Category Archives: Medical History

The Terre Haute Madstone

madstone2

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.)


woodcut-of-a-rabid-dog-middle-temple-library

(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

john mccoy


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.

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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.”

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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.’”

Men and Manholes: Subterranean Louisville

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Subterranean waterways, massive “re-creations” of rivers and streams, and the disposal of human waste:  this is the unromantic focus of one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and little-known collections of photography from the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression of the ’30s.  Housed at the University of Louisville, over 3,000 negatives and prints make up the remarkable Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, an archival depiction of the many public works projects that were carried out around Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, Kentucky, from the early 1920s until just after the great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Captured on gorgeous 8×10 negatives, the images are aesthetically accomplished and surprisingly compelling to look at.  Some seem like precocious versions of late twentieth-century landscape photography, subtle Jazz Age precursors of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and ’80s.  Fifty years after a team of Louisvillians documented their nascent sewer system, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams revisited this same basic subject matter, mostly in the American Far West.  There, they approached the rugged, mundane, and shabby corners of construction zones on arid city fringes such as Denver with a new eye – both for the unexpected beauty of a suburban building lot, for instance, and for the warnings that such a humble place carried with it in telling the story of human encroachments on the wild.

Like Louisville’s Commissioners of Sewerage, who paid to have the images in this collection made, photographers like Robert Adams captured realities that were so close, so abundantly central to our lives, that they were rarely enunciated in art or even in documentary work.  And like the poet Carl Sandburg, who began his famous poem “Chicago” with a bold statement of the blatantly obvious (about that city being “Hog butcher to the world”), it took a certain genius behind the lens to depict the essential structure of the workaday metropolis, the mundane skeleton of what made everything else click.

Yet these images of Louisville’s sewers and public works projects capture much more than architectural and engineering history.  They document the birth of a modern city.  Twentieth-century cities were profoundly shaped by the problem of overcoming disease and wielding off “nature’s” disastrous wildcards.  In fact, these became common photographic subject matter at a time when progress was considered inevitable and based on human advances in city design.

Culverts, ditches, pipes, floods, and sewers.  Hardly the first spot one would go to make a case for photographic beauty – or to describe the “spirit of place” in a great, overlooked American city.  This, however, is where so much of the modern city’s natural and human history hides.  Like Louisville, all the metropolises that came about after the start of the Industrial Revolution were designed largely in response to the public health crises of the 1800s, and most of the engineering projects documented by early photographers were ultimately images of cities fending off disease, disorder, and disaster. To fully appreciate the beauty and significance of these images, some of that history has to be told.

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“Slop for sale.”  Alley between Melwood & William, Louisville, Kentucky, March 1931.  Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, University of Louisville.  MSD.092.007

While Louisville’s early “sewers” dated back to the 1820s, the earliest drainage systems here were little more than street-side ditches that helped flush storm water and waste down to the Ohio.  Forty years after it was founded by George Rogers Clark at the rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville was still a small riverside town with just a few thousand inhabitants.  Yet that number alone made it one of the biggest “cities” in what was still called “the West,” a century before these photographs were made.  (The population of Chicago, a military outpost, numbered just 300 in 1833.  St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, and New Orleans were the only moderately large towns west of the Appalachians.)

The town’s life was partly shaped by the difficulty of living in a “pond-dotted bottomland” of the Ohio.  During the first years of Loiusville’s history, until about 1805, hogs roamed the streets at will, defecating into the ponds and creeks that served as a water source for settlers.  The practice was curbed by an act of the Kentucky Legislature, called the “Hog and Pond Law,” which banned free-roaming pigs from wandering the muddy streets and called for ditches to be dug that would help drain off the pestilential pools and wetlands that were such a part of the original landscape.  Settlers knew from experience, if not from scientific fact, that ponds and sitting water caused them to die.

Before levees were built, the early city was also flood-prone, though the Ohio River was a different river then than it is now.  The explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined up with William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the river from Louisville, in 1803 and spent the next three years traveling Western rivers en route to Oregon and back, knew the original Ohio firsthand.  Traveling down from what later became West Virginia, Lewis found the river so dry upstream from Louisville that his boat often got stuck on sandbars.  In engineering projects culminating in the 1950s, the difficult river was gradually dredged and dammed, its channels regularized and its flow deepened for navigation.  Like the Columbia and parts of the Mississippi, the Ohio died as a free-flowing stream in the mid-20th century and became, in effect, a long, skinny lake, its levels controlled by humans for flood control and the passage of barges.

creek and culvert

Creek and culvert, December 1928.  MSD.036.345

Yet like the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which were felt strongly in this area, early floods in Louisville caused little permanent damage or concern, since frontier buildings were primitive, small, and easily replaced.  The main danger from floods was the proliferation of disease that occurred after the high waters subsided.  A malaria epidemic hit Louisville in 1822 and killed 122 people, a serious blow to a town that numbered just over 2,000.

An improvement on the covered ditches that ran down the shoulders of streets, Louisville’s first true sewer was built in 1850, a three-thousand foot brick-lined conduit running from First Street to Walnut, then emptying straight into Beargrass Creek.  Looking back now, to us it seems amazing how poorly the connection between the spread of disease and basic sanitation was understood in the early 1800s, a connection that was often not made at all.  The myth of the virgin frontier’s “purity” probably contributed to the spread of sickness.

