reach of stray animals.  And more probably still, the voluminous skirts they wore protected their ankles from being nipped.”

McCoy applied the stone, carried up from Kentucky, long after Clark County, Indiana, had ceased to be a frontier zone.  Most of his diary entries related to its use date from the 1840s.

April 9 [1844].  Sunday.  At sunrise attended prayer meeting.  At 11 attended preaching, afternoon detained from church by having to apply the Madstone to a little boy, bitten the day before.  At night attended worship, then again attended to the case of the little boy till after 12 o’clock.


mccoy madstone


Later 19th-century medical investigation into the efficacy of the madstone suggested that while the stone did not actually suck out any of the rabies virus, it acted according to the “placebo effect” (i.e., belief in the cure itself allayed the bite-victim’s mind, which resulted in improvement — provided, of course, that there was not actually any rabies there.)

Yet around the same time John McCoy was practicing his primitive form of medicine near Louisville, Terre Haute was becoming a top destination for those seeking treatment — or at least reassurance.

Mary E. Taylor, almost always referred to in newspapers as “Mrs. Taylor” or “the widow Taylor,” was the owner of the famous “Terre Haute madstone” mentioned in many American newspapers.  Her stone’s virus-sucking powers were sought out from possibly the 1840s until as late as 1932.

Local historian Mike McCormick believes that Mrs. Taylor was born Mary E. Murphy, probably in Kentucky.  Marriage records show that a Mary E. Murphy wed a Stephen H. Taylor (no relation to the author of this post) in Vigo County in April 1837.  An article in the Prairie Farmer of Chicago mentions that she lived at 530 N. Ninth St.  (This made her a neighbor of Eugene Debs.)

In 1889, Mrs. Taylor spoke about the provenance of her madstone to a reporter.  “My mother’s brother had it in Virginia,” she told the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, “and as he had no children gave it to my mother.  That is as far back in its history as I can go.”  An 1858 letter from Mary “I.” Taylor (possibly a misprint) appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal.  She claimed the stone had been in use “for the past thirty years” in Vigo and Sullivan counties.  The Terre Haute Weekly Express claimed the madstone came to Indiana via Kentucky, after the Murphys lived there for a while in their move west.

Though Mrs. Taylor might have been widowed as early as the 1840s, hoax-busters who would suggest that she used her family’s madstone to support herself should remember the prominent superstition that warned against accepting payment.

A “widow lady” whom McCormick thinks was Mary Taylor “cured three cases” of hydrophobia in early 1848, according to the Wabash Express.

During the decades when John McCoy and Mrs. Taylor were folk medical practitioners in the Hoosier State, Abraham Lincoln, according to an old claim, brought his son Robert to Terre Haute to be cured of an ominous dog-bite.

Poet and Lincoln biographer Edgar Lee Masters reported this claim in his 1931 Lincoln the Man.  (Like the president, Masters was obsessed with melancholy and death.  He grew up near Lincoln’s New Salem in Illinois and later set his paranormal masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, in the old Petersburg cemetery where Lincoln’s first lover, Ann Rutledge, a typhus victim, lies.)

“He believed in the madstone,” Masters wrote, in a section on Lincoln’s superstition, “and one of his sisters-in-law related that Lincoln took one of his boys to Terre Haute, Indiana, to have the stone applied to a wound inflicted by a dog on the boy.”

Max Ehrmann, a once-renowned poet and philosopher who lived in Terre Haute, investigated Masters’ claim in 1936.  At the famous hotel called the Terre Haute House, Ehrmann had once heard a similar story from three of Lincoln’s political acquaintances.  They told Ehrmann that sometime in the 1850s, Lincoln, then still a lawyer in Springfield, brought Robert to Indiana for a madstone cure.  Father and son stayed at The Prairie House at 7th and Wabash, an earlier incarnation of the famous hotel.  A sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, Frances Todd Wallace, backed up the story.

“I have never been able to discover who owned the mad-stone,” Ehrmann wrote.  “It was a woman, so the story runs.”  If true, Robert (the only child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to survive to adulthood) would have been a young child or teenager.  He lived to be 82.


Robert-Todd-Lincoln(Robert Todd Lincoln may have come to Terre Haute for a rabies “cure” in the 1850s.)


Mrs. Taylor’s “Murphy madstone”  was probably just one of three such stones in Terre Haute that offered a rabies cure.  Another was owned by Rev. Samuel K. Sparks, and Mary E. Piper’s “Piper madstone” was used until at least 1901.

Though her stone became nationally famous, Mrs. Taylor faced a healthy amount of skepticism.  On March 6, 1867, the Weekly Express reprinted this clip from the Indianapolis Herald:  “We understand that Mrs. Taylor, of Terre Haute, applied her mad stone to Mr. Pope, who died a few days since of hydrophobia.  As it was not applied until after the disease manifested itself, it failed.  We fancy, however, it would have failed anyhow.”  Herald editor George C. Harding had inadvertently taken a swipe at Terre Haute, which was increasingly proud of Taylor’s madstone.  The snub caused the editor of the Weekly Express, Charles Cruft, to retort:  “We know it is wicked to do so, but we almost wish our friend Harding would receive a good dog bite, in order that his skepticism as to the efficacy of our madstone might be cured.  Although he may have more faith in whisky, which is said to be an antidote for some poisons, we’ll bet the first train would convey him in the direction of Mrs. Taylor’s residence.”

A mad dog bit four children in Rush County, Indiana, in March 1889.  Their parents brought them to Terre Haute to see Mrs. Taylor.  The Montreal Herald in Canada picked up the story.  “The Terre Haute madstone has just completed the most thorough test ever given it. . . [Mrs. Taylor] remembers that it was handed down to her from her Kentucky ancestors. . . Physicians and scientifically inclined citizens have overrun her home here since the mad dog scare began in this state, and there is hardly a day that a patient is not brought to her.”  A few days afterwards, two Warren County farmers came, “each being apprehensive that some of the saliva of a hog got under the skin of their fingers.”

A dog bit two children in Sugar Creek Township in 1892.  The child brought to see Mrs. Taylor survived.  As for the other, “death relieved her sufferings.”

In 1887, the madstone even ranked among Terre Haute’s “sources of pride.”  While singing the praises of a local masonic lodge, the Saturday Evening Mail wrote: “[The lodge] deserves to rank with the Polytechnic, Normal, artesian well, Rose Orphan Home, madstone and Trotting Association.”  On April 23, the newspaper added:  “Someone has written the old, old story about the Georgia stone.  The Terre Haute charmer’s turn will come along soon.”

Though papers reported other Hoosier madstones, like the “Bundy madstone” in New Castle (which stuck to a severely infected woman’s arm for 180 hours in 1903), Terre Haute’s fame spread to faraway Louisiana and Minnesota.  But Mrs. Taylor’s cure sometimes disappointed.  During the “dog days” of summer (an abbreviation of the “mad dog days” when a higher number of rabies cases usually occured), the Minneapolis Journal ran this story in 1906:

Terre Haute, Ind., August 18 — William Painter, a farmer, died of hydrophobia from a cat bite, and in a moment of consciousness before the final convulsion, caused his attendants to tie him in the bed for fear he would do someone harm in his struggles.  The death convulsion was so strong that he tore the bed in pieces, but no one was hurt.

He was bitten June 21 by a cat which had been bitten by a dog eight days before.  He called the cat to him and as it sprang at his throat he caught it and was bitten in the thumb.  He had the Terre Haute madstone applied, and as it did not adhere he felt that he was not infected with the virus. 

A boy who lived east of Bloomington suffered a similar fate in 1890.  Bitten by a dog while working in Greene County, 19-year-old Malcolm Lambkin went to Terre Haute to have the madstone applied to his leg, but it didn’t adhere.  Though the wound healed, a short time later “the boy took sick, and when he attempted to take a drink of water he went into convulsions.  He grew steadily worse and wanted to fight those about him, showing almost inhuman power.”  Lambkin died on July 6.  “An experienced physician states that he never witnessed death come in such terrible agony.”

