One of the most vital jobs of the historian is to place the lives of people and events in context of their times. As such I will occasionally post blogs from some of my publications to provide a better understanding of the world in which people like those of West Terre Haute lived.
Sexuality in the 19th Century
Throughout history human sexuality has been alternately ignored, obfuscated, hidden, glorified, swept under the rug or lied about. That notwithstanding, sexuality is indeed a fact of history and one that cannot be ignored. As such, knowledge about the history of sexuality, if deployed properly, can play a subtle but important role in understanding characters and adding to well-rounded historical understanding.
Sex is a basic drive for the vast majority of humans. However, its enjoyment and “use” were often made more “palatable” by emphasizing its procreative “results” within marriage. In this view, held by many in the 18th & 19th centuries, intercourse was seen primarily as a vehicle to create life, not simply to be enjoyed for its inherent pleasures. Thus, sex outside marriage (the only proper state in which a child could be brought into the world) was wrong. Traditionally this had the double benefit of emphasizing the purpose of sex and “channeling” it into its proper place within marriage and, by encouraging marriage, stabilizing society. However, by the early 19th century the idea had grown that “marital love,” not just procreation, justified sexual relations. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake was thus becoming acceptable to many.
Sexuality in Early America
America’s settlers brought their attitudes regarding sex with them as part of their cultural baggage. These often conflicted with the moral worldview of those already here—Native Americans. Differing ideas about sexuality was one of the many misreadings of each other’s cultures exhibited by both groups. To most Europeans, Native Americans were “pagans,” wild creatures who bordered on the savage. This view extended to Indian sexual mores. Native American practices such as polygamy and sharing of wives with guests served as examples to Whites of why Indians needed to be brought (kicking and screaming if necessary) to religion and “civilization.”
Europeans often viewed Indian women as “wanton.” They were seen as “lascivious” creatures who wore, to European eyes, conspicuously revealing clothing and who were much too eager to offer up their favors (later, this same image would be applied to Black women). A primary reason for this jaundiced view was that Native Americans seldom equated “nudity or sexuality with sin,” as most settlers did. To them they were just part of life, not hidden shameful things as they were to many Europeans.
The revealing clothing of Indian women often secretly delighted the eyes of Euro-American men, who decried such exhibitionism, but were nevertheless wont to gaze upon the female flesh exposed by wind or weather (Native women often went topless in the summer). This doubtless contributed to the image of “friskiness” attributed to Indian woman, as did their bawdy humor, sexual openness and flirtatiousness. This view was further burnished by another phenomena exhibited in some cultures, the plucking of their pubic hair. This practice often shocked the sensibilities of Whites. So much so that Thomas Jefferson reported that many White traders demanded their Indian wives or consorts return to a more “natural” state.
Another misunderstood (even today) feature of some Native American cultures was the berdache. The term (Arabic for a male sex slave) was applied to gender crossing sometimes exhibited in native cultures. Usually men who dressed as women, the berdache often flummoxed Whites whose cultural conceptions only recognized clear division between two genders. Berdache often dressed as women and assumed feminine roles. In some societies they were thought to have special connection with spiritual realms and were honored members of the tribe. Whites often saw them merely as transvestites and ridiculed them.
White’s dismay at Native American sexuality may be seen by some as further evidence of the “puritanical” nature of colonial America. The image of the dour-visaged, pleasure- loathing “Puritan” is a potent American icon. Though there is some truth to that gray picture it is over-used. Not all Americans were thin-lipped repressives who stood constant watch on the sexual behavior of their neighbors. Some reveled in their own sexuality and thought the lives of their fellow citizens were private matters. However, there was a sense among many that sexuality was an area properly regulated by the state and society. This close attention paid to the lives of others was not necessarily meant to eliminate sexual behavior, but instead to “channel it” as a “duty and joy within marriage.” Again, this can be seen as a stabilizing function. One that nurtured society by placing sexual energy within its proper context of marriage.
However, there were many laws to regulate “deviance,” which may basically be seen as any sexuality outside marriage. Punishments ranged from fines and lashings to the death penalty. Some colonies even had laws (such as that Massachusetts enacted in 1631) calling for the death penalty in cases of adultery, though the penalty was seldom carried out. The “crime” of adultery is indicative of several aspects of the prevailing societal attitudes toward gender. It was usually defined as sex between a man and a married woman. Sex between married men and single women or among unmarried couples was only considered fornication and subject to less harsh penalties. By the 18th century the penalty for adultery was reduced to fines, lashings or public humiliation (the scarlet letter, for example).
The death penalty was also prescribed for rape, bestiality and sodomy, though again it seldom enforced after the 17th century. As D’Emilio points out, sodomy was not defined purely as a “homosexual” act, but included other “unnatural,” or non-procreative acts between men, women or animals (bestiality). “Sex” crimes punishable by lesser penalties included pre-marital or extramarital sex, illegitimate birth and lewd behavior. Various things fell under the rubric of lewd behavior or lasciviousness. Many historians have encountered court records of locals charged with such behavior. One such case in New Hampshire in 1864 recorded the affidavits of neighbors concerning a Mr. Hardy. Quite a trial to his neighbors, Mr. Hardy was an exhibitionist who was wont to “let down his pantaloons” to expose his “tricker.”
Over time there was a shift in “state” control to that of public or societal “moral” control as opposed to strictly legally mandated charges. However, laws regarding sexual behavior (or misbehavior) continued to be part of state codes. Indiana’s revised statutes of 1831 contained laws against lewd behavior, rape and adultery. Once again, there was often unequal punishment for adultery according to gender. In the Hoosier state, women convicted of adultery were subject to up to three months imprisonment, whereas men convicted of the same charge were only fined.
Concomitant with (or due to) the above changes was the shift in attitude toward marriage. A more “romantic” view emerged in the late eighteenth century. This was in reaction to previously held ideas of marriages arranged for “business” or other considerations, rather than for romantic or companionate considerations. It is sometimes seen as a shift from parental control of the betrothal process to one in which couples and their wishes became paramount. A rise in premarital pregnancies (it is estimated that 1/3 of all New England brides were pregnant in the late 18th century) may have played a role in this process. It appears some couples may have tried to force parents to agree to their choice of mate by presenting them with the fait accompli of a grandchild on the way.
The feminine “ideal” also changed over time. During much of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the ideal woman exhibited meekness and spirituality. Toward the end of that period, there was a shift to physical beauty and sexual appeal as desirable attributes in a woman. This probably reflected the growing companionate-romantic idea of marriage. This more full-blooded view was not to last long however. By the beginning of the 19th century the idea of the “passionless” woman grew. This view held that women were innately less “sexual” creatures than men and were infinitely more modest and moral beings. At its extreme, one 1882 “authority” claimed that females “ have practically nothing of what is understood as sexual passion.” Some believe this was in reaction to societal concerns that women were no longer as “protected” by legal or community controls as previously. From this idea grew the Cult of Womanhood, in which chaste, spiritual women acted as society’s beacons of goodness, which was to dominate the feminine ideal throughout the 19th century.
Sexuality both within and outside marriage varied according to the couple. To some, sex was an obligation to be endured, while to others it was a joy to be shared. A study (albeit one of limited scope) of married women born between 1850 and 1880 showed that 2/3 readily admitted feeling sexual desire (something women were not “supposed” to feel, according to popular belief) and the majority experienced orgasm. Additionally, 84% reported using some form of birth control.
Clearly, couples were having and enjoying sex. And, by the mid 19th century were doing so for reasons other than procreation. Obviously, if procreation was not the only purpose for sex, reproductive control was practiced either openly or clandestinely by many more people than might be supposed.
