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Updated: Feb 24

In 1905, LaVerne Templeton visited the Statehouse and sent a cryptic postcard to a friend:

Hello, Thurlow. I'm having a fine time. This is [where] they stuffed animals.

During my 32 years as a legislative staffer, judicial clerk and later as a lobbyist, I saw a lot of weird things at the Statehouse that involved animals, including a legislator toting around a bear cub and a rat with his own Twitter account. But until I started researching the basement, I was unaware of anyone stuffing animals within the hallowed halls of state government.

Legislators often refer to the Statehouse as "The People's House." So I guess that makes the lowest floor of the Statehouse "The People's Basement." And ever since the People's House opened its doors in 1888, the People have been busy stuffing their basement with pretty much anything that wouldn't fit upstairs, including dusty Civil War records, unexploded cannon balls, bloodstained clothes, and members of the Statehouse press corps.

Over the years, many strange and even potentially lethal items have been found by state employees who were exploring the darkened recesses of the cavernous limestone basement. In 1959, for example, an explosive ordnance team removed 15 weapons, including Civil War cannonballs filled with gunpowder, two machine guns, and an 1873 model Colt formerly used by state prison guards. Then in 1962, a clerk found a razor-slashed shirt and bloody nightgown from an 1895 murder trial stuffed in the back of a filing cabinet.

But one of the more interesting treasures to be unearthed in the basement was a 12-foot-long plaster of Paris model of the "new" Statehouse that was made in 1878 so the Statehouse Commissioners could visualize how the building would appear when completed.

The architectural model has long since disappeared from the basement of the Statehouse. The State Museum, which occupied the basement for many years, has no record of the mini-Statehouse in its collection.

In 1904, The Indianapolis Journal reported that a 5-ton miniature version of the Statehouse was gathering dust in a basement room. Chunks of the building had been cut out by souvenir hunters, and its walls were covered with signatures and graffiti. Adjacent rooms were crammed with models of the statues that encircle the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, exhibits from the Saint Louis World's fair, obsolete machine guns, and old fire department buckets.

By 1905, the mess had gotten so out of hand that The Indianapolis News referred to the basement as "the State's junk pile." According to the News, the State of Indiana was keeping house like any other slovenly housekeeper and simply sweeping its unsightly refuse into out-of-the-way places where it would not offend the eye.

The Indianapolis News, February 18, 1905

The dark and dangerous netherworld of the Statehouse

Over time, the growing accumulation of discarded items began to pose a risk to the health and safety of workers who toiled in the netherworld of the Statehouse. The early 1930s were especially dangerous. In 1932, rats gnawing on matches in a trash heap were blamed for starting a fire in the north wing of the basement. Then the following year, an epidemic of mysterious illnesses swept the basement offices of the state conservation department. It was later discovered that fumes from 50,000 feet of decaying educational films had sickened the workers.

Luckily, the rat-sparked fire from the previous year had not reached the room where the movies were stored. Old film was highly flammable, and in 1929, more than 100 people had lost their lives in Cleveland when a storage room filled with x-ray films caught fire and exploded, spreading deadly gas throughout a hospital.

Even in more recent years, as the old storage rooms were cleared out and converted to offices, life in the Statehouse basement occasionally proved hazardous. In the early 1980s, more than 20 state employees who worked in an underground room aptly called "The Pits" became ill -- some seriously -- during work on the HVAC system. At least one of the sickened workers was diagnosed with a potentially lethal case of Legionnaires Disease. In 1999, a deadly brown recluse spider was found in the basement offices of the State Budget Agency. Then in 2018, I was sitting with some other lobbyists in the hallway outside of a basement committee room when a rat scurried out from beneath a couch. And like every other Statehouse denizen, the rat soon opened its own Twitter account.

