Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Jim Thorpe: America's Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century

Jim Thorpe (center)  Clarence Childs (right)
Indiana University 1913/1914 season
James B. Childs Family Collection
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums

 Jim Thorpe was born May 28, 1888 near Prague in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). He was the great great grandson of Chief Black Hawk.  In 1950, sports writers and broadcasters voted him the greatest football player and the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century. 

He attended Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Carlisle, was founded during the Hayes administration as the first off -reservation school for Native Americans. 

In 1911, he was voted first-string All American.  Thorpe played football, baseball, basketball, and trained for the 1912 Olympics in track. Thorpe won the gold medal for both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics. (He was later stripped of these medals when it was revealed he had played  semi-professional baseball in 1909. They were not re-instated until after his death)  

Clarence Childs (left) Jim Thorpe (second left)
Indiana University 1913/1914
James B. Childs Collection
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums

While training for the Olympics, Thorpe met Clarence Childs of Fremont, Ohio. Childs, a superb athlete in his own right, won the bronze medal in the hammer throw, missing the silver by less than an inch. After touring the U. S. and Europe with the Olympic team, Childs returned to Fremont and married Zella Sherard. He coached at Wooster College and then Indiana University. His assistant at Indiana was his Olympic team mate, the legendary Jim Thorpe. 

According to the Library of Congress, Thorpe played baseball and football professionally from 1913 to 1929. He was the first president of the new American Professional Football Association that later became the NFL.  He played football professionally until the age of forty-one. For two of those years he coached and played for the Oorang Indians, an all Native American franchise of LaRue, Ohio.


Note:  To learn more about the extraordinary life of soldier, athlete,  Clarence Childs, read his diary or follow this link to the collection held by the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums or read about him on Paper Trail

Monday, May 18, 2020

William Feaga of the 72nd Ohio at the Running of the Vicksburg Batteries

Union Soldiers at Vicksburg by Kurtz and Allison

On April 16, 1863, a joint army/naval operation was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral David Porter.  Porter succeeded in making the daring run of eleven vessels: steamers, rams, and gunboats passed the Rebel batteries at Vicksburg, giving Grant the naval power to bring his troops across the Mississippi River which he accomplished on April 29th.  

William Feaga, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Jacob S. Holtz Collection, Hayes Presidential Libraryand Museums

Few Union soldiers ever forgot the sights and sounds of that daring run of Union vessels past the Vicksburg batteries on that night. The next day William Feaga of the 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry wrote the following home to his family in Seneca County, Ohio

Jake had ought to been here last night we had a lively time of it from half past 11 until half past one some of our boats ran passed Vicksburg there was 5 Gun boats, 3 rams one Tug and 3 transports started they went through safe but one Transport got burned the Henry Clay and th Forest Queen was damaged some. One shot went in a porthole of one of the Gun boats and killed one man and wounded two more this is the total of our loss I believe as near as I can find out after the boats got through they drove the rebels out of Warrenton a place below Vicksburg oposite the mouth of the Canal you se on this piece of map I send you now this Dr. Caul brought up for he was down there all night they have been firing all day and while I write we can hear heavy guns one of our boys just came from down there so close that he could se the rebels fire on our gun boats today of all the thunder and lightning I ever heard in my life it would not equal last night so we could se the flash of the gun then hear the report. Which was so terable that the Earth appeard all in a quiver it is only about 6 miles straight through to Vicksburg.

To read more of William Feaga's war correspondence and other letters in the Holtz collection, follow this link.

Panoramic View of Vicksburg and Map of Canal, Fortification, and Vicinity, 1863
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Note: The Above Map is from the Library of Congress Map Division and can be viewed in a larger format by following this link

In his memoirs, General Grant described the event: The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires on the east side and by firing houses on the point of land opposite the city on the Louisiana side. The sight was magnificent, but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport, run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go. My mind was much relieved when I learned that no one on the transports had been killed, and but few, if any, wounded.  

To read the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, follow this link

Sunday, May 10, 2020

"Real Photos" Tell the Real Story

Everyone collects something. Down through the decades, millions have collected those fascinating images of America printed in a 3 x 5 format - known to all of us as picture postcards.  It began in 1901 when the U. S. Post Office allowed companies to print pictures on small postcard stock. A caption was sometimes written on the negative which was often glass. They could be mailed for a penny. 

An Ernst Niebergall real photo postcard of the ferry Welcome tied up at Lake Erie's Kelleys Island
Lake Erie's Yesterdays features more than a thousand of his photographs 

Originally the sender could add only his or her address.  But in 1907, all that changed.  Space was created on the back so people could write a short message.  What began as a mere fad became an absolute craze. At the height of the golden age of postcards, Americans were sending nearly a billion a year!  

