Spiritualism – Believers and Fraudsters: Talking to the Dead in Post-Civil War America.

House seance in the early 20th century.

After the Civil War many in our nation were emotionally vulnerable. In some communities, as many as twenty-five per cent, or more, of the men under thirty had been killed in the war. Many of the survivors returned home with missing limbs, or other physical problems, and they all carried their own dark memories of the war. Post-Civil War America was, in many ways, a nation still in torment, and deeply mourning the tremendous number of deaths (650,000 plus) in which nearly all families suffered. Many historians believed that spiritualism, which had been a somewhat stagnant movement in previous decades, convinced its followers that mere mortals were able to communicate with the dead.

Lizzie Keyser had the rare talent of making people, especially large groups of people, that they at least for a moment, could cross over and communicate with deceased loved ones. This, of course, was not a free service, and according to an article in the May 13, 1869 Cincinnati Times Ms. Keyser conducted an evening seance in an assembly hall in the city which drew over 900 people. Lizzie Keyser, who was described as frail and sickly, proceeded to slowly walk around the room and “spot the spirits of the lost dead.” She would stand next, or near where the supposed apperition appeared, and seen only by her. Before the evening was over she named 41 spirits in the room, all of various ages and gender, and including a number of deceased Civil War soldiers. Lizzie would take a moment and offer a brief vignette of the individuals, sometimes including color of hair, and eyes, and short summary of their life and how they died. When describing a departed soldier she said, “the spirit of the soldier was wearing a blue coat, and his name was Daniel , and, he said to give a kiss Ada for him and give his love to Kate.” Several in the audience began to weep when they heard this. Another spirit said her name was Louisa Bassett, and a family member spoke up and said that she had died four years prior, and the family missed her. The biggest gasp from the audience came when Lizzie mentioned that the late Clarkson Fogg was one of the spirits in the room. Fogg, who had been killed in the battle of Vicksburg, had a number of his family members, including his mother, in attendance. The article listed each of the 41 spirits contacted, who they were , and if anyone in the audience acknowledged the spirits existence that evening. The dead were all acknowledged, and the large crowd was overwhelming pleased, as well as, astonished by the results of the evening. It is unlikely, however, if anyone noticed the two people who had arrived with Lizzie that evening. Unlike Lizzie Keyser, they were familiar with the city and its people, and probably provided the personal background data that she used in the seance.

Many seances included special effects, sometimes the levitation.

In the late 19th and early 20th century spiritualism was a movement as real as any experienced by our nation. It was defined as both a science and a philosophy, but predominantly seen as new religion. Some sources suggest that as many as twenty-five percent of adult Americans claimed to have experienced an apparition and, or, even participated in a séance. Hollywood has gone to great efforts to spin séances in many of their horror — thriller type movies, all including a dark room, table and all the seated participants touching each other’s fingers to form a circle. A medium is usually seated at a table, and after reading a biblical scripture calls for the dead person to come forward, and be heard. This manifests itself through an actual voice, or knockings, or an undetermined sound in the room or building. and then. In addition to the séances, there are numerous accounts of the dead supposedly communicating with their loved ones through letters, dreams, telegraphs, strange images in photographs, and even telephone calls. Most people would come away thinking that a séance is pure fictional entertainment, and the perpetrators tricksters and criminals. There were, however, many hard core followers, and, in many cases these followers had suffered their own personal losses, and desperately wanted to believe that they could talk to their loved one, once more.

Willie Lincoln died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. He was the subject of multiple seances performed for his mother Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln tried numerous times through séances to speak with her dead son Willie. Her husband, President Abraham Lincoln even accompanied her to at least one séance in the White House. Apparently these were not successful. Mrs. Lincoln claimed, however, that Willie appeared before her at night and stood silently at the foot of her bed.It is easy to dismiss the mediums and physics that were spinning their tricks to make a buck, but not as easy to dismiss the believers.

Sometimes even a trusting audience could lose its patience, especially when a seance is poorly executed. In an article in the Duluth News Tribune, February 24, 1896, “ Fraud Exposed,” a Professor Gilmore had a large crowd fooled that they were communicating with the dead. In a dimly lit room, the charade was going well. After hearing a number of knockings, and garbled voices, the audience was gripped in anxiety, when someone turned the lights on exposing the Professor Gilmore standing with a white sheet covering himself. The angry crowd turned into a mob and they chased the trickster out of the building demanding their money back.

There are other stories, however, that are not so easily dismissed:

Sarah received visits in her dreams from her dead daughter. The six year old had died of tuberculosis the previous year. (1916)

Joseph claimed that his son appeared before him when he was walking through the woods. Seventeen-year-old Luther had been killed at Flanders in World War I. (1919)

Rose woke up to see her dead sister sitting at the end of her bed. Her sister’s husband and their three small children were also standing close by. “We are all right” the dead sister said. They had all been killed in a horrible house fire a few weeks before. (1905)

Many experienced their life changing moments independently, and without coercion or influence from mediums or mystics. Grief crossed all social-economic lines, and surprisingly, many prominent and well-educated citizens were believers, and some became leaders in the movement.

Here is a brief list of prominent citizens who supported the notion of spiritualism:
Oliver Lodge was a British physicist and developed some of the most important patents concerning wireless technology.
Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Both Lodge and Doyle’s sons were killed on the battlefields during World War I. Each publicly admitted that they had communicated with their dead sons and even lectured before large crowds trying to convince the populace that it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Some others who supported the movement were: the author Charles Dickens, world renowned scientist Dr. William Crooks and two Nobel laureates, physiologist Charles Richet, and physicist Pierre Curie.

Arthur Conan Doyle was the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes series. Doyle was a fervent believer in spiritualism. His son was killed in WWI and Doyle believed he was able to contact him.

Men, especially notable men of the time, were thought to be the ones in charge of the movement, but they were not. They gave the movement what it needed … credibility, but the women, many nameless and now forgotten, did the majority of the work. They led discussions in lecture halls,and portrayed themselves as mystics, or organizers, and most importantly, they were the mediums found at most of the séances. A good medium could make a decent living. Many supported their families with the funds made by convincing others that they could speak with the dead. Tragic events, such as wars, famines, diseases, fires, and even the sinking of ships spiked the need and the usefulness of mediums and séances.

Eusapia Pallidino was considered the leading psychic of the period. She admitted later in life that she had indeed cheated and deceived people into believing the unbelievable.
Eusapia Pallidino performing a seance.

In January 1910, the Boston Journal reported that two prominent Harvard professors held very different views about spiritualism, and especially about Eusapia Pallidino, who was considered the country’s leading psychic. Professor Hugo Munsterberg, a psychologist, said that Pallindino was a “complete fraud and humbug.” Professor William James, however, considered Pallidino’s talent as “probably genuine.” Eusapia Pallidino’s performances sometimes turned into seance circus feat, that included voices, moving objects, and the sudden chill of a cool breeze blowing through a darkened room. Munsterberg, with the help of an assistant who was hidden under a table, caught Pallidino levitating the table with her foot. It was also observed that Palladino kicked her shoe off the other foot and used her toes to move a guitar in the séance cabinet. Münsterberg also claimed that Palladino moved the curtains from a distance in the room by releasing a jet of air from a rubber bulb that she had in her hand. In the end, Munsterberg’s efforts did not matter, since he charges of fraud did not seem to phase Pallidino and the public continued to attend, and seemingly believe in her seances. Later, Eusapia Pallidino told a reporter that she indeed cheated and that her “sitters had willed her to do so.” In other words, she gave the customers what they wanted. Eric Dingwall, a journalist investigating spiritualism at that time, came to this conclusion about Pallidino , saying she was a “ “vital, vulgar, amorous and a cheat.”

Professor Hugo Munsterberg considered Eusapia Pallidino a complete fraud.

Tragedy created opportunity for mediums. W. T. Snead, a leading spiritualist of his time, drowned on the Titanic in 1912. Soon after his death, mediums on both sides of the ocean claimed that the apparition of Dr. Snead appeared and communicated in their séances. Snead brought them greetings from the other side, and according to the mediums, described the Titanic’s final minutes. The desperate passengers were confused and scared, so said the apparition through the medium mouths. This type of hysteria gave momentum to the movement, and also enriched the bank accounts of those encouraging the charade.

There is little doubt that of the many séance organizers – the mediums and psychics were the worst type of criminal trickster. They preyed upon the emotions of desperate individuals who were dealing with the deep grief of losing a loved one. It is likely that most of the victims probably realized that their experience was a hoax, and that they had been taken advantage of, both emotionally, as well as financially. When possible a number of the mediums and their associates were prosecuted. Others did not see themselves as victims. Despite knowing that they had been duped, they were still able to find a strange type of peace from their personal experience. As mentioned, the individuals who experienced the dead without séances or third party assistance remained content with their memories. Many went to their own graves believing that they had connected with their loved ones.

The notion of “talking to the dead” was an answer for many, but others viewed it as a despicable fraud, and, a fraud that took emotional, as well as financial advantage of those already suffering. Spiritualism is grounded in deep sadness, and an overwhelming need to say goodbye to those already deceased.The Civil War brought about the end of slavery and the re-emergence of the Union. Soon after the war ended, however, the collective memory of millions longed to capture a glimpse, or have one last moment,with a cherished loved one who had been killed in the war.

The Yanks are Coming: Hopes, Dreams and Blue Death.

“Over There”
Poster displayed in 1917

“Over There”
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware –
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
Songwriter, George M. Cohan, 1917

“If I have got to be a soldier, I must be a good one, anything else is unthinkable.” Wilfred Owen

The reluctant entry of the United States into World War I immediately ignited an enormous amount of national spirit which supported the war in Europe. Great orators rallied public support by their speeches, journalist and advertisers propagated the cause of war in print, and song writers were busy putting tunes together that praised the heroics of battle. The famous song writer George M. Cohan created the hit “Over There” which inspired young men to join up. One line in the song became a favorite of an entire generation “the Yanks are coming.“ The songs melody helped the raw recruits, and even the naive soldier wannabes, to imagine themselves literally “over there” and on the battlefield.

Young American Solider in training camp.
World War i. 1917-1918.

During the Great War over 10 million men lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, and another 13 million civilians also perished due to war related issues. The United States entered the war in its final stages, and incurred considerably less in casualties and deaths than the other nations involved. Of the 117,000 U.S. military deaths more than half died from what the troops referred to as “blue death.” The official name of blue death was the Spanish influenza, and it killed more American and Allied soldiers than the deaths attributed to enemy fire. Within hours of becoming ill, their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid that caused them to suffocate. An attending physician stated about his patients, “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth.

Influenza patient, U.S. Naval hospital, New Orleans, La. 1918

At the time (April 1917), that the United States joined the allies in the fight, France ,England, Russia, and other nations, had been battling the German Huns since 1914. Despite the years of misery and millions of loss lives, Germany’s aggression was still alive and well, and there was no clear victor in sight. America’s involvement was considered a game changer. America’s allies rejoiced at the news, and back home young men began lining up to enter the military service. The Sunday edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette (April 29, 1917,) carried the headline “U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight.” In the article former President Theodore Roosevelt instructed American soldiers in combat by saying “when you hit a man hit him hard.” Roosevelt had long been a supporter of U.S. involvement in the war and his words inspired many young men to enlist. In the early twentieth century our nation experienced a large influx of immigrants, and they too joined, and, thousands of recently naturalized former aliens enthusiastically signed up. “I feel that America is fighting for a good cause, and was it not my duty to aid in this crisis,” said a recent Swiss immigrant. By the end of 1917 so many had volunteered for the regular army that U.S. newspapers were singing their praises “patriotic effort” and the “numbers had far exceeded” the quota set by the army.

The war effort in 1917, and early 1918, seemed to tap into a spirit of nationalism that had been building up in America. By early 1918 excited American troops wanted to see action, because it was clear that the war would soon be over. Veteran French allies viewed newly minted American troops as almost “too eager to get at grips with the enemy.” There is little doubt that the average American doughboy of World War I was expecting to “fight the German Huns.” By the fall of 1917 the U.S. Army had set up 32 training camps for new recruits each housing as many as 25,000 to 55,000 soldiers. Many young recruits held strong patriotic views, and clearly wanted to serve their nation. Like all soldiers they had hopes of “battlefield glory” but for many, that hope proved to be worlds apart from the realities that were faced in the training camps during late summer and fall of 1918.