There was a trend toward having fewer children over the span of the 19th century. The average married couple had over seven children in 1800. That number would shrink to 5.42 in 1850 and 4.24 by 1880. The reasons for this drop-off were myriad. Large families were often economically untenable for urban dwellers. For many, maintaining their “middle class” status meant restraining family size. The downward trend was also evident on the farm. Decreased availability of land and increased mechanization meant fewer hands were needed about the farm. Fewer children meant fewer mouths to feed and feet to shod. Though farm families were still larger (though some historians believe rural fertility fell at a greater pace than urban rates) than urban ones, they too were growing smaller as the century grew shorter. Other limiting factors included a higher age at first marriage (20.6 for women in 1800, 24 by 1839) and lower age of women at last birth (38.6 years in 1760, 35.7 by 1840). The declining age of last birth is likely an indication that women were consciously limiting reproduction, especially because they knew of the dangers.
Childbirth, or parturition, was an event especially fraught with peril in antebellum America. Any abnormality might end in disaster. A fetus in the breech or other abnormal position could lead to the death of both mother and child. At times, “difficult or protracted labor” resulted in what today seem barbaric or ghoulish methods of treatment. Physicians sometimes had to perform embryotomies to save the mother. An embryotomy was the act of separation of any part of the fetus while in utero. This might involve decapitation or extraction of a limb to permit extraction of the fetus. The physical and emotional tolls of such procedures were enormous for the mother (and doctor), but few other options were open to the physician. Caesareans were “rarely performed during the first half of the nineteenth century” so one avenue to alleviate suffering and ensure a safe birth was generally closed. In cases when the rare procedure was performed, fatalities often ensued due to infections.
Thus women were well aware of the hazards of childbirth and the wear on their bodies and psyches of repeated pregnancies. And husbands were cognizant of other, usually economic, reasons for limiting family size. Couples accepted that there were two main ways of achieving family limitation: contraception or abortion.
Contraception has long been practiced. In ancient Egypt women resorted to suppositories of crocodile dung, while Greek women coated their cervixes with olive oil (a surprising effective method according to one study). Other methods were tried with varying success over the ages. Little formal literature or open discussion of contraception took place until the mid 19th century. Previously knowledge was often passed privately from woman to woman, generation to generation. It was spoken of in muted tones, in hushed voices from blush-reddened faces. Still the knowledge was there if you sought it hard enough.
The three major (and most known) methods of limiting birth in colonial America were coitus interuptus, breastfeeding and abortion.
Coitus interuptus, or withdrawal before ejaculation, was one of the most popular methods used throughout early America. This often-ineffective method left contraception in the hands of the man (and one in a heightened state), seldom an effective strategy. However, it was widely practiced. One 19th century husband averred he “minded his pullbacks.” An Indiana Quaker husband told Robert Dale Owen, who discussed withdrawal and other contraceptive methods in his groundbreaking Moral Physiognomy, that he and his spouse used withdrawal as their birth control technique.
Breastfeeding, to delay the onset of menstruation, was one of the oldest forms of birth control and widely practiced throughout America. Again its effectiveness varied greatly, but it was a method over which women exerted some control. Some tried the “rhythm” or safe period method with indifferent success. In an age when even physicians were sometimes unsure about which were the “safe” times within a woman’s cycle, it was not a method to be relied upon. Also used during the antebellum period were various douches, consisting of water, honey, and various astringents, among other solutions.
Of course, there were always “folk” remedies and methods. On the Indiana frontier, such fanciful notions as having sex on an incline plane to avoid dislodging the egg, dancing “right smartly” immediately after sex, and briskly riding horseback over rough terrain were postulated and practiced, likely to the chagrin of those trying them.
Victorian Era Contraception
Like many areas of American life, there were “technological” innovations in contraception as the 19th century progressed. A major improvement came with Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber process. Goodyear’s discovery made condoms more reliable and less expensive. Previously they had been made of intestine or fabric soaked in brine and had been uncomfortable and costly. Vulcanization also “… gave rise to domestic manufacture of … intrauterine devices, douching syringes, [and] womb veils (the nineteenth-century term for diaphragm and cervical caps) …. .” Advertised as “rubber goods” they were available from drug stores, mail order houses, and dry goods stores. There were significant improvements in the various “sperm blocking devices,” like IUDs and diaphragms, which made them more reliable.
Douching was perhaps the most common form of contraception for middle class women of the late 19th century. Solutions used as a “spermicide” included water, both hot and cold, honey, tannin, powdered opium, iodine, and strychnine. Vaseline, which was touted as a contraceptive in the 1870s by Colgate, was also used to cleanse the “germ” (the codeword for sperm used in some advertisements).
To answer the growing ”need” for family limitation an expanding contraceptive industry was in place in the United States by 1870. The increasing openness about contraceptives and their wider availability upset many and campaigns against the “contraceptive entrepreneurs” grew more vocal. The ultimate champion of this view (along with Samuel Colgate who hypocritically headed a group opposed to contraceptives while making money selling Vaseline) was Anthony Comstock. Comstock, an early and zealous “morals crusader” supported by the YMCA and the Society for the Suppression of Vice (in which he was an officer), campaigned against vices of all stripes. He saw contraception as an aider and abettor of vice. Comstock helped push postal legislation through Congress that made the sending of “obscene” materials through the mail illegal. He succeeded in having contraceptives designated obscene matter.
This act and others made contraceptives less available and drove them “underground.” However, they could still be procured, if you knew what to look for and where to look. Contraceptives were still made after the 1873 act, but companies no longer openly marketed them as birth control devices, instead saying they had health benefits, such as using an IUD to “undo” a prolapsed uterus. Advertisements for “rubber” goods and other birth control methods still appeared in papers of the era, but were couched in medical terms and code words. Knowing customers could still go to the right druggist or store to find what they sought.
When contraception failed (as it likely did more often that not) or was unavailable women or couples sometimes turned to their next option, abortion.
Abortion in the early nineteenth century simply did not elicit the controversy or comment as today (though it was rarely discussed as openly). Though not actively encouraged, it was not necessarily condemned out of hand if carried out early in the pregnancy. Many believed it permissible if done before “quickening,” or fetal movement, which usually occurred in the second trimester. The first anti-abortion law was enacted in Connecticut in 1821, but it was basically an anti-poisoning law that stipulated it a crime if the woman was “quick with child.” In essence, the law was aimed at doctors or potion-sellers whose medicines might cause an unwanted abortion. Quickening was the decisive issue every time abortion was raised in court prior to 1840. If the abortion took place before quickening it was not adjudged a crime. Indiana made abortions illegal in 1835, and did not make the distinction regarding quickening. Any abortion was made illegal unless done to save the woman’s life. Again, this appears to have been a case of protecting the woman. The Hoosier law was a rarity. Most “laws enacted between 1820 and 1840 retained the quickening doctrine and attempted to protect women from unwanted abortion, rather than prosecute them.”
Abortion was not considered a significant “means of family limitation” during the first third of the century. It was mainly viewed as a way of avoiding the scandal attached to an illicit affair or birth out of wedlock. However, by the late 1830s a change in the type of person seeking abortions and the reasons behind it, became evident. The rising abortion rate of the period probably reflected a desire on the part of married women to limit family size. It is estimated that the abortion rate jumped from one abortion in every 25-35 live births during 1800-1830 to one in every 5-6 live births by 1850. These figures may be a bit high (evidence is still sketchy), but are indicative of a trend.
Abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous” and seldom used. This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the Midwest, and the average Midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.
It was not, however, impossible. Information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth-century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such old wives tales sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, pennyroyal or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonian medicine advocates claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.
More reliable sources of information were the ever-popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation.
Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy. The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.
Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was a feasible, available, and used option; it was a contributor to the falling birth rate by mid-century.