Why, one asks, did these little pictures become such a mania?  For the first time, average Americans could see how the other half lived. They could see views of cities they never would visit, mountains they never would climb, bridges they would never cross, and technology they never would use. 

Bridge over Ohio River at Marietta, Ohio
Library of Congress

To satisfy what seemed to be an insatiable appetite for "view" cards, companies hired armies of anonymous photographers. They fanned out across the country, snapping black and white photos of anything and everything. From trains, planes, churches, bridges, courthouses, businesses to families, farms, houses, dogs, horses, disasters, - nothing was too insignificant, too strange, or too plain.

Cityscape of Findlay, Ohio
Library of Congress

Walker Evans, renowned photographer, photojournalist, and avid postcard collector, once said, "The picture postcard is a folk document - these honest and direct little pictures." And, how right he was! When we look at them today we see factories belching smoke with proud workers standing front and center; clogged streets, fires, and disasters. They were simple, straightforward, and often ugly. 

On the way to the Fire
Library of Congress

But  as Evans declared, there is no doubt that this is exactly what our towns, cities, homes, streets, buildings, and families looked like during the early years of the 20th century. It was an expression of their world - and they were proud of it.

Perhaps most interesting are the one-of-a-kind pictures created by amateur and professional photographers. In 1903, Eastman Kodak invented a simple, affordable pocket camera and photographic printing paper which made it possible for nearly anyone to develop photographs. There was also a Kodak postcard camera. Film could be sent away and printed on special postcard paper.  Even today in the 21st century, these "real photo" postcards are rare and in demand by collectors and publishers of the ever-popular "then and now" books. 

Eastman Kodak Postcard Camera

Those long ago pictures of tree lined streets, county courthouses, and ballparks fascinate even those who claim to have little or no interest in history. The photo postcards of schoolchildren posing before their one-room schoolhouses often evoke a poignant charm -.their brave little faces, earnest expressions, slicked-down hair, an occasional tie, a worn dress, and sometimes bare feet. 

Graytown School, Ottawa County, Ohio 
Private Collection

Note: More than a thousand images by Sandusky, Ohio photographer
Ernst Niebergall appear on Lake Erie's Yesterdays. He sold many of his images as postcards at Cedar Point and around Erie and Ottawa Counties. 

In 2018, the Firelands Postcard Club produced the award-winning book of Nierbergall's postcard images titled "Sandusky's Photographer: The Real Photo Postcards of Ernst Niebergall."

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Lorain-Sandusky Tornado of 1924: Ohio's Deadliest

Sandusky Standpipe Crushed by Tornado
Courtesy of Sandusky Library

On a warm Saturday afternoon in late June 1924, a light rain began falling. Blue-black clouds gathered over Lake Erie's Sandusky Bay. The winds, coming from the southeast, suddenly swung to the northwest and increased rapidly to gale force. Sandusky's 23,000 residents had no idea that within minutes they would be engulfed by Ohio's deadliest tornado.  

Sandusky Yacht Club. ca. 1910
Following the tornado, no part of the yacht club was ever found
Rutherford B . Hayes Library and Museums

Located on the eastern edge of what has come to be known as "tornado alley," Ohio experiences an average 16 tornadoes each year. While tornadoes can occur in any month and at any time of the day or night, the peak season runs from April through July, with the bulk of twisters hitting between 2 P.M. and 10 P.M.

Tornado Alley

By this definition, the tornado that touched down at the northern edge of Sandusky on the afternoon of June 28, 1924 fit the classic mold. While it was neither the largest nor the strongest tornado to hit Ohio, it was the deadliest. What set this one apart from the others? It was the twister's destructive path through populated areas.
Lake Erie's Yesterdays
At the Cedar Point dock, 1,200 passengers aboard the "Boeckling" looked on in horror as the twister tore apart the waterfront.

                                                Cedar Point
            Lake Erie's Yesterdays 

 Nine city blocks bounded by Adams Street, Market Streets, and Washington Park were damaged. By the time the tornado headed out into Lake Erie, it had killed eight Sanduskians and destroyed more than 100 homes and 25 businesses in the city. 

