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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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Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Spring break 1968. Girl Scouts Gone Wild. Or at least that's how I recall one memorable day when I was 11 years old and our Girl Scout troop headed south from Kokomo to explore the big city. We toured the Statehouse, visited the Children's Museum, and then capped off the adventure by setting up camp at a motel in the 1500 block of North Meridian Street, just north of downtown Indianapolis.

The Manger Motor Inn was a far cry from our usual primitive accommodations. Not only did it have indoor plumbing, but according to a postcard I saved from the excursion, it was "Indianapolis' finest," with 178 rooms, a year-round swimming pool, and two dining options - the "elegant Hearth and Embers Restaurant" and the "luxurious Purple Tree Lounge."

As our Girl Scout troop gathered outside the motel to begin our trip back to Kokomo, I had no idea that the plot of land where we had spent the night had previously been owned by two swindling doctors, the Vice President of the United States and a founder of the city of Indianapolis. I did not know that two United States Presidents had once trod the same ground where my sneaker-clad feet now stood. And my 11-year-old self certainly did not foresee that by the time I entered high school, our ad hoc Girl Scout camp at 1522 North Meridian would gain infamy as one of the city's hot spots for prostitution.

But some 50 years later -- thanks to the saved postcard -- I did remember the name and location of the Manger Motor Inn when a fortuitous find on eBay started me on an electronic road trip through time that began with the founding of Indianapolis in 1820 and ended two centuries later in a vacant lot behind Walgreen's.

View of Hampton Court, looking west from Meridian Street.

Earlier this year, a seller on eBay auctioned an article from the January 1917 issue of The American Architect that featured plans for Hampton Court, an elegant new apartment complex in Indianapolis. I was unfamiliar with Hampton Court, but after a few Google searches, I discovered that the since-demolished luxury apartments shared the same location as the former home of Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, the Manger Motor Inn, and the vacant lot behind the Walgreen's where I had purchased my pandemic masks the day before.

As this is the city's bicentennial, that got me thinking about the layers of history that lurk beneath the surface of every piece of property in present-day Indianapolis. Many of the buildings we see today on the main streets heading to downtown are just the latest costume change in an ever-evolving city that must continuously adapt to survive.

From forest to farmland to residential to commercial, a single plot of land on North Meridian could easily have been the site of an Indian camp, a farm house, a mansion, a gas station and an office building. If dirt could talk, each piece of property would have quite a story to tell. But to paraphrase a famous line from an old TV show, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is just one of them."

The recorded history of 1522 N. Meridian dates back to January 6, 1821 - the day that the General Assembly approved the selection of the new state capital and voted to name the city "Indianapolis." In accordance with the legislation, Gen. John Carr of Clark County was elected as agent of the state and three commissioners were chosen, including Samuel Booker of Wayne County. This group was tasked with hiring a surveyor to lay out the city. To Indianapolis' good fortune, Alexander Ralston was retained.

Carr was responsible for advertising the sale of the first lots, which took place 199 years ago this week. He also plunked down $560 for property at the northwest corner of Delaware and Washington Streets - the highest price paid for land in the fledging city. Directly across from the lot set aside for the courthouse, Carr's choice corner lot was a safe bet to soar in value as the city grew. Property outside of the newly platted city - the so-called "outlots" - was far less valuable but still viewed as a potential investment.

The original 1837 plat for St. Clair's Addition shows 7 lots on each side of North Meridian stretching from present day 10th to 16th Streets.

In November 1822, Carr and Booker pooled their resources and paid $1 an acre for 80 acres in outlot 12 - an area roughly running from 10th to 16th streets between Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Booker died the following year, and in 1825, Carr sold the land to John Johnston for $400. Then in 1834, Arthur St. Clair purchased a portion of the property for $450, and subsequently platted it into 14 large suburban lots lining both sides of North Meridian Street.

Over the next few decades, a handful of mansions would be built in St. Clair's Addition, but nearly half a century would pass before development reached Lot 14 on the southwest corner of present-day Meridian and 16th streets.

In 1887, local pump manufacturer Albert S. Comstock purchased the southern half of Lot 14 for $5,840 and built a gracious Victorian home. After he died in 1901, Charles W. Fairbanks bought the house and land for $17,000.