In fact, humans in cities even today, who have a good knowledge of the causes of disease, would be unable to safely dispose of their own waste without the big engineering projects that created sewers and public treatment facilities.  Considering that epidemiologists did not fully uncover the cause of cholera, for instance, until 1854, it is not surprising that our ancestors’ efforts here were weak.  (A contemporary anti-cholera poster from New York City suggests that doctors thought the bacillus was spread by the consumption of raw vegetables and unripe fruit, or even by sleeping in a breeze.)

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Cholera prevention poster, 1849.  New York Historical Society.

Major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were frequent events on the Midwestern frontier and far more catastrophic to settlers than tornadoes and Indian attacks.  Hindostan, a settlement at the White River Falls in southern Indiana not far from Louisville (and where at one time almost as many people lived) was completely wiped out by disease in the early 1820s.  Settling in a flood plain and living on houseboats, several hundred settlers and adventurers, many of them polished, educated Easterners, sickened and died in the fall of 1820 from what was probably yellow fever.  Four years later, less than half of the town’s population remained, having succumbed to the disease or gotten out of the area entirely.  Hindostan (where about 1,000 people are thought to have lived) disappeared completely and the spot was avoided for years.  Folklore attributed the unspecified disease to decaying plant matter backed up by the river rapids, but it almost certainly originated with the fact that Hindostan’s migrant population lived largely on flatboats directly atop the water and must have flushed their own waste directly into the stream.

This ill-fated settlement was not the only victim of public health disasters.  Much of the United States was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1833, just a year after the disease was first reported in New York City.  Originating in the Ganges River region of India, where it had killed millions for centuries, cholera spread west along trade routes in the early 1800s.  In 1820, Russian troops brought it from South Asia to Poland and a cholera epidemic was soon devastating Paris and London.  In 1832, the bacillus showed up in New York, probably carried in the bilge water of ships.  A disease of the bowels, cholera took its victims rapidly, usually within 48 hours, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.

At Salem, Indiana, thirty miles from Louisville, panic set in June 1833 and the town was almost depopulated.  “There were scarcely enough people left in the town to care for the sick and dead,” it was written.  “Merchants closed their stores and stampeded.”  Salem’s old city graveyard is full of cholera victims, their markers made from whetstone quarried at Hindostan.

That same month, Lexington, Kentucky, the biggest city in the West, almost shut down from fear of cholera.  A third of its population fled to farms nearby.  “The dead could not be buried fast enough,” the historian George Ranck wrote, and farmers refused to come into town to sell food.  The four- or five-thousand Lexingtonians who stayed behind would have succumbed to famine if authorities hadn’t stepped in.  Yet an unlikely folk hero, King Solomon, helped save the city.  As bodies piled up, Solomon (a vagrant alcoholic who rarely drank water) became a gravedigger.  Though public handbills at the time warned citizens in cholera-stricken areas to avoid “ardent spirits,” Solomon’s preference for whiskey over water was probably what saved his life.  And as John Wright, a Lexington historian, chronicles humorously: “If any stray bacillus had entered his bloodstream it would have died immediately from the alcohol content.”  Solomon survived the epidemic.  In honor of his heroism and humane treatment of the dead, the city of Lexington had the town drunk’s portrait painted.  It hangs today in the Bodley-Bullock House near Transylvania University.

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British cartoon, 1848.

Cholera outbreaks were also among the many disasters that struck young Chicago, a dangerous place since its very birth.  In one of history’s tragic ironies, the disease was carried west to Lake Michigan by U.S. soldiers coming from Buffalo, New York, to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War in southern Wisconsin.  Black Hawk’s band of Sauk “warriors” (most of whom were actually women and children repossessing their homes) struck as much panic into the hearts of early Chicagoans as cholera did the following year in Indiana and Kentucky.  The disease turned out to be far more deadly than any attack ever carried out by the Sauk, who were driven down the Wisconsin River and massacred that July.  When cholera struck again in 1854, killing 3,500 people, that epidemic was one of the three great disasters to befall the imperiled nineteenth-century city, ranking with the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the Great Fire of 1871, both of which effectively obliterated Chicago.

Malaria, too, which flourished in stagnant pools of water, especially after floods, was a serious problem facing settlers in the Midwest.  Mosquitoes breeding along the Wabash River after late-winter floods gradually led the Shakers, who had settled north of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1809, to go back to Kentucky and Ohio by 1824.  The loss was a major blow to the expansion of the Shaker faith into the West.

Many “non-scientific” causes were also put forward to explain fevers and the high mortality rate facing this area.   “Bad air” was one.  Some early county historians cited dense fogs along rivers and creeks as the bringer of death.  Yet one writer theorized that the disease-stricken town of Palestine, another White River settlement in southern Indiana, owed its demise to sheer bad luck.  Settlers there, he speculated, had dug the town well at the site of an Indian graveyard and the old burials were poisoning the water supply.  Palestine, the first Lawrence County seat, was abandoned in 1825 and resettled as Bedford, three miles from the river.

