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In May 1920, The Indianapolis Star published a special edition commemorating the city’s Centennial celebration.  Then, in February 1936, The Indianapolis News came out with its own special edition in honor of the city’s 100th birthday.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but based on everything I’ve ever heard or read, a Centennial only comes round once every hundred years. It’s always been my understanding that 1920 was the date firmly fixed by city leaders for the Centennial celebration; in fact, I’d written an HI article about the week-long festivities in June 1920 that literally involved a cast of thousands.  So I was understandably confused to discover that Indianapolis celebrated another 100th birthday a mere 16 years later.

But come to think of it, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. In the absence of a birth certificate, city leaders have long struggled to pinpoint the official year and date when the city of Indianapolis was born.  In fact, this “birther” controversy has been brewing for nearly 200 years, going back to the heated pioneer-era dispute over whether George Pogue or John McCormick was the first settler to arrive on the scene.

So here’s how the controversy breaks down. One camp believes that the city’s official birthdate is June 7, 1820, when the commissioners charged with selecting a location for the new state capital chose a site near the mouth of Fall Creek in an area that would later become Marion County. Another camp believes that Indy’s birth occurred on January 6, 1821, when the General Assembly ratified the commissioners’ decision and voted to call the new capitol “Indianapolis.” And yet another much-smaller camp apparently believes that the city’s birth did not really occur until 1836, when the legislature granted Indianapolis its first town charter.

In 1920, a committee tasked with putting together a Centennial celebration for the city attempted to settle the question once and for all by fixing June 7, 1920 as the official date for Indy’s 100th birthday bash.  Noting the ongoing Pogue-McCormick dispute, the committee wrote in its report that June 7, 1820 should be decreed the official birthdate of Indianapolis because it is “the earliest date connected with the history of the city that is not subject to any controversy.”

Lending additional support to this argument was the simple fact a June celebration would encourage the participation of the city’s children, because “[i]t comes at the end of the school year, when pupils welcome celebrations of any kind.” Further, June 7, 1820 was the date of the beginning of commerce in Indianapolis, as evidenced by an entry in one of the commissioner’s diaries noting that he purchased 62 1/2 cents worth of whiskey and corn off a flatboat that arrived that day.

Fixing the date of our city’s birth was not an easy decision for the Centennial committee.  A group of civic leaders led an intense lobbying effort to delay the celebration until 1921, which would allow sufficient time to raise funds for a commemorative monument. But there already was precedent for celebrating the city’s birthday on June 7, and in the end, the committee saw no compelling reason to depart from that precedent.

The Evening News, April 11, 1870

In April 1870, the Indianapolis Board of Trade adopted a resolution calling on the citizenry to celebrate June 7, 1870 as “a day of jubilee, with such commemorative services as shall be suited to the proper celebration of the semi-centennial anniversary of the city.”

An executive committee headed by James M. Ray was quickly established, along with a number of subcommittees addressing arrangements, fundraising, music, fireworks, wagons and banners.  Local poets were invited to submit original odes for inclusion in the festivities, and painter Theodore Glessing was retained to create 10 banners representing different phases of the city’s history.

The executive committee asked the city council to approve a $2000 appropriation to help underwrite the cost of the Semi-Centennial. The appropriation was denied.

Reeling from the unexpected defeat, the Semi-Centennial committee scrambled to salvage the celebration.  A public notice was printed in The Evening News lamenting the fact that the city’s 50th birthday would pass without a celebration and inviting all “who feel like observing the day” to bring their picnic baskets to a gathering at Crown Hill Picnic Park.  Both young and old settlers were invited to attend the free event and “celebrate the day according to the dictates of their own conscience.”

Washington Street, circa 1825. T.B. Glessing was asked to paint 10 views of “old” Indianapolis in honor of the city’s Semi-Centennial. Only two were completed, neither of which survive.

Unfortunately, the 50th birthday bash was a bust.  Although a small group of the earliest surviving settlers made the trek to Crown Hill, apparently most of the younger residents decided that celebrating the day according to the dictates of their own conscience did not mean spending time with a bunch of old people in a cemetery.

The Evening News castigated the citizenry for the lack of public spirit shown on June 7 in an editorial that was curiously dated June 2.

”It is not very creditable to Indianapolis that she could not even get up a fitting celebration upon the fiftieth anniversary of her settlement,” the paper wrote. “It is still less creditable that her citizens will not even join in a picnic … when picnics are in season.”