Anti-abortion sentiment grew after the Civil War as the issue increasingly took on moral, ethical and health overtones. The American Medical Association led the fight for restrictive abortion regulations after the war, helping push legislation though statehouses to outlaw abortion no matter the stage of pregnancy. The laws, which were seldom enforced, seemed to have been driven more by medical reasons (restricting what could be done and who could do it), than by religious or moral ones, though those played a role. The net effect was to drive abortion, like contraception, underground. This did not mean that abortion ceased to become a means of family limitation. Like contraception, it was a viable option if you knew where to seek it. Ads for herbal abortifacients like pennyroyal appeared in newspapers like the Noblesville Republican-Ledger in the 1880s. Code words like “indispensable to LADIES” announced that it could be purchased via mail. Other herbal means were long known and easily obtained from drug stores or from the fields in which they grew. Though the laws did indeed protect many women from dangerous, sometimes fatal, poisons, they also pushed some, especially underclass, women to the proverbial dark alleys for abortions performed by the quack and the unqualified.
Sometimes the lack of effective birth control led to tragedy. In exceedingly rare cases new mothers or fathers resorted to infanticide, such as in the 1802 case of an unwed mother in North Carolina who murdered her newborn child. Ohio (later Indiana) Quaker Daniel Beales recorded the case in his travel diary. “there was a summons for a comitee of women to search for a child that was supposed to be live born and put in a hole and covered which was an awful sight and the mother of it taken and committed to gaol [jail] and kept under guard … I went to some of my cousons and to see the crimenel which was a sorrowful sight and not to be forgot and stayed the night at the three springs and the young woman and her sister went off and the guard lying asleep… “
“Sex sells” was as true in the nineteenth century as it is today. The commerce in things sexual was active, profitable, and roiled just beneath the seemingly placid surface of American life.
America experienced a pornography boom beginning in the 1850s. Though erotica had always been an underground feature of American life, technological advancements increased the supply of “pornography.”
Improvements in printing technology allowed for the increased production of inexpensive books dealing with sexual subjects. Cheap novels with titles like Confessions of a Lady’s Waiting Maid and Amours of an American Adventurer in the New World and Old appeared. They joined the old standby Maria Monk, which had been around for a generation and served the dual purpose of being both virulently anti-Catholic and titillating readers with descriptions of nuns and priests having sex. These and similar books became the furtive companions of many of many lonely Civil War soldiers. Their production continued after the war and likely found their way into many hands and to hiding places in many barns, corncribs, and rooms across the land.
These novels often shared the soldier’s knapsack or farm boy’s lair with more “graphic” representations of sexuality. The first photographs may have been of Parisian rooftops, but it did not take long for the lens to seek the nude figure. Photos of unclad women (mainly) and representations of sexual acts were soon available. America’s great internecine conflict also spurred the growth and distribution of “obscene prints and photographs” as inexpensive photos found an eager market. 12 x 15 prints of scenes like
Naked Wood Nymphs” sold for $1.20 per dozen and soon passed into eager hands.
This outpouring of adult material did not go unnoticed. Clergy, reform groups, and individual crusaders saw it as cancerous growth on American society. Like modern crusaders they linked it to their perceived decline in the nation’s moral standards and sought ways to eliminate or ameliorate its pernicious effects. The YMCA, church groups, and private societies dedicated to combating “vice” joined in the ongoing battle (censorship is, after all, an unacknowledged American tradition). The most well-known and powerful leader was the aforementioned Anthony Comstock. The same “Comstock Law” that made contraceptives “obscene” and prevented them from being sent through the mail also made “obscenity” a crime and kept such materials from being mailed (lower postal rates had been another factor in the “porno boom”). As with contraceptives, the law did not eliminate obscene materials, only drove it beneath the shelves and into the backrooms. It was still available if you wanted it.
The world’s oldest profession was also a remarkably vibrant one in the United States (and it seems, in agrarian Hamilton County, Indiana and the rest of the Midwest).
Prostitution was an early import to the New World. Always present, it grew from meager beginnings over the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century it flourished in urban areas and was spreading to the countryside. Though individual prostitutes and streetwalkers were numerous, the “scene of action’ had begun to coalesce around brothels (a guidebook rating various brothels in cities around the nation appeared in 1859 ), dance halls and houses of assignation. The proverbial “madam” became a part of American folklore. And, she and her charges were to be found in big cities, small towns, and even isolated farms in the Indiana and Midwestern countrysides.
So, prostitution was a fact of life of American culture. Usually it lay hidden or un-discussed, but occasionally its painted face was thrust into the light. One such flurry of acknowledgement occurred in sleepy, backwoods Hamilton County, Indiana when a local newspaper began a four part series exposing prostitution in its midst.
The October 19, 1883 edition of the Noblesville Republican Ledger began the expose under the headline “Noblesville Bagnios (bagnio, originally a Turkish bath, was period
slang for brothels).” It reported that “several” ill-fame and assignation houses existed in Noblesville. Saying they were “well known” to the law, the paper reported they operated “full blast at all hours.” One, run by a “colored harlot” and known as the White Hall, was located right on main street! The paper was particularly offended by the madam’s “swaggering manner” when she sashayed Noblesville’s street with her parading girls offering tantalizing glimpses of what was on offer to the men of the town.
It also disclosed that another house sited near the “colored Baptist church” was being run by a madam who had formerly plied her trade in the tiny farming community of Cicero. Yet another house, a “low dive” called the Stone Front and also located by a church, was presided over by a “sheet iron blonde,” who made sure she and her employees were seen exhibiting their wares at the post office after each incoming mail. Obviously, Noblesville madams were savvy marketers.
Prostitution was not just a city phenomenon. Some, when driven out of town, moved into the fields. The editor told the story of a Mrs. Jack Conner who had maintained a “house” in the southern part of Noblesville until it was raided by police and subsequently “completely riddled and burned down” by outraged neighbors. Prior to the torching of the house, Mrs. Conner “had moved what few traps she had to the Moses Massey farm a few miles south of Noblesville [barely a mile north of present-day Conner Prairie Museum].”
The article went on to say there were other such houses in town and that “fully a score of young girls … walk our streets every night.” Noblesville, it said, was the “resting place for all the scourings of our neighboring towns, where they prosecute such persons.” Those “scourings” included “an old hag and her daughter… a young harlot…” who had come to Noblesville after being driven out of Anderson. The woman lived “upon the earnings of her daughter, an eighteen old girl with “rather a prepossesing [sic] look… at the price of her daughter’s soul.”
As might be expected the article’s shockwave roiled through the county, stirring indignation and controversy. In the second part of the series he editor noted he “must have struck fire by the smoke it [the article] had raised.” At least two of the madams threatened lawsuits or worse upon the editor, who described one as “ one of those oily tongued tempters who has for years been cloaking her ulcerous skin with all the hypocrisy of a persecuted saint.” All the while this “blear, sore-eyed creature” was luring young girls to their destruction. Still another, whom the paper called the “noted nigger prostitute of Noblesville,” was a long time harlot said to be protected by her intimate association with “many of our prominent male citizens [so] that our officers dare not arrest her.”
The paper also charged that Noblesville was home to an astounding 26 “houses of assignation and prostitution” (of varying grades). Of that number “only three colored dives [were] counted.” More worrisome than even this flood of sin was that so little was being done about it. Reliable informants told the paper that even though charges against various madams and houses had been made, they continued to operate without interference from the law.
The article speaks to several points about prostitution and societal attitudes. Inherent in one charge is the (racist) notion that Blacks were heavily involved in prostitution. That they predominated in that sordid underworld far out of proportion with their percentage of the population was an accepted fact to many. Such views also corroborated, in the minds of those same people, the notion that African American women (like Native American women) were lustier, more sensual beings and thus drawn to the trade. In addition to the African American women named as madams, the articles mention the daughter of a local black barber “parading the streets.” It also reinforced in their minds that Blacks in general were drawn to criminality. Ominously, it also raised the “horrible specter” of interracial sex or relationships, both of which were anathema to many.
