Thomas Hart Benton

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

1. Self-Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton

Self-Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton, 1972. Source:

Thomas Hart Benton was born into a prominent political family on April 15, 1889 in Neosho, Missouri. He was named for a great uncle who had served 5 terms in Congress, first serving when Missouri gained statehood. His father was a lawyer and four term Congressman who had similar political aspirations for his son. His son, however, liked to draw and did not fall in line with his father’s plans. He dropped out of school at age 17 and took a job as a cartoonist at the Joplin American newspaper. His father, apparently thinking to “discipline” the art out of him, sent him to a military academy for a year before relenting and allowing the son to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907. He then studied at the Académie Julian in Paris for several years before returning to the United States and settling in New York.

At this time, Benton had not yet really found “his style.” He was exposed to impressionism, Japanese prints, Fauvism, Diego Rivera, and a host of other artists and styles. During World War I, he served as a draftsman in the U.S. Navy and later credited “his military duties for shifting attention in his art work back to the objective world” (World War II, p. 9).

In 1924, Benton came back to Missouri to visit his father who was very sick. This visit changed Benton’s life. His interests became clearer. He took pride in his Midwestern roots and began painting ordinary Americans not often shown in art. He started making drawing trips that took him across America. He visited steel mills, coal mines, and logging camps. He floated down rivers in canoes. He watched workers picking cotton in the South. He observed everything he could about ordinary American life during the 1920s and 1930s and recorded what he saw in his sketches. … Thomas Hart Benton became the leader of a movement in American art called regionalism. He based his art on personal observation. He showed working people in all regions of America, including poor, rural areas. Benton called attention to problems that he thought all Americans should know about. Benton’s style of painting made common people into heroes. He gave them big bodies with lots of muscles and painted them using deep, rich colors. Benton also painted villains into his pictures. The villains were usually rich and powerful people Benton did not respect because they got ahead by taking advantage of others.

2. Colonel Richard Lieber

Colonel Richard Lieber, n.d. Source:

One of Benton’s first opportunities to make a “big splash” came in December 1932. The opening of the 1933 World’s Fair/Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago was less than six months away, and the state of Indiana had no firm plans for its exhibit. “On December 19, 1932, the commission [Indiana Commission for the Century of Progress Exposition] gathered to hear the last-minute proposal of Colonel Richard Lieber, director of Indiana’s Department of Conservation, who had been recently appointed by Governor Harry G. Leslie to take charge of the “lead-ass” committee. Instead of the usual state fair display of threshing machines and farm produce, Lieber proposed something more dramatic and artistic: a 250-foot mural depicting the state’s accomplishments. He also recommended the one man with the experience, vision, and stamina to complete such an ambitious project in such a short time: Thomas Hart Benton” (Foster, p. 7).

“The commission quickly voted to accept the proposal, knowing that Benton needed sufficient time to research, create and paint the murals by the fair’s opening in May. Three days later, a contract was signed giving Benton “complete freedom” for the murals, including “the composition of the overall narrative and the ‘realistic’ treatment of social facts.” Lieber learned of Benton’s previous work through a mutual acquaintance, Indianapolis-born architect Thomas Hibben, who designed Indiana’s Lincoln Memorial for the Dept. of Conservation. The two had talked about possible exhibit ideas for the fair. Hibben suggested the New York muralist. Lieber, who had painting experience himself and had also been a newspaper art critic, researched Benton’s work before making his pitch. The choice caused controversy, first because Benton was not a Hoosier. He was born in Missouri, trained in Chicago and Paris, and lived in The Big Apple. People worried that he would “make Indiana look like a boob,” and cater to the various stereotypes of Midwesterners. Many said that such a high-profile project should have gone to one of Indiana’s own respected artists, especially considering the use of State funds.

The Hall, or Court, of States building would occupy prime lake-front real estate and be generally V-shaped, with Indiana’s portion right at the top of the V. The ceilings would be 28 feet high, enabling the 12 feet tall mural to be hung 10 ft. from the floor and have special lighting. The mural itself was 232 feet in length.

3. Chicago Exposition World Fair

Hall of States and Federal Building, “Century of Progress 1933” in Chicago, IL, n.d. Source:

Century of Progress International Exposition, Hall of States, in Chicago, Illinois, 1933. Source: MSS 157-1408.

Century of Progress International Exposition, Hall of States, in Chicago, Illinois, 1933. Source: MSS 157-1408.

Benton started by learning as much as he could about the history, landscape and people of Indiana at the Indiana State Library, then he traveled 3,000 miles with Department of Conservation staff, visiting state parks and historic sites. He completed sketches everywhere he went and many of the sites and people he met along the way: … Fort Vincennes, Spring Mill, Corydon and Paoli can be identified in the murals. Benton divided the murals into two themes: industrial and cultural, with each theme running chronologically along opposite sides of the room. The subject matter for the Industrial Panels ranges from early Native American potters, through the pioneer age, the evolution of river transportation to the railroads, and life on the farm up through the gas and steel booms in central and northwest Indiana. The Cultural Panels begin with the Mound-builders, follow the development of small farm communities into larger cities, the evolution of early schools into large universities and the various social issues facing Indiana and the nation at large. These included the Civil War, women’s rights, entertainment, labor unrest and racial tension. Cultural panels 8, 10 and 11 show a variety of entertainment: the saloon; the state fair, complete with snake charmer; William Forsyth, artist and teacher, painting at an easel; the circus; Lieber planting trees in a state park; auto racing; and Indiana’s favorite pastime, basketball.

Back from his all-around-Indiana trip, Benton returned to Indianapolis and studio space in an old dance hall and set to work with a crew of assistants composed of local artists. “The pace was manic, with 2600 square feet of mural (38 square feet per day…) to be completed in less than three months. The panels, constructed inside Germania Hall [the aforementioned studio], were too big to be carried down the stairs; once finished they were removed through a twenty-foot high slit created by dismantling two windows and a section of brick wall in between. Lowered on a derrick two floors to the street, the murals were loaded on a special truck by white-gloved workers and shipped to Chicago, where an unexpected low bridge forced a hundred-and-six-mile detour. In the wee hours of the morning of May 19, one of the gates of Northwestern University had to be dismantled to get the truck through the grounds.” (Foster, p. 19-20) After what seems like a comedy of errors, the murals were installed in time for the June opening of the exposition. Ironically, due to excessive rain in May, the fair opened with none of the state halls completed except for Indiana’s!

Here’s how the murals looked installed, and what follows are close-ups of some of the sections.

5. Colleges and City Life

Cultural Panel, no. 9: College and City Life, n.d. Source:

6. Electric Power

Industrial Panel, no. 10: Electric Power, Motor-Cars, Steel, n.d. Source:

7. Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought

Cultural Panel, no. 11: Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought, n.d. Source:

At the end of 1933, Indiana’s participation in the 1933 World’s Fair/Century of Progress Exposition came to an end. The murals came down, and although various ideas of where they should be displayed next were floated, they eventually ended up in storage in the horse barn at the state fairgrounds. This might have been the end of the story, were it not for the man who became the 11th president of Indiana University and later its chancellor, Herman B Wells. (NOTE: that’s not a typographical error in his name—there is no period after the letter B because it is not an abbreviation. His middle name is, literally, B.) In 1937, when Wells was acting president, plans were underway for the construction of an auditorium on the Bloomington campus. Wells was familiar with the murals and decided he’d like them to grace the new auditorium. Clearly a savvy man who had done his homework, “Wells paid a call on the current governor, Cliff Townsend. “He was a good friend of mine—but he was a farmer—and I said ‘I understand those murals are out at the state fairgrounds.’ ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘Yes, they’re in the horse barn and they’re in the way!’ And I said ‘How about giving them to the university and we get ‘em out of there?’ ‘Well, that’d be great!’ said Townsend. ‘Would ya take ‘em?’” (Foster, p. 25)

With the exception of 4 smaller segments, all 26 panels were used at the university. Sixteen central panels were placed in the auditorium’s lobby. Two of the murals with business themes were installed in nearby Woodburn Hall, at the time the new center of the business school, and the rest in another space within the auditorium. Benton himself came to campus in October 1940 to assist with the installation and retouching of the murals.