Basement Perks: Bathtubs, bedrooms & secret stairways

In 1891, Rep. Hiram Gill revealed an especially dirty secret when he wrote to a friend that one of the perks of being in the General Assembly was the two large bathtubs in the basement of the Statehouse. Because Facebook had not yet been invented, the "friend" promptly shared Gill's letter with the local newspaper, which in turn shared the letter with newspapers statewide.

A local newspaper published an ode to the basement bathtubs. The Indianapolis Journal, Feb. 1, 1891.

According to the Indianapolis Journal, the large number of legislators who soaked in the subterranean tubs began to interfere with the business of the House and Senate. Doorkeepers were forced to scurry downstairs to pull lawmakers out of the bathtub for floor votes.

Despite widespread mockery by the press and condemnation by their constituents of this luxury not available in most Hoosier homes, the basement spa continued to be a perk afforded to legislators well into the 1890s, with newspapers reporting that the Statehouse custodian even provided legislators with free towels.

By 1920, one of the bathtubs had been claimed by a Supreme Court judge who also had a bedroom in the basement. The previous year, the Statehouse custodian had unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the judge's decision to set up a basement boudoir by replacing the hot and cold water pipes leading to the bathtub with two cold water pipes. But judicial temperaments did not rise to a boiling point until 1920, when the State Building and Grounds Committee asked the judge and three of his colleagues who also had Statehouse bedrooms to make other sleeping arrangements so the rooms could be used for much-needed office space.

Deprived of their bedrooms, the Supreme Court justices could still take solace in their secret spiral staircase, which originated in the northwest corner of the basement and ended in the Supreme Court robing room. The purpose of the staircase appears to be lost to time, but various theories have emerged over the years. Some believe the staircase may have been used to transport prisoners to the Supreme Court from holding cells in basement; others speculate that the stairs were built to allow judges to beat a hasty retreat from the courtroom if necessary.

Remnants of the old stairway still exist today. The bottom of the stairwell is tucked away in a far corner of the basement, its entrance bricked over and its iron steps long removed.

The top of the staircase was discovered in 1995, when Myra Selby became the first woman appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which, up to that point, had never needed to have a women's bathroom. During the course of remodeling the chambers to include two restrooms, the 3rd floor entrance to the stairs was uncovered behind the future site of a toilet. It's now hidden behind a metal plate in one of the court's restrooms.

Whiskey in the basement? I'm shocked. Shocked!

In 1895, Rep. Andrew Jackson of Carroll County created a sensation when he rose to the floor of the House and announced that a barrel of whiskey had been discovered in the Statehouse basement. According to Jackson, the whiskey had likely been provided by the liquor lobby to influence legislation, and was enjoyed on a regular basis by members of the House and Senate.

This news should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had ever stepped foot in the Statehouse. In fact, just two years earlier, The Indianapolis News had reported that during a late-night session, some House members spent so much time at the "basement speakeasy" that "they were not in condition to look after the affairs of the State of Indiana with any degree of intelligence." Nonetheless, the House chambers roiled with outrage at the mere mention of whiskey in the Statehouse, and a special committee was appointed to investigate.

The panel promptly searched the basement for the offending barrel, but to no avail. Instead, they uncovered a quart bottle of liquor stashed in the engineer's office which, according to the engineer, occasionally helped refresh thirsty lawmakers.

The committee then found Jackson guilty of making an unjustifiable claim that there was a barrel of whiskey in the basement when, in fact, there was only a quart. Jackson was given the opportunity to make a public retraction, and if failing to do so, would be formally censured by the House.

The Republican-controlled House subsequently passed an amendment ousting the entire Democrat-appointed custodial staff, including the errant engineer. However, when the bill passed over to the Senate, it was amended to permit the engineer to keep his job. The Senate then adjourned sine die, which forced the House to either approve the bill with the objectionable amendment, or kill the bill, thereby allowing the engineer and all of the Democrat custodians to keep their jobs.

