Category Archives: Midwest

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.

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

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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

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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

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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

Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

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The Smith Cemetery is located on State Road 63 in Vermillion County, Indiana, two miles southwest of the small Wabash River town of Perrysville and about three miles east of the Illinois state line.  On the surface, this one-half-acre spot looks overgrown and uncared-for.  In fact, it is a complex memorial to the past and one glimpse of a hopeful future.

Since the early 1980s, this small shard of waving botanical life has been coaxed back into existence by naturalists.  As a fading sign at the gate, put up by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, announces, the cemetery is a prairie restoration, meant as “a memorial to the Indians and early settlers to whom these grasses and flowers were once familiar.”  The irony, of course, is that those first white settlers initiated the destruction of the once-vast prairies, which once covered about a third of North America – the same grasslands this restoration itself pays homage to.  While intended as a memorial, there is no more sadly appropriate place for the prairie’s tenuous survival than in a cemetery.  For as an ecosystem, it is as broken as can be.

When this part of western Indiana was first settled by whites in the 1820s, prairies were the defining feature of the post-glacial landscape.  The scenery presented was beautiful enough to move even the future destroyers of that great ecosystem to rhapsody.  Though technically part of Indiana (once an immensely wild territory mostly covered in dense forests, with prairies along its western edge), this area of the state forms part of the geography of the fabled Illinois country, an open region whose grasslands brought many early visitors to mysticism and tears.  As settlers began to come in, just two hundred years ago, these glacial plains, flattened thousands of years earlier by the last ice sheets, were anything but devoid of beauty and variety.  Today, significantly reduced by modern agriculture (though farms have created a beauty of a different type), this country strikes us as monotonous.  But it has been made so by humans.

Lucian Caswell, one of the early settlers of Rock County, Wisconsin, came with his family west from Vermont in 1837, at the age of ten.  Caswell’s description of the prairie would have been fitting for much of this landscape that once stretched from west-central Indiana to the southern shores of Lake Michigan and to very edge of the North Woods, then west toward the Mississippi and Missouri.  In an unpublished memoir written in 1914, he reminisced about the sublime grandeur of seeing his first prairie fire, which, though often frightening and deadly to humans and animals, were essential to the life and regeneration of the grasses and prevented the encroachment of forests:

“There were no roads but we struck out across the great prairie before us, headed towards Lake Koshkonong.  No more beautiful landscape was ever painted.  Nature, the greatest artist of all, had fairly outdone itself.  The Indians as they always did every year, had burnt out every foot of ground and the land was as clean as a yard.  You could see the wild gophers, at a great distance running here and there, and the flowers in the large beds of an acre or more in all directions, the grass just springing out of the ground forming a background, all together a picture that dazzled the eyes and made one smile whether in good mood or not.

“ –– somewhere in Walworth County, we saw our first prairie fire.  Usually the Indians burn over all the ground in the fall.  Here and there a small piece escapes the fires.  We came to a strip of unburned prairie.  The dead grass was thick and the temptation too great.  All agreed we must set this on fire; so we stopped and began to prepare in the old fashioned way with steel punk and flint to strike fire.  However, one of our party drew from his pocket a little box he had been saving up and said he had something new and he would try it.  He opened a small box of matches, the first that any of us had ever seen or heard of.  The box contained about fifty little sticks with sulphur on one end of each, for which he had paid seventy-five cents in Milwaukee and brought along for an experiment.  He struck one of them according to directions, and lighted the dead grass, to our great astonishment and wonder how that could possibly be.

“Well, the fire spread rapidly, as there was quite a strong breeze, and soon we saw what we had never seen before, although often read and heard of, a prairie on fire.  We watched it till it had run some miles away, and then reluctantly started on our journey.”

Caswell remembered that this was a great sight “for Vermonters who had been accustomed to look upon rocks, hills and woods.”  (See his “Reminiscences of 1836-1914,” an unpublished manuscript at the Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Prairie fire near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1997.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Three trees burning, Z-Bar Ranch, Chase County, Kansas, 1994.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Grass fire near Kingman, Kansas, 1997.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Fire and moon, along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas, 2006.)


The explorer William Clark, a Kentuckian, also wrote of the deep beauty and tragedy of prairie fires as he ventured onto the Northern Plains for the first time.  On October 29, 1804, while traveling on the Upper Missouri near the Mandan Villages in what became North Dakota, Clark noted the following entry in his (erratically-spelled) journal, probably the first historical account of a makeshift “fire shelter,” which wildland firefighters now use as a last resort to protect against heat:

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame — a boy half white was Saved un hurt in the midst of the flaim. Those ignerent people Say this boy was Saved by the great Spirit medisin because he was white — The Cause of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and less for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaving the grass round the boy This fire passed our Camp last about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”


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(Fighting a prairie fire, 1912.  MG108 II C 1, University of Saskatchewan Archives.)


