History is a forgetful creature.
While there is much about our past that we know, there is so much more that we don’t. If the stories aren’t written, or aren’t passed down through the generations in their retelling, then the knowledge is often lost.
Sometimes, though, we catch glimpses of that hidden past. It might be just a fragment of story in a newspaper, or a few quick paragraphs in an old book. If you dig a little deeper, you might find that the person or event in that story shows up in a vital record or two, or they might have disappeared completely into the mists of time and memory.
Come with me as we pick through some of these remnants, these pieces that have all too often gone ignored. If one of our regular postings here are a full meal, then you can think of these as table scraps; equally delicious, but just not enough to be complete by themselves.
American Gothic is one of the most iconic paintings in American history. Appropriately enough, it was painted in 1930 by Grant Wood, on the of the most iconic Midwestern artists of all time. Ninety years later, its depiction of a stalwart Iowa farm couple has been branded on the American psyche for not quite a century.
Wood got the inspiration for the painting when he saw a small white house in Eldon, Iowa. His imagination was captivated by the single, Gothic-style window that dominated and defined its façade. Looking at it, he imagined the farm couple standing outside, with faces that somehow seemed to match the house itself.
At that time, America was already a year into the Great Depression. People all over the county were struggling hard to make ends meet, and the overall morale of the nation was low. When Wood painted American Gothic, he wanted to give them a beacon of hope.
For him, the couple in the painting were representative of the many farmers that he had known growing up. These men and women had faced horrible obstacles – drought, disease, poverty, and even death – and had beaten them all. Mr. and Mrs. American Gothic were a testament to that indomitable spirit.
In 1913, several years before Grant Wood painted his masterpiece, a farmer named Jack Sharp was also trying to overcome his circumstances.
That summer, Jack had been working in a cherry tree when he lost his balance and fell. He landed hard several feet below, and felt something give way in his arm. Jack must have known instantly that something was very wrong. Tenderly, he examined it.
Sure enough, he had broken his arm.
Farmers in 1913 worked for themselves. There was no short-term disability or workman’s compensation that would pay his bills while his body healed. Jack had his wife, but she had more than her fair share of chores to tend to.
No, he knew that he would have to hold up his end of things. He had responsibilities, and a family to take care of. No broken arm was going to stop him. He’d just have to take a little more time and figure things out as he went along
For the next week, Jack followed his same routine, finding ways to perform all of his various chores with one arm. It was hard, but he’d managed well enough.
One day, Jack decided to take a break. Leaning against the jam of the doorway in his barn, he took a deep breath. A storm was coming. He could smell the rain and the sweet grasses of the field. After toiling inside the stuffy confines of the barn, the outside air must have felt wonderful.
Jack probably didn’t feel the lightning bolt hit him as it flashed down from the sky and sent thousands of volts of electricity through his body. His vision went white from the brilliant intensity of the strike, and then he was gone. Jack Sharps fell over onto the ground, dead.
Jack Sharps had faced hardship and adversity. Although he had strength enough to overcome his injury, there was just no way he could overcome his horribly bad luck that week.
Carmel, Indiana, is a fantastic place to live. Well, at least that’s what I’ve read.
People whose job it is to know and evaluate such things have said it is, above all other places, the absolute best place to live in the United States. Some people may choose to argue that, but the fact still remains that year after year, it’s been voted top of the class.
Founded in 1837, Carmel spent most of the 19th century as a quiet farm community. By the 1880’s, however, the railroad allowed them to easily ship their agricultural goods to wherever the most profit could be made. The city began to grow, and transportation developments in America during the early 20th century granted the more isolated farmers the ability to go to travel further, especially to nearby Indianapolis.
Outside of a few slow-downs in the 30’s and 40’s, Carmel continued to grow.
Today, the city now boasts a thriving art and music scene, as well as a lot of stuff for all the outdoorsy types out there. And, of course, there’s the food. There are several options to choose from, ranging from craft beer establishments to designer cake shops.
Before any of this came about, two men were busily engaged in a flyswatter duel at a Carmel restaurant on a hot July day in 1915. Before you ask, let me just say that I have no clue why in the hell two grown men were doing this.
Did it start as a joking horseplay and turn serious? Or was it a serious argument and the two simply decided to grab the nearest available “weapon” and go to war? I’ll let you ponder that later.
Whatever the reason, Roscoe Patty and Clyde Davis faced one another, sweat dripping, eyes intense. They had stopped for a moment to catch their breath, but their fight was far from over. Things had gone too far now. Only one could walk away victorious, while the other would take the knee, raw and red from a thousand welts.
Without warning, they joined the fray once more, swinging hard. Neither of these flyswatter-wielding warriors were giving an inch, and neither could manage to gain the upper hand. It was going to take something more to carry the day, and Clyde Davis was determined that he was going to emerge the victor.
Taking a knife, he stabbed Roscoe Patty deep in the leg. Blood began to flow as Patty fell, screaming.
Davis had done it! He had won!
Oddly enough, no one ever filed any charges against either man.
