Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Elihu Stout and Indiana's First Newspaper

William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, found himself in a quandary in the winter of 1803. Responsible for administering land stretching westward from the Ohio border to the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River to the Canadian border, Harrison had to ensure that the far-flung inhabitants of this region were aware of the work done by the territorial legislature in Vincennes.

Toward that end, he sought a printer to publish the laws passed by the legislature. There was one problem: there were, at that time, no printers in business in the Indiana Territory. Instead, Harrison received permission from President James Madison to use the services of a Kentucky printer (William Bradford) to publish the territorial laws.

By the summer of 1804, however, Harrison could use the expertise of an Indiana printer who had been trained in Bradford's Lexington, Kentucky, shop: Elihu Stout had come to Vincennes. Purchasing a press and type in Frankfort, Kentucky, Stout arranged for a small craft to ship his equipment via the Kentucky River to Vincennes. Once his equipment had safely arrived in the territorial capital, Stout went to work.

From his small house located on First and Buntin Streets, he issued copies of the first newspaper in the territory, the Indiana Gazette, which were emblazoned with a quotation from Thomas Paine: "Independence is my happiness, and I relate things as they are, without respect to place or persons." Over the next forty-one years, until he sold his operation to John R. Jones in 1845, Stout and his newspaper served as the chief--for many years the only--means of information for the Vincennes community. The editor and his creation were "in the thick of the beginnings of Indiana," helping, as much as Harrison and other leaders, to mold the wild frontier into the nineteenth state.

Termed by a contemporary, Judge John Law, as the "'Nestor'" of the Western press," Stout was born in Newark, New Jersey, on  April 16, 1782, to Polly and Jediah Stout, a Revolutionary War veteran. When he was ten years old, Stout and his parents moved from the East Coast to the new lands in the West, eventually settling in Lexington, Kentucky. Four years later, Stout became an apprentice printer in a shop owned by Bradford, publisher of the Kentucky Gazette. As a young apprentice, Stout went through a painful initiation into the printing world. As the low man on the totem pole, apprentices were expected to run errands for the shop owner and his family, sweep the shop, keep the fires kindled, wash type, carry water for cleaning and wetting paper, and other onerous tasks.

By the time Stout finished his apprenticeship at age twenty-one, he was eager to start a newspaper of his own. Looking for opportunities wherever he could find them, Stout, in the spring of 1803, visited Vincennes. Situated on the east bank of the Wabash River, the town seemed to offer little inducement for a young entrepreneur such as Stout. According to the 1801 census, there were 714 people living in Vincennes, with another 819 residing in the surrounding area. 

There were powerful inducements, however, luring Stout to settle in Vincennes. Legend has it that Harrison promised to name Stout as the territory's printer, which would have provided the New Jersey native with a ready source of income for printing both the laws of the Indiana Territory and those enacted by Congress, if he established a newspaper in Vincennes. The governor was anxious to have a newspaper in the territory not only to publicize the government's actions, but also as a means of helping to bring together the diverse peoples whom lived in the region.

In Stout, Harrison had found a kindred spirit. Both men were proslavery, suspicious of British intentions in the region (and upset over the seizing of American sailors on the high seas by English sea captains), and concerned about possible hostilities of Native Americans. These close ties to the territorial governor hurt Stout later in his career when Indiana became a state and the Harrison faction fell from power.

For the newspaper publisher Vincennes offered him the opportunity to manage his own newspaper without competition. After he had decided upon a community in which to locate his print shop, however, Stout's real troubles began; that is, buying and transporting the necessary equipment to his new home in the Indiana Territory. With financial assistance from his father (Stout borrowed more than $2,500 from Jediah Stout over the years), in the spring of 1804 the young editor bought a wooden printing press in Frankfort, Kentucky, and had it shipped down the Ohio River and up the Wabash River to Vincennes, a trip that took three months.    
The first issues of Stout's Indiana Gazette appeared on July 31, 1804. In the second issue, dated August 7, 1804, the publisher outlined the principles governing his new venture. The newspaper would strive to collect and publish "such information as will give a correct account of the productions and natural advantages of the Territory," along with the latest foreign and domestic news. Stout proclaimed that the "political complexion of the paper shall be truly Republican; but it shall never be prostituted to party." Indeed, he welcomed essays of "any political complexion," but also warned that the columns of the Gazette "shall never be tarnished with matte that can offend the eye of decency, or raise a blush upon the cheek of modesty and virtue."

Subscriptions to the weekly newspaper, issued on a single sheet, were available at $2.50 per year. If the paper had to be mailed to the subscriber, the subscriber had to pay the postage. In lieu of cash, which was hard to come by on the frontier, Stout instead accepted as payment such items as beef, port, bacon, corn, cotton, whiskey, wheat, sugar, potatoes, butter, eggs, tobacco, salt, flour, tallow, and oats--all of which were standard articles of barter in the pioneer economy.

Stout barely had been publishing his newspaper for two years when in April 1806 a fire swept through the newspaper office and destroyed its press. Undaunted by this setback, the editor traveled back to Kentucky to purchase a new press and, on  July 11, 1807, Stout was back in business with a newspaper he renamed the Western Sun, which featured on its masthead a majestic sun rising over a mountain range. The new publication also contained in each issue a quote from Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, which read: "Each century has its peculiar mode of doing business and men guided more by custom than by reason follow without enquiry, the manners which are the prevalent in their own time."

Along with the danger of fire and other natural catastrophes, there were numerous problems besetting anyone foolhardy enough to attempt to publish a newspaper on the frontier during the early nineteenth century. "The first problem of the printer," noted one Indiana newspaper historian, "was to get paper, the second to get news, and the third to get paid." Securing the necessary paper for printing a newspaper proved to be a difficult task for Stout. Until 1826, when one was opened north of Madison, there were no paper mills in Indiana. Instead of a local supplier, Stout had to rely on paper from a mill in Georgetown, Kentucky, which he transported by pack horse via the Buffalo Trace, a rough path leading from the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville to Vincennes. Often the publisher had to secure paper supplies from as far away as Pittsburgh and as close as other merchants in Vincennes in order to keep his press running. There were times, however, when paper stocks were so low that Stout had to reduce the size of his newspaper or even suspend publication for a time.

As the territorial government's official printer, Stout had a ready supply of news for his readers. The Vincennes newspaper's front page was dominated by new laws of the United States, land treaties signed between the young American government and various Native American tribes in the territory, and official correspondence from Governor Harrison's office. All of these items were related to the reader in their full, without the news analysis that is commonplace today--a boon to politicians wanting to communicate their ideas directly to their constituents.

National and international news dominated the pages of the Sun. In fact, as one scholar of the pioneer press noted, the "more exotic the location, the more news value an item seemed to possess in the minds of pioneer editors." To relay this information to his readers, Stout had to rely on the vagaries of America's early postal system. With the Vincennes mail dependent upon deliveries from Lexington, Kentucky, and Pittsburgh, Stout had to contend with the distinct possibility of printing information weeks or perhaps months out of date. Everything from bad weather to incompetent post riders, who sometimes prepared for their journeys with liberal doses of alcohol, could halt the flow of news.