In March 1918 a mild case of influenza was reported in Kansas and within a few days it had spread to New York. The Ford Motor Company in Detroit sent 1,000 workers home with the flu, and San Quentin Prison had 500 cases of flu in a population of 1500. Those infected usually experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, and most recovered after several days. The number of reported deaths was small. The initial stage was so mild that many did not think it was influenza at all. A July 13, 1918, article in The Lancet stated that, “the disease certainly wasn’t influenza because its symptoms were too mild, and, ‘of very short duration and so far absent of relapses or complications.” Many of the soldiers, who had recovered from the spring influenza, completed training and were shipped overseas and joined the fighting forces in France.

Army camp hospital.
1918

Many scientists predicted a second wave of influenza, but no one could predict just how deadly it would be. It appeared with a vengeance in the fall of 1918 and initially targeted military training camps throughout the nation. The average raw recruit in a training camp I no idea of what was happening to him. The virus intensified in areas that housed masses of people in tight quarters like military camps, churches, schools, as well as the trenches of France. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing, and by the end of 1918, the average life expectancy in America had plummeted by a dozen years.

Twenty-three year old Jacob Justin, had arrived at the Camp Upton (New York) army training camp in September, 1918. Shortly after he began training, he and others, were suddenly stricken by the deadly virus.Within a day, Jacob Justin’s condition changed to very serious, and word about the growing numbers of sick began buzzing around the camp. Despite the camp lock down, love struck Naomi Barnett slipped inside the camp, to be by the bedside of her dying fiancé. The young couple had planned to be married after Jacob’s training, and before he was deployed to France. Sadly, Naomi contracted the virus and was dead within two days of her arrival, and Jacob expired 30 minutes later. The influenza outbreak in the fall of 1918 in America was defined by its speed to kill. On September 23, 1918, another training recruit, Private James Downs entered the army hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, and died in three days. There were many stories that described individuals collapsing on their way to work, and dying within hours, or entering a hospital with a fever and expiring soon afterwards. A popular anecdotal favorite was about four healthy young women who spent the evening playing cards together, and during the night influenza stroke, and by morning only one was still alive. Soon the virus began spreading into the public areas. The headline on the front page of the Macon Telegraph (October 2, 1918), loudly announced “14,000 New Cases within 24 Hours. Spanish Influenza Epidemic is Growing Hourly. Pneumonia Also Causes 300 Deaths.”

Military hospital.
1918

In Boston, Camp Devens reported over 7,000 cases in one day, and by September 23 the camp hospital were attending 12,604 patients with influenza. The camp hospital accommodated 2,000 and the overflow was housed on its porches, and out in the drafty wooden barracks. Nurses and doctors were quickly overwhelmed, and at Devens nearly a third of the 300 nurses came down with the virus. At a time when antibiotics did not exist, doctors and nurses were simply helpless. Devens was only one of the many army camps struck in the fall of 1918. Our Naval fleet suffered as well. The Oregonian (September 23, 1918), in the article “Death Toll Climbs” reported that the First Naval District in Boston had incurred 238 dead from influenza and another 95 dead of pneumonia. Although only one Navy nurse had died during the war to date, the virus was so devastating to sailors, that 25 of the attending nurses also died, seven of them at Great Lakes training camp. By the end of 1918 tens of thousands of American soldiers had died of influenza while in training camps.

Hospital workers during the influenza virus. 1918

The death rate by camp was as high as 40% of the infected soldiers. Many of the ones who survived took the virus with them as they were deployed overseas. The battlefield, especially the trenches, proved to be a fatal space to breed and spread the virus. As the war began to wind down troops began to deploy back to the United States and the monster virus made its return visit, and exploded once again.

In just the month of October, 1918, over 200,000 Americans died of influenza, 12,000 in Philadelphia alone. .Many physicians had joined the army or navy, and stateside medical facilities were completely overwhelmed. Deaths were so regular that horse-drawn carts made the rounds through the streets of the larger cities, the drivers yelling out, “bring out your dead.” Funeral parlors ran out of coffins and “bodies had to be rolled unceremoniously into mass graves dug by steam shovels.”

The war officially ended on November 11, 1918, and the celebrations related to Armistice Day proved to be a fatal health disaster. Parades and large parties created a perfect breeding ground for the virus to continue to spread into the public areas. The end of the war overshadowed the influenza pandemic and the mounting death toll not only in the U.S., but all over the globe. It is clear that the mass movement of armies and naval fleets probably fanned the deadliness of the virus. At the time, it was felt that the trench warfare, plus the use of mustard gases, which produced and spread “smoke and fumes,” also accelerated the disease. The transporting of military forces packed together in tight quarters proved to be an incubator of death.

Red Cross workers during the 1918 Influenza outbreak.

Our young soldiers were well aware of the possibilities of combat death, but they never imagined “blue death”. The virus was particularly cruel in that it generally bypassed the old and very young, but concentrated on those ages 20-35. One of the ironies created by the pandemic was of the lack of volunteer help. Support for the war effort was enormous, but when bodies began stacking up like cords of wood, the public became frightened by “blue death” and withdrew. The Red Cross and various facilities, including many hospitals, desperately asked for volunteer help. In one case, after failing to persuade volunteers to help, hundreds of city employees of Trenton, New Jersey, were forced into being grave diggers for the mounting numbers of bodies. Over 675,000 Americans died because of the Spanish Influenza, and the world-wide numbers range from 40 to 60 million., making it the deadliest pandemic in modern history. Thousands of American troops never made it out of training camps, or off the ships that were to transport them to Europe. Their hopes of going “over there” never happened.

Sources:

Colorado Springs Gazette, April 29, 1917, “ U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight”

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Alfred W. Crosby

Pueblo Chieftain, March 30, 1919, “Influenza Causes is Responsible for Half War Deaths”

Kansas City Star, December 26, 1918, “War Own by Influenza. Dr. Woods Hutchinson Says the Disease Held back the Germans”

Colorado Springs Gazette, October 5, 1918, “Influenza Spreads in Camps and Cities in North and South and on both Coasts”

The Death of Abraham Lincoln Brought Mourning and Cheering.

Lincoln two months before his death. The years of war have taken its toll on the President.

Abraham Lincoln’s sudden death on April 14, 1865 created a new level of concern to an already anxious nation. Just days before, President Lincoln had strolled triumphantly through the streets of the fallen Confederate capital. Richmond’s former slaves rejoiced and one kneelt at his feet prompting Lincoln to say “kneel only to God and thank Him for the freedom you are about to enjoy.” For those peeping through windows, the moment had to be surreal – – seeing Lincoln in their city was unimaginable. General Robert E. Lee’s had surrendered his army just five days before, so, the war was essentially over, but the country was still divided. Some say, even more divided than ever. It was too late to save the South, or its “peculiar” institution. Slavery had been the wheel that kept southern whites in control of their world. The war cost the lives of over 600,000 young men, and a once robust national economy had all been crushed. As the losers, Southerners expected harsh treatment from the victors. Many felt that their defeat had meant that “God had spoken” and now free black man would seek “their revenge” and the murdering of whites would be widespread. Others thought that the same fate, if not worse, would come from the occupying Yankee army. Clearly, the subject on most Southerners minds, was not the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's funeral train.
Lincoln’s funeral train.

As the news spread about the assassination, many Rebel sympathizers wasted no time in disparaging the memory of Lincoln. Others took on a pretense of mourning for him, and possibly a few were sincere in their praise. It would not be accurate to say that the lovers and haters of Lincoln were divided evenly between the borders of the Union and Confederate states. For the pro-Union sympathizers, their tears and acts of sympathy were real. Lincoln’s funeral procession passed through various cities and small towns, ending up in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. During the two week procession over 1 million people stood along the streets, and in line, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lincoln’s funeral train. Emotions ran high for everyone, but for different reasons. Lincoln’s death laid bare just how divided the nation was in April 1865. Part of the country sincerely mourned the loss of the President, while the other half mourned the loss of a cause, and a place that no longer existed – the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s death was a surprise, but, it was not completely unexpected, especially to the President himself. He was aware of the long list of those who had prayed for his death. Determined, Abraham Lincoln had told his family and others that he needed to be accessible to the public. Several times a day he would walk, often alone, and many times at night, from the White House to the Government Telegraph office. He could have sent a messenger to retrieve the recent battle details, but that was not his style. Lincoln placed the needs of the nation ahead of his own personal fears. He did, however, ponder his own death. A few days before his assassination Lincoln experienced a prophetic dream. The story was retold later by several who witnessed Lincoln telling the tale, that in his dream there was a coffin in the East Room of the White House. He asked who was in the coffin, and was told that it was the President.

On the morning of the assassination, John Wilkes Booth wrote a letter that was intended for the editors of the Washington, D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer. Booth asked fellow actor John Matthews to deliver the letter to their office. Never delivered, and supposedly destroyed, it was later reconstructed by Matthews. According to Matthews, Booth stated, “Many, I know – the vulgar herd – will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me.” Lincoln’s killer felt that in time the entire nation would be grateful for his killing the President. Many Rebel sympathizers were grateful, but most simply did not care. They were so wrapped up with worrying about themselves and their families to feel much about Lincoln. In the years after his death the South suffered greatly, and many former Lincoln haters changed their minds.

In 1865 there were more churches than schools and hospitals combined in the country. Abraham Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday, and by Easter Sunday many Northern churches were comparing him to a Christ-like savior. Some pastors told their congregations that Abraham Lincoln had died for the sins of the nation. The New York Times compared Lincoln’s legacy with that of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There was no tolerance for any disagreement about the greatness of Lincoln. Those who dared to make insults faced mobs of vigilantes, who took justice into their own hands. In one New England town a loud-mouthed Lincoln hater was tarred and feathered, others were intimidated and threatened with either death or bodily injury. A group of factory workers beat one man nearly to death when he quipped that Lincoln “had as much brain now as he ever had.” Others were shot or hanged. Emotions were so strained that Secretary Stanton ordered that all people expressing treasonable sentiments about the late President would be arrested.

As expected many of the Southern newspapers joyfully announced his death. The Chattanooga Daily Rebel stated, “Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he permitted to be shed, and his efforts to enslave a free people.” In North Carolina, however, the Raleigh Standard, surprisingly expressed “profound grief.” In five years, however, the Southern press had accomplished a great deal in convincing their readers that Lincoln was less than human. Lincoln had been portrayed in textbooks, cartoons, verse and the theater as a devil, buffoon, ape, baboon, butcher, and above all, as an incompetent oaf.

Thomas Morris Chester was one of the few African-American war correspondents during the Civil War.
Thomas Morris Chester was one of the few African-American war correspondents during the Civil War.

In occupied Richmond, Union officer Oscar Ireland wrote to his wife that he saw Richmonders “mourning and regret for the loss of the President,” and expressed “hatred and scorn for the fiendishness and utter folly of the assassins.” The African American war journalist Thomas Morris Chester held a very different opinion. After observing several Rebel officers who wore black crape in honor of Lincoln, Chester felt that they “feigned regret for the assassination.” It is doubtful that Rebel officers or other Southerners were sincere in their expressions to an officer of the occupying army. They may have been grieving, but not for Lincoln. There was a deep bitterness about Lincoln that was tied to both the Southern defeat and the great loss of so many sons, husbands and fathers. Behind closed doors some quietly said to one another that Abraham Lincoln “deserved assassination.”

Mary Chestnut
Mary Chestnut

Many Southerners were so weary of war that Lincoln’s death was nothing special. Confederate Officer John Taylor Wood wrote in his diary “Heard of Lincoln’s death. Mobile and Columbus lost.” Wood was referring to the Alabama cities that had fallen to the Union army. There were plenty of Southerners who expressed what most felt in there heart. “Pity it hadn’t been done years ago,” said one, and a Rebel coming home from Lee’s defeated army wrote in his diary, “Thus passed from earth one of the greatest monsters who ever lived.” Seventeen year old Emma LeConte wrote in her diary, “Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated! My heart is mixed with gratified revenge.” Amanda Edmunds from North Carolina wrote in her diary that now Unionists “felt the suffering which they have inflicted on our Southern people.” A Tennessee woman ranted with glee at African American soldiers saying “Your father is dead.” Other Southerners, however, saw a dark future for themselves without Lincoln. One wrote “I fear it bodes no good for the south.” The well-known Southern novelist Mary Chestnut also wrote, “This foul murder will bring down worse miseries on us.” An exiled Jefferson Davis agreed with Mary Chestnut’s observation stating, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people,” despite that members of his staff had “cheered” upon hearing the news.

