Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Huckleberry Queen and her Legend

While digging through the files from my days compiling "The Way We Were," (see previous post), I came across this article from the September 23, 1902 Elkhart Truth, by way of the La Porte (IN) Argus-Bulletin, headlined, "Once Famous Huckleberry Queen Is Dying:"

"The 'Huckleberry Queen,' a woman once famous throughout this section of the country, whose reckless will reigned supreme over a motley horde of criminals, is dying in a hut near Valparaiso.
"There is not a resident of northern Indiana who does not remember the existence of the strange aggregation of criminals that constituted a unique and terrible colony which was accustomed to assemble for three months of each year as regularly as the summer season rolled around in the center of the stretch of wild marsh country near the town of Walkerton, which forms the huckleberry regions of that section of Indiana. Who they were, whence they came, what they did during the remaining nine months of the year--these things the outside world has never learned. It was not safe for outsiders to venture into the marshes during the months 'Huckleberry Queen' held her court. The temporary colony was a band of reckless, daring criminals. They held the law in mockery and placed no higher value on an officer's life than the brass on his buttons. Hardly a crime existed but what was of daily occurrences within the swampy domains of the 'Huckleberry Queen.' The law was laughed at and openly defied."

I did a Google search on the Huckleberry Queen and found this site from the Starke county Historical Society. (Scroll down until you get to the Huckleberry Queen link.) She doesn't appear to be the head of a criminal gang, but a strong-minded woman who didn't hide her sexuality. She could be violent when drunk. There appears to be no record of her killing anyone.

But in the late nineteenth century she must have been shocking. By 1902 she was proclaimed the head of a ruthless criminal gang. Both the legend and the real woman would make great characters in a novel or movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Perils of "What Happened Here" Journalism

From December 2001 until late 2003, I edited a column called “The Way We Were” in the Elkhart Truth. It involved going through issues of the paper from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago, finding interesting stories, and condensing them into a few sentences. Most of the stories were local, though I did include major national and international stories, such as Lindbergh’s flight in 1927 and Stalin’s death in 1953. I tried to include sports and society news along with hard news. And I avoided stories that might embarrass people still living. For me, that meant being careful about the 25 and 50 years ago entries. What happened 75 or 100 years ago, I figured, wouldn’t upset anyone. I found out I was wrong.

Right before Christmas, 2002, I received two letters about my column. The first, from Charlene Potterbaum, was a sweet note from a gracious woman, in response to this December 11 item:

“In 1977: Charlene Potterbaum has the ability to laugh at herself, and she knows how to share the laughter with others. Her new book, ‘Thanks, Lord, I needed That!’ has hit both the humor and religious sections of the bookstores, a rare feat for any work. The Walden Book Store refers to her as ‘the religious Erma Bombeck.’”

But the other letter was scathing: “Dr. G. [I’ll omit the name] made a mistake when he was young but paid his dues. My brother called me about the article and thought it was in poor taste. He [Dr. G.] was my father-in-law and my son’s grandfather. The older generation all know about it and the younger couldn’t care less, In the name of God, let him rest in peace.”

Here’s the December 19, 2002 entry she was referring to:

“In 1902: Dr. H. G. was brought into court at Goshen this morning to be arraigned on the charge of shooting Miss L. B. with intent to commit murder. He pleaded not guilty when the indictment had been read to him. His bond was fixed at $1,500.”

It was a pretty sordid affair. Dr. G., who had been rejected by Miss B., shot her twice with a revolver. Luckily for both the doctor and his victim, L. B. survived. Dr. G. was convicted in January, 1903, and received a sentence of two to fourteen years in the state reformatory. In a bizarre postscript to the affair, Miss B. said Dr. G.’s sentence was too harsh and pleaded for an early reprieve.

Obviously Dr. G. not only got out of prison, but married, had a son, and stayed in Elkhart. I didn’t print any more stories about the case. But it never ceased to amaze me that a 100-year old story was the only one that got a negative comment. Especially considering the 1927 entry on that same day:

“In 1927: BENTON HARBOR, Mich., (AP)--Benjamin Purnell, ’king’ of the House of David, is dead. He died at 11:30 last Friday morning, and today, the third day after his death, the body still lay in the bed where he died. Colony officials, believing in the teachings of Purnell that the faithful could not die, have refrained from summoning an undertaker…”

Sometime I’d like to do more research about the House of David colony. It was a multiracial, even international cult based in Benton Harbor. Purnell really did die, and his followers finally buried him. (The 1929 date of death in the Wikipedia link conflicts with the AP story.) And the colony is still around. People from the House of David used to solicit donations in front of my local Kroger store in Elkhart. But my December 19, 1927 entry, along with earlier entries about the sex scandal concerning Purnell, provoked no response from the House of David. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Us and Them

I've been attending Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington. Although I'm an Episcopalian, the Episcopal churches here don't have evening services, and I work Sunday mornings. The big Art Deco-Gothic church is within walking distance and has a Saturday afternoon vigil mass. I started going during Lent, but have kept going in large part because of the Father Doug Hennessy. If he were Pope, I'd convert. I was reminded of one of Fr. Doug's sermons when I received a forwarded e-mail from a cousin by marriage. It showed pictures of a demonstration in London by a group of Muslim extremists. The demonstrators carried signs reading "Behead Those Who Insult Islam," "Europe, You Will Pay, 9/11 is on its Way," and the like. Underneath the pictures was the following:

"Why would anyone think that we should be at war with such nice, peaceful Moslems?! Americans need to Know - You need to forward this one to everyone in your address book!"

On Saturday, September 9, Fr. Doug talked about 9/11. The people who crashed the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he said, were people who viewed the world as Us and Them. Sadly, he continued, we responded by seeing people in terms of Us vs. Them. But that is not the Christian way to see humanity. Christ told us even to love our enemies.

The e-mail which portrays all Muslims as terrorists is totally at odds with Christianity. Even George W. Bush distinguished between the terrorists of 9/11 and the vast majority of Muslims.

Seeing people as Us and Them leads to seeing Them an less than human, and often to expanding the category of Them to an entire group. It's a simple solution to a complex problem. And as H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."