Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Father of Indiana History: John Brown Dillon

On August 8, 1838, readers of the Indiana Democrat in Indianapolis were greeted by a special correspondence from the northern Indiana community of Logansport, which had been originally printed in the Logansport Telegraph. The article, signed “A Visiter to the Lake,” reported on the sighting of a sixty-foot-long creature sliding through the once quiet waters of Lake Manitou, located near Rochester in what is now Fulton County.

The article quoted one eyewitness, who viewed the monster from the safety of the shoreline, as describing the beast’s head as “being about three feet across the frontal bone . . . but the neck tapering, and having the character of the serpent; color dingy, with large bright yellow spots.” The monster inhabiting what came to be celebrated as “Devil’s Lake” received attention nationwide, with reports on its existence published in Buffalo, Boston, and New York.

The man responsible for the Telegraph’s publication of this unlikely story was a person who, in all other respects, seemed to be the least likely to come up with such a whopper of a tale—John Brown Dillon, who became known as the “Father of Indiana History” for his much respected History of Indiana, which went through four editions between 1843 and 1859, and helped save future the state’s past for future generations through his work with a number of early Hoosier historical organizations. His writings won praise from Indiana historians who came after him, with one, Emma Lou Thornbrough, commending Dillon for being the “only person in the state in this period whose writings deserved to be called history by modern standards of historical scholarship.”

Details about Dillon’s early life are sketchy at best. Born sometime in 1808 in Wellsburg, Brooke County, in what is now West Virginia, Dillon and his family soon moved to Belmont County, Ohio. After the death of his father, nine-year-old Dillon was apprenticed to a printer in Charleston. At the age of seventeen Dillon moved to Cincinnati, where he displayed literary skill, having his poems published in several local newspapers. Sometime in his life Dillon had suffered a visual malformity, and always could be seen wearing dark-green eyeglasses equipped with side mirrors. A shy man, he never removed his eyeglasses, even among his friends.

By 1834 Dillon had settled in Logansport, where he studied law and was admitted to the Cass County bar in 1840. He never, however, established a law practice, preferring instead, noted his friend, fellow attorney Horace P. Biddle, to spend his time on “hoary border legends, traditional story, but more especially local history.” Dillon pursued these interests through a career in pioneer journalism, starting work as an editor for the Logansport Canal Telegraph in August 1834. A year later he purchased an interest in the newspaper, which, by 1836, had changed its name to the Logansport Telegraph.

Dillon’s work as a historian soon usurped his journalism career. He started his research on a history of Indiana in 1838, receiving assistance from U.S. Senator John Tipton, a close friend. Dillon left Logansport in 1842, moving to Indianapolis to pursue his historical studies and find funding for his history. Although he could rely on materials from the state library and private collections, Dillon lamented that “many interesting facts, connected with the early settlement of Indiana, have been perverted, or lost forever, because they were never recorded, and the stream of tradition seldom bears to the present, faithfully, the history of the past.” Still, his Historical Notes on the Discovery and Settlement of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio, appeared in 1843, and was followed sixteen years later by his History of Indiana. His posthumously published Oddities of Colonial Legislation in America came out in 1879. 

Fellow Hoosier historian George S.Cottman, founder of the Indiana Magazine of History, dubbed Dillon as the “Father of Indiana History” and praised him as the first in the state to enter the field “with any seriousness of purpose, and his contributions exceed in value any that have come after.” In his writing Dillon displayed “immense industry, unflagging perseverance and an ever-present purpose to find and state the truth,” said Cottman.

Dillon himself wrote that in his work he was striving to give an “impartial” recording of history. He noted in his preface to his History of Indiana that in writing the book he attempted to keep his mind free from such influences as “ambitious contentions between distinguished men, or from false traditions, or from national partialities and antipathies, or from excited conflicts between the partisans of antagonistic political systems, or from dissensions among uncharitable teachers of different creeds of religion.”

In 1845 the state legislature elected Dillon as state librarian, a post he held until 1851, when a Democratic legislature replaced him with Nathaniel Bolton. Dillon later served as, assistant secretary of state, secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and held a number of offices with the Indiana Historical Society, including secretary and librarian. He proved indefatigable at adding books and manuscripts to the Society’s early collection. In addition to state offices, Dillon served on a variety of Indianapolis governmental bodies, including being a member of the Marion County Library Board and a school trustee.