Skeptics and scientists, of course, eventually established that saliva is what carries the rabies virus, and that if bitten through clothing, one was far less likely to be infected than if bitten directly on the skin.  Also, not all animals thought to be rabid actually were.  The mental relief of receiving the “cure” from the likes of Mrs. Taylor probably helped the healing of non-rabid wounds and infections by calming the mind, thereby boosting the immune system.  (What the green stuff was that came out of the madstones, I have no idea.) Though mention has been made of bite-victims having recourse to madstones as late as the 1940s, they practically drop out of the newspapers around 1910.


Middle_Ages_rabid_dog


madstone clip 2


One last appearance of the madstone in the annals of Hoosier journalism deserves mention.  Scientists were justifiably proud of the anti-rabies vaccine, grown in rabbits, that gradually all but wiped out the virus in North America.  But in 1907, even the so-called “Pasteur treatment” hadn’t come to Indiana.  Just as today we sometimes talk jokingly about “those barbaric Europeans” who enjoy their free medical care, in April 1907 an anonymous doctor wrote this remarkable passage in the monthly bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health.  His (or perhaps her) racism was hopefully tongue-in-cheek:

The Pasteur treatment is the only one for rabies.  “Mad stones” are pure folly.  Faith in such things does not belong to this century.  If a person is bitten by a dog known to be mad we urge such to immediately go to take the Pasteur treatment at Chicago or Ann Arbor.  Indiana has no Pasteur Institute, and this reminds us of the admirably equipped and well conducted institute in Mexico City.  In the land of the “Greaser,” unlike enlightened and superior Indiana, any person bitten by a mad dog can have scientific treatment for the asking.  It is to be hoped that the State having “the best school system” will some day catch up with “the Greasers” in respect to having a free public Pasteur Institute.

Gordon’s Leap: A Tale from the Heyday of the Resurrectionists

dissecting room valparaiso indiana 1915

In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s.  Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.

Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier.  Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly guarded graves in city and country alike.  Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.

Ghouls often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788.  (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.)  An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.  Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the grave robber (“ghoul” in 19th-century speak) unearths many of the specters that still haunt America.

Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice.  In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties.  Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.

Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history.

One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.


andrew jackson grayson family

(Andrew Jackson Grayson, seated center, with his family circa 1900.)


In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had one of the best knacks for recognizing a good story.  Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison.  He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . .  the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.”  In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia.  (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.)  Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier.  Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.

Like the old river town itself, his fabulous grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history.  It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.

Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana.  Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors.

One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant.  Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute.  (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)

For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies.  According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard.  As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot.  The doctor cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”

One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night.  Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania.  Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever.  Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.

Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story.  Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky.  His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840.  Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897.  In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon.  He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.  (Pronounced “Ver-saylz”, the town is about 25 miles north of Madison and 50 miles west of Cincinnati.)


   alexander mullen      bernard f. mullen

(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles.  His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)


The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.

If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen.  One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico.  (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.)  In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland.  Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.

During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon.  Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself.  After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute.  In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.

On to the story.

According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845.  More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake).  The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s.  Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law.  He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.

But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.


     jonathon w. gordon  gordons leap

(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state.  He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill.  A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)


Though we shouldn’t take the following tale at face value — it probably contains several major factual errors — let’s turn it over to Grayson.  The wild story was printed in the Indianapolis Journal on November 17, 1901:

THE ROBBING OF GRAVES

“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison.  “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously.  [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”]  Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves.  They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being.  The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’

“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson.  “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest.  ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.

“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’  ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute.  I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.

“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student.  He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.

“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers.  He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon.  One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place.  The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.

“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.

“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body.  They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush.  The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching.  There was but one way of escape.

“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek.  Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall.  To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice.  With Gordon to think was to act.  Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff.  Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him.  Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.

“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men.  They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob.  Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.

“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”


gordons leap frank hohenberger

(Gordon’s Leap, Versailles, Indiana, seen on August 21, 1928, by Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger.  Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Indiana University.)


The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors.   The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845.  (Gordon was about twenty-five.)  Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”

As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated.  On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican.  The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:

“We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…”

As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”

gordons leap 3

The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling.  The location became a famous Ripley County landmark.  In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it.  (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.)  The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time.  In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.

More variations are told.  Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.”  Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass.  Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why.  He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . .  In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”

Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).  As someone told Baker: There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles.  There had been a strange death.  Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy.  The family wouldn’t let him.  One night real late, he dug up the body.  When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out.  Gordon took off running.  There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery.  At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake.  Gordon fell off and broke a leg.  He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that.  Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.”  (This is certainly false.  Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)


louisville medical students with cadaver

(Medical students at a dissection in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1890s.)


Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.

Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American.  (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.)  White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.

At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013).  It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.

But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale.  The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:

“‘There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor.  The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards.  But to return to the Taylor case:  A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains.  This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make.  The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.

“‘One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved.  He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration.  He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.

“Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein.  Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it.  To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.

“‘Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War.  The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him.  Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones.  The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness.  Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time.  Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather.  The official assented and the old grave was re-opened.  When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.’”

Noah’s Ark

south river 1

“That’s Noah’s Ark,” the woman said.

She came out of her door when she saw me in the woods, photographing what was left of a huge wooden fishing vessel sitting by the road, something destined, I said to myself, to sink not in water but here amid the trees, into the earth.  “That’s a dead man’s dream boat,” she told me, happy to have a visitor.

She’d been neighbor to it for a decade, and it was part of her home, I think.  “He started to build it about fifteen years ago, then died of cancer halfway through,” she said.  “It’s been sitting there ever since.”

Twenty-feet high but already overshadowed by young trees growing through its ribs, the boat’s frame was returning to the soil, the same way the boatbuilder’s was – an emblem and companion of its maker’s life and soul even now.  The ancients sent horses and slaves and sometimes wives with the dead.  I wondered if this ark sailed with its creator.

It was an emblem of that place, too.  South River, where the Neuse River becomes an estuary and flows into Pamlico Sound, is a small fishing town in one of the most rural parts of a “fisherman’s” county:  Carteret County, North Carolina, called Down East, one of the last maritime holdouts in the South until a decade or two ago, and barely so today.  The spot is twenty miles north of Beaufort in the remote heart of the interior sound country, far from any beach or crash of surf but pervaded and brought to life absolutely by water.

Like the Great Plains, this is a subdued, understated place that, all the same, communicates a wide-open grandeur, a sacred immensity that speaks in a vocabulary of quiet words.  Like the Plains, it is a country of grass and horizons – and deep loss.

The estuaries and sounds, like the ocean, have all but died in the last half century, poisoned by development in their urban watersheds and by other environmental pressures, including fishing itself, which is part of the heart and soul of this location and without which this will be another place soon.  Space and place, we forget, are different creatures, not always identical.

In a county where practically every yard once had a boat under construction, “Noah’s Ark” was one of the last wooden fishing vessels ever built in eastern North Carolina.  Commercial fishing will last about one more generation here, then it’s all done.  As I write this, the centuries-old coastal culture faces its last days, driven out by money and the collapse of the sea’s old balance.  Just two or three boatbuilders today pass on the craftsmanship that built this boat.  It will be a symbol of this whole human geography, of spirit and generations and community, riding somewhere in an unfinished ark against a new flood.

“We have no more beginnings,” George Steiner wrote in his breathtaking book on the idea of creation.  “Incipit:  that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty ‘inception.'”  And as Charles Bowden, a stirring pessimist, said in the first pages of Desierto twenty years ago, everything today is memories, and “We call these memories the future…  I live in a time when the imagination is dead… At such moments I often go to ground, literally.  I seek some clues and solace in plants, animals, swirls of soil.”

The quiet noises that autumn evening were distant dogs and seagulls and crickets at dusk.  If the boat longed for water, as I, crawling through its skeleton, imagined it did, a stretch of Pamlico Sound was just out of reach, on the other side of the trees, down the road through the tiny fishing town, and the water kept its company as a vision, at least.

Noah’s Ark was rotting among trees that were probably as old as itself, that might have been kin to it.  I crawled up inside the hull or skull and saw the whole belly of it.  Something beautiful beat with a pulse there still.

