The dark side of Indiana

As a homespun Hoosier humorist once asked, “Ain’t God good to Indiana?” Rolling hills, sun-drenched cornfields, moonlight on the Wabash. A freckled boy shooting baskets in the light of a harvest moon. Folks saying howdy after Sunday church. A feller in uniform kissing his gal as he goes off to serve his country. Hoosiers and Hoosier values: Booth Tarkington, Herb Shriner, Red Skelton, Hoagy Carmichael, Wendell Willkie, war memorials, the roar of the Speedway. Penrod and Little Orphant Annie can play by the ol’ fishing hole until the frost is on the punkin.  Police raid a still operation during Prohibition.Like many images, these are true so far as they go, but misleading because they show what might be called the sunny side of reality. Like every other state, Indiana has a dark side, things chambers of commerce omit from their brochures. Hoosiers are friendly, patriotic, hard-working, God-fearing souls. They are also provincial, prejudiced, opinionated, sometimes mean-spirited and, to use a somewhat out-of-fashion word, sinful.

In the late 1940s, assessing the preceding half-century, author John Bartlow Martin decided Indiana had “lost its way.” He wrote, “The wonder went out of all the wonderful things of Indiana’s past … Indiana lost its friendly tolerance, its conviction that things would work out and it by no means fulfilled its magnificent promise.” The Hoosier state, Martin concluded, “is the U.S. in little.” In the new century, perhaps it still is a microcosm of America.

Here is a brief tour of the dark side, demonstrating that the past wasn’t always wonderful and truth, as always, depends on who does the telling.

“Whites only”

With some delegates referring to blacks as “vermin,” the 1851 Constitution included this article: “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the state.” It was approved by a 93-40 vote and, put to the public, adopted 113,828 to 21,873. It would be 15 years before the Supreme Court invalidated the ban. Nevertheless, for close to a century blacks couldn’t vote, testify in court or marry whites. As a matter of fact, the state’s miscegenation law wasn’t abolished until the early 1960s. This was the hateful foundation of racial separation whose effects still can be seen today, from segregated neighborhoods of inner-cities to economic disparities at many levels.

Ain’t God good to white Indiana?

In 1867, an Indianapolis newspaper story on the stabbing murder of a black man in Evansville commented, “There was no clue to the murderer and no effort to hunt him out. It was only a nigger.” No one can say for sure how many blacks were lynched over the years. It was certainly in the dozens. In 1899, the governor of Georgia defended that state’s gruesome record for lynching blacks by citing events in a Northern state: Indiana. According to one newspaper account, 13 persons were lynched during the last six months of 1868 alone. Through the years, such lynchings occurred in Charlestown, Evansville, Mount Vernon, Rockport and Greene, Monroe and Sullivan counties.

The worst episode occurred in 1878 in Mount Vernon, when a mob stormed the jail. A man who had shot a deputy was butchered, then four black men, accused of “invading” a white whorehouse, were murdered and hung in the town square. One of the goriest occurred in 1901, in Terre Haute, when George Ward, a 27-year-old black man, was arrested for the murder of a white school teacher. A mob broke into the jail, beat Ward viciously and hung his body from a bridge over the Wabash River. Then the body was torn apart. For years afterward, what were represented to be Ward’s body parts were privately sold or traded for money or liquor. The last public lynching was the infamous episode in Marion in 1930, when two black men were hung by a mob.

How many blacks were beaten or otherwise terrorized during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s? No one knows. But these white-sheeted Hoosiers also targeted Jews and Catholics.

Besides lynchings, the past was darkened by countless racial conflicts, including ugly riots, the earliest probably in 1857. One of the worst took place in Evansville in 1903 when white mobs terrorized blacks following the shooting of a policeman. The governor had to call in the militia to stop the riot. Eleven blacks were killed. A three-day riot along Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis in 1969 resulted in widespread property damage, several dozen injuries and 75 arrests.

“Whites Only” signs and the separation they enforced in all walks of life were common through the 1940s and, in some areas, the 1950s. Significant changes didn’t come until the Supreme Court’s 1957 school desegregation ruling and landmark civil rights laws in the 1960s.

Law of the rope

Blacks weren’t the only targets of supposedly law-abiding Hoosiers. Just before the Civil War, the Indianapolis Journal carried this brief item: “A number of persons broke in the doors of the jail at Franklin, Johnson County, on Thursday night, and took from their cells John Patterson and an accomplice of his, named Hatchell, who were confined on a charge of the murder of David Lyons, of Greenwood, some eight weeks since, and hung them in a woods adjoining the town. “The murder of Lyons was a cold-blooded affair, and the citizens were afraid that these men would, through some instrumentality, be cleared, hence this summary treatment.”