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(Big Prairie Fire, Stuart, Nebraska, November 7, 1912.)


In his masterpiece , an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

In his masterpiece Vestal Fire, an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

Yet “anthropogenic” fire (that of the hearth and torch) virtually created European culture.  Fire-mastery allowed Europe’s inhabitants not only to domesticate an unwelcoming post-glacial wilderness and many of its creatures, but more importantly, to domesticate themselves.  The process was already underway seventeen millennia ago, when the earliest clear depiction of fire’s effect on human beings was created.   As the poet Clayton Eshleman writes in Juniper Fuse, his beautiful attempt to unearth the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave art, Europeans’ conquest of fire went hand-in-hand with the invention of art itself and all the transformations that ensued.  Pyne and Eshleman agree that fire’s incorporation into hunting restructured human understandings of their encounter with animals and allowed a mental “separation of the human out of the animal.”  It was a psychological process fabulously documented in the shamans’ or hunters’ visions scrawled in red ochre and black manganese dioxide on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, rediscovered in 1940 after 17,000 years in the dark.

The “theft” of fire marked a huge shift not only in terms of human survival:  it irrevocably altered the human mind and led into realms beyond the merely physical.  Fire and art’s conjunction in subterranean places created signs of what could be interpreted as the earliest human spirituality, depicted (disturbingly) in symbols of man’s growing dominance over nature and of his spiritual separation out of it.  Read like this, Lascaux becomes a potentially frightening prologue to much of what follows in human history.

Later Western attitudes toward wildfire take root in one reading of what happened at Lascaux, the deep-seated fear that we are not in control, that since we are no longer animals, what is natural is ranged against us.


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(Hunter and bison disemboweled on a spear, Lascaux Cave, France, 15,000-13,000 BC.)


Stephen Pyne writes of what Europeans at home, and later overseas, feared to lose when fire occurred naturally in the wild, the very sense of control that defined European perspectives on unshackled nature:

“There was literally no place in Europe for the primordial fire.  It went the way of the auroch, the lion, the mastodon, and the mouflon – extinct, bred to domestication, recorded in art, or nurtured in the social zoos of preserved ritual.  The originating fire survived only in ancient ceremonies, like vanished bison recorded on Aurignacian rock art…  Desired fire belonged on hearth and altar;  unwanted fire appeared along the rough fringes of an unraveling society, in the cracks of disintegrating cities, amid the rubble of collapsed civilizations.  Intellectual Europe saw fire as an atavism, as disorder and destruction, as nature gripped by delirium tremens.  But wild or tame, fire persisted…

“Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by a well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process… Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.  The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative.  They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from the landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels.”

As Europeans re-settled the North American continent, these imported attitudes toward wildfire were quickly replicated, even in landscapes (like the Midwest) where fire was a critical part of the ecosystem and extremely common, especially in the spring.  The European insistence, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic, that landscapes should be not wild but a garden under human control spelled the doom of these ancient American places.

Today the defining feature of Indiana is certainly no longer prairie and old-growth forest.  Only a handful of scattered places still give an impression of what Indiana looked like even 150 years ago.  This state is, in fact, one of the most profoundly man-altered landscapes in the U.S.  (Iowa, a sister state, is estimated to have had, in the 1860s, more biological diversity than any other American state.  Today, it has the least.)  Yet the difference does not lie only in the presence of local family farms that replaced old ecosystems after the first waves of settlers “busted” the sod and denuded the land of trees.  These family farms, too, are disappearing rapidly.  The defining feature of Indiana today, by contrast, is industrial agriculture, increasingly run by corporations, sowing monocrops of corn and soybeans, and the much blander human culture that often comes with this form of so-called “farming.”

Where hundreds of species of prairie grass once flourished, only a handful of plants now grow.  Much of this old natural diversity was literally ripped out of the earth by steel plows.  Yet prairie seeds occasionally still survive in earth that has not been tilled repeatedly by agriculture, such as in a handful of cemeteries, and in other seemingly unlikely places, including military buffer zones, bombing ranges, and railroad rights-of-way.

No single generation destroyed the land by itself, however.  The demolition of prairies, wetlands, and forests was merely begun by the early generations of settlers, their bones buried under prairie grass at the Smith Cemetery.  As for the memorial “brought back” by the DNR in their name, the irony is that probably none of these pioneers (mostly Pennsylvanians, some of them Quakers) would have wanted to be buried under tallgrass, in what (to their eyes) would look like a horribly abandoned, dilapidated burial ground.  The cemetery, in fact, was kept mowed into the 1970s, then abandoned.  But since gravediggers have done the only deep “tilling” here, prairie has survived intact, rooted in its pioneer-laden soil, off and on for generations.

