Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Indiana's Centennial Governor

Indiana’s centennial governor, Samuel M. Ralston worked tirelessly to ensure the state commemorated its one hundredth anniversary of admission to the Union as the nineteenth state in 1916. Backed by the efforts of the Indiana Historical Commission and the work of thousands of volunteers, the centennial observance saw the establishment of state parks, the beginnings of an improved road system, the creation of permanent memorials in numerous communities, the publication of historical volumes, and an overall awakening of interest in the history of the Hoosier State’s heritage.
His role in the successful centennial celebration overshadowed Ralston’s solid reform achievements as the state’s twenty-seventh governor. Although the Lebanon, Indiana, Democrat, a close friend and ally of party boss Thomas Taggart, believed that the citizens of the state were “conservatively progressive,” Ralston championed such measures as the creation of a public service commission to regulate utilities, a vocational education act, a child labor law, an inheritance tax, a tenement housing act, a statewide primary system, a state farm for short-term offenders, and workmen’s compensation. His administration also retired Indiana’s debt.

A solid, affable man known from an early age as an outstanding orator, Ralston earned the affection of Hoosier voters, who elected him to the U.S. Senate over Republican challenger Albert Beveridge in 1922. Thanks to the efforts of Taggart, Ralston came close to capturing the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention of 1924, but pulled out of the race at the last minute citing ill health.

Born on December 1, 1857, near New Cumberland, Tuscarawas County, Ohio, Ralston was raised by Sarah (Scott) and John Ralston, whose grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1865, the Ralston family moved to a four-hundred-acre farm near Spencer in Owen County, Indiana. While working on his father’s farm, Samuel Ralston became intrigued with pursuing a career in law after attending a trial before a justice of the peace. The financial panic that swept the country in 1873 caused the Ralstons to lose their farm and forced a move to Fontanet in Vigo County, where John Ralston leased land on which he mined coal. Working on farms during the summer, Samuel Ralston received his education during the winter, becoming a veracious reader.

Teaching school to earn money for his further education, Ralston attended the Northern Indiana Normal School in Valparaiso and also the Central Normal College in Danville, where he became involved in the Young Men’s Democratic Club. In 1881 Ralston married Mary Josephine Backous of Connersville, but she died a year later. Ralston received his degree from Central Normal College in 1884 and began the study of law in the offices of J. C. Robinson and I. H. Fowler in Spencer. During his study, Ralston, to save money, slept on a sofa in the law office, finally winning admittance to the Owen County bar in January 1886. Looking to open his own practice, Ralston first considered Frankfort, but hearing about an opportunity for a young Democrat lawyer, he moved to Lebanon, the county seat of Boone County, where he formed a partnership with John A. Abbott.

In addition to his law practice, Ralston worked to support the Indiana Democratic Party, giving speeches on its behalf throughout the state and earning the respect and friendship of party leaders such as Taggart. Ralston’s success with the party faithful did not translate into success for himself with voters as in 1888 he lost a race to represent Clinton, Montgomery, and Boone Counties as state senator. He subsequently lost two races for the Indiana secretary of state office in 1896 and 1898. Ralston had more success with his personal life, marrying Jennie Craven of Center Valley, whom he had met while a student at Central Indiana Normal, on December 30, 1889. The couple had three children; a daughter, Ruth, and two sons, Emmet and Julian.

With his continuing service to the party, and his friendship with Taggart, Ralston seemed assured of gaining the top spot on the ticket—the gubernatorial nomination—when the Democrats gathered for their convention held March 25, 1908 at Tomlinson Hall in Indianapolis. At the convention, forces loyal to Taggart lined up in support of his candidate, Ralston. Meanwhile, those opposing Taggart’s control over the party touted the candidacy of L. Ert Slack. With the convention deadlocked after four ballots, Ralston, pressed by his patron Taggart, announced his withdrawal from the race. With Ralston’s withdrawal, voters quickly turned to a compromise candidate, Thomas Marshall, and he received his party’s nomination on the subsequent ballot. Marshall would go on to defeat GOP candidate James Watson by approximately fifteen thousand votes.