In this same period, another article said, “It is rumored that the cut throats, thieves and vagabonds generally, held a meeting a few nights since, and completed an organization for the more thorough canvass of the city and county in their peculiarly unpleasant style, and for mutual protection in case harm should come to any member or members. “If this should prove to be true, a vigilance committee of respectable people, and a few salutary hangings could be used as a valuable antidote. The effect of these is something magical in restoring quiet to a disordered community.”

In 1868, a mob in Jackson County lynched four robbery suspects. In 1885, three men were taken from jail in Shoals and lynched. In 1897, five men in jail were beaten and hung by a Ripley County mob. This form of Hoosier justice didn’t just mean a gathering of rabid citizens using a rope for “justice.” It usually meant that hundreds of people in a community would join in a conspiracy of silence. Rarely was anyone from a lynch mob convicted of any crime.

The way of all flesh

Paul Dresser, the brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser, was a famous American composer of the last century who wrote the Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” One of Dresser’s most popular songs was “My Gal Sal.” The title and song were featured in a 1942 movie starring Rita Hayworth and Victor Mature, about a songwriter in love with a singer. Americans could sing and hum this charming tune, never knowing that the real-life Sal was Sallie Walker, the proprietor of a noted Evansville whorehouse who bestowed her own charms on Dresser free of charge.

Prostitution has flourished in Indiana since the pioneer days. As an 1859 Indianapolis newspaper article put it: “An energetic and well-timed movement has been inaugurated by the police force against the houses of ill fame which scarify our city in almost every street.” In almost every street? That’s a lot of hookers, or what the article called “demireps.”

Despite half-hearted crackdowns, prostitution was tolerated to an extent as a means of becalming roughhouse males. That 1859 newspaper carried an advertisement warning of “A Miserable Life and Premature Death.” It promoted a “cure” aimed at “Young men who, by indulging in secret habits, have ruined their health, prostrated their nervous system, and impaired their minds, thereby rendering the pleasures of married life a weary pilgrimage upon earth.”

For the month of November 1867, authorities reported 226 arrests. Nearly 100 were for public intoxication, 30 for keeping or visiting a “house of ill fame.” By 1890 it was estimated that Indianapolis had nearly as many bordellos as New York City. Queen Maud’s was the most famous. In later years, Terre Haute’s flesh parlors were infamous throughout the country. Through the 1970s, the Hoosier capital had various houses of ill repute, notably Jean Ann Rupkey’s ornately furnished business, a favorite of politicians, in the 2200 block of Broadway. Eventually, the traditional whorehouse went the way of the cigar store Indian. Never to be outdated, prostitution started dating out. The current phone directory lists 63 escort services.

A taste of a little something

God-fearing, law-abiding Hoosiers have always been willing to break laws that interfere with their God-given right to drink. In the 18th century, liquor was as common as water in many households. When Prohibition arrived, Hoosiers, like citizens everywhere, helped make the 1920s roar. While no one ever took a census of speakeasies, also known as blind tigers and blind pigs, there were hundreds of them. What bootleggers didn’t bring in from out of state, Hoosiers brewed themselves, in basements, abandoned farmhouses or in hills or hollows. The stuff was called alley hooch, white mule and bathtub gin. It was cheap and easily available, so much so that by one estimate, one out of every 200 residents was charged with public intoxication during 1931.

As Hoosiers decided anything goes, criminals made fortunes, cops and politicians were bribed to look the other way and business was regulated by the law of the bullet. Prohibition ended in 1933. The alcoholic beverage industry prospered thereafter, and the epidemic of recreational drugs starting in the ’60s hardly put a dent in business.

Rolling the dice

Preaching one thing and doing another, Hoosiers always pursued the thrill of gambling while voting to maintain some of the strictest anti-gaming laws in the nation. Throughout most of the last century, there were private casinos, gambling clubs, cigar-store fronts, hidden bookie parlors, high-stakes poker games and, in most of the social and fraternal halls, slot machines. Plus the numbers rackets and pea-shake houses in some of the larger cities. The gambling often flourished unmolested unless some church group or newspaper editorial made enough noise to precipitate a “crackdown,” a highly publicized event in which police made token raids and the gambling joint resumed business as soon as the “heat” ended.