Abraham Lincoln was wise enough to foresee troubled times ahead for the nation, and especially the South. Just weeks before his death, and at his 2nd Inauguration ceremony, he addressed the issue of national unity when he said “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln was extending an olive branch of peace to the South, and many Southerners took comfort in his words, but many Unionist viewed his comments as not tough enough toward the so-called “secessionist’s traitors.”

The tragic death of Abraham Lincoln made an already impossibly complex situation of uniting the country post-war, much worse. Lincoln would have brought to the table a measure of trust, patience, and encouragement. Instead, neither side felt any amount of trust towards the other, and the virtues of patience and encouragement were replaced with harsh federal rules that were viewed by Southerners as punishment and revenge. White Southerners passed Black Code Laws, later called Jim Crow laws, which created an entire legal system designed to oppress African Americans. In the end, it is Lincoln’s legacy that we remember.

Arrogance, Innocence, and Greed: The Tragic Shaping of Early 20th Century America.

Lady Liberty's is facing north, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island,NY, NY, Library of Congress, 2006
Lady Liberty’s front is looking north, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island,NY, NY, Library of Congress, 2006

In 1900, some considered America a beacon of light to the rest of the world. Immigrants were flooding into the cities of our nation, and there was an impressive list of new innovations that had “made in U. S.” stamped on it. We were becoming defined by the opportunities and the possibilities that existed. There was a certainty that all would turn out right, and little room was left to question or doubt other possibilities. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed his own confidence in the future by saying, “I always believe in going hard at everything.” America was going hard at everything, and gave little thought about to potential dangers, or unexpected events which might be lurking about. The confidence of Americans was bubbling over, and the nation not only hoped for the best, they fully expected it. There were, however, many other factors that also bubbled, but beneath the surface, moving in many different directions, like the tide, some going forward and others backward.

Early 20th Century America has been historically referred to as the Age of Confidence, the Cocksure Era, and the Age of Innocence. There are many tragic examples of just how innocent and vulnerable Americans were during that period. The average working class Americans understood the realities of life based on what they saw, felt, and lived. It is unlikely that our young men who fought in World War I understood why they were going to war, and they probably had no idea what they would face. The same could be said about The Great Pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Many American physicians confused the influenza virus with the common cold. As millions were dying in Europe in 1918, our Public Health Service did not even recognize influenza as a reportable illness. Between March 1918 and January 1919 approximately 675,000 Americans died from the influenza virus. Worldwide, nearly 50 million perished from The Great Pandemic. In America, it was not just a time of innocence, it was a time of imbalance. On the one hand, America was driven by the brilliance of new technologies and the ambitions of industrialists, while the larger population suffered because of lack of information and knowledge.

Young American Soldier. World War i. 1917-1918.
Young American Soldier.
World War I. 1917-1918.

That time period was also remembered, as a time of arrogance, especially, when considering one catastrophic event. In 1900, Galveston had a population of 35,000, and was the largest city in Texas. Its 30 miles of low-lying beaches stretched along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The residents were used to bad storms and their streets occasionally overflowed from tidal waves. They had, however, been reassured by experts that a seawall was not needed. Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist of the National Weather Bureau, wrote an article in 1891 (Galveston Daily News) saying that it was a “crazy idea” to think that a hurricane would ever hit Galveston. He went on to state that anyone who believed otherwise was, “the victim of an absurd delusion.” He was also confident about the risk of storm surges saying, “It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a surge that would materially injure the city.” Much of the city, however, was only 9 feet above sea level, so a storm surge was a very legitimate concern. The certainty of Cline’s opinions swayed the public and the seawall was not built. He later regretted his comments.

Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas 1900
Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas
1900

There was an even larger problem – – U.S. weather people were weather snobs, and systemically rejected data from non-American entities. It was felt that their data would be inferior and could not be trusted. This attitude was particularly true of one of our closest geographical neighbors, the island of Cuba. Cuba, which had experienced untold numbers of hurricanes, had an advanced hurricane tracking system in place since 1870, and by 1900 their tracking and predicting methods were extremely accurate. On August 30, 1900, the National Weather Bureau began providing daily updates to the Galveston area about a “storm of moderate intensity,” including “rain and strong winds”. The Galveston Daily News told its readers that there was a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but the city was not in its path. Cuban meteorologists had frantically been sending the Bureau weather reports via telegraphs, which accurately predicted both the track and the huge scale of the storm. The Bureau rejected the reports citing that Cubans could not accurately predict hurricanes, let alone do it better than they could.

Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath - body is visible in the ruins
Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath – body is visible in the ruins

Saturday, September 8, 1900 businesses were open and residents were shopping; some were sitting in lunchrooms talking about the rising winds. Despite the swelling tides, and the moderate flooding in the streets, people were still enjoying the beaches. By mid- morning the winds had gained strength, and by 10:30 am there were reports that shingles were being blown from roofs, wind gauges were ripped from moorings, and small children were getting pulled into the surf. By midday, the full 145 mph winds struck the city, and the low areas were quickly swallowed by the 15’ tidal surges. By the end of the day between 8,000 and 12,000 people were killed and over 3,000 structures destroyed. The Galveston Hurricane is easily the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Dr. Isaac Cline claims in his autobiography that on the morning of the storm he personally went up and down the packed beaches of Galveston alerting people on the beach that they needed to get to higher ground. According to historian Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm) his research could not corroborate his claim, and suggests that Cline did not warn anyone, but that it did not matter. Larson’s research suggested that residents and vacationers would not have heeded the warning anyhow. Like the Bureau, they shared the same degree of arrogance that nothing bad would happen to them. Their own confidence, bursting from years of re-assurance, simply reflected what they had been led to believe.

Isaac Cline

Sadly, Isaac Cline lost his wife and unborn child in the disaster. He later said he had made a mistake in his analysis of the town’s need for a seawall. The town rebuilt and made numerous improvements including building three miles of seawall, a high impact weather bridge, and most dramatically, raising the grade of the city, in some places as high as 17 feet. Despite these enormous civic efforts the commercial promise of Galveston as a shipping and manufacturing center for the nation had been lost.

A century ago an average American had a third grade education, and only a quarter of the nation could read. We were not innocent to the many hardships of life, such as hard work, raising families, and premature death. Innocence, however, reigned in the day to day lives of people when it came to events that were completely unimaginable. The community of Galveston knew about Nor’ Easters, and even hurricanes, but unlike hurricanes, an earthquake was something that only a handful of the better-read even knew about, and they occurred in far-away places. When the earthquake hit San Francisco only a few even realized what was happening.

San Francisco was a city with great promise; it was referred to as the “beautiful city” and “gateway to the Pacific”, and life was good. The morning paper, the San Francisco Call, headlined two articles entitled “A Rich Man’s Son Lands in Jail,” and “Weds Nurse to Whom he Owes Health.” The previous day the headline dealt with two steamer ships colliding with each other in the port, and no one was injured. The world of San Francisco was a quiet and peaceful one. It was Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906 and the weather was clear and sunny, but at 5:13 am the peace and quiet suddenly ended.

San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city
San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city

The force of the earthquake was so severe it ruptured the city’s gas and water mains. There were 135 aftershocks which leveled huge buildings, buckled streets, and crushed residents to death beneath the rubble. Within hours of the initial quake, the center of San Francisco was engulfed in flames, and without water the fire departments were helpless to extinguish the inferno. After three days the fire was finally out, and four miles of the city were destroyed, 30,000 structures, 300,000 homeless and 3,000 perished in the quake or the fire that ensued. The pride of the city, San Francisco’s City Hall, which had taken 25 years to build, was lost in less than 2 minutes.

Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906
Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906

Before the fires had burned out, the Governor of California had appointed a panel of experts to study the earthquake. Dr. Andrew Larson, a professor from UCLA, became the chairman of the committee. Known as the Larson Report, his comprehensive study became the accepted handbook about earthquake science, and is still used today. The report identified a continental transform boundary called the San Andreas Fault. The fault was found to extend nearly the length of the entire state, and formed the tectonic boundary that connected the Pacific and North American Plates. Larson’s team of 20 scientists walked the entire distance observing and taking notes. The report also discussed how stress within the earth could build up, and at some point rupture, and propagate land movements and earthquakes. The most significant contribution of the report was a specialized method to identify rupture and earthquake zones.

Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918, rows of sick influenza patients.
Camp Funston, Kansas,
1918, rows of sick influenza patients.

The core of American life is and was driven by its economy. Prior to 1865 the majority of the nation’s economic growth was through slave labor, and this had been the case for over two hundred and fifty years. Its replacement was the Second Industrial Revolution and, while slavery itself was gone, wage slavery was not. Poorly paid workers barely existed in filthy and unsafe work conditions. In some situations, the workplaces were so terrible that owners would not go inside. It was, however, good enough for their workers. Employers were king and their workers had few, if any rights. In the early 20th Century, greed was rampant among many American industrialists, and it was allowed to flourish off the backs of their workers.

March 25, 1911 started off as a nice day In Manhattan. It was a Saturday, and Washington Park was full of picnickers and those out enjoying a walk. New York University students and other passersby’s, were all enjoying the sunshine. Around 4:40 pm the first signs of smoke began coming from the Asch Building across from the park. The Triangle Waist Company garment factory was on fire. Within a minute, the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building were engulfed in smoke and flames, and the screams of the women were clearly heard by those in the park. By 4:45 pm women began jumping out of windows. Some became human torches, their bodies twisting in agony as they dropped to the sidewalk. The fire departments arrived quickly but their ladders were not long enough to even reach the 6th floor, and their life nets ripped from the impact of the falling bodies. By 5pm, 62 people had either jumped or fallen out of the windows, their bodies heaped together on the sidewalk, and another 19 had been killed falling down the elevator shafts. Altogether, 146 people died as a result of the fire, including two fourteen year old girls, Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese. In the large crowd that had gathered, many became hysterical, some screamed in disbelief, women fainted and many wept as they watched the grisly scene. According to the Daily People, the horror was witnessed by over 25,000 people.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.

The fire was caused by a lit cigarette that was dropped on the 8th floor. Months of upswept fabric cuttings quickly turned into a raging blaze. The owners were alerted by a phone call and they and some others escaped off the roof. The building only had one fire escape, and it quickly became overloaded with frantic workers, and crashed to the ground. The one exit door was locked, and the key was with the male supervisor who had already saved himself. Half of the dead were teenage girls, and their pay envelopes were found in their clothing. The next morning one of the newspaper’s headlines read, “Died for $6 a Week,” and another stated “Workers Sacrificed in Deadly Fire Trap. Ghastly Remains on Street.” Another article noted that the door was locked to keep workers out who arrived late for work, and it also prevented strikers from interrupting the owners’ business.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911

Several newspapers capitalized on the irony of the disaster. In 1909, many of the women who were killed in the fire were the same ones who had marched in the protests at the Triangle factory. They were simply demanding shorter hours, better wages and safer working conditions. In 1909 everything had been against the workers – the courts, the police, and most importantly the laws had all been designed to protect the employers. Employers needed profits to stay in business, and that was based on speed, long hours, and no breaks. Many of the women who had marched in the protest lines, had been beaten by thugs and prostitutes, who had been hired by their employers. They were determined to keep the unions out, and maintain the status quo with regards to wages and unsafe work conditions. The police had looked the other way, but in the aftermath of the fire, they were like the rest of the community, and grieved in disbelief. Within days of the fire the public began demanding the rights that the women had died for. In one article entitled, “It Took Women to Burn” fueled the anger for the national debate that took place. By 1914, 30 new labor laws came out of the disaster, including improved safety standards, shorter work days and better pay. The fact that the tragic loss was witnessed by so many helped convince an entire nation that workplace changes were more important than greed.