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1100 block of Eastern Parkway during flood.  January 1927.  MSD.035.005

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Mill Creek: Mystery neighborhood.  Flooded area between the side yards of two houses, January, 1937.  MSD.091.190

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Downtown Louisville during the Ohio River flood, 3:20 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.538

During a cholera outbreak in Britain in 1854, John Snow, a physician, plotted the sources of cases and finally showed that contaminated water was the culprit.  Over the next few decades, improvements in public sanitation, especially in urban areas, led to individual cholera outbreaks becoming less deadly, though still not uncommon.

Culturally, cholera’s spread was also blamed on impoverished Irish immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were major segments of Louisville’s population.  The Irish made up most of the labor gangs that built Midwestern canals in the 1840s and ’50s, and the stereotype stuck, especially as cholera did, in fact, flourish on these waterways.  Later, they laid railroad tracks and worked in the Butchertown slaughterhouses, all of which at that time dumped their loads straight into Beargrass Creek, remembered for many years as a stinking mess.  (One of the biggest “sewer” projects of the Civil War era involved simply enclosing the creek and re-channeling it away from downtown before it emptied the city’s waste directly into the Ohio.)  John Snow’s report, however, did little to destroy the racial and ethnic prejudice that fostered misunderstanding about the spread of disease, which was still often attributed to “intemperance” and wild living, not the lack of adequate sewers.

By 1870, a high incidence of malaria around Louisville prompted a city engineer, Brigadier General Isaac Munroe St. John, to study the need for an improved sewer system.  (St. John was familiar with the geology of the South, having served in the Nitre and Mining Corps of the Confederate Army, which dug saltpeter from caves in the Southern Appalachians for gunpowder manufacturers.)  Between 1871 and 1873, he oversaw the construction of the Western Outfall, a trunk line from Breckenridge Street west toward 14th Street and the Ohio.  Untreated waste water and storm drainage was unceremoniously dumped into the river as late as 1959, when Louisville got its first treatment facility.

The tunnels that made up Louisville’s 19th-century sewers had originally been built of brick, but after the 1880s, engineers switched to cheaper and more durable concrete.  By 1906, Louisville had 113 miles of sewer lines, but was still considered far behind most other cities of its size.  (It was then one of the ten largest in America.)  Watching their city become architecturally resplendent, with parks and boulevards designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville’s urban planners were hard-pressed for cash to lay pipes and build drainage networks to protect the infrastructure from very basic demands made on it.

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Underground sewer investigation, man in brick-lined segment of tunnel, March 1937.  MSD.USI.021.

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Metal circular tube, August 1932.  MSD.047.290

The Commissioners of Sewerage, who from 1924 to 1937 oversaw the creation of one of the most thorough bodies of urban photographs ever made about a public engineering project, were established through an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1906 and funded by $4 million in bonds.  Beginning in 1908, that money went toward trunk lines and relief for flood-prone parts of the city.  Yet over the years, money was consistently hard to come by.  As the growing city sank itself in debt, largely for sewers, the most important works project underway finally had to be funded by bonds, not tax dollars.  Public relations experts and engineers alike needed photographs.

As the Commissioners hired thousands of workers and invested millions of dollars into effective construction projects, which intensified during the ’20s and ’30s, their efforts came none too soon.  Louisville’s population exploded in the first half of the 20th century.  Slaughterhouses and packinghouses, tobacco warehouses, beer and whiskey distilleries, and other industries that processed the agricultural abundance of Kentucky and its hinterlands all flourished, drawing in a large population from the countryside, the Ohio Valley as a whole, and from Europe.

The Great Depression increased the flow of workers into the city and exacerbated its already tight housing and sewage problems.  One of the greatest difficulties facing the Commissioners during these years was of how – or whether – to separate storm water from waste water in pipes that were not big enough to carry both together during heavy rains.  During large storms and floods, the city faced the terrible prospect of raw sewage overflowing and mixing with the bursting creeks, then contaminating wells and other sources of drinking water.

During World War II, Louisville became quite prosperous as industries here contributed to the war effort.  The city even became something of a boom town during the 1940s.  With the massive out-migration from the Appalachian region during and after the Depression, as “mountaineers” headed to cities like this one, but especially Chicago and Detroit, new construction here was unable to keep up with the demand for housing.  Much of what we recognize as the characteristic architecture of Louisville was built between 1920 and 1950.  Had the city not wisely invested in expanding its network of pipelines and drainage systems prior to the Second World War, Louisville’s industrial growth would have been crippled.

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Intersection at Weisser Avenue, April 1934.  MSD.078.018

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Goss Avenue at Emerson Street, November 1927.  MSD.035.033

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Butchertown with mystery.  Beargrass Creek near houses and smokestack on a hill, April 1933.  MSD.M.371

Like all of central Kentucky, creeks and rivers are major topographical features of the Louisville area.  A basic topography of limestone and karst has virtually defined Kentucky’s culture, as its landscape and history are deeply tied to water.  Subterranean rivers helped create Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, sixty miles southwest of Louisville, and thousands of smaller caves run through the karst belt from northern Alabama into southern Indiana.  Kentucky’s groundwater, rich in mineral deposits percolating through layers of limestone beneath the soil, is a major factor in whiskey production here.  Legend holds that good groundwater has also created Kentucky’s strong horses and beautiful women.  Irish settlers, who helped define the region’s culture, were drawn to this landscape that reminded them of Ireland, where water is also a major presence.