While many gambling outlets were small-time, like social clubs where people could bet on baseball and football games or engage in nightly card games with modest stakes, the big-money operations could be truly big. In 1957, the FBI succeeded in infiltrating a $20 million-a-year sports betting business that had been quietly set up in a downtown Terre Haute building. The eight suspects included two gamblers with Mafia ties plus a former Marion County sheriff. The major television networks and news organizations followed developments because the customers included prominent international businessmen like billionaire oil man H.L. Hunt and celebrities like Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers.

Something similar happened in 1968 when a private casino was set up in a downtown Indianapolis hotel with secret backing from the Teamsters Union. Nevada gamblers were brought in to run games with dice the patrons didn’t know had been shaved. The gambling hypocrisy ended, for the most part, in the 1990s when government legalized most forms of gaming so it could rake in part of the take.

Commie spies on Market Street

If Indiana always has been politically conservative, the state was branded as rabidly right-wing during the late 1940s and 1950s — the McCarthy era. Home of the national headquarters of the American Legion and a hotbed of a form of patriotism that tolerated no dissent, the state picked the legion’s Indiana commander, Ralph Gates, as governor starting in 1945. Meanwhile, longtime U.S. Sen. William E. Jenner carried the banner of anti-communism and Cold War isolationism, and the other senator, Homer Capehart, also was an ultra-conservative. The Red Scare of the ’50s produced insular attitudes, suspicion about loyalty and a fear of “outsiders.”

One conspicuous manifestation came when the American Legion picketed meetings of the new Indiana Civil Liberties Union and blocked the ICLU from using the Indiana World War Memorial. The John Birch Society was founded in Indianapolis in 1958, in a meeting at a home on Washington Boulevard attended by, among others, the editor of The Indianapolis Star, one of the most virulent isolationist organs. If such preachments tended to silence or intimidate dissent, it turns out there apparently were Soviet spies meeting or passing through Indianapolis.

In the 1990s, material smuggled out of Russia included Soviet intelligence service documents identifying places where agents could meet contacts in different U.S. cities in the 1960s. In Indianapolis, it was “by the notice board on Market Street.” No further identification of the “notice board” was given.

The smell of money

In 1927, John Duvall, the mayor of Indianapolis, was convicted of corrupt practices. Among other things, Duvall had promised that 85 percent of the appointments in his administration would go to members of the Ku Klux Klan. If there were a Hoosier Hall of Fame for corruption, the turnstiles would be clicking for non-stop tours. Indiana has had venal or corrupt politicians in virtually every county, with special exhibits from Indianapolis, Gary, Terre Haute and Evansville. Gov. Warren T. McCray might stand out. In 1924, he was convicted of using the mails to defraud. He sent more than 2,500 letters soliciting money “under false pretenses.”

Aside from the period when the powerful KKK owned politicians in city halls around the state, the biggest political scandal occurred in the 1950s, during the administration of Gov. George Craig. The state highway commissioner and 10 others were convicted of bribery and other crimes in a scheme to sell overpriced land for a project known as the Madison Avenue Expressway in Indianapolis. In the 1970s, three legislative leaders were caught and convicted, separately, of various schemes and ploys.

During the 20th century the Indianapolis Police Department was rocked by scandals every 11 years or so through the 1970s. The most recent incident, a sad commentary on Hoosiers’ participation in illegal drugs, came in 2000 when an IPD patrolman was convicted of felony murder for assisting another man in the 1997 killing of a drug dealer.

Jimmy Hoffa’s friends

From the time in the 1920s when a St. Louis gang known as the Egan Rats exchanged gunfire with Al Capone’s Chicago gangsters over who would distribute illegal booze to thirsty Hoosiers, Indiana has been a crossroads for organized crime. Chicago hoodlums used Northwestern Indiana as a gang-war graveyard. The fingers of a former Chicago syndicate figure named Frankie “One Ear” Fratto reached into Central Indiana from his base in Des Moines. Latter-day syndicate killers moved quietly in and out of Indiana. Hoods from Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis formed alliances with Hoosier racketeers. Many of these arrangements arose through labor union, insurance and bail-bond fronts. Las Vegas with its casino riches was a common bond.

Perhaps the best example of organized crime in action involved Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, a prominent Indianapolis bank and a shady lawyer. It started in 1953 when Yellow Cab Co. resisted Teamster attempts to organize its drivers and mechanics. As evidence would show later, Hoffa, who was born in Indiana, decided to fight back by starting a rival cab company and bringing in muscle. The muscle was in the form of Gus Zapas, a Chicago syndicate bruiser who moved here and went on the payroll of Teamsters Local 135, one of the largest in the Midwest, where Gene San Souci was president. Meanwhile, the State Cab Co. was started with attorney David Probstein as the front. Among other things, he had access to a Teamsters account at Fidelity Bank (later part of American Fletcher National Bank), and the bank had $1 million in Teamsters funds in trust, in a non-interest account.

