Landscapes of Ill Fame: Prostitution in the Turn-of-the-Century Circle City

In 1898 the Sanborn Insurance map identified a string of brothels labeled “Female Boardinghouses” on East Court Street (click for expanded view).

In 1910 the census enumerator recorded 13 households in the 500 block of East Court Street, and every address was described as a “house of ill fame.”  Houses of prostitution had existed in Indianapolis since at least the mid-19th century alongside street walkers plying what has sometimes been dubbed the “world’s oldest profession.” Thirty-eight women were living on East Court Street as prostitutes in 1910, and another 10 women were identified as keepers of houses of ill fame. The East Court Street block between East and Liberty Streets (now a parking lot) was one of the city’s most prominent red light districts at the turn of the century and part of a long commercial sex trade in the Circle City.

Prostitution probably was always an element of the early cityscape, but some of the earliest evidence for houses of prostitution comes in the 1850s.  In February, 1857, for instance, the Daily State Sentinel reported on a shooting at a house of ill fame in the “western part of the city” near the canal.  The brothel was managed by “a notorious woman” named Martha Noble, and in July, her establishment became the target of mob justice when Noble’s brothel was set afire by a mob of more than 200 people. Moral indignation was often directed at vices like prostitution, gambling, and drinking, but it rarely was acted out as impromptu justice. After Noble’s house was destroyed the city took some members of the mob to court, where witnesses testified that “the furniture was taken into the middle of the street and burnt.” Participants admitted they “understood that there was to be a cleaning out of the houses of prostitution.” The Daily State Sentinel reported that “there have been several recent demonstrations upon houses of ill fame in various parts of the city,” and the Sentinel lamented the mob justice: “it is the universal voice of all good citizens that these occurrences are becoming too frequent of late.” Nevertheless, a month later several more bordellos were attacked, and in March 1859 a group attacked another bordello only to be “driven off by the women.”

In 1863 Indianapolis passed what was perhaps its first law regulating “public decency, morality, and order,” but houses of prostitution dotted 19th and early 20th century Indianapolis.  In 1863, for example, Ann Coburn was arrested for keeping a “disorderly liquor house,” and two years later she was arrested for “keeping a house of ill fame” on North Noble Street, which lay just east of East Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Not far away, Mollie Green was arrested in 1865 for keeping a “bagnio” (one of many period terms for houses of prostitution) on New Jersey Street, one of a series of early brothels located along the eastern boundaries of the original Mile Square that was platted in 1821.

George Ellington’s 1869 study of New York City’s underworld included this image of the prostitute Cora G.

Houses of prostitution were located in nearly every reach of the city.  In 1866, for instance, Alice McDonald was arrested for managing a house of ill fame on West Market Street where the Indiana State House was built in 1888. After the Civil War, Louisa Watson managed a “sporting house” in the home she shared with husband Jehu Morris Watson facing the canal on North Missouri Street (the Senate Avenue parking garage sits there today). Louisa’s husband started the war as a drummer in the Indiana 13th Infantry, with whom he was wounded in Virginia in 1861; by war’s end he was with the Indiana 9th Cavalry serving under Eli Lilly and he ended the war as a Corporal. In 1870, his wife Louisa was one of four prostitutes living with him on North Missouri Street.  Three years later, Morris stole all of Louisa’s earnings following an argument, and a month later the Indianapolis News reported that “Morris Watson, a `dod burn’ sinner, whose wife keeps a house of prostitution on the canal, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of whipping her”; Morris only paid a fine because Louisa did not testify against him. The Watsons’ history of domestic violence continued in November when “Morris Watson cashed $26.65 to-day for indulging in the innocent pastime of larruping his wife.”

Moral crusaders would persistently take aim on houses of prostitution, including Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street house. In September, 1874 a series of houses of prostitution near the Canal were raided by the police at the insistence of Garden Baptist Church Trustee William Powell, a neighbor who “is determined upon eradicating the evil in that neighborhood.” Formed in 1872, the church sat on Bright Street just north of New York Street (now the IUPUI campus) and was active in the temperance movement while crusading against vices in the surrounding near-Westside. Powell was subsequently attacked in the street, and Morris Watson went to Powell’s home and threatened his family. Louisa’s brothel was subsequently raided after Powell complained about Morris’ attempted intimidation, and Powell requested the Police protect his home from threatened arson; a year later prostitutes were still hounding him in the street. Meanwhile, domestic violence continued in the Watson home, where in February 1875 “Morris Watson, the beast, was fined ten dollars for whipping his wife.” The Watsons were still living in their North Missouri home in 1880, but Morris subsequently appears to have been living alone in the home, and he remarried in 1890.

A red-light district never emerged in the late-19th century near-Westside, but Watson’s house of prostitution was one of a scatter of such venues located along the Canal and through the near-Westside. For example, Elizabeth Kouble Ault was living with her husband Christopher in Kokomo in 1860, but three months after joining the Union cause in December, 1861 Christopher died in Nashville, Tennessee. Elizabeth moved to Indianapolis in 1867, and initially she settled on Minerva Street, along New York Street in the neighborhood that is now the IUPUI campus. A year later Ault appeared in the city directory as a seamstress and had moved a block away to Blake Street, where she was living at the intersection of Blake and New York Streets. She appeared in the 1870 census as a prostitute living with her 13-year-old daughter Emma; her neighbor Clara Fischel also appeared in the census as a prostitute but like Ault she was listed as a seamstress in city directories.

In the 1890s there were two “red-light” districts in Indianapolis. One was on East Court Street at the blue arrow and the other was near the intersection of Senate Avenue and Georgia Street at the red arrow (click for a full-sized image).

Ault moved to the near-Eastside in 1873, where a concentration of houses of prostitution began to emerge in the late 1870s, and these would eventually center around East Court Street by the mid-1880s. In 1873 Ault was going by Kate and managing a cigar and tobacco shop on East Washington Street between Noble and East Streets. The Washington Street store was simultaneously hawking cigars and sex for about three years. The Washington Street venue was described by the Indianapolis Journal in 1873 as an “unpretending little store” where “a woman known as Kate Ault sells tobacco and cigars, and back of a little screen, are domiciled a number of the genus `Nymph du Pave,’ who eke out a precarious existence by displaying their charms to the male visitors who may chance to patronize the house.”