Murals in lobby of the Indiana University by Benton entitled, “Century of Progress”, 1941. Source: MSS 264-1359.

This picture, from University Archives and Special Collections’ Thomas Mueller photographic collection, shows a portion of the Indiana University auditorium installation. Visible on the left are panels 4-9 of the industrial panels: Home Industry, Internal Improvements, Civil War, Expansion, The Farmer Up and Down, and Coal, Gas, Oil, Brick. Only partially visible at the rear of the photo are panels 9 and 8 of the cultural panels: Colleges and City Life, and Leisure and Literature.

Cultural Panel, no. 10: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press, n.d. Source:

Cultural Panel, no. 10: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press, n.d. Source:

The panel shown to the left here is no. 10 of the cultural panels: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press. This panel was one of the most controversial, both in its original installation and in the re-installation at Indiana University. In the center of the picture is the clear image of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1933 protesters wanted this panel to be excluded so as not to embarrass the state, to bury the sins of the past. But the influence of the Klan within Indiana is undeniable. “As many as forty percent of all native-born white men in the state paid dues to join between 1921 and 1928. As the largest social organization in Indiana, the Klan loomed over all state politics, briefly controlling most state and local offices at its peak of power in 1924.” (Foster, p. 72) As only a small portion of this entire panel, it’s clear that Benton intended to confront the evil and pay homage to those who ended its reign of terror. In the foreground of the panel the power of the press is depicted by the reporter, printer, and photographer. “Relentless coverage in the Indianapolis Times, detailing charges of bribery and corruption, won the paper a Pulitzer Prize. When the state’s KKK leader was jailed for murder in 1925, his testimony from prison brought down both the governor and mayor. Victory over the Klan seems secure in the vignette at the center, where a white nurse tends both black and white children at Indianapolis City Hospital (now Wishard). The importance of the Klan in Indiana’s history remains disturbing to this day; more significant is Benton’s foreground message of “unmasking” and tolerance” (Foster, p. 72).

Cultural Panel, no. 10: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press at Indiana University, n.d. Source:

Cultural Panel, no. 10: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press at Indiana University, n.d. Source:

The mural has faced numerous protests at Indiana University, too, including some vandalism. Generally, the university has defended its placement on the educational grounds of free speech, historical fact, and facilitating debate. The mural is in Woodburn 100, a lecture hall and classroom. (This setting is shown here at the left.) On September 29, 2017, Indiana University moderated its stance a little in this statement by Executive Vice President and Provost Laurel Robel, quoted in part here: “The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize. However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.” (You can follow this hyperlink to read the entire statement or access it via the link in the list of sources consulted at the end of this blog.)

Thomas Hart Benton went on to paint other historically-themed murals, including one for the Missouri capital in Jefferson City in 1936, Old Kansas City (1955-1956), Jacques Cartier Discovers the Indians and The Seneca Discover the French in Massena, NY, Father Hennepin at Niagara Falls (1959-1961), and Independence and the Opening of the West for the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri (1959-1962). In 1942, in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he created a series of 10 paintings entitled The Year of Peril. Below is the one entitled Embarkation – Prelude to Death.

10. Embarkation -- Prelude to Death

Embarkation – Prelude to Death, n.d. Source:

In 1943-1944, Abbot Laboratories commissioned Benton to create 25 pieces for the U.S. Navy. “He pursued, once again, the life and the look of his favorite subjects, the rank and file, people with undistinguished faces and unremembered names, workers in the shipbuilding yard and the crewmen inside a submarine. … Because [these] drawings were not intended for public viewing, they assumed the character of a diary entry—simple and sincere. … The drama in these images is not personal. Human psychology plays a minimal role. Benton’s subjects carry out modest activities—they eat and sleep, but mostly they work. Drama is found in the launching of a ship, the lurching of a vessel in high seas, a stream of light invading the dismal recesses of the submarine. These works avoid great moments in history and great individuals. Benton chose, instead, to depict team ventures. He conveyed the tempo and the look of the war effort as a series of acts of labor carried out in defense plants, naval bases, shipyards, coordinated efforts of construction and training and battle rehearsal. This is Benton’s story of World War II” (World War II…, p. 11, 13-14).

11. She's Off

She’s Off! 1944. LST 768 slides sideways down a marine railway into the Allegheny River at Ambridge, Pennsylvania following its christening. Source:

This Way Out, 1944.  Tanks and men charge out of the open bow of the LST during maneuvers on the "shakedown" trips in preparation for combat duty. Source:

This Way Out, 1944. Tanks and men charge out of the open bow of the LST during maneuvers on the “shakedown” trips in preparation for combat duty. Source:

13. Coffee and Chow

Coffee and Chow, 1944. Eyes almost closed in concentration as he reads a periodical spread open on his leg, a crewman munches on a sandwich and sips a cup of the ubiquitous Navy “jamoke”–coffee. Source:

Slumber Deep, 1944.  Completely relaxed in exhaustion, crewmen of a U.S. Navy submarine do "bunk duty" above a deadly but quiescent torpedo. A shipmate whiles away his off-duty interlude by reading. Source:

Slumber Deep, 1944. Completely relaxed in exhaustion, crewmen of a U.S. Navy submarine do “bunk duty” above a deadly but quiescent torpedo. A shipmate whiles away his off-duty interlude by reading. Source:

Thomas Hart Benton died on January 18, 1975, the evening of the day that he finished the work pictured here, The Sources of Country Music for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. He was known to be quite opinionated and pugnacious, and would probably not care about the criticisms of his work, but he might be glad to know we’re still talking about him today!

The Sources of Country Music portrays 17 nearly life-sized figures and illustrates the various cultural influences on country music, including a train, a steamboat, a black banjo player, country fiddlers and dulcimer players, hymn singers and square dancers. The painting memorializes entertainer Tex Ritter as the singing cowboy on the right. Image provided by The Country Music Foundation. Source:

The Sources of Country Music portrays 17 nearly life-sized figures and illustrates the various cultural influences on country music, including a train, a steamboat, a black banjo player, country fiddlers and dulcimer players, hymn singers and square dancers. The painting memorializes entertainer, Tex Ritter, as the singing cowboy on the right. Source:

If you’re interested in learning more about Benton’s Indiana murals, look at this video: It’s a little long, but it does tell the story quite well.

Sources Consulted:

Adams, Henry. “In Defense of Keeping the Indiana University Mural That Depicts (But Doesn’t Glorify) the KKK.”, November 3, 2017.

The Benton Murals. Indiana University News Room.

