Digging Dillinger

John H. Dillinger’s grave often has coins, flowers, and a host of offerings left at the grave, and the marker has had its edges chipped off by the most zealous visitors.

On July 25, 1934 a crowd of perhaps 5000 people gathered at Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery to glimpse the final rites of John Dillinger. Sergeant Otis Baker was in charge of a detachment of police officers instructed to stand guard over the grave when the services ended, and the Indianapolis Star reported that “down the road from the Dillinger lot a group of Negroes was seated quietly on the grass, watching the proceedings with solemn and eager eyes. Sergt Baker said one of them had approached him, carrying a tin cup; he wished, the Negro explained, to `get him a cupful of earth off’n Dillinger’s grave,’ but Sergt. Baker declined to let him or any one else inside the roped-off enclosure.”

This fabric fragment is among the relics gathered at the scene of Dillinger’s death reputedly soaked with the gangster’s blood.

The African-American man hoping to secure earth from Dillinger’s grave was simply one of many people seeking the souvenirs of America’s most celebrated criminal. Just three days before, Dillinger had been killed outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago by federal agents, and his corpse and bodily trappings instantly became relics. As Dillinger was being removed from the Chicago sidewalk, “Chicago thrill seekers dipped their handkerchiefs and rubbed their shoes in Dillinger’s blood on the street.” Offers of $1,000 were made for the outlaw’s shirt and $100 for the bricks stained by Dillinger’s blood, and pieces of paper with Dillinger’s blood sold for a quarter. Dillinger’s “blood-stained” hat was being exhibited in the Justice Department within weeks of Dillinger’s death, where “Dillinger relics were first placed in a glass case in the anteroom of the office of J Edgar Hoover chief of the investigation bureau. So many employes [sic] took time off to inspect the new display that Hoover moved it to his inner office.”

Curiosity in Dillinger’s remains was revived this summer when his nephew applied for an exhumation permit to confirm that the Crown Hill grave actually holds Dillinger. In July it was revealed that a permit had been approved by the Indiana State Department of Health to exhume the gangster from the family plot at Crown Hill. The History Channel planned to document the excavation, ostensibly to resolve whether the body buried at Crown Hill is in fact John Dillinger. In August the Indianapolis Star reported that the nephew professed “doubts about whose remains are buried in the family plot,” arguing “that the only way to know for sure is to disinter the body and conduct testing.” A month later, though, the History Channel backed out of the project, and Crown Hill registered its resistance to the exhumation. Nevertheless, this month a new permit has been issued approving the exhumation of Dillinger with re-internment on December 31st. Breathless and poorly informed press coverage has suggested that there has long been doubt about the identity of the body buried at Crown Hill, but in 1934 there was no evidence that Dillinger had escaped death at the Biograph. Indeed, a long line of his family and associates inspected his corpse and confirmed that the body was indeed Dillinger’s. Eventually, though, a 1970 book proposed that Dillinger had sent a body double to the Biograph in his place, and a handful of newspaper accounts borrowed from that account and claimed Dillinger had survived in California. However, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that anybody other than John Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill in 1934.

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Above: This image of Dillinger was taken in Mooresville, Indiana alongside the final casket in which he was buried.

A crowd gathered at the Biograph Theater hours after John Dillinger had been killed there after seeing Manhattan Melodrama.

The ruse that a scientific study might now confirm Dillinger’s fate avoids the significant possibility that his body was disturbed if not pulverized after burial. Post-burial disturbance and settling is typical in even the most predictable stratigraphy, and the Dillinger grave is an especially distinctive deposit. Dillinger’s father John W. Dillinger reported he had been offered $10,000 from promoters to place his son’s corpse on exhibition (oilman H.G. Cross confirmed he telegraphed Dillinger an offer of $10,000 for his son’s body). After rejecting that bid his alarmed family had “concrete placed on the coffin after it was reported attempts might be made by ghouls to steal the body.” The Indianapolis News reported that 2 ½ tons of concrete were poured onto Dillinger’s fresh grave where Dillinger was buried in a “cheap pine casket” (another source described it as a “$165 coffin,” and photographs of the casket suggest it was not an unadorned plain casket).

It is not certain how Dillinger’s grave was prepared before it was covered with concrete. His casket was possibly placed in a concrete or metal vault, a burial method that began to be increasingly common in the inter-war period. Vaults were enclosed containers introduced in the late-19th century that could take the form of wood, slate, brick, stone, or cement receptacles holding the casket (liners, in contrast, had no base, so the casket was set onto a soil surface). Vault marketers championed them for the “respect” they paid to the deceased by preserving the casket and body in a sealed, burglar-proof receptacle. A 1900 advertisement for Indianapolis’ Van Camp Burial Vault Company included two testimonials from residents who had interred their relatives in cement burial vaults in Crown Hill, but in 1915 no more than 10% of American burials used a vault.

Vaults may have been marketed as respectful preservation, but they really were designed to control the settling of grave shafts as caskets inevitably decomposed and surface weight (e.g., lawn mowers) risked accelerating the grave’s settling. Nevertheless, even in the presence of a vault the massive volume of concrete atop John Dillinger’s casket certainly settled and may have even crushed the grave’s contents.

The fascination with Dillinger’s mortal remains is less about forensic analysis than it is about the distinctive popular imagination of mortality and its intersection with the celebrity body. On the one hand, the History Channel and its basic-cable peers are simply interested in profitable narratives that they camouflage with rhetorical appeals to history and science. Their superficial invocation of science and scholarly research masks the ways their discourse is driven by unsubstantiated challenges to established historical and scientific facts, painting their conspiracy theories and scientific fantasies as commensurable with rigorously research history or scientific investigation. With no expectation that their pronouncements must weather critical examination, they are free to challenge previously unquestioned historical evidence that John Dillinger is dead (or devote countless hours to the argument that aliens built monumental architecture rather than past peoples).