“Nymph du Pave” was one of the many terms used to refer to prostitutes, and it often was reserved for street walkers, who probably were working from and in Ault’s store.  George Ellington’s 1869 study of women of New York City’s “underworld” distinguished street-walking “Nymphs du Pave” from prostitutes who worked in more stylishly appointed brothels. Ellington hyperbolically characterized the former as a “lower order” of prostitutes who “have reached despair in their career, and have abandoned themselves, soul and body, to the fate that controls them. They have no thought for the future and try to forget the past. They taste vice in its lowest forms and spend their time in dissipation.” Such street walkers also were referred to as “wandering” women; for example, in September, 1877 “two inmates of Kate Ault’s house were arraigned in the city court this morning as wandering prostitutes.” In about 1876 Ault moved her house to South Pennsylvania Street a block from the train station, and prostitutes living in Ault’s house probably were catering to customers on the streets around the train station as well as at Ault’s house.

The desperation of some women working as prostitutes was documented in a string of suicides and suicide attempts. In 1873, for instance, one of the women working as a prostitute in Ault’s bordello attempted suicide, but she was saved when physicians pumped her stomach after a morphine overdose. Two years earlier Terre Haute prostitute Jennie Hope died after an intentional overdose of morphine. Hope appeared in the 1870 Indianapolis census as a prostitute in Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street “sporting house.” Hope had moved to Terre Haute, where she was living in a boarding house; an Indianapolis woman had opened the house four weeks earlier, and the Daily Wabash Express was certain it was being operated as a bordello.

By 1910 nearly every woman living on East Court Street was identified as a prostitute in a “house of ill fame.”

In the mid-1880s a series of newly built homes along East Court Street quickly became home to the city’s most prominent concentration of brothels. In 1884 only two houses stood on East Court Street between East and Liberty Streets, but three years later there were eight residences in the city directory. In June, 1886 an East Court Street “bagnio”was raided, and in July two street walkers were arrested on the street, providing  the first records of prostitution on East Court Street. One of the longest-lived houses was run by Nellie Ryder, who managed a house on East Court Street for 20 years. Ryder was first living there in 1887 with Emma Levering and Bessie Moore. Ryder’s husband Joseph had died in a train accident in November, 1881, and she probably began to manage a house of prostitution when she moved to the East Court Street home in 1887. Ryder’s house was raided by the police in September, 1894, and she paid a $10 fine while four women working for her paid fines between $20 and $5 and two male customers paid $10 fines. In 1900 a traveling carpet salesman committed suicide in Ryder’s resort, his pockets containing letters from his family in Scotland.

In 1887 Ryder’s neighbor Maggie Jackson was managing a “resort” (another term for a brothel).  A Cincinnati man searching for his lost wife found her working at “Maggie Jackson’s resort, on East Court street, and begged her to return home with him, but [he] was unwilling to pay $40 indebtedness which she had contracted with the Jackson woman. Finally it was arranged that she should remain where she was, while he would sue for divorce.” Carrie White’s neighboring establishment was likewise troubled by an angry husband in 1887, when a disturbance of the peace charge was brought against a husband who arrived at White’s brothel and “threw stones over the transom because his wife would not come out to see him.”

In 1915 most of the East Court residences were still identified as brothels (click for expanded view).

In the early 1890s a few working-class households were interspersed in the 500-block of East Court Street brothels, but in 1898 the Sanborn Insurance Company map of the street identified nearly every structure on the street as a “Female Boardinghouse.” At least 10 of the 16 homes in the 1899 city directory were brothels, and a few more brothels had emerged in surrounding blocks. By 1898, for instance, the 400 block of East Court Street just to the west likewise included some brothels, and at least one brothel had been established on neighboring East Street.

East Court may have been appealing for the trade because it was neighbored by heavily trafficked streets. A block south of East Court Street, East Washington Street was lined with stores and constant foot traffic by the turn of the century, and the Marion County Court House (built in 1876) sat just two blocks west. In October 1876 Belle Shannon’s house on East Washington Street was raided, with the Indianapolis News reporting that “Seventeen violators of the ill-fame law, principally garnered from the Belle Shannon ranche, on East Washington street, were pulled last night by the police, and at a late hour this forenoon the motley crew were undergoing trial in the city court. They are a hard lot, taken at best, and rejoice in such fictitious names as `Summer complaint,’ `Openbottom,’ etc.”  When John Roder’s saloon on East Washington Street applied for a liquor license in 1880 it was home to two prostitutes.

Prostitutes often worked in and around the train station. By 1880, for instance, Belle Shannon had opened a cigar and candy shop on South Street neighboring the train station, and the residents in her home included one prostitute who was certainly continuing Shannon’s East Washington Street trade. Since at least 1872 her neighbor Nellie Carney had been running a house of prostitution amidst the concentration of stores and saloons on South Street. In September 1879 “a crowd of inmates and visitors captured at Nellie Carney’s bagino [sic] on South street, plead guilty at long range.” Somebody paid court fines for the arrested women with a piece of jewelry, with the newspaper noting that “the marshal sports a magnificent cluster diamond ring, put up for $86.75 fines and costs against the girls.” A year later Carney and five other women were living at the address, and all were identified by the census enumerator as prostitutes.

In 1898 brothels were scattered along Senate Avenue and Georgia Street (click for expanded view).