Yet the water-rich Ohio and Kentucky valleys have been the source of many destructive floods.  The great 1937 flood on the Ohio, which devastated every town in the valley during late January and early February, was the greatest single disaster ever to hit the city of Louisville.  Coming near the end of the Depression, the flood was the ultimate test both of individual resolve and of whether Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agencies would be efficacious.  (Shawneetown, Illinois, and Leavenworth, Indiana, two historic river towns, were completely wiped out, then rebuilt three miles back from the Ohio, in two of the most dramatic re-locations of entire communities in American history.)

Louisville, of course, survived the ’37 flood, yet it would be hard to imagine the public health nightmare that would have ensued without the work done over the previous decades to channel water away from the heart of the city.  Overpowered levees broke and most other attempts to control the river failed, and the water did a great deal of damage here.  But it was public works projects in the city that prevented it from being utterly overcome.

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Muddy bank during 1937 Ohio River Flood, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in background, January 31, 1937.  MSD.M.602

Louisville’s sewer system, dramatically expanded in the early twentieth century to meet the needs of flood control and urban sanitation, was a response to the basic realities of living in this often water-logged landscape.  The photographers employed by the Commissioners of Sewerage clearly understood this.  As a body of images, the more than 3,000 large-format photographs they produced are one of the most complete documentary works ever made about an American landscape, meticulously recording virtually every corner of the city’s watershed.

At first glance, one wonders why the Commissioners wanted images of hundreds of seemingly mundane spots in Louisville and rural Jefferson County.  Not all of these photographs document construction projects, and clearly many would never be used in public relations.  Some of the most striking images are exciting because of this simple fact:  their purpose remains utterly mysterious.  What, for example, was the reason behind these three images, whose composition suggests that the photographer was not driven by a desire to show anything other than how completely engrossed he was in the mystery of a watery landscape?

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Grinstead Drive near Beargrass Creek, April 13, 1926.  MSD.025.001

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Mill Creek road, January 1937.  MSD.091.134

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Flooded road, 1100 block of Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.020

Though a shortage of money just before and after World War I led to cutbacks in sewer construction, new bond issues in the 1920s raised nearly $15 million and 154 new lines were built during that decade.  Work continued into the Great Depression, when the bulk of these images were made.  They are interesting counterpoints to the famous documentary photography carried out by the Federal Works Project Administration.

Much material created by the WPA was, in fact, government propaganda in a positive sense, intended for federal and state publications, ultimately meant to bolster the “American spirit” in a dark time.  Those photographs showed the American people working when there was a major shortage of work.  Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee captured the dark realities facing Americans, but also depicted their resilience and the efforts of the New Deal agencies to alleviate economic and social problems.  (Russell Lee, one of the leading Farm Security Administration photographers, visited the Ohio Valley in February 1937 to document the aftermath of the catastrophe at Shawneetown, Illinois.)

By contrast, few of the Metropolitan Sewer District images focus on the human workers involved in construction.  Rather, like a later school of American landscape photography (the generation of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams) they approach the visual appeal of those works themselves.  They are landscape photography, first and foremost.  As the New Topographics photographers would have instantly recognized, in some ways these are also pictures of the fence that we have thrown up between us and the gulf of human history that came before us, and on which our own society depends.  Without this, ours would be a different civilization.

Now buried under earth and invisible like the men who built them, like past generations these subterranean systems are the “secret sharers” that underly our own lives, subtle underground doppelgangers, ghostly counterparts of the world above.  The material captured here by photographers tells much of the 20th-century story, one woven between the complex geometry of pipes, the sinuosity of culverts, and the grid slowly being laid out over the great city and the face of nature.

PHOTOS FROM THE METROPOLITAN SEWER DISTRICT COLLECTION

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Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.084

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Southwest Outfall.  Close up view of brick porch with lattice ladder, 1933.  MSD.070.016

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Beal’s Branch, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

man inspecting pipes

Man inspecting drainage pipe with measuring tape, May 1926.  MSD.M.005

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Manhole covers on display, Louisville, December 1930.  MSD.M.061

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Bells Lane vicinity, May 1928.  MSD.036.190

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4th and Chestnut, NE corner, old post office entrance.  MSD.033.052

laying of bricks in tunnel 1932

Laying of bricks in tunnel, 1932.  MSD.047.325

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Tunnel or cave with rough stone walls, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

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Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.085

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Grinstead Drive 2500 B looking east, 1926.  MSD.025.051

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Entrance to a tunnel, Beals Branch area, December 1930.  MSD.049.074

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719 W Liberty, 1928.  MSD.035.058

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Sewer under constructrion, 1926.  MSD.025.055

pipeline under construction

Pipeline under construction, 1932.  MSD.047.238

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Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.023

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Napoleon Boulevard, March 1935.  MSD.079.019.4

