Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Quack! Quack! Patent Medicines in Early Grinnell

Most readers will be familiar with the over-the-counter shelves of Walmart and Target. There one can find a vast array of products intended to relieve headaches, fight the pains of arthritis, shorten the duration of colds, remove corns, and much more. Thanks to a series of laws, beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, today's consumers can learn the active ingredients in all these products since the law requires that they be listed on packaging. Moreover, legislation prohibited false claims about cures, and established organizations to examine and supervise the marketing of these products.

Things were different in early Grinnell. With no one to whom to answer, entrepreneurs generated and sold concoctions with no proven effectiveness and not infrequently with large quantities of alcohol or addictive drugs, in the process alleging wildly extravagant claims for their products. Grinnell did not escape this phenomenon; today's post looks at some of the patent medicines offered consumers in early Grinnell and what they tell us about life early in the twentieth century.


Undated photograph of McNally's Meat Market (1920?)

As Grinnell's W. B. Tew (1869-1946), who sold meat at 826 Main Street, pointed out in a 1903 newspaper advertisement, "There's nothing like a rich, juicy and tender beef steak. It warms the cockles of your heart; you never tire of it...." Indeed, the ad urged consumers to enjoy red meat for breakfast as well as for dinner (Grinnell Herald, March 20, 1903). Evidently lots of Iowans agreed with Tew's enthusiasm. By today's standards, early Iowans consumed way too much meat. According to a 1909 survey of urban Americans, the poorest Americans consumed 136 pounds of meat a year, and the richest more than 200 pounds, the great bulk of it red meat. 

The meat-heavy diet of the early twentieth century likely led to considerable abdominal discomfort among Grinnell's finest families. Red meat has no fiber, and if a person eats a lot of meat, the quantity of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables inevitably declines. The result? Constipation. Ambitious marketers rushed in with proposed remedies (none of which involved eating less meat). Indeed, some historians have characterized the early twentieth century in America as the "Golden Age of Purgation" when patent-medicine makers concentrated advertisements upon the ability of their products to relieve constipation, "biliousness," and sluggish bowels. Grinnell's newspapers regularly printed advertisements for products said to offer relief.

Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery
National Museum of American History

One of the entrepreneurs who flooded the market with over-the-counter remedies was Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840-1914).  Unlike most of his competitors, many of whom called themselves "Dr.," despite having no medical training, Pierce actually did graduate from medical school and for a few years practiced medicine in Pennsylvania. After he moved to Buffalo, New York in 1867, however, he concentrated upon the manufacture of patent medicines and proved very successful in this enterprise.

Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Pellets (!), for example, focused upon the liver, which, according to advertisements, "has a great deal to do with the removal of waste from the body," and not just from the blood either. "Dr. Pierce's Pellets regulate the bowels," an early ad claimed (Grinnell Herald, May 23, 1902). Indeed, Pierce's pills, which depended upon jalap resin, and aloin, may well have acted as a laxative, whether or not they helped the liver (Merck Manual [Rahway, NJ: Merck & Co., 1972 (reprinting 1899 ed.)], pp. 93, 188). But the presence of jimsonweed, known as a hallucinogen, complicated the formula for relieving constipation and added unanticipated side-effects.

Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery, often paired with Pierce's Pellets in advertising, was, its maker claimed, "far more than a tonic." Created from a mixture of root extracts (mandrake root; bloodroot; stone root; golden seal root, etc.), glycerine, borate of soda, and a lot of water) "Medical Discovery" was said to cure the liver, which,

When it is sluggish in its action the whole body must suffer by reason of clogging accumulations.... Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery...restores the liver to healthy activity, purifies the blood, and cures diseases of the organs of digestion and nutrition (Grinnell Herald, April 18, 1902).

Or so Grinnell purchasers hoped. 

Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription
National Museum of American History

Lest one think that these medicines aided only men or the elderly, advertising claimed help for the growing girl, "especially...as the young girl approaches that important period of change when the womanly function is established." Testimony alleged to come from a mother in Washington, DC confirmed that Pierce's Favorite Prescription (containing extracts from viburnum and the roots of lady's slipper, black cohosh, blue cohosh, and oregon grape) along with Pierce's Pleasant Pellets had cured a daughter previously "troubled with dizziness and constipation..." (Grinnell Herald, May 23, 1902). An ad published in Grinnell one month earlier used the words of a Virginia woman who believed "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription to be the best medicine in the world for suffering females" (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902).

Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902

Another patent medicine that competed for the attention of Grinnell's bloated, constipated citizens was Kodol, a "dyspepsia cure" manufactured by Chicago's E. C. DeWitt & Co.  Like other patent medicine purveyors, Elden C. DeWitt (1855-1927), who was born in Jones County, Iowa, grew rich: at his 1927 death his estate was valued at $20 million (approximately $300 million in today's currency). His money came from another wide array of patent medicines—aimed at kidneys, hemorrhoids, constipation, and "women's personal cleanliness and hygiene." 

Like Pierce's products, Kodol was a steady advertiser in newspapers of the early years of the twentieth century. Kodol "Digests what you eat," ads claimed, thereby allowing one "to eat all the food you want." "It can't help but do you good," advertising asserted, although nothing explained why or how the product accomplished its goal. One bottle cost one dollar, providing the purchaser with a considerable quantity of alcohol (about 12%), as well as some pancreatine and pepsin (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902). The Merck Manual of 1899 attributed some useful digestive quality to both pancreatin and pepsin (p. 118).

Kodol box and bottle

Hood's Vegetable Pills, "the best family cathartic," was yet another competitor for the cash of Grinnell's citizens. Hood's Pills, prepared and sold by C. I. Hood and Company Apothecaries, Lowell, Massachusetts, were cheaper than many remedies, selling for a mere twenty-five cents. Packages of the pills claimed that they "regulate the bowels, invigorate the liver, and cure sick headaches." An ad in the Grinnell newspaper went further, offering relief for "Constipation, Headache, Biliousness, Heartburn, Indigestion, [and] Dizziness" (Grinnell Herald, February 16, 1900). Packaging declared the pills to be "purely vegetable, containing no calomel, mercury, or mineral substance of any kind."

C. I. Hood Company Laboratory (ca. 1895)
(J. Paul Getty Museum, https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/89026/attributed-to-ci-hood-company-hood's-sarsaparilla-laboratory-lowell-mass-about-1895/)

Charles Ira Hood (1845-1922), like DeWitt and Pierce, produced an assortment of medicines that promised to cure everything from ingrown toenails to jaundice and eczema. By 1900 Hood was operating from a facility said to have been "the largest building in the world dedicated to the manufacture and sale of patent medicines." He had begun as a pharmacy apprentice, and by age 25 had opened his own drug store in Lowell, Massachusetts, and begun the preparation of Hood's Sarsaparilla, a purgative which included bits of several plants and a whole lot of alcohol (18%). He soon branched out into other products—tooth powder, soap, lotion, and cough syrup. When his wife sold the business soon after Hood's 1922 death, the widow collected $450,000—something more than $7 million in today's dollars.

Hood's Vegetable Pills
From National Museum of American History (https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_737797)

Another contender in the business of relieving constipation was Cascarets, which was perhaps the most widely-known patent medicine directed toward relieving constipation. Cascarets was the invention of a former Keokuk man—Harry L. Kramer (1861-1935)—who settled in Indiana, where he erected a health resort near Attica. Originally touted for its mineral springs, the resort soon focused upon the mud baths offered there, and so Hotel Mudlavia was born. Numerous celebrities visited the site, anxious to relieve the pains of rheumatism and other ills.

But it was Cascarets that earned Kramer a place in the patent medicine hall of fame. Packaged in a slim metallic case that could easily fit into a vest pocket or purse, Cascarets aimed to heal "cositive [sic] bowels, sour stomach, cold or headache." A half-dozen chocolate-like tablets originally cost ten cents, although later the price rose to a half-dollar. Like its competitors, Cascarets warred against a "torpid liver" and constipated bowels. The product's name hinted at its main ingredient, cascara, extracted from buckthorn bark and long recognized as a purgative. By 1900 Sterling Products, the maker of Cascarets, was selling five million tins a year.