The Sun's editor often had to apologize for the lack of news on important subjects due to receiving no mail for that week. In an item to his subscribers in the 31 December 1808 issue, Stout blasted the post rider for his negligence: "We say negligence; because he pretends, (and surely it is nothing more than pretence) that he [the post rider] could not cross the White river, altho' report says that some one concerned in the ferry gave him a certificate that the attempt would be hazardous;--and yet the river has been constantly crossed and re-crossed without danger; and several gentlemen left this place and proceeded to Louisville within a few hours of the return of the post-rider."

As publisher, editor, typesetter, and sometimes even carrier for his newspaper, Stout did not have the luxury of turning to a newsroom of trained reporters ready at a moment's notice to scour the countryside to unearth articles for the weekly edition. In a community that small, any local news would already have been thoroughly discussed by the time Stout could have published it in the Sun. But sometimes the Vincennes editor did find the time to cover and print local news.

One issue of importance to the territory's residents was unrest inspired by Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, also known as "The Prophet," over recent land treaties negotiated by various Native American tribes with Harrison. By using reports conveyed to him by officials involved in negotiations, Stout was able to keep his readers abreast of the latest developments. He also, when possible, did some reporting himself. In the Sun's August 25, 1810, issue for example, Stout offered a lengthy and even-handed report on the council held in Vincennes between Harrison and Tecumseh. Although offering a fair review of both the governor's and the Indian leader's views, Stout, at the end of the article, inserted his view (probably shared by Harrison) that the "confederacy which has been formed by the Prophet, was the effect of British intrigue."

Once Stout had both adequate paper supplies and fresh news from the mails, he faced yet another hurdle--obtaining payment from subscribers. This difficulty is apparent upon checking the Sun's first column on the front page. Prominently displayed in the upper left-hand corner of each issue is an announcement listing subscription costs and the terms whereby advertisements would be accepted. Stout concludes this list with the frugal note that all letters to the editor had to be postpaid. Year after year the editor pleaded with his readers to pay what was owed him. In 1809 Stout recollected in his newspaper the old adage, "and he thinks it cannot be applied to him--'he is a cross dog that bites before he barks' as he has been growling and barking at some of his subscribers for a long time." 

Stout, of course, as printer for the territory, had a regular source of income for a number of years. Still, the expenses involved in running a newspaper--and his frequent forays into land speculation--often left Stout short of money. In an 1823 letter to his brother, who had promised him some funds, Stout urged him to act "speedily" in obtaining whatever he might have for him, either specie or paper money. "I may be pushed," wrote Stout, "and for want of it [money] ruined."

To help keep his printing business solvent, Stout printed and offered for sale such books as The Laws of the Indiana Territory and The Real Principles of Roman Catholics, and did other printing work--handbills, circulars, letters, blanks, etc.--needed by the community. Notices were also solicited for his newspaper that offered everything from goods for sale at Vincennes firms such as Jones and Dubois to warnings from jilted husbands that they would no longer honor the debts contracted by their wayward wives.

Along with complaining to his brother about his shortage of funds, Stout also related that he himself was "not hearty, but am compelled to work hard." Although he took on a number of partners over the years, Stout always seemed to be in need of additional help to publish his newspaper. He often ran a notice on the Sun's front page seeking a boy between the ages of fourteen and sixteen to learn the printing business at his office as an apprentice. Stout's experience with one apprentice, Solomon Smith, highlights the difficulties businessmen in the territory experienced in retaining employees.

Smith, who yearned to be an actor, had run away from his Albany, New York, home in 1815 at age fourteen. He journeyed west to seek his fortune and eventually ended up in Vincennes, taking an apprentice position with Stout in 1817. Reminiscing about his days on the Sun, Smith recalled that as "a master he [Stout] was kind and indulgent; as a husband, he was forbearing; as a father, affectionate, and as a man he was almost perfect." Smith, however, failed to have the same warm thoughts for Mrs. Stout (Lucy Sullivan). "This lady had been 'brought up' in Kentucky," he noted, "and having been in the habit of commanding slaves, and the laws of Indiana not permitting her to own any of these convenient appendages to a household, she made use of her husband's apprentices in place of them."

By the time Smith had signed on as an apprentice, Stout's Sun was no longer the only newspaper in Vincennes. On  March 14, 1817, Samuel Dillworth and Charles Keemle started the Indiana Centinel, which supported Governor Jonathan Jennings. Party spirit ran so high between the two papers that one night Mrs. Stout, according to Smith, became so upset with a Centinel editor (a Doctor Elias McNamee) she grabbed "two large horse pistols, concealed a cow-hide in her sleeve, and thus equipped, commanded me to arm myself and follow her to see fair play while she inflicted summary chastisement on the doctor!" With more than a little difficulty, Smith persuaded Mrs. Stout to "'let the doctor off,' and not until I had promised to blaze away at him in the next 'Sun.'"

Although he eventually became foreman of the newspaper, Smith, after just two years of work for Stout, grew tired of the town and ran away with another apprentice in the middle of the night to Nashville, Tennessee, in hopes of joining a theatrical group there. Both men ran for a considerable distance upon fleeing Vincennes, fearing, Smith recalled, that Mrs. Stout would follow and drag them back to their jobs. By 1839 Stout's son Henry was old enough to join the business, finally offering his father someone he could depend upon.

Along with printing his newspaper, Stout involved himself in other areas of the community's life. He was a charter member of the Vincennes Library Association, helped found the Vincennes Theatrical Association, and was a devoted Mason, rising to the rank of grand master of Indiana in 1827. In 1845 President James K. Polk named Stout as the postmaster for Vincennes. That same year, the longtime editor sold the Sun, ending forty-one years in the newspaper business.

After selling his business, Stout kept active by serving as Knox County's recorder of deeds from 1850 until 1860 and also as clerk of the board of trustees of the borough of Vincennes. On June 22, 1860, at the age of seventy-eight, Stout died. According to a relative, Stout's death was very sudden and "hastened by the troubles in the Democratic Party in 1860, which he believed would result in the dissolution of the Union or a long and bloody war."

Monday, July 29, 2019

Ernie Pyle and Captain Waskow

In December 1943 war correspondent Ernie Pyle, columnist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate, returned to the safety of the rear lines after several days at the front in Italy. He had been with the men of the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division as they had battled German troops on the advance to capture Rome. While with the American GIs, Pyle had gathered material about the fighting on Mount Sammucro, also called Hill 2105.

The action had been intense. The mountain’s slopes had been so steep that soldiers had to use mules to carry supplies up the hill and dead and wounded men down. Pyle would have plenty to tell the readers of his nationally known column about the soldiers he loved best—the infantry, those he once described as the “mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys,” who, in the end, were the “guys wars can’t be won without.”

Safe at the headquarters of General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army at Caserta, located north of Naples, Pyle shared a room with two other civilian correspondents, Reynolds Packard of United Press and Clark Lee of the International News Service. There Pyle tried to write about the tough fighting being waged on the Italian front.

The Mediterranean country’s hilly terrain, mixed with the cold, wet winter weather, had made conditions very difficult for American soldiers. “The country was shockingly beautiful,” Pyle told his readers, “and just as shockingly hard to capture from the enemy.” The Germans held on stubbornly to their positions and American forces gained only a yard or foot at a time. The opposing armies were so close together that they sometimes threw rocks at each other. The bloodshed he had witnessed, in addition to the frigid temperatures he endured, had depressed Pyle. He wrote his wife Jerry that he had seen “too many dead men, and wounded and exhausted ones, for the good of the soul.”