Chaos erupted in the House when the bill was called. A Republican member denounced the Senate for “committing the worst piece of political treachery that has ever been known in a legislature of Indiana." Then, a Democrat lawmaker punched one of his colleagues and assaulted an elderly doorkeeper who was politely urging him to return to his seat. In the end, the so-called "official bartender of the Statehouse" was allowed to keep his job and the House expunged from its record all mention of censuring Rep. Jackson for making them aware of the shocking presence of whiskey in the basement.

Guns & soldiers share cramped basement quarters

In the early 1900s, the cavernous basement of the People's House occasionally functioned as the People's Spare Bedroom, providing a warm place for out-of-town visitors to sleep or converted into uses far different from its original purpose.

In 1901, the basement served as quarters for hundreds of soldiers who had arrived in Indianapolis for the funeral of President Benjamin Harrison. Guns were stacked in the hallways and canteens and haversacks were strewn around in profusion as soldiers slept on the stone floors. Sentries were posted throughout the basement to safeguard the firearms.

Twelve years later, the basement was again converted to an ad hoc barracks when Gov. Samuel Ralston ordered the Indiana National Guard to mobilize in Indianapolis. A protracted strike by streetcar workers and a series of violent riots had effectively shut down the state capital, and Ralston needed the soldiers close at hand in the event that martial law was declared.

In addition to serving as a barracks, the basement also doubled as an armory for the Indiana National Guard and the state's militias. Shortly after the Statehouse was completed in 1888, the quartermaster general outfitted rooms with shelves to store tents, blankets, uniforms, ammunitions, and the state's weaponry, which mostly consisted of older Springfield rifles. However, the security of this arrangement came into serious question in 1914, when a considerable amount of new military equipment was delivered to the basement in the wake of a Mexican war scare. A guard was hired to watch over the cache, and although none of military gear was reported as stolen, someone managed to steal the guard's new $3.98 boots right off of his feet while he was taking a nap.

About those stuffed animals...

Shortly after the Statehouse was completed in 1888, the responsibility for Indiana's fledgling state museum was assigned to the State Geologist, who had roomy quarters on the top floor of the building. As later events would show, however, the state geologist may not have been the best person for the state to entrust with the care of Indiana's treasures.

In 1893, state geologist Sylvester S. Gorby had an apparent fit of insanity during which he performed a "skirt dance" in the Statehouse rotunda, threatened spectators with death, and then doused his office with gasoline and attempted to set it on fire. Gorby was subsequently re-elected in to a second term in 1896. The museum flourished for a few years under the stewardship of Gorby and his successors, but then was booted to south side of the basement in 1919 when the 4th floor space was needed for the Public Service Commission.

The Indiana State Museum was moved again in 1926, this time to make way for the Automobile Licensing Division. The new quarters were cramped, but curator Verne Patty was able to finagle some old display cases from the Conservation Department. The cases were then installed in the dingy basement corridors where they displayed - among other things - stuffed birds, mastadon bones, beheading knives, and Civil War relics. A separate glass case protected the stuffed remains of Hoosier Jumbo, a 1,245 pound hog that was believed to be one of the largest hogs in the world.

Indiana State Museum curator Verne Patty dusts off a stuffed moose displayed in a basement corridor. The Indianapolis Times, Sept. 11, 1936.

By 1936, the Indiana State Museum had become a maze of random displays that wound snakelike through the basement. Curator Verne Patty and a cleaning lady were the museum's sole employees. Meanwhile, Hoosiers continued to clean out their own basements and ship various unwanted items to the Statehouse. Many of those unsolicited donations included dusty examples of the taxidermist's art which stared, glassy-eyed, at everyone who shuffled through the dim basement corridors.

Both the museum and its shabby contents fell further and further into disarray as scarce basement space was gobbled up by Indiana's growing state government. In July 1952, The Indianapolis Times even cautioned visitors to stay away from the museum, calling it "an eyesore and a disgrace."