DeBenedette, Valerie. “15 Things You Might Not Know About Thomas Hart Benton.” Mental Floss, April 15, 2016.

Provost statement on the Benton Murals. Indiana University Office of the Provost & Executive Vice President, September 29, 2017.

Thomas Hart Benton: The Indiana Murals. Indiana University Art Museum, Education Dept.

Thomas Hart Benton. National Gallery of Art.

Thomas Hart Benton. (his artwork in the museum collections of the) Naval History and Heritage Command

Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975). The State Historical Society of Missouri: Historic Missourians.

Walker, Amy. “Picture This: Thomas Hart Benton’s Hoosier Connection.” (originally published in March/April 2008 edition of Outdoor Indiana)

Tangible resources held by Rice Library:

Foster, Kathleen A. Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana murals. Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum in association with Indiana University Press, 2000. University Archives and Special Collections, Regional Collection ND237.B47 A76 2000

Thomas Hart Benton [videorecording] Alexandria, Va.?] : PBS Home Video, c2004. DVDs ND237.B47 T56 2004

World War II through the eyes of Thomas Hart Benton. San Antonio, TX: Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, [1991?] University Archives and Special Collections, Special Collection NC139.B45 A4 1991

Posted in "Artistic Expression", Art, Indiana | Leave a comment

The Greatest Show on Earth

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Most of us have at some time thrilled to the delights of the circus…the animals, the daring acts, the so-much-going-on-at-one-time-it’s-overwhelming fun of it all.  As early as 1300-1200 BCE, there is artistic evidence of acrobatic performances, and in ancient Rome, jugglers and acrobats exhibited their talents during the interludes between chariot races or gladiatorial fights.  No worries, we’re not going to go back that far into history here, but rather hit the highlights of the circus during 19th and 20th century America.

P.T. (Phineas Taylor) Barnum was “born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810, the son of a local innkeeper and shopkeeper. After a string of unsuccessful jobs and business exploits, the young Barnum turned his attention to a career in showmanship.”

Picture of P.T. Barnum (July 5, 1810-April 7, 1891), n.d. Source:

Picture of P.T. Barnum (July 5, 1810-April 7, 1891), n.d. Source:

Barnum was a promoter—he excelled at marketing, at showmanship, at giving the people what they wanted.  Contrary to popular belief, he never said there’s a sucker born every minute.  “For his part, Barnum always maintained that his patrons were not “suckers” but willing participants in his lighthearted pranks and hoaxes. “The people like to be humbugged,” he once said.””

What Barnum was not was the loveable con man depicted in the recent Hugh Jackman movie, The Greatest Showman—at least, not entirely.  Barnum was a complicated man.  Several of his promotions were despicable in the sense of being exploitative and racially insensitive.  On the other hand, he was also part of the temperance movement, a philanthropist who gave generously to children’s hospitals, and later became passionately pro-abolition.  You can use the resources listed at the end of this article to get a fuller picture, but in the meantime, let’s get back to the circus.

In 1841 Barnum acquired a museum in New York City and used it to exhibit “500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe.”  This burned to the ground in 1868, but within 2 years he signed a partnership with William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, who wanted to expand their circus and needed Barnum’s money, name, and expertise in publicity.  “In April 1871 the P.T. Barnum Museum, Menagerie and Circus, International Zoological Garden, Polytechnic and Hippodrome played for a week in Brooklyn, and then proceeded on through New York state and New England. For the price of a single ticket, viewers made their way through several tents containing a menagerie and the kind of exhibitions that Barnum had featured at his American Museum….. At the end of the series of tents, the audience took their seats under the big top for a performance of equestrians, clowns and acrobats. Everywhere it opened, the show was a huge success, turning away scores of potential viewers, and Barnum returned bursting with ideas for expanding and improving.” (Simon, p. 76-77)

Barnum and his partners were also instrumental in improvements in circus transportation. The 1871 show traveled in 100 wagons. “Any wagon show was vulnerable to weather, and the slow pace of travel meant that the circus needed to stop frequently in small towns, unloading, setting up tents and taking everything down every evening.  It was expensive and often grueling. The entire show bumped along rutted roads night after night, damaging wagons and keeping performers awake.  [By this time, a uniform rail gauge had been established, thus making transportation by rail a better option, but railroad cars were not designed for the variety of shapes and sizes of items that a circus needed.  Barnum’s idea was to have specially made circus train cars.  They could travel hundreds of miles overnight and arrive in a new venue in the morning.]  In its first season on rails, travelling on 65 cars as far as Topeka, Kansas, the show opened in 145 different cities and offered three performances a day.” (Simon, p. 77-78)

Circus train in Racine County, WI, undated. Source:

Circus train in Racine County, WI, undated. Source:

Given their incredible popularity, circuses frequently had to turn away paying customers.  Just making the ring larger to add seats was not successful as viewers could no longer see the performances well.  In 1872, Barnum added a 2nd ring to P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome, Polytechnic Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Hall of Classic Statuary, Mechanics, and Fine Arts, Garden of Zoology and Ornithology, now simply billed as the Greatest Show on Earth.

In 1880, Barnum quit his partnership with Coup and Castello and took on as a new partner the owner of the Great London Circus, James Anthony Bailey.  By all accounts, Bailey was almost the polar opposite of Barnum—he was quiet, behind-the-scenes, a manager of every detail. Each man was a genius in his own arena, and the partnership thrived.  The newly minted Barnum & Bailey Circus grew to fill three rings of entertainment.

Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, circa 1896. Source:

Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, circa 1896. Source:

We now need to step back in time a bit to see the origins of the final partners in this extravaganza. In 1847, a 21-year old harness maker from Germany named August Rüngeling came to this country.  He eventually married, Anglicized his name to Ringling, settled (more or less) in Baraboo, WI, and had 8 sons (one of whom died at birth or was stillborn) and 1 daughter.  In 1870, the family, then living in Iowa, had the opportunity to see Dan Rice’s circus, and the die was cast.  The brothers, particularly 18-year-old Albert (Al) were enthralled and immediately set about learning tricks and putting on performances in their backyard.  Even as they grew up and moved to Baraboo in 1875, the level of enthusiasm remained high. In June 1882 they put together another show, the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company, and took it on the road throughout the Midwest.

Ringling Brothers: Kings of the Show World, 1905. Source:

Ringling Brothers: Kings of the Show World, 1905. Source:

“For a good many years, every dollar any of the brothers could squeeze out, beyond those needed for the most moderate personal expenses, went into a common purse. They all had a true dedication to the job at hand, and an ambitious foresightedness that kept them always trying to save enough to amplify the program, and add to the performers, stock, and equipment.  The growth was phenomenal.  By 1888 they were able to buy two elephants. At the end of 1889, they went on the railroad…..By 1890, not one of the seven was taking part as a performer.” (Murray, p. 273)