A second concentration of houses of prostitution emerged around 1890 along South Mississippi Street (now known as South Senate), where the Indiana Convention Center sits today. In 1898 seven residences in the 100 block of South Senate Street were identified by Sanborn company mappers as “female boarding houses”; two more were located on adjoining West Georgia Street, and at least one more was around the corner at 308 West Maryland. These included the brothel of Fanny Wiley, which was based in several locations in the neighborhood from the 1880s until 1907. Fanny’s husband Charles St. Clair was probably first living in Indianapolis in 1882, when the Terre Haute newspaper described St. Clair’s West Market Street saloon (where the State House sits today) as “a very low-down dive of a saloon in Indianapolis, which has its principal patronage from depraved colored men. Above the saloon is a negro gambling den. It is such a place as would make a man fear for his life while in it.” After St. Clair was accused of murder in 1887, the Indianapolis Journal indicated that “St. Clair has been known as a criminal of the worst kind.” The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette had an even more damning appraisal of St. Clair, noting that “It is a pity he could not be hanged. He is a scalawag of the worst description and his being at large is a standing menace to everybody, even the thieves who train with him.”

St. Clair did indeed have a long criminal history that included a two year sentence for burglary and larceny in 1866-1868, a three year sentence in the State Prison between 1872 and 1875, and just over a year on petit larceny in 1902-1903. His wife Jennie Wynings St. Clair was managing a Terre Haute brothel in 1877, and Fanny Wiley may have been her alias. Charles sold a $1000 real estate tract in Terre Haute in September, 1882 to pay his bail on charges of conspiracy to wreck a passenger train. St. Clair was managing a saloon in Indianapolis in 1882, and he subsequently ran a host of saloons on Washington, Wabash, and West Streets.

Fanny Wiley began managing a Circle City brothel in the 1880s. The confirmation of that came in 1890, when she was sentenced to a four-and-a-half year term in the State Reformatory, convicted of holding a young woman against her will as a prostitute. Wiley lured young, mostly rural women into prostitution, including a Muncie 16-year-old. The teenager’s father found her in Wiley’s resort and returned her home, where she subsequently committed suicide and spurred the state to prosecute her. Wiley fell ill in the State Reformatory and was being held in its hospital in March, 1892 when the Reformatory burnt, sending Wiley to the City Hospital. She received a medical parole in May, 1892 so surgery could be performed on her, and while she continued to complain of complications the following April the Governor’s Office demanded she be returned to the Reformatory to serve the remainder of her sentence.

Wiley was once more running a brothel in 1898 on West Georgia Street, and she moved to South Senate in 1901. In 1902 she was again accused of entrapping young women to serve in her brothel. Two women answered ads for domestic labor positions at Wiley’s South Senate brothel, where they were provided “the regulation dress of the resort.” The women attempted to escape, but Wiley “threatened to have them arrested. … One of the threats used was that if they did not stay a letter would be written advising their folks at home of the life they were leading.” Wiley did send such a letter to their families after they escaped and went to the police, but at trial Wiley was fined just $25 for the offense after the court determined that the two young women “were disreputable characters before they entered the place.”  Wiley continued to manage a brothel and was last living on South Senate in 1907.

Women of color had been street walkers and worked in some mixed-race houses of prostitution since the mid-19th century. In 1880, for instance, a 36-year old African-American prostitute going by the name Anna Johnson was one of seven prostitutes in the brothel of Maria Mabb, who also employed two African-American servants. Maria Miller was using the alias Mabb when she came to Indianapolis from Ohio by 1867. She was managing brothels by 1873, when she was referred to as “The Queen” after providing a diamond ring to bail out five of her prostitutes. Mabb’s South East Street neighbor was Sheriff John T. Pressley, a reflection of many officials’ disinterest in prosecuting prostitution and minor vices. Mabb ran brothels throughout the city from the early 1870s until her death in 1901.

Perhaps the earliest Black brothel was located at 318 West Georgia Street. In 1910 Marie Marks’ house was home to her and three other prostitutes, all identified by the census enumerator as Mulatto, and the home had certainly been a resort since the late 19th century. Nancy Elliott had been living in the home since about 1898, almost certainly always running it as a brothel, and when a 33-year-old prostitute Lena Bethel died in the home in February, 1902 Elliott served as the informant for the death certificate. Marie Marks began running the brothel by 1907, but between 1911 and 1914 the residences along West Georgia were transformed into warehouses.

In 1896 Nellie Carney had moved her brothel from South Street to East Washington Street in a home a block from the East Court Street brothels, and by 1910 she had at least 30 years experience running brothels. In 1910 Nellie Carney was a 60-year-old widow identified in the census as a keeper of a “house of ill fame” at 538 East Court Street, one of the most spacious brothels on East Court Street. Carney had six women boarding in her home who were identified as prostitutes. These women used a range of creative aliases, but the census indicated that all but two of the women working on East Court Street were born in the US: one woman working at the house of “Fannie Sells” was a Russian Jew, and Bell West’s house at 518 East Court included one English-born prostitute. Twenty-two of the 38 women identified as prostitutes indicated they had children, but none of their children were living with them on East Court Street in 1910.

The prostitutes on East Court Street came under fire from a new wave of moral crusaders in the years before World War I. For instance, Mollie Grant (also known as Mollie Rife or Mollie Reife) ran a brothel in the 400 block of East Court Street as early as 1904. In October, 1911 Dollie Gaw brought charges against Grant and a woman named Wayne Leslie, accusing them of kidnapping her when she was 16 and holding her against her will in their Indianapolis resorts. Gaw alleged that Grant held Gaw for four years in Grant’s East Court Street brothel, indicating that her clothing was taken from her and the other women to prevent escape, and those who attempted to leave were beaten severely. Nevertheless, the court decided in favor of Grant.

In 1912 the Church Federation of Indianapolis lobbied for more strict enforcement of prostitution laws, part of a perpetual cycle of moral indignation vented against prostitution, alcohol, and nearly every public leisure. City leaders would often reply to such complaints in the short term, and by July the Police Chief reported to the Indianapolis Star that “23 resorts have been vacated since January 1.” In April, 1914 an Indianapolis judge intent on intensifying the pressure on prostitutes provided the Indianapolis News with a list of the names of women running houses of prostitution and the owners of those properties, and the Church Federation lobbied successfully for a red light abatement law. In February, 1916, the red light law was invoked to file suits against 14 resorts, including those of Mollie Grant and her daughter Myrtle Burkhardt as well as five other East Court Street brothels. Grant was again raided in April, 1916, when she received yet another fine for managing the house on East Court Street.