One particularly grimy display case, which the Times dubbed "the dirtiest glass case in the entire city," was positioned in front of a Coke machine and featured a stuffed bobcat, a porcupine, a red fox, a freak pig, and an old radio with a hand-lettered sign that read, "This is the way we used to make our spider-web receiving coils." Another display case boasted a collection of antique dishes flanked by a rattlesnake, an iguana, and a crocodile.

By the time the beleaguered state museum finally took over the recently vacated Indianapolis City Hall in the mid-1960s, its musty Statehouse space had been reduced to a mere 400 square feet in basement Room 157.

Tunnel Vision: Debunking the Stable Fable

As the Indiana Statehouse approached its centennial in 1988, state officials embarked on a massive multi-year project that removed decades of ill-conceived "modernization" and restored most of the public areas to their original glory. One of these changes included demolishing the unsightly "press shacks" that lined the majestic atrium and relocating the Statehouse press corps to equally unsightly shacks in the basement, in an area that reportedly had once held the Statehouse stables.

According to Statehouse lore, the long-gone basement stables had once served as an underground parking garage for horses during the days when employees came to work by horseback or buggy. The presence of a bricked-up tunnel on the north side of the basement lent credence to this legend, which was further bolstered a few years ago when the tunnel's entrance was uncovered beneath the north steps of the Statehouse.

The Indianapolis News, May 25, 1955

But after doing some research on the Statehouse basement, I was beginning to wonder if the tales of the stables were nothing but a load of manure.

I could find no mention of stables in the numerous reports and specifications issued by the Board of Statehouse Commissioners during construction of the new capitol. Further, when a reporter for The Indianapolis News toured the Statehouse in 1889 and gushed about the basement's many features -- the new boiler system, the ventilation fans, the hydraulic elevators, and the electric chronometer that kept all of the clocks running on time -- there was no mention of a stable.

In fact, the earliest news story I could find about the stables was not published until 1955, when The Indianapolis News reported that the last of horse stalls had finally been converted to offices.

As it turns out, I was not the only person to try to dig up the real dirt on the basement stables. Although former state archivist Gerry Handfield had seen what appeared to be horse hitches in the basement walls, an extensive search of original building records failed to yield proof of the stables' existence. And with good reason.

When the Statehouse first opened in 1888, the only way that cannons and other large ordnance could be delivered to the basement armory was by taking them apart and carting the pieces down the stairs. Frustrated by the situation, the quartermaster general persuaded the building commissioners in 1890 to cut a hole in north wall, and then grade an incline on the north side of the building to allow a team of horses to haul a cannon into the basement. The total cost of this improvement was $750.

An early 1900s photo of the north facade of the Statehouse shows the entrance to the tunnel where cannons were brought into the Statehouse. Source: Indiana Historical Society, Herman List collection,

If you visit...

In 1889, a reporter for The Indianapolis News encouraged Hoosiers to tour the Statehouse basement and then offered the following description:

The basement is vast and gloomy….One may wander down long corridors, dim as twilight, or lose himself in a labyrinth of passages dark as night. His footsteps echo with sepulchral sounds, which are repeated over and over among the deep recesses. The whole place is heavy with mystery.

Now, more than 130 years later, the basement corridors are well-lit, the deep recesses have been turned into legislative committee rooms, and the only sepulchral sounds are those made by lobbyists when their pet bills are killed.

Although no data is available, the basement may well be the most visited part of the Statehouse, with its packed committee rooms and well-stocked snack bar. In fact, even if you don't intend to go to the basement when you visit the Statehouse, it's likely that you'll end up there anyway. That's because when visitors who are unfamiliar with the Statehouse press the elevator button labeled "1" in an effort to exit the building, they are instead taken to the basement. Which I guess makes the basement a little like the Hotel California, a place where "you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave."

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

At first blush - or perhaps more appropriately at first flush - Amos Sellers and Bill Hudnut appear to have little in common. The former was a farmer from Pennsylvania who settled on the southwest side of the city; the latter a Presbyterian minister who served four terms as mayor of Indianapolis. But at different times in our city's history, the last names of both men have been roughly synonymous with a controversial plot of land where Indy has dumped, burned, buried and sanitized its smelliest waste for the past 150 years.