Pyle’s bad mood may have contributed to a crisis in confidence about his writing. Don Whitehead, an Associated Press reporter who had known Pyle since North Africa, remembered coming back from the front one evening to find his friend worried about three columns he had recently finished, but not yet sent to his editor, Lee Miller, at Scripps-Howard. “I’ve lost the touch,” Whitehead quoted Pyle as saying. “This stuff stinks. I feel stale and just can’t seem to get going again.”

Pyle tossed Whitehead the columns and asked him to read them and offer his opinion. The first column Whitehead picked up involved the death of a Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas. Waskow had served as commander of Company B of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, Thirty-sixth Infantry Division. He had been killed near San Pietro on December 14, 1943, while battling against German forces in the mountains outside of Rome.

The men under his command had nothing but praise for the officer who led them into combat. His troops considered Waskow a fair man, and some looked up to him as though he were their father. “He always looked after us,” said one of his men. “He’d go to bat for us every time.” His concern for his men might have cost Waskow his life. Hearing the approach of an incoming German shell, the captain had pushed his messenger, Private Riley Tidwell, to the ground. Fragments from the shell hit Waskow in the chest, killing him.

Pyle stood at the foot of the mule trail when Waskow’s body came down from the mountain. “Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules,” he wrote. As Waskow’s body lay in the road alongside four other soldiers who had been killed, his men began to move closer to his body. “Not so much to look, I think,” said Pyle, “as to say something in finality to him and to themselves.”

As Pyle stood close by to the side, he could hear the various reactions of the men as they paid their respects. Some of the soldiers were so upset all they could do was curse. Others spoke directly to Waskow and said how sorry they were about his death. Another man held the officer’s hand for five minutes without saying a word. Finally, the soldier “reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound,” Pyle wrote, “and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.”

Whitehead had tears in his eyes when he finished reading the column. “If this is a sample from a guy who has lost his touch,” he said to Pyle, “then the rest of us had better go home.” He showed the column to other war correspondents who agreed it stood as one of the finest Pyle had ever done. “This was the kind of writing all of us were striving for,” Whitehead noted, “the picture we were trying to paint in words for the people at home.”

Pyle’s column, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” did not appear in the United States until January 10, 1944, after the soldier’s family had been notified of his death. The reporter’s sincere description of the effect that the loss of a comrade had on a group of GIs touched readers everywhere. The soldier responsible for reading Pyle’s column over short-wave radio from Italy to the United States so it could be published was so moved that he had to fight back tears as he read the words into the microphone.

Miller wrote Pyle on January 14 that the Waskow column had “knocked everybody for a loop.” The Washington Daily News devoted its entire front page to the story, printing it five columns wide with no headline. The issue nearly sold out, with only thirty-nine copies returned to the paper from newsstands. Most of the newspapers in the Scripps-Howard chain had printed the column on their front pages, and a number of other papers across the country had also given the article page-one treatment. “In short,” said Miller, “nice going, bub.”

The Crime Writer and the Convict

With his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and mild manner, John Bartlow Martin looked more like a schoolteacher or a laboratory technician than a nationally known freelance writer, touted by his peers as “the ablest crime reporter in America.” He believed more in hard work than in talent, once commenting, “Hell, I’m just a reporter.” 

The Indiana-raised Martin had honed his observational skills as a gritty police, city hall, and rewrite reporter on the Indianapolis Times in the late 1930s. He escaped the endless grind of newspaper work and left Indianapolis for Chicago and a career as a freelancer, earning his living writing stories for such sensationalistic true-crime magazines as Official Detective Stories and Actual Detective Stories for Women in Crime.

Although he never consciously set out to specialize in crime, Martin developed a fascination with the subject and attempted to treat cases with the seriousness they deserved. “Unlike some fact detective writers, I visited the scene of the crime and did other legwork so as to make my descriptive passages convincing,” Martin recalled. “I tried to get some of the flavor of Chicago itself into the stories, sometimes using Chicago dialect in the dialogue and the grim Chicago humor.” Crime became almost an obsession for him, and he went out of his way to “get mixed up in it,” including once, while on vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, tagging along with a sheriff and his posse searching for a convict who had escaped from prison.

Investigating criminal cases offered Martin an opportunity to write about people in crisis and their problems. Crimes, he discovered, did not happen by blind chance—something caused them. “Sometimes the matrix is social, sometimes psychological, most often both,” he said. “Writing about an individual criminal case, then, offers also an opportunity to write about a whole society. Crime in context.” As a freelance journalist, Martin examined the senseless slaying of a nurse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by three juveniles; the revenge killing of a crooked landlord by a distraught father who lost his children in a Chicago tenement fire; and the strange and dangerous life of an informant.  

Martin’s stories repeatedly garnered him the magazine industry’s highest honor at the time, the Benjamin Franklin Award, sponsored by the University of Illinois’s School of Journalism and the Society of Magazine Writers. His nonfiction focus on criminals and their effect on society predated the literary nonfiction work of such famous authors as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. “I am basically a serious person,” Martin told a reporter in 1960. “I don’t like to do frivolous stories.” 

Nothing, however, attracted as much attention, and involved him so deeply into a case, as when Martin interviewed and told the story of one of America’s most notorious killers—nineteen-year-old Nathan F. Leopold Jr., whose case with his partner, eighteen-year-old Richard Loeb, later inspired a host of fictional representations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948). Martin wrote a multipart series on Leopold’s more than three decades in prison and later joined other literary luminaries, including Carl Sandburg, to advocate for the convict’s parole.

Martin told Leopold’s story of life behind bars for one of the country’s most popular magazines. In the 1940s and 1950s Martin had progressed from having his work in cheap true-crime magazines to being frequently featured in the “big slicks,” mass-circulation magazines printed on glossy paper. He formed a particularly close relationship with the editors at the Saturday Evening Post, owned and operated by the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

With a legacy stretching back to the days of Benjamin Franklin, the weekly Post had become a mainstay in middle-class American homes through the steady hand of its longtime editor, George Horace Lorimer, the son of a Boston minister, who set out, noted staff member Wesley Stout, to “interpret America to itself, always readably, but constructively.” He succeeded; from 1899 to 1936 the magazine’s yearly circulation increased from two thousand to more than three million. Lorimer discovered artist Norman Rockwell, whose idealized drawings of American family life were featured on more than 300 of the magazine’s covers. The Post also published fiction from such notable writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, C. S. Forester, John P. Marquand, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck. According to Martin, the magazine “was, in a few words, not unlike the network television that took away its audience—both frothy and serious.”

By the 1940s, with Lorimer gone, the Post had begun to depend less on fiction and more on nonfiction to satisfy it readers—a perfect situation for a writer such as Martin, as the magazine’s audience, as he described it, included “people that enjoyed westerns, mysteries, love stories, humor, sports, heavy fact, and everything else.”

