If West Terre Haute and its people were looked down upon by many (and they were), there was no place more reviled in Vigo County than Taylorville. Taylorville was quite literally built on a dump, and most viewed those who lived there as little more than human debris. It and its people were seen as the flotsam that washed up along the west bank of the Wabash across from Terre Haute. According to many, Taylorville was merely the home to ragpickers, thieves, whores and the diseased. It was 60 acres of hell.
Taylorville is located south of the National Road along the bottom lands between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. It was sometimes also known as Dresser and Central Terre Haute. It is unknown whether it was called Central Terre Haute because it was along the center of Terre Haute or because it lay between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. But Taylorville is the name that stuck. It was supposedly named after a “Capt.” Taylor, a farmer who lived on Ferguson Hill near West Terre Haute. What exactly was Taylor’s connection to the hamlet that bears his name, or how he became a “Captain,” is unknown.
The first settlers were squatters, people looking for some kind of home. The place left to them was near the Terre Haute dump. They built their crude houses from whatever scraps of wood, tin or brick that washed up on the river bank. They scrounged the dump for food to feed their children and scraps of metal, rags or other items they could sell to eke out a sort of living.
Taylorville’s plight was highlighted by the Indiana State Board of Health in March, 1913, shortly after the Great Flood of 1913.. It called the place “The Peril of Terre Haute.” The article described the “hovels” in which people lived and how they were often driven from those ramshackle homes several times a year by flooding. The people, it said, “were of the American gypsy type” who subsisted as “ragpicker, push-cart, slop-wagon driver” types.
To eat, they gathered anew with each new dumping of discards from restaurants and stores. “It is a familiar sight when the dump has received a new supply of garbage to see men, women and children…. delving arm deep in such material for food for their tables. Half-rotten oranges, and other fruits, pieces of bread soaked in the slops from some hotel, decaying scraps of meat—all are seized with avidity and carried away to the filthy places, their homes, where they eat, live and have their living.”
In short, they lived amid filth and squalor. People and animals often lived under the same shaky roofs, sharing the spaces with “countless billions of flies.” Sanitation was all but unknown. Their water came from the river or fetid wells. Disease was their constant companion. The report particularly noted widespread gonorrhea and syphilis, even among the young, in these “derelicts of humankind.”
Interestingly, though the authors of the report felt badly about the people of Taylorville and how they lived, they seemed almost more concerned about how the “derelicts” might effect, or infect, the good people of Terre Haute. Taylorville was a “constant menace to the public and a positive disgrace.”
The article ended on the “hopeful” note that there was even a movement afoot to condemn all of Taylorville, move its people out and the land turned into a park. Indeed, there was discussion of creating a riverside park there at the time, but nothing came of it.
The condition of Taylorville was noted by many in Terre Haute, and some charitable organizations sought to help. Mainly driven by women, these organizations tried to do what they could by teaching hygiene, getting medicines to the area, and offering advice to mothers. But they were hamstrung by an indifferent society and government which somehow saw the conditions merely as the fault of those who lived there.
But there were those who take advantage of Taylorville. Politicians eager to rig elections always visited the area to buy votes and the voter fraud was so rampant that it would have made a Chicago ward boss blush. There was scarcely an election in Terre Haute that was not followed by accusations of cheating by the losing side. Pimps prowled the street seeking young women. Those who could not afford the prices of Terre Haute brothels would slink to the tawdrier dens in Taylorville.
Prohibition was a boon to Taylorville, and may have helped spur its economy. Officials estimated that over 100 bootleggers cooked up their brew there, likely accounting for more than half of the illicit booze concocted in Terre Haute. Money follows crime as surely as crime follows money, and some of it trickled down to the people of Taylorville. In a previous blog on bootlegging I mention “peck” Anderson. Peck, who moved from Taylorville to buying and selling houses in west Terre Haute (and bootlegging),. His brother Joe ran a store and was known as the “Mayor of Taylorville.”
By the 1930s conditions had improved a bit in Taylorville. After all, they could not have gotten any worse than they had been earlier.
The WPA Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers and others to, among other things, do reports on each county, its towns, and its history. Taylorville, noted one such report, was peopled those who were “entirely American. And are noted by their hatred for negroes. No colored person is allowed in the town under any circumstances.” Teachers there felt they could not teach the Civil War history because of having to mention Emancipation.
The report, written in 1936, expounded on the sad history of Taylorville, but noted that some residents were now being employed in factories in Terre Haute or in other WPA works projects. Conditions were improving.
It listed the bare essentials of life in the hamlet. There were no monuments or parks. There was an elementary school, five grocery or general merchandise stores, three churches. The only “industries were the Valentine Meat packing plant and an auto wrecking yard. About 700 people lived there.
What all these reports failed to see were the real people. They saw conditions. They saw diseased bodies, but not the person. They saw the struggles, not the causes. They did not look into the faces and see people who were trying their best despite poverty, lack of education and resources. They did not see, or take note, of those trying to better themselves, or helping others, as the grocer who carried people and their bills so that their families might eat.
Do you have stories of Taylorville to show the fuller story? If so, please Email me.
It was warm for early March as the evening shift reported for work at the Viking mine. It was a Thursday. March 2, 1961. Temperatures in the 60s may have given some fleeting thoughts of an early Spring. Others might have been thinking ahead to the weekend. The new Elvis movie, G.I. Blues, was playing at the Garfield, and there was a Tony Curtis film at the Grand. Maybe a fight with their wives was still gnawing at them, or how far the next paycheck would go? One thought they all likely had pushed deep into their minds was that, being a miner, this might just be the day they would not walk back out of the dark pits in which they worked. Some may have taken one last deep breath redolent of the Wabash River just 200 yards away.