One of the early settlers who lived nearby, along the banks of Jordan Creek near where it flows into the Wabash, was Jacob Hain.  Born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, he became a farmer and was buried at the Smith Cemetery in 1876 next to his parents, John and Catherine Hain, who (as their single stone proclaims) died “on the same day” in 1830.  Yet Jacob Hain’s florid obituary in a newspaper, The Hoosier State, does not suggest that he would have been happy being memorialized by a stand of semi-wild prairie, today resurrected over his grave:

“Another Pioneer has gone from among us and leaves the member less of those sterling, noble men, who were the first to lay the foundation of civilization in the beautiful Valley of the Wabash,” the obituary reads.

“The subject of this sketch was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, December 1st, 1799, and at the age of 10 years emigrated with his father to Virginia, and from thence at the age of 21 to Vermillion County, Indiana.  Stopping first near Clinton, he went from here to Coleman’s Prairie, and thence to said Prairie, located two and one-half miles south west of Perrysville, and was the first man to break sod on the prairie.  There were then ten Indians to one white man, and he was therefore, one of those men to whom the present generations owe so much; whose strong arms, invincible courage, and patient, plodding industry transformed a wilderness into flowing fields and gardens and replaced the wigwam of the savage with churches, school houses and comfortable refined houses of civilization…

“The deceased closed his eyes peacefully, and with a hope that was cheering to his friends, on the 15th of March 1876, at the ripe age of seventy-six years, three months and fourteen days, and was laid away by kind and appreciative neighbors, in Smith-Cemetery, where he helped dig the first grave, and which he had lived to see become an extensive city of the dead.”


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(Unidentified woman, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1910.  Personal collection of the author.)


The solid work of old antebellum stone carvers survives here next to flexible prairie grasses that bend with the wind.  The work of the old craftsmen of the 1830s, though often illegible, has been solid enough to outlast many of the farms and lineages of farmers that succeeded them, and all but a few broken remnants of the ancient prairie itself.   Ironically, the earliest pioneers’ stones, made from slate, which weathers much slower than sandstone, have often survived in a better condition than the monuments erected to their children and grandchildren.  After the 1860s, craftsmanship and material for gravestones diminished in quality, and many names are lost altogether.

A few hours south of Chicago, next to a noisy state highway, the grass here stops just short of the road, dying in a sharp line marked by an old concrete fence post at the edge of a soybean field.  This is a piece of a broken land, not a romantic, expansive grassland.  The sounds of birds and the wind-tossed grass are certainly here, but come amid the constant sound of trucks on the four-lane highway to Chicago.  Beyond the gate, a farmer’s field is doused in gallons of life-killing chemicals and pesticides.

I have visited the place several times, in different seasons:  in early autumn, when the grass was high enough to cover all but the big marble stones of the wealthier farmers who had died after the Civil War, their monuments rising like obelisks, while totally enveloping the small markers of the earlier pioneers;  then, in the first week of April, I visited again, just a few days after naturalists had set fire to the cemetery.

A late-winter cold front was just coming through, and struck by the bizarre sight of a cemetery covered in ashes, I photographed it in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, pelted by sleet and rain, interrupted by times when the wind died off entirely and sunshine came through the clouds in great beams.  It was not easy scenery to look at:  a totally incinerated burial ground.  The ash over the graves was so fresh that my feet knocked up clouds of it as I stepped over the scorched bones of deer that had probably died there last fall or huddled down in the grass for warmth that winter.  The gravestones had been turned orange by fire, a discoloration that was temporary and would wash off.  But tiny blades of bluestem were already popping up.  Within days of the burn, life was coming back.  I could not escape the symbolism that gives a Christian cemetery its meaning, that of death and resurrection, and how the stones gave even deeper meaning to the annual death and rebirth of the prairie in the weeks around Easter.


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(Tintype of a woman, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


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(Tintype of a girl, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the land has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in 1915, may have caught onto Klett’s later insight.  In the “epitaph” delivered by Rutherford McDowell, Masters’ small-town photographer in Spoon River Anthology, we hear this graveside lament for the landscapes the poet imagined the first cameras captured in the eyes of early settlers:

They brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me –
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!


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(Tintype of a man, around 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


I made a few images in this place.  None were well done, as I had a thing for a “toy” camera at the time.  At best, I was knocking together a few sketches for better work in large-format that I still have not made.  Like much of the past, these pictures strike me now as suspiciously bleak and grim, “suspicious” because I know that (in Clark’s phrase) there was a “Tremendious” beauty and color there that I failed to capture.  (Larry Schwarm, surely, has made the most sublime photos ever created of prairie landscapes, of the Flint Hills on fire at night.)  Klett’s technique was far more sophisticated than mine, but instead of Geological Survey photographs, I used gravestones to pinpoint one exact spot on the earth’s surface and show some elements of the natural variation it undergoes throughout the year.  In this case, more than seasonal variation was involved.  Rather, it was the dramatic aftermath of a prescribed burn.