This death mask of Dillinger is pictured alongside an eyebrow removed from the gangster after his death.

On the other hand, our fascination with Dillinger’s corpse reflects the symbolic power of even long-dead celebrities. Rather than dismiss our curiosity with John Dillinger’s dead body simply as ghoulish enchantment, Dillinger’s body and his corporeal materiality are powerful because of their direct association with a revered person. Dillinger is typical of secular figures that are so celebrated that their body and materiality become part of ritual practices in which we collect material things associated with them, visit places that are critical in their history, and often leave offerings in those places. There are of course religious parallels to such revered materiality like fragments of the True Cross, the Holy Nails, and the Holy Chalice that are venerated for their holiness. John Dillinger lays no claim to divinity, but his adoration if not deification in popular imagination separated Dillinger from everyday people even as he was understood to be a common person like scores of other young men in central Indiana.

Dillinger’s rich hagiography variously paints him as a Robin Hood figure, a charming criminal resisting bourgeois discipline, or a clever gangster who wins our grudging respect. Despite these caricatures, much of Dillinger’s biography is indeed relatively typical, and pilgrims hoping to encounter the landscape of his youth will find much of it remains relatively well-preserved. John Herbert Dillinger was born on Cooper Street (now Caroline Street) on Indianapolis’ northeast side in June 1903 to grocer John Wilson Dillinger and Mary Ellen “Mollie” Lancaster (the son was not technically John Dillinger Jr., since he and his father had different middle names, but he often was referred to as “Junior” in the press and is labeled that way on the current Crown Hill grave marker). John and Mollie married in Indianapolis in August 1887 and in 1889 they had their only other child, daughter Audrey. The Dillingers moved to Cooper Street in 1891, where just a block away John’s brothers James and Earl were living alongside their father Matthias. Matthias was born in 1831 in Metz, a region of Alsace-Lorraine at the border of France and Germany that was French at the time of his birth. Dillinger migrated to the United States in about 1846, marrying Mary Brown in Indiana in September 1863. Matthias, Mary, and their three children (John, Nora, and James) were farming in Shelby County in 1870, and a decade later there were five children in the household farming in Franklin Township in southeast Marion County. Matthias and Mary Dillinger eventually had 10 children, though only five were still alive in 1900.

In 1875 the Oak Hill subdivision had just been laid out. The Dillingers’ future home on Cooper (later Caroline) Street is at the arrow (original here; for a current Google Map view click here).

In 1883 Matthias and Mary Dillinger moved the family to Indianapolis’ Oak Hill subdivision, a northeast Indianapolis neighborhood that began to be settled in the early 1870s (compare this 1872 Indianapolis News advertisement). Their oldest son John W Dillinger married Mary “Mollie” Lancaster in August 1887, and the couple and daughter Audrey moved to Cooper Street in 1891. John W Dillinger opened a grocery in about 1897, initially managing a store in their home before moving the grocery into the neighboring property in 1898 and then moving the grocery less than a block away to a store on Bloyd Avenue in 1906.

Mollie Dillinger died of meningitis in February 1907, when son John was just three years old, and she became the first Dillinger to be buried at Crown Hill. John H. Dillinger’s sister Audrey had married Emmett Hancock only months before in September 1906, and she and her husband were living in the home alongside her father and young brother when her mother died. By most accounts Audrey Hancock assumed much of the everyday parenting of her younger brother. Their father remarried in 1912, and he and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fields Dillinger would have three children.

John W. Dillinger’s grocery on Bloyd Avenue began to be managed by Margaret Connor in 1918. He appeared in the 1920 census on Cooper Street as retired, living with Lizzie, John, and two children from his second marriage, Hubert and Doris. John H. Dillinger had dropped out of school in 1919, and in 1921 he and his parents moved to Mooresville. Emmett and Audrey Hancock had likewise moved out of Oak Hill in 1920, relocating to the southwest to the Maywood suburb just over five miles southwest of downtown Indianapolis along Kentucky Avenue.

John Dillinger was being hotly pursued in 1934 (FBI image)

John H Dillinger engaged in petty crimes, but after a botched robbery in Mooresville in September 1924 he was arrested. Dillinger received a surprisingly stiff 10-year sentence for assault and battery and arrived at the Indiana State Reformatory in September 1924. In 1929 he was transferred at his request to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, and in May 1933 he was finally pardoned. But returning to a modest farm in small-town Indiana in the midst of the Depression, there were few opportunities for the ex-convict. Dillinger engaged in some modest crimes, but in June 1933 Dillinger and two associates stole $10,000 from a New Carlisle, Ohio bank. Dillinger was subsequently identified in the press as one of the two men who robbed a Daleville, Indiana bank of $3500 on July 15th, initiating a wave of roughly 24 bank robberies by Dillinger and his “gang” leading up to his death.

After Dillinger’s death in Chicago on July 22, 1934 his body was first taken to the Cook County morgue. The mass fascination with Dillinger was reflected in a Chicago Tribune report on the 24th that the morgue “was a lively spot yesterday and last evening as crowds of spectators jammed in to get a view of the body of John Dillinger,” and scores of photographs were taken of visitors inspecting Dillinger in the morgue “covered carelessly with a sheet, the body of the robber and murderer lay unpleasant and ugly on a slab in the house of the dead.” A morgue attendant was reportedly compelled to eject one curious woman, with the attendant complaining that “`She was sneaking around with a pair of scissors trying to get a lock of his hair.’”

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Above: A long line of visitors was allowed to view John Dillinger’s body in the Cook County morgue through a sheet of glass, with Dillinger’s body propped up on a morgue table.