The lack of law enforcement was also troublesome. It spoke of payoffs to officials for looking the other way, of men in high places protecting an evil in their midst. It also confirmed that it was just not the “lower” orders who consorted with prostitutes as some wished to believe. The fallen woman’s clientele included some of the community’s most upstanding citizens, men of influence and power. For these men to act as protectors of whores and brothels was an indictment of the community, and it must be stopped. In this context, the editor slyly pointed out that under Indiana law owners or agents of those properties housing the offensive profession were subject to fines or imprisonment and reprinted the pertinent section from the statutes.
Another key element mentioned in the article was the luring of young girls to their destruction. Victorian society was full of tales of otherwise innocent young women (especially working girls) drawn into the netherworld of prostitution, or of well-bred girls pulled into the abyss of sin and degradation by lovers or the temptations of the dance hall, theater or drink. Entire volumes were devoted to stories of once promising lives torn asunder by vice. Hoosier author and reformed gambler and drunkard Mason Long penned an entire volume filled with cautionary tales of such occurrences that eventually led the fallen one to dishonor, the insane asylum or the suicide’s couch. It is one of the many dichotomous aspects of Victorian thought that women, who were viewed as lustless, could be so easily drawn into the world of sensuality and depravity. That such things might happen in Noblesville (and by extension, other Midwestern towns) was a horror not to be contemplated.
A third article told more tales of horror (the local schoolyard was being used as a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients!) but also that the clean-up was beginning. It noted that the crusade by the newspaper and its support by readers (the paper printed letters and petitions of support) were having an effect. The streets of Noblesville had become quieter and less lawless, as prostitutes and their customers were being arrested. The final article in the series triumphantly reported that madams and their prostitutes were leaving town, one to the seemingly happier hunting grounds of Lafayette, another to ply her trade in the coalfields of Pennsylvania.
Did the Republican Ledger sensationalize the prostitution problem in Hamilton County? It almost certainly did. Its rival newspaper the Independent accused it of such. It took the Ledger to task saying it had exaggerated the problem and averred it had never even heard of some of those named in the articles, saying “it will require more than unsupported statements of the rickety addle-brained little nincompoop of the Republican Ledger” to convince it that the problem was so huge. Part of that reaction was the ongoing, highly partisan “newspaper war” waged by the publications. Eventually, however, the Independent agreed there was a problem, but just not to the extent the Ledger claimed.
But it is clear that prostitution was an active force in Hamilton County, and not just in the city. The county was home to brothels, houses of assignation (sort of “no tell motels” of the period) and “laundries.” Some brothels disguised themselves as laundries and the prostitutes listed themselves as laundresses. This helped to cover their activities and explain the stream of men coming to their doors at all hours. This also gave cover to the “johns” who could say they were merely taking in their soiled clothes to be washed. It is not difficult to imagine that a young farm hand or worker could use “going to get my laundry done” among his friends as a slang term for his real actions.
A visit to a brothel then was clearly a rite of passage for some young males, though it could be a frightening one. A letter writer described a 1902 visit to a brothel in Union City, Indiana in which his tentative companion grabbed his hat and ran breathless out of the door and straight to the railway depot after “One girl raised her dress up above her head.”
The prostitute’s clientele was not limited to farmhands or workingmen, however. Men from all levels of society, married and single, of all ages, threw themselves into the waiting arms of the fallen women. It was a business carried out in all areas. As the articles bring forth, prostitution was likely found in many towns in the county. It also dotted the countryside. The countryman seeking paid comfort did not have to travel far from his furrow to find it, as the allegation that prostitutes had set up shop within a mile or two of William Conner’s old homestead attests.
The public outcry and renewed law enforcement against prostitution did not eliminate it from the county, merely drove it more underground for a while. It continued. The following year a constable in Cicero was assaulted and left for dead by a patron when he went to clear out a bagnio in that northern Hamilton County town. Within two years a local businessman wrote a letter to the editor again decrying the fact that Noblesville was “infested with… prostitutes who ply their vocation mainly after night.”
The battles against prostitution and other forms of sexual commerce were part of wider vice suppression efforts active in the late 19th century. In essence it was a return to state control of private matters similar to colonial America. Or, as D’Emilio points out, with sexuality becoming more open, more public, it can be seen as an attempt by the state and society wishing to push sexuality further into the “private sphere” and subsequently any “public expression of sexuality was considered… obscene.” Allied with this belief was the idea that “lust was in itself dangerous” to the individual and society. It is such thinking that made the Victorian era synonymous with overwrought prudery and priggishness.
Another cause for concern about vice and “lust” was that they spread disease, especially what we today call STDs, sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis, or the pox, was pandemic. Sufferers had little real hope for successful treatment. Mercury, both applied topically and taken orally, was the usual prescription. Given its toxic qualities it would seem the treatments were often worse than the disease, at least in the short term. Of course, as with most other afflictions in the 19th century, patent medicines and quack nostrums claiming miraculous cures abounded. Often the afflicted was loath to visit his family physician. In response to this there appear to have been doctors who specialized in treating such diseases. One such physician visited Noblesville once a month during the 1880s, advertising his visits with ads saying he specialized in “PRIVATE DISEASES” and all ailments of the urinary organ.
Of course, there were other “afflictions,” especially those troubling to male sexual health. “Virility” problems like impotency or premature ejaculation were cause for concern and “treatments” were available. Often called nervous disability, lost manhood or decay, there were the invariable patent nostrums or herbs purporting to be the Viagra of the period to treat the problem. Ginseng, of course, was an herbal cure long known for its aphrodisiacal properties. Period newspapers nearly always contained advertisements for similar “medicines.” A Prof. Harris of St. Louis advertised his “pastilles” as a “Radical
Cure for SPERMATORRHEA AND IMPOTENCY.” A free trial package of the cure, which restored the “natural function of the human organism,” was offered. The pastilles could then be purchased for $3.00 for one month’s treatment, or $7.00 for a three-month supply. Dr. Ward of Louisiana, who used one of the more frankly phallic symbols seen in early ads, sent his medicine in a plain, sealed envelope or it could be purchased at the druggist. There appear to have been no shortage of need for their services.
The bans on “obscenity,” a nearly complete lack of sex education, and reluctance to discuss sexual matters even among families or friends left many couples at sea as how to deal with “marital” or sexual problems. In such an atmosphere what was “normal or abnormal” or even basic information about their bodies and their functions were difficult to come by. Many turned to marriage manuals to answer their questions. For fifty cents in money or postage, couples could obtain Dr. Whittier’s Marriage Guide. The book contained “all the curious, doubtful or inquisitive want to know” and was illustrated with “50 wonderful pen pictures true to life.” Long before Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex or the advent of marital counseling, guides like this were often the only way couples could obtain information to guide them through turbulent shoals in marriage and relationships.
One aspect of woman’s health that has recently been given much attention was the treatment of “hysteria” in women during the nineteenth century. Feminine hysteria, its symptoms included “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, … and vaginal lubrication,” was believed by some doctors to be the result of sexual frustration. Ultimately, some believe, this frustration was the result of the androcentric (male-centered) view of sex which broke down sex into three basic steps: foreplay/preparation, penetration, and male orgasm. As sex was “popularly or medically defined” as penetration and orgasm, the woman was to attain orgasm during coitus. If she did not, and studies have shown that 50-70% of women do not orgasm merely as result of penetration, that was basically her tough luck. A woman’s inability to orgasm in those situations led to idea of frigidity and ‘tension.” The buildup of sexual tension led to hysteria, which one 17th-century “expert” thought ranked second only to fevers among diseases.
One accepted cure for hysteria was the stimulation of the vagina and labia through manipulation, which was to result in “release.” In other words women were “manipulated” into an orgasm. Their “paroxysms” were signs of release. Treatments were often ongoing and women might duly report to their doctors for weekly orgasms. Many women undoubtedly looked forward to the visits, though most doctors averred they found the treatment tedious and without any erotic over (or under) tones. In a society in which women were supposed to be passionless, non-sexual beings, the treatments provided release in more ways than one. For some women, it medically sanctioned desires they were not supposed to have.