Sellers Farm, as it appeared on a 1941 Baist map, and the same location as shown on a 2022 Google map, with the streets renamed after former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut.

Amos Sellers' last name first gained notoriety in 1873 when the city purchased his 225-acre farm to solve an increasingly odorous problem that was plaguing Indianapolis. By the early 1870s, Indy had gained prominence in the meatpacking industry due to its central location and network of railroads. Although this economic development boon brought the smell of money to the city, it also brought the smell of dead and decaying animals.

According to a report to the City Council by a special committee that was charged with studying the smelly situation, more than half a million hogs and 100,000 sheep and cattle were slaughtered in the city each year, generating more than 12 million pounds of animal offal and other byproducts. This immense amount of dead animal matter was either rotting on the ground or dumped into the White River, polluting the water supply and filling the air with its "poisonous vapors."

Applying a 21st century solution to a uniquely 19th century problem, the committee recommended that the city purchase a suitable location far away from the populated areas where an industry cluster of manufacturing facilities would lease space to convert the dead animal matter into useful products such as fertilizer, soap, hair brushes and glue. Although all of these industries would produce their own stench, the industry cluster would be located far enough away from the rapidly growing city to insure that its residents' noses would not be offended. Amos Sellers' farm, which was nearly four miles from the city center on high ground between Eagle Creek and White River, was the perfect spot.

While this novel plan may have been a breath of fresh of air for the city's stink-bombed residents, the Sellers farm purchase was not without its critics. On February 18, 1873, The Indianapolis News referred to the site as "Smeller's farm" and noted that over time, the expatriated "stinkeries" would need to keep moving further away from the city as the population continued to grow.

By May 1875, several manufacturing concerns had set up shop on Sellers farm, including a bone mill, a fertilizer factory, a hog bristle plant, and a business ominously called "the Dead Animal Factory." The Indianapolis News reported that the city's plan to lease the space for profit was now in the "full tide of successful stink."

Encouraged by the farm's early success, city leaders sought additional ways to turn trash into treasure. An ordinance was adopted in 1875 that required weekly collection of household garbage. Contractors would then haul all of the city's garbage to Sellers farm, where it would be made into fertilizer. Deceased livestock and dead household pets were also added to the pungent mix of fertilizer ingredients, although the fertilizer companies and dead animal haulers spent much of 1875 fighting like cats and dogs over their respective property rights in the potentially valuable carcasses of cats and dogs. But the icing on this extremely stinky cake was the city's decision to use Sellers' farm as a dumping ground for night soil, a 19th century euphemism for human waste collected from latrines and sewer vaults.

The Indianapolis News, January 23, 1884

Not surprisingly, the citizenry was soon complaining about the stench arising from Sellers farm. Local health department inspectors visited the fertilizer plant in May 1876, and were assured that recent improvements would eliminate the "unpleasantness" once and for all. But just three months later, The Indianapolis News reported that the stenches rolling up the river from Sellers farm were "thick enough to cut with a cheese knife." Then, according to a News article from January 8, 1877, an otherwise quiet Saturday night was disrupted by "an enormous, overpowering, nauseating, sickening, disgusting, foul, bilious, putrid, infernal smell" that swept over the city from Sellers' farm.

The city council appointed a special committee to identify the source of the stench and recommend solutions. Facetiously dubbed "the Smellers Committee" by the local media, the panel proposed an ordinance that would require any person transporting dead animals, offal, waste or garbage to Sellers farm to cover their wagons and wash them out every day. Further, waste from outside Marion County would be prohibited and weekly inspections from sanitary officers would be required.

The final version of the ordinance adopted in 1878 imposed a $50 fine on any person who threw dead animals, animal offal, animal blood, decayed vegetable matter or garbage on the banks of or into any waterway in the city.