Photograph of a tin of Cascarets
(National Museum of American History,  https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_718611)


Tanlac appeared less often in Grinnell newspapers than some of its competitors, but was omni-present elsewhere. The invention of a Dayton, Ohio entrepreneur named Lee Thomas Cooper (1875-1927), who had earlier tried to huckster a variety of cures, Tanlac claimed to be a "tonic and system purifier," phrasing that helped it escape regulation by the Pure Food and Drug Act. Depending upon an aggressive advertising campaign that employed unverifiable testimonials, Tanlac helped generate a fortune for Cooper. According to one report, 208,000 bottles were sold in eight months in North Carolina alone (The Health Bulletin of North Carolina, vol. 31[1916-17], p. 68). In 1921 company advertising claimed that more than 20 million bottles had been sold over the preceding six years (Grinnell Herald, June 21, 1921).

1922 US Passport Photograph of L. T. Cooper
Ancestry.com (U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925)

Tanlac literature did not reveal the secret contents, but advertising regularly claimed exotic origins for its constituent elements: "The Alps, Appenines, Pyrenees, Russian-Asia, Brazil, West Indies, Rocky Mountains, Asia Minor, Persia, India, Mexico, Columbia and Peru are among the far away points from which the principal properties of this remarkable preparation are obtained" (Grinnell Herald, June 21, 1921).

Chemical analysis discovered, however, that the main ingredient was alcohol—about seventeen percent; glycerine and various alkaloids were also present in smaller quantities (The Health Bulletin of North Carolina, vol. 31[1916-17],  p. 69). The several natural purgatives made Tanlac useful against constipation, and the alcohol may well have stimulated the appetite. But there is no reason to think that Tanlac, despite all the wild claims of its printed testimonials, relieved the numerous ailments advertising alleged to remedy (ibid., p. 70).

Package of Tanlac (http://www.weirduniverse.net/blog/comments/tanlac)


Other patent medicines hawked in Grinnell's newspapers addressed problems other than constipation. Scott's Emulsion, for instance, claimed to help "build new flesh." In the mid-1870s Alfred B. Scott (ca. 1846-1908) and Samuel W. Bowne (ca. 1843-1910) created this product as a "less nauseating preparation of cod liver oil." Unlike most other patent medicines, Scott's Emulsion advertised its contents, even before legislation required it: 50% cod liver oil along with calcium, soda, glycerine, and mucilage (possibly gum acacia). By 1900 Scott's Emulsion was being sold throughout the world, and some versions continue to be sold in the US (at Walmart, for example).

Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902

Early ads shouted that Scott's Emulsion "is not a good medicine for fat folks...Fat people don't want it. Strong people don't need it" (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902). Depending primarily upon cod liver oil (but flavored to make it more palatable), Scott's Emulsion provided vitamins A and D, whether or not it helped thin people grow stouter.

American Museum of American History

Shiloh's Consumption Cure, first offered for sale in the 1870s, was the brain child of Schuyler C. Wells (1840-1897). Like some other patent medicines, Shiloh's Consumption Cure pedaled a "habit-forming drug," in this case, heroin. Early advertisements, however, "guaranteed to cure Consumption, Bronchitis, Asthma, and all Lung Troubles. Cures Coughs and Colds in a day"—all this for twenty-five cents. After passage of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, the S. C. Wells Company changed tack, abandoning some of the most outrageous claims and concentrating instead upon the product's ability to stop coughs. For a time it bore the name Shiloh's Consumption Remedy (and not "cure"); under further pressure from critics, the company resorted to "Shiloh's Cure" (without specifying what it might cure), which remained available until at least 1948.

Advertisement for Shiloh's Consumption Cure
Grinnell Herald, April 29, 1902

Swansons Rheumatic Cure (also known as Swanson's 5-Drops), for instance, promised relief not only from rheumatism, but also from "bronchitis, lumbago, sciatica, gout, asthma, catarrh, nervousness, backache, dyspepsia, indigestion, croup, nervous and neuralgia headache, heart weakness, paralysis, creeping numbness, sleeplessness, eczema, scrofula and all blood diseases" (Grinnell Herald, December 30, 1904). 
Bottle of Swanson's Five Drops

Dr. Fenner's Kidney and Backache Cure was more modest in its claims, but no less insistent upon its effectiveness (Grinnell Herald, December 23, 1904). Milton Fenner (1837-1905) did earn an MD in "eclectic medicine," which he used to manufacture a variety of compounds of his own design. Dr. J. M. McLean's Liver and Kidney Balm, "a reliable remedy for diseases of the liver, kidneys and urinary organs," cost only one dollar (Grinnell Herald, February 17, 1903). Grinnellians worried about their hair or its disappearance could acquire Ayer's Hair Vigor, which "makes the hair grow, completely cures dandruff. And it always restores color to gray hair, all the rich, dark color of early life" (Grinnell Herald, January 24, 1905).