That everything else included having Martin skillfully tackling such controversial subjects as segregation in the South, divorce, abortion, mental illness, and prison reform. “In publishing some of these stories,” he noted, “the Post showed considerable courage.” (For example, at the time Martin wrote about abortion it was illegal in every state and was “never mentioned in polite society; the newspaper still called it ‘illegal surgery,’ not abortion.”) Martin transcended the conventions of the fact-detective magazine genre in his crime articles for the Post, working to achieve his goal of placing each case in its social context. He avoided “the artifices, the false suspense and phony emotion,” of typical reporting about crime, and tried to preserve “the narrative value of the stories rather than transforming them into dry case histories.” What remained were powerful stories that eschewed any contrived suspense for “the suspense of fine inevitability,” he noted, the type of suspense felt by those attending prizefights.

In his work for the Post, Martin earned a deserved reputation as a meticulous collector of facts (one of his friends described Martin as “fact obsessed”) upon which to base his stories. “I spend at least as much time doing leg work as I do in writing,” he said. “Probably a great deal more. But I’ve a belief that the important thing in a piece is the cumulative impact of the facts themselves.” 

Although he never had any illusions about being “a Sir Galahad of the downtrodden,” and did not consider himself to be an investigative reporter out to right wrongs, sometimes Martin became personally involved in the stories he researched. In one case the friendships he had developed while living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, placed him squarely in the middle of a case that had been one of the biggest news stories of the 1920s—the “thrill murder” on May 21, 1924, in Chicago of fourteen-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks by Leopold and Loeb, two young men from wealthy German-Jewish families and who had become friends while at the University of Chicago. Leopold and Loeb had kidnapped Franks as he walked home from school, bludgeoned him to death in a car (each blamed the other for the actual killing), stripped off his clothes, poured acid on his face and genitals to delay identification of the body, and dumped his body in a culvert. They also attempted to extort $10,000 in ransom from Franks’ father, informing him his son was still alive.
Local newspapers were quick to push the narrative that “some of the police and some persons close to the family believe the boy was the victim of a degenerate who sought to cloak his act and the boy’s presumedly [sic] accidental death by the demands for money.” (Franks, however, had not been sexually assaulted.) Before any deal could be struck, however, police discovered Leopold’s unique prescription eyeglasses near Franks’ body, and the duo were questioned, arrested, and charged with kidnapping and murder. Robert E. Crowe, the Cook County state attorney who prosecuted Leopold and Loeb, called the crime “the most cruel, cowardly, dastardly murder ever committed in the annals of American jurisprudence.”

Leopold and Loeb confessed to the crime and received a spirited defense at their sentencing from their attorney, Clarence Darrow, who sought mercy for his clients from Judge John Caverly. The defense employed psychiatrists who testified that Leopold and Loeb were troubled young men who had developed a unhealthy attraction to one another, with Leopold agreeing to participate in a variety of criminal schemes with Loeb in exchange for sex. (Caverly had women removed from the courtroom and had one of the psychiatrists whisper his testimony about Leopold and Loeb’s sexual acts into his ear so  reporters could not learn of the details, which only inflamed public belief  that the duo were sexual perverts.)

The judge decided against imposing the death sentence on the duo, instead giving them ninety-nine-year sentences for kidnapping and life sentences for  murder. “The court believes,” Caverly said, “that it is within his province to decline to impose the sentence of death on persons who are not of full age. This determination appears to be in accordance with the progress of criminal law all over the world and with the dictates of enlightened humanity.” Still, the judge also urged that the state “never to admit these defendants to parole. . . . If this course is preserved in the punishment of these defendants it will satisfy the ends of justice and safeguard the interests of society.” 

Leopold and Loeb were taken to Joliet, Illinois, and locked up in the maximum security Old Prison, described as a “hell hole” by its inmates (they later both ended up at the nearby Stateville facility, a branch, like the Old Prison, of the Illinois State Penitentary). In 1936 Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate at Stateville, but Leopold, nineteen when incarcerated, survived and continually attempted to win parole. 

In 1955, two years after a parole board had denied his request for release, Martin wrote a four-part series on Leopold’s years behind bars for the Post titled “Murder on His Conscience.” Martin said he had been inspired to write about Leopold because he wanted the answers to such questions as: “What happens to an intelligent man during thirty years in prison? How has Leopold spent his time? What has prison done to him? And what are his chances of ever leaving prison alive?” Although Leopold had committed a “terrible crime,” and Martin learned that he could be a “cold and forbidding character,” he remained to the journalist a human being, someone who “had to survive in prison, not an easy thing—brutal guards, dehumanized convicts, deadly deadly deadly monotony. And always the struggle to submerge himself in the vast mass of inmates, something he, being the famous Nathan Leopold, could never do.”

Martin drove from his Highland Park home to Stateville prison in late April 1954 to ask Leopold face to face “how he’d feel about my doing a serious piece or pieces about him.” It was not the first time the freelancer had been to the facility. Three years before he had written a three-part series on the Illinois State Penitentiary for the Post under the title “America’s Toughest Prison.” Although Stateville was far and away preferred by inmates over the Old Prison, it still was a place devoid of hope. “We deal with complete failures,” warden Joseph E. Ragen told Martin. “This is the end of the road.” Leopold had been mentioned in one of the articles about the prison, as Martin observed him teaching a Great Books course to inmates that discussed Machiavelli’s The Prince. Martin had also gotten to Ragen well, describing him as “a stern man and a just one. He is prison wise. He knows inmates as few men do. He has tried to help them as well as keep them.” The warden proved invaluable in allowing Martin access to Leopold, allowing him the privacy he needed when interviewing the inmate, including not having any guards present during their nearly two weeks together.

During his initial meeting with Leopold, Martin said that the inmate listened to him without expression as he outlined what he planned to do. “Then in his precise pedantic voice, he said he wanted to consult his lawyers, his brother, other advisers,” Martin recalled. About May 10 Martin received a telephone call from Ralph Newman, the proprietor of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago and a close friend of Leopold’s brother, Mike, who had died in 1953. Newman said he represented Leopold and asked for a meeting. They met on May 13 and Newman told Martin that publishers had expressed interest in having Leopold write his autobiography, and novelist Meyer Levin wanted to do a fictionalized version of the notorious crime. Levin had met with the inmate at Stateville and, to his “surprise and discomfiture,” found that Leopold kept their talk away from matters related to his crime, indicating he did not want to jeopardize his chances at parole. Instead, Leopold concentrated on the financial aspects of any publishing deal, said Levin, including “percentages, film rights and syndication.”

Newman asked in his meeting with Martin if he intended to do a third-person article (and perhaps a book) under his byline, or whether he might want to do a first-person story under Leopold’s name. In either case, Leopold wanted compensation. Martin’s instinct had him preferring to write in the third person, as it had the advantage for Leopold that if it should ever become necessary to repudiate anything in the article, he could do so. If the Post, however, wanted a first-person account, Martin would be willing to collaborate with Leopold on one. “I said that as to money,” Martin wrote in a memo to Stuart Rose, a Post editor, “I would not give him [Leopold] any because I cannot afford to split story checks; therefore any money would have to come from the Post; and I said I didn’t know whether you’d want this badly enough to pay him anything or not. Newman asked me to find out and I said I’d prefer to talk first with either a member of the Leopold family or the family lawyer.”