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Dunes Requiem: A Family Between Two Worlds

frances rose howe circa 1870

Sylven Cook, the altar boy, remembered the Latin funeral mass at St. Patrick’s in Chesterton, Indiana, and how, after the words had ended,  he and the others dragged the woman’s coffin over snow-covered fields through a blizzard coming in off Lake Michigan.  It was January 30, 1918.  The woman, who had died a year earlier in California and had just now been brought back to the Indiana Dunes, was Frances Rose Howe, one of the most unique and unusual personalities in this place.

The strange family cemetery where the pallbearers took her was two miles from the lakeshore at the south edge of the dunes, on the edge of the old Calumet swamp.  The burying ground straddled a high sandy ridge nestled amid black oaks, the vestige of ancient glacial geology and lake winds.

Cook recalled winds that day, too, as he and the other pallbearers agonized under their force en route to the cemetery.  With roads blocked by the sudden weather, and unable to get through the snowdrifts, they put the woman’s coffin on a bobsled and walked three miles with it from St. Patrick’s Church, then were forced to cut barbed wire fences, striking out over farmers’ fields to reach their destination.  The weather prevented other mourners from following them to the grave site.  The pallbearers and a priest may have been the only witnesses of the actual burial.  One wonders how much the boys who took Howe to her last resting place knew of her history, and of the transformations that even the cemetery – not to mention the land around it – had undergone.

Frances Rose Howe was one of the most interesting (and in a way, controversial) chroniclers of the dune country.  In a gesture fitting for a woman who wanted to have the last word on everything, hers was the last body the family tomb ever received.


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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Cross, Bailly Cemetery, June 25, 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


“Baillytown” was a name, always given rather uncertainly, to three places in the Indiana Dunes.  Sometimes it refers to an early métis homestead or “Indian town” begun by Frances Howe’s grandfather, the French Canadian fur trader Joseph Bailly.  Bailly’s homestead was part estate, part itinerant camping ground for Native Americans who traded with him.

There was also a lumbering community, just west of the Bailly place, settled by Swedes in the 1850s that somehow took on his name and was called Baillytown or Baileytown.  With the forests depleted, that mostly Swedish farming and lumbering settlement was gone by the 1920s.

Finally, there was an imaginary “paper town” on Lake Michigan, platted as a small port by Joseph Bailly and probably intended to rival Chicago when both of these towns were young.  Like another of Chicago’s competitors, City West, which was planned nearby and actually existed for one summer in 1837, the “Port of Bailly” was meant for greatness but remained only a “dream city.”

The sad story of the Bailly-Howe family and their homestead, finally abandoned by World War I, reaches far back into the tragic and beautiful history of the Great Lakes at the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1774, a decade after New France became British Canada, Joseph Bailly was born at Verchères, a river town on the south bank of the St. Lawrence twenty miles from Montreal.  All the waters of the Great Lakes eventually flow by this spot, so it was a fitting place for a man who spent most of his life on the lakes to be born.  Pronounced “bay-YEE,” the family had been in America for six generations and were some of the original Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia.  Bailly’s father, descended from minor French nobles, squandered the family’s money and died, leaving his widow and three children in poverty.  Fortunately, Joseph Bailly’s uncle was the Catholic bishop of Caspe, close to Quebec City, and helped them get back on their feet.  As a teenager around 1790, the future Indiana settler entered the fur trade and went west with the voyageurs.

By the time he reached his thirties, Bailly had won back some of what his father had lost.  He went into partnership in Michigan in 1809 with Alexander Robinson, a métis fur trader.  (Métis, from an old French word for “mixed,” usually referred to the children of French-speaking voyageur fathers and Native American mothers.  Farther west, on the Canadian prairies and the Front Range of the Rockies, the métis eventually became a “nation” of sorts and in the late 1860s fought the Canadian government in the Red River Rebellion.)  Though Robinson worked for the German-American John Jacob Astor, Bailly slowly went into business on his own.  At its height in the 1820s, his fur trading operations extended from the Great Lakes to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he traded for animal skins from as far west as the Rockies and the Pacific Coast.  From New Orleans, he shipped skins directly to France.


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(Richard Dillon, Jr., Michilimackinac on Lake Huron.  Montreal, 1813.  Colored copperplate engraving by Thomas Hall.  Graphics Division, Clements Library, University of Michigan.)


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(J.A. Jenney, photographer.  Mackinaw Scenery.  Stereoscopic view, circa 1870.  New York Public Library, Robert N. Dennis Collection #622342)


Early on, Bailly was based mostly out of Montreal, then moved to Mackinac Island in what was still Michigan Territory.  In reality, Mackinac was owned by the fur companies, not the U.S. government, and until 1814, the island was for all practical purposes still part of British Upper Canada.

Bailly had a common-law wife at Mackinac, a 14-year-old girl named Angelique, believed to be either the daughter of the Scottish trader Patrick McGulpin or of the Ottawa chief Maketoquit.  In Ottawa her name was Bead-way-way, and by 1810, this teenage girl had had three children with Joseph Bailly (François, Alexis, and Sophia).

Frances (or “Frankie”) Howe, his devout and sometimes wildly imaginative granddaughter, the last family member to live at the Bailly homestead in Indiana, later wrote about Angelique in a “memoir” of the family.  Howe’s 1907 book The Story of a French Homestead in the Old Northwest is actually romantic work of semi-fiction.  Howe claimed that her grandfather’s common-law first wife Angelique was “a secret votary of the Spirit of Darkness,” which (for Howe, a Catholic devotional writer) probably meant that Angelique was still practicing her Native American religion.  Bailly himself was considered a devout French Catholic, and when Angelique stuck to her own beliefs, he may have used this as an excuse to “put her aside.”  More likely, he simply wanted to marry another woman, or had already done so, and found this good enough reason to extinguish the “backwoods” common-law marriage.

By the summer of 1810, in fact, he had met a remarkable woman:  Marie LeFêvre, known in Ottawa as “Monee” or “Mau-nee.”  (Her granddaughter believed Monee was a Ottawa mispronunciation of Marie.  The author of a book on place names in Illinois, where a railroad town called Monee was later named after her, believed it had to do with the “money” and gifts that flowed to the Potawatomi through her marriage to trader Joseph Bailly.)

In legend, probably exaggerated by her admiring granddaughter, Marie was “the most beautiful woman in the Old Northwest,” the “Lily of the Lakes.”

Oddly mentioned by other chroniclers as only a footnote to her husband’s story, Marie’s life is actually far more interesting than Joseph Bailly’s.  By the time she met him on Mackinac Island in 1810, she was in her late-twenties and was known mostly for her artistic craftsmanship, not merely for her alleged physical beauty.

Her father, a man named LeFêvre, was a French trader from Gascony who had married an Ottawa woman sometime in the late 1700s.  They lived at a spot called Ma-Con or Rivière des Raisins (“The River of Grapes”) in southeastern Michigan, later called “French-Town” during the War of 1812.  (Today this is Monroe, Michigan, on Lake Erie just south of Detroit, the boyhood home, ironically, of George Armstrong Custer.)

The LeFêvre “station” was typical of the kind of settlement that French Canadians established on the Great Lakes.  Frances Howe’s depiction of it may have been based off of her own memories of the Bailly homestead in Indiana, which it probably resembled.

French Canadian outposts were often both trading centers and religious stations.  Before towns were built, and with populations too low to maintain permanent churches, outdoor family chapels became the center of Catholic religious life in wilderness areas.

The chapel would eventually be a key feature of life at the Bailly settlement in northwest Indiana.  With the arrival of new clergy from France cut off at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, a dwindling number of priests had to cover a vast geographical area, administering the sacraments only sporadically.  These priests were what Protestant churches called circuit riders.  Rather than resorting to “unprotected” chapels in the backwoods, private chapels on French Canadian homesteads came to be used publicly whenever a priest (often tattered by wilderness travel and occasionally without the basic “tools” needed to celebrate the Mass) came through the area.  As Howe described it, “the Catholic Homestead planned its simple architecture, with a view not only for family life, but for religious services. . . When the Catholic missionary came to Rivière des Raisins, he took up his abode in the parlor, one-half of which became his private apartment, the other being arranged as a chapel.  The dining-room served as sacristy.”  LeFêvre’s Michigan station was no doubt similar to the homestead that Joseph Bailly built in Indiana, whose main dwelling house was described by his granddaughter (in 1884) as “a real lower-Canada farm-house.”