These admittedly un-lively photos, however, maybe have less to do with “history” than in how we see history – with a sadness tinged with nostalgia that often characterizes our approach, also, to nature.  “Nature” has become, by some definitions, a historic thing:  I believe this is a wildly inaccurate point-of-view, though there is some truth in the perspective.  Yet the photographer Jeff Whetstone, who, in the simplest definition of his work, documents humans among nature, says that “When I see nature, now, I don’t think of it as something we are necessarily separated from.  But what I do see is a great sadness, this tremendous sense of loss in nature and in ourselves.  I see a great ruin.”

We live in amid those ruins.  In the end, these photographs, like the Smith Cemetery, are a memorial for an ecosystem, the grasslands, taken where the grass was buried but clung to life, and where, somehow, it might eventually outlast even us.  Yet as with all things touched by nostalgia, longing is an active emotion.  Sometimes a crippling, debilitating illness, nostalgia was first diagnosed hundreds of years ago, a spiritual “disease” of Swiss soldiers separated from home.  But a love and desire for the past, even for those people who began the destruction we see the results of now, can be a positive force for activism and change.  If a hunger for the past helps an ecosystem cling to tenuous life, that hunger is no sickness at all.


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(Smith Cemetery, before and after a prairie burn.  Perrysville, Indiana.  October 2010, April 2011.)

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Dunes Requiem: A Family Between Two Worlds

frances rose howe circa 1870

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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(Potawatomi women circa 1900.)


mrs schuyler and lucinda schuyler ottawa circa 1867

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, wherefore did he turn to look?

That pause, that fatal gaze he took,

Hath doomed ––

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

bailly cemetery 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


chesterton st patricks church

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


BaillyHomestead-RoadToHomestead-SS

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

BaillyHomestead-BurialPlace-SS

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

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

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

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

O-To-Wa The Sucker 1859 500px

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

Tilton Collection Photo Lot 89-8

(Potawatomi woman, 1904.)

King Brothers - Ottawa - 1877

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

Jun Fujita: On Time & Tanka

5

Two film negatives from the 1920s, now in the Chicago Daily News negative collection at the Chicago History Museum, are among thousands of reporters’ images depicting the incredible life of the early twentieth-century Windy City.  Some were made as stock photography, with no particular story in mind.  Others were not published at all, the stories they illustrated tossed out by editors and never seen by the public.

Though not meant to be paired, two images, set side by side, make a certain visual poetry.  In one, “V. Shoemaker,” artist for the Daily News, sits at a drafting table drawing on a large piece of bright paper, so overexposed that it is blank, a silence for the eye.  Has Shoemaker’s drawing just been begun or finished?

In the other photograph, taken in 1921, Mabel Normand, silent film actress, reads a page that, by contrast, is full of dramatic words:  “Erzberger Assassinated;  Shot 12 Times.”

chicago daily news 1

Two images, seven years apart.  The woman who does not speak is captivated by the presence of words — while the man who sets out to “capture” or create an image, to “say” something rather than be a witness, ends up with a great blankness in front of his face.

That’s an imaginary reading of these photos, one of many that could be made.  Maybe the blankness is full, an old paradox.  Maybe both images speak quietly of the eloquence of saying “no-thing,” of looking simply at the picture (or the complex, bloody, drama-filled spectacle) the world paints.  Even the white void V. Shoemaker faces whispers some truth, primitive or cryptic, to us.  Shoemaker’s blank picture says something we intuitively know must be worth investigating.

Poetically, the pictures are the mirror of a real man, Jun Fujita.  It is not known if he actually made them (many of the countless photographs from the Chicago Daily News were never identified by their photographer).  But as small “poems”, creating a mystery when combined, they give us an image both of this remarkable man and of his spiritual struggle with art and image-making.

Fujita was one of the forgotten founders of American photojournalism, the first Japanese American to serve on the staff of a professional newspaper in the United States.  A staff photographer on the Chicago Daily News, much of his work “on beat” was probably anonymous.

Though his career remains obscure, Fujita was one of the most versatile, multi-talented, and intriguing men of his time.  Photographer, painter, poet, silent film actor, and general handyman, Fujita encountered all of America’s tragic contradictions and paradoxes.fujitajun

Fujita was an Issei, a term that Japanese Americans coined to refer to the “first generation” to leave Japan.  He was born in a village near Hiroshima on December 13, 1888.  His unusual odyssey to America began in 1904, when at the age of 16, Fujita reportedly fell in love with a teacher much older than himself and was publicly shamed after a love letter he had written to her showed up.

In response, Fujita emigrated to Canada.  Then, because he had heard it was the cheapest place to live in the United States, he managed to get over the border and come to Chicago, Illinois.