P.T. Barnum died in April 1891, but the Barnum & Bailey Circus continued to thrive under Bailey’s leadership.  In 1897 it embarked on a 6-year tour of Europe. By the time it returned in 1903, the Ringling brothers had established their circus as pre-eminent as “Kings of the Show World.”  In 1906, Bailey passed away and his widow sold his interest in another circus to the Ringlings, who in 1907 also acquired Barnum & Bailey.  For the next 11 years they operated the circuses separately, but in 1918 they united them and the behemoth that became Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.  By 1925 it had become, according to circus historian Mark St. Leon, “a moving township of sixteen hundred people that travelled on four special trains of one hundred cars each, many of the cars twenty metres long. The big show carried nearly eight hundred horses and nearly one thousand other animals, including forty-two elephants, giraffes, camels, and all sorts of other beasts rarely seen in America outside a zoo…There were three rings and two stages and these were worked almost continuously throughout the two-and-a-half hour program. No act was allowed more than five minutes, save a few centre ring star acts…and there was not a second’s delay from the time the big parade took place around the hippodrome track that surrounded the three rings until the final chariot race.  One hundred clowns worked the hippodrome track continuously while the acts were in progress.” (Simon, p. 91)

Rear view of Ca'd'Zan, taken from Sarasota Bay. Source:

Rear view of Ca’d’Zan, taken from Sarasota Bay. Source:

As time went on, the Ringling brothers began to pass away until, in 1926, John was the sole surviving brother. John proved himself a very capable administrator.  “As the years went by, he became for the public the embodiment of the circus, an international figure recognized immediately by thousands when he appeared in any city here or in Europe.” (Murray, p. 78) He dressed rather modestly, but he did enjoy fine living.  He and his wife, Mable, entertained lavishly at their Sarasota home, Ca’d’Zan (house of John).  He collected art, amassing so much that a separate museum on the estate was needed to house it.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota. Source:

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota. Source:

The last years of John Ringling’s life were not happy.  In 1929 he overextended himself in purchasing the American Circus Corporation, and then the Depression struck.  His beloved wife, Mable, died and he was in poor health.  He struggled to retain his empire, and at his death in 1936, left his estate in such disarray that it took 10 years to settle.  Eventually, the Ringling mantle fell on the shoulders of John Ringling North, son of the lone Ringling sister, who held it until 1967 when the family sold the circus.

Fast forward to 2017–the Ringling Bros. Circus, now owned by Feld Entertainment, folded after 146 years, due to a combination of factors: high operating costs, declining sales, and animal rights protests.  An era had ended, yet circuses today, while not as popular in their heyday, still entertain and delight children of all ages.  Evansville has a long history with the Hadi Shrine Circus.  Beginning in 1933, the Hadi Shriners have been bringing the circus to town over the Thanksgiving holiday.  The show is new each year as Hadi Shriners contract with individual acts rather than a full production.  This year’s Hadi Shrine Circus will be held at the Ford Center November 28-December 1.

Humbug? Showmanship? Good clean fun? Exploitation?  The answer is probably yes to each, in differing proportions for each circus-goer.  For now, have a relaxing Thanksgiving holiday—maybe even visit the Shrine circus—and in the meantime, enjoy this selection of circus photographs from University Archives Special Collections.

When circuses came to town, there was usually a parade through the streets out to the fairgrounds, to get people excited to see the show. Here elephants from the Cole Brothers Circus approach the circus grounds in New Harmony in 1909.

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Woman balancing on her head on a trapeze, holding a ring on each arm and leg.

Acrobat in Evansville, Indiana. Source: Greg Smith Photographic Collections, MSS 034-1724, University Archives and Special Collections, USI

Acrobat in Evansville, Indiana. Source: Greg Smith Photographic Collections, MSS 034-1724, University Archives and Special Collections, USI

Circus elephants at Hadi Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium, in the 1970s

Circus elephants at Hadi Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium, in the 1970s. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Collection, MSS 157-2050, University Archives and Special Collections, USI

Circus elephants at Hadi Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium, in the 1970s. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Collection, MSS 157-2050, University Archives and Special Collections, USI

During the first half of the 20th century, Evansville was home to Karl Kae Knecht, one of the premier editorial cartoonists of the time. He worked for the Evansville Courier from 1906-1960; for most of that time, his cartoons appeared seven days a week on the front page until 1954 when they were moved to the editorial page. He was a huge circus fan, and especially loved elephants. Here he is in 1920, holding the trunk of a Ringling Brothers Circus elephant.

Ringling Brothers Circus elephant with Karl Kae Knecht. Source: Thomas Mueller Photographic Collection, MSS 264-2772, University Archives and Special Collections, USI

Ringling Brothers Circus elephant with Karl Kae Knecht. Source: Thomas Mueller Photographic Collection, MSS 264-2772, University Archives and Special Collections, USI.

In his May 13, 1909 diary entry, Knecht noted that the Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town.

Karl Kae Knecht Journal 1909, Vol. 1, pg. 97, MSS 224. Source: University Archives and Special Collections, USI

Karl Kae Knecht Journal 1909, Vol. 1, pg. 97, MSS 224. Source: University Archives and Special Collections, USI.

Resources Consulted:

Andrews, Evan.  “10 Things You May Not Know About P.T. Barnum.”  August 22, 2018 update: History Channel online.

Audrey W.  The History of Circuses in America.  Arcadia Publishing and the History Press online, 2019.

Bottum, Joseph and Justin L. Blessinger.  The American Circus: A History of the Big Top., March 30, 2019.

Davis, Janet M.  “America’s Big Circus Spectacular Has a Long and Cherished History.”  March 27, 2017:

Flatley, Helen. “The Darker Side of how P.T. Barnum Became “The Greatest Showman.”’ January 6, 2019:

Mangan, Gregg.  “P. T. Barnum: An Entertaining Life.”, July 5, 2019.

Mansky, Janet.  “P.T. Barnum Isn’t the Hero the “Greatest Showman” Wants You to Think.”  December 22, 2017:

Murray, Marian.  Circus! From Rome to Ringling.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956.                                                                 General Collection GV1801 .M8

Simon, Linda.  The greatest shows on earth: a history of the circus.  London:  Reaktion Books, 2014.                                                                                                    General Collection GV1801 .S56 2014; also available electronically

“Step Right Up!” History Magazine online; originally in October/November 2001 issue.

Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” Encyclopedia Britannica online.


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Why to Study History, or What the Defeat of the Spanish Armada Means for Health Care Today

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Long before the advent of planes, trains, and automobiles, a great deal of transportation was by water. For the manpower used to provide this means of getting from point A to point B, it was a dangerous job. “Injuries due to engine or boiler explosions, wrecks, collisions with river snags and freight handling were common dangers. Exposure to extremes of temperature, from the sub-tropic heat of the Mississippi delta to frigid Great Lakes, claimed victims. Diseases affecting the boatmen included yellow fever, cholera, smallpox and malaria. While docked in the rough port towns of the time, violence, alcoholism and social diseases sent many boatmen to the marine hospitals.

The concept of taking care of seamen goes back to early British precedents. “In 1588 England emerged as a sea power by defeating the Spanish Armada; recognizing the importance of seamen, the Crown created a marine hospital program. Funded through a tax of sixpence per month on Royal Navy seamen’s wages, the program soon expanded to include merchant seamen. During the 18th century this practice of providing health care to seamen spread to the colonies of British North America.” In 1798, reacting to an outbreak of yellow fever brought to this country by sailors, President John Adams signed the “Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” By the next year, Congress had extended coverage to every U.S. Navy officer and sailor. Every month each seaman’s wages had .20 deducted to pay for health care—room, board, doctor’s care, and medications. The amount was also meant to fund the construction or rental of marine hospitals in major ports. The first federally owned marine hospital was located at Washington Point, Virginia, purchased from the state of Virginia in 1801. The first marine hospital built by this fund was in Boston.