On May 21 Newman arranged a meeting with Martin and two other men—William Friedman, the Leopold’s family lawyer, and A. G. Ballenger, Morris Paper Mills vice president and trustee of a fund established for Leopold by his father. The men discussed the possibilities before them, and Friedman, Ballenger, and Newman said they preferred a third-person story, which would leave Newman free to try and find a publisher for Leopold’s autobiography (released in 1958 as Life Plus 99 Years, which sold approximately 20,000 copies). “As for money, they repeated that Leopold wanted money,” Martin recalled. “They said he had none except his trust fund, which he can’t touch while in prison.” When asked by Martin why Leopold wanted to be paid, as he did not need it while incarcerated, Newman said that as “much as the money itself Leopold wanted the satisfaction of having earned some money.” Martin informed them that if any funds went to Leopold, the money had to come from the Post and the advisers should negotiate directly with the magazine on such matters, not with him.

Martin also met with Levin, who had been working on his novel since the previous fall, and the two men reached an understanding, with Martin indicating “that since his book was a novel and was based on Leopold’s early life, and since my piece was fact and was about Leopold’s prison life—his would end where mine began—I saw no conflict between the two.” Levin told Martin he had considered giving up his novel to help Leopold with his autobiography, and Martin said it was up to the inmate’s family to choose a collaborator, if any, for him. Levin published his book, Compulsion, to critical and popular acclaim in 1956, selling more than a hundred thousand copies, winning a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and having it turned into a play and film. (Leopold eventually sued Levin and those involved in the book and movie for unjustly appropriating his “name, likeness, and personality for profit,” seeking $2.97 million in damages. In 1970 the Illinois Supreme Court rejected Leopold’s claims.)

Leopold finally agreed to cooperate with Martin without direct compensation from the Post, but the inmate would get half of the sale of any subsidiary rights and had “absolute veto over factual errors,” Martin noted, as well as the ability to object to matters of interpretation. “He and his advisers concluded that he would cooperate with me because they thought I knew something about prisons and crime,” Martin continued. Leopold’s advisers, in addition to being men of substance in Chicago, presented special problems for Martin, as some of them were “friends of ours who belonged to the Jewish community of Highland Park. We saw them at dinner parties, some were involved in Fran’s ACLU or in liberal Democratic affairs . . . some had grown up with Leopold himself, and their parents had been friends of his parents.”

Martin started to work full time on the subject on June 18, 1954, spending a week consulting documents in Chicago pertaining to the Leopold and Loeb trial. Memories of the 1924 crime were still painful ones in Chicago’s Jewish community, but Leopold’s family made the evidence “available to me, the first time they had done so, they tell me,” Martin reported to Post editors. “They—his relatives and lawyer—say that I’ve had full access to everything, and am the only one who has.” He bolstered his research by taking two weeks at Stateville to  interview Leopold alone with no guards in a compact room where the parole board usually held its hearings. “There is a window in a room, barred,” Martin noted. “The room is small and bare. There is a desk and a couple of chairs. Just through the window you can see the inside of the prison wall.” 

The writer and the inmate met two times a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. “Obtaining material of the sort I wanted was patently impossible in the visiting room, and Ragen allowed us privacy,” Martin noted. At lunchtime Leopold ate in the regular inmate dining room, while Martin had his meals with Ragen. In his talks with Leopold, which marked the first time that the inmate had spoken freely and at length to any reporter, Martin found him to possess “insight and perspective on himself to a degree unusual in people generally, and extraordinary in somebody who has been imprisoned for so long.”

For his Post articles, Martin had to contend with a variety of issues, including the inmate’s fears that a recapitulation of his crime might endanger his chance at parole, worries from Leopold’s family about how the homosexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb would be handled, and the Post’s squeamishness about the issue and its unwillingness to include an outright plea for the inmate’s parole in Martin’s final installment. Leopold even wrote Martin from prison expressing his fears that the article “would do me incalculable harm. It will also make living under my present circumstances very difficult. You do not, I know, want to hurt me, especially since you realize what an enormous stake I have in the matter. Knowing that you are a good guy, I’m sure you wouldn’t want that on your conscience.” All parties were finally able to iron out any difficulties, and, after the entire series had been published, an elderly neighbor of the Martins who had known Leopold’s parents, now both deceased, told the writer his effort had been “the first fair and understanding story she had ever read about him.”

As best as he could, Martin downplayed Leopold and Loeb’s homosexual relationship, stating in one of the articles that Leopold was “in no sense a ‘true homosexual,’” and that his prison record included “not a single homosexual episode during his thirty years’ incarceration.” In his discussion about the issue in his personal correspondence with Post editor Ben Hibbs, Martin noted that in his original manuscript both Leopold and his family objected to the handling of his homosexuality, believing it was mentioned too often and could be misleading to the reader. Martin told Hibbs that Leopold had denied having homosexual experiences in prison, and his record, and Ragen, supported his contention. “This, however,” Martin wrote, “merely means that he has not operated in prison regularly either as an aggressive sodomist or passive ‘prison girl.’ I would not go so far as to say of him, or of any other man imprisoned 30 years, that not once has he obtained release from sexual tension through homosexuality.”

In the first part of the series, Martin explored Leopold’s early life, his intense friendship with Loeb, the incidents leading up to their infamous crime, and Leopold’s early years behind bars. “The hardest thing about being in prison is just doing time,” Leopold told Martin. “Being idle, doing nothing constructive, nothing that means anything.” The convict even considered taking what he called “a parole off ten-gallery,” prison parlance for committing suicide by jumping to his death. 

For a short time Leopold attempted to deal with the crushing monotony of his life behind bars by teaching fellow inmates, which he did for a time four evenings a week, giving lessons in reading writing, and simple arithmetic. When newspapers published articles about these classes, however, the warden received letters from the public that Leopold “wasn’t fit to teach others,” and the classes were canceled. “It the first of many occasions when Leopold felt that his notoriety prevented him from receiving fair treatment in prison,” Martin wrote.

With his classes ended after only three weeks, Leopold turned to other matters over the years to keep his mind occupied, including studying semantics, helping rebuild the prison’s library after a riot, and establishing a correspondence course for inmates. The death of Leopold’s father on April 4, 1929, and his own years behind bars caused him, finally, to think about the full ramifications of his crime—the pain he had caused his family and others. “It was the first time I ever was honest to God sorry,” he admitted to Martin. “Regretful, remorseful. It had taken five years for it to sink in.” Leopold almost never talked directly about the Franks murder, and, when he did broach the subject with Martin, the writer noted that it was hard for the inmate to do so and he became nervous, running his hand rapidly through his thinning hair. He finally told Martin:

"Here is something I had been present at [Franks’ murder]. I had helped take a  human life. And it bothered me a great deal. Remorse at what I’d done became  really oppressive. I resolved to try and do something in the way of active expiation. Very general ideas—it ties up with my work in the library and helping the cons. Sure they were cons, but they were human beings. I suppose really all the things have amounted to nothing but making mental mud pies. But at least I could kid myself that I was doing some good. It had a palliative effect on my remorse feeling."