That he achieved success fairly quickly in the Midwest before to the 1930s is significant, since it is thought that only about five percent of Japanese Americans lived here at that time.  Most Issei went to cities or farms on the West Coast.

In the Windy City, Fujita worked first as a train porter and “domestic slave,” then in construction work.  Around 1914, he got an acting job.  Fujita appeared in several silent films shot at Chicago’s Essenay Studios, the same company that produced Charlie Chaplin movies.

Before the film industry moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, Chicago was the movie capital of the world.  Indiana Dunes, sixty miles across Lake Michigan, was a popular vacation spot for Chicagoans and a mecca for theater actors, who often performed in famous nature-themed pageants held there throughout the 1910s and ’20s.  Though the rested nearly under the shadow of Gary’s booming steel mills, Indiana Dunes served as a desert for early Chicago filmmakers.  The Dunes stood in for Mexico, the American Far West, and the Sudan.

A photograph survives of film crews leading camels through the dunes east of Gary in June 1910.  That same month, there appeared a comic but true account in the Chicago Record Herald titled “Gary Camel Caravan Alarms, Mohammedan Steel Workers Set Up Wail At Sight of Procession.”  Scores of immigrant steel workers, mostly Syrians and Lebanese, were surprised by what seemed like a sudden apparition from their homeland:  a movie crew in full Arabian attire.  The immigrant steel workers stood “amazed at the sight of a procession of some five hundred sheiks with their Bedouins, camels, Berber attendants and gun carriers, all in desert accoutrement, marching through the street with the solemnity of a genuine caravan of the Sahara.”

The young Jun Fujita, in his mid-twenties, appeared as an extra in several of these movies and even played a lead role in the silent film Otherwise Bill Harrison (1915), which had as its subject “the daydream of a newsboy.”


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Pageant of the Dunes, 1917.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


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Pageant at Indiana Dunes, circa 1915-20.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


In 1914, the 26-year-old “Togo” (as his friends called him) bluffed his way into a photography job and became the first photojournalist on the staff of the Chicago Evening Post (later the Chicago Daily News, a now-defunct paper but until the 1930s one of the city’s great journals.)

On the eve of World War I, photojournalism was a new thing – newspapers only recently discovered how to print photographs effectively – and Fujita contributed to its invention.

He was given free rein in Chicago, where he photographed some of its most prominent citizens, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg, and Al Capone.  Fujita was the only photojournalist to capture the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when Capone’s mobsters gunned down nine men loyal to rival gangster Bugs Moran.

Fujita also created important images of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, Clarence Darrow and the Loeb-Leopold trial, and the tragic sinking of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915.

In the mid-‘30s, he was hired to photograph Federal Works projects throughout the United States.  He photographed one of Albert Einstein’s visits to Chicago.


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Jun Fujita, Carl Sandburg, ca. 1930.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-00718010.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.


 The most important images of his career were of the aftermath of the Eastland disaster.  Yet as he later said of all of his photography (as he turned toward writing and painting), Fujita would have preferred never to have made them.

The S.S. Eastland was Chicago’s equivalent of the Titanic, which had sunk just three years before.  Around 6:30 AM on July 24, 1915, several thousand passengers began to board the fast, steam-powered Eastland (dubbed “The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”) while it was docked on the Chicago River near today’s downtown Loop.  Their destination was Michigan City, Indiana, gateway to the dunes.

The Eastland could legally carry 2,572 people, much many more were boarding that morning.  At the height of the summer season, the ship was packed solid with human bodies within less than an hour.  The largest single group of passengers were Czech immigrants from Cicero on 22nd Street.  Almost all were working-class Chicagoans: the Western Electric Company had chartered the Eastland and two other boats that day to take their employees to a picnic on an Indiana beach.

Just before 7:30, the vessel was obviously nearing overcrowding.  Crew members noticed it listing to one side.  In the wake of the Titanic disaster, new safety regulations required all vessels to carry enough wooden lifeboats for every passenger, a law that ironically contributed to the excessive weight aboard the Eastland.

As passengers filled the lower decks, a crowd on top gathered.  When the Eastland started to tip slightly, a crowd rushed to the port side, and at that moment, the boat lurched and fell completely over in the river.

Travelers below-deck were crushed by tables, pianos, cabinets and other heavy objects, and the ship immediately filled with water.  Hundreds were trapped inside.  Although the Eastland was a mere twenty feet from the wharf in the middle of downtown Chicago, 844 people drowned.

Chicago’s citizens and newspapers erupted in anger, outraged that safety rules had been overlooked to put a few more dollars in the shipowners’ pockets.  Unlike today perhaps, Chicago was still a working-class mecca, a cauldron the Progressive movement at a time when American labor was running strong.