In 1900, Americans were excited about what lay ahead. The Industrial Revolution had brought jobs, and because of that, millions of Americans were migrating into industrialized areas, and creating cities throughout the nation. Inventors, investors, industrial owners, and government leaders all expressed, or implied, great faith in the future of our nation. Along the way, at least during those first two decades, our nation stumbled many times. The challenges described, were horrific back steps, but helped redefine us, and encouraged a nation to strive for a better society.

Sources:

Time Magazine, September 8, 2008 , Amanda Riply “The 1900 Galveston Hurricane.”

Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, Philip Fradkin

San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, Kathleen Duey

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Jacqueline Green

The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919, United States Department of Health and Human Services

A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories in America: The Ones We Remember and Those We Should Know About.

JFK, Dallas, November 22, 1963. Minutes before the assassination.
JFK, Dallas, November 22, 1963. Minutes before the assassination.

America loves a good story. Some stories, however, inspire us so much that fiction is accepted as the truth. Have you seen Elvis lately? Sadly, there are some who still report that they have spotted him. The government DID NOT create the Aids problem, and we DID land a man on the moon! A lot of energy has gone into spinning sometimes ridiculous conspiracy theories that ultimately taint a true history. Conspiracies are alternative stories about a real events. These stories develop because a part of our society refuses to accept the official explanation. The beloved iconic Elvis could not possibly be dead, and walking on the moon was unimaginable, many thought. As far as the Aids conspiracy, many citizens historically don’t trust the government anyhow. It is not a giant stretch to see how an angry tale of blame was spun. Some conspiracy theories stay in the public’s mind, and others fade away. The problem is that the ones that fade away are the conspiracies that we need to remember.

The conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Marilyn Monroe’s death are examples of alternative stories that are possibly plausible. Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald was not alone in the murder of Kennedy, and could there also be a widespread network of conspirators involved? Did Marilyn Monroe die of an overdose as officially reported, or was she murdered by people close to JFK? Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1942, and officially, that was the end of the story. In 1942, however, we were at war with Japan, and Earhart’s plane was flying over enemy territory. It is not difficult to imagine a conspiracy theory connecting her disappearance with the Japanese. In fact, the strongest Earhart theory is that the Japanese either shot her plane down or it crashed, and she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, were captured by the Japanese, tortured and eventually executed. These conspiracy stories, and others, are in our recent memory and are still in the public discourse. As far as our American history, they have not been resolved.

Amelia Earhart  1937
Amelia Earhart
1937

Conspiracy theories thrive on being unresolved. Here are a few that have surfaced in the last 150 years, and they range from pure fantasy to believable, and somewhere in between:

Roswell – In July 1947 Roswell, New Mexico was the scene of a bizarre incident. The military claimed that a crash involved a high altitude balloon, but eyewitnesses said something else. Within a few hours the news media were announcing that the Roswell crash was a legitimate UFO, and some of the bodies recovered were definitely not human. Three so-called creatures resembled humans but smaller, and with larger heads and spindly limbs. The conspiracy blames the federal government with covering up the true facts, and not releasing the bodies to be independently examined. The evidence here is thin, at best.

James Earl Ray,
1955

Martin Luther King – In April 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered and James Earl Ray was quickly arrested and admitted to killing him. Within three days, Ray recanted his confession. Later, civil cases agreed that Ray had not murdered King, but instead pointed the finger at Lloyd Jowers, a local bar owner. King’s family also believed Ray’s story, but the government did not. The official report said that Ray was not only the killer, but he most likely had been stalking King. The King family believed that the government was involved in his murder. Other researchers suggest that a larger network of conspirators had been planning to murder King, and Ray was just the hit man. There’s not enough evidence to support that Martin Luther King’s murderer was anyone other than James Earl Ray. Ray was never released from jail and he passed away in 1994.

U.S.S. Eldridge
U.S.S. Eldridge

Philadelphia Experiment – This conspiracy is difficult to imagine, but in 1943 it was claimed that the U.S. Naval ship the USS Eldridge, became invisible. In the previous year over 1,000 Allied ships had been sunk by German U-boats, and some have argued that the U.S. Navy was trying to come up with a counter-measure to the U-boat attacks. At the time, Albert Einstein was employed by the Navy, and had been working on his Unified Field Theory. His theory had to do with the science of warping space and time, and it may have included the science of making objects invisible through an electro-magnetic field. According to the story, this field was created on the Eldridge, and it surrounded the entire ship. Witnesses’ claim that a greenish fog appeared and covered the vessel. The Eldridge then completely vanished and reappeared at the Norfolk Naval base, which was 300 miles away. It vanished again and then reappeared back at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. The ship sustained no damage, but according to eyewitnesses, some sailors caught fire and others were partially embedded in the steel of the ship. The U.S. Navy denied both the existence of the experiment, or any details related to the so-called incident on the Eldridge. This story sounds far-fetched and possibly because of its fictional nature, it has not resonated with support from this generation.

General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General's Eisenhower, Bradley.
General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General’s Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges.

General George Patton – The flamboyant general of World War II was mysteriously killed in a vehicle accident shortly after the war ended. Patton had demonstrated his careless streak many times, but in this situation, he was not even driving. Some suggest that the outspoken general was silenced because of his Anti-Soviet views, or because he might publicly divulge war secrets. He had loudly suggested that the U.S. should continue the war and invade the Soviet Union. Official reports about the accident have disappeared. Patton’s driver said the Army truck that slammed into them had been waiting. Patton suffered a broken neck and later died of a blood clot in the hospital. The three other passengers were not injured, and an autopsy was never performed on his body. There are a number of interesting facts surrounding Patton’s death, but no clear definitive proof that his death was anything other than an accident. However,the conspiracy theory continues to persist.

Civil War – The claim that England started the war is another theory with thin, or no, credible evidence. Apparently, since the Revolutionary War, England had been plotting to take their colony back. By starting a Civil War the North and South would each shatter the other physically and economically. Once this was done the English military would easily invade the nation and take over.

Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution – It is widely accepted that the government takeover, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family, was done by radical Bolshevik revolutionaries. The alternate theory is that the Russian revolution was planned and financed by American and British banks, and that Lenin and Trotsky were front men used by the two nations. The two countries wanted communism, which was known as an economic loser, to be installed. The theory is difficult to grasp, but there is growing research to support this theory.

Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941
Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941

Pearl Harbor – Sunday, December 7, 1941 is the day the Japanese attacked an unsuspecting U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet which was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation later that day, saying about the attack “a date which will live in infamy,” and then asked Congress to declare war with Japan. The alternative story is that FDR and others in his administration were well aware of the Japanese intent to bomb Pearl Harbor, and did nothing. According to the conspiracy, the Roosevelt administration wanted war, and the American public was not ready to support our involvement. The Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor would assure that the American public would support our involvement in the war.

There is some proof to support this conspiracy. Our military had cracked the Japanese code two months prior to Pearl Harbor; they had deciphered a number of Japanese messages suggesting the attack. Based on research obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, researchers also suggest that FDR’s administration had intentionally provoked the Japanese to attack by freezing her assets in the United States, closing the Panama Canal to Japanese ships, and halting important exports to Japan. Research also suggests that America had entered into a secret alliance with Great Britain to defeat Germany, and this alliance was made before we had even entered the war. This makes for an interesting story, but it seems unlikely that FDR’s administration wanted to go to war, especially since the nation was unprepared militarily.

The interesting thing about conspiracy theories is that they balance between fiction and non-fiction, and just simply leave us wondering. There are two conspiracies, one in the 19th, and the other in the 20th century, that are probably factual, at least in part. Their stories are far more sinister than the death of Marilyn, or the whereabouts of Elvis, or even the murder of JFK. They present believable plots about the takeover of our nation’s government.

In April and May 1865 our nation’s capital was gripped by fear surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Just weeks before the war officially ended Lincoln was murdered and his Secretary of State was nearly beaten to death. Nine conspirators were caught and tried. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth was hunted down and shot to death in a barn in Caroline County, Virginia. Four of the conspirators, including a female, were hanged in July 1865. The rest of the gang quickly spilled the beans that the plan had included murdering Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant. That is the official story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and then there is the conspiracy of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The execution of four of Lincoln's conspirators. August 1865
The execution of four of Lincoln’s conspirators.
August 1865

The KGC began before the Civil War began and was initially established to support and expand slavery and slave territories. The confederation of slave’s states would include the Southern states, Cuba and Nicaragua. According to the conspiracy, hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just Southerners, were members of the KGC. Some reports suggest that in addition to John Wilkes Booth, and all of the conspirators, several of Lincoln’s own cabinet and Jefferson Davis himself were members of the organization. The initial plan of the group was to push the South to secede from the Union, intentionally starting the war. The KGC was convinced of the invincibility of the South. In the election of 1860 the KGC placed their bets on Lincoln, simply because they thought that he was incompetent and illiterate. Lincoln, as President of the Union, would pose no problem to the South’s plans of seceding from the Union, they thought.

When the war went sour, the KGC decided that it was worth a last ditch effort to take out the Union leadership. There is a growing amount of work that supports that John Wilkes Booth was not the man killed in the Caroline County barn. It is also difficult to ignore the legitimacy of the KGC network, and its relationship to the Confederacy. Some researchers have argued that the KGC was also well financed, but offered little credible evidence. It is plausible, however, that the KGC was involved in both Lincoln’s death, and a larger conspiracy to develop a new nation based on a slave economy.

There are numerous Lincoln conspiracies. The most logical one was that the Confederacy, in some fashion, was behind his death. Another theory suggested that Edwin Stanton was the mastermind. Stanton was in Lincoln’s Cabinet and served as Secretary of War, and disagreed with the President over many issues, but particularly Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans. As a lawyer he had lost a major case when he represented the Catholic Church. Some felt that the church was so troubled by Lincoln’s poor handling of the case that they could have conspired to murder him. Lincoln’s own Vice President, Andrew Johnson has even been the focus of some conspirator researchers. Johnson and Booth were friendly, even sharing the same mistresses. Booth had even visited Johnson on several occasions just prior to Lincoln’s death. These theories all make for good stories, but fall short in evidence.

Gen. Smedley Butler

Major General Smedley Butler was the highest ranking U.S. Marine Corps officer in the service, and, at his death, was the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States. So, when Butler testified before Congress that a group of businessmen had approached him about leading a military coup to overthrow FDR’s administration, that got the attention of the entire nation.

In 1933 the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Germany was also facing severe economic hardship and their unemployment rate was at 33%. In that same year Hitler’s Fascist regime came into power and made many promises about improving the lives of its citizens. These promises impressed certain people and groups. Hitler pledged that he would quickly reduce the numbers of unemployed, and he kept that promise. His government, however, was also rounding up Jews, closing their businesses, and confiscating their personal possessions. These actions may have also impressed the elite group of American businessman. All of those accused denied the charges and the media called Butler’s accusations a colossal joke, fantasy and “no truth in the story at all.” The New York Times went further and in an editorial characterized it as a “gigantic hoax.”

The House of Representatives, however, did not agree. After two months of investigating, the House Committee admitted that much of what General Butler had said was alarmingly true. There was even proof that a military march on Washington had been planned. Despite this, no one was prosecuted and no one’s reputation was destroyed, or even damaged, including General Butler. The entire matter, referred to as the Business Plot, was simply forgotten and allowed to go away. World War II was on the horizon and Americans began to focus on the war, and probably never looked back.

The American public is fascinated with conspiracies. Many of us are driven to find the truth, while others simply enjoy being entertained by a new twist in an old tale. A constant spinning of an interesting story will do that. There are certain conspiracy theories from our past, whose larger meaning we need to reconsider and analyze. If the North had lost the Civil War and the KGC and its mission were real, the result would have been unimaginable. Equally, it is difficult to imagine World War II America without Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is much that we can learn from the past, and some conspiracy theories may provide valuable insight into our society.

Resources:

Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War, by David C. Keehn

The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking TRUE Story of the Conspiracy, by Jules Archer

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart,
by Candace Fleming

Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisiblity, by
William L. Moore, Charles Berlitz

The Last American Warship Sunk in WWII: Fatal Mistakes and Shark Attacks.