Dillinger was taken from Chicago to his father’s home in Mooresville in a wicker temporary casket (compare film of the temporary basket being taken from the morgue to a hearse). The basket eventually became part of the exhibit at the John Dillinger Museum in Crown Point Indiana alongside a pair of pants that were identified as those he wore to the Biograph (the museum closed in August 2017). In Mooresville Dillinger’s corpse was viewed by 3500 people as he lay on a mortician’s slab awaiting embalming by Indianapolis mortician L.W. Howe. Another line of local visitors again passed by Dillinger’s body after he had been dressed and laid in his casket (video here).

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Above: Crowds gathered outside the Mooresville funeral home where John Dillinger’s body was being prepared.

Crowds rapidly began to gather at Audrey and Emmitt Hancock’s home the day after Dillinger’s death when it was reported that his funeral would be held there. Dillinger was taken from Mooresville to Audrey’s modest home in Maywood for his funeral services, when “it was reported that an attempt would be made to steal the body” and police were stationed along the route. The Indianapolis Star reported that 15,000 people had gathered in Maywood, and about 2500 passed through the Hancock home on Tuesday evening July 24th to view the dead gangster, though very few were in attendance when Reverend Charles M. Fillmore delivered the short service on Wednesday the 25th. Thousands of people lined the route from Maywood to Crown Hill to see Dillinger’s coffin pass despite a driving thunderstorm, and about 5000 people had gathered near Crown Hill’s gates on Boulevard Place, but the hearse avoided the crowds by entering at 32nd and North West Streets.

On the day of the funeral the Indianapolis Star decried the funerals of celebrities in which “souvenir hunters denuded the grave of flowers, swarming over the burial lot in the frenzied quest for a memento of the occasion. A similar example of morbidity’s extremes was provided by Chicago folk who dipped handkerchiefs in the blood of the slain Dillinger and in the offers made for his clothing and even for the bricks on which he collapsed.” The Star believed Hoosiers would not repeat such behavior, but they acknowledged that “morbid folk already have visited the Dillinger lot and carried away part of the sod.” After the burial the newspaper suggested that crowds resisted “the ghoulish, barbarous scenes that marked the end of the Dillinger trail in Chicago,” but they did nonetheless secure relics of the funeral: for instance, “a lot of people were to be seen carrying sprays of gladiolus … dropped from the casket as it was carried from the hearse, or from the bouquets carried by eight women friends of Mrs. Hancock.” Another newspaper story reported that “a souvenir hunter was caught taking a tin cup full of dirt from the grave of the outlaw in hallowed Crown Hill cemetery here. Police made him return the dirt but did not hold him.”

On July 30, 1934 Indianapolis’ Lyric Theater advertised the first of five days of public conversations with the Dillinger family.

The day after the funeral John W. Dillinger admitted that he hoped to offset the funeral expenses and pay his farm’s mortgage and would “’accept negotiations for the personal effects of John but will not sell his body.’” It is unclear what effects Dillinger may have sold, but on July 30th he appeared with his son Hubert, daughter Audrey Hancock, and her husband Emmitt in a show in Indianapolis’ Lyric Theater. Over five days the family discussed John H Dillinger’s life, and John W. Dillinger and his two youngest daughters toured much of the country with a carnival after the Lyric engagement ended.

The 2019 permit to exhume John Dillinger is not the first one approved to disinter the famous gangster. John W. Dillinger secured a permit to exhume his son’s body on August 1st 1934 after being told the Chicago morgue had removed the gangster’s brain. His father was aghast that his son’s most significant relics—portions of the body itself—had apparently been removed for souvenirs, but he was reassured that the samples were taken purely as part of a normal autopsy. However, he had no doubt about the identity of the body at Crown Hill. In the Lyric Theater show John W. Dillinger was asked if the body buried at Crown Hill was his son, and he replied that “`I know it’s my son,’ the elderly farmer answered without hesitation. `I wish to the Lord Almighty it wasn’t.’”

John W. Dillinger had no doubt that the corpse of his son was buried in Crown Hill, and there is no substantive evidence that the gangster somehow escaped the law to live out his days in some distant place. Subsequent visitors to Crown Hill commonly take pictures of the family graves, leave various offerings like pennies and flowers, and even chip away fragments of the grave marker. This sort of patterned ritual reflects the ways Dillinger remains deeply embedded in our collective fantasies, but it does not provide any concrete reason to pilfer his grave with the hope we can encounter his remaining corporeal materiality.


The Dillinger family plot at Crown Hill holds John W. Dillinger (died 1943), his son John H. (1934), John W.’s first wife Mollie (1907), his second wife Lizzie (1933), his father Matthias (1912), and mother Mary (1909).


Biography Theater July 22 1934 wikimedia Associated Press image

Dillinger Death Mask wikimedia

Dillinger Fabric Fragment from David (flick’r)

FBI Wanted Poster image from FBI


John Beineke

2014 Hoosier Public Enemy: A Life of John Dillinger. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

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Above: This image of John H. Dillinger was taken with his father, probably around 1915.

In the Shadow of the Interstate: Living with Highways

Mary Brame's home, 1972 aerial image

In 1972 Interstate-65 had just been completed when this aerial photograph was taken of Mary Brame’s home on West 15th Street (at the arrow). The neighboring building was a church (click on image for larger view).

In June 1973 attorney Charles Walton wrote Indiana Governor Otis Bowen on behalf of his client Mary Brame. Brame’s home sat on West 15th Street in the shadow of the recently constructed Interstate-65, which had razed virtually all of the surrounding structures and cut off West 15th Street, leaving the widow alone on a newly closed dead-end street. Walton implored the Governor to purchase Brame’s home, which he argued was “falling apart” because of the interstate’s “noise and vibrations.” The State had built a “fence up against Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home and closed down all the street leading to Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home accept [sic] one narrow extremely short street.” Walton complained that Brame “cannot sleep at night because of the noises from the highway, and as a result of this, her health is failing.”

1958 Central Business District Map

The 1958 Central Business District plan included this map with the proposed route for Interstate-65. At 10th Street it was proposed that I-65 would continue south along West Street, but that leg was eventually rejected; I-70’s basic location was identified on the south side (click for a larger image).