Populist poet, journalist and folklorist Carl Sandburg, whom Jun Fujita would later photograph and maybe even share some of his own poetry with, wrote an angry paean against Chicago’s “grim industrial feudalism,” decrying the hands of the rich dripping with human blood.  (Editors considered the poem The Eastland too angry to publish and it was never put in print during Sandburg’s lifetime.)  One scholar wrote that Sandburg was convinced that the working-class victims “had been forced to buy tickets for the cruise and ordered to wear white shoes and white hats so a pleasing photograph of them could be taken for the company’s advertising campaign.”

The tragedy became symbolic of the workers’ lives Sandburg often praised but refused to idealize.  (Sandburg’s famous description of “The People” was “heroes and hoodlums.”)  “I see a dozen Eastlands / Every morning on my way to work,” Sandburg lamented, “And a dozen more going home at night.”

If the victims had been asked to “doll up” for advertising photographs, the photos taken of them that day were anything but good press for the company or the Eastland’s owners.  Jun Fujita was one of the first photographers on the scene, initially taking pictures of the capsized ship from the wharf, then working his way down toward the rescuers.  His pictures are the main visual record of the disaster.  Later, he documented the piled-up bodies of the drowned, scattered in makeshift morgues, their faces covered by blankets.  Yet Fujita also photographed the heroism of rescuers, divers like Harry Halvorsen and Frenchy Deneau, who were given the grim task of scouring the bottom of the river and inside the ship’s hull, retrieving the dead.  They dragged up about 250 bodies.

(In a strange footnote to the Eastland disaster, the diver Deneau later made one of the strangest discoveries in Chicago’s history, “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Deneau was laying cable along the bottom of the river later that year, near the Rush Street Bridge, when his shovel unearthed a submarine buried under three feet of mud.  The press dubbed the zeppelin-shaped vessel the Foolkiller, a common name for daredevil’s vessels, and a rumor circulated that it contained the skeleton of a man and his dog.  Deneau allegedly got permission from the federal government to salvage the vessel and had it dragged out of the river on December 10, 1915.  An article in the Chicago Tribune claimed:  “The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan.  The Foolkiller was so called because it first made its appearance shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man, when it made a trial trip.  Nissen then bought it.”  Nissen, in fact, had perished in a pneumatic “balloon boat,” also called Foolkiller, on Lake Michigan in 1904.  Deneau put the submarine on exhibition on State Street, charging admission at 10 cents a person.  The so-called Foolkiller sub supposedly disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916.  Skeptics claim the submarine was a clever hoax, but images of its raising from the icy waters of the river were made by the Chicago Daily News in 1915, six months after the Eastland disaster.)


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Jun Fujita.  Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on the hull of the capsized steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection,DN-0064944, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita.  Victims of the Eastland Disaster, 1915.

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Unidentified photographer.  Raising Foolkiller submarine from Chicago River, December 20, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065730, Chicago History Museum.


One of Fujita’s own photographs shows an old man carrying the drowned body of a young boy out of the river after the Eastland capsized.  Not forgetting other catastrophes that had struck Chicago, like the 1871 fire, Fujita wrote:

“The horror of the most frightful tragedies in the annals of Chicago is written on the face of the strong man in this picture. The little, limp figure in his arms express its INFINITE PITY. The man, who is evidently a rugged specimen of the type that work on the river, familiar with the uglier phases of life; its hardships and its sufferings, is smitten with an overwhelming sense of woe and terror that his eyes have looked upon. In their fixed stare is photographed the agony of struggle he has witnessed, the torture and the anguish of the drowning multitude.

“From the throng of laughing, happy-hearted holiday makers that a few moments before turning its back upon the toil and grime of the city, faced a day of innocent fun and relaxation, he has gathered this one, small, lifeless body, the pitiful symbol of hundreds more, old and young, on whom a sudden and hideous death leaped from the very threshold of their joy.

“These people were his own kind – workers like himself; men and the wives and children of men who earn their living by toil. Is there any wonder that horror looks from his eyes? God pity those who today are heartbroken. But of what avail is the pity of God against human carelessness?”

Even while he was becoming a successful newspaper reporter and was making some of the most important images of Chicago’s history, Fujita slowly came to have misgivings about photography, and later confessed that he did not consider it a true art form.  Like Franz Kafka and others, who denied much of the camera’s artistry, Fujita came to prefer painting and poetry, two genres he thought had more substance than photography and allowed fuller possibilities of expression than a camera.  Doubtless his love for traditional Japanese art influenced his thoughts on camera work.

By the 1920s, Fujita was so disgruntled both with his newspaper job and with the Chicago the “Roaring Twenties” that he sought to temporarily get away from it all.  He headed north, to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.  As W.B. Yeats sang  in “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” Fujita built a solitary rustic one-room wooden cabin.  It was a place “in the deep heart’s core.”  The cabin is still there, along on Rainy Lake near the Canadian border, a spot now within the bounds of Voyageurs National Park.