In 1862 Dillon left Indianapolis for Washington, D.C., where he received a position as clerk to the Department of the Interior, later moving to a job as clerk with the House Military Affairs Committee. Civic leaders in Indianapolis remembered Dillon’s contributions to the state, with noted attorney Calvin Fletcher calling upon the state legislature to bring the historian back to Indiana to write a history of the state’s contribution to the Civil War. Dillon finally returned to Indianapolis in 1875, living in a room at Johnson’s Building on Washington Street. He struggled to make a living, even having to sell his beloved library in order to make ends meet. Dillon died at age seventy-one and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Man Godfrey, Carole, and Me

Before the days of cable and the Internet, when there were only three major networks available for viewing, one of the few things on television that always sparked my interest was the perennial showing of old movies, usually on lazy Sunday afternoons. The films ranged from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meeting a host of monsters (Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man to name but a few) to the detective adventures of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. My favorites, however, were the sophisticated, and often hilarious, screwball comedies produced by Hollywood studios during the height of the Great Depression in the 1940s and early into the 1930s.

These films, which often matched the wits of dazzlingly daffy females with those of hapless males, featured the talents of such well know stars as Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Cable, and Claudette Colbert. Who hasn’t chortled over the budding romance between a spoiled heiress and a recently fired reporter in It Happened One Night (1934), the misunderstandings between a married couple in The Awful Truth (1937), the madcap search for a missing dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and the underhanded attempts of a newspaper editor attempting to lure his ex-wife back to her former job in His Girl Friday (1939)?

My favorite screwball comedy, however, involved an actress who became a fixture in this film genre: Carole Lombard of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1936 Lombard starred alongside her ex-husband William Powell (“the only intelligent actor I’ve ever met,” according to Lombard) in the Universal movie My Man Godfrey.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, the movie tells the story of Godfrey “Duke” Parke (Powell), a former Boston Brahmin who after a failed romance begins living at the city dump with victims of the depression. A scavenger hunt organized as part of a society fund-raiser for the underprivileged brings Parke—the proverbial forgotten man—in contact with Irene Bullock (Lombard), a young and scatterbrained member of an eccentric Park Avenue family who, upon their first meeting, charms him with such remarks as “You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody’s gone home.” Irene hires Godfrey as the family’s butler and eventually falls in love with her new “protégé.”

Of course, as often happens in screwball movies, Godfrey, representing the decency and forthrightness of the common man, teaches the wealthy family a thing or two about life and saves them from financial disaster. Godfrey, however, has a surprise or two waiting for him when Irene sweeps aside his reservations about romance and drags him to the altar.

A box-office hit at the time, the movie featured fine acting from not only its stars—both Lombard and Powell received Academy Award nominations for their performances—but also from its supporting cast. I still marvel at the fine comedic timing of Mischa Auer, who played Carlo, the piano-playing protégé of Irene’s mother, and Eugene Pallette, who portrayed the harried patriarch of the Bullock family. Not even a fine physical comedian such as Jim Carrey could hope to match Auer’s side-splitting imitation of a gorilla to amuse Irene during a (fake) crying spell.

Her role in My Man Godfrey reinforced Lombard’s developing image as the queen of the screwball comedy. Lombard, who had moved to California from Indiana with her mother and two brothers, had labored early in her acting career in minor roles in silent comedy films for Mack Sennett, had found in films such as Godfrey and 1937’s Nothing Sacred (famous for Lombard using her childhood boxing lessons to good form by punching co-star Fredric March) an outlet for her own often zany behavior, which included the ability to swear like a sailor when the opportunity called for it, a talent she learned from her brothers. She became America’s favorite screwball actress, both on the screen and off.

In addition to her film success, Lombard also found personal fulfillment with her marriage to screen idol Gable in 1939.  Nicknaming each other “Ma” and “Pa,” the couple enjoyed an idyllic life together on their twenty-acre ranch located in the San Fernando Valley. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lombard was finishing her last role, that of Maria Tura in the comedy To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny. Lombard and Gable immediately offered their services on behalf of the war effort to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Lombard who participated, with her mother alongside her, in a whirlwind bond drive back home in Indiana. On Jan. 16, 1942, the plane carrying Lombard and her mother back home to California crashed outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, killing everyone aboard.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Other Hoosier Poet

Upon awaking one day in May 1919 at his home at 958 Tecumseh Place near Woodruff Place in Indianapolis, a longtime feature reporter for the Indianapolis News trudged wearily to breakfast. Turning to his wife, Josephine, the journalist complained that he had no idea what to write about for that day’s issue. Unsure of what to do, he picked up his typewriter and traveled out of town, finally ending his sojourn in the countryside at Brandywine Creek in Greenfield, Indiana. At the creek he spied an older man fishing while sitting on a log. When the reporter commented on the area’s beauty, the fisherman responded, “I can’t complain, after all God’s been pretty good to Indiana, ain’t he?”

The offhand remark on this lonely stretch of water inspired the reporter, William Herschell, to write his masterpiece, “Ain’t God Good to Indiana?” The poem proved popular with not only with Hoosiers (the work is inscribed on a bronze plaque in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse), but with readers from around the country who clamored for copies. The demand grew so great that Herschell’s wife had to issue special printed facsimiles of the poem.