Once again, technology made the task easier. Dildos were sometimes used (rubber ones were replacing wooden models by the 1870s), but the real advance was the coming (perhaps advent is a better word choice) of the electric vibrator. It often came as a relief to doctors who often looked for “every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers, such as the attentions of a husband, the hands of a midwife, or the business end of some tireless and impersonal mechanism.” It replaced steam-powered (normally used only by specialists) and wind-up vibrators, called a percuteur, as well as a battery-powered one. The vibrator then, was the answer to many prayers, offered up in both male and female voices!
The electro-mechanical vibrator made its first appearance in the early 1880s and was a boon to the treatment of hysteria. It was not only used by physicians but was marketed to women as an appliance and self help aid. Women could now “treat themselves” at home. Historian Rachel Maines claims it was the fifth household appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster. If so, it shows how desirable and needed an invention it was.
Though “advancements” were made in sexual health, there were some practices that were considered decidedly unhealthy, both to the individual and society.
Masturbation was perhaps considered foremost among them. Reams of literature were devoted to this “secret vice,” which was thought to cause insanity and disease. Physicians and health reformers saw it as debilitating practice that weakened manhood. They prescribed abstinence, “cold baths, fresh air, and bland foods” to curb its occurrence. Schoolmasters and parents warned boys (similar views were held regarding female masturbation, though as basically “lustless” creatures, women were thought less susceptible to its siren call) of its dangers to body, mind and spirit.
An ad for an 1840s tract called Facts and Information From Distinguished Physicians and Other Sources carefully couched its subject in euphemism but spoke of the “vice which is undermining the health and happiness of many, and degrading them, in some respects, below the brute creation.” It was, it said, “dangerous in proportion to the secrecy and silence which it has been involved.” The ad also carried a statement from a doctor at a Massachusetts’ hospital (possibly for the insane), who had “done much to expose this solitary vice,” claiming that 42 of the 199 patients there were “victims of masturbation.” The pamphlet was a big seller, with twenty thousand copies printed in ten months. The sentiments expressed carried weight throughout the nineteenth century and masturbation was considered a dangerous risk. Male teachers and fathers, especially, would have warned boys of its dangers, likely with much less success than they hoped. One of the fears sometimes associated with masturbation among schoolboys, especially those in all-male environment, was that it might lead to “the still more loathsome… unnatural commerce with each other,” homosexuality.
Homosexuality was also seen as a disease or vice. It is hard to precisely pin down or categorize the extent of early attitudes. As D’Emilio maintains, during the colonial era and the early nineteenth century the “modern terms homosexuality and heterosexuality do not apply to an era that had not yet articulated these distinctions.” The reasons for this non-articulation are varied. Some likely did not believe it existed to any extent, as John C. Calhoun evidently did when he spoke of the learning a friend was a “sodomite” and called it the “first instance of that crime ever heard in this part of the world.” Calhoun’s statement reeks of what one historian has called the “compulsive denial” of homosexuality in early America. During those periods same-sex relationships or individual sex acts occurred or intimate (though non-sexual) relationships existed. But it was not until denial gave way to admission by the latter part of the nineteenth century that sexual relationships became overly stigmatized and gays began to be seen as terribly “different” from “normal” society.”
By the 1880s homosexuality was thought to be a “disease,” as well as a criminal activity. For the vast, vast majority of homosexuals to be gay during this period was a secret to be kept hidden in the darkest corner, or risk becoming one of society’s most scorned outcasts (one need only look at the life of Oscar Wilde for the most public example). One could quite literally take one’s life in one’s own hand to reveal it. Homosexuality was indeed one of the more loathed “vices” of the nineteenth century, one that was whispered about in tones of righteous indignation in hate-filled tones.
But the nineteenth century was not just a time of extreme repression. In essence, repression begat feeble attempts at liberation. The last decades saw the rise of a much misunderstood and vilified movement, one of whose tenets was to ameliorate repression.
The Free Love Movement, which had elements similar to the modern libertarianism, was a rather anarchistic effort to separate government from private issues like marriage and sexual behavior. In essence, it was the “antithesis of vice suppression” that so dominated the
last quarter of the century. The movement came to be identified with leading proponent Victoria Woodhull, a figure much vilified and one who revealed she was conceived behind a sturdy bench at a camp meeting when her illiterate, frenzied, newly “saved” mother was “taken” by her horse-thief father. It opposed prostitution, as a subjugator of women, and male dominance of women in general. It also wished to abolish marriage, again partly because it was another avenue for dominating women.
Many Free Love adherents vigorously adopted the view that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure’s sake (as part of a loving relationship), and not just for reproduction. It was this idea that led to much misunderstanding of the movement as many saw it as merely promoting licentiousness and promiscuity. Because of this, “Free Lovers” were scorned as wild, continuously-copulating sybarites who would only lead society into degradation if permitted to do so. This view ignored the fact that many Free Love advocates and movement leaders more often were “serial monogamists” who enjoyed stable long-term relationships. Their desire was to ensure the “right of men and women to choose sexual partners freely on the basis of mutual love… unconstrained by church, state, or public opinion,” not to turn American into a vast panorama of orgiastic excess. Still, to the average Hoosier of the 1880s, “Free Lovers” were a dangerous breed and their beliefs could do no good for society.
Sex and sexuality, as can be seen, was not an invention of the 20th century. It informed, embarrassed, enriched and effected the lives of 19th-century Midwesterners as it did their ancestors and will their great, great, great grandchildren.
Midwest Open-Air Museums Magazine (Spring, 2005)
Not to be reproduced without written consent of author
I began this blog over three years ago. For regular readers you may have noted the paucity of posts in 2014. This has been due to many reasons. The principal one being my recovery from a January brain surgery. All went splendidly, but slowed down my research.
A much happier reason for being slow to post is the great change in my life since March. My wonderful and talented wife was named the new Dean of Libraries at our alma mater, Indiana State University. This allowed me to retire from Conner Prairie and start my own historical consulting firm. It also meant a return to the Terre Haute area. Anyone who has made such a major move know that selling your house, buying a new one, and simply packing and moving 19 years of accumulation is not for the faint hearted. We are settling in nicely to our new house which already feels like home and have unpacked all but a few of the 130 boxes which bore our “life” back to Terre Haute.
As you can see from the above photo, my new home office is now the center of the blog and research for the history of West Terre Haute. Being back “home” means I will have steady access to the materials I need. No longer will I have to schedule three-day getaways from work to drive to Vigo County for intense forays into libraries, etc.. Or wait weeks for microfilm to be gathered via inter-library loan.
So, I will soon be back on the trail. One story I am anxious to research is about my great-grandfather being framed for the wreck of an Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad train at St. Marys. If the county clerk’s office can find the old circuit court files I soon will be able to tell that tale.
There is another story, only tangentially part of the WTH story I have been anxious tell. That is about a lynching. I have received many wonderful comments and suggestions about the blog. But, mainly due to the entries I have written about WTH being a “sundown” town and discussing the scant history of African Americans in Sugar Creek Township, I have gotten some frankly racist screeds. Just this morning as I checked on the site (I can access the various search terms that Google and others have used to send searchers to the site) and read this search term: “hanging a nigger from a West Terre Haute bridge.” Obviously old hatreds die hard. The thing I found most interesting and appalling about it was it associated the lynching directly with West Terre Haute (actually the appalling event took place on the Wabash River Bridge.). Such are the tales. Such are the truths. Stick with me as I try to tell the stories.
By the time these articles were published Grover Jones was a well-established and noted figure in Hollywood. In his career he would write over 120 movie scripts, and direct or produce more than 40 others. He drew on bits of his life and growing up in West Terre Haute in many of those scripts. But these short stories published in the 1930s drew almost exclusively his time in West Terre Haute and Toad Hop. As I wrote earlier, Jones’ contemporaries who still lived in the area averred that they knew exactly who or what he was writing about. Though often highly embellished for hid deadpan, satirical humor style, they contain deep kernels of truth about West Terre Haute and some of its citizens, and are steeped in the mining culture he grew up in, particularly among the Welsh of which he was a part. Wales, of course, was a major coal mining region, so it was natural that Welsh immigrants and their sons would gravitate to the dark pits around West Terre Haute.