The Viking had opened in 1948. The coal that the miners blasted, hauled and loaded was sent by conveyor belt to feed the ravenous maw of the power plant nearby. Though a bit “gassy” it was considered a relatively safe mine, with only one fatality in its 13 years. It was already a sort of relic though. Where there had once been 35 deep-shaft mines in the Vigo County area, there were now only two.
It must be understood that mines, especially deep-shaft mines, were often a catacombs of underground rooms. Abandoned, played-out room or shafts often lay dormant next to active ones. In the old shafts methane gas, sometimes called “green devil gas” by some miners could seep and build-up. The wall, floors, ceilings that separate these rooms can be thin and prone to crumbling, thus making them an ongoing hazard that might collapse and trap miners. That sort of thing happened in the mines of West Terre Haute in the past. Or, if miners are lucky, the walls can be a fortress against a collapse or disaster in another shaft.
The miners were divided into two crews. Twenty-two sent into one shaft, the other 22 into another. Into one shaft went Burl and Jack Gummere, father and son miners from Terre Haute. Jack normally worked the third shift, but requested a change when another second shift miner failed to show. And Joseph Sanquenetti of Rosedale, whose brother John was a trained member of one of the mine rescue teams. And James L. Norton from West Terre Haute, an army vet who, with wife Lyda, had a small daughter named Julia Ann. Also in the crew was David Hale, who had had lost his father 30 years earlier in a mine explosion. They began their work.
Their work proceeded normally for hours. Then, at about 7:45 on that March evening, the first omen appeared when an air gauge chart showed a drop. Supervisors rang the phones down in the shaft. No one answered.
There had been an explosion nearly two and a half miles down the shaft. The shock wave from the blast hurtled northward, a flash fire rose and quickly flamed out. The explosion tore tons and tons of coal and earth from their banks, twisting metal and filling open spaces. Amid the debris lay 22 miners, alive seconds before, now dead. So fast and violent had been the explosion that nearly all lay where they had stood a second before. A few may have crawled a step or two away, but that was all.
Upon realizing what happened the emergency calls went out. Ambulances and doctors were called, mine rescue teams summoned. As always happened in mine disasters word spread quickly and terrified, fearful families rushed to the mine. Whose fathers, sons or brothers had survived, whose did not? The news was grim.
John Sanquenetti went in with a rescue team, knowing his brother might be in there. He had been working in the other shaft and did not know what happened until he and the others miners were ordered to return to the surface. “It was like a tomb,” he wrote later, “Everything was charred and covered with coal dust.” The explosion tossed around coal moles, ventilator shafts and shuttle cars around like they were so much confetti. It did not take long for the realization that to sink in that they would find only the dead.
And so began the soul-torturing process of making the mine give up its dead. One by one the victims were brought out. So charred and twisted the bodies that only one miner was recognizable by sight. For the others, it would be the belt buckles or wallets or other personal items that would speak their name for them.
Finally, around midnight, the last body was brought out. Twenty-two bodies in all. The Viking Mine explosion took its unwanted, grim place as the second worst mining disaster in Indiana history. The grieving began.
The next week would bring investigations, incriminations, sorrow.
And 22 funerals which would be attended by 22 widows and 29 now fatherless children and many, many other mourners.
Among the mourners were the survivors who had to stop and ponder the meaning of chance or fate. Who asked the question of why. Men like Linton Fisher of Clinton who was off work that week on doctor’s orders. Or Robert Forbes of Shelburn who was alive because a spat with his wife had caused him to miss work. Or Norman Price of West Terre Haute who was shifted away from the fatal shaft into the other.
Families were left to try to figure out how to live through the future they always hoped would never come. Among them was Rose Ann McGaughy who told how her husband Max had only recently returned to work. She had been working part time to help save money for a new house for the family, which included a son and daughter, but “Now the plans mean nothing.”
It would be wrong to say that there was a bootlegger on every street in West Terre Haute. But the town that prior to Prohibition had many more saloons than churches had its fair share, and more. It was, after all, a thirsty town. Even before Prohibition there did not seem to be enough legal hours in the day to slake the town’s thirst. Town marshals were constantly on the prowl to enforce closing laws, as in 1904 when Marshal Ramsey Gess went on a crusade to dry up illegal sales.
The subject of bootleggers (the term is thought to originate from the days when sailors would hide contraband in their tall boots to spirit a little comfort onto their ships for the long sea journey) came up during a recent oral history with C. Joseph Anderson. Joe, as he is known, is a prominent attorney, legislator and judge from West Terre Haute. He readily talked about his father “Peck” Anderson being a noted bootlegger. Peck was something of an entrepreneur. He owned several businesses, including a saloon, and was an early example of a house flipper.
Though I had long heard that Peck distilled and sold his own booze, I was a little shocked to hear about one of the town’s other noted bootleggers, Acle Ellingsworth. Acle, you see, was father-in-law to both my uncle Art Chrisman and my aunt Eileen Ellingsworth. I knew Acle as only a man sitting quietly at gatherings. To hear that this taciturn man had an “infamous” past was quite a surprise.
I had planned to visit Aunt Eileen anyway, but I drove immediately to see her. Now you must understand that my aunt is one of the sweetest ladies on earth. She is loath to speak or think ill of anyone. I assumed she would say little about it, or even deny it.