Despite the half-hearted nature of the half-centennial celebration, the city’s Centennial committee opted to follow the precedent set in 1870 and observe the 100th birthday of Indianapolis on June 7, 1920.

So — correct me if I’m wrong here — both logic and math would dictate that the next big birthday bash — the city’s Sesquicentennial — would be celebrated 50 years later, on June 7, 1970.

Sadly, it appears that the citizens of Indy forgot the city’s 150th birthday. The June 7, 1970 edition of The Indianapolis Star mentions the 75th anniversary of Field & Stream magazine, the 30th anniversary of the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star basketball game, and the 50th wedding anniversary for Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Logan, 1616 Sturm Avenue.

But within the 166 pages of the June 7 Indianapolis Star, there was nary a mention of its namesake’s special day.


Now granted, Indianapolis was getting a little long in the tooth by the time June 7, 1970 rolled around.  Perhaps in an effort to appear more relevant to the mod hippie crowd,  the city decided to shave a year off its age.  But whatever the reason, the city’s “official” birthdate was now decreed to be January 6, 1971.

The Sesquicentennial celebration — aptly named “We Celebrate our City” — got underway on January 6 with a musical extravaganza at the Murat Theater. Additional events were scheduled throughout the year, including a queen contest and a fine arts program.  Recipes were solicited for a commemorative cookbook dubbed “Sesqui-Samplings,” and the Sesquicentennial Committee also commissioned the much-maligned Snowplow sculpture, which was relegated to the front of an INDOT garage until the Indianapolis Museum of Art purchased it in 1993.

In addition, a number of keepsake items were issued, most of which appear to encourage city residents to “Celebrate our City” by smoking and drinking.

Local author Edward A. Leary, who was commissioned by the Sesquicentennial committee to write a book detailing the story of Indianapolis, seemed perturbed by the city's decision to alter its birthdate.

In an article penned for The Indianapolis Star on June 6, 1970, he noted the 51-year gap between the city’s 100th birthday and its 150th birthday.

"The City’s 100th birthday was marked by a five-day celebration in 1920…..Now we’re observing the city’s 150th birthday with a year-long celebration [in 1971]…. Which leads to the question: Will the city celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2020 or 2021?"

As it turns out, the answer to Leary's question is both. The Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission has split the difference and is planning a series of celebratory events in 2020 and 2021.  

Regardless of which year our city was born -- and the plywood boards that are temporarily covering the windows of many downtown buildings - Indianapolis is looking great for her age. And why not? As they say, 200 is the new 140. Sure, her infrastructure may sag a bit — whose wouldn’t at 190+ years? — and her arteries are a little clogged, especially during rush hour. But overall, she’s held up pretty darn well through the years.

So here’s my message to you, Indy, in case you’re feeling a little sensitive about your age. Whether we observe your 200th birthday in 2020, 2021 or even in 2036, remember this — You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. Just don’t join the Red Hat Society.


A version of this article was originally published in 2016 in

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H. Paul Prigg was the kind of man who liked to live on the edge.

In 1914, he joined the ranks of early automobile innovators when he opened a factory in Elwood that manufactured cyclecars, a type of tiny, lightweight car that could travel up to 50 miles on a gallon of gas.

In 1934, he set a world speed record of 38.54 miles per hour in a stock runabout motorboat of his own design.

And in November 20, 1918 - during a second wave of the deadly Spanish flu - he boldly defied local health authorities and stepped into the lobby of the Brevort Hotel in downtown Indianapolis without wearing a face mask.

Although Prigg's decision to flout the flu mask would not prove fatal - in fact, he would live for another 56 years - he and his two companions were promptly arrested, joining a handful of local scofflaws who were charged with profanity and other offenses after refusing to don a gauze "flu mask" as ordered by the Indianapolis Board of Health.

The Indianapolis Star, November 19, 1918

The mask mandate was imposed by board secretary Dr. Herman G. Morgan in November 1918 as a last-ditch effort to avert another wholesale shutdown of the city. Throughout most of October, all schools, theaters, movie houses, churches, poolrooms, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and “dry” beer saloons had been closed as the deadly flu swept through Indianapolis. Groceries and drug stores were allowed to remain open, but other retail shops in the downtown area were required to implement a staggered schedule in order prevent rush hour crowds on the streetcars, which were mandated to open their windows to improve ventilation.

These measures apparently worked their magic. Reported cases of the flu sharply declined, and on October 30, the shutdown order was lifted. Schools were set to reopen the following Monday. A semblance of normal life returned to the city, although Dr. Morgan - who was gaining a reputation as a bit of a killjoy - did urge residents to stay home on Halloween and avoid the downtown crowds.