Thousands of Indianapolis residents were uprooted when the state purchased their homes for interstate construction. Mary Brame was simply one of scores of people who were left to live in the shadow of newly built highways. I-65 and I-70 have legacies of displacing vast swaths of residents in the heart of Indianapolis, but they also left in their wake gutted communities compelled to negotiate a radically transformed streetscape, pollution, and noise from the newly constructed highways. A half-century after most of these interstates were constructed, planners are now once again fantasizing over new highway designs that threaten to once more destabilize many of the same neighborhoods destabilized by 1960s and 1970s highway projects.

As Mary Brame’s lawyers attempted to convince the state to purchase her home, residents of the near-Southside were likewise negotiating a radically transformed streetscape. An April 1972 story in the Indianapolis News characterized the near-Southside neighborhood around the Concord Center as once being “a city-within-a-city, with neighborhood stores and entertainment and a great deal of kinship among the residents.” But the arrival of the interstate bisected the community that been settled on the city’s southern edges for well over a century, and much of the existing streetscape was turned into dead ends at the foot of the massive earth pile holding the elevated interstate. The News admitted that “Now that the interstate is being constructed, a physical wall is being built. … There is no overpass on 1-70, and between 400 and 500 persons who live north of the interstate are isolated” (for background on the community, see the 1974 study The Near Southside Community: As it Was and As It Is and the 2012 The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side). Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Urban Wilderness: The Rhetoric of Resettling the 21st-Century City

Milhaus’ Mosaic at Artistry complex on Market Street is typical of the wave of recently constructed apartments in Indianapolis’ core with modest clusters of historic homes scattered around them.

This week Indianapolis Monthly sounded a familiar celebration of downtown living when it nostalgically remembered the city’s first “urban pioneers” who settled historic homes in the wake of postwar urban renewal. The enthusiasm for new urbanites, rehabilitating historic properties, and fresh development are typical threads of 21st-century city boosterism. Such rhetoric fancies that young well-educated bourgeois will reclaim the city from ruins, optimistically envisioning a future urban landscape of “apartment dog parks and rooftop pools.” Indianapolis Monthly’s enthusiasm for a radically transformed urban core is not at all unique and not necessarily completely misplaced. Nevertheless, its celebration of “urban pioneers” and development ignores the heritage of postwar urban displacement and evades the structural inequality that makes gentrification possible.

Indianapolis Monthly’s unvarnished celebration of development extends postwar urban renewal rhetoric and has its roots in late-19th century nationalist ideologies. The metaphor of new urbanites as “pioneers” evokes an imagination of America most clearly articulated at the end of the 19th century by historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner argued that American history and our very national personality are rooted in our experience of the American frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Pioneers stood at the boundary of the frontier, where they appropriated “free land” based on a distinctively American individualism, self-reliance, ambition, and egalitarianism rooted in our presumed right to secure land and entertain the potential for prosperity.

When contemporary urban champions invoke the metaphors of frontier, pioneer, and wilderness they are participating in a longstanding discourse that assumes that transformations in the city and the nation’s broader spatial and social fabric are wrought in the interests of America. Observers have long described and rationalized urban renewal and transformation using that same language. In 1957, for instance, Baltimore’s The Sun indicated that “urban renewal has been described as the new American frontier.” The Sun invoked concepts that would have been familiar to Turner when it referred to the residents of one Baltimore block as “urban pioneers” who are “an example of the pioneering spirit, in the old sense of men and women working for themselves to create a better, brighter life though in a new-style wilderness of blight, an asphalt jungle. Without that spirit of self-help and individual initiative, the whole expensive machinery of urban renewal may grind away for years without changing more than the external appearances of slum housing.” The Sun’s analysis circumspectly approved urban renewal projects while it celebrated the residents who it presumed had sufficient initiative, ambition, and commitment to revive the dying city. Read the rest of this entry

The Hooded Order in the Pulpit: Klan Membership in 1920’s Indianapolis Churches

In January 1923 the Westview Baptist Church at Belmont and Jones Street heralded an evening “KKK sermon” dubbed “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan: Is It An American Institution?” The lecture by its Pastor J. Luther Jones was advertised in The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s Indianapolis-based newspaper, and there is no evidence that the church or its Pastor were particularly unusual in their public color line politics. The Klan’s story is well-known in Indiana history, but relatively little attention has been focused on the individuals who were members of the hooded order, and J. Luther Jones was probably typical of the many people who were at least publicly sympathetic to the Klan’s nationalist provincialism. The Klan’s secrecy makes it predictably challenging to identify individual Klansmen (or the women and children in its auxiliary chapters), but in the 1920s many Indianapolis residents were unapologetic about their allegiance to the Invisible Empire, and some residents were identified as Klansmen in period documents. In 1925 there were probably about 166,000 Hoosiers paying Klan dues, and research indicates that the 1920’s Klan represented every socioeconomic class and was strongest in central and northern Indiana (compare Lawrence Moore’s 1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). The Klan was not an aberration as much as it was simply an enormously popular civic organization expressing the sentiments of many Hoosiers.

Many of the earliest Klan members were identified in 1923 by the American Unity League’s weekly newspaper Tolerance, which was perhaps the most vocal critic of the Indiana Klan. In early 1923 the newspaper stole a list of the first 12,000 Klan members and identified many of these Klan members, who included city officials, public servants, and prominent community figures. On March 31, 1923 the Indianapolis Star reprinted the names of 69 Indianapolis residents identified as Klansmen by Tolerance (starting here and ending here). Indiana Republican Party chair Lawrence Lyons was the most prominent person identified by Tolerance, and he immediately sent a letter to the American Unity League that was published in the Indianapolis Star renouncing his membership in the Klan.