Bottle for Ayer's Hair Vigor
(National Museum of American History: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_715094)

Even in Grinnell, there were numerous other mixtures available which did not purchase space for advertisements in the newspaper. The Grinnell Historical Museum, for example, owns a bottle for what was known as Adlerika, invented in 1902, ostensibly as a cure for appendicitis. Fritola compound, a bottle from which may also be found in the Museum collection, was another patent medicine marketed as a laxative. Depending primarily upon several oils—olive, peanut, corn and palm—Fritola compound quite literally greased the intestines. No doubt there were many more patent medicines available at the five drug stores operating in early Grinnell.
Photo of Johnson and Wadsworth Drug Store, 827 Broad (ca. 1880s)

Reading the expansive claims made for these concoctions tempts one to ridicule the men and women who swallowed not only the bottle contents but also the claims that advertising for them advanced. However, if we consider for a moment contemporary off-label uses for products like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, our ancestors look a lot more like us than we might wish. Moreover, as today's bulging over-the-counter medicine racks prove, plenty of twenty-first-century Americans continue to self-prescribe remedies for their illnesses and pains.

What certainly distinguishes our world from that of early twentieth-century Grinnell, however, is the consequence of government intervention. The unregulated industry of patent medicines was dangerous and intentionally deceptive, the entrepreneurs' goal of great wealth playing a more important role than concern for the public health. Only after government stepped in, first in the form of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and then later with additional legislation, did manufacturers moderate their claims of effectiveness and alert purchasers to the contents of the packages that they purchased. Of course, fakery did not disappear, but government initiative made the early twentieth-century patent medicine market more truthful and helped weed out the worst offenders against public health.

PS. Thanks to Gene Wubbels for suggesting the 1899 Merck Manual to me.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

When Grinnell College Had a Black Playwright In Residence

Grinnell College is lucky to count Hallie Flanagan (1889-1969), Gary Cooper (1901-1961), and Peter Coyote (1941- ) among its alumni who have been active and successful in theater. Arthur Clifton Lamb did not achieve the same fame as these three, but his African American heritage propelled him along a different and no less important arc, dramatizing Black lives. Lamb graduated from Grinnell College, and took a master's in dramatics from the University of Iowa. He then taught at a series of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, ending his university career by teaching 25 years at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Along the way he sometimes took to the boards himself, but concentrated his energies on writing plays intended to bring the experiences of African Americans to theater audiences.

Today's post examines Lamb's life and his connections to Grinnell.

Norfolk New Journal & Guide, August 23, 1941


Arthur Clifton Lamb (1909-1988) was the fifth child born to Minnie (1879-1935) and Jacob Lamb (1876-1943) in Muscatine, Iowa, where Clifton, as he then liked to be called, attended the public schools.  Adjacent to the Mississippi River, Muscatine was closely tethered to the river. In the nineteenth century the Mississippi brought into town large numbers of African Americans who fled the slave-owning southern states by following the river north. The river also deeply affected the city's economy: the bend in the river at Muscatine deposited large numbers of mussel shells, which then brought to town button manufacturers who turned the shells into stylish buttons. Jacob Lamb, Clifton Lamb's father, was one of many African American button-cutters in turn-of-the-century Muscatine.

At the time of the 1925 Iowa census, Jacob Lamb and his entire family were settled in their Muscatine home at 518 Miles Avenue, living next door to Minnie Lamb's parents and not far from the river. "A. Clifton Lamb," as the 1926 Muscatine High School yearbook calls him, was approaching the end of his high school education, playing football, running track, and participating in "Declam" and the Athletic Scholarship Society. A photograph of the school's letter club shows that Lamb was the sole African American, a circumstance that prepared him for Grinnell College where he enrolled in the fall of 1927.