An African-American maid in Grant’s East Court Street house, Beatrice Rink, was arrested after the April, 1916 raid, and she testified that police frequented the house on a regular basis. Consequently, it should not have been a surprise when officers John Gaughan and Herbert Smutte were found at 538 East Court Street during an August raid. The embarrassing arrest of the police officers in Grant’s house once again heightened prosecutors’ and moral crusaders’ efforts to step up policing of prostitution. In December 1916 11 women were arrested for running houses of prostitution, including four properties on East Court Street (one managed by Grant’s daughter Myrtle), two on East Market Street, and another on the Adelaide Street alley in the 400 block of East Court Street. On South Senate, Wanda Stone, Della Kimble, and Dee Bridges were also arrested. In February 1917 Gaughan and Smutte were found guilty of neglecting their duties by ignoring the prostitution on East Court Street, and they were each fined $300 and sentenced to three months prison sentences. However, the state Supreme Court repealed their sentence in January, 1918, and Gaughan continued to serve as a police officer into the 1940s.

Surveillance along East Court Street had already begun to empty the houses of prostitution by 1916, when eight brothels neighbored eight vacant structures. In 1920 Myrtle Burkhardt still was living on East Court Street, and in August, 1920 two African-American brothel keepers were arrested on East Court. In June, 1939 a woman was arrested for keeping a house of prostitution in the 600 block of East Court Street, but by that point most of the trade had moved to other neighborhoods. Today East Court Street is a parking lot and South Senate has been erased by the Indiana Convention Center, but for nearly a half-century East Court Street and South Senate were the center for a longstanding prostitution trade.

African-American Undertakers in the Circle City

In 1887 John J. Thornton’s undertaking shop on West Market Street appeared on this Sanborn map just off Monument Circle (note building marked “Coffins” in center of image; click for an expanded view).

In March, 1880 the Indianapolis News proclaimed that “Indianapolis now has a colored undertaker.” The newspaper did not identify that undertaker, but it certainly was George H. Woodford, who opened an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue. George Woodford was part of a nationwide movement to professionalize undertaking and mortuary services in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. In the midst of turn-of-the-century racial segregation, African-American undertakers had little direct competition with White undertakers as death and the Black body were increasingly ceded to African-American entrepreneurs. African-American undertakers appealed to African Americans’ reverence for a proper burial while recognizing that White undertakers were much less likely to dignify Black death. Consequently, after the turn of the century, undertakers ranked among Indianapolis’ most prominent African-American entrepreneurs.

Before the Civil War, local craftspeople often constructed caskets; families prepared the deceased for burial; and many people were buried in modest family cemeteries, especially in rural settings. This began to shift in the late-19th century with the emergence of chemical embalming, an industry marketing funerary material goods, professional undertaking courses and schools, and the shift from home-based funerals to funeral parlors. Embalming began to be practiced on a wide scale for the first time during the Civil War, when it was used to prevent the decomposition of soldiers being shipped home for burial. Perhaps the most influential example of embalming was the preservation of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse as his body was escorted to Illinois over several weeks in 1865 (including a stop in Indianapolis on April 30). Undertakers’ schools began to teach embalming and burial practices in the late-19th century, and in 1882 the National Funeral Directors Association was formed to advocate for professionalization of the trade.

The Circle City’s first African-American undertaker, George Woodford, was born into captivity in about 1846 in Wayne County, Kentucky. After Emancipation Woodford enlisted in the Union Army on September 8, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and he served in the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Woodford was almost certainly one of the 80 African-American soldiers in Company E who were attacked near Simpsonville, Kentucky on January 23, 1865, an ambush that left about 22 of the soldiers dead. Woodford married Tieney Williams in Louisville in 1875, and the newlyweds migrated north to Indianapolis by early 1876.

In 1880 Woodford began to operate an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue, first where the One America Building sits today and then a block away at the northwest corner of Indiana Avenue and New York Street (now the 300 block of Indiana Avenue). Yet on April 29, 1882 the Indianapolis Leader noted that Woodford was ill and “grave doubts of his recovery are entertained”; the Indianapolis News reported on the same day that he had in fact died. Woodford was buried at Crown Hill in services conducted by his fellow members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, but the city did not appear to have another African-American undertaker. In 1886 John J. Thornton probably became the city’s second African-American undertaker when he opened his shop on West Market Street just a block east of the Indiana State House. Yet like his predecessor George Woodford, Thornton died soon after in October, 1888.

This April, 1905 ad for Cassius M Clay Willis’ funeral home noted the firm was managed with his daughter Beulah Willis. Beulah had graduated from an embalming program, one of many women active in the management of early 20th-century funeral homes. The 23-year-old Beulah died just a month after this ad appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.

At the turn of the century, a circle of professionally trained undertakers established several longstanding African-American funeral homes. Cassius M. Clay Willis came to Indianapolis in about 1875 and established his undertaking firm in 1890. Willis graduated from a Massachusetts School of Embalming course in 1895, possibly taking the course with the embalming schools’ traveling instructors, who conducted such courses in places like Terre Haute. Willis’ first undertaking shop from 1890 to 1913 was in the Odd Fellows’ Building on what is today the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, and in April 1913 he purchased an existing double at 622-624 North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street) and moved his business there the following August.

In October, 1900 Willis hired another professionally trained undertaker, Lucas B. Willis (no relation to Cassius Willis), and Lucas Willis would remain a prominent Indianapolis undertaker until his death in 1930. Lucas Willis began his career working for Thomas K. Robb’s undertaking firm in Frankfort, Kentucky before coming to work for CMC Willis in October, 1900. Lucas B. Willis completed a course in the Massachusetts College of Embalming in 1898 and received instruction at the Renouard Training School for Embalming.