After his defeat, Ralston returned to his law practice in Lebanon, where he also served as president of the school board from 1908 to 1911. In 1912, following a successful term in office by Marshall, Ralston faced no opposition and received the Democratic nomination for governor at the party’s convention on March 17 at Tomlinson Hall. The general election saw Ralston helped by a split in the Republican Party. The deep division between incumbent President William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt had prompted Roosevelt to bolt the party and establish the Progressive Party. A similar split occurred in Indiana, with the Progressives nominating Beveridge for governor while the Republicans turned to former governor Winfiled T. Durbin. In the general election, Ralston received the largest plurality ever given a governor at that time and easily defeated Beveridge, who finished ahead of Durbin. Democrats also won control of both houses of the state legislature.

Taking office under a banner of “economy and reform,” Ralston reminded the Indiana General Assembly that there existed among voters a growing wish for the “supremacy of the people over combinations of all kinds” and if the party in power failed to answer the demand it would “be repudiated by the people at their first opportunity.” The legislature responded by establishing a public utilities commission to oversee telephone, gas, water, power, streetcar, and interurban companies. In addition, the legislature agreed with the governor’s call for an overhaul of the state constitution, approving a series of amendments offered by State Senator Evan Stotsenburg, a Democrat from New Albany. The amendments incorporated a number of changes sought during Marshall’s term as governor. In addition, legislators passed along to voters a proposal for calling a constitutional convention (Hoosier voters overwhelmingly rejected such a convention during the 1914 election).

The most contentious issue facing Ralston’s administration came in October 1913, when the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, foiled in its attempt to unionize approximately eight hundred workers at the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company, called upon motormen and conductors at the firm to strike to win union recognition along with higher wages and better working conditions. The company responded by firing striking workers and bringing in strikebreakers in order to keep its operation running. Responding to growing violence and the inability of the local authorities to maintain order, Ralston called out the Indiana National Guard. 

On the afternoon of November 6, thousands of workers gathered on the south lawn of the Statehouse to protest the governor’s action. Ralston left his office and spoke to the crowd, expressing sympathy for “the men and women who toil,” but also called for an end to the violence and asked for the union’s aid in preventing any more damage or injuries. He then successfully brought the Traction firm and workers together to settle the strike.

Although Indiana voters in 1914 had rejected a call to celebrate the state’s centennial by appropriating two million dollars for the construction of a memorial building to house the state library and other historical agencies, Ralston requested, and the legislature approved, a $25,000 appropriation and the creation of a nine-member Indiana Historical Commission charged with promoting a centennial celebration. The IHC sponsored historical pageants in communities throughout the state and, thanks to the efforts of conservationist Richard Lieber and others, developed Indiana’s first state parks, McCormick’s Creek and Turkey Run. The emphasis on the nineteenth state’s past also sparked a general interest in Indiana history, with local historical societies formed or reactivated and the Indiana Historical Society seeing an influx of new members.

Leaving the governor’s office with the state having a surplus of approximately four million dollars, Ralston returned to the practice of law, teaming with Indianapolis attorney Frederick Van Nuys. In 1922, he received the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, going on to defeat a familiar opponent in Republican candidate Beveridge by approximately fifty thousand votes. As a senator, Ralston supported the paying of the bonus for World War I veterans and worked to reduce taxes.

At the July 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Ralston, with Taggart’s backing, came tantalizingly close to capturing the presidential nomination that ultimately went to New York lawyer and West Virginia native John W. Davis. Due to ill health, Ralston withdrew his name from consideration for the nomination. Ralston died at his estate, Hoosier Home, located northwest of Indianapolis on October 14, 1925. He was buried at the Lebanon Cemetery.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Riley and Poe: The Great Hoax

In the summer of 1877 John Oscar Henderson, editor of the Kokomo Dispatch newspaper, received a letter seeking a “curious favor” from him. The letter, written by an assistant editor at the Anderson Democrat stung at having his poetry rejected by eastern publishers, proposed that the two men combine forces to spring on an unsuspecting public a ruse designed to “stir things from the comatose condition.”