Photograph of the Letter Club, 1926 Muscatine High SchoolYearbook

At Grinnell Lamb lived in Clark Hall, where he was the only African American. He was similarly alone when, newly enrolled at the college, he was named one of five new members inducted into the Cosmopolitan Club (Scarlet and Black,  September 21, 1927). Indeed, he was inevitably the lone Black at Grinnell, wherever he went on campus.

Photograph of residents of Clark Hall; Lamb in middle of back row
(1931 Cyclone)

The student newspaper did not find much reason to print Lamb's name for the next eighteen months, but in February 1929 it carried word that Lamb would address the Cosmopolitan Club on "Solving the Negro Problem." Club members heard the young man say that "Race prejudice is barbarous and dangerous to a free and stable government," a comment that is no less true today than it was when Lamb articulated this proposition ninety years ago. But the college sophomore was not prepared to tell his white audience that the problem began and ended with white people.

We negroes are a sensitive and emotional people; we get incensed when there is no real cause for it. For instance, many negroes resent being called Afro-Americans. We have the same language, customs, and conscious history that the whites have, and we have shown our patriotism by sacrificing our blood in war and by contributing to the art and literature of America. Our negro spirituals are the only real folk songs that American has. We are not just Afro-Americans, but real Americans (ibid., February 27, 1929).

These thoughts led Lamb to encourage Blacks to be less sensitive, but he did not mean to overlook white stereotypes of African Americans. "...You [whites] should understand," he continued, "that we're not all chicken-thieves, crap-shooters and watermelon stealers. We have our own aims and dreams" (ibid.). Whether the Cosmopolitan Club members had heard these words previously the newspaper did not say, nor did it report how Lamb's talk was received, but the event reveals that young Clifton Lamb was thinking about race as he walked the halls of his overwhelmingly white college in the late 1920s.

Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, April 23, 1930

In his junior year, Lamb began to write plays, the art that he would take from Grinnell into the future. In the spring of 1930 his first play, "The Faith Cure Man," was performed in the ARH auditorium (ibid., March 22, 1930). According to a newspaper report, "the play depicts Negro life as it is influenced by spiritualism, and the plot is the conflict between old and new racial beliefs" (ibid., April 16, 1930).

Photo Still from 1930 Production of "The Faith Cure Man," 1932 Cyclone, p. 96

Lamb's play was a candidate for the Steiner Prize, but did not win; student judges deemed a competitor, "The Scoop," to have a better, more complicated plot than "Faith Cure Man." All the same, the student newspaper thought that Lamb's play "was the most impressive...from an emotional standpoint...The scene and the individual characters were real enough to produce a vivid emotional effect on the audience" (Scarlet and Black, April 30, 1930). More striking in retrospect is the fact that four white students—Margaret Napier '30; Myrna Adams '31; Russell Peterson '30; and William Schmaedecke '32—played the parts of African Americans. Given the scarcity of African American students at Grinnell, the roles could not have been filled in any other way, but casting white actors in plays about African Americans complicated Lamb's productions until he worked at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Photo Still from "Emperor Jones," 1931 Cyclone, p. 92

Lamb not only wrote plays; he also acted in them, including playing the lead in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones," which was performed on the Grinnell campus in December 1929 and re-staged for the 1930 Commencement. A student critic, writing in the Scarlet and Black, praised Lamb's acting and "artistic intensity." "The awful sincerity with which Mr. Lamb endured and fell victim to the fears of the forest must not have been easy to experience...and was not easily shaken off by the spectator..." (June 7, 1930).

But Lamb continued to focus his attention upon playwriting. In the spring of his senior year the drama department staged "Reachin' for the Sun," which the student newspaper called "a serious drama" (ibid., March 14, 1931). Because the play presented characters of a black minstrel group, white actors again assumed black identities on stage. At the 1931 commencement several student-written plays, including Lamb's "The Faith Cure Man," were staged as part of the celebration (ibid., May 27, 1931; Chicago Defender, June 20, 1931). The 1933 commencement week saw Lamb take the role of Cotton Lips in his  "Shades of Cotton Lips," in which "a Negro playwright...wishes to get away from the ordinary type of show featuring colored actors" (Scarlet and Black, May 6, 1933). These plays confirm that, even within the context of an otherwise white college community, Lamb wrestled with questions of African American identity, perhaps especially his own.