Last photo of officers of USS Indianapolis before leaving California with A bomb. L to R - front row: Commander Page Hill, Captain McVay, CDR. Joe Flynn, CDR. Glen F. DeGrave L to R - back row: LCDR. C.M Christiansen, LCDR KC Moore, LCDR. Dr. L. Haynes, LCDR. Earl Henry, LCDR. Charles Hayes -
Last photo of officers of USS Indianapolis before leaving California
with A bomb. L to R – front row: Commander Page Hill, Captain McVay, CDR. Joe Flynn, CDR. Glen F. DeGrave L to R – back row: LCDR. C.M Christiansen, LCDR KC Moore, LCDR. Dr. L. Haynes, LCDR. Earl Henry, LCDR. Charles Hayes –
USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis was the last major American warship sunk during WWII. With the loss of 883 sailors, it was the worst naval disaster in American history. Returning from completing the most important mission of the war, the one that ultimately ended the war with Japan, the Indianapolis was torpedoed,and sank in less than 12 minutes. It was midnight July 30, 1945, and just six days before the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The story about the flagship of the 5th Fleet, lovingly referred to as Indy, is fraught with tragedies at every intersection.

There were 1196 men onboard, and many considered the ship to be overloaded. Quarters were tight and there was little room on deck to perform the battle drills once out to sea. Youth reigned on the Indianapolis, and, of the crew, 250 were brand-new from boot camp. Seaman Bob Grause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida wanted to see his wife one more time before the Indy left port in San Francisco. He had been so busy working as a quartermaster that he had not had time to let his wife know that the ship was leaving. Despite the captain canceling all leave, Grause managed to slip off the ship for few hours, and was barely able to jump back onboard as it pulled away from the dock. Seaman Ed Brown of South Dakota also wanted an evening off the ship, but decided it was not worth the risk. He had joined the Navy and had left for boot camp on the same day he played his last high school basketball game. They both survived the disaster, and Grause went on to run a successful lumber business, and Brown was a salesmen for the auto industry.

On July 15, 1945, the Indy began its fateful last mission. The 610 foot heavy cruiser left its port in San Francisco for the Tiniam Island in the Philippines. It was a beautiful day and there was a slight breeze as the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Captain McVay’s orders were in a sealed envelope and locked in the ship’s safe. He had been told to open the orders once out to sea. “Gentlemen, our mission is secret and I cannot tell you the mission, but every hour we save will shorten the war by that much,” he reportedly said . The captain ordered the crew to increase the ships speed and it traveled for the remainder of the mission under radio silence.

The first atomic bomb  "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima by the plane the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945.
The first atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima by the the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945.

The crew wondered when they would see their families and sweethearts again, what the mission was, and why the ship suddenly was going at maximum speed. In fact, as the Indy got into open water it reached 28 knots and held that, and by the end of the day the ship had covered 350 miles. The biggest chatter amongst the crew had to do with the large wooden crate that was fastened to the port hangar deck. The screws holding the box tight to the deck were counter sinked and wax was poured over the screws discouraging anyone from tampering with it. An armed guard stood watch with orders to shoot if anyone was foolish enough to get too close. The box was so big that a 30’ by 30’ area was cordoned off with red tape. Rumors suggested that it was full of gold bullion, or possibly Rita Hayworth’s underwear. Inside the box, however, were the parts needed to assemble the first atomic bomb, which was called “Little Boy.”

A short distance away, a black canister was welded to the flag lieutenant’s cabin. Inside the canister was death in the form of uranium-235. It represented half the useable uranium in America, and it was enough to ultimately kill nearly 100,000 people in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Of course, no one onboard the Indy could imagine in their wildest dreams the contents, or the blackish mushroom shaped clouds that would soon hang over Hiroshima. It was all innocent that morning on the Indy. There was only the good-humored chatter and the bantering about Rita Hayworth’s underwear. After traveling 3300 miles, the Indy docked at Tinian Island on July 26th. The crate and canister were quickly removed and taken to a remote place for assembly. The Enola Gay was waiting nearby in a secluded hangar on the island.

MARIANAS: CREWS The ground crew of the B-29 "Enola Gay" which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan.  Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center.  Marianas Islands.
: CREWS
The ground crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center.
The mushroom shaped cloud hang on Hiroshima. August 6, 1945.
The mushroom shaped cloud hung over Hiroshima. August 6, 1945.

At this point, the Indy’s final mission had been flawless. McVay had followed his orders to the letter and the ship had come close to breaking speed records for a ship her size. His concerns about running low on fuel, and having an inexperienced crew, had vanished once the wooden box and canister were taken off her deck. He was ordered to depart immediately for the Philippines. Within a few hours of docking and refueling, the Indy was back at sea.

Some have said the Indy just had bad luck on its trip to the Philippines. That would be a colossal understatement. The list of mistakes, miscommunications, misinformation, and just being in the wrong place, put the USS Indianapolis on a collision course with doomsday. McKay’s orders routed his ship through the shipping lanes in the Leyte Sea to the Philippines. He was advised on two occasions, possibly more, that this area of the South Pacific was low risk for Japanese submarine activity. That was encouraging, but McKay played it safe by requesting a destroyer escort. The request was denied, and McKay was again reassured again that there was little enemy activity to be concerned with. If the Indy did run into trouble, his supervisors advised that McVay should, at his discretion, use the standard procedure of zig-zagging his ship. What McKay did not know was that a sub had attacked and sank a Navy ship in those waters, just four days before.

What happened next is considered by many as the most fatal error ever made by the United States Navy. The Indy cabled a message to the U.S. Navy’s Philippine port with its travel orders, which included coordinates and an expected date of arrival. The message, however, was incorrectly decoded and, to make matters worse, the base did not bother to ask for another re-transmission. McKay, fully trusting the official reports and satisfied that his coordinates and travel information had been received, proceeded on the three day trip to the Philippines. On the second day, the visibility became poor, and McVay gave the order to reduce speed and to stop zig-zagging.

As the Indy began quietly passing through the Leyte Sea, two miles away Mochitsura Hashimoto was also thinking about the poor visibility. Hashimoto was the captain of a Japanese submarine, one of the elite Temont submarine fleet. There were only four subs in this group and they had all been outfitted with the most advanced radar and torpedoes. Only the best captains were picked to skipper these subs, except Hashimoto had never proven his ability. Hashimoto was worried about his military reputation. He felt that the war was nearly over, and that he had not earned the distinction of sinking an enemy ship. His reputation would be lost. Finally, the moon peeked out from the night’s blackness for a second, and Hashimoto saw a dark spot moving through the water. He gave the order to launch two torpedoes at the moving object. Suddenly the quiet of the night was interrupted. Onboard the Indy the 12 to 4pm crew had just taken their stations, and the rest were asleep. It was midnight July 30, 1945.

Both torpedoes struck the starboard bow blowing it completely off. All communications had been destroyed making it impossible to shut the four huge Parsons turbine engines down. The ship continued to move forward – – taking on enormous amounts of water. Fire was raging below and men were screaming, desperately clinging to one another and trying to escape the inferno. Despite the abject horror, others patiently put life jackets on the wounded, and those on deck quietly waited at their stations for orders. The ship quickly began listing and the captain issued orders to abandon ship. Before half past midnight the USS Indianapolis had disappeared from sight and the survivors clung to a few life boats, life jackets, and one another.

Billy Cantrell, John Cadwallader, and Chaplain Thomas Conway were a few of the crew who died. Eighteen year old Cantrell lived with his parents in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Prior to joining the Navy, he worked as a bicycle messenger for Western Union. Decades after the disaster Cantrell’s cousin said that Billy’s parents were never the same after their son’s death. John Cadwallader was young, married, and father of two children under four years old. He left home on the 4th of July 1945 to join the crew of the USS Indianapolis, and never saw his family again. Father Thomas Conway, was asleep in his berth when the first torpedo struck. Soon afterwards, he and hundreds of his shipmates were afloat in the shark infested water. The 37 year old swam to the aid of his shipmates and offered them comfort and prayers, and reassured them that they would be rescued. After three days, however, Father Conway succumbed to exhaustion and disappeared beneath the blackness of the Philippine Sea.

In the beginning, 900 men were afloat in the water. Sadly, the others were either directly killed by the torpedoes, or were trapped and then drowned as the ship went to the bottom of the sea. Of those in the water, many were injured from the fire that erupted from beneath the deck. There were many hero’s who were swimming around helping and encouraging the wounded and the scared, such as Captain McVay, Chaplain Thomas and others. As hours turned into days many of the survivors began to die, either from their wounds, exposure, exhaustion, or from shark attacks. “For each person as they died they took their life jackets off, and let them go. We then said the Lords Prayer. To this day I can’t say the Lord’s Prayer without crying,” recalled 85 year old Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ships doctor.

The flagship of the fleet had been forgotten. After three days the survivors were clinging on to miracles. Only half of the original survivors were still alive, and they were spread about 20 to 25 miles from each other in the sea. It wasn’t until the fourth day that the survivors of Indy were rescued — and, by accident. A Navy pilot looking for Japanese submarines spotted a 20 mile oil slick. It is unlikely that the remaining crew would have lasted another day. Out of the original 1196, then reduced to 900 after the torpedoes hit the Indy, only 316 survived the tragedy.

uss_indianapolis-survivors_on_guam_custom-f0b1922f37a1250d2faebb336d8c8115a31813aa-s1400-c85

Some said they survived because they had closed their minds off from thinking about dying. Others held out hope that the Navy would finally discover that their ship was missing. They were all inspired by the acts of heroism and countless individual displays of courage. The tragic story of the USS Indianapolis sounds like a fictional tale, in that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong:

The ship was overloaded, and had an unusually high
number of inexperienced crew members.

Captain McVay was advised at least twice that their was
little risk of enemy submarine activity. The captain had even
requested a destroyer escort, but his request was denied.

The Indy was ordered to leave the Tiniam Islands
Immediately after removing its cargo. The ship had just
finished traveling 3500 miles in ten days, and a day or two
In port was customary.

A fatal decoding error was made by the U.S. Navy in the
Philiphine port.

There were visibility issues on the night of July 30, 1945,
and because of that McVay suspended zig-zagging
operations.

Captain Hashimoto had not sunk an enemy ship in his
military career, but, despite the visibility problems he
successfully torpedoed the Indy.

Navy planes had flown over the site for days and never
noticed the survivors or the 20 mile’s of oil slick.

The story of the worst disaster in US Naval history was
over – shadowed by the Japanese surrender, and was
buried in the back pages of newspapers.

To complete the perfect storm, Captain McVay was unjustly court-martialed for failing to zig-zag in hostile waters. The charge was remitted by the Secretary of the Navy, and he was restored to duty. He retired from the Navy in 1949, and committed suicide in 1968. In 2001 Captain McVay was exonerated of any wrong doing connected with the sinking of his ship.

The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis is deepened when considering that the war was only days from being over. If the ship had been sunk before its historic rendezvous with the Enola Gay, the components of the bomb would have been on the bottom of the sea. Hiroshima would not have happened, and history would have certainly been altered.

Resources:

In Harm’s Way : The Sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis, by Doug Stanton

Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis , by Dan Kurzman

Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis,by Thomas Helm

Civil War Vets and Mental Illness: The Tragedy After the War.

National Home for Disabled Veterans, Ft. Monroe , Virginia , 1870-1880
National Home for Disabled Veterans, Ft. Monroe , Virginia , 1870-1880

During the Civil War (1860-1865) nearly 700,000 Americans lost their lives. Another 1 million were seriously wounded, and at least 100,000 or more veterans suffered from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some families began noticing the changes in behavior shortly after their loved ones returned home from the war. For others, it took months, and even years, before the festering emotional wounds began to reveal themselves, and in many ways.

Although the war was over, reminders of the war were everywhere. In the South the cities and the economy were devastated, and poverty was widespread. More disturbing, however, was the significant absence of young men, and the large number of widows. In some communities as many as 20% to 40% of the men between the ages of 16 and 24 had been killed in the war. When considering the battles and the men killed in different regiments, the numbers are staggering:

1st Texas (CSA) – Battle of Antietam – 82% killed
1st Minnesota (US)-Battle of Gettysburg – 82% killed
6th Mississippi (CSA) Battle of Shiloh – 70.5% killed
25th Massachusetts (US) Battle of Cold Harbor – 70% killed

Killed in battle, 
Spotsylvania, Virginia 1863
Killed in battle, Spotsylvania, Virginia 1863
Private George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat.
Private George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat.