The young Anderson editor proposed that he would prepare a verse in the style of a popular, deceased American poet (Edgar Allan Poe was selected), and Henderson would print this new discovery in the columns of his newspaper. After having made his point that having a famous name attached to a work—and not its quality—assured its success, the young poet, with Henderson’s assistance, would announce his authorship to the public and “bu’st our literary balloon before a bewildered and enlightened world!!!”

Henderson, who just a month before had praised his correspondent as beyond a doubt the finest poet in the Hoosier State, eagerly agreed to carry out the plan, which he called “a capital one and . . . cunningly conceived.” He printed the poem, titled “Leonainie,” in the Dispatch’s Aug. 2, 1877 edition. At first the hoax seemed to be succeeding, with newspapers from New York to California announcing the discovery of a heretofore unknown Poe poem. Henderson wrote his accomplice that people in his community believed the poem was a “true bill” and that he had even been able to bamboozling his rivals at the Kokomo Tribune.

In spite of the scheme’s early success, however, newspapers caught on to the ruse and raised doubts as to the poem’s authenticity. On Aug. 25 the Tribune, eager to obtain revenge on its rival, exposed the hoax to the public. The Boston Evening Telegraph spoke for many when it wrote of the incident that if Poe had actually written the poem “it is a consolation to think that he is dead.”

Although the publicly apologized for the deception, the poem’s true author, James Whitcomb Riley, lost his job at the Democrat and endured scathing comments about his character in other newspapers in Indiana and around the country. “It was the most dismal period of my life,” Riley, a former sign, house, and ornamental painter, admitted years later. “My tinsel throne was crumbling. Friends stood aside—went round the other way.” 

Riley successfully recovered from this temporary setback to his promising career. He found work on another newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal. While on the Journal staff Riley won acclaim for his work, especially “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” part of a series he signed Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. The series was published in book form in 1883 as The Ole Swimmin’ Hole, and ’Eleven More Poems. Riley’s cast of characters—Old Aunt Mary, Little Orphant Annie, The Raggedy Man, Doc Sifers, and Uncle Sidney—along with his sentimental style, struck a chord with the reading public. Not bad for a man who disliked the “iron discipline of school life,” but enjoyed books, music, and writing poetry. For many years, his books were published by Indianapolis’s Bobbs-Merrill Company.

In addition to reaching the public through having his work published in newspapers and books, Riley worked hard to spread his fame, and help himself financially, through appearances on the lecture circuit with, among others, Edgar W. “Bill” Nye. The grind of life on the lecture circuit took its toll on the poet, who complained he was “clean, dead tired, and fagged out and sick of the whole Bohemian business.” From the summer of 1893 until his death in 1916, Riley found more congenial surroundings as the paying guest in Major Charles L. Holstein’s home, a two-story Italianate structure at 528 Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis.

Riley settled comfortably into the Holstein home. Katie Kindall, housekeeper during Riley’s residence, noted that the poet often wrote in bed as much as at a desk, always keeping paper and pencil close by in case an idea for a poem might come to mind. His advice to young writers, said Kindall, was to “use the rubber end of your pencil as much as the point. Write and rewrite.” The Holstein’s cook, Nannie Ewing, recalled that Riley often would come to the kitchen to thank her personally when he enjoyed a meal, especially when it included his favorites, pumpkin or sweet potato pie.

The Holstein home became a regular visiting place for Indiana schoolchildren and for famous figures such as perennial Socialist presidential candidate and labor organizer Eugene Debs, who enjoyed raising a glass of spirits with Riley whenever possible. The poet’s fame grew so great that his birthday was celebrated by students throughout the country. After his death, which came as he slept in his room in the Holstein residence on the evening of July 22, 1916, more than thirty-five thousand people filed past his casket as it lay in state under the dome at the Indiana State Capitol in Indianapolis.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What is a Hoosier?