However, nobody in the Tolerance inventory denied their membership in the Invisible Empire, and there were very few other public repercussions of the Klan affiliation among the 69 Indianapolis Klansmen. In April, for instance, Mayor Lew Shank indicated that it was up to the Police Chief to determine if the seven Indianapolis detectives and a patrolman identified as Klansmen could continue their service, and there is no evidence that any of the eight were reprimanded. The only one of the 69 Klansmen to lose his job apparently was Paul P. Sullivan, the Bell Captain at the Claypool Hotel, who (according to The Fiery Cross) refused to sign a statement affirming that he was not and had never been a Klan member. The Fiery Cross complained that Sullivan’s firing was attributable to “pressure of Roman Catholic and Jewish people whom it is understood predominate and represent a large portion of the patronage of the Claypool hotel.”

In 1926 Klansman Charles J. Orbison appeared in Fellow Citizens of Indianapolis identified simply as a lawyer (image IUPUI University Library).

Tolerance singled out the eight Methodist preachers in the list of 69 men, though there is no evidence that Klan xenophobia was unique to Methodists. For instance, Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist, the West Morris Street Christian Church at 1534 West Morris Street, and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Division Street were among the West Indianapolis churches whose “100% American” social events were reported by The Fiery Cross. The only West Indianapolis Pastor in the Tolerance list was Claude L. Griffith, who became Pastor of the Blaine Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church at 1427 Blaine Avenue in 1916. Born in Illinois in 1875, Griffith came to Blaine Avenue from Poseyville, Indiana, where had been a Pastor in a Methodist Episcopal church. Griffith lived in West Indianapolis at 1245 Shepard Street, just blocks from Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist Church. The First M.E. Church was re-named Blaine Avenue M.E. Church in 1905, and Griffith became Pastor of the Church in 1916. Griffith may have left little evidence of his Klan membership, but he clearly was associated with Klansmen and appeared at the hooded order’s social functions through the 1920’s. For instance, at the August 1924 dedication of the Belmont Avenue United Brethren Church, The Fiery Cross reported that Griffith preached at an evening service following an afternoon talk by Judge Charles Orbison. Orbison was among the most prominent figures in Indiana Klandom, serving as legal counsel to the American Saloon League, the federal Prohibition director in Indiana between 1919 and 1921, Chosen Potentate of the Murat Temple, and Grand Master of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Indiana, but he was perhaps best known as the Indiana Klan’s legal counsel and a member of the “Imperial Kloncilium,” the Imperial Wizard’s highest advisory board. Orbison had been identified as a Klansman by Tolerance, but like virtually everybody on the Tolerance list Orbison made no public response and continued his advocacy for Klan causes. Orbison was the lawyer defending the Klan in 1928 when the Attorney General’s office attempted to make the group illegal, with the Indianapolis Star identifying Orbison as the “national vice president of the Klan.” Orbison’s death in July 1933 was greeted by effusive obituaries in the state and national press, but as with everybody in the Tolerance inventory not a word was spoken of his lifelong advocacy for the hooded order.

Claude Griffith became Pastor of the Morris Street M.E. Church at 329 East Morris Street by 1925. Like many Klansmen, Griffith was a zealous advocate for Prohibition and a host of moral causes, and when he retired in 1934 he became an officer of the Indiana Anti-Saloon League. Such activism against minor vices was typical of public Klan moralism. In 1923, for instance, a coalition of Klan members and West Indianapolis neighbors billing themselves as the “West Indianapolis Law Enforcement League” were patrolling pool halls and soda shops that were believed to be illegally selling alcohol. In March 1923 The Indianapolis News reported that like the hooded order’s ranks the League’s membership was secret, indicating that “the organization, the names and officers of which have not been made public, was formed a few weeks ago to watch for and report law violations in the district.” In April The Fiery Cross repeated an article from The Indianapolis Star from four days earlier that the league was “formed among church members” and planned to hire detectives to monitor West Indianapolis bootlegging. The League even petitioned the city to give it genuine police powers, but in May the city rebuffed the request.

Most of the pastors identified as Klansmen did not acknowledge their sympathies to the Invisible Empire in the press, but William Henry Brightmire was unapologetically proud of his Klan membership. In December 1922 The Fiery Cross reported that Brightmire, Pastor of Indianapolis’ Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, had been publicly identified as a Klansman and “received numerous letters from men who desired to join the society.” A month later Brightmire appeared as a featured speaker at a Klan rally in Decauter, Illinois, and in April The Fiery Cross reported that “Rev. Wm. H. Brightmire will address a 100% American meeting held at Hillside Christian church.”

Pastor William Henry Brightmire advertised the Wesley ME Church’s “cross demonstration and lawn social” in the 13 July 1923 edition of The Fiery Cross.

Brightmire was born in 1862 in Huntington County, Indiana, and between 1884 and 1917 he served congregations in Elkhart, Sheridan, and Evansville as well as Ohio congregations in Dayton, Cleveland, and Akron. In late 1917 Brightmire came to Indianapolis where he became Pastor of the Maple Road Methodist Episcopal Church, and then a year later he was named Pastor of Fletcher Place ME Church. By the time Brightmire was identified as a Klansmen in Tolerance in March 1923, he was Pastor of Wesley ME Church at the corner of West New York and North Elder Streets in Haughville. Brightmire continued to lecture for Klan causes or at Klan events through summer 1923, events that sometimes bore the apparent support of his church: in July, for instance, The Fiery Cross advertised a “fiery cross demonstration and lawn social” to be held under the “auspices [of] Wesley ME Church—Pastor Brightmire.” In August Brightmire presided over a Klansman’s funeral, but in September Indiana’s Methodist Episcopal conference met and the Indianapolis News reported that “Leave of absence has been granted W. H. Brightmire. pastor of Wesley Chapel, and he was left without an assignment.”