During his career at the News, which started in 1902 and ended with his death at age sixty-six in 1939, Herschell contributed countless poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. In addition, his World War I song “Long Boy” contributed the doughboy refrain, “Goodbye Ma! Goodbye Pa! Goodbye mule with your old heehaw!” to the nation’s vocabulary. Herschell, a close companion of famed Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, worked in a corner of the newspaper’s ninth floor that came to be known as the Idle Ward. Along with Herschell, other members of that delightful company included cartoonists Gaar Williams and Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard, creator of the renowned cracker-barrel philosopher Abe Martin. The three men were all quite productive when it came to producing copy and illustrations, but they seemed idle to other newspaper employees because they always seemed to be able to find time to discuss and gossip about the issues of the day.

Born in Spencer, Indiana, on November 17, 1873, Herschell was the eldest of six children born to Scottish immigrants John and Martha (Leitch) Herschell. Trained as a blacksmith in his native Scotland, John worked for the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad and later served as foreman for a quarry near Spencer that supplied limestone for the state capitol in Indianapolis. One of William’s earliest memories involved his father sitting by lamplight to recite to his family the poems of Robert Burns. John’s work with the Evansville, Rockport, and Eastern Railroad took him and his family to a succession of communities in southwestern Indiana, including Rockport, Evansville, Huntingburg, and Princeton.

Although at best an unfocused student, Herschell did display some of the writing talent he later used during his newspaper career. While in the Huntingburg school system he was falsely accused of running away with the teacher’s pet dog. An unabashed Herschell penned the following in reply: “Teacher says I stole his dog / But why should I steal Jim, / When teacher’s with me all day long / And I can look at him?” Herschell’s talent for thumbing his nose at the school’s authorities proved to be his undoing. As a seventh-grader, Herschell, already a solid supporter of the Republican Party, played hooky from school to carry in a political parade a banner that proclaimed, “A Vote for [Grover] Cleveland Means Souphouses.” The school’s principal found out about Herschell’s truancy—and political persuasion—and expelled him from school, noting, “Inasmuch as William Herschell had gone into politics he could not possibly wish further education.”

With the assistance of his father, Herschell found work as an apprentice railroad machinist. In 1894 when Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union told its members to refuse to handle Pullman cars in support of striking workers at the Pullman plants in Illinois, Herschell allied himself closely with the union cause. With the strike’s failure, Herschell found himself out of a job. Leaving the Hoosier State, Herschell toiled at a succession of jobs, including stints in Chicago, Buffalo, and Canada. Returning to the United States, he worked at an electric-light plant in North Tonawanda, New York. He eventually found his way back to his native state, where he worked as a night machinist for the Monon Railroad.

On a visit to his family in Princeton in 1896, Herschell met James McCormick, who just three years before had started the Princeton Evening News, an independent Republican Party daily. McCormick offered Herschell a job, telling him, “I’ll give you $9 a week, if you can get it.” Herschell did not discover what his editor had meant until the end of his first week at the newspaper. After everyone else on the paper had received his wages, there remained only $4.00 left for Herschell. Week after week there never seemed to be enough funds to pay Herschell his full salary. On one occasion, McCormick even had to borrow brown wrapping paper from a local butcher in order to publish his afternoon newspaper. An editorial dedicated the issue as “A Souvenir Edition to Our Creditors.” To supplement his meager income, Herschell served as the Princeton correspondent for several larger newspapers, including the Indianapolis News. Herschell sometimes used his money from other publications to buy enough newsprint for McCormick to print his paper.

Although McCormick and Herschell became close friends, the publisher did not stand in his protégé’s way when, in 1898, Herschell received a job offer from the Evansville Journal. Before Herschell left for his new duties, he found waiting for him in the newspaper’s editorial office a gold watch—a going-away present from McCormick. Later, Herschell dedicated his 1922 book Howdy All: And Other Care-Free Rhymes to McCormick, noting that the editor taught him it was “easier to swing a pencil than a hammer.” A year after starting at the Evansville newspaper, Herschell left to join the staff of the Indianapolis Press as a police reporter. With the folding of the Press after only sixteen months, Herschell moved to the Terre Haute Tribune. He returned to Indianapolis in 1902 for a position with the Indianapolis Journal.
 Herschell’s work at the Journal soon caught the attention of Dick Herrick, secretary to Indianapolis News editor Hilton U. Brown. Herrick told his boss that Herschell was “full of fun, can write rhymes and can make the dullest story read like a novel. He belongs here and ought to make a top feature man.” Taking his secretary’s advice, Brown hired Herschell in April 1902, beginning the reporter’s thirty-seven-year association with the newspaper. 