On January 1, 1833, just seventeen years after Indiana had become the nineteenth state in the Union, the Indianapolis Journal printed in its “Carrier’s Address” as a New Year’s greeting to its readers a poem by John Finley of Richmond, Indiana. Finley’s poem, “The Hoosier’s Nest,” which praised the state and proclaimed that countless “men of every hue and fashion” were flocking to the “Hoosier nation,” received instant acclaim and was reprinted in numerous newspapers throughout the country and even internationally.

Since that first appearance in the Journal, the term “Hoosier” has become one of America’s most recognizable state nicknames—along with “Buckeyes” for those from Ohio, “Badgers” from Wisconsin, “Wolverines” from Michigan, and “Tarheels” for North Carolina residents.

Throughout its history, Indiana has been seen by many, noted Indiana historian and journalist John BartlowMartin, as “a bucolic place inhabited by pleasant, simple, neighborly folk.” It was a state where a radical thinker like Eugene Debs, Hoosier union organizer, writer, lecturer, and five-time presidential hopeful for the Socialist party, could maintain close friendships with some of the richest men in his hometown of Terre Haute.

This “Indiana idea,” as Martin called it, contains a “good deal of myth,” and also masks from view the less desirable aspects of the Hoosier character, including a time in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan under D.C. Stephenson controlled state government. Although the “Indiana idea” has undergone a metamorphosis, as rural and agriculture has been supplanted by urban and industrial, those ideas still have a powerful hold on the way in which Hoosiers view their past. “Like any myth,” Martin noted, “it has some truth in it.”

One question about the state always seems to linger in the back of the minds of visitors: “What is a Hoosier?” Since Finley’s poem popularized the term, speculation about the origin of Hoosier has run rampant. The late Indiana historian JacobPiatt Dunn Jr. conducted lengthy research into the history of the word. Dunn found out that Hoosier was used frequently in the South in the nineteenth century to refer to woodsmen or rough hill people. He traced the word back to “hoozer,” a term from the Cumberland dialect of England. Hoozer is from the Anglo-Saxon word “hoo,” meaning high or hill. In the Cumberland dialect, the word “hoozer” meant anything unusually large, like a hill. Descendants of English immigrants brought the name with them when they settled in the hill country of southern Indiana.

Other theories abound as to the origin of Hoosier, providing the following entertaining anecdotes:

  • When a visitor knocked on the door of a pioneer cabin in Indiana, the settler inside would respond, “Who’s yere?” This greeting marked Indiana as the “Who’s yere” or Hoosier state.
  • Indiana laborers along the Ohio River were so successful in trouncing or “hushing” their opponents in fights that they became known as “hushers” and eventually Hoosiers.
  • There once existed a contractor named Hoosier working on the Louisville and Portland Canal who hired most of his laborers from Indiana. Thereafter they were known as “Hoosier’s men.”
  • James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet,” said that the state’s early settlers were such enthusiastic and vicious fighters that during scuffles they would do anything to win, including biting off noses and ears. A settler coming into a tavern the morning after a fight would encounter missing appendages on the ground and ask, “Whose ear?”
  • Indiana author and diplomat Nicholson had perhaps the best response to the query “What is a Hoosier?” He noted that the “origin of the term ‘Hoosier’ is not known with certainty. But certain it is that . . . Hoosiers bear their nickname proudly.”

The puzzle about the meaning of Hoosier has stirred not only scholarly debate, but controversy as well. In 1987 the office of then U.S. Senator Dan Quayle engaged in a battle with Webster’s Third International Dictionary about its definition of the word. In its alternative meanings for Hoosier, the dictionary defined the noun form as “an awkward, unhandy or unskilled person, especially an ignorant rustic.” The verb form mean, the dictionary added, “to loaf on or botch a job.”

New York senator Alfonse D’Amato even used the dictionary’s uncomplimentary definition to predict defeat for Indiana University in its battle for the NCAA basketball championship against Syracuse University that year. (IU, thanks to guard Keith Smart’s timely last-second shot, prevailed, 74–73.)

Quayle’s press secretary, Peter M. Lincoln, struck back at Merriam-Webster, Inc., by threatening to remove the dictionary from the senator’s office unless the company changed its definition for Hoosier. Lincoln also invented a new word, “webster,” whose form meant “to mis-define a word stubbornly and outrageously. The people of Merriam-Webster are guilty of ‘webstering.’”