Fairbanks was a U.S. Senator in 1902 when he and his family moved into 1522 N. Meridian, but his political star was rising fast. In 1904, Fairbanks was selected as the running mate for President Theodore Roosevelt. As was the custom in those days, the contenders for the top of the ticket eschewed the national party conventions, and instead were formally "notified" of their selection by a party of dignitaries who traveled to their home.

The Notification Committee departed from the English Hotel around noon on August 3, 1904 and drove parade-style to Fairbanks' home at 1522 N. Meridian in a procession led by the Indianapolis Military Band and 100 or so members of the Marion Club clad in blue serge suits, white gaiters and caps of the "automobile variety."

The conduct of the guests as they gathered on the lawn of Fairbanks' flag-draped home was described by The Indianapolis Star as "dignified." Notably, "dignified" was not the same term used by the Star some 60 years later to describe the three men arrested on the former site of the aforementioned lawn for "entering the bedroom of the opposite sex" and "associating with a prostitute." But the downfall of 1522 N. Meridian from Vice President to vice squad mirrored the metamorphosis of the near northside in the first half of the last century.

In May 1907, President Roosevelt stayed at the Fairbanks' home when he traveled to Indianapolis to dedicate the statue of Gen. Henry W. Lawton on the courthouse lawn. Four years later, President William Howard Taft visited 1522 N. Meridian during a trip to Indianapolis to deliver a speech to the Marion Club. But as The Indianapolis Star noted, the Fairbanks family would soon depart the 1500 block of North Meridian for a newly built home a mile and half north. This meant that Taft's visit would be the last hurrah for a gracious old home that had earned a place in the city's history.

The Indianapolis Star, July 2, 1911

The following year, Fairbanks' home was purchased by Dr. David M. Bye, who then leased it to his son-in-law, Dr. L.T. Leach. Dr. Leach ran a sanitarium across from Military Park that boasted spurious claims of cancer cures and was eventually shut down in 1929 after the Indianapolis Better Business Bureau called it "the most disgraceful institution that has ever been permitted to operate for any length of time in the City of Indianapolis, and one of the worst, if not the worst, in the whole country." His father-in-law was no angel of mercy either, peddling a mail-order "cure" for cancer that was later found to be a combination of cottonseed oil and tonic.

In 1915, Leach convinced his ailing father-in-law to transfer the deed to the Fairbanks home to him. This transaction was later overturned as fraudulent because Bye was of "unsound mind," but not before the house was demolished and replaced with luxury apartments.

When the new Hampton Court apartments opened in the summer of 1916, they were touted as "the most attractive and interesting apartments" in the midwest, with each three-story unit beautifully decorated and boasting its own servants' quarters.

Some of the city's most affluent families were among Hampton Court's earliest residents, but by the time former Indianapolis Star managing editor Lawrence S. Connor and his family moved there in 1934, most of the apartments housed large Catholic families who took in boarders for extra money.

But despite the changing demographics, the 1500 block of North Meridian was still a nice place to call home. As Connor chronicled in his 1995 book, "Hampton Court: Growing up Catholic in Indianapolis Between the Wars," Hampton Court "was a wonderful place for a child." Neighbors looked out for one another, children played on the large front lawns, and no one ever remembered to lock their doors.

Hampton Court, as featured in The American Architect, January 1917

Hampton Court was demolished in 1962 to make way a luxury motel. When the Manger Motor Inn opened in May 1963, The Indianapolis Star hailed it as "progress" and a "worthy addition" to the city's quest to reclaim its position as a first-rank convention spot.

And for the next few years, the Manger lived up to its hype. The mid-town location was well-suited for events, and the Purple Tree Lounge was a popular nightspot for both locals and tourists, featuring the piano stylings of Susan Gilner, a "vivacious, red-head" who sang in five different languages.

True to its name, the Purple Tree Lounge actually featured a purple tree of sorts.

But by the late 1960s, midtown was beginning to melt down. Employees at the Purple Tree Lounge were held up at gunpoint in September 1966. Then in 1968 - the same year that my Girl Scout troop stayed there - three men were arrested and fined $1 each for "entering the bedroom of the opposite sex and associating with a prostitute." The following year, a local salesman was arrested at the Manger for recruiting teenage boys to sell packets of pornographic photos.

In 1971, the Manger was converted to a Quality Inn, although "quality" was a bit of a misnomer. By that time, the stretch of North Meridian from 15th to 23rd streets had turned into the infamous "strip," with prostitutes openly vying for customers from every street corner.