Some worshipers at these stations were Native American converts, but more commonly, they were métis, who like Joseph Bailly’s children and his wives Angelique and Marie, straddled two or more different cultures and were often shut out as “half-breeds.”


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(Brooks & Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Indian Chapel, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Brooks & Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Indian Chapel, circa 1930.  The interior was refurbished by Bailly’s daughter and granddaughter in the late 19th century.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


When her father LeFêvre died, the teenage Marie went to live among her mother’s people, probably on the shores of Lake Huron on the Ontario side or somewhere in northern Michigan.   At some point, it is believed she married an Ottawa medicine man, Kougowma, known to the French as “De la Vigne.”  Frances Howe’s incredibly odd, even farcical, description of Kougowma portrays him as a “gypsy. . . possibly Italian in origin,” who had knowledge of occult sciences and could communicate via “wireless telegraphy.”  In all likelihood, Marie/Monee’s granddaughter writing in 1907 probably could not stand the fact that there was a shaman in her own family history and tried to make him seem like some kind of “fallen” European.  Howe may have considered that even a gypsy in her grandmother’s story was preferable to the fact that she had once been married to a “sorcerer.”

Taking advantage of Ottawa custom, Marie apparently bought herself and her two children out of the difficult marriage with Kougowma, which (if we can take Howe at her word) failed because of Marie’s Catholic disdain for her husband’s “wizardry.”  To pay for her divorce, Marie made mats and clothing, gathered berries, fruit and venison, and did other tasks, and probably traveled by canoe to Mackinac Island, far up Lake Huron, to sell her crafts to the French and British.

By 1810, the 27-year-old woman had become well known around Mackinac for her quill work and bead embroidery.  Howe says her grandfather Joseph Bailly first caught sight of her as she paddled into Mackinac in a canoe.

When the war of 1812 broke out on the Great Lakes, Bailly was uncertain what side to fight on.  As a native of French Canada, he was a British subject, but since most of his trading business was in what became the American Midwest, he had a U.S. military passport.  In March 1813, Robert Dickson, a British Indian agent, asked him to recruit Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa and other warriors to fight for the British.  Bailly fought alongside the warriors in three engagements against American frontiersmen.  In January 1814, at a spot on the St. Joseph River near what became the University of Notre Dame, he was arrested by a U.S. militia on accusations of spying and treason.  After three months in a Detroit prison, Bailly was sent back to Mackinac, where he was eventually deported to Canada at the end of the war.

Frances Howe may have fabricated the next part of the story outright.

Around 1900, Bailly’s granddaughter was writing devotional literature for the Catholic diocese of Fort Wayne and South Bend and, in a notoriously racist time, seems to have been touchy about the “swarthy” skin she had inherited from her Ottawa ancestors.  It is easy to imagine her pandering for admission to polite Midwestern ladies’ clubs, “pioneer daughters” societies, and the like, and being rejected for her heritage during an era that was both strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Indian.  If Howe did not invent the “whiteness” and reputed sanctity of her grandmother, at one turn of Marie’s story the similarities with the Biblical nativity narrative become too striking not to notice and may have been too hard for her granddaughter, as a religious writer, to resist elaborating.  I say this only as a caveat.

To escape being raped by the U.S. militia after Bailly’s 1814 arrest, Monee (again, this is the Ottawa pronunciation of “Mary“, Howe thought), pregnant with Joseph’s child, supposedly fled across northern Indiana with Jean-Baptiste Clutier, a trader, and took refuge with the Menominee along Green Bay in Wisconsin.  Is this, in some way, the old Christian story in American Indian clothing?  Joseph and Mary flee the Herod-like Indiana militia, with John the Baptist opening the way of the infant in the wilderness?

To disguise her identity, in Howe’s telling, Clutier darkened Marie’s face with walnut juice, ruining her famous beauty forever.  (This was perhaps a great “white” lie on Howe’s part, meant to explain to certain readers why the Lily of the Lakes’ skin was not as “pure lily” as the writer might have wanted her to be.)  Marie reportedly then passed as Clutier’s sister or wife.  Howe claimed that somewhere in the deep woods of northern Wisconsin that winter, Marie gave birth to the child, which died after just a few hours.  As Clutier walked across Lake Michigan on the ice to Mackinac to let Bailly or others know where his wife was, the mother herself almost died from complications of childbirth in a Menominee lodge.  Fearing for the salvation of her unbaptized infant, she became nearly delirious, at least in Howe’s version of the story.  To console her, an old Menominee man who had once witnessed a Jesuit baptism, maybe fifty or sixty years before, struggled to remember how to perform one.  Hoping that he had said the correct words, he begged the Christian God to accept this makeshift ritual.  The baby died without Marie’s knowledge and was placed in a birch-bark casket, then buried under a large forest tree.   “Grandmother could not be told that her child had died,” Howe remembered, “so another infant was placed in her arms, and she never knew the difference until fifteen years had come and gone.”

At the end of those years, itinerant Menominee, it seems, appeared at Bailly’s post and happened to mention that the girl he was raising wasn’t his.  He took this to be an explanation of why she was a “difficult” or “wild” child, and after disowning her, sailed to Wisconsin to recover his dead son’s bones.  As Howe tells the story, Bailly, true to a report he had gotten from the Menominee, found the old bones resting at the edge of a Yankee farmer’s recently clear-cut field.  (The immigrant farmer had spared the beautiful tree, which apparently was impressive enough to serve as a landmark.)  The girl he cast off in favor of dead bones from the Wisconsin woods became known as a wild teenager around Baillytown.

Freed at the end of the war, Bailly returned to Mackinac.  By 1822, he had become a U.S. citizen and was the main fur trader along the Calumet River in northwest Indiana.  That year, he moved his family down Lake Michigan from Mackinac, thinking that he was settling one half-mile north of the Michigan territorial boundary.  This error led to him becoming the first permanent European settler in the Indiana Dunes.

The homestead he built was situated on a small hill or steep clay cliff over the Calumet on a spot said to be sacred to the Potawatomi who dominated that area.  It was about two miles south of the dunes, sheltered by a thick forest from the worst of the lake winds.  Later, some writers thought that Bailly chose this spot at the edge of the Calumet marshes because the place reminded him of the Louisiana bayous, and that on one of his trips back from Baton Rouge, he brought a store of live-oak seeds, which grew on the Bailly property for years.  According to a WPA writer during the Great Depression, a piece of local folklore has it that when one of the fur trader’s daughters, Rose, married Francis Xavier Howe in 1841, they twisted two oak and elm saplings together as a symbol of their marriage.  The trees, “since grown together as one,” survived on the bank of the Calumet until some time around World War II.


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  The Wedding Tree at Bailly Homestead, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Tablet, Francis Howe and Rose Bailly, June 25, 1930. Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


Bailly built a temporary log cabin on the spot in 1824 and left his family to go back to Mackinac for a while.  Between their several marriages, he and Marie already had thirteen children, but some of the older ones had been left in Michigan or sent to Montreal for an education.  In 1824, Bailly’s five youngest daughters and a son were probably living with Marie on the Calumet, along with two servants.  The homestead soon became a town of sorts, though not the kind that nineteenth-century county historians were apt to call a town.  They called it an “Indian town” or camp.

The homestead was the lone trading post on the old post road between Detroit and Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and sat close to the Sauk Trail, the main Native American “road”  through the region.  Many Potawatomi, especially, camped on Bailly’s land, right outside his door in fact, giving the homestead the appearance of a larger settlement.  The Detroit-Fort Dearborn road later became “The Chicago Road,” an important stagecoach route, and then U.S. Route 12.  Most early Eastern travelers who came through here en route to Chicago passed the Bailly homestead, which until the 1850s was still a rough complex of cabins and wigwams alongside log warehouses for Bailly’s trading goods.  An inn was built three-quarters of a mile north of the homestead, about one half-mile south of the beach.  The first saloon in Porter County, Indiana, was opened there in 1836.