Advertisement for 1933 Commencement Plays at Grinnell College
(Scarlet and Black, May 13, 1933)

Although Lamb officially graduated in 1931, he was still on campus the following year; it may be that he had taken a break from college at some point, because his photograph appears with the graduating seniors in both the 1931 and 1932 Cyclones. 

Arthur Clifton Lamb, 1932 Cyclone, p. 27

In any case, his plays continued to attract attention, and not only in Grinnell.  At Christmas 1932 the Bethel Players, "a permanent and distinct unit of the [Bethel] A. M. E. church" in Muscatine, premiered Lamb's "The Two Gifts,  A Christmas Play for Negroes" (Muscatine Journal and News, December 21, 1932). Back in Grinnell the following spring, students (among them, Lamb in the role of Melchior) were rehearsing the same play to be performed in Mason City for the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs (Scarlet and Black, April 22, 1933). A year later the college's drama department announced its intention of staging another Lamb play, "She Dyed for a Prince," but, for reasons not explained, the Lamb play was pulled, replaced by a two-act comedy from Philip Moeller (ibid., February 3, 1934). A few months later, however, Lamb's most recent play was back on the boards (ibid., April 25, 1934).

In the summer of 1934 Lamb found himself in New York where he obtained a small part in "Dance with Your Gods," a Kenneth Perkins play set in Louisiana (ibid., September 26, 1934). After the play closed, Lamb returned to Muscatine where he wrote to Grinnell's Sara Sherman Pryor about her plans to publish some Grinnell student-authored plays.

I do know that I will never feel as much at home as I felt in New York. Broadway is not prejudiced against the Negro actor; it is willing to give him a decent break. The trouble is that there are too few good Negro plays. I think, for the time being, it is better for me to concentrate on my writing. With the few contacts I have made, I am confident that if I can produce something worthwhile, I can find a producer (ibid., December 8, 1934).

Winter 1935 Lamb returned to Grinnell where he was "working on a long play for Negro characters." He also took part in a playwriting class at Grinnell, but whether he was volunteering or hired I could not learn (ibid., February 20, 1935). While in Grinnell, Lamb joined the cast of Robert Irwin's "May-Basket," which the newspaper described as "a pleasant comedy about a negro communist who has been taken up by a couple of college students" (ibid., May 4, 1935). A few days later the annual student art exhibit included a series of "oil portraits of Clifton Lamb '32, negro playwright and actor, dressed as the leading character of his original one-act play, 'Cotton Lips'" (ibid., May 22, 1935).

Lamb costumed as Cotton Lips, 1934 Cyclone

Lamb's career received a boost when the Grinnell College Department of Drama published a collection of student-written plays, among them Lamb's "Two Gifts." The newspaper observed that the college's drama department would earn ten percent on all copies sold; the authors were also slated to receive royalties, although they must have been even more excited with the publicity that publication of their works brought (ibid., March 6, 1935; ibid., September 25, 1935; Norfolk New Journal and Guide, November 16, 1935).

Scarlet and Black, September 25, 1935

Soon after this Lamb took a position at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. University catalogs indicate that Lamb held the position of Instructor in Dramatics only for the academic year 1935-36 (1935-36 Shaw University Bulletin, p. 9). It seems likely that while at Shaw Lamb met Ann Louise Parham (1911-1991), then a student at Shaw and a pastor's daughter from Richmond, Virginia. The couple married June 12, 1937, by which time Lamb was teaching remedial English in New York City where the wedding was held (Muscatine Journal and News, July 29, 1937; Afro-American, 7 August 1937). 

Photograph from the April, 1940 Production of "Beebee" at University of Iowa
(Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs, 1866-2000, University of Iowa Digital Library: https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui%3Aictcs_22630)

That autumn Lamb took what was evidently a temporary appointment at Prairie View State College (today's Prairie View A&M University), because soon he was back in Iowa, enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Iowa. The three-act play he wrote for his master's degree, "Beebee" (later retitled "Black Woman in White"), was staged in April 1940 at Macbride Auditorium on the university campus. A newspaper report called the play a "dramatic struggle of a Negro lady doctor for a hospital for her people, and is set in Texas where Lamb is regularly employed as head of the department of dramatics at Prairie View State College" (Muscatine Journal and News, April 26, 1940). The same play, under the title, "Black Woman in White," had successful productions later at Howard University and the following year in Harlem by the Rose McClendon Players (Norfolk New Journal and Guide, August 23, 1941; New Amsterdam Star-News, August 23, 1941), whose performance earned raves (New York Age, August 23, 1941).