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Children stand in a creek or flooded ditch, 9:00 AM, June, 29, 1928.  MSD.M.034

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Southwest Outfall, December 1933.  MSD.067.108

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Men inside tunnel, August 1931.  MSD.047.160

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Entrance to tunnel, Brownsboro Road, August 1935.  MSD.085.136

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Standing inside a tunnel or large drainage pipe, Spaulding-Braeview area, July 1931.  MSD.049.108

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Brownsboro Road area.  MSD.037.065

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Model of a house next to various sized pipe models with two small trucks, 1932.  MSD.new.024

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Lumber installation, 1932.  MSD.047.298

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Boats and ice, Ohio River flood, February 2, 1937.  MSD.M.637

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Downtown Louisville, 3:00 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.535

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Alley between Melwood and William, April 1936.  MSD.092.008

Sinipee of the Driftless

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 When the explorer Zebulon Pike voyaged up the Mississippi in 1805 in his failed search for the river’s headwaters in northern Minnesota, he was transfixed by the stretch of country between what became northwestern Illinois and the future site of Minneapolis.  Pike described it as “the most mountainous and beautiful in the entire valley of the Mississippi.”  Indeed, the scenery here is astonishing and often unexpected to drivers crossing the great river or traveling up the Great River Road from Keokuk, Iowa, toward Galena and La Crosse, all the way to the Twin Cities.  Compared to the huge flatlands to the east and west, this part of the valley is a great relief.  Americans today are perhaps as unprepared for the amazing beauty of the Mississippi Valley as Pike must have been when he first came up the river, having no idea what he would find there.

Situated at the heart of the unique geological area known as the Driftless, the bluff country along the upper Mississippi is a masterpiece of nature’s chisel.  The beauty goes on for miles, into the heart of this landscape where four states come together.  The Driftless is virtually the only part of the Midwest that was not flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age.  Its trout streams and breathtaking topography are often compared to the cozy valleys of the Southern Appalachians and the karst country of central Kentucky.  Wider expanses in the interior evoke the Flint Hills of Kansas.  Due to the nature of the sloping terrain, big industrial agriculture has never been feasible in this dramatic place, and in recent years it has become home to movements in “alternative” organic farming and sustainable living.

And while the Upper Midwest was settled mostly by Germans and Scandinavians, when settlers first began to move here in the 1830s, the contours of this unique land must have immediately appealed to Southerners.

Such a man was Peyton Vaughn, who arrived from North Carolina around 1830.  Coming with his wife, Vaughn purchased a small tract of land about a half-mile from the Mississippi near the mouth of Sinipee Creek.  If he climbed the impressive bluff on his property, Vaughn could have seen for many miles up and down the great valley.  Four miles downstream was the future site of Dubuque, Iowa (then a part of Wisconsin Territory), which was chartered as a town three years after Vaughn arrived in the area.  The most important nearby settlement, however, was Galena, Illinois, three miles inland from the Mississippi on the Fever River and about twenty miles south of Sinipee Creek.  Galena was rapidly becoming the center of all activity in this region.

Vaughn settled in what was known as the Lead Mining District or Mineral District, a general term including much of what later became the state of Wisconsin.  The Driftless region, in the southwestern part of this territory, was incredibly rich in lead ore, which at that time promised even greater fortunes than gold and was more abundant.  The valuable mineral could be melted into lead bars for easier export downstream and was eventually shipped to the East Coast and to Europe, where manufacturers turned it into a range of products – from bullets to pipes to newspaper print.

In fact, it was lead, not agriculture, that was the primary lure drawing settlers to Wisconsin in the 1830s.  (A growing population led Wisconsin Territory to be carved out of Michigan Territory in 1836.)   Lead mining was so important to the early economy that it led to the state’s nickname, “The Badger State.”  Miners dug into hillsides like burrowing animals, and a lead miner – not a farmer – stands next to a sailor on the state flag.  The center of mining operations in Wisconsin was clustered around the U.S. Land Office at Mineral Point, thirty-five miles from the river.

Today, Mineral Point is one of the most beautiful small towns in the Midwest.  Most of its unique sandstone architecture dates from the late Federal period, which lingered into the 1830s, when mining was dominant here.  Many houses were built by Cornish miners who resettled from England and built diminutive buildings resembling those of the Old World villages they came from.  Pendarvis, a Wisconsin state historic site, is the best known of them.  It sits across the road from a spot, once mined, called the Merry Christmas Mine, now restored to grassland and woods and called the Merry Christmas Prairie.


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(J.E. Whitney, Views on the Upper Mississippi, circa 1865.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


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(J.L. Nye, Tornado damage, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, 1878.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


The problem for early Wisconsin miners was that in order to get lead to market, they had to sell it to middlemen in Galena, the region’s only shipping port.  Railroads, still a new innovation, had not reached this far west, and roads for ox-drawn wagons were primitive at best and not ideal for carrying a heavy product like lead.  In the 1830s, Galena’s monopoly as a shipping port guaranteed its position as a wealthy and cultured town, which it remained until after the Civil War.  Its famous architecture dates mostly from its boom days.