In his early years on the News, Herschell served as a police and court reporter and won the lasting respect of the Indianapolis police department. At slack times, members of the department and local media conducted mock trials at an old bicycle barn. Conducted by the newspapermen, these trials often concluded with the officers having to pay a cigar or two in fines. Herschell presided over the proceedings as judge. His wife, Josephine, who also worked at the News, noted that her husband acted like “a regular roughneck when he came home at night after hanging around the police station all day. But he changed a lot after he became a feature writer.” Josephine also noted that her husband used to jokingly scold a clock that he had been given as a boy, especially when he arrived home at a later time than he had told her to expect him. “We had a lovely life together,” she said.

In 1911 News editor Richard Smith, impressed with Herschell’s poetry, assigned him to write poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. Herschell’s poems about such staples of city life as policemen, firemen, street urchins, and other characters appeared in a series titled “Songs of the City Streets.” Later, his paeans to rural life were highlighted in the series “Ballads of the Byways.” A fellow News employee noted that Herschell was a true democrat, a friend to everyone from bank presidents to truckers, and a person who could “rub elbows with prominent men at some important banquet, and the next day revel in a picnic at [Indianapolis’s] Douglass park.” 

The poetry Herschell wrote for the newspaper was collected and published in a number of books during his lifetime, including Songs of the Streets and Byways (1915), The Kid Has Gone to the Colors and Other Verse (1917), The Smile Bringer and Other Bits of Cheer (1919), Meet the Folks (1924), and Hitch and Come In (1928). A posthumous collection, Song of the Morning and Other Poems, which was put together by his widow, appeared in 1940.

Known simply as Bill to his friends inside and outside the newspaper, Herschell won the esteem of readers through his simple verses, flavored as they were with the dialect style pioneered so successfully by Riley. “There was no dullness where he was and there were no dead lines in what he wrote,” Brown said of Herschell, who became well known for his laugh, described by Brown as a “musical roar” and which “preceded him wherever he appeared.” Profiling Herschell for a biographical pamphlet produced by the News in 1926, B. Wallace Lewis described Herschell as looking “more like the manager of a successful retail store than a poet. He is big, with the kind of bigness that goes clear through. A round head, hair trimmed close, joins to a massive trunk with a powerful neck. The hands that once wielded a machinist’s hammer are strong and grip yours as if they meant it.”

With America’s entry into World War I, the subject of Herschell’s writing began to turn more and more to wartime matters. He produced for the News such poems as “The Service Flag” and “The Kid Has Gone to the Colors.” His most successful effort, however, came after he spent time at Indianapolis’s Fort Benjamin Harrison, which then served as an officers’ training camp. Herschell became close friends with the camp’s commander, Major General Edwin F. Glenn. The two men often spent a part of each morning discussing news about the war and what was going on at the camp. During one meeting on May 18, 1917, Glenn asked Herschell to use his talents to write a war song. “These boys out here,” Glenn said, “are sick of singing about ‘Mother Dear’ and ‘Broken Hearts’ and ‘Gentle Eyes of Blue.’ Give us something that will keep down homesickness, the curse of an army camp.”

As he crossed the parade ground on his way to return to the office, Herschell spied a company of tall soldiers passing by, which gave him the inspiration to write about the army’s “long boys.” Driving back to downtown Indianapolis, he began to formulate the song’s words and sang them to News photographer Paul Schideler. Charles Dennis, who worked just a few desks down from Herschell at the newspaper, remembered the day the reporter came back from Fort Harrison to work on the song “with pursed lips and corrugated brow, his blue eyes in a fine frenzy rolling.” After seeing Herschell finish his writing, Dennis slipped into a chair next to the poet to view and hear the final result. “As he voiced the verses the workers in this hive of industry gathered about him,” said Dennis. “Other workers from various parts of the building came in. He was obliged to sing it over and over again and though his throat became raw and raucous he kept his good humor through seventeen recalls, and the curtain went down amid the most appreciative applause.”

The next day, Herschell submitted his work, titled “Long Boy,” for Glenn’s review. The general took an immediate liking to the song, especially the chorus line “I may not know what th’ war’s about, / But you bet, by gosh, I’ll soon find out.” Several members of Glenn’s staff also expressed their satisfaction with the song, and the general asked Herschell to find someone to set the words to music so his troops could sing it on parade. Herschell responded by turning the lyrics over to Bradley Walker, an Indianapolis composer, who produced the music for the song. Just a week later, the troops at Fort Harrison sang “Long Boy” as they passed in review before Ohio governor James M. Cox. The song became an instant success, selling more than a million copies. Wabash College honored Herschell for his war verse by awarding him an honorary degree.

Herschell died on December 2, 1939, at his Indianapolis home. His last words to his wife were: “I’ll whip it yet, Jo.” Reminiscing about Herschell’s life, the newspaper he served for so many years said that he had been a part of Indianapolis as much as the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument. “He loved writing,” said the News, “he loved to compose his sincere verse, but most of all he loved people. Otherwise he could not have written so inspiringly of their lives.”