Many of his stories revolved around women, though as seemingly minor characters, more “off-screen” than in the middle of the action, but they were the force that drove the stories and their outcomes. Though men were seemingly the central characters, they were undone or “made” by the females in their lives. For good or ill, the males who thought themselves very much superior to, or controlling their women, were but puppets on the string.
The Toad Hop Amazon, sub-headed by the phrase She fought like a wildcat, but she knew the way to a man’s heart was one such tale.
The central figure in the story was one Button (because he always wore a McKinley campaign button) Klegg, a tramp printer who stumbled upon West Terre Haute. It may surprise many, but West Terre Haute was once a lively newspaper town with two weekly papers competing for circulation. Klegg took over a struggling paper named the Weekly Times. He soon made the paper a success. Much of that was due to his humorous take on things in town. Miners loved it when he printed that floods would never reach the mine company store, because it was the highest place in town. Even supposedly dour farmers liked his style. He added further readers by doing “society” pieces that gently satirized those who thought themselves the elite.
But his humor got him in big trouble when he took on Mrs. Matt Wannack. He called her the Toad Hop Amazon and was baffled by the fact that a traveling carnival had not snatched her up for its freak show. She was a big woman, so tall Klegg said that “she could stand flat-footed and look over the saloon fence to see if her husband was in there.” And if he was it was a sure thing that the saloonkeeper would be building a new fence the next day.
Now Mrs. Wannack was also a dyed-in-the-wool labor agitator who loathed mine owners. As women were not allowed in the labor union hall she used her smallish husband to be her mouthpiece, preaching strike to the members. Klegg, who had lived through many a mine strike did not want that and it led him to publish his less than praising article about her. That in turn led to Mrs. Wannack visiting Legg in his office, which led to an epic fight featuring Mrs. Wannack “Casaba-melon” fists versus Klegg’s foot work.
It did not take long for news of this fistic bout to reach the mine in which Matt worked. He left the pit and sped to Klegg’s office. Not wanting further trouble Klegg tried to forestall another attack upon his person by the Wannack clan. To his surprise, Matt did not want to punch Klegg. Instead, he wanted to know “how’d it feel when you popped her?” Matt was ecstatic when another man did what he could not do.
That began a friendship between Button and Matt, initially based on mutual antipathy to the Toad Hop Amazon. They transacted many conversations while fishing together at a used up mine pit. One day they began discussing plum pudding, Klegg’s favorite food. When Matt told him the amazon made the world’s finest plum pudding, the two had their first real disagreement. Klegg, who considered himself one of the world’s great connoisseurs of plum pudding, a “knockin’ pick” he called it, was not buying that story. He told Matt that good plum pudding needed to age and the only place he had tasted good plum pudding was in Western Pennsylvania where a few Welsh miner’s wives knew how to make it right.
The two friends never had a chance to settle the argument among themselves. A few days later Matt, who like some miners had “the insane habit of opening a keg of powder with his pick” paid for his error. They “gathered him up with a whisk broom and a tray.”
Most of the town attended Matt’s funeral, but Button was not among the mourners. The Amazon had decreed he was persona non grata. With Matt gone, and many now sympathized with his widow, there were renewed talks of a strike. The town merchants feared its results. Then Button got an idea. To get miners’ minds off striking, he decided to make a folk hero of the gentle, well-liked Matt. His scheme involved making Matt into a home spun philosopher, and compared his wisdom to Dreiser, Dresser or Debs. Matt was offered as West Terre Haute’s answer to this famous Terre Haute trio. Button began publishing Matt’s alleged “sayings.” Things like:
“Next to a rainy day funeral there’s nothin’ sadder’n seeing a good fiddler playin’ in a cheap restaurant.”
“Man talks about possible disappointments; Women make them possible by talking.”
Matt’s purported aphorisms became the rage. Button had to print extra copies of his paper to meet demands. Soon, all talk of a strike withered on the miner’s lips. Incensed by this the Amazon sought out Button Klegg. She chanced to find him in his office talking with a city slicker. The man represented a newspaper syndicate who was there to offer Button $3,000.00 to publish the wisdom of the dead sage of West Terre Haute.
Now the last thing that Button wanted was for the Amazon to get wind of this. He knew that she knew he had made it all up. He saw the money winging away across Sugar Creek toward Toad Hop. The Amazon took note and so sweetly asked both to dinner that Button nearly gagged. Over dinner, which was good enough Button thought, he and the Amazon parried and thrust. At stake in this duel was a lot of money. As dinner ended Button decided he would announce that thewrote the aphorisms and the money was due him, not their hulking hostess.
Then the Amazon brought in the dessert. Plum pudding. Now would be the resolution. As he bit into it his taste buds agreed it was the best “knockin’ pick” he ever ate. As he became lost in savoring the pudding he heard he heard the city slicker pull out the contract and said the Amazon should sign the agreement which gave her the money in return for Button giving the remaining Matt material to the syndicate. Button. Mouth still filled with plum pudding, managed to say “Right.”
Jones ends the tale by saying that: “They were married in late summer and went on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls. When they returned Button changed the name of his paper to The Labor Clarion.”
Again in the humor are some home truths. There was classic labor-management strife. Most miners hated the mine owners with a deep seething passion. They did the hard, backbreaking labor, while the owners, they felt, literally reaped the rewards of their sweat. Strikes for better conditions or wages were a tool, but an often onerous one. A long strike could cripple the economy of a town like West Terre Haute. Shopkeepers lived in dread of a strike. They could lead to near starvation for miner families. Even some of the more ardent miners were loath to go on strike.
They could lead to financial ruin for miners and eventually pile up more debt for them at the company store. Those familiar with the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “16 Tons” are familiar with the lament of owing ones soul to the company store. West Terre Haute had a company store at Market Street (3rd St.) and Paris Avenue. Such store often had higher prices for goods, but they offered credit to miners. Often it was the only way miners could get what they needed as they did not have the cash to pay for lower prices at competing businesses.
The Amazon is reminiscent of Mother Jones, the firebrand labor leader who fought her entire life for workers’ right.
You can read the entire story online, and other of Jones’ work by following this link and searching for “Grover Jones.” http://www.unz.org
For my blogs about miners, strikes and labor strife see:
Coming soon I will look at some more of Jones’ work
As 1906 dawned West Terre Haute stepped to the threshold. Town boosters believed it was about to cross through the door to becoming a large important town. They had some reasons for feeling so. In the last decade the town had grown almost six-fold as it took advantage of the mineral wealth that surrounded it. New coal mines had opened, clay plants grew, small businesses blossomed. Workers flooded into town to take jobs offered by the business boom. Another key was the opening of the new Wabash River bridge. The modern structure replaced a creaky 19th- century bridge and made secure the connection with Terre Haute.
One of the ways West Terre Haute announced its present, and its hoped-for future, was the publication of its first city directory in 1906. True, it had been part of Terre Haute city directories since at least the 1890s, but this effort was devoted entirely to West Terre Haute. It was an important step. Not only could it be used by the town’s citizens and area businesses, it was a handy piece to send out to advertise the growing town and attract prospective industries and businesses.
The directory opened with a rather good history of the town which chronicled its growth from struggling village dependent entirely on farming, to the discovery and exploitation of coal mines, and highlighted the town’s growth. In the two pages shown below it announced the advantages it offered to prospective newcomers. It hoped to show it was a “Wide-Awake Town,” bustling, energetic, open to its future.
The Directory featured a few photos, two of them focusing on Paris Avenue then West Terre Haute’s main street. The new buildings it featured and the streetcar line showed that the town was growing, connected, and ready to take off.