Brightmire’s ministerial career was over, but he continued to advocate for the Klan. In October 1924 The Fiery Cross referred to Brightmire as the “Imperial Lecturer,”and when Brightmire was called as a witness at a 1926 trial The Indianapolis Star called him a “former national Ku Klux Klan lecturer.” In September 1928 Brightmire appeared at an Indianapolis meeting organized by the Klan, with the “former Methodist minister” accusing Democratic Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith of being “wet” and reviving support for the Klan. Brightmire accepted membership applications after his lecture, but the Klan had collapsed as a political force in the wake of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s 1925 murder conviction and Stephenson’s subsequent revelations of the Klan’s bribery and control of Indiana politics. Nevertheless, Brightmire told his Indianapolis audience that the Klan “was here to stay.” By his 1928 appearance Brightmire had become critical of Stephenson’s foray into politics, and the former Pastor concluded that and that “’The Ku Klux Klan is not going into politics again. … We only stand for the things that are clean.’” In January 1929 Brightmire registered as a lobbyist for the “Indianapolis Protestant Club,” but there is no evidence Brightmire or the Klan maintained their legislative influence, and in 1931 he and his wife moved to Evanston Illinois to live with a son. Brightmire preached at his former Indianapolis churches when visiting the Circle City in the 1930s, and he died in November 1939.

Delbert Thomas was Pastor of the newly built Merritt Place ME Church when it was dedicated in 1911.

The Methodist pastors included in Tolerance’s Klan members list mostly left a much less clear record of their allegiance to the Klan. Delbert L. Thomas was Pastor of the Barth Place ME Church when he was revealed to be a member of the Invisible Empire. Thomas was born in Michigan in about 1860 and became Pastor of the Merritt Place ME Church in 1909. Merritt Place united two former congregations on Indianapolis’ near-Westside, the Blackford Street M.E. church and the California Street M.E. church. The new congregation constructed a church in the same neighborhood at the corner of California and New York Streets that was dedicated in September 1911, and after that dedication Thomas was re-assigned to First Methodist Church in Seymour. Thomas was a Pastor in Aurora, Indiana in 1920 and came to Indianapolis’ Barth Place ME Church in 1923, where he was when Tolerance included him amongst the Klan Pastors in the city. In September 1924 Thomas was replaced at Barth Place ME Church, and he moved to Warsaw Indiana where he died in 1933.

William Everett Cissna was Pastor of the West Washington Street M.E. Church at Warman and West Washington when he was identified as a member of the hooded order. Born in 1877, Cissna had been a school teacher in southern Indiana at the turn of the century and became a Methodist Pastor in 1908, coming to the West Washington Street church as its Pastor in about 1918. Cissna moved from the West Washington Street church to a Kentucky congregation in 1925, where he eventually returned to teaching and wrote two religious tracts before his death in 1968.

In September 1925 Ray Ragsdale became Pastor of the Fletcher Place ME Church.

Nearly all of these Pastors escaped any apparent repercussions from their unmasking as Klansmen. Ray A. Ragsdale was Pastor of the Brightwood ME Church when he was revealed to be a Klan member in 1923. Ragsdale became a Pastor in Vincennes early in the 20th century, and like many fellow Methodists and later Klansmen he was active in the prohibition movement; at a September 1908 Methodist conference on prohibition and local option laws, for instance, Ragsdale was part of a Vincennes quartet to perform the tune “The Saloon Must Go.” During World War I Ragsdale was Pastor of Broad Ripple ME Church and assumed the same position at Brightwood in 1919. On the eve of his unmasking as a Klansman in late March 1923, Ragsdale’s Brightwood ME Church had as its featured speaker William H. Brightmire speaking on “Christian citizenship.” Brightmire’s affiliations with the Klan were certainly public knowledge, and the event was advertised in The Fiery Cross. In July the Brightwood ME Church had a “100% ice cream social” at the church that likewise was reported in the Klan’s newspaper, but Ragsdale would remain a prominent figure in Indiana Methodism. In December 1923 Ragsdale was elected President of the Methodist Minsters’ Association of Indianapolis. Ragsdale became Pastor at the Fletcher Place ME Church in September 1925, and at his death in 1941 Ragsdale was a Pastor in a Methodist church in New Albany.

After hosting a Klan lecture at his Westview Baptist Church in January 1923, in July Pastor Luther Jones proposed to have a ceremony at his church at which a cross would be burnt on the church’s lawn. The day before the event, Jones secured a fireworks permit from the city and acknowledged that “he understood there was a plan to burn a fiery cross, emblematic of the Ku Klux Klan, at the lawn fete.” By the next day, an 18-foot cross wrapped in oil-soaked burlap had been set into a posthole in the church’s lawn in preparation for the evening’s conflagration, but the cross-burning would violate the fireworks permit. When police arrived to stop the cross-burning a crowd of 7000 to 10,000 people had already gathered, greeting the police “with hisses and catcalls and cries of `Set a match to it,’ and `Don’t let the cops stop us.’” Jones was compelled to encourage the crowd to hold the cross-burning at a rural location, and he led a parade out West Morris Street where the cross was set afire. Upon returning to Belmont Street three smaller crosses were set aflame within view of the church in nearby Rhodius Park.

John Luther Jones may have been relatively typical in his sympathies to the Klan, even though there is no evidence he was a dues-paying member. Jones was born in Tennessee in 1887 and was a minister living in Mishawaka Indiana when he first married in 1907. He had moved to Lenawee County Michigan by 1910, where he identified himself in the census as a “Free Baptist” minister, probably a Freewill Baptist congregation. After his wife died in 1915 Jones re-married and was serving as a minister in Indiana, and after moving to 545 North Tibbs Street in Haughville in about 1919 Jones became Pastor of Westview Baptist Church in 1921. By 1926 Jones was no longer Pastor at Westview Baptist, and the family had moved to Peoria Illinois by 1930, where Jones worked for the Caterpillar Company as a tool designer and retired in 1943. Luther Jones moved to California in about 1952, where he was struck by a car and killed in November 1968.