Almost my first words to her were, “Aunt Eileen, you never told me you were a bootlegger’s daughter-in-law!” To my surprise, she did not look surprised or embarrassed. Instead, she almost beamed as she replied, Yes, didn’t you know that?”
She told me the story with a certain amount of relish. Acle, indeed, was a bootlegger. Being a tinsmith, it was nothing for him to whip up a still in his shed and set about being a minor Jack Daniels. He was not a gangster she averred. He made and sold small batches of whiskey, mainly to sell or give to his neighbors, or for his own consumption. He was not one who distilled great amounts to sell to rumrunners or supply a string of speakeasies, of which there were many in Vigo County. Some just up the street from his Paris Avenue home. And she proudly said, “He never used any money he made bootlegging for himself. He would use it to help out neighbors or family in need.” I almost thought she was describing a latter day Robin Hood, but if my Aunt Eileen tells you something, you know she believes it to be true.
There were other small time “leggers” in West Terre Haute. Several times a month local papers would tell of another arrest of a West Terre Haute bootlegger. There was Andy Harper, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for concocting his own potent potables, Leonard Hollobaugh who arrested for selling alcohol to 3 teenagers, one of whom was shot and killed as they raced down Fruitridge Avenur in attempt to evade the police, and even a woman, Helen Kintz.
Like Peck and Acle, the small timers were mainly being entrepreneurial. But there was a much darker side to Prohibition.
Regular readers know that I believe Prohibition to have been an ill-conceived, benighted, stupid and foolhardy attempt at social engineering. Foisted upon the majority by oft-times honestly concerned, but by a sometimes holier-than-thou vocal minority, it was not only an abject failure, but a disaster for the nation. (At this point do you get the feeling I do not think much of Prohibition?).
There are many reasons that, as a professional historian, I take this view. One is that the amendment immediately made millions of Americans, those who drank and those who made booze, criminals. Millions who had previously respected the law, became instant lawbreakers. Debates still rage as to how much this taste of disdain for the law effected future generations. If one winked at prohibition laws as one sipped a cocktail, what laws would one disregard in the future?
The other major reason Prohibition was a disaster was the role in played in the rise of organized crime as we know it today. Yes, there were loosely organized gangs throughout America before Prohibition. But they were local. Prohibition was the crazy glue that cemented local gangs into a national web of organized crime. Of course, there were gang rivalries and untold slaughter along the way (for a fine history of this in Chicago see the excellent new book by Jonathan Eig, Get Capone), but ultimately the cooler gangland bosses learned to divide territories and work together. Thus was born modern organized crime (which, by the way only got worse nationally because J. Edgar Hoover did not believe existed until too late because he was too busy chasing supposed Commies).
And this fitful rise of gangs and violence also played out on the street of West Terre Haute during Prohibition.
In July, 1926, two West Terre Haute bootleggers, Oscar Moore and Alek Leclerq, were snatched off South Seventh Street. They were released the next day but returned home mum about what happened. They knew silence was not only golden, but their key to survival. Speculation was that they may have hijacked a load of booze belonging to a powerful, terroristic St. Louis gang known as the Egan Rats.
In August, the still breathing Moore was speeding along a road in south Chicago with two companions, a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ronan. When police stopped them they found two pistols and a shotgun. They also found 60 gallons of illegal booze that the trio admitted they were transferring from Indiana (from the West Terre Haute area?) to gangs in Chicago.
Ronan, it was quickly leaned, was an alias for longtime criminal Joseph Roman. Roman’s criminal career began with a stint in an Ohio reformatory in 1908. He was a well-known safecracker (he was credited with teaching that art to “Henry Fernekes, midget bandit”) who took up rum-running. His wife, Josephine Edna Akers, formerly a waitress in Terre Haute, claimed she did not know of his past as they had only been married a scant time before in Sullivan. Moore told police he lived at 20 S. Sumner in West Terre Haute. Jail awaited the trio, whom Terre Haute police claimed were part of a gang of “rum runners and hi-jackers whose activities have been numerous here in recent months.”
Thus was West Terre Haute a minor pivot point in the gangland empires.
Through the seemingly odd confluence of two past lives, one well-known, the other uncelebrated, I am able to write this entry. Tangential to this story are two things, Socialism and baseball. One is a political and social philosophy I subscribe to in many ways, the other the game I love, the game I quite literally learned at my grandfather’s knee and that runs in my bloodline,
It is my belief that Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana, is one of the most under-appreciated socio-political thinkers and activists in American history. In an age when even the term “liberal” is an epithet to many, to be called a “socialist” can, in the fevered minds of some, place one on a continuum somewhere between heretic and puppy-slayer. Those who think that way have never studied Debs ore the roots of socialist thought. This is not the time to digress on the history of that thought. This is a human story about a friendship.
Debs left school at 14 to work in the large Vandalia Railroad shops in Terre Haute. Later he rode the Vandalia’s rails as a locomotive fireman, shoveling coal into the fiery maw of engines that drove the American economy in so many ways. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, which was essentially a fraternal, not, political organization. But over the years this deep thinker from the heartland more and more saw the inequities that all but shackled the working man and became more political. He was not alone in this transition to awareness of inequities. Again, this is not the place to detail Debs long career, suffice it to say he became a five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist party (and scored what is still today, one of the highest percentage of vote for a third party candidate), and was jailed during WW1 for supposedly violating the Espionage A for the “intention and act” of obstructing the draft. He was to serve over two years in federal prison While in prison he received nearly one million votes as a presidential candidate in 1920.