1. Marine Hospital

Marine Hospital seal, n.d. Source:

The seal of the Marine Hospital Service honors its founding by President John Adams in 1798 and its conversion to the Marine Hospital Service in 1871. The seal was designed by America’s first Surgeon General, John Maynard Woodworth, and features a caduceus crossed with a fouled anchor. A fouled anchor represents a seaman or boatman in distress. The caduceus is the symbol of Mercury and was used by ambassadors as a sign of peace. It is also associated with trade and represents the Service’s long relationship to merchant seamen and the maritime industries.” Take a look at the Public Health Service seal at the end of this blog.

A bit closer to home, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, in 1836, sponsored legislation to build a Marine Hospital in Louisville. “The hospital’s site, midway between the Louisville and Portland wharves, was selected for the “beneficial effect of a view of the water, and the impressions and associations it would naturally awake in the minds of men whose occupation were so intimately connected with it.” Federal architect Robert Mills completed his initial designs for marine hospitals [in 1837]. His plans focused on making the hospitals durable, fireproof, well-ventilated, and comfortable for the patients. Louisville’s hospital provided 100 beds and was the prototype for seven U.S. Marine Hospital Service buildings authorized by Congress.” The Louisville hospital opened on April 1, 1852. Below is a picture of the hospital as it stands today, after a 2005-2007 total restoration.

2. Louisville Hospital

United States Marine Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, n.d. Source:

Evansville also had a Marine Hospital—actually, two of them. The first was built in 1856 at 916 West Ohio Street. It discontinued operation in 1870, at which time it was taken over by St. Mary’s, renovated and used as its hospital until 1894 when St. Mary’s moved to a new location. It was razed in 1912.

Original Marine Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. SourceL RH 031-004.

Original Marine Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. Source: RH 031-004.

A new Marine Hospital for Evansville was built at 2700 West Illinois Street in 1888 and operated there until it closed in 1947. Between 1949 to 1975 it served as a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps training center/reserve training center. A 1981 fire put an end to any thoughts of renovation/reuse, and it was razed around 1984.

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All classifications of river workers were eligible for treatment. Every mariner, including pilots, captains, cooks, pursers, engineers, stevedores, roustabouts and deckhands, were eligible for treatment and care. It is estimated that one-third of the patients were African-Americans.” The importance of Marine Hospitals cannot be overstated. “Mariners, by the nature of their work, were usually away from home during period of illness or injury, so even the flawed safety net provided by the Fund became an important comfort. By the 1850s more than 10,000 mariners, between 5% and 10% of the American maritime workforce, were receiving marine hospital benefits each year.

By the time of the Civil War, there were 27 Marine Hospitals in operation. “By comparison, the U.S. Army had 98 medical officers, 20 thermometers, 6 stethoscopes and a few medical text books. The Army of the Confederate States of America had 24 medical officers. In 1864 only eight USMHS hospitals were in operation; the others being taken over for military operations.” The Marine Hospital in Louisville treated Union soldiers wounded at Shiloh, Perryville, and other major battles during 1861-1863 before closing for the rest of the war.

After the Civil War, the role of marine hospitals began to change, no longer focusing solely on the care and treatment of seamen. In 1870 the service’s headquarters were moved to Washington, D.C. and put under the control of a supervising surgeon, a position which eventually became the Surgeon General. The first to hold this office was John Maynard Woodworth, who instituted a military model for medical staff. Reforms included examinations for applicants and required uniforms. Promotion and tenure was based on merit, not political influence. His doctors grew to be career-service practitioners who could be assigned to any marine hospital. “The prevalence of major epidemic diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera spurred Congress to enact a national law in 1878 to prevent the introduction of contagious and infectious diseases into the United States, later extending it to prevent the spread of disease among the states. The task of controlling epidemic diseases through quarantine and disinfection measures as well as immunization programs fell to the Marine Hospital Service and hastened its evolution into the Public Health Service which served the whole nation.

3. Inspection Camp

Yellow fever detention camp, n.d. Source:

Wharves were disinfected and ships fumigated. In 1888, a yellow fever detention camp was set up near the Georgia/Florida state line, and anyone traveling from an area were yellow fever was prevalent was mandated to stay in this camp for the incubation period of 6-10 days before moving on. “United States troops in the Spanish-American War suffered from yellow fever. Fear of its spread to the mainland after the end of hostilities in 1899 invoked large-scale efforts by the Marine Hospital Service to ensure adequate quarantine inspection of troops being returned from Cuba and Puerto Rico.” An 1891 immigration law made inspection of all immigrants coming into the country mandatory, with the largest inspection station located on Ellis Island. Other disease control efforts included controlling a bubonic plague outbreak in New Orleans 1914 to 1916, rural sanitation, studying working conditions, health education, eradicating smallpox through effective vaccination, introducing penicillin as a treatment for venereal diseases, malaria control programs, using the iron lung for polio patients, and toxic substance detection. Quarantine efforts were even extended into space for the Apollo moon landings.

4. Public Health Services

Seal for the United States Public Health Service, n.d.

Officially, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps was established as part of the Marine Hospital Service in 1889. In 1902, the name changed to Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, and in 1912, shortened to Public Health Service. Today the work begun by the Marine Hospital Service is carried out by various agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), among others. Queen Elizabeth I had no idea how far her victory over the Spanish naval forces would reach!

Resources Consulted

Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. History.

Decades of Healthcare Service. U.S. Marine Hospital, Louisville.

Disease Control and Prevention. Health Care for Seamen. National Library of Medicine.

Historic Timeline. U.S. Marine Hospital, Louisville.

Jensen, J. “Before the Surgeon General: Marine Hospitals in Mid-19th-Century America” Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 112,6 (1997): 525-7.

Origins of the National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine.

Special Collections/University Archives digital collections:

RH 031  Regional History Gallery

MSS 026  Joan Marchand Collection

MSS 164 Alexander Leich Collection

MSS 184 Brad Awe Collection

Posted in American history, Health, health care, Healthy Living, history | Leave a comment

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Do you speak German? If you were living in the United States at the time of World War I, the politically correct answer, regardless of veracity, would be a resounding NO!

During the 1850’s, 900,000 — almost a million — Germans went to the United States,” says historian Kenneth Ledford of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “That’s at a time when the German population was only about 40 million.” By the time the 1910 Census was taken, 8.3 million reported themselves as German-speaking, with many more claiming German heritage. Germans were the largest ethnic minority, and the United States had the third-highest number of German speakers in the world. (Bigham, p. 3) “Germans had come to the United States in droves in the mid- to late 1800s to escape religious conflicts, military conscription, and the lingering poor agricultural conditions that beset northern Germany. German immigrants brought to their new country expertise in farming, education, science, and the arts. They enriched their adopted homeland immensely as they assimilated, serving in government and military institutions. German-origin trade names such as Bausch and Lomb, Steinway, Pabst, and Heinz were commonly used every day in America.” By the turn of the 20th century, nearly every large city in the U.S. had an ethnically-German neighborhood. In Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati constituted what was known as the “German triangle.”