But when the armistice with Germany was signed 11 days later, even the doctor's orders could not keep indy residents in their homes. Upon learning that the War to End all Wars had finally ended, a jubilant Mayor Jewett issued a statement asking the entire population of Indianapolis to gather on Monument Circle at 8 p.m. on November 11 to celebrate world peace.

And gather they did. Based on news reports, it appears that mostly everyone in the city chose to ignore Dr. Morgan's advice and instead headed to Circle to celebrate. According to The Indianapolis Star, cars were backed up for several blocks on each street leading to the Circle, which was packed with "thousands upon thousands of joy-mad pedestrians" in a "pandemonic pot-pourri."

The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 12, 1918

One week later, however, panic set in when local health authorities realized that the pandemonic potpourri surrounding the Circle on November 11 was actually a giant petri dish for the flu pandemic.

Nearly 700 new cases and nine flu-related deaths were reported in Indianapolis on November 18. The Board of Health acted swiftly to issue a mask mandate. According to Dr. Morgan, the board hoped that another "absolute closing order" could be prevented if the people of Indianapolis would simply mask up.

The Indianapolis mask mandate went into effect on November 19, 1918. Schools were also shut down, along with public libraries. Theaters, however, were allowed to remain open.

The following day, the Indianapolis Star reported that the mask order was "observed generally by the citizens of Indianapolis, so far as observation could show." Most streetcar passengers wore masks, although conductors made no effort to enforce the mandate. Businesses largely appeared to be in compliance, except for theaters, where most patrons declined to cover their faces.

Still struggling to recover from the October shutdown, theater owners promptly vowed to take action to enforce the order. At the Park Theater, for example, each patron received a free Red Cross flu mask with the purchase of a ticket to the featured movie, "The Other Man's Wife." Twelve other theaters - including the Circle, Lyric and Alhambra - ran a huge ad in the November 20 Indianapolis Star reminding patrons that they were required to wear their masks continuously throughout the entire performance.

At the same time, however, the theater ad also urged patrons to try the "Laugh Cure" while somewhat speciously asserting that "Clean, Wholesome Amusement is the World's Most Effective Antidote for All Ills."

The Indianapolis News, November 20, 1918

The seeming incongruity of an order that allowed movie theaters to remain open while shutting down public schools was not lost on the IPS School Board, which promptly wrote the Board of Health urging the reopening of city high schools. In response, Dr. Morgan pointed out that students are compelled by law to attend school whereas moviegoers have the option to decide whether to risk their lives by going to the theater.

Over the next few days, the number of flu cases continued to rise. Opposition to the mask mandate was also growing. Some Indianapolis residents complained that the masks impaired their ability to breathe and also exposed them to the risk of "self-infection." Others questioned the efficacy of gauze masks in preventing the spread of the deadly flu. And the comical effect on one's appearance of a huge piece of gauze likely dissuaded some of the more fashion-conscious locals from wearing a mask.

The Indianapolis Star, November 20, 1918. It's unclear from the text of the ad whether Ayres is promoting the chiffon veil as a covering for the mask, or as an actual mask.

The Board of Health attempted to use science and reason to assuage these concerns. Dr. Morgan pointed out that gauze masks - which had long been utilized by medical professionals - had been proven to be successful in preventing the wearer from both spreading and contracting infectious diseases.

A study published in the Oct. 12, 1918 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association backed up Dr. Morgan's assertion. Plates were placed in front of masked subjects at distances of up to 10 feet. No bacteria cropped up after five minutes of talking in loud tones, and only one plate at a distance of two feet showed two colonies of bacteria after five minutes of violent coughing. Conversely, plates as far as 10 feet away from unmasked subjects showed multiple colonies of bacteria after five minutes of coughing.

Despite the local Board of Health's efforts to persuade the so-called "mask knockers" that the face coverings were safe and effective, even the Indiana State Board of Health chose to ignore the mask mandate. When the State Board met in Indianapolis on November 20, none of its members were wearing masks. The State Board's secretary, Dr. John N. Hurty, later explained that the epidemic had grown to such proportions that wearing masks or shutting down schools and businesses would have little effect.

According to Dr. Hurty - who would later be revered as the "Father of Public Health in Indiana" and reviled as a proponent of eugenics - the epidemic just needed to run its course. As an example, he pointed to New York, where everything remained open, yet the flu did far less damage than in Washington, D.C., where the city shut down.