Later, Leopold and his former partner, Loeb, undertook a project that, as Martin said, “amounted to a great deal more than mud pies,” when they established in 1933 and ran a high school correspondence school at Stateville that thousands of inmates around the country took advantage of to improve themselves. “This is one thing that was organized of the cons, by the cons and for the cons,” said Leopold. “It meant a lot to the fellows.” After Loeb’s killing by a fellow inmate in 1936, however, Leopold “dwelt in limbo,” Martin reported, until 1944, when he became one of hundreds of inmates to volunteer as a test subject during World War II for a U.S. Army study of potential new drugs to combat malaria. “It became the most fascinating thing I was ever connected with,” Leopold said of the study. “Before I knew it, I was working twenty hours a day at it.”

Although the inmates involved in the program said they had volunteered because they sought to help the country’s war movement, Leopold did tell Martin there were other motives involved. “I wanted to do my part,” Leopold said. “And here was a chance to do myself some good; I knew nobody was going to hate cons for this, and there might be a reward.” (Doctors involved in the study, however, later downplayed any claims by Leopold that he played a major role in the project.) In 1949 Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson commuted Leopold’s ninety-nine year sentence to eighty-five years, which made the inmate eligible for parole on January 10, 1953, three years and eight months earlier than normal. “But since the governor left the life sentence undisturbed,” Martin pointed out, “he by no means guaranteed Leopold’s release—unless Leopold was paroled, he would die in prison.”

According to Martin, inmates who worked or celled with Leopold thought highly of him, but to those who did not his personality seemed forbidding. “He [Leopold] is inclined to be opinionated, stubborn, literal-minded, humorless, tactless,” said the writer. “He seems to need, for reasons of his inner security, to assert himself, to win his arguments. He is formal, detached, correct, precise, legalistic.” Martin presented an even-handed evaluation of the pros and cons on whether or not to parole Leopold, pointing out his crime resulted from a situation that would never occur again. “Leopold thinks he has been rehabilitated in spite of prison, not because of it,” Martin wrote. “Leopold’s prison career is surely one of the most unusual on record.” In his Post article Martin made sure to emphasize that it was hard to imagine “a more hideous, heartless murder than that of Bobby Franks,” and highlighted the young boy’s promise and the suffering of his parents. “The murder case, however, has been tried,” Martin wrote matter of factly. “The judge chose to impose sentences from which, under Illinois law, Leopold can be paroled.”

The State of Illinois turned down Leopold’s parole in 1953, but granted him a rehearing, to be held in 1958. Martin upon the request of Leopold’s attorney, Varian B. Adams, wrote a letter in June 1957 to new Illinois governor William G. Stratton outlining the reasons why the inmate should be paroled., “In my opinion, Leopold is a good parole risk,” Martin wrote Stratton. “He has a good record in prison. He will not be cut adrift without resources if paroled. And so on—judged by these and other standards set up in the parole predictability tables ordinarily used by parole boards, including, I believe, yours, he rates as a good risk.” Of course, Martin added, parole for any inmate, no matter the crime, entailed some risk, and releasing Leopold would not be popular with the public. “Leopold’s case is the sort that challenges parole to reach its greatest heights. . . . It would be an act of considerable courage,” wrote Martin. “It would identify your [Parole] Board as moving courageously in step with progressive penological thought, as government in Illinois has and should.”

Martin also appeared before the five-man parole board at a hearing in early February 1958 to testify on Leopold’s behalf, along with Reverend Eligius Weir, former Catholic chaplain at Stateville; Paul M. Robinson, president of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago; Doctor Marvin Sukov, psychiatrist and University of Minnesota professor who had been Leopold’s supervisor in a prison clinic; Sandburg; and others. Martin told parole board members that neither the coroner nor the judge at the original trial had, in spite of tabloid newspaper reports to the contrary, found any evidence that Franks, the murdered boy, had been sexually assaulted, and that during all his time in prison, Leopold had never been cited by a guard for any homosexual activity.

Chicago legend Sandburg urged the board to make history and pardon Leopold. “Those who won’t like it are those who believe in revenge,” he said. “They are the human stuff out of which mobs are made—passion ridden.” Leopold’s attorney, Elmer Gertz, who had replaced Adams, later said that Sandburg may have rambled a bit in his testimony, “but in the swell of words one could sense something magnificent.” It was clear to him, said the attorney, that the parole board was impressed by the poet’s testimony, “deeply moved, in fact.” The board voted to parole Leopold, and a newspaperman later told Martin it had been his testimony that had spurred the board’s action, as it took its members “off the hook for paroling a ‘sex criminal.’”

After being freed from prison on March 13, 1958, after serving thirty-three years, six months, and two days, Leopold left the country to work as a medical technician at a Church of the Brethren hospital in Castaner, Puerto Rico. While living there he married, and, after the five years of his parole restriction expired, traveled the world, earned a master’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico, and worked as a social services investigator for the Puerto Rico Department of Health. “I really wanted to become a doctor,” he told a reporter who tracked him down in 1963, “but I’d be sixty-two by the time I could start practicing medicine. I couldn’t afford that much time—not with two coronaries and diabetes.” He died on August 29, 1971. “Few men lived lives like his,” said Martin.

As for Martin, his series on Leopold won him the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1955 in the category for the article best depicting a person, living or dead. He also received the Franklin honor the next year for his articles in the Post on life inside an insane asylum in Ohio and in 1957 for a series on segregation (“The Deep South Says Never”). By that time he had become involved in another passion—politics—serving as a speechwriter on both of Democrat presidential candidate Stevenson’s campaigns in 1952 and 1956, as well as those of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and, finally, George S. McGovern.

Martin also served in the John Kennedy administration as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic and taught courses in advanced writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In his later years Martin, who died from throat cancer in 1987 and was posthumously inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1999, spent more and more time on the one thing that had always been his salvation—writing. It always seemed to be on his mind, even when he was engaged in some of his favorite pastimes—hunting and fishing. In the long hours of silence waiting for fish or game to appear, Martin noted, “Almost automatically, in my mind I form sentences, an idea or a snatch of description; then rearrange the words, then revise them inside my head again and again.”

Penrod and Politics: Booth Tarkington in the Indiana Legislature

Marion County voters faced a dizzying array of choices in the March 1902 Republican primary. Nineteen GOP candidates were vying for the seven spots available to the county in the Indiana House of Representatives. When the dust settled the leading vote getter—polling 10,733 tallies—was a rookie in the fiercely competitive world of Hoosier politics.

Newton Booth Tarkington, however, was no stranger to central Indiana voters, who had been entertained by such Tarkington works as The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), Monsieur Beaucaire (1900), and The Two Vanrevels (1902). The stunning success enjoyed at the polls by this political neophyte was explained rather succinctly by one Washington Township farmer: “We voted for him [Tarkington] as a sort of experiment. The paper said he’s a play writer and some kind of an actor, and we just want to see what sort of a gosh derned fool he’ll make of himself in the Legislature.”