1940-41 Catalog of Prairie View State College, p. 15

According to the Muscatine newspaper, in 1940 Lamb had been at Iowa for a year and a half, but in that interval he seems to have been in Prairie View, Texas fairly often. Prairie View State University documents identify Lamb as a faculty member in 1937, and then again beginning in 1940. However, a 1939 article in the Prairie View State College newspaper, reporting on the staging of Lamb's play, "God's Great Acres," described Lamb as "head of the drama department at Prairie View" (The Panther, April 7, 1939), so he evidently remained formally affiliated with Prairie View then. 

Lamb the playwright also nursed an affection for poetry, although I found only a few of his poems published. In 1940, however, with talk of war everywhere, he published in the Pittsburgh Courier a three-stanza poem affirming his patriotism, and, by extension, the patriotism of all African Americans.

Listen, America! Mine was the first blood spilled in the Revolution. My brown hands helped rivet the nation together. I was with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. I, too, bore aloft the falling torch of the Flanders dead, And MY youth "where poppies blow." I have proved my right to sing full-voiced "My country 'tis of thee"... (Pittsburgh Courier, December 21, 1940).

The poem caught the eye of Langston Hughes, who sent Lamb an autographed copy of "America's Young Black Joe," a song whose lyrics Hughes had written on a similar theme (Pittsburgh Courier, January 18, 1941).

A 1942 article in the Chicago Defender tagged Lamb as "newly appointed chairman of the department of speech and dramatics" at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina (December 12, 1942). University catalogs confirm that Lamb remained on the faculty there through 1946 (1944-1946 Catalogs of Johnson C. Smith University), when he accepted appointment at Morgan State College (now Morgan State University).


At Morgan State Lamb continued his work with drama, but also developed interests in radio and television. In 1948 Lamb returned to New York City to study for and obtain a Certificate in Television and Radio from New York University (Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., comp., Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Scripts [NY: Greenwood Press, 1990], p. 123). Almost immediately thereafter, Lamb, back in Baltimore, helped found Morgan State's own radio station (WEAA), and began producing radio and television shows for the university (Baltimore Sun, March 27, 1988).  A 1960-61 Directory of College Courses in Radio and Television (ed. Pat Beall Hamill) reported that Lamb taught "Radio broadcasting; radio announcing; advanced radio direction and programming," a significant stretch of his earlier focus on acting and playwriting.

In addition, Lamb continued to reflect upon the difficulties confronting Black playwrights. Spring 1948 he took part in a Fine Arts Festival at Morgan State, delivering a lecture on "The Negro Playwright" (Baltimore Sun, May 13, 1948). He returned to this theme several times, including a letter to the editor of the New York TImes (February 13, 1955) and a lecture he gave at Goucher College in 1968 (Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1968).

Daily Iowan, November 19, 1952

Twenty years after his Grinnell graduation, Lamb returned to Iowa to pursue a doctorate at the University of Iowa while on leave from Morgan State (Daily Iowan, November 15, 1952). However, what began triumphantly ended in a personal defeat. Early in his second tenure at Iowa City, the University's Experimental Theater staged Lamb's "Roughshod Up the Mountain," which newspapers described as the "first all Negro university theater production in several years" (Daily Iowan, November 19, 1952; Des Moines Register, November 23, 1952). Despite the inexperience of the cast—which included "a Des Moines waiter, two Iowa City housewives [one of whom was Helen Renfrow Lemme, a Grinnell High School graduate], a shoe repairman, and six SUI students," only Lamb, who played the part of Preston Spears, a preacher, had any acting experience—the play enjoyed a generally favorable reception (Daily Iowan, November 26, 1952).