County historians, fixated on “progress,” were quick to record that the Bailly home had a guitar in 1830 and a piano in 1836.  Bailly himself was remembered as a hospitable, gregarious man, at least until American travelers and settlers started noticing the beauty of his daughters, when he was said to turn sour and protective.  In 1832, a traveler named Bryant wrote of the girls:  “They have been schooled at Detroit and they can talk of the beauties of Cologne water, Cooper, and a retired life admirably and eloquently.  They dress in the English fashion and look very tidy unlike their mother whose dress is squaw.”


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Homestead near Chesterton, Indiana.  Circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Potawatomi women circa 1900.)


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(Mrs. Schuyler and Lucinda Schuyler, Ottawa women, probably in Michigan or Kansas, 1867. )


Bailly probably enjoyed the wilderness isolation and must have resented the American newcomers.  Until their tragic removal west on the “Trail of Death”, which culminated in 1838, the Potawatomi still occupied most of northwest Indiana.  White settlement here was severely restricted both by government reluctance to spark an Indian war and by geography itself.  (Most of this corner of Indiana was still a vast woodland swamp until after the Civil War, not truly settled until almost 1900.)  Even in 1835, the year of Bailly’s death, Jesse Morgan, a Virginian, was the only American living nearby, and Morgan’s place was five miles away.  When a new schoolhouse was built, Bailly refused to send his daughters there, “where they would have acquired a nasal twang and the Riley Whitcomb dialect,” said a later county historian.

In the early 1820s, however, Reverend Isaac McCoy established his Baptist mission school, first at Fort Wayne on the Wabash River, then at what became Niles, Michigan, just over the state line.  McCoy was one of the most interesting characters in Indiana at the time – like Bailly, a difficult, sometimes arrogant, but ultimately high-minded man.  Believing that he could ennoble and guard the Indians, saving them from the undeniably corrupt whites (especially the opportunistic whiskey traders, who deliberately sought to defraud the reverend’s “flock”), McCoy opened a mission school for the Potawatomi, Miami and the children of early settlers.  Most of his students, however, were métis.  McCoy was a native Kentuckian but spent most of his early career in the Wabash Valley, later crisscrossing the United States on behalf of Native American land rights.  Before his death in 1846, the missionary spearheaded the relocation of the Indiana and southern Michigan Potawatomi to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.  He is buried in Louisville.

Bailly recognized that his daughters needed an education and sent them to Isaac McCoy’s school at Niles, just north of South Bend, a few days’ journey away.  Here, they learned English.  At home they spoke French and Potawatomi.  Though Bailly called his wife Marie, she in fact barely spoke French, “a language which she understood only when spoken slowly and deliberately.”  And she “always retained the dress of the aborigines.”  It was thought that Joseph Bailly orally translated and explained parts of the Bible to the Potawatomi and others who gathered in the area to trade and that his eldest daughter Rose would translate parts of the Catholic liturgy from Latin into Potawatomi.

Charles Fenno Hoffman, later a fiction writer and a member of the Knickerbocker group in New York, stopped at the Bailly homestead in 1833 en route to St. Louis.  He described it in his first book, a once-popular travel account called A Winter in the West.  Hoffman, who later went insane, was not a very serious writer, but his description is entertaining, if also rather condescending.  Writing from Chicago on New Years’ Day, 1834, he recalled part of his trip via horse and wagon through the dunes from Detroit:

“We left the prairie on the east, after passing through “the door,” and entered a forest, where the enormous black-walnut and sycamore trees, cumbered the soil with trunks from which a comfortable dwelling might be excavated.  The road was about as bad as could be imagined;  and after riding so long over prairies as smooth as a turnpike, the stumps and fallen trees over which we were compelled to drive, with the deep mud-holes into which our horses continually plunged, were anything but agreeable.  Still, the stupendous vegetation of the forest interested me sufficiently to make the time, otherwise enlightened by good company, pass with sufficient fleetness, though we made hardly more than two miles an hour throughout the stage.

“At last, after passing several untenanted sugar-camps of the Indians, we reached a cabin, prettily situated on the banks of a lively brook winding through the forest.  A little Frenchman waited at the door to receive our horses, while a couple of half-intoxicated Indians waited to follow us into the house, in the hope of getting a’netos (vulgarly, “a treat”) from the newcomers.  The usual settlers’ dinner of fried bacon, venison cutlets, hot cakes, and wild honey, with some tolerable tea and Indian sugar, – as that made from the maple-tree is called at the West – was soon placed before us;  while our new driver, the frizzy little Frenchman already mentioned, harnessed a fresh team and hurried us into the wagon as soon as possible.

“The poor little fellow had thirty miles to drive before dark, on the most difficult part of the route of the line between Detroit and Chicago.  It was easy to see that he knew nothing of driving, the moment he took his reins in hand…

“A fine stream, called the Calaminc [the Calumet], made our progress here more gentle for a moment.  But immediately on the other side of the river was an Indian trading-post, and our little French Phaeton – who, to tell the truth, had been repressing his fire for the last half-hour, while winding among the decayed trees and broken branches of the forest, – could contain no longer.  He shook the reins on his wheel-horses, and cracked up his leaders, with an air that would have distinguished him on the Third Avenue, and been envied at Cato’s.  He rises in his seat as he passes the trading-house;  he sweeps by like a whirlwind:  but a female peeps from the portal, and it is all over with poor Victor.

Ah, wherefore did he turn to look?

That pause, that fatal gaze he took,

Hath doomed ––

his discomfiture.  The infuriate car strikes a stump, and the unlucky youth shoots off at a tangent, as if he were discharged from a mortar.

“The whole operation was completed with such velocity, that the first intimation I had of what was going forward was on finding myself two or three yards from the shattered wagon, with a tall Indian in a wolf-skin cap standing over me.  My two fellow-passengers were discharged from their seats with the same want of ceremony;  but though the disjecta membra of our company were thus prodigally scattered about, none of us providentially received injury.  Poor Victor was terribly crest-fallen;  and had he not unpacked his soul by calling on all the saints in the calendar, in a manner more familiar than respectful, I verily believe that his tight little person would have exploded like a torpedo.

“A very respectable-looking Indian female, the wife, probably, of the French gentleman who owned the post, came out, and civilly furnished us with basins and towels to clean our hands and faces, which were sorely bespattered with mud; while the grey old Indian aforementioned assisted in collecting our scattered baggage.

“The spot where our disaster occurred was a sequestered, wild-looking place.  The trading establishment consisted of six or eight log-cabins, of a most primitive construction, all of them grey with age, and so grouped on the bank of the river as to present an appearance quite picturesque.  There was not much time, however, to be spent observing its beauties.  The sun was low, and we had twenty-five miles to travel that night before reaching the only shanty on the lake-shore.”

Never suspecting that railroads would come through, Joseph Bailly died believing that boats and wagons would continue to be the main method of transportation.  He bought many acres of land along the Calumet and the Lake Michigan shoreline, and intended to improve navigation there, possibly through building a wharf.  He owned a small sloop that he used to sail north to Mackinac Island, then east to Montreal and Quebec.  On the beach near the mouth of the Calumet, close to the site of the pavilion in what is today Indiana Dunes State Park, Bailly maintained a shelter to keep his boats out of reach of the waves.  He also owned shares in the steamboat Michigan sailing out of Detroit.

Before his death, he planned to found a city and a commercial harbor on this spot.  He purchased over two thousand acres of land in the dunes and had the first lots surveyed in 1834.  The port was called the “Town of Bailly” or just “Bailly” and a plat map was drawn up on December 14, 1833.  Though the fur trader was reluctant to log the lands on his property, if it had ever been built this would likely have become a lumbering port.