Tarkington’s lackluster campaign provided plenty of opportunities for the farmer’s amusement. “I would as soon be sent to jail as to have to make a speech,” said Tarkington, who buttressed his point by delivering only a few talks (lasting mere minutes in length) during his election effort. Safely ensconced in the Indiana General Assembly following his approximately 4,000-vote triumph over his Democratic opponent, Tarkington won the respect of his fellow legislators. The thirty-three-year-old writer and freshman lawmaker took on his party’s chief elected state official—Governor Winfield T. Durbin—in a bitter battle involving the governor’s attempt to oust the Jeffersonville Reformatory board. Tarkington led the opposition to the so-called Ripper Bill and succeeded in defeating Durbin’s move to replace the old board with his hand-picked cronies. Tarkington’s bold stand won plaudits from across the political spectrum. The Indianapolis News proclaimed: “From the first he [Tarkington] saw the question in its true light, and he has had the courage and independence to stand up for what he believed to be right.”

The writer’s brief (he only served one term in the legislature) switch from literature to politics fit in well with his family’s background. Born in Indianapolis on  July 29, 1869, Tarkington had a father, John Stevenson Tarkington, who served for many years as a judge and enjoyed a one-term stint in the Indiana General Assembly as a representative. Also, the young Tarkington’s namesake, Newton Booth, had made his fortune while living in California where he became governor and served as the state’s U.S. senator.

Although he possessed a strong political lineage, Tarkington, who had attended both Purdue and Princeton Universities, tried to make his way in the world through drawing and writing. Following the sale of a sketch with text to Life in 1895, for which he received twenty dollars, Tarkington collected thirty-one consecutive rejection slips from such magazines as Century, Harper’s, McClure’s, and Scribner’s. “The splendid magazines of the 90’s . . . rejected all of these manuscripts so rapidly that sometimes I thought my poor things must have been stopped and returned from Philadelphia; they didn’t seem to have had time to get all the way to New York and back,” Tarkington recalled.

Tarkington’s early struggles to be a writer proved to sometimes be an embarrassment to him. One day a successful Indianapolis citizen came up to Tarkington and remarked to him: “Booth, I asked your father what you’re doing. He says you’re still trying to be one of these damn literary fellers.” Success came to Tarkington through a familiar source—his sister, Hauté. While visiting New York in 1898 Haute Tarkington showed publisher S. S. McClure her brother’s Monsieur Beaucaire manuscript. Although McClure showed no interest in that work, he did express some enthusiasm for a story about Indiana that Hauté mentioned; a work that became The Gentleman from Indiana. Two weeks after he had sent the story to McClure, Tarkington received a letter in the morning mail from American novelist Hamlin Garland, a writer whose work Tarkington greatly admired. The letter opened with the words the Hoosier had waited years to read: “Mr. McClure has given me your manuscript, The Gentleman From Indiana, to read. You are a novelist.”

With his literary career firmly established, Tarkington next turned his attention to the political arena. From an early age, Tarkington, like many other Hoosier children, had been schooled by relatives to dream about future success as a United States senator or even president. “Politics was the field for greatness,” he mused. Reminiscing about his decision to embark on a political career for Saturday Evening Post readers in 1933, Tarkington remembered expressing his interest in becoming a legislator to his friend Sam Jordan, a GOP insider. The next thing Tarkington knew, his name had been entered in the March 1902 Republican primary and he discovered “with no inconsiderable mystification that . . . my name led all the rest.”

Actually, Tarkington’s decision to enter the political world had received more serious attention from the author than he later revealed. According to his biographer, James Woodress, Tarkington, as the son of a Civil War veteran, felt strongly that good citizens had a duty to run for public office. Along with helping to serve the public, Tarkington’s move into politics aided his literary career, providing him with “laboratory conditions for studying human nature in its less attractive moments. It revealed to him the vast fictional possibilities of contemporary life and inspired his first stories that fall entirely within the precincts of realism,” noted Woodress.

In spite of his belief in a solid citizens’ duty to run for office, Tarkington harbored few convictions that campaigning for the job should be particularly arduous. He instead turned his attention to matters of the heart; he married Laura Louisa Fletcher, the daughter of one of Indianapolis’s leading bankers, in June 1902. In fact, just two weeks before the November 4, 1902, election, he and his new bride were happily vacationing at Lake Maxinkuckee, Indiana. Returning to Indianapolis, Tarkington discovered that Republican party leaders were far from pleased about his unusual campaign strategy. They were able to persuade him to behave like a normal candidate and give a few speeches before the balloting commenced. “You’ll be elected all right, anyway [without the speeches]—but I was under the impression you wanted to know something about politics,” Jordan informed the rookie candidate.

On the evening of October 24 Tarkington made his inaugural appearance as a political candidate at a firehouse on Twenty-Fourth Street and Ashland Avenue in Indianapolis’s Second Ward. Appearing with fellow Republican legislative candidates Ralph Bamberger and Oran Muir, Tarkington spoke for less than two minutes in a speech that did not win high marks for eloquence. “He would stammer out a sentence, laugh at the effort and then fall headlong into another sentence. He held his fedora in his hand, and it served as a comforter in a moment of peril,” the Indianapolis News reported. Tarkington made no bold promises in his speech but merely emphasized the necessity for people to exercise their franchise come election day—a theme he repeated at his second campaign appearance shortly afterwards at a firehouse on Sixteenth Street and Ashland Avenue.

Tarkington’s easy manner captured the crowd at the Sixteenth Street station, who also enjoyed his definition of a pessimist. “It has been said,” he told the voters, “that a pessimist is a man who faces two evils and chooses both. If in the coming election a voter objects to both candidates and refused to go to the polls, he is worse than a pessimist. Again I urge that we get out the vote.” Tarkington’s speech was met with both applause from the crowd and the ringing of fire bells, which probably created more excitement than anything that had gone on previously.

Asked for his comment about his maiden appearances as a candidate, Tarkington told an Indianapolis Sentinel reporter that his experience reminded him of the amateur actor who played Hamlet and was asked by his friends if he had been called before the curtain. “The actor replied: ‘They dared me to come before the curtain.’ That is the way I felt. I felt that I was dared to come before the curtain, and I came,” said Tarkington.

After having survived his baptism under fire, Tarkington continued to meet and greet voters throughout the district, including a group of farmers at a country auction. Accompanied by veteran politico Lew Shank, the city-raised Tarkington almost made a fatal error as he prepared himself for the occasion. Hoping to show his respect for the voters, the well-bred writer had planned on wearing a silk top hat to the gathering. GOP leaders convinced Tarkington that wearing such attire at a country auction might bring ruin upon the entire Republican ticket come election day. Even without the hat, Tarkington, and the tiny cigars he handed out to his potential constituents, made quite an impression. One farmer commented to his friends: “Durned little cigar! But I’m glad to see it. It shows that he’s the man we wanter put in the Legislature. Cos why? ’Cause he’s ekenomical.”

Tarkington’s unique campaign efforts continued all the way up to election day, usually a busy time for most politicians. The “literary politician,” as the Indianapolis News referred to him, seemed supremely confident about his chances. As voters, including his father, trooped eagerly to the polls election morning to cast their ballots, Tarkington, up late the night before, decided to catch up on his sleep instead of making last-minute pleas for votes (or working at the Second Ward’s polls as he was assigned to do by GOP officials). In a story headlined “Candidate Tarkington Slept Peacefully While the Ballots Fell,” the News reported that by 1:45 p.m. election day, Tarkington had “finished his breakfast and his toilet, strolled over to the polls and cast his ballot.” The author may have known something the newspaper did not; he swept easily into office over his Democratic rival.