But my story takes place long before this.
John McKenzie was born somewhere in Ohio in 1871 to an Irish mother and a father whose birthplace was listed only as the “United States.” When he came to Indiana and West Terre Haute is unclear. He worked as a miner like so many others in the town. In 1900, he married Ada Long. Ada was the granddaughter of David Marion Arthur. This made her the cousin of my grandmother, Hilda Hants Chrisman. Though cousins, Ada’s husband John was “Uncle Mac” to my grandmother.
John had something in common with my grandmother’s future husband’s family, the Chrismans. As I have mentioned in earlier entries, the Chrisman boys were all baseball players. My grandfather and his 4 brothers all played baseball as either minor leaguers or as semi-pros for various town teams. “Uncle Mac” loved the game and played five years of minor league baseball.
He began his short and rather inglorious career with the Terre Haute team in the Indiana-Illinois league in 1899. The next year he was briefly a member of the famed Terre Haute Hottentots in the Central League (unluckily for him, the year before the “Tots” were part of the famed Three I league and featured future Hall of Famer “Three Finger” Brown). He played in only 7 games, hitting .310 (a fine batting average for a modern major leaguer, but barely respectable for a turnoff the century minor league batsman). But, he persevered out of love for the game.
After a summer of playing local ball, he found himself back in the minors. From 1902 to 1904 he carried his glove and bat further west and played with the Flandreau Indians, Sioux City Soos, and Marshalltown Grays in the Iowa-South Dakota League. Once again, his ability did not equal his desires. His batting average did not rise above .274 for the rest of his career.
Like so many, John McKenzie could not get baseball out of his blood. After his playing days he became an umpire, and a damn good one by all accounts. He was known as perhaps the best umpire in the Three I (for Indiana-Illinois-Iowa) league. The Three I was a step below the highest level of minor leagues, but it was a good one that saw many players leave their diamonds to grace Major League fields.
So, how did this minor league umpire and the famous Socialist happen to come together? I do not know. Debs was known to speak before or after baseball games in West Terre Haute, spreading the word about his cause. Perhaps, “Uncle Mac” and “Gene” met then. At any rate, according to my grandmother, they became friends. And hunting buddies. Before WW1, Debs and Mackenzie would head to the woods around West Terre Haute to go squirrel hunting. After bagging their prey, they would head back to Mac’s house on National Avenue in West Terre Haute and clean the game. Walking triumphantly into the kitchen they would sit down to talk. As they did, “Aunt” Ada would fix them a favorite breakfast: squirrel brains and scrambled eggs.
How often, and for how long, Mac and Gene did this is uncertain. Debs fame spread and Mac had his own life. He was a miner, a laborer and a cigar maker. His shop, which featured his hand-rolled specialty called a “John Mac” was located just below the railroad tracks on Market Street in West Terre Haute.
John McKenzie outlived his friend Gene Debs by 49 weeks. “Uncle Mac” died on October 2, 1927, just days after the close of the epochal baseball season that saw Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and the New York Yankees win the World Series.
On this Christmas Eve, I thought I would share with you one of my earliest publications. This one on the topic of the hour.
Aspects of the Antebellum Christmas
By 1860 many of the elements of our modern “traditional” Christmas were easily discernible. Although some customs found during the antebellum era have long since vanished, many more may be recognized instantly. Some, such as the use of a christmas tree, were in their nascent stages, while others, like the concepts of gift-bringers, were in mid-passage. No matter what stage of development, the modern reveler transported to antebellum America would be able to look upon familiar scenes. For, as one source contends, Santa Claus and ornamented trees were becoming more common “to the whole country.”1
Perhaps the most important of the changing elements was the country’s attitude toward Christmas. By the coming of the Civil War the antipathy shown toward the celebration by some religious groups and like-minded individuals was rapidly softening. Indeed, “by 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union” to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations.2 This was emblematic of a general acceptance of Christmas by many denominations. This changing of views combined with another ongoing force to further shape and help define the American Christmas.
The continuing popularity of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and its “carol” philosophy added yet another element by synthesizing “certain religious and secular attitudes… into a humanitarian pattern.” Its assertion that brotherhood, kindness, and charity should be a part of life– especially at Christmas– was quickly accepted and added to American tradition.3
It was within such an atmosphere that Christmas as we know it began to manifest itself. This essay will look at various aspects of Christmas celebrations during the 1830-1860 period, both those that reach down to us today and those which are but memories.