Even today, 14.4% of Americans of European or African ancestry report that their ancestry is German. In Indiana, it’s 23%. Moving closer to home, Evansville/Vanderburgh County’s population reports to be 29.6% German ancestry. If you live in Evansville or the surrounding area and/or know something of its history, you know that the German heritage here is strong. Just take a look at some of the street names within a few miles of USI: Dreier, Hartmetz, Rosenberger, Boehne Camp, Felstead, Mahrenholz, and Schutte. The west side is the older part of town and thus bears the strongest German influence, but on the east side you see names like Boeke, Burkhardt, and Weinbach. “The German churches were among the most obvious [examples of German inheritance]—Trinity Lutheran (the oldest German Protestant church, founded in 1841), First German Methodist Episcopal, German Baptist, Emanuel Lutheran, the Evangelical congregations—Zion, St. John, Bethel, and St. Paul,–and the German Catholic parishes—Holy Trinity (the oldest, founded in 1849), St. Mary, St. Boniface and St. Anthony” (Bigham, p. 4).

Four local newspapers: Evansville Journal (1834-1936), Evansville Daily Enquirer (1858-1859),  Tägliche Evansville Union (1866-1885), and Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat (1864-1918). Source: MSS 184-0012.

Four local newspapers from Evansville, Indiana, c. 1860. Source: MSS 184-0012.

These are examples of local newspapers from 1865, note the two German language ones, Tägliche Evansville Union (1866-1885), and Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat (1864-1918). According to Bigham (p. 5), in the period between 1851 to 1930, Indiana had 152 newspapers and magazines published in in the German language, and 26 of these were published in Evansville. There were annual German Day parades in June. German Day was organized around 1890 to celebrate German cultural, intellectual, and technological achievements. After the 4th of July, this was the most prominent civic celebration each year until World War I ended it. Below are photos of the 1908 parade down North Main Street near Iowa Street. (Mechanics Planing Mill Company was located at 516 North Main Street, formerly 1716 Main Street. It was built in 1887 and became Mechanics in 1893. It was destroyed by fire and razed in 1948. Gehlhausen Paints is in approximately this location today.)

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Germania Maennerchor, n.d. Source:

Germania Maennerchor, n.d. Source:

There were several German societies in Evansville, including the still-existing Germania Maennerchor. German singing societies (maennerchor means men’s chorus) were very popular. Germania’s website states, “As Germans settled in the United States, they tended to locate in close proximity to each other. This encouraged the continuation of their German lifestyles. It was much easier to adjust to this new land if they could retain some of their familiar behaviors, such as shopping at a German baker or butcher, or enjoying a beer in a German tavern or beer garden. In his free time, the German immigrant preferred to be with his fellow countrymen. This resulted in a large number of German organizations being formed across the United States that enabled the immigrants to gather socially and continue various aspects of German life. There were singing societies, athletic clubs, mutual insurance societies, and in harbor cities (such as Philadelphia and New York) there were charitable agencies founded to assist new immigrants. Everywhere Germans settled, singing societies were formed. In the 1840’s, the numerous societies had united in the national Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund (North American Singers’ Association) in Cincinnati, Ohio. In Evansville, Indiana, several singing societies were formed in the 19th century, the largest of which were the Liederkranz, founded in the 1850’s, and the Concordia Gesangverein.

Germania Maennerchor founders in Evansville, Indiana, 1914. Source: MSS 157-0118.

Germania Maennerchor founders in Evansville, Indiana, 1914. Source: MSS 157-0118.

Evansville also had a gymnastics/athletic association, Central Turnverein. Located at 720 SE 8th Street, most people know this as Central Turners. The original organization in Germany had a political component, and in the U.S. Turners were active in the Union Army during the Civil War. The picture below is where the organization met early on, in the old Kingsley Methodist church, from 1908 to 1914.

Turner Hall (Central Turners) in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: MSS 157-0551.

Turner Hall (Central Turners) in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: MSS 157-0551.

Having established the role of German culture in the U.S. and its prevalence in Evansville, let’s look at what happened to German-Americans in World War I. Germany’s militaristic stance under Kaiser Wilhelm I contributed to anti-German sentiment, but the bombing of the British ocean liner the Lusitania in 1915, with the loss of almost 1200 lives, 124 of them Americans, was possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back. Your friendly neighbor who happened to have a German surname and maybe spoke the language, even though s/he was probably at least a second generation American by this time, was suddenly seen as a spy and saboteur. “A sort of mass phobia against German-Americans developed as many were in fear that German spies were everywhere, reporting back all that they overheard to their motherland. In response, many German-Americans felt pressure to declare their stances against Imperial Germany in public gatherings just to prove their ties to America. At several universities, professors were charged under the Sedition Act with having made unpatriotic and presumably anti-war utterances, leading to some of their dismissals. Furthermore, American institutions such as the Red Cross barred individuals with German last names from joining in fear of sabotage. Numerous attacks were made on German-Americans in this time and such harassment sadly became commonplace. According to Katja Wüstenbecker, “citizens of German descent were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem.”” When the United States declared war on Germany, many German-Americans faced prejudice and violence. Check out this YouTube from the AmericanExperiencePBS channel at:

Theodore Roosevelt, in a 1915 speech to the Knights of Columbus, railed, “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” President Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.

Speaking the German language was viewed as a particularly perfidious act. It was more than just not speaking English—speaking German was somehow injurious to your soul. Paul Finkelstein, a legal historian, attempts to explain why people thought this: “if you spoke German, you would think like a German, [and] you would become a totalitarian in favor of the Kaiser.

The Trading with the Enemy Act (50 USC Appendix), passed in June 1917, suppressed the American foreign-language press and would not permit non-English printed matter to be distributed through the mail unless it carried a certified English translation. Nationwide, at all levels, speaking anything than English was legally forbidden. German speakers were ordered only speak English or face the consequences. Iowa Governor William Harding was adamant on this subject: he “banned the use of any foreign language in public: in schools, on the streets, in trains, even over the telephone, a more public instrument then than it is today. For Harding, the First Amendment “is not a guaranty of the right to use a language other than the language of this country—the English language.” Harding’s English-only order covered freedom of religion as well: “Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home.” And he told the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, “Those who insist upon praying in some other language . . . are wasting their time for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice of English.”” At this time, many church services were conducted in German….see this counterbalance to Harding’s opinion. Two local people had been confirmed in German in 1911 and 1915, respectively, even thought their grandparents had immigrated to this country prior to the Civil War. One of them, Amanda Mohr, explained the prevalent thinking: “If you weren’t confirmed in German, you weren’t confirmed. God didn’t listen to you in the English language” (Bigham, p. 7).

All church services began to be conducted in English. Publishers refused to print German works and sheet music companies banned German songs. Orchestras would not play German music. “Public and university libraries ended their subscriptions to German-language newspapers, books written in German and even English books that dealt with Germany and Austria-Hungary (such as history books or tourist guides) were stowed in basements for the duration of the war. However, some libraries went so far as to destroy them or to sell them as wastepaper; several of these books were actually publicly burned along with German-language newspapers during local patriotic celebrations.” Many German language newspapers, including the local Wöchentlicher Evansville Demokrat went out of business. German was no longer taught as a language in schools and colleges. “Legal historian Paul Finkelman says in 1915 about 25 percent of all high school students in America studied German. But by the end of the World War I that had changed dramatically. German had become so stigmatized that only 1 percent of high schools even taught it.” Names were changed: Germantown, Nebraska became Garland, and East Germantown, IN became Pershing, after the American war hero, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. (In a bit of irony, the name “Pershing” is but an Americanized spelling of the German Pfersching/Pfirsching/Pförsching.) Personal names were changed, and hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches,“ German measles “liberty measles,” sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” German Shepherds “Alsatians,” and dachshunds “liberty pups.” Bigham noted that the diacritical mark, the umlaut, virtually disappeared locally. (Bigham, p. 22) German organizations struggled or went under. Evansville’s Central Turnverein renamed itself Central Turners in 1918. According to Germania Maennerchor’s website, “While the 1st World War had begun in Europe in 1914, the United States did not join in this battle against Germany until 1917. In an early history of the club, it was recorded that “war clouds broke out over our land like a bolt of lightning from heaven”. As sentiments turned against Germany, membership in all German clubs began to drop drastically. Other singing societies in Evansville were greatly affected. The Concordia Gesangverein shut its doors for good. The Liederkranz was forced to sell its home, and eventually folded in the 1920’s. Germania Männerchor also saw declining membership, but was determined to survive. Germania offered citizenship classes for new immigrants following the war to boost membership. Over 100 attended these various classes.

Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. Source: MSS 157-0375.

Anti-German sentiment caused it to fold and be sold to the Knights of Columbus in 1918. It was used by other organizations over the years, but fell into disrepair until it is currently being renovated as part of an assisted living facility. Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1910. Source: MSS 157-0375.

To learn more about how German culture was erased during World War I, click here at:

One of the most heinous actions was the use of internment camps, which were used again for Japanese Americans during World War II. “After war was declared, President Wilson immediately proclaimed all German citizens “alien enemies.” They were barred from living near military facilities or airports, in all port towns and in the nation’s capital. They had to disclose their bank accounts and any other property to an Alien Property Custodian appointed by the attorney general. Furthermore, in 1918, Germans had to fill out registration affidavits and be fingerprinted. German citizens in America who failed to comply with these rules or who were considered potentially dangerous were placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. The camp at Hot Springs in North Carolina accommodated most of the 2,300 employees of German passenger and merchant ships; about 1,300 German Navy personnel were kept at Fort McPherson in Georgia. All other suspects (academics, journalists, business people, artists etc.) were brought to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia – about 1,400 for the duration of the war. Fort Douglas in Utah was used for approximately 500 prisoners of war, but soon also included more than 800 “alien enemies” and about 200 American conscientious objectors.” Hans Kuhnwald, the concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was one of those interned.

2. Robert P. Prager

Gravestone of Robert P. Prager, n.d. Source:

Worst of all was what happened near St. Louis. “In Collinsville, Illinois, in April 1918, a German-born unemployed coalminer, Robert Paul Prager, made a speech containing pro-German comments and references to socialism. Town citizens, over the mayor’s protestations, were so incensed that a mob of 300 men and boys lynched Prager. The incident became notorious in the nation’s newspapers, which for the most part defended the lynching. None of the 300 participants was ever found guilty.

Casualties are to be expected in any war, and in this case, the expression of German culture in the United States was clearly collateral damage. Remember that in the 1910 Census, 8.3 million reported themselves as German-speaking; in the 2000 Census that number was 1,383,442, only 0.5% of the population. In Indiana that number is slightly higher, at 0.8%. Clearly there are many other circumstances which influenced this, but the anti-German sentiment rampant in World War I America played a part. The U.S. waged war against Germany again in World War II, but at that time studying German was viewed as a positive way to understand and defeat the enemy. Fortunately, German culture did not disappear completely as it’s still very evident locally in street names, personal names, festivals like Jasper’s Strassenfest, and the popularity of volksfests and bierstubes. Washington, D.C. houses the German-American Heritage Museum. Davenport, IA has the German American Heritage Center and Museum. Cincinnati has a German Heritage Museum. Milwaukee offers tours of Pabst Mansion, home of the founder of Pabst Brewing Company.  These are but a few examples, so today, the answer to the question, Sprechen Sie Deutsch? could be an affirmative, Ja! Yes!!

Resources Consulted:

“Ancestry in Vanderburgh County, Indiana.” Statistical Atlas online.

Baron, Dennis. “America’s War on Language.” The Web of Language , September 3, 2014.

Bigham, Darrel E. Reflections on a Heritage: The German-Americans in Southwestern Indiana. Pamphlet published by ISUE, May 1980. Available in USI Library: General Collection F 534.E9 B57

“During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture.” NPR: All Things Considered, April 7, 2017.

Germania Maennerchor website: History.

Little, Becky. “When German Immigrants were America’s Undesireables.” History Channel website, May 11, 2018.

Manning, Mary J. “Being German, Being American.” Prologue, Summer 2014.

Wüstenbecker, Katja. “German-Americans during World War I.” in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, v. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. September 25, 2014.

Digital photographic collections from University Archives and Special Collections:

RH 033 Evansville Postcards

MSS 157 Schlamp-Meyer Family Collection

MSS 184 Brad Awe Collection

Posted in Evansville, Indiana, Indiana history, World War 1 | Leave a comment

Things are looking Grimm …

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

in University Archives and Special Collections these days! UASC is celebrating the Brothers Grimm, known for their fairy tale collections. Keep an eye out—you may see Rapunzel or Little Red Riding Hood or Rumpelstiltskin wandering through the department … maybe even the big, bad wolf. Let’s look at the men who created such a lasting impression on our literature.

Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786-1859) were the eldest in a family of 5 boys and 1 girl. Their father, Phillipp Wilhelm, was a lawyer, whose 1796 death impoverished his family. The subsequent death of their mother in 1808 put the sole responsibility for a family of six squarely upon the shoulders of the then 23-year-old Jacob.

1. Grimm Brothers

Jacob (right) and Wilhelm Grimm, n.d. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The original intention was for Jacob and Wilhelm to pursue the study of law and follow their father’s footsteps into civil service careers. Indeed, they studied law at the University of Marburg between 1802 to 1806. Now called Phillips University Marburg, this is the oldest Protestant university still in existence, founded in 1527.

At Marburg they came under the influence of Clemens Brentano, who awakened in both a love of folk poetry, and Friedrich Karl von Savigny, cofounder of the historical school of jurisprudence, who taught them a method of antiquarian investigation that formed the real basis of all their later work. Others, too, strongly influenced the Grimms, particularly the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, with his ideas on folk poetry.  …  In 1805 Jacob accompanied Savigny to Paris to do research on legal manuscripts of the Middle Ages; the following year he became secretary to the war office in Kassel. Because of his health, Wilhelm remained without regular employment until 1814. After the French entered in 1806, Jacob became private librarian to King Jérôme of Westphalia in 1808 and a year later auditeur of the Conseil d’État but returned to Hessian service in 1813 after Napoleon’s defeat. As secretary to the legation, he went twice to Paris (1814–15), to recover precious books and paintings taken by the French from Hesse and Prussia. He also took part in the Congress of Vienna (September 1814–June 1815). Meantime, Wilhelm had become secretary at the Elector’s library in Kassel (1814), and Jacob joined him there in 1816.  By that time the brothers had definitely given up thoughts of a legal career in favour of purely literary research.

The brothers’ research was strictly academic, and they collected tales from many other cultures. They would not have conceived of today’s view of their fairy tale collection as the most famous in the western world and second only to the Bible in its popularity in German-speaking nations.