Following the Indiana State Board of Health's brazen refusal to comply with the Indianapolis mask mandate, a group of prominent citizens urged the local health department to enforce the order against scofflaws at the Statehouse and the courthouse.

As the letter made clear, however, their objective was not the protection of public health, but the invalidation of the mask order. Prosecution of high-ranking public officials for failure to wear a mask would quickly lead to a challenge of the order, the letter reasoned, which in turn would unveil the fact that Dr. Morgan lacked any authority to require the city to mask up.

One of the ringleaders of this effort was attorney Robert I. Marsh. This was not Marsh's first go-round with the local health department. Two years earlier, he represented local parents who were fighting a Board of Health order that required all school children to be vaccinated against typhoid fever. In an appearance before the IPS School Board, Marsh argued that the vaccine was ineffective and the order was illegal.

Marsh would later gain infamy in the 1920s as an attorney for the Ku Klux Klan and alleged co-conspirator in an effort to bribe former Gov. Warren McCray.

The Indianapolis Star, September 10, 1927

Two days after Marsh and his co-complainers submitted their letter to Dr. Morgan, the Board of Health rescinded the mask order. This decision, however, was not prompted by the letter but instead was based on a steep decrease in infection rates since the order had gone into effect.

In lifting the mask order, Dr. Morgan noted that "some opposition" had developed over the past few days but nonetheless praised Indianapolis residents for their spirit of cooperation, at least initially. "The wearing of masks enabled the city to continue business along at least partly normal lines," he told The Indianapolis News. "It prevented a large number of persons from being deprived of employment, a situation that would have developed if a closing ban on all forms of business had been established."

The Indianapolis News, November 25, 1918

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Updated: Nov 2, 2020

111 years ago, a 70-year-old woman from Indianapolis named Mary E. Nicholson made history as one of the first females – if not the first female — elected to public office in the state of Indiana.  A former teacher and administrator in the Indianapolis Public Schools, Nicholson beat four well-respected male business leaders to win a seat on the IPS school board.

Nicholson’s landmark election was orchestrated by an army of well-heeled women who established a city-wide political organization with workers in each ward who walked door-to-door in support of her campaign. Female volunteers were also recruited to stand at the polling places on Election Day and encourage incoming voters to cast their ballots for Nicholson.

Their grassroots strategy paid off.  Nicholson was swept into office with more than 10,000 votes cast in her favor.

It was an astounding victory for women in Indianapolis — especially given the fact that the ballots were cast by an all-male electorate.  As her campaign chairman later noted, “[H]ad women been permitted to vote… Miss Nicholson would have led the ticket by an enormous majority.”

The Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1909

Although other women had run for the IPS school board in the past, Nicholson was the first to succeed, largely due to the well-organized campaign chaired by Dr. Amelia R. Keller, the city’s first female physician and a leader in the Indiana suffrage movement.

According to Keller, the campaign’s primary strategy rested on the collective power of women to convince their husbands and sons to vote for a woman. “We are satisfied that many a man voted for Miss Nicholson just to keep peace in the family,” she told The Indianapolis News in November 1916.

Nicholson in her home, which stills stands on Broadway in the Old Northside. Photo provided by Hilary Barnes.

Keller and other suffragettes threw themselves into Nicholson’s campaign in hopes that a victory would finally pave a path to the polls for Indiana women. At the time, women in four surrounding states were allowed to vote in school board races. Even in Indiana, there was widespread support for granting women a similar franchise, based on the rationale that half of the students were girls and many of the teachers and administrators were women.

After Nicholson was elected, the absurdity of the situation gave suffrage supporters an even stronger argument. After all, how could a woman be qualified for public office if the law deemed that she was not qualified to vote?

Nicholson served four years on the IPS school board. Yet after her retirement in 1914 at the age of 75, it would still be another six years before she or any other woman could cast a ballot in Indiana.

The women’s suffrage movement got its start in Indiana in 1859, when a group of Quaker women lobbied the General Assembly for the right to vote.  It culminated on January 16, 1920, when the legislature finally ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was subsequently ratified by Congress on August 18.

After 61 years of trying, the women of Indiana had won the right to vote. But with the general election less than three months away, this was no time for suffragettes to rest on their laurels.  The same women who had worked so hard to persuade men to give women the right to vote now had to persuade women to exercise that right.