The Christmas Tree
The Godey’s Magazine publication, in 1850, of an article and illustrations depicting the British royal family’s celebrating around the christmas tree is generally seen as a seminal event in the ultimate American adoption of this German (Prince Albert, of course, was German) custom. Although the article did much to popularize the use of trees, it must be said that it was a custom that had already begun to take root across the United States. In fact, some historians argue that American adoption of the Christmas tree predated that of the British.4 There would seem to be support for this assertion. Successive waves of German immigrants probably packed in their cultural baggage the custom of adorning their homes with a small tree. As they spread through the nation, so too did the decorated tree.5
Some sources credit Hessian mercenaries with the introduction of the tree during the Revolutionary War.6 However, as there is no direct, extant evidence to prove this oft-told tale, it may be apocryphal. The likely source was probably a now forgotten German immigrant seeking to recreate a bit of his homeland in his new surroundings. No matter the originator, the christmas tree graced more than a few homes prior to 1850 and nearly every area was witness to its use.7 Perhaps the first American illustration of this was seen in an 1810 Krimmel painting executed in Pennsylvania.8 The Dictionary of Americanisms’ (1828) inclusion of a definition of “christmas tree” and the publication of Kris Kringle’s Christmas Tree in 1845 are indicative that the custom was more widespread than previously thought.9
With this background it is not surprising that the tree had become established by 1860. So established, in fact, that a “German tree” was placed at the White House by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.10 Whether the tree was placed upon a table as German customs prescribed or on the floor as Americans were wont to do is uncertain. Trees of the period were decorated with various edibles and home-crafted ornaments, but by 1860 glass trinkets made in Germany were becoming available to adorn the branches. Most, however, were decorated with fruits, strands, and candles. Although, some people were more creative, like the German immigrant in 1847 Ohio who had the local blacksmith pound out a metal star for his spruce, where it was placed alongside paper decorations.11
Music exclusively associated with Christmas was added to songbooks during this period. Caroling became increasingly practiced. The type of music, however, belied the burgeoning secularization of the season, as most of it was of a “sacred” nature or rampant with allusions to Christ’s birth. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” 1851), “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (also 1851), “There Came A Little Child to Earth ” (1856), and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1859) all were composed before the Civil War.12
Governments recognized the growing importance of Christmas by dealing with it as they knew best: by passing a law. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. Between 1850 and 1861, fifteen states (including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) followed suit.13 A significant result of this “legislation” was the states’ recognition of December 25th as Christmas Day. This helped standardize the date for celebration. Previously, celebrations took place at varying times during the month (particularly December 6th, St. Nicholas’s day), or on January 6th, Epiphany. Thus, events during the period helped cement the date used today.14
The original impetus for legal recognition seems to have come from the business community. The initial legislation forbade the collection of promissory notes on Christmas day and some judicial activities were suspended. Provisions for the closing of schools, banks, and government offices generally did not appear until after the Civil War.15
One modern element all but unknown during this period was the christmas card. They were relatively well-known in England by 1860, but the custom had yet to make inroads on this side of the Atlantic. The first such Christmas greetings in the United States are thought to be those issued by a New York engraver in 1851. Richard Pease printed cards, showing a family dinner scene, that read “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year, to: From: .”16 However, it was not until Louis Prang of Boston introduced a line of cards in 1875 that they became widely used. 17
Another “tradition” rapidly coalescing during the period–and decried still– was the commercialization of the holiday. As early as the 1830s newspapers were filled with blandishments designed with “Christmas shoppers” in mind.18 Every thing from raisins for baked goods to pianofortes for the parlor to uplifting books for the mind and soul were pushed via the papers.19 Merchants were quick to realize the potential of the gift-giving season and capitalize on the growing importance of Christmas. Santa Clauses had begun to appear on street corners and in stores by 1850. Philadelphia storeowners were among the first to offer seasonal employment to those willing to impersonate Santa.20
The trend did not go unnoticed. A Terre Haute (Ind) newspaper editor commented on the frivolity associated with the 1855 season. He was bemused by the “gambol,” gift exchanges, and the person of “Santa Clause” that seemed to dominate the holiday. He wondered if such behavior was the proper way of celebrating the birth of Christ. In a telling comment, he noted that it was probably already too late to change things, as the trend was already well established. 21
A major difference between the antebellum celebration and that of today was the variety of gift-bringers dotting the landscape. Of varying ethnic or national backgrounds, they scurried across the land on their mission to reward or punish. Already by 1860, though, one was beginning to overshadow the others. With the coming of the war and the enlistment of Thomas Nast to his side he would come to dominate, but in pre-Civil war America he had competition.
The greatest of all modern Christmas icons, Santa Claus, was evolving during the period. Although it was to be several years before Nast was to give the jolly, round one his most enduring form, “Santa Claus” of 1860 would be easily recognizable to the modern child. “Santa,” of course did not spring full-blown upon America, but was born of legend and centuries of permutation. He was the amalgamation of the traditions of gift-givers of many cultures, a bishop legendary for his kindness, and the pens of several early 19th-century American writers.
His most likely ancestor was St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Hard facts about Nicholas are difficult to come by (not even a Papal Council could burn away much of time’s fog), but over the centuries the legend of this kindly, charitable man grew apace.22
By 1,000 c.e. Nicholas was arguably one of the most important and beloved saints in Christendom, having become the patron saint of people as diverse as pawnbrokers and spinsters in search of husbands. Most of all, he became identified as the patron of children.23
Nicholas first became associated with Christmas during the Middle Ages. An agent of this transformation may have been a 13th-century French nun who left gifts for the poor on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). Thus he became linked to gift-giving.24
Not even the Reformation’s hostility toward Catholic saints could dim Nicholas’ luster in the eyes of his followers. Children still looked forward to his gifts, or dreaded the switches he might leave behind to punish transgressors. As the latter indicates, the Nicholas legend also had its darker side. As an arbiter of behavior he could reward or punish. It is likely he was used a weapon by parents in the age-old struggle of wills. Eventually, these disciplinary duties fell to a companion, known variously Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarze Peter (Black Peter), Krampus, or Belznichol. This bearer of punishment was usually portrayed as a shaggy, dark-visaged bogeyman.25
St. Nicholas’ first appearance in the New World was in 1492, when Columbus named a bay after him.26 Times became rather lean for the saint after that, partly because America’s mainly Protestant settlers disdained saints and the rituals associated with them. Doubtless, private celebrations based upon the Nicholas legend occurred, usually among Moravians or Dutch settlers. The fact that laws were passed prohibiting is evidence enough. the above notwithstanding, St. Nicholas entered a quiescent period that was to last until the 19th century.27
The Nicholas who reemerged in the early 19th century was soon transformed into a secular saint who was to play a central role in what was to become a folk festival instead of a purely religious occasion. This revitalization came through the confluence of American literary efforts and the increased immigration of Germans and others wont to celebrate Christmas.