At a time when Chicago, fifty miles to the west, was a small town whose own survival was uncertain and whose growth depended on harvesting the lumber reserves of Indiana and southern Michigan, the port of Bailly seemed like it could become grand development.  “He laid it out ‘four square,’ with blocks, lots, streets and alleys,” an early historian wrote.  Named for his wife and children, the streets were called Lefevre, Rose, Esther, Ellen, and Hortensia.  Other streets were named Napoleon, Jackson, and St. Clair, and the rest bore the names of the Great Lakes: Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.


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(Plat map of Bailly’s port town on Lake Michigan, as envisioned on December 14, 1833.  Porter County GenWeb.)


A few lots were sold, but fate saw the “Town of Bailly” stillborn.  Bailly died suddenly just a year after it was platted.  The national economic panic of 1837 (the nineteenth century’s version of the Great Depression) was already squashing the hopes of many new towns and turned away any investors here.  Bailly’s daughter Esther, who married John Whistler, the son of Fort Dearborn’s founder, continued to promote the port, but she died suddenly in 1842.  Like the dead town of City West, platted along the beach not far away, the port remained a “dream city.”

In the land treaties that led most of the Potawatomi to abandon Indiana and move to the Great Plains in 1838, Bailly’s wife and children were considered Native Americans.   As such, they received monetary settlements which, combined with their inheritance, made them fairly well-off financially.  Not all of the Baillys stayed, however.  The sons of Bailly’s daughter Therese, all traders, who considered themselves Potawatomi, went west and became leaders of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation near Topeka, Kansas.  His son Alexis Bailly became one of the principal traders with the Sioux on the Upper Mississippi and founded the town of Wabasha, Minnesota, in 1843.  (At that time, a French-speaking trader said of Alexis:  “My sons, it is necessary that you be very careful now, because the law has come to town.  The law is the devil, and Mr. Bailly is the law.”)  He later served in the Minnesota legislature.  His brother François Bailly “chose to be a medicine man or herb doctor among the Indians.”


st joseph orphanage wabasha minn

(St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Wabasha, Minnesota, circa 1900.  Alexis Bailly, uncle of Frances Rose Howe, was one of Wabasha’s founders.)


Bailly’s daughter Josephine married the Chicago businessman Joel Hoxie Wicker (after whom Wicker Park was named.)  Around 1850, Wicker began to redevelop Bailly’s land, which he or others had begun to call “Baillytown.”  Wicker was involved in lumbering, and it was this business that attracted the first Swedish settlers to the area.  After the exodus of the Potawatomi to Kansas, Swedes became dominant.  Joel Wicker did more to put Baillytown on the map than his French father-in-law.  He ran a saw mill and store here in the 1850s and employed Swedish workers, some of whom were recruited from Chicago.  For a time the Swedes called Baillytown “Slab City,” after the primitive shelters built from “slabs” (waste logs) that were erected for mill workers.  Wicker eventually sold his store to the Swedes for use as a Lutheran church and his land for farming.

The place appealed to a Lutheran pastor, T.N. Hasselquist, who urged Swedes to settle here and escape the corrupting influence of cities like Chicago.  The first Swedish Lutheran church in the region was founded at Baillytown in 1857.  The church had 250 congregants in 1863.  There was also a chapel, called the Burstrom Chapel, on a place named “Bandur Hill” nearby.  The Augsburg “Svensk Skola,” a schoolhouse that looked like a lighthouse, was built in 1880.  Swedes worked on the Michigan Central Railroad that came through here just before the Civil War, as well as in Porter’s brick yards (after 1872) and in Charles Hillstrom’s organ factory in Chesterton, founded in 1880.  The factory was Chesterton’s most important industry and produced about 40,000 organs and countless piano stools out of the surrounding woods.  Many of its 100 employees were Baillytown Swedes.  It closed sometime around 1896, when Hillstrom died.


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(“Augustan’s Lutheran School, West View, Bailly Town, Chicago [sic]”, circa 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


Bailly’s widow, Marie, ran the fur trading business after his death and served as postmistress of Baillytown from 1837 to 1855.  She lived her whole life between cultures, gradually seeing even the character of the land change.  When she died on September 15, 1866, it was not a French priest, but a Swedish farmer, Emma Persson, who prepared her for burial.  Emma and her husband Carl took the coffin to the Bailly cemetery by ox-cart.

What became of the homestead itself after the 1850s is one of the stranger twists in the dune country’s history.  As the Bailly family scattered, Rose Bailly Howe, reputed to be the most beautiful and talented of Marie’s daughters, took control of the homestead.  Rose’s daughter was Frances Rose (“Frankie”) Howe, who at the turn of the century, became the baffling and reclusive family chronicler before her death in California in 1917.


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(Rose Bailly Howe with her daughters Frances Rose [left] and Rose [standing], circa 1855. )


Like her mother Marie, Rose was a product of two very different worlds.  She had been born during the War of 1812 on Mackinac Island when it was still a remote fur trading post, then was educated alongside her métis companions at Reverend McCoy’s mission school and in Catholic girls’ schools.  She grew up to be a relatively well-educated, attractive young woman.  In 1841, she was married at the homestead to Francis Xavier Howe, son of a book publisher from New Haven, Connecticut.  Howe became an investment banker and treasurer for the Chicago & Galena Railroad and the couple moved to Chicago, where the last of their children, Frances Rose, presumably named for her parents, was born in 1851.  Francis X. Howe died before his youngest daughter’s birth:  aged thirty-nine, he perished together with three of his and Rose’s children in the cholera epidemic that struck Chicago during the summer of 1850.

Widowed and with a newborn baby in her arms, Rose Bailly Howe went back to Indiana to live with her mother, Marie. Frances Rose all but grew up in the woods and was apparently used to the isolation.  When she was sent off to school at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute during the Civil War, she had a hard time adapting – in spite of the fact that her aunt, Rose’s sister Eleanor, was the Mother Superior of the nuns there.

Eleanor Bailly’s story is worth a quick retelling in its own right.  She joined the Sisters of Providence in 1848.  As a girl, Eleanor immediately impressed these French nuns (many of whom were from Brittany) with her abilities and education.  Known as Mother Mary Cecelia, she became their second leader, working alongside the school’s founder, Mother Théodore Guérin, then succeeding Guerin as the head of the school and convent.  Eleanor Bailly eventually penned a biography of Mother Théodore which was used to support her canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  When Mother Mary Cecelia lost the support of some of the Sisters and the Bishop of Vincennes, a few nuns who remained loyal to her suggested breaking away and forming a new religious community at the Bailly homestead, but considered the Calumet River country too isolated for them. Frances’ older sister Rose, named after her mother, was the first graduate of St. Mary-of-the-Woods (the first Catholic women’s college in the U.S.).  Watched over by her aunt, Frances followed her to Terre Haute.


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(Eleanor Bailly, who became Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, 1856-1868, and head of St. Ann’s Orphanage, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(Mother house of the Sisters of Providence, St. Mary of the Woods, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Built 1852, destroyed by fire February 7, 1889.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(First Catholic chapel at St. Mary’s, built circa 1842.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(Church of the Immaculate Conception during construction, 1906, St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


By 1864, however, Rose had taken her children away from Indiana.  They attended Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1865, six weeks before Lincoln’s assassination.  In the 1870s, Rose and her two daughters spent about four years traveling around Europe and the Middle East visiting Catholic shrines.  They brought back a huge trove of religious statuary and artifacts to Indiana.  Rose and her daughters became intensely devout.  Just before her death at age 37 in 1879, Frankie’s sister Rose authored a short book, Record of a Suffering Soul, which professed to recount a “vision” of death and the travels of a spirit through the world while trapped in Purgatory, looking for living humans who would say a requiem mass for her and offer prayers for the dead.


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(Lydia J. Caldwell, photographer.  Miss Rose Bailly F. Howe in Chicago.  Rose was Frances’ older sister, author of books for the Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame.  She died in April 1879, just after this photo was taken.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


Around 1868, Frances Howe and her mother Rose – a teenager and a widow – moved into the two-story log cabin at Baillytown, added weatherboarding to it, and began to call it home.  Over the next few decades, they totally renovated the building and expanded it, until by 1890, it became an impressive “chateau-like” mansion.  When her mother died in 1891, Frances stayed in it by herself.