The Indianapolis Star, January 17, 1920

Election officials set aside Saturday, September 4, for a statewide voter registration drive. An estimated 70,000 Indianapolis residents registered that day, including 30,000 “suffs,” as The Indianapolis Star dubbed the first-time female voters.  Other cities reported similarly large crowds of female registrants.

The success of the voter registration drive proved to be a short-lived victory for Indiana’s long-suffering suffragettes, however.  On September 10, the State Election Commission issued a controversial ruling that voided many of the female voters’ registration forms.

The Indianapolis Star, September 5, 1920

As election officials were compiling the paperwork from the registration drive, they discovered that a large number of women had either refused to give their age or had lied about it. This was a problem, because under the law in effect at the time, potential voters were required to state their exact age when they registered.  But in order to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of female voters who were coy about revealing their age, registration boards throughout the state had allowed women to simply write that they were “21 plus.”

According to Alma Sickler, president of the Indianapolis League of Women Voters, at least 40 of the 300 women who registered at the League’s office in the Chamber of Commerce building had either written “21 plus,” or had shaved anywhere from five to 20 years off their ages. But Sickler also told The Indianapolis Star that sensitivity to age was not confined to women voters, as she had personally witnessed a prominent businessman flatly refuse to reveal his age, while another man put his age down as 55 although everyone knew he was approaching 80.

The Indianapolis Star, September 10, 1920

Party officials on both sides of the aisle were worried that many women would readily give up their hard-fought right to vote if they were forced to reveal their true ages.  The issue was finally resolved in late September when the Election Commission determined that women who were hesitant to state their age could instead provide their date of birth.  However, any woman who had written “21 plus” would still need to correct her registration form.

A subsequent voter registration drive was scheduled for October 4. Meanwhile, the county auditor set up voting machines throughout Indianapolis so women could learn how to operate them in advance of Election Day.  The League of Women Voters also held a series of educational sessions – a so-called “Voters’ School” that was aimed at teaching the newly minted voters about the workings of government and the issues facing the candidates.

November 2, 1920 — Election Day — was unseasonably cold in Indianapolis. Despite the blustery weather, women flocked to the polls, some with four or five children in tow.

The Indianapolis Star singled out a Mrs. Anna Monroe of East 19th Street as the first woman to cast a vote in Indiana at 6 a.m., but this was later disputed by other women who also voted at 6 a.m.  In fact, precinct workers throughout the city reported that “the housewives were out in force long before the mere male voters fell into the [voting] line.”

Mrs. F.T. Reed of 3370 Broadway was an example of the dogged enthusiasm that drove women to the polls that day. She was headed out to vote when her car was overturned in a collision at 30th and Ruckle streets.  Badly bruised and shaken up, Reed was taken home in a city ambulance.  Undeterred, she rested a few hours and then returned to the polls to cast her vote.

The Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1920

All told, by the time the polls closed at 6 p.m. on November 2, 1920, 93% of the 76,000 registered women voters in Indianapolis had braved the harsh weather to go to the polls and, for the first time in their lives, participate in democracy.

Mary Nicholson did live long enough to see women get the right to vote to Indiana, and even to see the first woman elected to the Indiana House of Representatives.  But over time, her accomplishments have been largely forgotten.

In 1931, the IPS Board named School 70 at 46th and Central in her honor, but four years ago, the school was renamed CFI School 70.  There’s also no mention of her on the Indiana Commission on Women’s website, which lists a Catherine Dinklage of Fort Wayne as the first woman elected to public office in Indiana.

After researching the issue, I believe that honor really belongs to Mary Nicholson.  The Indianapolis educator is mentioned in numerous accounts as the first woman elected to the IPS Board, but it’s likely that she was also the first woman elected to any public office in the state of Indiana by popular vote. At least to date, I have been able to find no evidence to the contrary.

But regardless of whether she was first, or second or third, Mary Nicholson and her suffragette sisters set an example in 1920 that we all should follow.  During that historic election, 93% of the women registered to vote in Indianapolis went to the polls, a voter turnout that is almost unimaginable today.

The vast majority of women alive today have never lived in a world where they were denied the basic privilege of voting. And so we have come to treat this privilege lightly, to take it for granted.

Or as Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”

Early 1900s photo of the homes of Mary Nicholson (right) and her sister, Martha McKay, who was one of the city's most prominent suffragettes. Both homes fell into disrepair in the 1970s, and the McKay house sat boarded up and vacant for 50 years. Now, 100 years after women got the right to vote, the suffragette sisters' side-by-side houses have been restored and are home to young families. Photo provided by Hilary Barnes.

A previous version of this article was posted on in November 2016.

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