There were the tens of thousands of wounded veterans who were without arms or legs. Antibiotics had not been discovered, so an infected limb was a likely death sentence, and amputation was the only answer. Union surgeon, Dr. Daniel Holt described the gruesome scene:

“Every house, for miles around is a hospital, and I have seen arms, legs, feet, and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of the Southern sky, unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work to the putrid mess.” Holt’s words are troubling but he offered a small window into history as it was happening. From the moment the war began, the battlefields produced not only death, but a multitude of severe and life-changing injuries, both physical and emotional.

A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation.
A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation.

Michael Schwenk was a young man who wanted to go home. He served in the 56th New York infantry and participated in a number of high risk raids and night attacks. His war experience had worn him down and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He threatened to kill several of his regiment with an axe, and later he chased others with a gun into the woods, shouting that he was going to kill them. He was captured by his own men and sent to a hospital for observation. He was committed to an insane asylum, where he died thirty years later. His war experience had traumatized him so badly that he never lost his desire to kill.

Farm boys as young as 12 years old were tossed into the middle of hell.The battlefield was a nightmarish scene. The cannon roar was so loud it could shake horses to the ground. It was the sounds of bullets zipping close by, however,that made the moment crystal clear that life and death hung in a precarious balance. The smoke and the smells created a vision of horror. Death was all around them. Without narcotics to dull the pain, the wounded suffered in unbearable agony. The natural elements of weather added to their misery. Many soldiers, especially Southern ones, were without footwear, and others lacked clothing or even tents in which to sleep. The scarcity of food was a problem for both armies. Many were away from their families for the first time, and the loneliness and the fear of the battle contributed to bouts of depression. It is not difficult to understand how a normally healthy person could slowly become unhinged.

“I went over the field of battle as soon as possible after the surrender. At some points it was terrible. My eyes never beheld such a sight before. I hope they may never again. In some places the dead lay very thick, not more than 3-5-10 feet apart; some were shot in the head, others in the breast and lungs, some through the neck, and I saw 3 or 4 torn all to pieces by cannon balls; their innards lying by their side, ….. It is indeed a sickening sight ….. I had often wished that I could be in one battle and go over a battle field. My curiosity has been gratified. I never wish to see another.”
Calvin Ainsworth of the 25th Iowa Infantry, USA 1862

Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War.1864
Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War.1864

Desertion was much higher than in any other American conflict before, or since. If caught, the deserter was publicly executed. On one occasion, the Charleston Mercury described how an entire division formed three sides around ten deserters who were to be executed by a firing squad. The condemned sat on their own coffins waiting their turn. The article said that many of those watching were “seized” by an “uncontrollable emotion.” By witnessing the executions, it served as a reminder that death was a likely outcome, regardless of which path a soldier took.

In 1873, Logan P. Herod killed himself by slitting his throat with a butcher knife. He had tried several times since the war. He had been shot in his left thigh and testicle during the battle of Richmond, Kentucky in 1862 and suffered from intense pain, swelling and depression. Like many other suicidal veterans, Herod had discussed his pain and a desire to die for a number of years prior to his suicide.

The same happened to Newell Gleason of Indiana. Gleason had been a successful engineer before the war and a colonel in the 87th Indiana regiment. He was recognized for his calm demeanor and good judgment in battle. After two years of intense fighting, he started to fall apart. At times Gleason behaved normally, but, without warning or provocation, he would burst into tears, or into hysterical laughter. He was mustered out of the military in 1865, and spent the next years in and out mental hospitals. By 1880, Gleason ended his torment by jumping head first into a cellar.

Colonel Gleason
Colonel Gleason

Before the war mental illness was mostly left untreated. Those exhibiting mild and non-aggressive behavior would stay at home with their families. The others would be sent to the handful of state or federal insane asylums.The patients with violent tendencies were placed in prisons with the general population. The prevailing belief was that most mental illness was only temporary. It was thought to be like a bad cold or ‘flu, and that the patient would recover and return home. Few were confined indefinitely, and most were released within weeks. The treatment consisted of simply talking to the patient in soothing tones, and with an attitude of respect and caring. The moral approach sought to discover the root of the patient’s problems through a series of well-structured conversations. Many believed that “plenty of fresh air out in the country would take care of the problem” and “lots of peace and quiet,” would be the ultimate cure. Due in part to this belief, the new asylums were largely built in the rural areas. Although these methods certainly reflected sensitivity, they were ineffective. After the war, the nation faced a huge and ever-growing number of veterans who had suffered an unthinkable amount of trauma, and who desperately needed help. Families, and the handful of existing asylums, were quickly overwhelmed.

Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum, Georgia
Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum, Georgia

In 1860 there were approximately 40 mental asylums in America, but by 1880 that number had exploded to 140. There is little doubt that this incredible increase was a result of the trauma suffered by Civil War soldiers.

Shortly after the war the nation went to work building the asylums throughout the country. The design of architect Thomas Kirkbride was the most popular. The structures were massive, and some extended over several acres. They were initially designed to house 250 patients, but quickly were straining with as many as 1000 patients. At some other asylums, such as the Athens Asylum in Ohio, the numbers climbed to 2000. In some cases, the patient’s to doctor ratio grew to as high as 140 patients to one doctor.

New York State Lunatic Asylum
New York State Lunatic Asylum

It is interesting to note that Kirkbride sold his design based on the “moral approach” towards caring for the patient. Patients living quarters resembled homes, and the less disturbed the patient, the closer he would be housed to the center of the facility. This center was near the administrative area, activities section, and most of the medical offices. Patients with more severe problems were pushed farther away from both the center and other patients. The idea was to keep the aggressive and violent patients from disrupting the lower risk ones. In reality, the massive overcrowding created a different reality. Kirkbride’s “moral approach” structures provided a human warehouse for disturbed patients,in many cases,for the rest of their lives.

Management did not have time to continue with the niceties of the “moral treatment” and even reinstituted the use of cage internment for the most aggressive patients. That helped to control the chaos, but it did nothing to address the patients’ problems. Sadly, two -thirds of the patients stored in these structures were Civil War veterans. In many cases the big dollars had been spent for the bricks and mortar, with little or no funds left for training and staffing.

An illustration of dinner in the asylum.
An illustration of dinner in the asylum.

It was not unusual for families to simply drop their family members off at an asylum, and never see them again. Some viewed their mentally sick relatives as an embarrassment, and others saw them as an additional burden. The attitude towards mental illness was to deny, ignore, and behave as if the person were dead.

“They refused to come and get the body….. And asked the superintendent not to write them again.”
Dixmont Asylum, Pennsylvania – 1887

Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery - over 25,000 unmarked graves behind the facility.
Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery – over 25,000 unmarked graves behind the facility.

Most Americans do not realize that tens of thousands of Civil War veterans are buried behind now-defunct mental hospitals throughout the country—and, most without names on their stones, only numbers. The Dixmont Asylum cemetery is just one of the reminders of how families pretended their disabled relatives did not exist. It houses over 1300 graves, many belonging to Civil War veterans. In Ohio, the Athens Asylum has over 2000 graves, the Danvers Mental Hospital in Boston has in excess of 10,000, and the Milledgeville Mental Asylum cemetery in Georgia has well over 30,000, all quietly hidden in the distance behind their massive sprawling structures. These veterans were not only forgotten, their lives were dismissed by both their families and society.

There are literally tens of thousands of monuments scattered throughout America honoring the deceased veterans of the Civil War. In the Gettysburg National Battlefield, there are over 1300 monuments and markers. For decades following the war, thousands of parades, dedications, and public assemblies took place – – all for the purpose of honoring the veterans of the Civil War. The acclamation went on, while the sadness in the insane asylums continued. How could a nation that embraced and loved their war veterans so easily erase the memory of the ones who became mentally disturbed?

1915, Grand Army of the Republic parade, Pennsylvania  veterans
1915, Grand Army of the Republic parade, Pennsylvania veterans

It could be argued that post-Civil War Americans did not want to accept another burden left from the war. During the conflict and afterwards, the nation struggled with an overwhelming sense of mourning for the dead. No family was spared the grief. The Civil War produced more widows and orphans than all other American wars. Thousands returned home from war with serious disabilities, their lives and families changed forever. The economic devastation in the South not only shattered dreams, but left many families financially destitute. The end of the war created a different type of nightmare for many. The entire family structure had been fractured from the fallout of the war. The problems were numerous and the solutions were complex. Relatives suffering from mental illness were a problem that few had the patience or strength to face. By increasing the number of asylums from 40 to 140, Americans believed that this was the only answer to mental illness. By leaving their mentally ill relative at the asylum the problem, for many, went away. Families generally never visited, or even claimed the body, once the patient passed away.

To forget about one person is sad, but to forget about an entire group – – thousands of Americans, who sacrificed their all -is shocking and appalling.

Sources:

Steve DeGenaro, “Murdered Children,” Military Images, (September/October 2000).
Eric T. Dean, Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Kimberly Leupo, The Ridges: The History of Mental Illness, (Ohio University History Department, 2001).
Kristen Anderberg, American “Insane Asylum” History: Giving Names to Numbered Graves, (Boston: The Boston Independent Media Center, 2004).
David J. Rothman ,The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic,(New York: Little Brown, 1971).
Gerald N. Grob ,Mental Illness and American Society 1875-1945, (Princeton University Press, 1983).
Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Random House, Inc. 2008).
Drew Gilpin Faust, “Death and Dying,” National Park Service, (United States Government Publication, 2009).

After The Passage of the 16th Amendment Came Widespread Tax Fraud and Corruption.

In the early days (circa 1916) income tax filers lining up to enter a IRS office.
In the early days (circa 1916) income tax filers lining up to enter an IRS office.

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
The Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on February 3, 1913.


As our country entered the 20th century the poor and working class began to find their voice. They had quietly provided the cheap labor to build the successful corporations, armies to fight wars, and their collective populations created the core centers of cities and towns. In doing so, many had endured the hardships of inadequate housing, poor or no medical care, and deplorable living standards. In addition to these burdens they were also expected to pay the lion’s share of taxes needed to run the Federal government, while the wealthy and their businesses paid little, or none. The tax system was rooted in the notion that those making the least should be required to pay the most.

The government received its revenue through two methods – tariffs on imported goods and the excise tax, which was a consumer product tax. Each source contributed approximately half of the government’s tax revenue. The cost of nearly every consumable item – food, clothes, tobacco, alcohol, and others – was inflated to pass the tax to the consumer. On the surface this seems a reasonable means of collecting taxes, but the wages of the majority of citizens were very low. Many workers lived in slums throughout the major cities, and their meager earnings never stretched far enough to properly take care of their family. By adding a surcharge to essentially anything they purchased, it pushed their poverty level to an even less desirable standard. At that time the poor and working class received no entitlements from the government. It is likely that wealthy Americans barely noticed the product surcharge, but for the lower class it was crippling. The tax system, or lack of one, gave the small group of upper class and wealthy a pass, and laid the burden of financing the government on the backs of the tens of millions of poor and working class citizens.

Hard working and low paid Americans had the heavy load of also paying the largest amount of the nations tax. 1900 circa
Hard working and low paid Americans had the heavy load of also paying the largest amount of the nations tax. 1900 circa

As the country began to understand the unfairness of the tax system, a sense of anger began to grow. That anger was directed at rich and upper class Americans.Less than two decades later, the laws were changed and the nation’s tax bill became largely the responsibility of the upper class and wealthy. This huge reversal of political course met with an equal response from the wealthy and their corporations. Some of them responded through corruption and tax evasion.

Sal thought buying an armored car was the best decision he had ever made. He owned a chain of Italian restaurants in New York City and he was making a killing, especially since he was hiding his income and not paying taxes. The car made its rounds three times a day picking up cash from each establishment. The cash was distributed to a special hiding place. The Federal Revenue agents finally caught up with him in 1922 and found his stash of money. It totaled over $2.5 million dollars. In today’s currency that would amount to $25 million of untaxed dollars. Sal had felt that most business people he knew were doing the same – underreporting, or just hiding income from the tax man.

1932–1939: Al Capone served seven years of an 11-year sentence in federal prison on Alcatraz Island for tax evasion. He was let out of jail early while suffering with the advanced stages of syphilis. Capone was one of the most notorious gangsters of the that time, and was suspected, but never convicted, to be behind the St. Valentines Day Massacre (1929).
1932–1939: Al Capone served seven years of an 11-year sentence in federal prison on Alcatraz Island for tax evasion. He was let out of jail early while suffering with the advanced stages of syphilis. Capone was one of the most notorious gangsters of the that time, and was suspected, but never convicted, to be behind the St. Valentines Day Massacre (1929).