Over the next 25 years, the property began cycling through a series of owners. The Quality Inn became a Ramada Inn which turned into the North Meridian Inn which was reopened as a Howard Johnson's. Then in 1995, any pretense of quality was stripped away when the once-modern and luxurious motel was converted to an Econo-Lodge.

In 2006, Sandor Development purchased the old motel and the adjoining lot to the north and announced plans to build a new Walgreen's drugstore at the corner of 16th and Meridian. A 7,000 square foot retail or office building was tentatively planned for the lot that formerly housed the home of a vice president, the Hampton Court Apartments, and the Manger Motor Inn.

14 years later, the lot behind Walgreen's is still vacant, like a stretch of unpainted canvas in the midst of a cluttered streetscape. But while the future story of the lot formerly known as 1522 N. Meridian has yet to be written, perhaps it's time we memorialized both its glorious and not-so-glorious past. Here's a suggestion:


Click on the arrow to the right to see 1522 North Meridian through the years

Pictured below are Baist maps of the 1500 block from 1908 and 1941 and a 1948 Sanborn map. IUPUI Digital Collections.

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In the early morning hours of October 25, 1909, four dynamite explosions tore through Indianapolis buildings linked to a general contractor named Albert von Spreckelson. Two of the blasts occurred at construction sites where von Spreckleson had hired non-union workers: the new Carnegie Library at Mount and Ohio Streets, and the Central Union Telephone Exchange in Irvington. Explosions also damaged von Spreckelson’s planing-mill at 1200 East North Street, and his barn at 1220 East Michigan.

Library of Congress

A few days later, Mayor Charles Bookwalter found himself riding a streetcar with John (J.J.) McNamara, a local attorney who was secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. As Bookwalter later told the story, McNamara leaned over and asked him “in a taunting way” if he knew who had blown up the four buildings. Bookwalter looked straight at McNamara and said, “Yes, and I could put my hand on one of them without leaving this car.”

Despite Bookwalter’s suspicions, another 18 months would elapse before McNamara was hauled away in handcuffs from his Monument Circle office. By then, there would be dozens more dynamite blasts in multiple states linked to McNamara and the ironworkers.

The Indianapolis Star, April 23, 1911

Although the family who rented a room to McNamara in their Meridian Park home expressed surprise at their quiet boarder’s arrest, detectives had long suspected that the bombings had an Indianapolis connection. During the early years of the last century, Indianapolis was a stronghold of organized labor with nine international unions headquartered in the city. It was also home to virulent labor opponent David M. Parry, who led the nation’s “open shop” movement as president of the National Association of Manufacturers. The clash of Parry’s ideas with organized labor’s “union shop” ideals proved an explosive combination.

In the fall of 1910, labor was waging a bitter battle in Los Angeles over the Llewellyn Iron Works’ decision to have an open shop that included non-union employees. The Los Angeles Times was one of the most vocal supporters of the open shop concept. Shortly after 1 a.m. on the morning of October 1, 16 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath  The Los Angeles Times building.

The blast hit a natural gas line, sparking a blaze that engulfed the building and caused the second story to collapse into the first. Workers who had been putting the paper to press just minutes before were now trapped in rubble and engulfed in flames. 21 persons died and another 100 were injured. When another blast leveled the Llewellyn Iron Works on Christmas Day, suspicions quickly arose that labor unions were behind both attacks.

The Indianapolis Star, April 24, 1911

William J. Burns, a celebrated private detective and former Secret Service agent, was hired by the mayor of Los Angeles to solve the case. Donning disguises and working covertly, Burns followed a bizarre trail of evidence that led him from San Francisco to Indianapolis, with stops along the way at an anarchist colony near Seattle, a hunters’ camp in Wisconsin, and a Chicago fortune teller.

Burns soon realized that the Los Angeles bombings were not isolated incidents, but were part of a nationwide bombing war waged by the same group of people. Since 1906, nearly 100 different sites had been blasted with dynamite. The sites of the explosions had two things in common: the owners used nonunion workers and the construction used iron. All evidence pointed to the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, headquartered on Monument Circle in the American Central Life Insurance building.

Stacks of dynamite stored beneath Monument Circle building (left); piano box hiding explosives. McClure's Magazine, August 1911.