Like her sister Rose, “Frankie” wrote religious tracts for the Catholic Church.  She also began to work on her strange, romanticized history of the Baillys, published in 1907.  She thought about turning the house into a girls’ school.  It was a big house for one woman.  According to lore, Swedish children from the neighboring farm, the Chellbergs, prowled in the woods and came to stare at her through the windows.  She was becoming an old spinster.  Though, unlike her grandmother, Howe dressed and acted like a white woman, her neighbors sometimes called her an Indian.  Even her aunt, the Mother Superior of St. Mary’s, one of the most prominent women of Terre Haute and a nursing hero of the Civil War, was now being called a “little Indian” in books.  Frankie wrote letters to the Chesterton newspapers in protest.

As the frontier was long gone, historians and other writers began to take an interest in the homestead as a vestige of the pioneer past.  Howe was eager to set the record straight – as straight as she wanted it to be.  Yet she had grown touchy about writers who tried to make her family seem less than “civilized.”

A town in Illinois had been named for her grandmother Monee.  In an 1884 book, The Origin of Station-Names on the Illinois Central Railroad, a letter from Frances Rose Howe appears, chastising the author for getting the facts wrong.  “I am pleased to be able to contradict the statement that my grandmother was a Pottawatomie,” she wrote.

Such an idea would be enough to disturb the peace of her last repose did she know of it.  She hated the Pottawatomies with a perfect hatred, disliked their costume, disapproved of their customs, considered their dialect a most detestable jargon, and thought her own mother-tongue the opposite of all that was abominable in the Pottawatomie language… Her mother was a member of the Ottawa tribe, Canadian Indians….  Their physiognomy approached the French type, their customs in many respects were French, and individuals were easily christianized and civilized, while their women made congenial wives to civilized gentlemen.

Isolated at the homestead and at work on her family history, Howe never married.  Perhaps to help fill the loneliness, she adopted a daughter.  Her aunt Eleanor Bailly, the so-called “little Indian,” oversaw St. Ann’s Orphanage in Terre Haute, a massive building where she was in charge of several hundred orphans.  Around 1894, Frances Howe met one of the girls there, 13-year-old Emma Bachmann, who since 1885 had been in and out of foster homes. Taking her back to the dune country by the lake, she helped Emma finish her education and the two traveled to Europe for several years.  In 1906, the Plymouth Tribune reported that at age 19, Emma was “heiress to several million dollars” but eloped with a coachman named Jensen.   In 1908, Emma married in Kansas City, Missouri, and went to Los Angeles with her first husband, James Lee Huston.  Howe was again alone on the old homestead.


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(Emma Bachmann, photographed while traveling in Italy with her adoptive mother Frances Rose Howe around 1900.)


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(St. Ann’s Orphanage, Terre Haute, Indiana, circa 1900.   Built as Providence Hospital in 1874, the impressive Gothic structure was bought by the Bishop of Vincennes in 1876 and became home to 175 girls.  Run by the Sisters of Providence, the orphanage stood at the corner of 5th Avenue and 13th Street in North Terre Haute.  Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly, Joseph Bailly’s daughter and biographer of Saint Mother Théodore Guérin, ran the orphanage until her death in 1898.  The building was sold in 1919 after the archdiocese moved the orphanage to Indianapolis.  It was demolished in 1927.  Today, it is the site of a Dairy Queen.)


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(Frances Rose Howe at the Bailly homestead, around 1900.)


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(The Bailly-Howe place, renovated and expanded by Frances Rose Howe before 1910.)


With Emma gone, she used the time to pen a family history, supposedly based on stories told to her by her mother Rose. Perhaps Rose elaborated them, not Frances Rose, but their truth is certainly questionable.  In reality, The Story of a French Homestead in the Old Northwest is melodramatic at best, an elaborate hoax about racial purity at worse.  Howe was obsessed with being accepted by her rural neighbors, and by polite society in South Bend and Chicago as white.  Though she never denied her Indian ancestry, she strove to make her family seem as French and civilized as possible.

She encountered racism, but had more than a strain of it in herself.  The white skin of her grandmother is practically a whole character in the book, which is more of a chivalric fantasy than a history.  Visitors to the homestead seem to have always recognized Marie’s Indian clothing as “squaw.”  Yet Howe ludicrously claimed that they were patterned off the costumes of Italian and French peasant women, and that in those days it was “an act of commendable piety to forsake fashionable attire” by wearing them.  Maybe it was pious not to slavishly follow fashion, but Marie’s clothes were certainly Ottawa.  And in his granddaughter’s florid book, Joseph Bailly himself comes back to life as a cultured French aristocrat wielding flowery language, rather than as the rough fur trader who probably “put aside” his first, teenage, wife for dubious reasons.  Howe was also insistent that the Catholic purity and virtue of her family seem undiminished against all assaults made against it in the wilderness.

It is thought that Howe even attempted to obliterate the signs of “Baillytown’s” past as a Potawatomi gathering place, removing vestiges of Native American burial markers in the family cemetery.  Today significantly changed from its original state, the Bailly Cemetery was, at first, a gated burial ground on a site long used by the Potawatomi for the burial of their own dead.  Located at the entrance to the homestead from the Sauk Trail, the cemetery, designed and altered over the years by Rose Howe and her daughters, was modeled after a wayside Catholic shrine.  The Bailly heirs built a six-foot high stone wall around it and topped it with iron spikes, but it was never an exclusively family burial plot.  Many early Swedish and American settlers and Indians are buried here, though their markers were not left standing.

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A mason contractor and builder, Theodore Stephens, remembered what the cemetery looked like before “Miss Howe” hired him to change it in 1914, as she went about her work of altering (she might have said “protecting”) the homestead’s history.

“Around the wall and attached to it were small wooden cabinets with rounded tops and a cross over each,” Stephens wrote.  “They contained little Catholic figures – the Way of the Cross.  Trees grew within the walls and many sweet-smelling plants.”

During Howe’s seclusion at the turn of the century, she grew testy about local Swedish children playing near the cemetery (the iron spikes were not enough to keep them out.)  “Young people liked to climb over the wall and look around inside.  Miss Howe would catch them every once in a while and when she did, she really told them plenty,” said Stephens.  As she grew older and saw the Swedish lumbering settlement at Baillytown slowly disappear, she began to worry about vandals damaging the graves of her parents and grandparents after her own death, which she knew was coming soon.  In 1914, she paid Stephens to literally fill the entire walled cemetery with sand, covering the grave sites with an additional six feet of earth.

The gravestones were removed beforehand, but two markers commemorating her parents and grandparents were embedded into the side of the strange pavilion-like structure that came into being.  “It was not a good idea to question her on her ideas so I never tried that,” the mason said.  “The bronze N in the name of Francis is placed backward in the plaque. I doubt if she ever detected it and I never called her attention to it. I didn’t notice it until the plaque was finished so I left it as it was…  The little cabinets of the ‘Way of the Cross,’ about the walls, were removed.  Some of the tombstones were laid down upon the graves and some were placed against the wall.  No cement was poured over them – just sand, the old walled cemetery was filled with sand.  This gave the desired protection to the graves of the Baillys.”  To top it off, an enormous cross, made out of wood, brought by train from California, was erected over the new structure.

Around 1913, the increasingly testy Howe was involved in a strange dispute over a tax assessment.  The South Bend News-Times reported that while in court in Valparaiso, “During an examination Mrs. Howe is said to have made the statement that she spent $5,100 a year on dress. Attorney Will Daly, representing the county, replied that she did not look it, whereupon Mrs. Howe flung up her hands, threw back her head and screamed hysterically. All the occupants of the room, including Stephen Corby and Harriet Cross, court reporters, fled, except Mrs. Howe’s attorney, F.H. Wurzler, of this city. The examination was thus abruptly ended.”

Howe also went on record in 1913 as saying that the only reason why people thought she was rich was due to a “peasant superstition” about fireflies swarming around her house, indicating buried treasure, a folk belief that had her rivaling “the Goulds and Vanderbilts.”