But the key to the West Terre Haute Directory was the list of its citizens. Spread out over the pages one can get a sense of the town as it was. It gave the name, address and occupation of each business or householder. By far the largest number of listed jobs was that of miner. Perusing the directory made it clear that West Terre Haute was a miner’s town. And from their addresses you can see the formation of the “working class” areas of the town. The miners, clay workers and other labors were concentrated south of National Avenue, in the newer areas west of Market Street (There was still a row of shoddy shotgun house on Market Streets when I was growing up. They tore them down to build the new Post Office in the late 1960s), or scattered along streets on either side of National.
The town’s “elite” tended to be within a few blocks of Paris Avenue. The McIlroy family, merchants and leaders loved just south of the Avenue. Burton Cassaday, druggist, postmaster and perhaps the town’s biggest booster lived on Paris Avenue between Sumner and McIlroy (now one of the most rundown areas). J.S. Hunt, the leading doctor lived in the same neighborhood.
Glancing through the 108 year-old directory I see many names that were familiar to me growing up, and which still live on in the town. Of course, I looked for my ancestors there. Great-Great Grandfather David Arthur (see blog entry for August 7, 2013) and his children lived in a stretch of houses on Miller Avenue. My Hants (also Hantz) family lived in three houses along National Avenue (my grandmother was born at 101 National). The matriarch was Susannah Hants, widow of Andrew Hants, a courier born in Pennsylvania. Living with her were three of her sons. John was a shoemaker, and Ellsworth and Emerson were “at home.” Emeron is the one most well-known to me because of my grandmother’s enduring love for him. Emerson was profoundly handicapped. In one census he was listed simply as “idiotic”. He was a kind soul, with little speech. He was sometimes affectionately called “shickie-whoppie,” because that is one of “words” he said most clearly.
Next door was Susannah’s son. William. He was my great-grandfather, the adored father of my Grandma, Hilda Hants Chrisman. Oddly, he is listed as living alone. At first it struck me as odd that my great grandmother Lulu was not listed. But then I recalled that this was around the time that my great-grandparents were having marital issues, primarily caused by William’s drinking and the earlier death of their infant son. Was this one of the times Lulu escaped to David Arthur’s house on Miller, taking Grandma and her sisters with her? Quite likely. If you know what to look for, even long dead pages can tell their story.
One more name caught my eye: James Leasure. James lived on Edwards Street with his carpenter father and his mother. The directory listed him as a farmer. In the future he would become a blacksmith and auto repairman. He would also become the one of the protagonists in one of the most infamous days in the town’s history (see “Love Usurped, March 7, 2013 blog).
But he, like West Terre Haute could not know their futures in 1906.
I recently spent six days in the hospital having brain surgery (one of the reasons the blog entries might be slow in coming). But while there three things brought the blog and some of the reasons I write it starkly to my mind.
The first was in the few minutes before my surgery began. While talking with one of the operating room nurses, we chatted, as you will, about with each other. Where are you from? What do you do?
When I mentioned my West Terre Haute book project, he said, “Oh, I have heard of West Terre Haute. My brother-in-law lives in the area and he has mentioned it. Says it is really awful place. He told me two jokes I probably should not repeat. But he asked me how you knew the tooth brush was invented in West Terre Haute? Because if had been invented anywhere else, it would be called a teeth brush. And, do you know why Jesus wasn’t born in West Terre Haute? They could not find three wise men or a virgin there.”
Those are jokes told about many places. I have heard Hoosiers say much the same about Kentucky. I am certain they are often said about many, many places, but it is indicative of what many feel about West Terre Haute. That is the place it occupies in much of the world familiar with it.
That very night as I could not sleep, despite morphine injections (I never sleep while in the hospital) I was able to have many conversation with an excellent, very caring nurse in the ICU. Again, we chatted. When we found that both of us had graduated from ISU she began to reminisce. At the mention of West T. she said she was warned never to go there. That it was a squalid little place.
The very next morning my wife posted a link on Facebook she knew would interest me. It was about the struggle to keep open the West Terre Haute branch of the Vigo County Public Library. Money is tight, some more cutbacks may have to be made. The library in West T. might just have to shut down.
That truly grieves me. First of all because it was “my library” growing up. From that tiny building I checked out my first books (The first three I remember borrowing were The Little Island, Henry Huggin’s Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, and Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary. Yes I was a precoseous and eclectic reader from an early age.)
But what is most crushing is the void, no the weeping chasm, that would be left should it close. I have spent time at the branch while researching my book. I have seen how important it is to the people of West Terre Haute. I saw patrons coming in to research the illnesses of family members, find government documents, or just keep up with the world. I have seen them come into the library for many reasons. I remember most a teenage girl.. She was thin, limp-haired, looking like so many different nourishments have been not fully sated. Like many she was wearing knock-off versions of Uggs, Abercrombie and Fitch, or Dooney & Burke. Those who dash to the computers and Wi-Fi they cannot afford at home, clutching the mouse like as if it were a lifeline or IV drip, reaching out into a world that might seem only in aspiration.
Now, I can do a little bit about the lives of that girl’s parents or grandparents. I can remember them with the book. At least try to make some understand why her town went from promise to near ruin. But we all must take a hand in keeping a library in that girl’s life, ensuring that in other fallen down towns both the young and old can continue to walk into the door of a library that opens up the world to them.
I have written several entries about Grover Jones. Son of a miner, the precocious Jones left West Terre Haute to attend the birthing of Hollywood. He went on to become one of the glitter city’s most successful screenwriters, raconteurs and storytellers. He was also a sought after magazine writer, his short stories appearing alongside such heavyweights as Damon Runyon and Kathleen Norris in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.
For inspiration, Jones’ stories mainly drew upon the two worlds he knew best: West Terre Haute and its mines and people and Hollywood. His humor was broad and satirical, but as with all good humor there was a core of brutal truth. At times it seemed almost written slapstick, appropriate for a screenwriter who worked on the slapstick movies of the Twenties and Thirties.
He seldom had to look far for his characters. He drew them from the folks he grew up around in West Terre Haute, and those he observed sharply in Hollywood. To those in the know it was not hard to point to the real persons upon whom Jones drew his portraits. A Terre Haute Saturday Spectator article from the 1930s mentioned that the people of West Terre Haute knew exactly who he was writing about in his farcical tone.
What do his articles tell us about West Terre Haute? In the next two blogs I will look at three stories and try to divine the truths behind the humor. I will start with “Soft Coal.” It is the story of West Terre Haute miner Dowdy Swisher and and Birdie Stipp, daughter of the company store manager. Now Dowdy, had “a chest thicker than nine dollars of lettuce and weakness for pie without top crust.” And Birdie was a pie-maker supreme (as will be seen a future story, food was often ajn important pivot point in Jones’ stories). Entranced by Dowdy’s magnificent singing voice, Birdie set her cap and china doll eyes for him. They were married, went to Terre Haute for their honeymoon and began their married life.
Dowdy was thrilled with his pretty, pie-making wife, but soon began to wonder what he had to offer her besides his voice and paycheck. Dowdy was the taciturn type, not much given to talking and with no real education or interests outside of baseball, while Birdie was an inquisitive sort who read the Chicago papers and liked to discuss things. Enter Papini, a much-travelled miner/mule skinner who drifted into West Terre Haute looking for work when the Peabody mine he worked went on strike. Papini bore a resemblance to Dowdy, who invited Papini to board with him and Birdie and found him work at the mine.
Papini was a talker and it seemed he had been everywhere. He made Birdie laugh with his tales, while Dowdy sat quietly. Others in town began to talk behind Dowdy’s unaware back. It all came to a head one day in the mine. An explosion caused a cave-in. Everyone got out of one of the shafts except Papini. Dowdy was set to go in after him when his friend Eddie unfortunately blurted out the news about Birdie and Papini. Let him die in there was the consensus among the other miners. There was nothing to be done, Papini could not be rescued. But miners like Dowdy would never let another miner die if they could help it. He dove into the shaft and pulled Papini out. He then began pummeling Papini for trying to steal his wife. They fought for two hours. When Papini got out of the hospital he returned to Dowdy’s to pay his board and left. It was said that Dowdy missed him afterwards.