Peyton Vaughn, who survived the violence between whites and the Sauk during the Black Hawk War of 1832, was neither a miner nor an enterprising industrialist.  He operated a cable-pulled ferry on his property for a year or two.  Then he became aware of his great luck in having bought land here.  A group of twenty-three investors from Mineral Point determined that the mouth of Sinipee Creek would be the ideal location for a port to rival Galena.  In 1838, they started up the “Louisiana Company” (presumably because everything shipped downstream would eventually go to New Orleans.)  They offered Vaughn $12,000 (at that time a huge sum of money) for a piece of his river frontage.  In exchange, Vaughn agreed to use half of the money to build a suitable hotel at the site, which he would become proprietor of.  In the August 4, 1838, Iowa News of Dubuque, it was announced that “the object of the company is to establish a depot for the lead made in the district… The landing is excellent, and reached with ease by the largest of boats.  The name given to it is Port Sinipee.”

When town lots were laid out, they sold for large sums, as much as $2,000.  Port Sinipee showed every sign of being caught up in a real estate frenzy.  Carpenters and craftsmen came from Galena, Dubuque, and other parts of the territory, and homes, shops and warehouses rapidly sprang up.  Mechanics and merchants came to oversee the construction of docks for the barges that now began to wander upstream from St. Louis to take on lead ore.  By the spring of 1839, about twenty buildings had been erected.  It is unclear whether they were of quick, shoddy construction, or solid like Vaughn’s hotel.  Vaughn, for one, put all his effort into building the best edifice he could make, far exceeding the expectations of the Mineral Point investors.  He built his hotel of local stone, two-stories high, with walls two feet thick.  “The lower floors were of oak, those above of pine, the timbers of oak and red cedar.”  Sitting at the base of the bluff, pure spring water is said to have passed right under the hotel.  A fine ballroom occupied much of the second floor.  Vaughn’s “Stone House,” though never entirely finished, was no primitive frontier tavern, for sure.  It would have been one of the finest buildings in Wisconsin at that time.

A Methodist church was established.  General stores carried “large stocks which included costly furniture and delicate chinaware that one would not expect to see offered for sale in such a wild country.  Miss Isabel Fenley had in her living room a large, much prized mirror that was purchased at a store in Sinipee in 1840.”

By far the most interesting man to show up here and tie himself to its rising fortunes was the engineer, newspaper correspondent, and photographic pioneer John Plumbe., Jr.  Plumbe’s remarkably tragic and unexpected story spans the history of mining, frontiers, and photography alike.

Born at Castle Caerinion in Wales in 1809, Plumbe immigrated with his parents to central Pennsylvania in 1821, where his father operated the first metal screw factory in the United States and helped drive the first railroad over the Alleghanies.  John Plumbe, Jr., studied civil engineering, presumably in Philadelphia.  While in his twenties, he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad back East, between Petersburg, Virginia, and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  Seeing prospects for success in the west, he eventually followed the expanding frontier, ending up in the vicinity of Dubuque, Iowa, when it was still a booming new town.  Noticing his talents, the Louisiana Company of Sinipee, located just a few miles upriver, hired the twenty-eight year old engineer to do surveying at the port and assist in laying out lots for the buildings that were projected to rise.  Plumbe’s diary from these years, beginning October 17, 1838, is a record of his daily comings-and-goings during the quick rise and fall of the burgeoning town of Sinipee.


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(John Plumbe’s diary, State of Wisconsin Collection, University of Wisconsin-Platteville.)


One of the oddest turns in Sinipee’s history and Plumbe’s own story occurred shortly after he came to Dubuque.  Plumbe was a wild dreamer and a “jack of all trades,” never consistently tied down to one profession or one vision of his own career.  Yet he was undoubtedly tireless, even obsessed, with the several professions that he pursued, from engineering to photography.  It was his tireless effort to promote Sinipee, in fact, that led to his laying the first seeds of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Ironically, while the port’s existence was tied directly to the huge significance of the river as a transportation artery, Sinipee itself, as the “birthplace” of the railroad, would play an indirect role in the eventual eclipse of the Mississippi as the main highway through Middle America.  On December 14, 1838, John Plumbe met with investors from Mineral Point and citizens of Sinipee at Vaughn’s Stone Hotel.  From a certain point-of-view, this date can be considered the birthday of the railroad that would eventually traverse the U.S.  Plumbe proposed petitioning Congress to fund a new rail line linking Milwaukee on Lake Michigan to Port Sinipee on the other side of Wisconsin, the first link in a series of lines that would (he hoped) connect the Eastern U.S. to Oregon.

At this time, existing rail lines in Europe and America were short, sometimes not more than a few miles long, and trains rarely moved at a speed faster than ten miles an hour, and even that was fast enough to make the Duke of Wellington – the victor of the Battle of Waterloo – faint from dizziness while taking a short train ride during his old age.  Plumbe’s proposal, however, was unanimously supported by the investors and a resolution was forwarded to Congress by Wisconsin’s territorial delegate.  The War Department later approved funding for a survey of the proposed route, which eventually culminated in the completion of a cross-country railroad thirty years later, its final golden spike driven into desert ground in Utah in 1869.