In April 1911, Burns showed up at McNamara’s Monument Circle office and had him arrested for orchestrating a nationwide terror campaign aimed at employers who hired non-union workers. Five hours later, police found 17 sticks of dynamite and two quarts of nitroglycerine hidden in a piano box on the dirt floor of a barn a mile and half west of Indianapolis. More than 100 pounds of dynamite were also found hidden in a secret passageway in the basement of the American Central Life Insurance building – enough to obliterate Monument Circle.

Barn at the intersection of Rockville Road and U.S. 40 where the dynamite was found. The Indianapolis News, April 24, 1911.

Meanwhile, Burns was concerned that the unions would find a way to spring McNamara from jail if he remained in Indianapolis. The accused bomber was forcibly loaded into a car and driven to Illinois at breakneck speed. At Burns’ direction, McNamara was then put on a train headed to California where he would later stand trial for the bombings alongside his brother, Jim, who was charged with placing the dynamite that blew up the Los Angeles Times building.

American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs quickly rallied to the McNamaras’ defense, claiming that the brothers were innocent of the bombings and had been kidnapped instead of arrested. Gompers persuaded Clarence Darrow, the already legendary populist attorney, to defend the McNamara brothers. Labor unions throughout the country rallied to raise money for a “McNamara Defense Fund.”

Numerous participants of the scheme to get J.J. McNamara out of Indiana and into California were soon arrested on kidnapping charges, including Burns and Frank Fox, the driver of the car that whisked McNamara out of state. Burns later claimed that the grand jury and prosecutor had been bribed. The indictments were eventually dropped.

On the first day of what everyone believed would be the “greatest trial of modern times,” the nation was astounded when Jim McNamara pleaded guilty to murder in the Times bombing and J.J. McNamara pleaded guilty to placing the dynamite bomb that destroyed the iron works in Los Angeles. Afterwards, a visibly fatigued Darrow told reporters, “I did the best that I could.”

In February 1912, a federal grand jury in Indianapolis indicted 54 union men for conspiracy to commit a nationwide dynamite sabotage campaign. The subsequent trial was considered the “largest criminal conspiracy trial” in American history up to that time and consisted of 499 witnesses for the prosecution, 188 witnesses for the defense, 5,000 pages of documentary exhibits, and 21,000 pages of testimony. John Worth Kern, the United States senator from Indiana, was one of the main defense attorneys in the trial, which resulted in 38 convictions.

During the grand jury proceedings, one of McNamara's boyhood chums testified that McNamara had offered to pay him to murder his former secretary, Mary Dye, because "she knew too much." The two men conspired to blow up the Pullman sleeping car carrying Dye home to her family for Christmas in December 1910. The plan went awry, however, and Dye - described in various news reports as McNamara's spurned sweetheart - went on to serve as a key witness in the trial, indentifying hundreds of incriminating letters that were critical to the prosecution's case.

The Boston Globe, December 17, 1911

Shortly after the McNamara brothers began serving time in San Quentin, Clarence Darrow was indicted for bribing a juror. He defended himself in the three-month trial and won, weeping as he told jurors about his crusading life. Darrow later fought against the death penalty in the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, and then went on to fight for John Scopes’ right to teach evolution in Tennessee.

Burns, who had earned a reputation as the “American Sherlock Holmes,” was appointed the first director of the Bureau of Investigation, the agency that would become known as the FBI. He came under scrutiny for “investigating” jurors during the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1927, and resigned under fire. His young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, was appointed to head the agency. Hoover served as director until his death in 1972.

With kidnapping charges still pending against him, driver Frank Fox participated in the first 500-Mile Race on May 30, 1911. He finished 22nd, becoming the first driver with a wooden leg to start the race.

After J.J. McNamara pleaded guilty to bombings, his fellow union members continued to defend his actions, claiming that the attorney – a former ironworker himself – had literally gone insane from the daily stress of crusading to protect the life and limb of ironworkers. Structural iron work was among the most dangerous of union trades, with members losing one of their brethren to a violent workplace accident almost every day.McNamara was released after serving 10 years in San Quentin, and rejoined the ironworkers union. He continued to have minor brushes with the law, and in 1928, he was expelled from the union for allegedly stealing $200. McNamara died in 1941.


A version of this article was originally posted in on September 1, 2012

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