Between 1895 and 1904 nearly 2,000 American companies merged with their former competitors. This merging created some of the largest corporations in the world, many of which still exist. Record profits were being made and the fortunes of many industrialists – Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, and Carnegie continued to grow. Much of those profits were untaxed, while their workers suffered under the weight of paying the nation’s tax bill.

The Industrial Revolution created steady jobs, and a new sense of citizenship. Cities and smaller communities began to grow, and Americans started looking to their government for more support. In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court had dismissed the idea of income taxes as unconstitutional because it was not apportioned according to the population of each state, as the Constitution then required. By 1913 Woodrow Wilson’s administration began working towards reforming the tax laws and addressing the needs of the nation’s workers. Wilson heard the cries from the voices of the Progressive Movement people. It would be unfair, and certainly unjust, to continue to place the burden on the working class and poor, and ignore taxing the elite. The largest portion of the nation’s collective income was earned by a small group of wealthy individuals and their businesses – and, they paid little, or no, tax.

Between 1913 and 1916, several pieces of legislation, including the ratification of the 16th Amendment, were enacted, and it modernized the Federal tax system. By 1917, America was involved in World War I, and that cost had to be figured into the needed revenue. The new tax laws focused on the wealthiest Americans, and did away with the old ideas of draining the poor through consumer product taxes. A member of Wilson’s Cabinet was heard to say that the tax reforms would be “soaking the rich.”

The new Federal Income tax system assessed a small rate of tax on annual incomes starting at $3,000.00 for single filers, and $4,000.00 for families. Essentially, by placing the threshold for taxation at that amount, the entire middle and working class were exempt from taxation. Only 1 out of 271 were even required to file a tax return. The big earners paid a graduated rate of tax. The more they earned, the more they were taxed. By the 1917/1918 tax season the highest earners were paying the rate of 71% of their income to taxes. The high tax rates continued for a number of years post war and were called by some “the greatest burden that had ever been laid upon the American people.” It was, however, the greatest burden ever laid upon rich Americans.

Marion Davies was one of the most popular movie stars of the early 20th century. In 1931, Davies got into trouble with the  IRS owing nearly 1 million dollars. Davies tax problems continued, but unlike Al Capone, she never went to jail.
Marion Davies was one of the most popular movie stars of the early 20th century. In 1931, Davies got into trouble with the IRS owing nearly 1 million dollars. Davies tax problems continued, but unlike Al Capone, she never went to jail.

There were two reasons that the Federal government went after the rich, and their businesses. The public excuse was the cost of operating an expanding bureaucracy. By introducing the new income tax program, import tariffs were reduced and that would encourage more trade. The enormous expense of World War I magnified the need for income taxes. The private reason was the growing concern of politicians that American businesses were becoming too powerful. Some whispered that without governmental controls, the rich and their corporations might soon be running the country.

No longer were the silent poor carrying the burden of financing the government. Under-trained and unprepared for what was facing them, the Internal Revenue’s auditing department quickly realized that they were also understaffed. With the new tax laws in place and the soaring rates of taxation, fraudulent tax returns began pouring into the Internal Revenue Service. By 1918/19 tax fraud was so rampant that thousands more revenue inspectors had to be hired, and nearly every day a headline about tax cheaters appeared in the major newspapers.

Here are some of those headlines:

“Stop Thief! Income Tax Frauds Rob United States Treasury of $320 Million,” Truth, July 29, 1916.

“Evasions of Munitions Tax Total $17 Million,” Dallas Morning News, October 18, 1917.

“5 Million Added to Tax by Audit of Coal Profits, Some Unreported Figures Are Evasions –Others Due,” Wilkes-Barre Times, August 28, 1918.

“Wool Dealers Sentenced to Prison in Tax Fraud,” Grand Rapids Press, January 28, 1919.

“Income Tax Fraud Involves Millions: Revenue Collector Says Arrests are Expected to Result in Recovering Much,” Trenton Evening Times, June 19, 1919.

“Held for Income Tax Fraud: Memphis Man Charged with Understating Liability of Fruit Firm,” Macon Telegraph, February 18, 1920.

“Big Tax Fraud in Kansas? Government Expected to Prosecute in Loss of 1 Million,” Kansas City Star, March 21, 1920.

“Charge Tax Fraud to Tammany Boss is Also Accused of Attempted Intimidation,” Macon Telegraph, June 24, 1920.

“Chicago Hotel Man Held for Alleged Tax Fraud,” Trenton Evening Times, October 3, 1920.

“Tax Fraud of Millions Charged in Indictment of Former Steel Heads,” Grand Rapids Press, December 1, 1920.

“Cincinnati Stove Men Charged with Tax Fraud,” Duluth News-Tribune, January 26, 1921.

“$2 Million Dollar Furrier Tax Charged to Two,” Grand Rapids Press, January 25, 1922.

“Hints of Men Higher Up in Tax Fraud, Whether Wealthy Property Owners Can be Charged,” Sun, March 11, 1922.

“Eight Men Indicted in Tax Fraud Probe Two Former City Employees, Alleged Go-Betweens,” Sun, April 28, 1922.

Tax fraud became the central concern of the Internal Revenue Service and soon they produced a profile of a tax cheater – – a high income male, over 50, filing a complicated return, and engaged in criminal activities. The profile was misleading. Although, there was no doubt that criminals were involved in tax evasion, there were plenty of respectable citizens and legitimate businesses who were also defrauding the government. The head of the Morrison Hotel (largest in the Chicago) was indicted for filing false returns in 1918 and 1919. He had understated his income and it was alleged that he owed over $62,000.00 ($845,000.00 in current dollars) in back taxes. The owner of the National Fruit Products Company was arrested and charged with filing a fraudulent income tax return. He too had under-reported his 1919 income at $20,338.14, but the warrant claimed his income was $130,580 ($1.7 million in current dollars).

In some larger cases the agents for Internal Revenue and independent accounting firms conspired together to defraud the government. In the case of the Coast Wise Warehouses (1919), revenue agents and accounting firm employees designed an elaborate plan to evade taxes that included multiple phony holding companies, dummy sets of books and a list of bogus expenses. The Internal Revenue was quoted as saying they hoped to recover $25 to $50 million in unpaid back taxes, and as many as 30 individuals were involved in the swindle.

A margarine company had been selling their margarine for several years to dealers as butter without the payment of taxes. Margarine was taxed at a much lower rate than butter. The Oleomargarine Company colored the product with palm oil and passed it on to the dealers and consumers as butter. In 1919 the Internal Revenue auditors claimed the margarine company owed at least $851,000 ($11.7 million in current dollars) in back taxes. In that same year the Internal Revenue announced that they had uncovered at least 6000 business-related tax fraud cases in the years 1918/1919. One single manufacturer was said to owe at least $1.5 million dollars ($20 million in current dollars) in back taxes. Revenue agents routinely began shutting down plants and seizing business equipment. 

Leona Helmsley, business women and called the "Queen of Mean." Helmsley spent several  years in jail for tax fraud and was famously quoted "only little people pay taxes."
Leona Helmsley, business women and called the “Queen of Mean.” Helmsley spent several years in jail for tax fraud and was famously quoted “only little people pay taxes.”

Tax fraud involved the manipulating of expenses, phony receipts, the use of numerous sets of books, and many times the misdirecting of income to bogus accounts. Many retailers of the period dealt strictly in cash. Although the majority were never caught or prosecuted, it was thought the understating of income by cash retailers was huge. On the corporate side, in an attempt to evade big taxes one large firm created 96 bogus personal holding companies. Despite the complexity of their scheme, the Treasury was still able to uncover the crime and claimed millions in back taxes. The owners were prosecuted and jailed. A number of wealthy business owners incorporated their many personal estates, so that they could deduct their personal maintenance expenses from business taxes.

Some argued that the negative response from the wealthy over paying income taxes was because the tax rate was just too high. The tax rate was high, but, the well-off had not seemed troubled when it was the working class and poor paying the majority of taxes. There was likely possibly due to an attitude of entitlement held by some of the elite. Decades later the billionaire tax cheat Leona Helmsley expressed her feeling of entitlement saying “only little people pay taxes.” In less than ten years after the ratification of the 16th Amendment,tax evasion was widespread and out of control in America. The burden of the country’s tax revenue had been shifted from the working class and poor to the shoulders of wealthy Americans. Prior to World War II, 80% of Americans were not paying any income taxes. It would not be until after World War II, with the introduction of withholding tax, that the nation had a more equitable tax system.

 

Forgotten Lives: Women leaders of early 20th century America

Mary Johnson  1920
Mary Johnson
1905. Johnson was one of the most popular novelists in early 20th Century America. She had published 22 novels, many best sellers. Three of her books were made into films.

In the beginning of the 20th century there were countless changes happening in America. Social and economic advancements forced a re-examination of a number of long-held attitudes, such as gender equality. A handful of brave women decided to challenge the existing cultural standards that applied to women. Many men expressed a natural resistance to this movement. Women were handicapped from the beginning by doubters and skeptics. The full value of their achievements would be questioned, criticized, diminished, but usually dismissed. Women, however, were not deterred.

As the new century began women were still controlled by the attitudes of the past. Shut out from most opportunities, few women enjoyed home or business ownership, higher education, or advanced employment. In 1900 a women’s legal standing was determined by her marital status. Even if married, a woman had no separate legal rights. Her rights were determined by her husband. A woman had no control or say about her own biological reproduction, including discussions about contraception. Women could not sue or be sued since they had no legal standing in court. Most importantly, women were not allowed to vote. Without that right, they would continue to live in a world ruled and owned by men.

The ratification of the 14th Amendment (1870), extended citizenship to formerly enfranchised male slaves. Women, however, were not included in that decision. Under the Constitution it was interpreted that women were not even considered “persons.” A small group of women decided they would be the voice for many, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement was formed. By 1920 the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Since then, women have made impressive advancements in all fields and challenged men at every intersection. Despite their many achievements, little is remembered about significant women leaders of a century ago.

Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917. Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times Photo Archives
Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917.
Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote.
The New York Times Photo Archives

We easily recognize the names of our Founding Fathers, and the great writers, inventors,and sports stars of that time, amongst them Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Babe Ruth. Sadly,we do not remember their women counterparts. Is it because their contributions were considered less important? Or, were they as persons, considered less important?

Mary Johnson had wanted to be a Southern Belle. The Virginian fantasized that her life would morph into one of the historic romance stories that she wrote in her leisure time. Her life changed, however, when her mother died and her father became ill, and then bankrupt. All the family responsibilities, including the raising of her siblings, fell upon Johnson. Her fantasy world had ended, but she secretly practiced her writing skills. Within a year she was no longer practicing, but supporting her family with proceeds from published stories. By 1910 Mary Johnson was easily the most popular writer in America. She had numerous best sellers including Audrey (1903); Sir Mortimer (1904) Lewis Rand (1908) and To Have and to Hold (1900), which became the best-selling novel of its time. Mary Johnson had 22 novels published and three were later made into films.

Never married, Mary Johnson was a shy and sensitive women. A restless soul, she changed her life direction a number of times. Johnson used her celebrity to support causes, and became an advocate, not only for women’s rights, but for other things that troubled her — such as racism and lynching. She took voice lessons to strengthen her voice, as well as her courage, which, in time enabled her to speak in front of large groups. Her stardom opened doors to a number of audiences, including the all-male Virginia General Assembly. Later in life, Mary and her sister retreated to the mountains of Virginia where they ran an Inn, until she passed away in 1936.

Gertrude Ederle said her happiest times were between the waves. As a child she fell in love with swimming and even referred to herself as a “water baby.” Raised in New York City she learned to swim on the Jersey Shore and by her teenage years began competing in local contests. By age 19, Gertie Ederle had already set 26 national and world swimming records. Additionally, she won 3 medals in the 1924 Olympics, but received little recognition. Not until 1926 did the world acknowledge her swimming ability.

Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude Ederle in the 1920’s. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel, and she bested the time of all previous male swimmers.