Tornado's Path
Courtesy of Cleveland Memory
The deadly funnel then came down at Cedar Point. Shortly after 5 P.M., it roared ashore at Lorain's Lakeview Park ripping a three-mile path of death and destruction through the city's downtown.  The grim tally in Lorain was 72 people killed, 500 homes destroyed, and another 1,000 damaged. Fifteen bodies were found among the wreckage of the State Theater and another eight were discovered in the collapsed Bath House.  Cars were blown into Lake Erie and nearly every downtown business sustained damage.  The freighter "Henry Ford II," under construction at the American Shipbuilding yards, broke its moorings and rammed a bridge on the Black River pushing it four feet off its foundation. 

The National Guard, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and search and rescue teams made up of ordinary citizens worked through the night to locate the missing and injured. Doctors and nurses came from Clevcland, Ohio to treat the injured. But it would be weeks and weeks before life in the two cities returned to anything that resembled a normal existence. 

No one knows the exact number of human lives lost that deadly day in 1924, but 85 has become the accepted figure. The so-called "Lorain-Sandusky Tornado" ranks 22nd on the nation's list of the 25 deadliest tornadoes. It remains the only Ohio tornado to make that infamous list.  

Less than a year later, the Midwest would experience the nation's deadliest twister.  The "Tri-State Tornado" took the lives of 695 people along a 220-mile track through Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois.  Since then education, better forecasting, communication and construction techniques all have helped lessen the deadly impact of a tornado. However, tornadoes continue to be nature's deadliest phenomenon.


Note: See the excellent  "Sandusky History" blog for more details and photos.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Executions at the Johnson's Island Civil War Military Prison

Blindfolded, bound, and shackled, Captain William F. Corbin and his comrade Thomas Jefferson McGraw sat on a pair of rough coffins at the shoreline not far from the prison stockade on Johnson’s Island located on Lake Erie. Seconds later the signal came and the firing squad took aim. Shots rang out and the two Confederate officers fell back into their coffins. Death came instantaneously.

The fate of Corbin and McGraw was dictated by unique circumstances. Of the thousands of Confederate prisoners incarcerated on Johnson’s Island during the course of the Civil War, they alone were executed under Order #38.

Johnson's Island on Lake Erie

A month earlier, Corbin, an officer in the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, was recruiting for the Confederacy in his home state when he and his comrade were captured by Union soldiers in Pendleton County.  Acquaintances assured the men they would be treated as prisoners of war. But two weeks later, Corbin and McGraw found themselves before a hastily convened military tribunal in Cincinnati. They had been charged with recruiting for the Confederacy behind Union lines and carrying mail and information to persons in arms against the United States government.

Drawing  of the Military Prison at Johnson's Island
Hayes Presidential Library, Roger Long Collection

The charges originated with Order #38 issued four days after their capture by General Ambrose Burnside, Commander of the Ohio.  In short, the order stated, “persons found within our lines committing acts for the benefit of enemies of our country will be tried as spies or traitors and, if convicted, will suffer death.”

After taking testimony from the Union soldiers who captured the pair, a nine-member commission delivered a verdict of guilty. Corbin and McGraw were ordered to Johnson’s Island, where they were to be executed between the hours of noon and 3 o’clock P.M. on May 15, 1863.

When Melissa Corbin learned of her brother’s fate, she hurried to Cincinnati and met with old family friends. Despite their strong support for the Union, they sympathized with the well-respected Corbin family. They accompanied the desperate sister to Burnside’s headquarters. After listening to her pleas, Burnside replied that he was determined to make an example of her brother and McGraw. Only President Lincoln could commute the sentence.

Armed with letters from Union friends testifying to her brother’s Christian character, Melissa Corbin set out for Washington, D. C. Using every connection possible, Melissa finally reached the commander-in-chief by way of a letter delivered to him by one of Washington’s leading ministers. But President Lincoln already had reviewed the case and refused to open the letter. Referring to the testimony given during the trial, President Lincoln remarked, “Those men were bridge burners and bad men and should be punished.” He could not interfere with General Burnside’s order.

It was Melissa Corbin’s last hope. She returned to Kentucky, knowing that within a matter of days she and her family members would lay Captain Corbin to rest in the family cemetery at Carthage. Lt. McGraw was buried in the Flagg Spring Chapel Cemetery.

Captain William F. Corbin
Courtesy of RootsWeb


Note: Posted on the Hayes Presidential Library and Museums' website is the listing of the deaths and names of those buried in the Johnson's Island prison cemetery provided by the late Roger Long. Mentioned among them are Corbin and McGraw.

The Friends and Descendants of the Johnson's Island Civil War Prison are dedicated to the preservation of this National Historic Landmark

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Sinking of the Lusitania

RMS. Lusitania

On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, the British ocean liner, the largest in the world, was returning to Liverpool, England on her 101st voyage across the Atlantic. A German U-boat torpedoed and sank her in 18 minutes. Nearly 1200 of some two thousand passengers and crew perished in the attack, including 120 Americans.