The search for the meaning of the word Hoosier continues. In 1995 William D. Piersen, Fisk University professor of history, in an article for the IndianaMagazine of History, theorized that the term Hoosier actually came from an itinerant African American minister named Harry Hoosier, a former slave called by one Methodist clergyman “one of the best Preachers in the world.” Accepting his theory, Piersen wrote, would “offer Indiana a plausible and worthy first Hoosier—‘Black Harry’ Hoosier—the greatest preacher of his day, a man who rejected slavery and stood up for morality and the common man.” Whatever the answer to the ubiquitous question “What is a Hoosier?”, the work of the state’s scholars, writers, politicians, artists, and other citizens is helping to weld a new “Indiana idea” for the twenty-first century.

Monday, March 30, 2015

April 4 Talk at Pendleton Library

On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy arrived in Indiana to campaign in the state's Democratic presidential primary. As Kennedy prepared to fly from an appearance in Muncie to Indianapolis, he learned that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot outside his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Before his plane landed in Indianapolis, Kennedy heard the news that King had died. Despite warnings from Indianapolis police that they could not guarantee his safety, and brushing off concerns from his own staff, Kennedy decided to proceed with plans to address an outdoor rally to be held in the heart of the city's African American community. On that cold and windy evening, Kennedy broke the news of King's death in an impassioned, extemporaneous speech on the need for compassion in the face of violence. It has proven to be one of the great speeches in American political history.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, April 4, at the Pendleton Community Public Library, 595 East Water Street, Pendleton, Indiana, I will give a talk explaining what brought the politician to Indiana that day, and explore the characters and events of the 1968 Indiana Democratic presidential primary in which Kennedy, who was an underdog, had a decisive victory. 

For more information, contact the library at (765) 777-7527. The talk will be free and open to the public and will be in the library's Community Room. In addition, copies of my book, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary, will be available for sale.

Friday, March 20, 2015

John Bartlow Martin Biography Published

During the 1940s and 1950s one name, John Bartlow Martin, dominated the pages of the "big slicks," mass-circulation magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. A former reporter for the Indianapolis Times who survived an often unsettling life in Indianapolis, Martin was one of but a few freelance writers in the country able to support himself from his work. His peers lauded him as "the best living reporter" and the "ablest crime reporter in America."

Martin's life as a freelance writer, plus his time as a speechwriter with every Democratic presidential candidate from Adlai Stevenson in 1952 to George McGovern in 1972, in explored in my new biography John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog, recently published by Indiana University Press.

What set Martin apart from his journalist contemporaries was his deep and abiding concern for the common man in twentieth-century America. "Most journalists," he noted, "make a living by interviewing the great. I made mine by interviewing the humble--what the Spaniards call los de abajo, those from below."

During his career Martin, posthumously inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1999, also produced a number of books based upon his magazine work, including a history of the Hoosier State (Indiana: An Interpretation, 1947) that historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the "best book on Indiana." Martin made his mark on American history not just with his writing skills, but also his political acumen. He served as a key speechwriter and adviser for the presidential campaigns of the prominent Democrats of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s--Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George McGovern.

As a result of his efforts on John Kennedy's behalf in the 1960 presidential contest, Martin received an appointment from the president as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a country Martin had visited as a young man. He worked tirelessly to support the Republic's first democratically elected government, but saw his hopes dashed by a military coup. Before his diplomatic service, Martin had earned a small measure of fame by helping write a speech for Newt Minow, the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, for a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters that introduced the phrase describing television--"a vast wasteland"--into the nation's consciousness.

The hardback, approximately 400-page book is available directly from IU Press or from Amazon and IndieBound.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Podcast for John Bartlow Martin Biography

On March 19 Indiana University Press will publish my book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog. You can learn more about the book and Martin's life and career by listening to a podcast I did with IU Press staff member Laura Baich.

In addition, Dan Carpenter, former columnist with the Indianapolis Star, did a story about the book for Sky Blue Window, an online magazine.