John Pintard, his brother-in-law Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and the anonymous author of Kriss Kringle’s Book were the literary pioneers who helped establish Santa Claus. Pintard, an early light in the in the New York Historical Society, was among the first to resurrect Nicholas, who was to become the patron saint of the society. At a society dinner in 1810 Pintard unveiled a broadside showing Nicholas, two children, and stockings hung from a fireplace. Beneath those now familiar elements of the Christmas story was the phrase “Sancta Claus, Goed Heylig Man” (Saint Nicholas, Good Holy Man).28
Irving was the next to take up Nicholas’ cause and his inclusion (twenty-three times) of him in Knickerbocker History did much to bring the old saint before the public. Clement Moore’s now universal “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“The Night before Christmas”) was published in 1823. Its synthesis of many elements of the legend was a boon to the Christmas celebration and the exaltation of Nicholas. Another major influence was Kriss Kringle’s Book, offered in 1842. The book told of St. Nicholas, or Kris Kringle, a “nice, fat, good humored man” who brought gifts for good children.29 The descriptions of Santa Claus in these and other books and the illustrations of Robert Weir, brought about the change in image from a thin ascetic to a robust character.
As is clear from the above, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus had all become synonymous by mid-century. As such, it is appropriate to discuss the evolution of terms. Santa Claus is, of course, a corruption of St. Nicholas. Popular thinking has it that the Dutch were responsible for this alteration, but this appears to be untrue. Linguists view it as having originated in Switzerland where such phonetic changes were consistent with normal usage. The analogue Dutch term “Sinterklaes” postdates the original corruption.30 Kriss Kringle was a corruption of Krist -Kindl, or Christ-Child (see below), that came to be associated with the jolly, fat man instead of a cherubic child.31 Exactly when these variations occurred is impossible to pinpoint, but they were well in place by 1860.
Santa Claus, then, was well with us by 1860. A thin, ascetic saint had added much poundage, undergone a secularization process, and a name change. In the process he was becoming the center of a folk festival that was to overawe all others.
But there were still other contenders about. The Weinachtsmann was a German secular version of St. Nicholas who had made his appearance by 1800. He, too, travelled about on Christmas Eve, walking from place to place with a sack or basket of gifts. Though usually viewed as of kindly disposition, he also carried in one hand sticks meant for bad children. He was normally portrayed as a thin, stooped old man. He made a minor appearance in America among the Pennsylvania Dutch.32
Father Christmas was the English equivalent of Santa, with some differences. He was not descended from the Nicholas tradition, but filtered from the pagan mists as the descendant of a character from a medieval mummers’ play. Initially, he was more concerned with wassail and mistletoe than gifts for well behaved children. However, he grew into the role of kindly gift-giver. He was transplanted to America by British immigrants. By this period he had come to more closely resemble Santa Claus in attitude and bulk.33
Pere (Papa) Noel was a French gift-giver who showed up in America, mainly in Louisiana, during the period. He was a version of Santa Claus with a Gallic twist– especially among the Creole. Often he had the same fat stomach, but with the addition of a twinkling wit and an eye for the ladies. He would arrive at celebrations, joke with all present, and hand out small gifts (New Years was the time for major gifts).34
Krist-Kindl, or Christ-Child
The concept of the Christ-Child as a gift-giver evolved in Germany. The Krist- Kindl appeared as a substitute for St. Nicholas partially because, some historians argue, the old gent was too redolent of Rome for some Protestant reformers.35 At any rate, the Krist-Kindl was portrayed as a cherubic child (boy or girl) who travelled by mule carrying gifts. Children set out a basket, filled with hay for the mule, to receive their gifts. The Krist-kindl concept was adopted by some Pennsylvania Germans.36 By 1860, however, he/she was rarely a part of Christmas; the role having been overtaken by the jolly elf who had appropriated the name.
1. Time-Life Book of Christmas, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987) p.7.
2. James Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture, (New York: Arno Press, 1976), p.7; see also Katharine Rockwell, How Christmas Came to the Sunday-schools, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1934).
3. Barnett, p.4.
4. Barnett, p.11.
5. F.X. Weiser, The Christmas Book, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), pp.120-121.
6. Ken Brooks, “How Christmas Traditions Began,” Friends (Dec., 1979).
7. Barnett, p.11; Philip Snyder, December 25th, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1985), pp.121-132.
8. Irene Chalmers, The Great American Christmas (New York: Viking Press, 1988), p.22.
9. Alfred Shoemaker, Christmas in Pennsylvania, A Folk-Cultural Study, (Kurtztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959), pp.43,56.
10. Karen Cure, An Old Fashioned Christmas, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), p.127.
11. WPA, Ohio Guide, p.161.
12. Snyder, pp.172-181; Rockwell, p.143; William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity, (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).