Tragically, neither Sinipee nor John Plumbe would participate much further in the railroad or in the economic prosperity of the country.  The town fell victim to one of the ever-present causes of “town demise” in the 19th-century Midwest.  This was the destructive force of rivers and the persistence of water-borne diseases.  In the spring of 1839, only a few months after Plumbe optimistically touted Sinipee’s importance to a nation being covered in rails, spring floods on the Mississippi inundated the town.  The water itself did relatively little damage and the town’s inhabitants simply waited for the swollen waters to recede.  Yet stagnant pools left by the flood bred a deadly array of diseases.  Always a colossal nuisance near inland rivers, mosquitoes spread malaria in proportions far worse than what settlers here were used to.  Sinipee’s citizens fell ill in large numbers.  At least sixty of them, perhaps a quarter of the town, died.

Once a place was known to breed fever and other “bug” diseases (then sometimes called simply the “ague”), it was difficult to get other people to move there, even with great predictions of a coming fortune.  As Sinipee’s inhabitants began to drift away, others were reluctant to buy their vacated property.  After all, if the spot was so promising, why had the sellers left?  By the beginning of 1840, it seems only the Vaughn family remained, though “wildcat” currency bearing the name “Sinipee, Wisc.” was still being printed four years later.

Thedore Rodolf, a Louisiana Company investor, rode into town in 1840 and claimed to find it all abandoned:

“When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me.  The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year.  I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome.  There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard. . .  I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation.  The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.”


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(“Wildcat” banknote issued to “J. Davis,” July 10, 1844.)


By 1850, a large frame house was all that was left of Sinipee’s business district.  In the years after the epidemic hit, the little port’s buildings were dismantled bit by bit for re-use in the mine shafts at Mineral Point.  Wooden planks were carried over the ice on the river to Dubuque, still a growing town whose importance would have been far greater to Wisconsin miners if it had been on their side of the river.  Payton Vaughn died around 1845.  His wife lived in the grand Stone Hotel until her death in 1861.  Their son later moved onto a farm up the bluff, a place called Sinipee Heights, which overlooked the town site.

When the uninhabited Stone Hotel burned in 1904, its ruins were left where they fell.  Distanced in time from its “heyday,” folklore began to circulate about famous guests who once stayed or danced there.  It was claimed that Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis lodged at the hotel while they were stationed at Fort Crawford, the remote frontier outpost upriver that became Prairie du Chien.  Davis and Taylor were certainly in the vicinity during the 1832 Black Hawk War.  (The future Confederate president protected the defeated chief Black Hawk during his journey to prison, earning the leader’s friendship and admiration.)  But the story of them stopping at Vaughn’s hotel in Sinipee cannot be true.  Though there is a “wildcat” banknote from Sinipee issued to one “J. Davis” in July 1844, the future Confederate president had resigned his military commission and left Wisconsin three years before the town of Sinipee came into existence.

Jefferson Davis’ experiences during these years were truly romantic.  He fell in love with Taylor’s beautiful daughter Sarah Knox Taylor at Fort Crawford, married her against her father’s wishes in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1835, then went back South with her, down the Mississippi, where she died of malaria near their plantation outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, after only three months of marriage.  Struck down by grief, Davis plunged into eight years of gloomy seclusion.

It has often been said that Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were similar men.  Both were native Kentuckians and sons of the frontier, both had served in the Black Hawk War on the Upper Mississippi, both were reluctant fighters who felt called by duty when the Civil War erupted but had already seen death themselves and would have been happy to stay away from it all.

They were alike in another way, too:  Davis and Lincoln had both lost their first loves and their personalities were shaped by that experience.  Lincoln, in his twenties, in New Salem, Illinois (like Sinipee, abandoned not many years later), nearly committed suicide when his great love Ann Rutledge, a bright and beautiful pioneer girl of 22, died of typhus in 1835.  Like Davis, he was desolated by her loss.  Lincoln spent weeks roaming the woods of the Sangamon River country in despair.  Yet it was his response to pain, many thought, that “deepened” the young Lincoln and made him great.  The poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the epitaph on Ann Rutledge’s gravestone in Petersburg, Illinois, when she was moved out of a lonely pioneer grave years after Lincoln’s assassination to lie in honor in the town cemetery, included her voice in one of the few poems from Spoon River Anthology that spoke for real historical figures.  “Out of me unworthy and unknown,” Masters had her say, a wraith by her own graveside, “the vibrations of deathless music, with malice toward none, charity for all. . . I am Ann Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds, beloved of Abraham Lincoln, wedded to him, not through union but through separation.  Bloom forever, oh Republic, from the dust of my Bosom!”


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(Unidentified woman.  Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48)


“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor had also disappeared from Wisconsin by the time Sinipee came into existence.  In 1838, when Payton Vaughn built his hotel, Taylor was commanding troops in Florida during the Seminole War and never came north again.  Both Taylor and Davis, however, traveling by military steamboat, would have sailed by the bluff towering over the site of Sinipee many times.