Patty was examined by a doctor, who determined that his would wasn’t life threatening and stitched him up. Davis walked away from the encounter a free man, confident in his ability with the common fly swatter.
Oddly enough, to the best of my knowledge, no statue of Clyde Davis stands in Carmel to celebrate his accomplishment. I also seriously doubt that you can get into a flyswatter fight at any of the fine dining establishments in city today without facing serious consequences.
Legends are an integral part of our experience as human beings. Some inspire, while others educate, or even terrify.
The Midwest is home to more than a few of them.
The Majestic Theatre in Chillicothe, Ohio, is the oldest theatre in continuous operation in the United States.
Although the current building was built around 1853, the root of the Majestic’s story goes back about fifty years earlier than that.
Originally, the site was the home of the Bank of Chillicothe, the city’s first bank. Like most buildings in smaller cities, the bank was used for various things. In this case, plays were staged in the lobby area by local dramatic enthusiasts to entertain their friends, neighbors, and relatives.
A few years later, the bank moved elsewhere in the city and the building was bought by local freemasons. Although they converted it into their meeting lodge, they continued to hold plays there, continuing the dramatic tradition of the site.
An alley that ran adjacent to the building had been dubbed Bank Alley by locals early on, so the local actors named themselves the Bank Alley Thespian Society in honor of that.
In 1852, the building, along with two blocks of city surrounding it, were destroyed in a devastating fire. The Freemasons bought the property and erected a larger building in its place. It was designed to be what the former building had been: a combination Masonic lodge and entertainment venue.
In 1904, the Masons sold the building, although it continued to operate as a theatre. Over the next decade, it played host to some of the most popular live acts and screened some of the best movies of the era.
In 1918, it was sold again and renamed the Majestic Theatre. That same year, the Spanish Flu Pandemic also hit Chillicothe.
It started at nearby Camp Sherman, an army training camp that was home to upwards of 45,000 soldiers. Some of these men had just returned from the European front, unknowingly carrying a new strain of flu that was well on its way to killing millions of people around the world.
It hit the camp hard, and the sickness spread like wildfire. Before long, thousands of soldiers were sick and bedridden. The death toll began to rise, and it’s here that our legend begins.
According to the popular story, so many soldiers began to die so fast that no one could keep up. Something had to be done, and camp officials reached out to the city fathers of Chillicothe.
By that time, the city was in quarantine. Churches, shops, and theatres had all been closed down to help prevent the spread of the flu, leaving plenty of unused space. Bodies from Camp Sherman were brought to Chillicothe, where they were stacked on top of each other in several buildings throughout the downtown.
The Majestic was one of these, and, according to legend, went one step further.
Bodies were brought from the dressing rooms where they were stored and brought to the stage. There, local morticians worked feverishly embalming bodies to help preserve them for later burial. Embalming involves the removal of all the blood in the body, and that blood needed to be put somewhere.
Remember Bank Alley? Well, according to the popular story, all that blood was taken here and thrown out, washing over the old bricks in a river of gore. It didn’t take long for the alley to get a new name – Blood Alley.
Although this is a great story, according to Kevin Coleman, a local historian and former board member of the Majestic, it never happened.
The truth is that two Chillcothe morticians were contacted by officials at Camp Sherman to take care of the all the embalming. The bodies were taken to their undertaking facilities, both of which were within line of sight of the Majestic.
The bodies were kept there until they had been embalmed and prepared for burial, which included being placed in a new coffin. Once this had been completed, the coffins were then taken to the Majestic and stored until they were ready to be shipped out to their final resting place.
No one was embalmed on the stage. No unprepared bodies were stacked in the dressing rooms. And, no Blood Alley. Even if they would have used the alley for a dumping ground, Chillicothe had a modern sewer and drainage system that would have carried it away unseen.
Still, the Majestic served an important and somber purpose during a terrible time. Many brave young men were kept there in final repose, cut down in the prime of their lives by a remorseless killer. Some say that some of them linger in the Majestic still.
If you want to know more, check out my episode “Ghosts of the Pandemic: Arrival” to find out more. Is that a shameless plug? You bet it is.
History is, in essence, a collection of stories.
Sometimes a small story is embellished and exaggerated far beyond what it was. Sometimes they’re forgotten almost altogether. Either way, just because we only know a little bit about something doesn’t make it any less important.
Eldon. Evening Times-Republican, 7/2/1913
U.S. Census Records
Dangremond, Sam. The Best Place to Live in America Is a City You’ve Never Heard Of. www.townandcountrymag.com, 3/6/2018.
Coleman, Kevin B. Intrepid Historical Services. www.horizonview.net
The History of Camp Sherman in Chillicothe. http://www.columbus neighborhoods.com
National Park Service. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 at Camp Sherman. Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, http://www.nps.org
Vollet, Tim. How the Gazette reported the Spanish flu 100 years ago. Chilicothe Gazette, 3/18/2020
Robertson, Karen. The Spanish Influenza Comes to Ohio. Ohio History Connection, www.ohiohistory.org
Tour of the Majestic Theater. Interface Death, www.youtube.com