13. Barnett, pp.19-20.
14. Barnett, pp.11.
15. Barnett, pp.19-20.
16. Snyder, p 256.
17. Lynne Cheney, “You can thank Louis Prang for all those cards,” Smithsonian, (December, 1977), pp.120-126.
18. Barnett, pp.187-189.
19. See, for example, Indiana Journal, (December 3, 20, 1841).
20. Shoemaker, p.46.
21. Wabash Express, (December 26, 1855).
22. Snyder, pp. 210-211.
23. Brian McGinty, “Santa Claus,” Early American Life (December, 1979), p.50.
24. E. Willis Jones, The Santa Claus Book, (New York: Walker & Co., 1976), p.6.
25. Snyder, p.212.
26. McGinty, p.51.
27. Snyder, pp.211-212; McGinty, pp.51-52.
28. McGinty, p.53; Charles W. Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” The New York Historical Society Quarterly, (October, 1954), 370-371.
29. Shoemaker, pp.43-47.
30. Jones, P.366.
31. Shoemaker, 43.
32. Shoemaker, 213.
33. Snyder, p.213; Gerard and Patricia Del Re, Christmas Almanack, (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1979), pp.69-70.
34. Harriet Kane, The Southern Cristmas Book, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1968), pp.222-229.
35. William Sanson, A Book of Christmas, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 105.
36. Shoemaker, p.43; Barnett, p.11.
In January 1934, at the height of the gangster era, no one was more famous than Hoosier brigand John Dillinger. Newspapers, the radio, and newsreels breathlessly followed his exploits. During the Great Depression, that period of foreclosures, lost jobs and hunger, gangsters like Dillinger were often portrayed as modern Robin Hoods. Of course, this was pure romanticism. Though they may have stolen from the rich (or at least their banks), they seldom gave back much to the poor.
Dillinger was one of those who became a folk hero. Known for his cool and polite manner as he robbed terrified tellers, Dillinger earned his reputation as Robin Hood for deeds such as refusing to take the few dollars a poor farmer had on him when he was unlucky enough to be in a bank that Dillinger was robbing. A real gentleman, that John Dillinger.
From Mooresville, Indiana, Dillinger had connections to West Terre Haute. While in prison for a small time robbery in his youth, met one Russell “Boobie” Clark in the state pen at Michigan City. Clark, a Vigo County native, had already made a shady name for himself. After being dishonorably discharged from the Marines following WWI, Boobie, like so many others, took advantage of the opportunities offered by the foolish and ill-fated social experiment known as Prohibition.
Clark became involved in bootlegging. As a bootlegger he knew where all the speakeasies and “illicit” roadhouses were located. When just acting as middleman in the illegal liquor was not remunerative enough for Boobie, he began to rob the joints. In 1926 he was suspected of kidnapping two bootleggers from West Terre Haute and killing another in Danville, Illinois who was apparently out of favor with Cicero (Al Capone Territory) bootleggers. It was after these escapades that Clark was sentenced to Michigan City. There he met Dillinger and veteran bank robber like Charles Makley.
Starting in 1933, after his release, Dillinger began a brief and meteoric career as a bank robber. There was no one Dillinger Gang. Dillinger changed partners with the promiscuity of a Hollywood starlet. Many criminals moved in and out the “gang,” but Clark and Makley were stalwarts.
The new year 1934 was barely born when Charles H. Ray found out that the Dillinger Gang was casing his State Bank of West Terre Haute as a juicy target. On Saturday, January 6th, Ray was visited by Ivan Herring. Herring was West Terre Haute’s town Marshal. Evidently, Ivan was more well connected to the doings of the criminal element than most small town Marshals, for he had gotten word that members of the Dillinger gang were going to rob the bank of its Monday payroll funds. Herring had a snitch, whose identity he would not reveal as it would mean a “ride” for the underworld tattletale.
Astounded and fearful, Ray contacted another banker named Howard Derry, who arranged for the bank president to meet with Terre Haute Chief of Police Armstrong. Word that the Dillinger gang was near was a call to action and a plan was put in place.
It was decided that Ray would appear to pick up the funds from a bank in Terre Haute on Monday as usual. The Terre Haute police car would follow surreptitiously and foil the robbery. Charles Ray returned home to spend an anxious weekend.
Monday morning January 8th, he drove to the bank on Wabash Avenue, went inside and came back out with a “dummy” package of money. At about 8:30 Ray did a u-turn on Wabash Avenue, dodging street cars, and headed toward West Terre Haute. In his rearview mirror he saw the Terre Haute police car.
As he crossed the Wabash River bridge it all became too real for him. Waiting on the bridge was a Ford V8 (Dillinger’s gang preferred high-powered cars like that or Hudson Terraplanes, usually stolen, as getaway cars) with Ohio license plates. It was exactly the type of car Herring had told them the robbers would be driving. At least two men (three men was considered the minimum for a successful bank robbery: one to be the getaway driver, one to be a lookout, one to do the actual robbery) were in the car. The car began to follow Ray.
As Ray drove over the grade, he looked back one more time. To his astonishment, instead of following behind both cars, the Terre Haute police car sped up and insinuated itself between the bank president’s car and the robbers’ Ford. He “wondered why they [Terre Haute police] didn’t drop back, but supposed it was part of the plan.”
Bewildered, Ray drove on to his bank on Paris Avenue. He parked, looked around and hurried into the bank with his dummy package. When nothing happened Ray went out to the police car parked next to the bank.
Leaning into the car he asked the policemen what had happened to the Ford with Ohio plates. Looking confused, the police said “They didn’t know but would try to find it. They had been sent out with no instructions. It was awful.”
Finally, the police said they would try to find the robbers and sped off, They thought they were in luck when they spotted the car parked by the clay plant on the western edge of town. But as they approached tommy guns were thrust out of the Ford’s window as a warning and the car began to hurtle along the National Road to Illinois. The police car got “snarled in traffic.” The chance was lost.