What compelled the Grimms to concentrate on old German epics, tales, and literature was a belief that the most natural and pure forms of culture—those which held the community together—were linguistic and based in history. According to them, modern literature, even though it might be remarkably rich, was artificial and thus could not express the genuine essence of Volk culture that emanated naturally from experience and bound the people together. Therefore, all their efforts went toward uncovering stories from the past.  In their preface, the Grimms explained their interest in the culture of the common people, and their intention in recording their tales:  “It was perhaps just the right time to record these tales since those people who should be preserving them are becoming more and more scarce. …  Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous.” In short, the Grimms’ first collection was shaped as an archaeological excavation and as a book for adults and for scholars. Their tales were not to be classified as children’s stories, not even today.

The first published collection came out in 1812 with a 2nd volume in 1814– Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). These volumes contained some 200 stories. The brothers continued to collect and hone the tales for a total of 7 editions in 40 years. The 7th, published in 1857, is considered the definitive edition and is the source of all posthumous editions and translations. This edition is quite different from the 1812 one.

3. Grimm Home

Home of the Grimm family in Steinau, 1791-1796, n.d. Source:

Let’s be clear about two things—first, the brothers collected the stories from a variety of oral traditions—they did NOT write them. Second, these fairy tales, at least in their original state and in the Grimms’ first edition, were not at all the sanitized, happy-ending stories that delight children, but rather harsh stories about miserable living conditions.  Sample titles included “The Hand with the Knife,” “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering,” and “The Children of Famine.” This last story tells of a mother with 2 daughters who are so poor they have not a morsel to eat. The mother becomes unhinged and tells her daughters that she has to kill them in order to get something to eat.

Originally, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were not meant for children. The stories routinely included sex, violence, incest, and copious footnotes. Worse yet, they didn’t even have illustrations. Initially aimed at adults, the early editions of Nursery and Household Tales contained remarkably dark elements. In its original version, for example, Rapunzel gets pregnant by the prince after a casual fling. In Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to try to fit into the slipper. These sort of scenes (and many others) were eventually revised once the stories became popular among children.

Because of their popularity, the Grimms found it impossible not to do some judicious editing to make the tales appeal to a broader audience with more “delicate” sensibilities.  Stories became longer with more literary flourishes. Biological mothers who were the villains in the original tales became stepmothers. Rapunzel no longer got pregnant or even appeared to have sex, for that matter. Some stories simply got cut.

One such story was the aptly-named “How Some Children Played At Slaughtering.” In it, two children play as a pig and a butcher. As part of the game, the older brother slits his younger brother’s throat, killing him. When their mother finds the scene, she becomes so enraged that she kills the older brother. While she was off doing this, the youngest son drowns in the bath. Now the mother is so despondent that she hangs herself. Eventually, the father returns. When he finds his whole family dead he, too, dies—of heartbreak. Even with a liberal approach to editing, it’s unlikely such a story could be Disneyified.

It turns out that the original Brothers Grimm tales really were grim!

Here are a couple of examples of fairy tale stories from the Brothers Grimm, found in UASC:

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Flag of Germany, n.d.

Flag of Germany, n.d.

As an adjunct to this celebration of fairy tales, UASC is displaying items from its collections that highlight the German culture, just as the Grimm brothers celebrated it through their research and collection of folk tales. In particular, displays will focus on the strong German heritage in Evansville.


MSS 184-0664

Evansville Demokrat building in Evansville, Indiana, 1890. Source: Brad Awe collection (MSS 184-0664).

Evansville had a number of German language newspapers. Here’s the building at 403 Main Street, where one of them was published.  The Evansville Demokrat was a daily and weekly German language newspaper that was published 1864 to 1918. The 1911 city directory contains this advertisement for the paper:

“The Demokrat is the only daily German newspaper in the First Congressional District of Indiana, where well-to-do Germans constitute the larger part of the thriving population of over 250,000. Distinctly a German paper in a German territory, and it covers Evansville and the tributary like a blanket. Its field is an exclusive one. It thoroughly covers a field that no other publication can ever expect to reach. The Demokrat circulation represents quality. Demokrat readers are cash buyers and large consumers.”

Many German immigrants came to Evansville starting in the mid-1800’s, and a large number settled on the west side of town. Separated from the rest of the city by Pigeon Creek, the area developed its own German identity, although there was plenty of social and business interaction. With the U.S.’s entry into World War I, anti-German sentiment arose and there was a need for immigrants to prove themselves as real, patriotic Americans. This fact probably accounts for the 1918 demise of this newspaper. The building was razed in the 1940’s.

Another local German language newspaper was the Evansville Volksbote, which was only published in 1851 to 1852.  A rough translation of this title would be the people’s messenger. The publisher is listed as J. Rohner.  The Rohner family was from Heiden, Switzerland, and a John Henry Rohner came to this country in 1847 and was the editor of a German language newspaper, probably the one shown below. A collection of these newspapers was donated by a descendent, Arthur Thomas Rohner (1901-1987).

February 4, 1852 Edition of the Evansville Volksbote newspaper. Source: Arthur Rohner collection (MSS 069).

February 4, 1852 Edition of the Evansville Volksbote newspaper. Source: Arthur Rohner collection (MSS 069).

Another important aspect of German culture is singing. Evansville had several singing societies at one time, but the only one that remains is the Germania Maennerchor (maennerchor means men’s chorus). Here’s a picture of the founding members, circa 1900.

MSS 157-0118

Germania Maennerchor founders in Evansville, Indiana, 1914. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Family collection (MSS 157-0118).

The Germania Maennerchor’s building is at 916 North Fulton Avenue. For 58 consecutive years it has hosted a volksfest, serving over 10,00 meals and 3200 gallons of beer yearly.

Germania Maennerchor building in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source:

Germania Maennerchor building in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source:

The man seated on the first row of this picture of a Germania Maennerchor group is August Illing, a four-time president of the organization.

August Illing with members of the Germania Maennechor in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: Oramay Cluthe-Eades (MSS 091-001).

August Illing with members of the Germania Maennechor in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: Oramay Cluthe-Eades (MSS 091-001).

A singing society that did not survive was the Liederkranz Maennerchor, which practiced in this building at 302 Market Street from about 1911 to 1918. (The building was sold to the Knights of Columbus in 1918 and still stands today as part of a larger facility for senior living.)

Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1915. Source: Regional Postcards collection (RH 033-202).

Liederkranz Maennerchor in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1915. Source: Regional Postcards collection (RH 033-202).

A prominent display of Evansville’s pride in its Germanic heritage was the German Day parade organized by the city’s German elite around 1890 to celebrate German cultural, intellectual, and technological achievements. After the 4th of July, this was the most prominent civic celebration each year until World War I ended it.

German Day parade on North Main Street in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Family collection (MSS 157-0369).

German Day parade on North Main Street in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Family collection (MSS 157-0369).

Reference has been made to impact of WWI on the expression of German culture.   For a more in-depth look at this issue, read the upcoming blog entitled “Sprechen Zie Deutsch?”

Resources Consulted:

Ashliman, D.L.  Grimm Brothers’ Home Page.  University of Pittsburgh, 1999-2013.

Encyclopedia Brittanica online:  Brothers Grimm.

Keyser, Hannah.  “5 Ways Grimm’s Fairy Tales Changed After the First Edition.”  Mental Floss, December 20, 2018.

Myint, B.  “5 Facts About The Brothers Grimm.”  Biography online. 

Zipes, Jack. “How the Grimm Brothers Saved the Fairy Tale.”  Humanities, March/April 2015, Volume 36, Number 2.

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