The most surprising dimension of the Klan’s 1920s popularity was not necessarily clergymen’s membership in the hooded order; instead, the more unsettling reality is that the Klan was never an aberration to an overall history of democracy and Hoosier civility or limited to a particular range of residents. Instead, it was cut from a rather familiar provincialism, nationalist fervor, and uneasiness with the erosion of White privilege that found followers in a host of neighborhoods representing a wide range of backgrounds. Those Klansmen and their families practiced their faith in many different churches, so the record of Methodists is not especially unique. Many of these churches have disappeared, but others became part of contemporary congregations in a city where many of the earliest Klan-sympathetic churches still stand. These 69 people are not deviants from Hoosier values as much as they are part of a national pattern of xenophobia that remains part of contemporary life, and their history becomes more compelling if we can see this Klan landscape and heritage within broader patterns of provincialism, xenophobia, and racism.


Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis

The Meriwethers’ future home at 2257 North Capitol (at red arrow) was about a decade old when it appeared on this 1898 Sanborn Insurance map.

On July 15, 1920 massive fences were erected on each side of Lucien Meriwethers’ home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue: to the south, Gabriel and Goldie Slutzky erected a 10’ high fence, and to the north Mary Grooms built a six-foot fence. Meriwether was an African-American dentist, and his purchase of the property in May 1920 made his family the first people of color to settle on North Capitol. The Meriwethers’ White neighbors instantly banded together to form the North Capitol Protective Association, one of many inter-war neighborhood collectives championing residential segregation. These little neighborhood groups rarely figure prominently in histories of racism in Indianapolis, which have tended to justifiably focus on the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid growth and collapse in the 1920s (compare Emma Lou Thornbrough’s 1961 Klan analysis; Kenneth T. Jackson’s 1967 study, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and the definitive Indiana study, Leonard Moore’s 1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). Nevertheless, these rather anonymous neighborhood associations were influential advocates for segregation in the 1920s and 1930s.

In October 1907 this five-foot high concrete “spite fence” separating Woodruff Place from modest neighboring homes appeared in The Indianapolis Star.

The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street. Read the rest of this entry

Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

Ralph Louis Temple’s 1940’s painting of Minerva Street;click for a larger image (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

Around World War II artist Ralph Louis Temple painted a series of oil studies of his Indianapolis neighborhood. Temple’s family had lived on Minerva Street since 1866, when Ralph’s great grandfather Carter Temple Sr. came to the Circle City. Ralph Temple’s painting featured the double at 546-548 Minerva Street, the neighboring corner home at 550 Minerva, and William D. McCoy Public School 24 in the background along North Street. Carter Temple Jr.’s granddaughter Cecelia was still living in the home at 550 Minerva Street in 1978, the last of a century of Temple family to live on Minerva Street. Her brother Ralph’s paintings of the neighborhood cast it in a quite different light than the dominant rhetoric and imagery that aspired to displace families like the Temples.

The house at 550 Minerva Street in the late-1970’s (Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

There are numerous images of the neighborhood in the postwar period, when it was one of many historically African-American urban communities that were gradually being displaced by a host of renewal schemes. The Temples’ home for more than a century would fall to the wrecking ball when Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) was expanding in the late 1970’s. The city of Indianapolis was simultaneously razing a host of businesses along Indiana Avenue, and in the 1960’s the interstate was being constructed through the predominately African-American near-Westside while it sliced through much of the eastside and southside as well. As blocks of buildings fell along Indiana Avenue in the 1970’s the city also lobbied for the demolition of Lockefield Gardens, which closed in 1976. Lockefield was a segregated Public Works Administration community that opened in 1938 across the street from 550 Minerva Street, with School 24 in its midst. In July, 1983 demolition finally removed all but seven of the original Lockefield buildings. Read the rest of this entry

A Digital Heritage of Confederate Memorialization: Julian Carr and Silent Sam

An undated postcard image of the UNC Confederate Monument.

In 1908 Confederate Veteran reported that a “movement was inaugurated to erect a monument on the campus of the University at Chapel Hill to the boys who put aside their books and doffed uniforms, shouldered their guns, and went to the front in defense of a cause their fathers knew to be right.” That ambition to commemorate the University’s Confederate heritage placed Chapel Hill among many early 20th-century Southern communities memorializing the vanquished Confederacy. A thousand people eventually gathered in June, 1913 “under the oaks of the University campus” to dedicate the memorial to the University of North Carolina’s Confederate soldiers, one of 23 Confederate monuments dedicated in the US in 1913. That monument today known as “Silent Sam” was one of 185 monuments erected at the height of Confederate memorialization between 1909 and 1913 (compare the Southern Poverty Law Center’s inventory of Confederate monuments Google doc). The Chapel Hill dedication came a half century after Gettysburg, when Jim Crow segregation was firmly entrenched in the South and a spirit of White reconciliation characterized much of the spirit of public discourse between North and South. A month after the Chapel Hill ceremony, Confederate veterans (including several Chapel Hill speakers) would gather at Gettysburg with their former combatants in one of the most public statements of shifting regional sentiments and White reconciliation.

Last week that Chapel Hill monument was toppled during a protest, and activism to remove the monument reveals some familiar divides over Confederate material heritage while it reflects the distinctive 21st-century contours of that discourse. On the one hand, the discussion in Chapel Hill illuminates how digitized historical data has shaped an increasingly well-informed discourse over the Confederacy’s memorial landscape. We know an enormous amount about the men and women who spearheaded the movement to erect the Chapel Hill memorial as well as the history of the monument space in the subsequent century, primarily because of the UNC Archives’ thorough documentation of the monument’s heritage. On the other hand, much of the defense of such monuments remains firmly committed to the same neo-Confederate ideology that was hatched in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the University and many of North Carolina’s highest elected officials have been reluctant if not militantly resistant to uprooting the monument. Read the rest of this entry

Gates, Place, and Urban Heritage

The most prominent “gateway” to campus will be a 52′-tall column at the corner of West and Michigan Streets that is expected to be in place in Fall 2018 (click for a larger view).