In Soft Coal, published in the April 22, 1933 issue of Collier’s, Jones gave a tongue in cheek, but vivid description of West Terre Haute:
“My home town is on the banks of the Wabash. When I lived there it had thirty-six hundred inhabitants, five churches, and thirty-one saloons. Enough bartenders to make three baseball teams and four left over to lend to the preachers—which they did.
There was one main street. It started in Ganzit’s pasture in the carefree manner of a young goat and ended at Stimky’s pop factory with practically no enthusiasm at all. Past Stimky’s there was no place to go, unless you cared to count the Red Horse fishing camp and the place where we went for pawpaws.
Coal mines encircled the town. Their tipples stood out against a perpetually murky sky like teeth on a gigantic saw. Only the farmers in our township ever saw any sunshine; most of us were undershot from blowing soot off our noses.Even the motorman and the conductor on the street car that bounced alongfrom our town to the county seat looked as though they were bumming theirway.
The men-folks worked in the mines. They were down the shaft at seven, home at four and in the saloons by five. Beer and pinochle were the evening pleasures. When a saloonkeeper started a saloon he bought a deck of cards.When he went out of business he usually had the same deck. In the process aging it gradually attained the height and shape of a Japanese lantern. By eleven o’clock every night you could squeeze out a pint of beer with very little effort. The fronts and backs looked exactly alike.”
Those four paragraphs encapsulate so much of what I have learned about West Terre Haute history, both its physical and societal aspects. There was a pasture (who owner’s name I cannot find in my notes just now) that served as sort of a community grazing filed and temporary home to Gypsy camps. At the east end of Paris Avenue was a soda bottling plant owned by Burton Cassaday. Paris Avenue was the main street in West Terre Haute where most of the businesses were located. It was to be THE main street until National Avenue rose to share that designation beginning in the 1930s.
Mines were the driving force behind the West Terre Haute economy. There were at least ten large mines and other smaller ones operating just on the outskirts of town. The miners put in long, hard days and more than a few repaired to the ubiquitous saloons as soon as possible to wash away the dust and seeming futility of some of their lives. There was a grime on the streets and buildings that colored the town darkly.
Another passage speaks to the lives of quiet desperation of women: “The married women were all dried up like left-over apples. They gave birth to children just to break up the monotony of setting dinner buckets and washing pit clothes.”
Or: “A boy seldom finished the common school. At twelve, he was a trapper boy in the mines. If he was born big he buddied up with his father and worked three rooms off the main entry.” My grandfather did not complete the 8th grade. Neither, likely, did any of his brothers, By 12 or 13 they worked with their dad in the mines. Partial school records at the St. Mary’s village school that gramps and his brothers usually only went to school during the dead of winter for six weeks of school. Their sisters attended class the full year.
“Now a coal company store aint much to look at… Trading at the store was obligatory. If you squawked you were out of a job.” West Terre haute had a company store. It often sold items at above what the miners would have paid across the river in Terre Haute. But it was convenient and miners could get credit. Miners were sometimes paid in scrip for the country store instead of cash or checks. As Tennessee Ernie sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
This has been a darker look inside what really was a funny, knowing story. But it shows what you can learn when you dig deeper into a story. Next time, I will look at The Toad Hop Amazon.
I have written several posts about those populations (Blacks and Jews) that seldom comfortably walked the streets of West Terre Haute. But I am sure there was a nearly invisible population (hidden, fearful, lonely) that did. In my youth they were called “queers” and subject to such inhuman (as if they were less than human) contempt that it makes me pale. Queer was the word in 1960s West T. and queer was no way to be there and then.
My first inkling of this was when a neighbor would visit, call him Tommy. Tommy lived over the hill from Grandpa and grandma’s house on McIlroy. His father was one of the last of the river fisherman who eked out a living on their catch in West Terre Haute. He was a roug- hewn man as I remember. Quite different from Tommy.
Tommy would occasionally stop by our house as we sat in the yard. My grandparents were always nice to him. He had gone to school with several of my uncles and he would ask about them. He was a pleasant man. Other than that I did not take much notice of him as I was usually reading or listening to a baseball game on the radio.
It was not until I was a teenager that I began to notice in shift in atmosphere when Tommy dropped by. I sensed my grandparents stiffen a bit when he would sit down next to me. One of my uncles would get up and leave after the most perfunctory hellos to Tommy, claiming to remember a chore that called him. On those times I remembered my mother had once told me not to go anywhere with Tommy. That was a bit of a surprise to me, more for the fact Tommy was twenty years older than me and I had no desire to hang out with him.
It all became (mainly) clear to me after two incidents. When I was about 17 and mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Also there was Tommy, his illness unexplained. Hearing Mom was there (she had always been nice to him) he came to visit her. He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over his pajamas. He had that towering slick pompadour favored by country singers of that period like Sonny James or Conway Twitty. An unlit cigarette in a tortoise shell holder (yes, you could smoke in hospitals then) dangled precariously between his fingers. Beneath that oiled jungle of black hair he had a pale, very pockmarked face. I always thought he had the look of a junkie from a tough black and white TV detective show, like Naked City.
As we chatted, he leaned down and put his hand on my thigh. I thought little of it, but did see the look on Mom’s face. She told Tommy she was tired and needed to talk to me before I went home. He said goodbye and went on his way. Oddly, a few minutes later Terre Haute experienced a rare earthquake that shook Union Hospital.
A few weeks after coming home Mom and I were talking. Very reluctantly she brought up Tommy. “Do you know about Tommy’s problem?’ I at first thought she was talking about a drinking problem, as that was the problem I was most familiar with in our family. Then it hit me. “You mean he is a queer?’ (I used queer even though I had read Everything You Need to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask). “Yes, when he touched your leg I wanted to scream at him.” We did not talk much more about it, but she said people like Tommy were sick, but they could not help it. “Just don’t let him touch you, Okay? He is a nice man, just sick so don’t blame him too much.”
A few months later I found out that one member of my family did not take such a “liberal” view (for that era) of queers.
That Spring my uncle Danny (only about 7 years my senior) came home on Army furlough from Germany. Another uncle, Jack, happened to be making a rare visit to West Terre Haute at that time. I must say, I have always loathed my uncle Jack. He was a striver, who always seemed to be a little bit of ashamed of the house om McIlroy and my grandparents poverty. There was just something about him.
He and Danny had gone out for a few drinks together, catching up on each other’s lives. I was still awake when they came home but pretended to be asleep. At first I enjoyed their brotherly camaraderie as they spoke of growing up. Now. My uncle Danny was a consummate jokester, renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes. And he had picked up many to add top his trove in Germany. He could do dialects (sadly, he was especially adept at “nigger” jokes featuring the mythical Rastus). He must have done a queer joke, as it got Jaack to talking about queers. The ones he had booted out of his division (he retired as a Brevet Major) and the ones he encountered in Terre Haute.
Evidently, one of the primary places gays sought companionship was the bus terminal on Wabash Avenue. One night, while Jack was waiting to get a cab for West Terre Haute, a gay man approached him in the restroom. Offended that such an untermensch would mistake him for the same type, he “beat the holy shit out of him.” After hearing that story, things became a little clearer to me.
As some of you may know, I was born without the reverence gene. I am a committed atheist. But there is one minister I came to respect. He pastored a church in West Terre Haute. In the mid-seventies a story about him began to circulate about him. Whispers said he had, one Saturday night, married a lesbian couple (another version was that they were gay men) in the church. I did not hear of this until after he surprisingly left the church.
One of the things I wish to do with this blog and the following book is look at ALL aspects of Life in West Terre Haute. Anyone have any thoughts or stories to share with me on this topic?