After the town’s demise, the optimistic engineer John Plumbe also left the area, returning east at first.  As Sinipee’s buildings were dismantled and used elsewhere, Plumbe was in Washington, D.C.  There, around 1840, he set eyes for the first time on a new invention that had come into the world around the same time as the locomotive and which would revolutionize it as much as any new kind of travel.  Just three years after the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Daguerre, drawing on the work of Henry Fox Talbot in England and others in France, presented the world with a new art form, the daguerreotype, John Plumbe saw one of these amazing images in a Washington gallery.  Fascinated, he took up the art of photography (then three just three years old), became a skilled practitioner of daguerreotypy within a few months, and quickly set up over twenty commercial portrait studios.   Plumbe’s studios were scattered from Boston west to Dubuque and overseas to Liverpool and Paris, where he sought to compete with Daguerre himself.

Pioneering a process for transferring images to lithographs an invention he called the “plumbeotype”   the Welshman and failed promoter of a port town in the Driftless became known briefly as the “American Daguerre,” advertising himself as a “professor of photography” just a few months after he learned to make these images himself.  He may have worked briefly for the photographer Matthew Brady in New York or Washington.  Plumbe made portraits of many of the famous Americans of the time, including the writer Washington Irving, the historian George Bancroft, naturalist John James Audubon, and the enslaved artisan of Monticello, Isaac Jefferson.  He is also credited with making the earliest photographs both of a sitting U.S. President (James Polk) and of the White House and U.S. Capitol building.


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(John Plumbe, Jr., Self Portrait, 1847.  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)


Walt Whitman, then the little-known editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, paid a visit to Plumbe’s New York City studio in July 1846.  It was almost a decade before Leaves of Grass appeared, but the revolution in human vision brought about by photography certainly flowed into Whitman’s own radical new vision of the world once he encountered this art form.  He was obsessed the daguerreotypes ability to capture “reality.”

Plumbe’s studio was “at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe’s Daguerreotype establishment” and Whitman thought it “a lion of the great metropolis.”  He must have had his own portrait made there.  One of the best early daguerreotypes of the poet is sometimes attributed to Plumbe.  As Whitman wrote on the front page of his newspaper, on July 2, 1846:

“Puffs, etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment!  You will see more life there — more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of.  The crowds continually coming and going — the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children — these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention.  But they are not the first thing.  To us, the pictures address themselves before all else.   What a spectacle!  In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces!  There they stretch, from floor to ceiling — hundreds of them.  Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech!  How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.

“You are indeed in a new world — a peopled world, though mute as the grave.  We don’t know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes. . .   There is always, to us, a strange fascination, in portraits.  We love to dwell long upon them — to infer many things, from the text they preach — to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. . .  Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.”


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(Walt Whitman.  Daguerreotype attributed to John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48.)


Always an engineer at heart, however, Plumbe may have turned to photography mostly as a means to make money and keep his transcontinental railroad dream alive.  By 1848, he found himself in financial trouble and sold off his portrait studios.  When the Forty-Niners began to go west to California, the photographer ditched his art and went with them, though not just to look for gold.  Plumbe surveyed land around Sacramento and was a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, where he continued his involvement in railroad schemes.

He may have encountered another man who had come west from the Driftless.  William Stephen Hamilton, the youngest son of Alexander Hamilton, who was six years old when Aaron Burr gunned down his father, came to southwestern Wisconsin from New York City and became a lead miner near Mineral Point during Galena’s boom days.  He, too, fought in the Black Hawk War and founded a mining town, Hamilton’s Diggings, which later disappeared.  (It was located near present-day Wiota, Wisconsin, on a branch of the Pecatonica River.)  Hamilton loved the Driftless but went to California in 1849 to dig for gold.  He died of yellow fever and was buried in a mass grave in Sacramento.  Before his death, he told a friend that he would “rather have been hung in the ‘Lead Mines’ than to have lived in this miserable hole (California).”

Like William Stephen Hamilton, Plumbe also failed miserably in the Far West.  A bad fate seemed to dog him everywhere, as all of his businesses and dreams failed.  Returning to Dubuque in 1854, just a few miles from the ruins of ill-fated Sinipee, he opened a milling business with his brother Richard.  But that endeavor, too, was crushed during the national economic panic of 1857, when he lost what little savings he had.

Struggling against a deep sense of frustration and failure, prolonged depression, and the effects of malaria contracted at Sinipee twenty years earlier, the 48-year-old John Plumbe cut his throat with a razor at his brother’s home in Dubuque, Iowa, in May 1857.  As a suicide, this great man — one of the forgotten figures of American photography — was buried in an unmarked grave overlooking a great vista of the Mississippi, in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery.  Lost for almost 150 years, the grave was recently identified by local historians and a memorial erected.

The graves of the epidemic victims at Sinipee were also mostly unmarked, though they still sit atop the majestic bluff, whose summit can be reached by a difficult hike.  The ruins of the Stone Hotel were used as fill during the construction of Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 11, which when completed on October 15, 1934, flooded the old townsite.  Only the graves on the bluff remain today.

The site of Sinipee is now the Fenley Recreation Area off Bluff Hollow Road in Grant County, Wisconsin, and is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

JOHN PLUMBE :  A GALLERY

 

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plumbe - george bancroft

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plumbe us patent office dc 1846

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