To swim the English Channel is akin to climbing Mt. Everest. From 1873 to 1923 five men had successfully braved the freezing and treacherous Channel to the other side. It was “impossible” even “laughable” to think that a woman could swim the channel. Gertie Ederle not only crossed the Channel, but accomplished the feat during horrendously bad weather. Despite the choppy waters and strong reversing currents, Ederle bested the time of all five previous men swimmers! Her feat had been closely monitored, so that there would be no doubt of her swimming time. Only then was she finally recognized as a world class athlete.

Two million New Yorkers came out to honor Gertrude Ederle in the first ticker tape parade ever held. Bewildered by the attention, the humble “water baby” wasn’t surprised when her celebrity faded within a few years and she was nearly forgotten. By age 27 she was deaf, caused by a childhood illness. As an older woman she was asked if she was sad that the world had forgotten her. She said, “it did not matter “and that she had “lived a good life.”

Even as a young girl in Pennsylvania, Alice Evans yearned for an education. The child of a poor farm family she realized early on that accomplishing her dream depended on her. She worked several years as a teacher at the local elementary school before her life changed. Cornell University offered a free course on nature to rural teachers. Evans enrolled and did so well that she earned a full scholarship in Agricultural Science at Cornell. She furthered her education and earned a Master of Science in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin. Her friends and university colleagues encouraged Evans to pursue a Ph.D, but instead she sought employment.

Alice Evans 1915 at work at the Department of Agriculture. Because of her research about raw milk Evans made one of the  most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.
Alice Evans 1915 at work at the Department of Agriculture. Because of her research about raw milk Evans made one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.

By 1910, Alice Evans was hired as the first full-time woman scientist on staff with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Husbandry. She worked directly with the dairy division and researched the bacteriology of milk and cheese. In 1918 Evans published a paper that claimed that she had found a direct link between diseased cows and undulating fevers – – typhoid fever, scarlet fever, diphtheria, diarrheal diseases, streptococcal infections, and more. Evans pointed out that it was through the consumption of raw milk that humans received the bacteria, infection. Other studies found that raw milk had as much bacteria as raw sewage. Because of her findings, she began advocating for the pasteurization of milk.

Alice Evans’ discovery was quickly dismissed by the majority of the medical community. Some thought she had stolen the research from someone else. Many simply believed that her findings were wrong. It was thought unlikely that a women, especially a woman who did not have a doctorate, could make such a discovery. Dairy workers laughed at the idea that raw milk needed to be pasteurized to prevent humans from developing diseases. French microbiologist Dr. Louis Pasteur invented the process of destroying pathogens through simple heat (pasteurization) in 1864. This process of safeguarding food was not accepted immediately in the American medical field. Despite nearly eight years of work, her findings were rejected. Within a decade, however, a number of other scientists came to the same conclusion, and pasteurization of milk became law. Tens of thousands of lives, possibly more, were spared because of Evans’ work. Alice Evans’ discovery was easily one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.

An ironic twist to her life came when in 1922 she became infected with undulant fever. This persisted for over thirty years, but it did not prevent her from continuing with her long career. Alice Evans made additional contributions in the field of infectious diseases, including significant findings about meningitis and streptococcal infections.

History has generally been interpreted from a particular point of view. In any society, the decision makers determine how a story is told, and just how it should be remembered. A century ago, the only opinions that mattered were held by men. Women of early 20th Century America were burdened down with the multiple responsibilities of raising families, running households, and many times laboring in either unpaid or low paid jobs. Their tasks were not glamorous, but formed the backbone of American families. Women had an equal investment in America, but they were not seen as equal by men, or by the laws.

1935 Woman's Groups encouraging women to vote.
1935 Woman’s Groups encouraging women to vote.

Resources:

Virginia Magazine (VHS) Vol. 122 – No 4.
“Escaping the veritable battle cloud: Mary Johnston and the reconstruction of history”
by Clayton McClure Brooks

The Pox of Liberty: How the Constitution Left Americans Rich, Free and Prone to Infection
by Werner Troesken

A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions
by Richard A. Harris and Daniel J. Tichenor, Editors

Un-American: As Reported by the Press in the Early 20th Century America.

American families began to embrace a feeling of nationalism.
American families began to embrace a feeling of nationalism.

In the early decades of the 20th Century the term ‘un-American’ was widely used to disparage those whose thinking deviated from mainstream America. The dark days of the Civil War were a distant memory, and the recent industrialization created cities and communities that brought economic growth and family security. America had turned into a proud modern nation with a sense of nationalism. The young nation struggled to determine who they were. Defining the term ‘American,’ however, had a range of meanings, and many times those meanings had little to do with the nation’s core values: freedom of speech and religion; and, every American understood the American dream that with hard work anything was possible. Instead, being American for many ran parallel with their own deep-rooted biases and prejudices.

Charles Lindbergh standing by his airplane the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh standing by his airplane the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh in the 1930's.
Charles Lindbergh in the 1930’s.

In 1922 anti-Catholicism in America was widespread, and intensified with the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan. In addition to Jews, and African Americans, Catholics were also on their hate list. Father Joseph Meiser, a Catholic priest in Fort Worth, Texas was dragged from his church and beaten by ten men. They were not charged or arrested. The mob declared that Meiser was un-American because he did not support public schools. This was widely reported in many papers all titling their articles with the word un-American, and that Father Meiser was a Catholic priest, “Priest Flogged, Mob Tells Him He is Un-American,” 9/9/1922, Broad Ax Times. Meiser, like many Catholic priests, was probably opposed to Catholic children, not children in general, going to public schools. Catholics, at that time, generally preferred their own parochial schools. It is unlikely that ten men would harm Meiser for that reason alone. His assault was clearly a hate crime. Father Meiser’s injuries were not mentioned and his side of the incident was not reported in the article.

Despite America’s entry into a new and modern time, many still clung to Puritan values from the previous century. In the article “Slashed Skirt Scored as Un-American Atrocity,” Grand Rapids Press, May 14, 1913, reported that the Chicago Dressmakers Club was appalled at the newly introduced slashed skirt. It was described as “tight” and condemned the skirt as an “Un-American Atrocity.” A slashed skirt showed some leg, and many would argue that it was not proper for a lady. Most club members probably grew up influenced by the Victorian age. A lady had to be modest in her appearance.

General John Pershing, France, 1918
General John Pershing, France, 1918

The uniform of General of the Army John J. Pershing was even called into question and investigated by Congress. According to the article “Pershing’s Coat and Trousers to be Investigated Texas Congressman Calls General’s Clothes Un-American,” February 25, 1920, Aberdeen American , it was stated “General Pershing’s coat is split up the back and his trousers bagged like the English uniform,” said Congressman Conally. In fact, American military uniforms had for over a century followed the fashions of European ones. The matter was eventually dropped and the uniform was found to be regulation.

High profile Americans were particularly targeted. Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were called un-American because of their support of imperialism. Many felt that our nation was a republic, which should be responsible only for itself, and, extending our domain to other places was not what the founding fathers had envisioned.

Roosevelt was loved, as well as hated, and, was especially branded as un-American for various reasons. His big and many times unfiltered personality, got him into trouble especially with women. Some women’s groups considered him rough, crude and short on manners. He was also sexist, they thought. The Women’s PEACO Party of America had asked Roosevelt if he would join their peace movement against the war. The President had simply declined their offer. He made the mistake, however, of referring to their movement as “silly and base.” The result of the comment was a scathing article that appeared in newspapers throughout the country,“Right Back at Roosevelt un-American Unpatriotic and a Barbarian Women Say,” 4/17/1915, Kansas City Star. The headline says it all. A few years later and shortly after Roosevelt had passed away an article was published in a South Carolina paper, “Colonel Roosevelt Severely Criticized Mr. Porcher Says Late President’s Supreme Object in Life was Self,” State, November 1, 1919. He was called un-American several times in the article and the writer reasoned that true Americans were not as self-centered as Theodore Roosevelt.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson had been dead a century, but he was called un-American, by Woodrow Wilson. In an essay entitled “Mere Literature,” Wilson argued that Jefferson was not only un-American, he was not even a great American, because Jefferson had been influenced by French philosophies, instead of American ones. Wilson went on to point out the un-American flaws in Jefferson, “Abstract, sentimental, rationalistic, rather than practical.” Obviously not a fan of Thomas Jefferson, Wilson implied that Jefferson was a dreamer and not really practical. As defined by Woodrow Wilson, a true American was a practical person, and one who did not dream.

Farmers organizing in groups to ask for higher feed prices were called un-American. An Ambassador wrote a magazine article criticizing Southerners. He was called Un-American, and a group was formed demanding that he step down from his position. In 1923 a movement was proposed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to revise history books, stating that they were becoming un-American because “foreign propaganda was creeping into the textbooks.” Labor unions throughout the country were labeled as unpatriotic and un-American when they asked employers for more pay and shorter hours for the workers. Three college professors were called un-American and dismissed from their jobs. They had disagreed with several other faculty members about support for World War I. The scope of what was defined as un-American seemed to be without limits.

The notion of being un-American was so broadly used that by 1919 the federal government got involved. It created the first federal committee with oversight of un-American activities. Over the years the Overland Committee was replaced several times by other committees charged with investigating subversive political ties (Bolsheviks, Communists, Nazis, Fascists), and any alleged disloyalty to the United States. By 1938 it was called the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The height of the un-American craze came when cities were also labeled. In the article “Our Most Un-American City, June 18, 1909 Springfield Republican, Washington, D.C. was named. Sydney Brooks, a staff writer with Harper’s Weekly made the pitch that Washington, D.C. was both the most and the least American city. According to Brooks it all depended on if Congress were in session. According to Brooks, when in session the city received “its representative effect.” Its monuments, museums, and history personified the greatest American city. When out of session, the city was a “wilderness” and had the “largest population of African Americans in the nation.” Sydney Brooks’ essay clearly implied that race determined if a city were truly American or not.

The press tagged many other cities as un-American, among them were Milwaukee, St. Louis and others. In 1917 Cleveland, Ohio was called the most un-American. The population in Cleveland was about 75% foreign born, and, according to the article, many of the residents could not speak English. It went on to state that these “individuals did not want to become citizens and had little interest in voting.” The article also implied that the city was going out of its way trying to spread Americanism using night schools to teach the immigrants English and educate them about American history. The accuracy of the article is questionable, and seemed slanted toward supporting the subject of an un-American city. If there was any resistance to Americanize, it may have been related to the aggressive draft (WWI) that the military had begun.

Ku Klux Klan 1924
Ku Klux Klan 1924
Ku Klux Klan parading through Virginia. 1922
Ku Klux Klan parading through Virginia. 1922

There were plenty of citizens who were un-American, and one particular group supremely defined the term. The birth of the Second Ku Klux Klan created a short reign of national terror between 1920 and 1924. Jewish, Catholic, and African-Americans were the constant targets of their hate and prejudice. Many news articles branded the group and their activities as particularly un-American. They went on to describe them as vigilantes, hate-mongers and generally unlawful. The lynchings of African Americans at the hands of the Klan were described with horror. The newspapers also pointed out that the federal government paid little attention to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, but were instead eagerly pursuing those sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, and later, the Fascist and Nazi movements.

Charles Lindbergh was easily the most celebrated American in the first three decades of the century. In 1927, and at only 25 years old, Lindbergh flew his single seat plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop from New York to Paris. He was the first person to cross the Atlantic ocean in an airplane. He became an instant world hero and his stardom continued, until the mid 1930s when he began expressing views supporting Nazism and sharing his personal fears of Jewish Americans. Lindbergh’s many visits to Germany were well documented and photographs of his Nazi salutes were spread throughout the world media. Lindbergh was painted by the press as both Anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathizer. In a 1940 letter to his Treasury Secretary, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote, “If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.” The once highly celebrated aviation hero spent the rest of his life under the shadow of being un-American.

By mid-century the term ‘un-American’ had been so misused that it had little real meaning. The federal government’s intervention legitimized witch hunting. The late President Harry Truman said on a number of occasions, ” I think the Un-American Activities Committee in the House of Representatives was the most un-American thing in America!”. America had entered the new century with many hopes and dreams. The opportunities were endless, and many Americans did hold deep feelings of national pride. Other Americans, however, could not escape our past, a past that was tied to bigotry, hate, and prejudice.