Ray and the police then tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Again they said they did not have instructions on how exactly to foil the robbery plot. Three robbers had been in the car. Dillinger and Clark were not among them, but they identified known gang members named Burke and Burt. Evidently hiding on the floor of the back seat along with his trusty Tommy gun was Charles Makley.
Makley, known as Fat Charley, had spent Christmas in Florida with Dillinger at a gang hideout. They had a merry Christmas and exchanged gifts like jewly and a puppy for Dillinger’s girlfriend. After the failed robbery in West Terre Haute, Makley and the other gangsters continued west to a gang hideout in Arizona.
That Monday night, Charles Ray noted in his diary that “Ivan knew the story. Our plan was perfect, but because police headquarters didn’t give the squad they sent out any information they missed a great chance” to capture some of the Dillinger gang.
One must wonder if the failure was due to ineptness or a tip from an informant in the Terre Haute police that warned the gang of what might happen?
Footnote: I recently interviewed a man who averred that his uncle was familiar with John Dillinger. He said his uncle encountered Dillinger in a speakeasy on South First Street in Terre Haute. During the “visit” Dillinger, tommy gun close at hand, joked he would never rob a bank in Terre Haute because he “was sure to get railroaded” as he attempted to get away. Dillinger was known to have spent some time in Terre Haute in October or November, 1933.
The people of West Terre Haute were used to floods and rumors of floods. In 1913 they had suffered through a “hundred year flood’ that arrived hard upon the heels of a devastating series of tornados and threatened to wash away the town.
So, many people were prone to keeping an eye on the weather and peeking apprehensively over their shoulder for dark clouds. Among them was Charles H. Ray. The scion of an influential family, which counted an early Indiana Governor in its lineage, Ray was a mine owner and president of the State bank of West Terre Haute. His family lived part of their year in Terre Haute, part of it on the family’s farm along the Darwin Road southwest of West Terre Haute. He had many interests, served many causes, but he was also a man in love with his land.
It is obvious from reading his diaries (which his family has kindly loaned me for my research) that his farm, long held by his family, was a loved center of his life. Like all farmers he was constantly aware of the weather. In his case it was particularly true because the farm was bordered on the east by the Wabash River. Packed between the pages of the diaries are the monthly meteorological reports issued by the weather bureau. Seldom did a day or two pass without a notation about the weather. This was especially true in the Spring of 1943.
On May 6th, the day after he had finished plowing part of his bottom lands below the levee, he headed his entry “Showers.” The rains continued, and on May 8th came the alliterative notation “River rising rapidly.” Rain and more rain came and Ray thought it the heaviest downpour he had ever seen. That deluge caused the cellar under the century old log cabin he cherished to cave in.
And it rained and rained. By the 15th the river was at 19 feet. By this time it was not just the farmers peering at the rain gauges. Those over 35 who had lived through the great flood were beginning to take notice. By Monday, May 17th people in the markets or at the Dick Davis Diner were asking each other if they had heard that over 3 ½ inches had fallen overnight upriver at Covington. “The river is already at 21.3! If this keeps up anything could happen.”
By Tuesday morning rumors were torrenting through the town.
“The levee around WTH is expected to break.”
“People ordered out of the south end of town. Say it will be as bad as 1913.”
At 10:30 that Tuesday the state reported that the river would rise to 27 or 28 feet. The levee was built to handle a maximum of 25 feet. Already 24.6 feet of water was thrashing against its dirt walls. The inevitable happened at 7:15 that evening as the strained levee was breached. More than half of West Terre Haute was flooded by morning as the water raged through neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Buildings collapsed, good carried away on muddy tides. On south 9th & 10th streets only the roofs of some houses could be seen above the roiling waters. Those with boats became heroes to their neighbors as they loaded the stranded from roofs or second storey windows. Toad Hop was a lake.
The Governor called out the National Guard. Military vehicles hauled in food and water and hauled people out. The Central School became home, hospital and dining room to many from the south side, as the military furnished cots, medicine and food to those without shelter. The New York Times featured a photo of guardsmen caring for the children.
Waters seeped further into the town on Wednesday. Even Johnson Avenue on the north side was covered from curb to curb. West Terre Haute became an island cut off from the west and south. The railroad and the grade were the only avenues of escape. Those who could took their money, silver and valuables to the bank on Paris Avenue, where Ray and Mrs. Branham, an employee, gave receipts and opened the vault. Another teller, Mrs. Long made it to the bank to help them in the afternoon. She came on the back of an army truck. Ray slept on a cot in the back room of the bank on Wednesday night.
Over 6,000 people in West Terre Haute and southwest Sugar Creek Township suddenly had no home,
Inevitably, some took advantage of the situation, looting the homes and businesses of their neighbors. West Terre Haute was essentially under martial law after Indiana Governor Schricker visited the area.
Thursday, Paris Avenue was relatively dry and those who could made their way there. The soda fountain at Berry’s Drugstore was crowded, every seat taken. The town was without water to drink. The river crested at over 30 feet on Thursday. The long-hoped for sun returned on Friday. Slowly the waters ebbed from the town. By Saturday the water was off the Toad Hop road. The National Road was open to automobile traffic.
With the roads opened, many of those who had fled to Terre Haute or the north to stay with relatives returned to their sodden homes and mudded streets as newspapers across the nation posited that West Terre Haute had the dubious honor of being the most flood-damaged town in the floods.
West Terre Haute had survived again.
Charles Ray gratefully returned to his farm.
(Images courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society)