This week Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) celebrated the impending construction of five “gateways” to campus, architectural features designed to identify the campus boundaries as students, staff, and visitors enter the near-Westside university. The most prominent gateway will be at West and Michigan Streets, a 52′-tall limestone and steel monolith that will be lit at night and be neighbored two blocks south by a more modest marker at New York and West Streets. Alongside these gateways a “series of landscape mounds along West Street between the two gateway markers also will visually distinguish the campus from the surrounding city.” This exercise in placemaking takes its aesthetic inspiration from the campus itself, invoking the architectural forms of the University Library (designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, completed in 1994), Campus Center (SmithGroup JJR, 2008), and Eskenazi Hall (Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, 2005). The gateways aspire to fashion a material landscape stylistically consistent with these existing buildings, though the media coverage of the gateways has featured the sheer scale of the monoliths, which are “large enough to be seen from an airplane.” Chancellor Nasser Paydar exalted that “anyone on a plane approaching Indianapolis, we want them to see this is how proud they are with this campus.” Read the rest of this entry

Visualizing Racism: The Trauma of Lynching Photography

On April 29, 1915 The Tampa Morning Tribune was one of scores of national papers to report on the lynching of Tom Brooks.

In 1915 Tom Brooks was murdered in Somerville, Tennessee by a mob of 100-200 White men. Brooks had been accused of murdering a wealthy White planter and his plantation manager, and when he was being returned to Somerville to stand trial a week later, a mob seized him from police. The vigilantes took Brooks to a nearby railroad bridge where he was hung, and Brooks’ murder was followed by a commonplace ritual of photographing the victim. Arkansas’ Batesville Daily Guard was among the newspapers that reported “when the news spread that there was a negro hanging beneath the bridge, all the town folk of Fayette [County] turned out to view the work of the mob. Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene and picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant on the ground and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched negro” (compare press coverage including The Crisis, Nashville’s The Tennessean, and Vicksburg, Mississippi’s The Daily Herald).

The names of lynching victims are engraved in steel columns at the Memorial for Peace and Justice.

On April 26th the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opens in Montgomery, Alabama commemorating Brooks and over 4400 Black victims of lynching. In preparation for its opening, 60 Minutes’ Oprah Winfrey reported on the museum and the heritage of lynching, and the report included examples of the scores of lynching images that were taken during the racial terror killings of people like Tom Brooks. 60 Minutes chose to show images of lynching in prime time, even as they acknowledged that these pictures are enormously unsettling things: contemporary White audiences are perhaps ashamed to acknowledge the social tolerance for (if not acceptance of) vigilante mob murders; many people are repulsed by the images’ ghastly materiality of torture; and a few consider lynching an anomaly safely lodged in the past, if not a misrepresentation of objective history (compare David Horowitz’s argument that the museum is a “racist project” and suggestion that “many” lynching victims “were guilty of heinous crimes”). Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Rebellion: Absence on the Confederate Memorial Landscape

On December 20th, the Memphis monument dedicated to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was quietly removed by Memphis Greenspace. The non-profit had purchased the former Forrest Park (known as Health Sciences Park since 2013) earlier that day for $1000, giving it control over the Forrest monument. For the same price the city simultaneously sold its easement on Fourth Bluff Park, which held a Jefferson Davis monument (and a less well-known bust of Confederate soldier and Memphis journalist James Harvey Mathes). With $250,000 raised from a host of unspecified sources, Memphis Greenspace removed the monuments, and they remain hidden in storage awaiting their final fate.

Embed from Getty Images

Above: The pedestal for the Forrest monument remains where his statue stood since its dedication in 1905 (image Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The plinth for Baltimore’s Confederate Women’s Memorial, which was removed in August, 2017 (image BalPhoto).

Where the Forrest and Davis monuments once stood there are now empty pedestals or foundations that frame a whole new public discussion on heritage and memory. As Confederate monuments are removed from a host of public spaces, the absences they leave confirm shifting attitudes toward Confederate heritage even as they continue to evoke neo-Confederate memory and spark White nationalist activism. On January 6th, for instance, a handful of White nationalists protested near Health Sciences Park displaying the banner “`Diversity’ = White Genocide.” Another group unable to penetrate the circle of police surrounding Health Sciences Park drove around Memphis’ freeway in a “rolling protest” waving Confederate flags; however, some of those protestors distanced themselves from the unabashed neo-Nazis who gathered at the park that once held the Forrest statue.

Dedicated in May, 1905, the Memphis Bedford Forrest monument memorialized perhaps the most polarizing of all Confederates. Forrest’s obituary in the New York Times labeled him “notoriously bloodthirsty and revengeful,” invoking Forrest’s role in the April, 1864 battle at Fort Pillow where his soldiers were accused of murdering a large number of African-American soldiers who had surrendered or were wounded. In 1880 one newspaper reported on the Forrest monument proposal and complained that “General N.B. Forrest’s treason is to be commemorated by a monument at Memphis.” Nevertheless, Forrest was celebrated by unrepentant Confederates as an unschooled but tactically brilliant field general. In 1891, Nashville’s The Daily American encouraged its readers to contribute to the Forrest monument fund, indicating that there “was no braver General in the Confederacy than N.B. Forrest; no officer more daring and heroic. The monument should be worthy of the man.” Planning for a Forrest monument began shortly after his death in 1877, and in 1901 the foundation for the statue was laid. The most sacred of all relics was buried at the monument site in November, 1904, when Forrest and his wife were exhumed and reburied at the feet of the monument’s pedestal. The couple remains buried in the park now, but it is expected that they will be re-buried in Elmwood Cemetery, where both were originally interred. Read the rest of this entry