Over a 24-month period there were 19 bombings or attempted bombings in Indianapolis, not to mention other forms of strong-arming. Then Probstein disappeared. Probstein had told friends Zapas planned to murder him. That was the beginning of the end of State Cab. Most of the details didn’t come out until congressional rackets investigations started, particularly Robert F. Kennedy’s quest to put Hoffa behind bars. In 1962, Probstein surfaced briefly from a California hideaway to testify before a federal grand jury. He told investigators he had bribed local and federal officials to get cab licenses. Then he disappeared again, and was last known to be living in Virginia. Hoffa, of course, did a more famous disappearing act in Detroit in 1975.

The story has an intriguing sidelight. Probstein had been in business with Frank E. McKinney Sr., the influential president of Fidelity Bank who was one of the city’s movers and shakers and had been Democratic national chairman. After McKinney’s death in 1974, Probstein’s former law partner bought McKinney’s mansion out of the estate. He declined to talk about the transaction.

The jeweler’s tale

Organized crime moves in mysterious ways, and there’s no better illustration than a story a man told a reporter once with the proviso that it wouldn’t be repeated until after the man’s death. His name was Matthew F. Kane. He was an Indianapolis jeweler. While selling jewelry was his vocation, gambling was Kane’s real love. Kane ran junkets to Las Vegas. He knew all the high-rollers and hangers-on, and he became friendly, if not friends, with some of the tougher elements of the gambling world and the criminal underworld. Two acquaintances were the aforementioned Gene San Souci and Gus Zapas.

Here’s Kane’s story: “I met San Souci in the ’50s, when I had a store in Windsor Village. He came in the store one day and ordered a large number of engraved lighters he wanted to send out as Christmas gifts. “We got to be pretty good friends, and he introduced me to Gus Zapas. Gene was a lonely man, and he used to call me to go out to dinner.

“Anyway, one night I received a telephone call. Gene wanted me to come down to the union hall on Shelby Street. I told him I was closing at nine o’clock and I’d be right down.

“When I got there, Gus Zapas came out to my car and escorted me inside. I started getting a little shaky because as we went through one door after another, Zapas locked each one behind us.

“Gene had a beautiful office, really something. It was just the three of us. Kind of eerie, really, with the lights down low. Gene opened a cabinet behind his desk and took out a big white Turkish towel, rolled up, and laid it on his desk. He opened the towel to show a magnificent assortment of diamonds.

“Then he told me they’d been stolen that morning in a jewelry store robbery in Beverly Hills and flown here right afterward, brought directly to him. Let me tell you, I was scared to death. My knees were shaking.

“Gene said they were worth $480,000 retail, and I could buy them for $40,000. The stuff was worth about $160,000 because there was a 3-to-1 markup. I didn’t know what to say. Zapas was standing right behind me.

“I told San Souci I didn’t want to buy the diamonds. I wanted to forget I ever saw them. Gene said he understood, and I got the hell out of there.

“I was shaking all the way home. I told my wife that if I ended up dead, it would be San Souci.”

Kane died in 1990 — of cancer.

Hate springs eternal

Just as Indiana has contributed important figures in politics, science, art and other fields, so the state has been the birthplace or home for varying periods to an assortment of weird, bizarre and notorious characters.

Charles Manson, for example, was twice incarcerated in Indiana juvenile facilities. Jim Jones, the sinister preacher who induced 912 people to commit suicide with him in 1977, was born in Randolph County and once ran his People’s Temple out of a church on Delaware Street. Let us conclude with a Hoosier whose name might not be familiar but who is regarded as one of the greatest perpetrators of hate over the last half-century.

Willis Carto, who was born and reared in Fort Wayne, is a neo-fascist, white supremacist, anti-government super-patriot who, among other things, was labeled by the Anti-Defamation League as “the most important professional anti-Semite in the U.S.” Founder of the Liberty Lobby and co-founder of the Institute For Historical Review, one of the loudest organs proclaiming the Holocaust didn’t happen, the 76-year-old Carto has used Washington, D.C., and California as his primary bases. In recent years, Carto has been involved in a fascinating schism with others in the far right who now proclaim the hate-monger from Indiana is a thief and liar who can’t be trusted.


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