There was relatively little professional oversight of undertakers around the turn of the century, and some problematic practices persisted. The most shocking Indianapolis example came in 1902, when a series of freshly buried bodies were discovered missing from the Anderson Cemetery on East 10th Street. Estella Middleton, a 15-year-old African American, was living on Gladstone Street in August, 1902, when she was struck with typhoid fever and died August 28th. Middleton was buried in the Anderson Cemetery by CMC Willis, but in September her grave was found disturbed, and Middleton’s body was found in the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons where it was being used for medical students’ training.

Middleton was re-buried in the Anderson Cemetery, but it instantly became clear many more graves had been emptied. The Central College of Physician and Surgeons was one of three medical schools in Indianapolis, two of which eventually joined with other schools and became part of the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1908. After the discovery of Middleton’s body, Demonstrator of Anatomy Joseph C. Alexander was found to have secured at least two stolen corpses, and apparently the grave robbers had been provisioning medical schools for some time: suspects Garfield Buckner and John McEndree had been suspected of grave robbing the poor farm and Mt. Jackson cemeteries in 1900; they escaped prosecution, but police were suspicious because Buckner was working for one of the city’s medical colleges.

Alexander had obtained the bodies from a team of African-American grave diggers that included Rufus Cantrell, an African American who worked for CMC Willis, and James Harvey, an embalmer who had been employed by Willis. Cantrell and his partners confirmed that Willis had been party to the crimes and had arranged for bodies to be supplied to Alexander for $30 a body. The suspects claimed that in 1900 Willis even provided the body of one of the grave robbers’ own wives to Alexander without burial.

The grave robbers soon implicated a series of cemetery sextons and a Central College intern and the janitor, and they acknowledged they had robbed many cemeteries throughout central Indiana (including cemeteries in Fishers, Jones Chapel Cemetery on present-day West 56th Street, Pleasant Hill Cemetery near Trader’s Point, and Holy Cross/St. Joseph Cemetery on the southside). More bodies were thieved from Mt. Jackson than any other cemetery. Cantrell admitted that “he and the other negroes visited Mt. Jackson cemetery almost every time anyone was buried in the place. `We pretty near cleaned that place out,’ he said. `I don’t believe we missed any body that has been planted there since July.’” In October bone remains found in the college were suspected of being stolen cadavers that were burnt to conceal evidence, and four bodies from robbed graves were discovered bagged in an Indianapolis alley; burial shrouds were found in the college as well. Nevertheless, Alexander escaped with a hung jury the following February, and he was never re-tried. Cantrell was sentenced to the State Reformatory in Jeffersonville, and several of his grave-digging colleagues also served prison time.

Cassius MC Willis continued to run one of the city’s most prominent African-American funeral homes after escaping without jail time, moving from Indiana Avenue to North West Street in 1913. The funeral home on North West Street (which sat in the same block as Madam CJ Walker’s home) continued to be run by Willis’ son Herbert after Cassius’ death in 1920. Herbert died in 1952 and the funeral home had its last services in 2009. The building stands today, connected to newly constructed apartments.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis appeared in this August 1905 ad in the Recorder the year after they established their partnership (click for expanded view).

Lucas Willis remained with CMC Willis’ firm until Lucas established a competing funeral home with James N. Shelton in 1904. Shelton received some training at Harvey Medical College, a co-ed evening school in Chicago that trained working-class students, and he graduated from the Chicago School of Embalming in 1900. Shelton’s wife Mayme also completed an embalming course in Chicago in 1901. Shelton first managed an Indianapolis undertaker’s business with Ola Homer Morgan from December, 1900 until August, 1904, when he and Lucas Willis formed the firm Shelton and Willis. In 1905 the pair was forced to note in advertisements in the Indianapolis Recorder that they were “not connected in any way with CMC Willis undertaking establishment.”

In the early 20th century, James Shelton was among the most prominent African-American undertakers in national professional circles. The National Funeral Directors Association formed in 1882, but its membership was officially segregated in 1912; it did not accept African-American members until 1970. The National Negro Business League was formed in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to promote African-American commercial and marketing enterprises, and funeral directors would always be prominent in the League. James Shelton attended its national meetings in 1907, 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1913 (and likely other years as well). In 1907 a group of funeral directors in the League formed the National Negro Funeral Directors Association, the same year that Shelton and St. Louis undertaker W.C. Gordon delivered a paper “The Undertaking Business.” Two years later Shelton was the group’s Secretary, and Lucas B. Willis was serving on its Executive Board.

Shelton was one of 16 Hoosiers to attend the 1910 National Negro Business League meeting in New York as part of a delegation that included his famous neighbor Madam C.J. Walker. During Shelton’s report at the 1911 convention as Secretary of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association he proclaimed that African-American funeral directors “receive ninety-five per cent of the patronage of the colored people in the communities in which they live.” Two years later Shelton again spoke at the convention and argued that “I say the time has come when we ought to make it impossible for any white man to bury a Negro in any community in which you live.”

Lucas Willis was likewise actively engaged in national African-American funeral directors’ associations. In September, 1905 Willis was elected Vice-President of the Colored Interstate Funeral Directors Association, which was apparently one of a patchwork of early state and regional funeral directors associations. Willis served on the Executive Board of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association when it first formed in 1907, but National Negro Business League influence waned by World War I, and new African-American undertakers’ groups began to form. The Independent National Funeral Directors Association formed in September, 1924, and Willis became its Secretary when 31 African-American funeral directors met in Chicago in 1925. In 1927 Willis was one of three Indianapolis undertakers to meet with the group in Cincinnati, and the organization remains active today as the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

James Shelton ran this ad not long after he began to operate an independent funeral home on Indiana Avenue, where he had once shared space with Lucas WIllis.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis ran a funeral home on Indiana Avenue until July, 1914, when they parted ways to run funeral homes in their own names. Shelton continued to manage his funeral home on Indiana Avenue at the location he had shared with Lucas, and he remained there until his death in 1921. Lucas Willis opened his own funeral home on West Michigan Street and would remain active in national African-American funeral associations. In 1915 Shelton and Willis’ former embalmer Shirley H. Winfrey partnered with undertaker Andrew W. Breckenridge in a funeral home at 517 North West Street, where Breckenridge and George W. Lee had opened a funeral home the year before. Breckenridge had been an undertaker in Xenia, Ohio between about 1902 and 1910, and Winfrey had been an undertaker in Terre Haute.