The Indianapolis News, September 13, 1882.

Meanwhile, the city continued to look for additional uses for the Sellers property. In 1882, the council seriously considered a proposal to convert about 50 acres of the farm into a new cemetery to replace Greenlawn. Proponents touted the cost-effectiveness of this plan, since Indianapolis already owned the land and would not need to incur any additional indebtness. Further, the Sellers farm site would be more convenient than Crown Hill for southside residents.

Opponents of the plan objected to the use of Sellers farm as a burial ground for human beings, noting the "stenches that freight the atmosphere" and the fact that the farm was a "dead-animal catch-all," with large swaths of the property used to dry the hair of dead hogs to make hairbrushes and upholstery.

The cemetery proposal was eventually buried by the opposition, but another unsuccessful plan emerged in 1882 when the Council Committee on Public Charities recommended that a portion of the city's profits from the various dead animal and garbage industries at Sellers farm be set aside to benefit the Home for Friendless Women.

Then, in 1899, the Board of Health actually considered establishing a "pest house" at Sellers farm. Among other reasons, Sellers farm was viewed as a suitable location to house people suffering from contagious diseases because the sanitary conditions were deemed "favorable."

Throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th century, the stench emanating from Sellers farm continued to plague the southwest side of Indianapolis. In 1892, 45 residents of the suburb then known as Belmont filed individual lawsuits against the city seeking $2,500 each for damages caused by the "sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors ... which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings." Two years later, area residents complained that contractors were not burying the human waste dumped at Sellers farm but instead were diluting it and pouring it into the White River. But in light of all of the potentially odiferous activities taking place at Sellers farm and the nearby meat-packing houses, it became difficult for city officials to identify the specific source of the various odors.

In 1895, Indianapolis mayor Caleb Denny joined local health department officials on a factfinding trek to Sellers farm. Although the sight of household garbage and human waste festering in open trenches was undoubtedly unpleasant for the distinguished visitors, they found that the odors only extended a couple of hundred feet from the trenches and were therefore deemed neither unsanitary nor offensive. More problematic, however, were the 60 or 70 animal corpses found decaying on the ground and creating a stench which the mayor later described as "horrible." But according to The Indianapolis News (June 2, 1897), the real culprit may have been the two acres of hog hair that was laid out to dry and cure in the sun. The smell arising from the acres of wet hog hair was especially bad during damp or rainy weather.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 20, 1895

The News article also noted that the riverbed adjacent to Sellers farm was covered with a brown and greasy scum, but that it was believed to be no more harmful to the health of Indy residents than the waste that poured from the sewers into the river from within the city limits.

In the mid-1890s, the city entered into a contract with the Indianapolis Desiccating Company to build a new crematorium at Sellers Farm for the conversion of all of Indy's night soil, garbage and dead animals into fertilizer. City officials optimistically believed that the new crematorium would solve the smelly problem once and for all.

But the sweet smell of success quickly vanished into thin air. Despite improvements at Sellers farm, residents of Indy's southwest side continued to raise a stink over the stench. By 1921, conditions at the farm had become so bad that a local priest called Indianapolis the second stinkiest city in the United States, lagging only behind Washington D.C. in terms of undesirable odors. By that point, however, plans were well underway to utilize new technologies to snuff out the smell.

The Indianapolis Times, October 21, 1924

In 1924, the city rushed to complete the new garbage reduction and sewage disposal plants at Sellers farm, declaring them to be the "finest in the U.S.". However, both of the plants were plagued by problems, including fires, explosions, and equipment failures. In fact, the actual opening of the garbage plant was delayed for another decade, when costly changes were needed to make it operational.

Then on December 14, 1927, the Indianapolis Times reported that millions of gallons of partially treated sewage were flowing directly from the plant into the White River. The article reassured readers this was "not so terrifying as it sounds" because the sewage was "assimilated by the river water and rendered harmless."