Charles Frohman

 Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the world’s richest men and a great sportsman, was aboard. He was headed to England to purchase horses and hunting dogs. Charles Frohman perhaps the greatest theater impresario to have ever lived, had also booked passage.  He was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1860.  He and his two brothers, Gustave and Daniel, owned and managed a large number of theaters in London, Paris, and New York where their productions were featured. 
The Royal Navy had blockaded Germany at the start of WWI. Submarine warfare was intensifying by the spring of 1915. The German embassy in the United Sates had placed notices in New York newspapers, warning of dangers of sailing on the Lusitania. She was known as the “Greyhound of the Seas” because of her speed. The Lusitania’s crew and the Cunard Line felt secure in the belief that she could easily out sail any submarine.  However, some Americans did pay heed and the Lusitania left New York with less than half her usual number of passengers.

Alfred Vanderbilt
 Walther Schwieger, captain of U-boat 20 watched the tragedy unfold through his periscope. He wrote in his log that the “ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow… Great confusion reigns on board.” Indeed, passengers were panic stricken.  The few lifeboats that were loaded and lowered foundered in a matter of minutes, drowning those aboard.

And Eyewitness to History” article states that Vanderbilt and Frohman went to the ship’s nursery. Hoping to save the babies, the two men tied life jackets to wicker “Moses baskets” that held the little ones.  The baskets were carried off the ship as the water rose, but none survived the wave action created as the enormous vessel sank. 

With Frohman at the end was actress and rising star Rita Jolivet, who survived the tragedy. Testifying at the Enquiry Board, she stated that she, Charles Frohman, and her brother-in-law held hands and went out on deck. "The water swept me away from my brother-in-law and Mr. Frohman."

RMS Lusitania

Americans were outraged when they learned of the sinking.  Germany justified the attack by stating the ship was secretly carrying munitions to help the British war effort. President Woodrow Wilson protested to the Germans.  Americans’ attitudes began to turn against Germany. When the United States entered WWI two years later, the tragedy of the Lusitania was a factor. It was not until 1982 that the British admitted therewas a “large amount of ammunition in the wreck.” It still remains a safety issue to those interested in salvage operations. Charles Frohman’s body was recovered and returned to the United States. He was buried in Queens, New York. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

William Flockens's 1904 Military Travel Guide

At the turn of the 20th century, Americans were fascinated by other cultures, societies, and landscapes. While the country’s wealthy elite had long enjoyed world tours, average Americans learned about faraway places only by reading articles and looking at photographs in books and magazines.  But there was a small group who traveled to foreign lands and shared their adventures through letters, diaries, photographs, and memoirs. They were the American military.

One who did so was Sgt. William Flocken, an Indiana boy, who eventually settled in Fremont, Ohio. Flocken joined the 13th U.S. Infantry at the age of 20 in 1898.  His unit was one of those that charged up Cuba’s San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Following the conflict, Flocken enlisted with the 13th two more times. 

It was during 1904 and 1905 that Sgt. Flocken created a 70-page handwritten memoir documenting his travels and the scenes of the Philippine Insurrection that had ended victoriously in 1902. He and two of his comrades photographed the sights and scenes as they journeyed from Denver to San Francisco by rail and then across the Pacific to Honolulu, Guam, Japan, and finally to Manila Bay in the Philippines. Flocken added nearly 120 of these photographs to his carefully written account.

Filipino Home at Manila Bay
Photograph by Sgt. William Flocken

Intelligent and well educated, Flocken, was obviously one of those eager to learn about other cultures and people. More a travel guide than a memoir, he seemed intent on including something of interest for everyone. There are pictures of historic sites, harbors, forts, barracks, prisons, ships, street scenes, churches, homes, as well as images of his comrades and native-born Hawaiians and Filipinos. Flocken photographed the big guns that General James B. McPherson mounted on Alcatraz before the Civil War; volcanoes; Filipinos bamboo homes;  a 17th century monastery; and 15th century churches.

Big Guns Mounted on Alcatraz by General James B. McPherson
Photograph by Sgt. William Flocken

In today’s world, with 24/7 information and images, Flocken’s travel guide may not seem special.  But in 1904, his memoir was a rare, personal account of war and adventure in faraway places that few Americans would ever experience. Carefully preserved, there is little doubt that Flocken’s family cherished this unique record of their soldier ancestor’s efforts to share the memories of all he had seen and done half a world away.

Descendants donated Flocken’s record to the Hayes Presidential Library and Museums in 1986.