The Peoples Burial Company ran this patriotic ad in 1934 paying homage to their founder Henry Dunn, whose widow Lula was running the funeral home. They had recently hired William Lester Craig, who would establish his own funeral home on the near-Southside in 1936 (click for expanded view).

By the time of Lucas Willis’ death in 1930 the number of African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis had increased significantly. For instance, People’s Funeral Company was founded in 1919 by Henry Dunn and his wife Lula Jackson Dunn, and Lula Dunn became perhaps the first licensed African-American female mortician in Indiana. Since the turn of the century, every funeral home had female attendants, including CMC Willis’ daughter Beulah Willis and Ola H. Morgan’s wife Fanny. Lula Dunn was employing William Lester Craig by 1934. In 1936 William and his brother Joseph opened a funeral home on the near-Southside at 1002 South Senate. The Craig Funeral Home was erased by the construction of interstate and moved to 826 South Capitol Street in February, 1968. William Lester Craig died in November, 1974, and his son William Martin Craig assumed management of the firm. Less than a year later the funeral home was displaced for the second time by interstate construction, and the family firm moved to 3447 North College Avenue in November, 1975, where they remain in business today.

The Craig Funeral Home has moved twice in the face of interstate construction in the 1960 and 1970s. In November, 1975 they announced their second move to North Capitol Street, where they remain today.

African-American funeral homes gradually found themselves in competition with historically segregated White funeral homes after the 1950s, but many African-American funeral homes remained viable and trusted community institutions into the 21st century. Nevertheless, chains have swallowed up much of the family based funeral home trade. Historically African-American communities have also been displaced after World War II by urban renewal and highway construction—forces that twice forced the Craig Funeral Home to relocate—and the communities along Indiana Avenue or the near-Southside have been completely uprooted.  Just as much of the landscape of African-American Indianapolis is now razed and invisible to many contemporary people, the heritage of more than a century of African-American undertakers and funeral homes risks being lost as well.

 

References

LaTrese Evette Adkins

2003 “And who has the body?”: The historical significance of African American funerary display. PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University.

 

Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck (editors)

2009 Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience. 2 vols. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

 

Christopher Leevy Johnson

2004 Undertakings: The politics of African -American funeral directing.  Phd Dissertation, University of South Carolina.

 

Gary Laderman

2003 Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, New York.

 

Charles William McCurdy

1896 Embalming and Embalming Fluids. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly 39:175-258.

 

William Henry Porter, Jr.

1958 Middleville Morticians: Some Social Implications of Change in the Funeral Business in a Southern City.  PhD Dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.

 

Suzanne E. Smith

2010 To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African-American Way of Death.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shirley Winfrey and Andrew Breckenridge ran this ad for their North West Street funeral home in 1916

Indianapolis’ Ahmadi Muslims in the 1920s and 1930s

This is the second of two posts on 20th-century Muslim heritage in Indianapolis that come to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV. Click on Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America for the first post.

Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (click on image for expanded view).

In 1930, national Muslim missionary Sufi Bengalee came to visit the small, but growing community of Muslims in Indianapolis devoted to the teachings of a Punjabi religious leader named Ghulam Ahmad. Bengalee was the American missionary for the Ahmadiyya movement, which was one of the first modern, international Muslim movements to gain a significant number of converts among non-Muslim populations, especially in the West. The Ahmadiyya were a reform-minded group that emphasized the peaceful nature of Islam and eschewed polygyny. It was named after its founder, Ghulam Ahmad, whom many followers believed was the Messiah and the Mahdi, the rightly-guided figure in Islamic tradition who will appear on earth to preach justice before the Day of Judgment. Some followers also thought Ghulam Ahmad to be a prophet, a belief that was and is rejected by most of the world’s Muslims—whether Sunni or Shi‘a—who believe that Muhammad of Arabia (d. 632 CE) was God’s final prophet. But before Sunni or Shi‘a Muslims had established a congregation in Indianapolis, it was Ahmadi Muslims who were encouraging Hoosiers to convert—and doing so across Indianapolis’ stark color line. Continue reading

Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America

This week’s post comes to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV

In May, 1939 the Moorish Science Temple advertised a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) dance in the Indianapolis Knights of Pythias Hall (click for an expanded view).

In the 1930s some African-American Hoosiers helped to establish a completely new form of Islamic religion. The Moorish Science Temple of America (MST) was one of many new religious movements of the interwar period.  Begun in 1920s Chicago by Timothy Drew, who became known as Noble Drew Ali, the MST called on African Americans to have pride in themselves, advocated for equal rights, and preached the values of hard work and self-reliance. Noble Drew Ali taught that African Americans had forgotten their true heritage as followers of Islam. According to him, they had also forgotten their true racial and national identities. There was no such thing as a Black race, Ali proclaimed, insisting instead that African Americans were part of the Asian race. He said that their true national origins were Moorish–from Morocco. As Moors and Asians, he declared, they should abandon Christianity, which he said was the natural religion of White people, and re-claim the religion of Islam, which he defined as the natural religion for all non-white people. Believing that African Americans had adopted incorrect and ultimately harmful ideas about who they were, Ali was calling for nothing less than a wholesale change in black identity. Continue reading

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home.

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of the Civil War first exposed Indianapolis’ lack of institutional support for the newly freed African Americans who escaped north.  Unsettled by homeless, impoverished, and often-ill African-American newcomers, Indianapolis’ Friends (Quakers) resolved in 1869 to organize an African-American orphanage (compare the histories by Thomas Cowger and John Ramsbottom as well as the Indiana Historical Society collection guide).  In 1870 the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children opened at Mississippi and 12th Streets (eventually re-named Senate Avenue and 21st Street, respectively). Continue reading

Migration to Indianapolis’ Near-Southside in the Late-19th Century

A 2016 aerial view of Indianapolis and the near-Southside.

