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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


Posted in American history, animals, Entertainment | Leave a comment

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Posted in children's literature, European History, holidays, literature | Leave a comment

ArchivesFest Spotlight: Working Men’s Institute, Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum, & Evansville African-American Museum

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

ArchivesFest 2019

October 14-25, 2019:  UASC on the 3rd floor of the David L. Rice Library

Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) is celebrating American Archives Month with its annual event, ArchivesFest. This year’s artifacts and historical documents are from the Evansville Museum, Historic New Harmony, the Working Men’s Institute, Newburgh Museum, Reitz Home, and other museums, and will be on display in UASC.  Stop by UASC anytime Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to view these special treasures from across the Tri-State region.

Working Men’s Institute

407 Tavern Street, New Harmony, IN 47631

1. WMI Entrance

Front entrance of the Working Men’s Institute, n.d.

Established by philanthropist William Maclure in 1838, the Working Men’s Institute (WMI) set as its mission the dissemination of useful knowledge to those who work with their hands. After 170 years of continuous service, this goal is still at the heart of our mission. Maclure, who was a business partner with Robert Owen in the communal experiment in New Harmony from 1825-1827, was devoted to the ideal of education for the common man as a means of positive change in society. At New Harmony, The Working Men’s Institute was one manifestation of this ideal.  The Working Men’s Institute in New Harmony was the first of 144 WMIs in Indiana and 16 in Illinois. It is the only one remaining. Many WMIs were absorbed by township libraries or Carnegie libraries. Yet the one in New Harmony remained.  …  Today, the WMI is a public library, a museum and an archive. In each of these areas, the WMI tries to stay true to the original mission of William Maclure.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum

928 Fairground Drive, Rockport, IN 47635

Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum, n.d.

Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum, n.d.

Travel back through time and walk through cabins showing life as it was during Abe Lincoln’s early years. The Lincoln Pioneer Village is a historic memorial to Lincoln that visualizes the Spencer County environment in which Lincoln lived during the 14 formative years of his life, from 1816 to 1830.  Walk through cabins depicting life 200 years ago as Lincoln would have lived it. Visit the museum on the grounds with displays of military artifacts, clothing, utensils, spinning wheels and a rare rocker beater loom still in use today. See the hutch handmade by Abraham Lincoln with the help of his father, Thomas.

Commemorative Lincoln penny, magnet, log cabin bank, brochure, top hat, pioneer bonnet, and Lincoln bobble-head, n.c.

Commemorative Lincoln memorabilia, n.d.

Evansville African-American Museum

579 South Garvin Street, Evansville, IN 47713

Entrance to the Evansville African-American Museum, n.d.

Entrance to the Evansville African-American Museum, n.d.

The mission of the Evansville African American Museum is to continually develop a resource and cultural center to collect, preserve, and educate the public on the history and traditions of African American families, organizations, and communities.  Located in Evansville, Indiana as the last remaining building of Lincoln Gardens, the second Federal Housing Project created under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938, our building serves as a permanent artifact in itself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Posted in #ArchivesFest, history, Indiana history, Local history | Leave a comment