In the great expanse of the North Woods, Fujita sought a more direct communion with nature.  His hermetical experiences in the deep wildernesses of northern Minnesota led him to craft some of the first Japanese poetry ever written in English.  “Nature and the drama in it are all the companions I need,” he wrote around 1921, when he first came to the Boundary Waters.  “There I shall do what I like best to do, read and write.  And I don’t propose to take another picture!”  He even thought about going farther north, to “the northern end of British Columbia, which I believe is the most beautiful country in the world.”

Fujita’s Minnesota cabin, on an island locals nicknamed “Jap Island,” thirty miles east of International Falls, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  When he left, he was reluctant to say goodbye to it.

Fujita was a master of tanka, a minimalist genre of classical Japanese poetry.  Some of what he wrote at Rainy Lake, Minnesota, was published in book form in English in 1923 as Tanka: Poems in Exile.  The poet was deeply moved by glacial landscapes, sand dunes, and lakes, all of which he found in abundance in the Upper Midwest.  He could find them close to Chicago itself.  His earliest work from the North Woods shows how, once he returned to urban life, he could find a sympathetic landscape in the nearby Indiana Dunes:

Across the frozen marsh
The last bird has flown;
Save a few reeds
Nothing moves.

The air is still
And grasses are wet;
Thread-like rain
Screens the dunes.

As Denis Garrison, who has republished some of Fujita’s work, writes:  “The reader cannot help wondering if the things he saw as a photographer influenced Fujita as a poet, and likewise, if the way he understood poetry informed his photography.”  He writes about “death-like” expanses of snow, of snowdrifts where “thin fangs dart.”

What is tanka?

“Tanka are notable for their accessibility,” Garrison explains.  “Why?  Because most good tanka have ‘dreaming room.’  They have been composed with the technique of understatement, of suggestiveness, of openendedness.  Words and details which limit the universality of the tanka have been omitted with careful attention to what is not said.  What remains is a poem that is a framework upon which readers from widely different backgrounds can hang their own experiences and values and discover meaning, experience epiphany… Ambiguity is a positive value for tanka.”

Ironically, though Fujita often fled photography, spurning the frequent superficiality of the camera lens while seeking a deeper spirituality than anything photojournalism can provide, the “practice” of tanka, reverent and slow, is not antithetical to art made by cameras.  Tanka is a practice focused less on documenting and capturing — on “shooting” and “taking” (the violent basic vocabulary of photography in English is astounding) — than on further opening up the ambiguities of expression and the spirit.  Tanka, somewhat in the manner of Zen, seeks not answers but further questions.

As philosophers and word-lovers already know, there are two meanings of what we call “mystery” and “mysterious”.  A mystery can be an obscurity frustrating our understanding, something incapable of being known.  That mystery is something that we may obsessively try to “solve” or “capture,” as though it were part of the solution to a murder investigation.  Truth becomes a villain that we feel the need to apprehend.

The other kind of mystery is of something not unknown, but rather, saturated with meaning, a meaning too rich and full for the eye or the mind to master at a quick glance.  The two juxtaposed images from the Chicago Daily News —  V. Shoemaker and the silent film actress Mabel Normand —  are this kind of mystery, a laconic, photographic form of tanka perhaps, a silent mystery full of volumes of unspoken “story.”


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Jun Fujita’s cabin, Rainy Lake, Minnesota.  (NPS/Voyageurs National Park.)


By August 1934, Fujita and his companion, secretary and journalist Florence Carr, whom he could not legally marry until 1940 due to American laws against “race mixing,” had also bought six acres of land at Furnessville, Indiana, in the heart of the dunes.  The couple built a summer cottage there.  Jun and Florence’s cottage was described as “butterfly-shaped” and sat behind the house of Chicago artists Vin and Hazel Hannell, just west of the small Furnessville cemetery.

The lakeshore landscape of the Indiana Dunes had fired Fujita’s soul.  He spent much of the last thirty years of his life visiting Indiana’s Calumet region, where he wrote poetry, painted, and continued to photograph.  Fujita made some of the first color photographic prints of the woods, wildflowers, and surviving prairies of northwestern Indiana and northern Illinois.  These works were displayed at his Chicago art studio, which he kept open throughout the 1930s, and at the photo booth he operated at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.


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“Furnessville, Ind.  The town that might have been.”  Chicago Daily Times, July 10, 1938.  (Courtesy Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


Furnessville, Indiana, was important to Fujita for another reason.  During World War II, when the majority of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps or kept under a close eye by police and even their own neighbors, it became a more permanent retreat for him.  The small Michigan Central railroad town, practically abandoned in the 1920s after the exhausted lumber industry collapsed and workers left the dune country for Chicago, was a perfect “hideout” of sorts during World War II.  Yet even “half-ghosted,” Furnessville continued to draw Chicagoans and had already begun a slow return as a seasonal artist’s colony.  Fujita and his wife Florence lived in Indiana off and on until at least 1958, four years after he was finally granted U.S. citizenship – through private sponsorship of a congressional bill.