A 2016 aerial view of Indianapolis and the near-Southside (click for expanded view; for aerial views of the neighborhood in 1962, 1972, and today scroll to the end of this post).

In January 1886 the Indianapolis News mourned the loss of the final tree from the “dense forest that once filled Pogue’s Creek bottom … on the bank of the new cut on Morris street.”  While trees had long been removed from the city’s original Mile Square, “south of the old boundary of South street … the woods maintained their primeval density.”  After Europeans arrived in Indianapolis, that forest on Indianapolis’ near-Southside was punctuated by a scatter of small farms and pastures.  These included a hemp farm managed by of one of Indianapolis’ first European settlers, Nicholas McCarty.  McCarty opened one of the city’s first general stores in 1823, and around 1840 his entrepreneurial ventures included “a hemp mill and rotting vats—just south of Ray street.”

This 1855 map provides one of the earliest images of the near-Southside. Both McCarty Street and contemporary South Meridian Street were dirt roads, and some lots were included in the map at the southwest corner of the two streets (click for expanded view).

This 1855 map provides one of the earliest cartographic images of the near-Southside. Both McCarty Street and contemporary South Meridian Street were dirt roads.  Some lots were included in the map at the southwest corner of the two streets, but most of them had not yet been settled (click for expanded view).

By the time the final tree fell on the near-Southside in 1886, businesses, workplaces, and homes lined South Meridian Street and side streets like Ray Street, where McCarty’s hemp mill once stood.  In 1855 South Meridian (initially referred to as Bluff Road) was a dirt road that extended south from McCarty Street (Bluff Road today refers to the street that extends southwest off South Meridian near Adler).  In 1858 present-day South Meridian was graded and graveled, and a scatter of new residents, stores, and workplaces soon occupied the street extending south from McCarty Street. Continue reading

“The Way of the Transgressor”: Hard Labor and Incarceration in the Marion County Workhouse

As inmates entered the Marion County Workhouse, a sign sounded the Biblical warning that “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.”  Indianapolis’ workhouse opened in 1885 with a philosophy that hard labor was the path to rehabilitation.  Most inmates pulverized a massive rock pile producing gravel for local roadways, but inmates also worked a large garden and maintained the workhouse as cooks, janitors, barbers, and laundresses.  The facility at the corner of 21st and North West Streets (the latter now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Street) was part of a complex landscape of incarceration in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis in which discipline was imposed by a network of orphanages, jails, asylums, and a poorhouse.

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York's Blackwell's Island (image NYPL).

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York’s Blackwell’s Island (image NYPL).

The workhouse was intended to house inmates who were convicted of modest crimes and had received short sentences.  In the years after the Civil War, Indianapolis’ workhouse proponents lamented that such petty criminals were prone to vagrancy, fueling a persistent “tramp problem.”  In 1875, for instance, the Indianapolis News argued that the “necessity of a work-house is too apparent to require enlarging upon.  The vagrants who loaf about the streets and saloons, the tramps who beg from house to house and watch an opportunity to steal, the drunken creatures who are brought into court daily, the able-bodied gamblers who range the streets and public resorts in search of victims or who hide in their dens until the chance to rob comes; these, and all the worthless and vicious who prey upon society, shall find a place in the work-house.”  In December, 1883 the News lamented that the County jail was over-crowded with “professional loafers or tramps” who “come here in winter from all quarters, for the reason that they know they will be sheltered at the expense of the state, and can not be made to work.” Continue reading

Hidden Heritage on Martin Luther King, Jr, Street

In January, 1937 William Lane died in a hit-and-run accident in the 1000 block of North West Street (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr Street).  The 56-year old Lane had returned to his home at 1044 North West Street before realizing he had forgotten to purchase pepper. Lane headed back out to the grocery and was returning with pepper in hand when a car hit him and killed Lane instantly.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in March, 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

Nobody who is familiar with this stretch of road today would be surprised at the lethality of that streetscape.  The once-settled neighborhood is now a confluence of interstate off-ramps built in the 1960s that empty onto constantly re-engineered streets that struggle to accommodate busy traffic.  Once part of a walkable neighborhood of homes, stores, churches, and schools, the 1000 block of MLK Street now seems designed simply to serve cars.  Not much more than a dirt path in the mid-19th century, the block is now a mostly invisible space on the way to and from state government complexes, the Indiana University Medical Center, and IUPUI.

When William Lane died the neighborhood along MLK Street was a central but more modestly trafficked thoroughfare sitting just south of Crispus Attucks High School.  William and Virginia Lane’s home still sits at the corner of North West and 11th Streets, now known as Martin Luther King Jr Street and Oscar Robertson Boulevard respectively.  Many of the surrounding homes were removed by urban renewal projects and interstate construction that began after World War II, but the Lanes’ home has been spared in part because it is now part of the Ransom Place Conservation District.  Yet few of the thousands of people driving by the house each day likely notice the homes that tenaciously hang on in the 1000 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. Continue reading

Forgotten Memorials and Ignored Tragedy: Inside Memorial Grove

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

In the woods north of Indianapolis Parks’ Municipal Gardens sits a modest memorial to the 11th Indiana Volunteer Regiment.  The memorial to the Union regiment and its original leader—Lew Wallace, best known as the author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ—was unveiled at the site of the former Camp Robinson in September, 1914.  Forty-two surviving members of the regiment attended the unveiling at the site where they had originally camped in 1861 before going to the front.  Today the 11th Regiment monument is hidden in woods known as the Memorial Grove, and very few people visit the Riverside Park site overlooking the White River or even know it exists (for details, see Ryan Hamlett’s 2013 Historic Indianapolis discussion of the 11th Regiment monument).

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building known as now as Municipal Gardens.

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove is the woods at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building now known as Municipal Gardens.