150 years after Indianapolis purchased the farm from Amos Sellers as solution for the city's stinkiest waste disposal problems, the land is still used for that purpose. But in 1936, a new use was found for the city-owned land when a state-of-the art dog pound opened on the northeast side of the property, near the present site of Indiana Animal Care & Control. In fact, that's how I discovered Hudnut Boulevard, on a snowy day 20 years ago when my husband and I went to IACC to adopt our beloved rat terrier, Scout.

Bill Hudnut was mayor of Indianapolis in 1986 when the winding road through the old Sellers farm property was christened "Hudnut Boulevard." This means that not only was he aware of this somewhat dubious honor, he may even have approved it as part of his mayoral duties. But when Amos Sellers turned over the keys to his farm in 1873, it's doubtful whether he realized that his name would be closely associated with the city's foulest waste a half century later.

Amos Sellers died in 1889 and is buried in Mt. Jackson Cemetery. The so-called "stinkiest spot" in Indianapolis was generally referred to as "Sellers farm" until the early 1940s.

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Like many Americans who grew up in the 1960s, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that three different men named “John” had died.

When the grade school principal announced over the intercom system that John F. Kennedy had been shot, I was washing my hands in the girl’s bathroom at Wallace Elementary School. Some 17 years later, I was walking through the door of my boyfriend’s apartment when he yelled from the kitchen that John Lennon was dead, gunned down in Central Park. And I was stepping out of my car to get cash from the bank machine when I heard on the radio that John Belushi had overdosed.

As John Lennon once wrote, “I heard the news today, oh boy..”

But in every generation, there seems to be at least one event that is so huge, so cataclysmic, that even after decades pass, we still ask one another “Where were you?” on the day we heard the news. For most adult Americans, that day was September 11, 2001. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, however, that day fell 60 years earlier, on December 7, 1941.

I started thinking about Pearl Harbor day in Indianapolis after I ran across a series of old handbills for the Talbott Theater at 22nd and Talbott. It wasn’t until I brought them home from the flea market that I realized that the handbills were a near-complete set of weekly previews for the movies that were playing at the Talbott in the five weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the seven weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan. Conspicuously missing, however, was the handbill for movies that were showing at the Talbott on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Old theater handbills fall into a collecting category known as ephemera — everyday paper items that are intended for one-time or short-term use. Ephemera is the sort of stuff that you may look at once, wad into a ball, and toss into a trash can. So when a collector finds a fragile piece of ephemera that has somehow managed to survive intact for decades or even centuries, it may turn out to be a treasure. Or just an old piece of trash.

Another 100 years may need to pass before the Talbott handbills complete their metamorphosis from trash to treasure. But for now, the 10 pamphlets announcing the screen times for various movies playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1941-42 provide an interesting glimpse of life in Indianapolis both before and after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42, any woman who saw a movie at the Talbott theater was offered a free piece of Harker Bakerite Oven-Tested Dinnerware (shown above).

By Thanksgiving weekend in 1941, the war in Europe had already hit the big screen. The Warner Brothers movie “Underground” was playing at the Talbott. Billed as the year’s “No. 1 Thrill Film,” the movie told the story of two brothers who were initially on opposite sides of the German resistance opposing the Nazis. Later that week, the 1935 film “Devil Dogs of the Air” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien returned by popular demand. Although “Devil Dogs of the Air” was clearly not a chick flick, ladies were enticed to attend by the Talbott’s offer of free dishes.

I’m inclined to think that the reason the handbills were spared from the trash is because they were saved by a female moviegoer as a memento of dates with a favorite beau. Some of the handbills bear creases, as if they were folded and tucked into a handbag. A faint trace of perfume seems to linger.

I’ll never know how these particular pieces of paper managed to survive the decades, but I like to imagine a young woman – someone who lived near my neighborhood – putting on a wool suit and seamed stockings and venturing out for a night on the town with the man who would someday be her husband. When she returned from the movies, she removed the handbills from her purse and placed them in a cardboard box with other mementos. And there they remained for the next 70+ years.