Having proved himself to be always good for a laugh during the campaign, Tarkington at first appeared to follow the same route in the Indiana legislature. Early in the session, fellow Republican Charles Warren Fairbanks asked Tarkington to place his name in nomination for the U.S. Senate. Overwhelmed by such an honor falling upon a freshman legislator, a puzzled Tarkington asked his friend Jordan why Fairbanks had selected him. “He’s so sure of being elected,” Jordan told his protégé, “he wants to show everybody that nothing on earth can stop him.” After finishing his nominating speech, Tarkington caught a glimpse of his father in the packed galleries. “His face was suffused and I had the unfilial impression that he was trying not to laugh contagiously,” Tarkington remembered.

The chuckles at his expense stopped, however, when Tarkington engaged in a bitter fight over legislation backed by Governor Durbin that would have removed the board at the Jeffersonville Reformatory, which somehow had displeased Indiana’s chief executive. This naked grab for power came after a campaign that saw the GOP pledging to keep politics out of running state institutions. At first, Tarkington led a lonely fight to stop what became known as the Ripper Bill, which had already made its way successfully through the state senate. “The opposition in the House was laughed at because its numerical beginnings were small, and it became known that the Governor and all his faction were determined upon the passage of the measure,” Tarkington recalled in a review of the legislative session he wrote for the Indianapolis News. But the supposedly inexperienced legislator rallied others to his cause, including a good portion of the House’s Marion County delegation.

The unexpected opposition to this seemingly innocuous piece of legislation disturbed Durbin and his allies, who hit back at the “anti-rippers” with all the power at their command. “They [the governor’s forces] had many resources,” noted Tarkington, “the opposition had only the advantage of fighting for a principle worth fighting for, but that was advantage enough.” Another advantage enjoyed by the governor’s opponents was strong support from the state’s newspapers, which backed their efforts.

Tarkington soon became identified by the media as the acknowledged leader in the ripper legislation battle. He faced tough odds in fighting Durbin’s pet bill. Although confident he could convince enough House members to vote against the measure, Tarkington did express some fear that the governor’s power to award supporters and punish opponents might make his job tougher. Also, the political newcomer had to endure some underhanded maneuverings by the bill’s proponents, who charged that Tarkington had received money from Tobe Hert, the Jeffersonville Reformatory’s former superintendent, in order to buy enough votes to defeat the bill. According to an article about the issue in the Indianapolis Sentinel, Tarkington wasted no time in quashing the allegations against him. “He [Tarkington] collared several of the friends of the men who have made the insinuations and told them that libel suits would be the portion of his traducers if they did not stop such talk,” the Sentinel reported.

Tarkington’s principled stand worked; the governor’s forces capitulated in a “secret” meeting held on  January 27, 190,3 at Indianapolis’s English Hotel. In order to avoid what would be a humiliating defeat, Durbin had agreed to a compromise (actually total subjugation on his part) whereby the old bill was shelved for legislation providing that the reformatory’s superintendent and board could only be removed by the governor following the filing of written charges and a hearing. The insurgents, as Tarkington proclaimed the bill’s opponents, “dictated the terms of surrender, which (it was tacitly agreed) should be called, for political measures and out of courtesy, ‘a compromise.’”

Success in the ripper fight did not come without a price. On February 18, 1903, Tarkington introduced House Bill 382, which provided job training as broom makers for indigent blind people at the Indiana Industrial Home for Blind Men. Under the legislation, the state board of charities would pay the home $4 per week to support each blind person during the time he learned the trade—an annual cost to the state of only $2,080. “The bill was introduced,” said Tarkington, “because of the letters from blind men received at the industrial home; the substance of the letters might be given in a sentence: ‘If I could learn the trade I could keep out of the poor house, and I don’t want to go to the poor house.’”

Supported by such luminaries as Helen Keller, the bill breezed through the House by a 70-7 margin and won passage in the Senate by a 26-11 vote. Tarkington’s stand against the governor, however, came back to haunt him. On March 12, 1903, Durbin vetoed the measure. Although he noted it would be “unnatural” for anyone to be unwilling to help improve “the condition of afflicted persons,” Durbin claimed that if the bill became law “it would be held as a procedure for the establishment of innumerable institutions of similar character, thereby imposing upon the taxpaying public a burden they would not and could not assume in justice to themselves.”

Durbin’s opposition came as no surprise to Tarkington, who was fast learning the ins and outs of politics. During debate on the bill in the House, he had discovered that a local politician “of the most practical type, and reputed to be conscienceless,” had been working to see that the legislation failed. When asked by Tarkington why he opposed the measure, his fellow representative argued forcefully that the bill would be “bad for humanity,” as it might enable the now prosperous blind men to marry blind women and produce blind children. Although exasperated by the lawmaker’s faulty logic, Tarkington did tell a friend he was impressed that this supposedly unscrupulous politician at least opposed the bill for “what he believed to be the good of humanity.” The friend set the gullible writer straight, informing Tarkington: “You darned fool, he’s got [owns] a broom factory!”

Tarkington did not simply laugh off Durbin’s action. Vacationing at French Lick Springs after the legislature adjourned, the writer blasted the governor’s veto, asking a reporter, “is it not the helpless who should be helped first of all, especially if they are helped to help themselves?” He noted that several House members had informed him that because he led the opposition to Durbin’s pet bill the governor would veto Tarkington's legislation. Despite giving the governor the benefit of the doubt, noting Durbin had been greatly overworked as the legislative session ended, Tarkington did ruefully indicate he regretted that “my own lack of foresight and knowledge of character should have prevented my prevailing upon one of the governor’s political friends in the house to introduce the bill, thus to have saved a worthy and benevolent measure.”

The future Pulitzer Prize-winning author had a short political career. Although there had been calls for him to run for mayor in Indianapolis, Tarkington had decided, according to Woodress, to run for the Indiana Senate, or, if that failed, to return to the legislature as a state representative. But after returning from his French Lick Springs vacation, Tarkington was struck by typhoid fever. 

The illness cut short the writer’s promising life in politics, but his stint in the state legislature did provide Tarkington with enough inside material to produce numerous short stories on politics’ inner workings, which were collected in the publication In the Arena: Stories of Political Life (1905). The book’s realistic portrayal of politics’ seamier side caught the attention of another gentleman turned politician: President Theodore Roosevelt. The president invited Tarkington to lunch at the White House and issued what the author termed “a long & generally favorable comment” about the stories. “I just sat & purred—too pleased to eat,” Tarkington wrote his father about the meeting.
Roosevelt was most pleased by the book’s preface, which issued a clarion call for “more good men” to become involved with politics. With his Indiana legislative experience behind him, Tarkington featured in the preface a political veteran ruminating on what was needed in politics. The old-timer compared those who complain about politics being too dirty a business for gentlemen to become involved with were “like the woman who lived in the parlour and complained that the rest of her family keep the other rooms so dirty she never went into them.” Tarkington, who kept intact his belief in good government in spite of all the corruption and folly he had seen, also issued a pointed, if somewhat naive, prescription for politics’ ailments: “When wrong things are going on and all the good men understand them, that is all that is needed. The wrong things stop going on.”