The woods surrounding the 11th Regiment memorial conceal an even more unsettling and unknown story ignored for nearly a century.  Almost eight years after the monument was unveiled the body of George Tompkins was found in the surrounding woods.  Tompkins was among the African Americans who migrated to Indianapolis from the South, probably leaving Frankfort, Kentucky around 1920.  In 1910 Tompkins was living with his uncle and aunt Robert and Fannie Smith in Frankfort, where the eight-year-old was in school.  Tompkins apparently was raised by the Smiths since infancy, and he was living with them in Frankfort as late as 1917.

The Smiths came to Indianapolis after World War I and were living on Colton Street on the present-day IUPUI campus in 1920.  They had moved a few blocks away to Holborn Street not long before their nephew’s death.  After Tompkins’ death the Smiths told the Indianapolis News that they had raised him since he was nine months old and his mother had been dead for “many years.”  Tompkins had been working at the Fairmount Glass Works until two weeks before his death; an official at the glass factory told the newspaper that Tompkins had quit after receiving word from Kentucky that his mother was gravely ill and he was going south to visit her.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

On Thursday March 16, 1922 Tompkins left the Smiths’ home on Holborn Street, and at noon his “still warm” body was found in the woods near the 11th Regiment Memorial.  The Indianapolis News reported that Tompkins “was suspended from a tree by a rope around his neck and with his hands tied behind him” with a handkerchief.  Police believed that Tompkins had been murdered elsewhere and then moved to the woods in Riverside Park, where his body had been hung.  The body was covered with dirt, suggesting Tompkins had been dragged by the taut rope, but detectives on the scene included a contingent that championed the theory that Tompkins’ death was a suicide.  Proponents of that suicide theory believed Tompkins “may have looped the handkerchief around one wrist and tied the knot in it before strangling himself.

Two days after Tompkins' death the Indianapolis coroner's office ruled his death was a suicide.

Two days after Tompkins’ death the Indianapolis coroner’s office ruled his death was a suicide.

The city’s Coroner concluded on the scene that Tompkins had been murdered, but early 20th-century officials were reluctant to label African American deaths as lynchings, especially within the city limits.  Surviving descriptions of the scene are not especially detailed, and perhaps Tompkins had not been strangled at the scene or died as a result of hanging in the Riverside woods.  However, lynching scenes routinely were mined for souvenirs, including rope, bonfires, trees, and even victims’ bodies, and there is a suggestive hint that this might have opened in the woods along Cold Springs Road: the Indianapolis News observed in passing that “four or five of the small limbs on the side of the tree on which the body was found had been cut off apparently with a small pen knife.”  Harvey Young has detailed how many lynching scenes were dismembered by souvenir hunters.  Indiana’s most infamous lynching of two men in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 was chronicled with a shocking photograph of the two lifeless victims, and two women in the foreground appear to be holding swatches of fabric that probably were keepsakes torn from the victims’ bodies.

Tompkins’ body was autopsied on March 18th by Deputy Coroner George R. Christian, and the death certificate identified the place of death as “Robinson’s Camp,” referring to Camp Robinson.  The cause of death was ruled to be “strangulation by hanging from neck.”  However, Christian’s surprising verdict was the death was a suicide.  Like so many African-American deaths in 20th-century Indianapolis, Tompkins’ death was quickly ignored, with not a word about the case again appearing in the local White press after March 17th (unfortunately, the city’s African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, does not have surviving copies from this period).  Tompkins was laid to rest in Floral Park Cemetery.

George Tompkins’ death has been submerged in a commonplace historical amnesia about racist violence, ironically effaced in the same woods where some of the soldiers who had fought for Black freedom have also been forgotten.  Such landscapes of racist violence have been similarly effaced throughout the country, and perhaps a memorial to Tompkins risks being forgotten as the nearby 11th Regiment memorial has been.  Nevertheless,reviving the memory of George Tompkins’ tragic death hopefully contributes to a discussion that dignifies his life and acknowledges a shameful history.

 

References

Dora Apel
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob.  Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.

 

James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant

2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a TragedyThe SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.

 

Jacqueline Goldsby

2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

James H. Madison

2001 A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America.  Palgrave McMillan, New York.

 

Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck

1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930.  University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

 

Harvey Young

2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American LynchingTheatre Journal 57:639–657.

 

Image

Matthew Brady image of Lew Wallace from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City

In 2008 Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard suggested that the Circle City build a Chinatown to celebrate the “cultural flavor of Indianapolis” and “showcase its diversity.”  Ballard’s proposal was an unfunded musing that was not especially focused on celebrating Chinese culture; the Mayor was instead aspiring to craft a tourist-friendly Chinese district in reach of downtown on the city’s near-Southside.  Nothing has ever come of Ballard’s idea, and perhaps it is because the city has no historically Chinese neighborhood and has been the home to relatively few Chinese immigrants.  In 1880—on the eve of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of a series of laws strictly regulating overseas Chinese immigration—Indianapolis had just 14 residents who were born in China to Chinese parents; in 1910 that population swelled to 43 residents, in 1930 it was 39, and in 1940 it was 20.  Nevertheless, some Chinese immigrants did come to Indianapolis, and they and their families were part of city affairs throughout the early 20th century.

In the 19th century segregated Chinese communities emerged throughout much of the West.  The earliest of these communities were based in Gold Rush and railroad centers like San Francisco, and these Chinese neighborhoods were often referred to as “Chinatowns.”   Cities like Chicago and Detroit had similar communities emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Chinese immigrants went eastward searching for new social and economic opportunities or simply fleeing West coast xenophobia.

E Lung's North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map.

E Lung’s North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map (click for expanded image).

Nearly all of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Indianapolis ran laundries, a pattern that was typical of Chinese laborers throughout the US well into the 20th century.  Wah Lee’s laundry on South Illinois Street was probably the first Chinese laundry in Indianapolis, opening in May 1873 (and receiving a fine in August for constructing a wooden building in violation of the city’s fire code).  In the 1874 city directory, two of the four laundries in the directory were Chinese managed, including Wah Lee’s laundry and Sang Lee’s laundry on Virginia Avenue. Continue reading