Jun Fujita died on July 12, 1963.  His ashes were interred in the Japanese section of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.  Much of the land surrounding Furnessville, where he spent many of his last years, was included in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s.  Sadly, the butterfly-shaped Fujita cottage is no longer standing.

PHOTOS FROM THE CHICAGO DAILY NEWS COLLECTION, 1905-1929

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Photographer unknown.  Miss Miriam Mooney, a singer from Tennessee, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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“Mr. Miyamori” sitting in a room in Chicago, Illinois, 1905.  DN-0003141, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Count Michimasa Soyeshima of Tokyo, Japan, at a railroad station in Chicago, Illinois, 1925.  DN-0079174, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Benjamin Bachrach, Nathan Leopold, Jr., Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow during the Leopold and Loeb Sentencing Hearing, 1924.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078021, Chicago History Museum.

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Elmer Fanter, the “Boy Murderer,” behind bars, March 2, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064142, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067907. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Women’s suffrage parade, Grace Wilbur Trout leading women holding flags north on South Michigan Avenue, 1914.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0062630.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Acting out a scene from Alice in Wonderland, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0068275.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Children playing with an elephant from the Ringling Brothers Circus on April 20, 1917.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067851. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  The schooner Arendal docked at Clark Street to deliver Christmas trees from Michigan.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0063691, Chicago History Museum.

Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf

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Jun Fujita, photographer. The stern of the Eastland during the Eastland Disaster.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-i33115, Chicago History Museum.

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Harry Halvorsen, a diver in the Eastland disaster rescue efforts.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064999, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Diver Harry Halvorsen, leaping off a ladder leaning against a quay.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065178, Chicago History Museum.

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Female survivor of the Eastland disaster, wrapped in a blanket, standing on the upper deck of a boat on the Chicago River.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064947, Chicago History Museum.

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A boy who survived the Eastland capsize, wrapped in a man’s jacket.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064943, Chicago History Museum.

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Captain J. W. Petoskey, standing on deck of his rescue steamer on the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064846, Chicago History Museum.

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Eleanor Froelich, 2453 Thomas St., only survivor of family on Eastland.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064919, Chicago History Museum.

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Fireman cradling a dead baby whom he tried to rescue from the steamer.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064958, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, a man leading the procession.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, children carrying flowers precede the pallbearers, July 29, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

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Chinese-American track athlete Y.D. Wong of the University of Minnesota, at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, 1918.  SDN-061579, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese tennis player Kumagae at a tennis club, 1916.  SDN-060898, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Waseda baseball players from Japan and University of Chicago’s Pat Page sitting on the bench on the sidelines during a game against the University of Chicago played at Marshall Field, 1911.  Marshall Field was renamed Stagg Field in 1915.  SDN-009433, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball captain S. Takanatsu, of the Waseda baseball team, standing on the field at Stagg Field, 1921.  SDN-062672, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball player Yamaguchi of the Waseda University baseball team at Stagg Field, 1911.  SDN-056698, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Baseball player, Omuru of Waseda University (Japan) sitting on the bench during game with University of Chicago.  SDN-009448, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball player Matsuda, Waseda team captain, and University of Chicago baseball captain Frank Collings shaking hands, 1911.  SDN-056703, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Chinese American Ida Mae Wong, Chicago, 1924.  DN-0077708B, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Dr Frederick Seville, with stethoscope, examining a nude Asian man, 1917.  DN-0068534, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese wrestlers in Chicago, 1907.  SDN-053632, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Group portrait of policewomen in Chicago, Illinois.  The policewomen were selected by the Chicago Police Department to learn jujitsu, a form of Japanese wrestling.  March 1914.  DN-0062443, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Actor Tom Mix and his wife, 1925.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078991. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Movie actor Bull Montana, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0090125. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2122 N. Clark St., Chicago, 1929. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, iChi-14406. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Al Capone, Chicago, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0094672. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Chief of Detectives Captain James Mooney and Chief of Police Colonel John J. Garrity aim handguns for reporters inside a police station.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0072175. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Mrs. William E. Dever holding a hatchet and standing next to a turkey, 1926.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0080759, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Studio of Lorado Taft, “Fountain of Time” sculpture, 1915.  DN-0064729, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Young woman and young Asian man painting at Paw Paw Lake, Berrien County, Michigan, 1926.  DN-0081200, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

13

Photographer unknown.  Japanese man, sitting with papers on his lap, surrounded by a Japanese boy and girl, October 4, 1915.  DN-0065243, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Consul S. Yamasaki and his wife standing on a railroad platform, August 29, 1911.  DN-0057692, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Three Chinese American children, Chicago, 1929.  DN-0089489, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

 

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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