A Los Angeles Times article claimed (dubiously) that she had about $3,000,000 when she went to California to visit Emma in 1916.  She died in Los Angeles on January 20, 1917.  Her body was not returned to Indiana until a year later.  Services were held at St. Patrick’s Church in Chesterton.  Then her own coffin, spirited across a field in the snow, joined those of her ancestors at the old burial ground that would now be unrecognizable to them.


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, Chesterton, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


A strange coda to the story ensued.  Emma headed back to California.  If I’ve gotten the story correctly, her husband, John Lee Huston, was a traveling shoe salesman.  Their marriage, begun in Kansas City in 1908, crumbled, and (surprising considering her strongly Catholic upbringing) they divorced in 1922.  Called an “heiress” by the Los Angeles Times, she was engaged in a fight for her children that appeared in the newspaper.  Emma remarried in 1923, to John Montelius Price, a playboy from Cincinnati who slowly squandered her money during the Roaring Twenties.  Whatever Emma inherited of the Bailly fur-trading fortune (probably not in the millions, as the Times claimed) apparently disappeared in southern California.

Emma’s son James Francis (named for Frances), born in 1909, played trumpet in a jazz band in L.A. but committed suicide in 1937 by hooking a tube to the exhaust pipe of his car along the Roosevelt Highway in Malibu Beach, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.  When Emma’s husband died in 1953, Joseph Bailly’s adopted granddaughter, then in her seventies, was left cleaning hotel rooms in Los Angeles to support herself and her surviving daughter.

Emma lived until September 1963.  A surviving photo from the ’20s shows her wearing elaborate furs, but forty years later, out West, she once again experienced the poverty and sense of loss she must have known at St. Ann’s Orphanage in Terre Haute.  Emma died in Arcadia, California, aged eighty-two, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.  Her daughter succumbed to cancer five years later.

The Bailly-Howe property was bought by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who used it as a summer health retreat and called it Villa St. Joseph.  They abandoned it in 1932 during the Depression.  In 1949, it was acquired by the Michigan City Historical Society.  When the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore came into existence in the 1960s, the National Park Service took an interest in the property and it was given to the Federal government in 1971.

Today, the house is a historic site kept as it appeared in 1917 and sits at the end of a mile-long hiking trail through woods.  Parking is available at the nearby farmstead once owned by Anders and Johanna Kjellberg, who came from Sweden in 1863.  They Americanized their name to Chellberg and in the 1880s built the house that still stands here.  The Chellberg Farmstead remained an active farm until 1972.  It sits on Mineral Springs Road, just south of U.S. 12, two miles west of the gate to Indiana Dunes State Park.


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(Indian Burying Ground, near Chesterton, Indiana, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


The Bailly Cemetery, a remarkable relic of Indiana’s past, is at the end of a short hiking trail north of the Chellberg farm, on a high knoll immediately off U.S. 12.  The site of the envisioned “Port of Bailly” is also vastly different from the way it appeared in the 1830s.  Situated at what became Burns Harbor, Indiana, it is now the home of Bethlehem Steel.  When grassroots agitation for a national lakeshore began in the 1950s, Bethlehem, Midwest Steel and NIPSCO began leveling parcels of land in the Central Dunes to weaken the activists’ argument for a park, especially since this segment of the shoreline was considered the crown jewel of the lakeshore.  The land owned by Bethlehem, encompassing the site of Bailly’s port, was eventually dropped from the park proposal.  The location is currently a steel mill at the western edge of the national lakeshore.

The mill is an interesting sight in its own right.  Three miles of woodland trails lead from Cowles Bog (one of the birthplaces of American ecology) toward the lake, through the amazing dune-and-swale topography and oak savannas that manage to survive under the shadow of steel-making.  The mill can be seen from the beach.


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  The Road Leading to the Bailly Homestead, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)

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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Bailly Burial Place, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)

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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Tablet, Joseph Bailly and Marie LeFevre, Bailly Cemetery, June 25, 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)

Jphn Wee-Was-SUm and Family Ottawa Indian Camp 1889

(Unknown photographer.  Ottawa Indian camp on the island at Frankfort [Michigan?].  John Wee-was-sum and his family, Spring 1889.  University of Michigan Digital Collections.)

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(Ottawa man, known as The Sucker, 1859.)

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(Potawatomi woman, 1904.)

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(Joseph and Frank King, Ottawa/Ojibwa, circa 1877.)

Hooper Branch: A Story About a Fire

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Hooper Branch is a restored prairie and black oak savanna on the southern edge of the Kankakee River country, about 80 miles due south of Chicago. Though located over an hour’s drive from Lake Michigan, in the heart of downstate Illinois’ corn country, the landscape of Hooper Branch is made up mostly of sand dunes buried under the grass and trees. Though far from any big bodies of water today, it is the location of the shores of glacial Lake Watseka, which 14,000 years ago took shape between two moraines that dammed up glacial meltwaters when the last ice sheets dissolved. The location may have looked something like the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Now it is a mixture of marsh, woods, and open prairie, a delicate balance maintained by fire (hence the scorched, seemingly barren but rich landscape in these photographs).

BP’s destruction of the Gulf Coast has been identified inaccurately as the “worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.” It amazes me that we have forgotten about the near total demolition of the prairie ecosystem in this country. What survives of true prairie (not just grassy fields) is less than a tenth of a percent of what once covered North America. True prairie is almost as vanished as glacial Lake Watseka, and almost as forgotten (these photograph were taken on what was once the beach.)

As the photographer Robert Adams has written, “what bothers us about primordial beauty is that it is no longer characteristic.” Hooper Branch is one of the strangest places I have photographed, because it is so untypical of anything else in America. Few Americans, their eyes deluded by the need for what they have been told is beautiful (seacoasts and mountain ranges), can appreciate a spot like Hooper Branch. Culturally, we have probably not changedin the 150 years since the easterners and Europeans who moved into the Midwest to farm it initiated the demolition of the prairie, their family farms now in turn being replaced by corporate agriculture. Our near inability to appreciate the beauty of these places is one of the problems of our collective aesthetics.

As fascinating as I find Hooper Branch and other small eastern prairies (which seem confined and almost woodsy compared to the great tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains), on this occasion I felt that my presence was out of place here. As the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty wrote in Some Notes on River Country, her pictures of forgotten towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, “I have never seen anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.”

This was not the last time I have felt this way in such a landscape, as if caught prying too closely into a place that is not strange in its own right.  (It is arrogant to assume that any place contained in itself is “strange” except to an outsider).  Subconsciously, I sensed that I did not belong here even as a visitor, that this was not my place, that the prairie’s old truths (not of mere, insignificant death but of fire and transformation and resurrection) are too strange for us and perhaps no longer have anything to do with us, who have alienated ourselves from so much.

Maybe I was just under the influence of a good story. An old roommate of mine, Wayne Robbins, who is twenty years older than me, had told me about a strange event that happened to him a few years ago. It is probably an urban legend, and he might even have been trying to fool me, but from the way he told it, I sensed that he thought the experience was real, and I don’t doubt that his emotions were authentic.

He was in Indianapolis at the time. After unexpectedly seeing a light upstairs one night in a house that a friend of his was renting, they went upstairs together next morning to try to discover the source of the light. They had never been upstairs, but were certain that no one else was living there. Though there were three windows visible from the outside, on the inside the symmetry was all wrong and they couldn’t figure out where the third window would be. Finally prying some wainscoting loose, Wayne and his friend found themselves inside a tiny reading room, a hidden space with no door.

There was no entrance other than the window itself, but a candle sat on a table next to a very old book, the whole space bathed in light by the mysterious third window that they had at last discovered. Everything in the room was immaculate, no dust anywhere, and there was nothing at all creepy about it (Wayne even described the room as “quietly beautiful.”) Yet both he and his friend felt the sense that they simply should not be there. That there was a presence telling them to leave.

When Wayne reached out to touch the book and discover its title, his friend warned him not to do so, intuiting that “someone else just doesn’t want us here.” At that moment, they both looked over at the table. The candle, like a prairie fire, was beginning to smolder.

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