Three of my favorite movies were playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1942. “Shadow of the Thin Man,” the fourth movie in the popular series with William Powell and Mryna Loy, opened in a double-feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” on February 8, 1942. The previous week, “The Maltese Falcon” was one of the featured films.

From the handbills, I can see that “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” was playing at the Talbott on Halloween night 1941. This was the 11th installment in the popular Andy Hardy series and the last to feature Judy Garland. New Year’s Eve 1941 featured “Smilin’ Through,” a cheery remake of a 1922 silent film about a man who adopts the orphaned niece of his dead fiancee who was murdered by mistake during their wedding ceremony. On Groundhog Day 1942, moviegoers at the Talbott were treated to the “Tropical Magic” of Carmen Miranda singing and dancing with fruit on her head in “Week-End in Havana.” It looks like whoever saved the handbills went to the movies at the Talbott every weekend during that winter, except the weekend the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

A quick review of The Indianapolis Star from Sunday, December 7, shows there were plenty of other things to do in Indianapolis that day besides going to the movies. The weather was projected to be sunny and pleasant, with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees. The paper was stuffed with advertisements for Christmas gifts, ranging from floor model radios to vacuum cleaners to slinky nightrobes for the ladies. In one particularly prophetic full-page ad, Lincoln Furniture announced in 96 point bold-face type that “WAR IS DECLARED!” I had to read the fine print to find out that the furniture store was declaring an imaginary war on prices, and not on Japan.

Still, there were strong indications in the paper that a real war might soon be declared. The front page of the Star featured a photograph of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito with a simple three word question: “War or Peace?” The Star would get its answer shortly.

The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Indianapolis shortly after noon. At 1 p.m., the Sunday double-feature matinee was scheduled to get underway at the Talbott – Orson Wells’ classic “Citizen Kane” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” a comedy about a dead boxer who was given a second chance on Earth. Was the Talbott half-empty that day because everyone stayed home, glued to the radio? Or did Indianapolis bustle with the usual weekend activity after residents took a brief pause to absorb the shocking news?

Mayor Reginald Sullivan was certainly busy that day, meeting with local law enforcement and industry leaders to discuss safeguards against sabotage. Indianapolis plants were already engaged in manufacturing parts and machinery for the war effort, and fears of sabotage by Japanese loyalists was heightened by the attack. However, in a statement issued to the Star, Sullivan assured Indianapolis residents that the risk of incendiary bombs striking the Circle City was low.

By the end of the week, America was at war. On Monday, December 8, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Then on December 14, 1941 – just one week after Japan bombed the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, killing 2,402 Americans – a light-hearted film with Ann Sheridan and a young Jackie Gleason opened at the Talbott. Featuring “Hundreds of Honolulus,” the film “Navy Blues” was billed as “Oceans of Gals, Gobs and Glee!” and “fun for everyone.”

A few days after the September 11 attack, my dad asked all of us to meet him for dinner. We had the same conversation that every other family in the United States had been having over the dinner table that week. “Where were you when you heard?” we asked each other. “What do you think will happen?” we wanted to know.

My dad was 16 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and 76 years old on September 11, 2001. During that dinner, I asked him which day was worse. He looked at my 77-year-old stepmother in surprise, and without hesitation, they both answered that in their view, the attacks of September 11 were much, much worse.

Huh. I never would’ve known that if I hadn’t asked the question. If you’re lucky enough to spend the holidays with someone who lived through WWII, either as a soldier or as a civilian on the homefront, take a minute to ask them about their experiences. Ask them what they were doing when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor, where they were when they learned the War had ended, and what their life was like in the days between. You might be surprised by what you learn.

My dad entered the Army upon his graduation from high school, serving with the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Germany, Belgium and France. He only talked with me once about the war, just a few weeks before he died in 2007.

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