From this exciting success, Lamb's career took a heartbreaking crash: shortly after staging "Roughshod Up the Mountain," Lamb was expelled from the University graduate program, but no explanation was made public. In a 2016 book, however, Lena M. Hill argued that Lamb was a victim of white mistrust of "relationships across racial lines," a reflection of the continuing racism at the University. "Notwithstanding Lamb's promising start [at Iowa]," she writes, 

when a night watchman discovered him and a white female student in a compromising situation in the basement of the drama building, his doctoral studies came to an unceremonious end...As soon as the news of Lamb's interracial romantic liaison spread, [E. C.] Mabie [1892-1956], Lamb's adviser] was forced to take action to protect the integrity of the department. Thus, Lamb was not allowed to complete his doctoral work at Iowa (Invisible Hawkeyes at the University of Iowa, eds. Lena M. Hill and Michael D. Hill [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016], pp. 97-98).

I found no account of how Lamb absorbed this humiliating end to his Iowa studies, nor did I learn how Louise Lamb or the couple's two children, Arthur Clifton Lamb, Jr. (1939- ) and Carroll G. Lamb (1942- ), processed the news. But the fact that the encounter was "interracial" reminds us how all along Lamb had been navigating African American experience with white casts and white audiences. White actors might easily don blackface to act their parts, but doing so did not liberate them or their superiors from racial bias.

Morgan State chapter of Alpha Psi Omega Honorary Dramatics Society
Arthur Clifton Lamb, back row, 2nd from left
1955 Promethean Yearbook, p. 80

By 1955 Lamb was back at Morgan State, advising the local chapter of the national honorary Dramatics Society (Alpha Psi Omega) and staging "Roughshod Up the Mountain." He remained a vital part of the dramatics program at Morgan State, adding courses in radio and television work. By the time he retired in the 1970s, Lamb bequeathed a vital legacy of African American dramatics to Morgan State and its students. It is a shame to realize that Lamb did not live long enough to see his name, along with that of his Morgan State colleague, Waters E. Turpin (1910-1968), etched onto the face of the university's new theater in 2001. Unfortunately, many of the racial issues with which Lamb and his dramas had wrestled remained to trouble new generations. But his playwriting, begun on the campus of an all-white Midwestern college, had brought generations of African Americans—especially within the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—into closer touch with their American experience.

A Beginning List of Arthur Clifton Lamb Plays and Performances

Information borrowed from Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., ed., Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Scripts (NY: Greenwood Press, 1990). Additional sources indicated in the text.

"The Faith Cure Man" (1930) © July 30, 1930; D unpub. 6006; Arthur Clifton Lamb, 518 Miles Ave., Muscatine, IA  4278.  One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus March 22, 1930, and again at commencement week 1931 and 1933.

"Reachin' for the Sun" (1930). One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus, March 1931.

"She Dyed for a Prince" (1930). One-act play produced on Grinnell College campus,  April 1934.

"Shades of Cotton Lips" (1931). First produced at Grinnell College, May 18, 1933 and again June 3, 1933; later at North Carolina A. & T. College, Greensboro, NC and at The New School for Social Research, New York.

"The Two Gifts (A Christmas Play for Negroes)" (1935) © July 1, 1934; D 31236; Dept of Drama, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA 5644. Produced by the Maclean College Players, Chicago, December 6, 1935; published in Grinnell Plays (Chicago, 1935).

"God's Great Acres" Produced at Prairie View State College, April 1939; "portrays the social problem of farm mechanization and its effects upon sharecroppers...stirring drama...of humor, pathos, song...true to life characterization of the southern sharecroppers" (Prairie View Panther, April 7, 1939); awarded Sergel Prize in Regional Playwriting from University of Chicago in 1939 (Helen Keyssar-Franke, "Afro-American Drama and its Criticism," Bulletin of New York Public Library, vol. 78, n. 3, p. 331).

"Black Woman in White" (formerly "Beebee)" (1940) © Dec. 16, 1940; D 72862; Arthur Clifton Lamb, Hempstead, TX 707.  First produced at University of Iowa, April 25, 1940; produced at Howard University (date unknown) and in Harlem by the Rose McClendon Players at Rose McClendon Workshop, New York, August 13, 1941.

"Millsboro Memorial" (1946) Produced at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, convened at Tennessee A. & I. State University, Nashville, TN, April 10, 1946

"Portrait of a Pioneer" (1949). Short radio play on the career of Ira Aldridge, the first Black Shakespearean and classical actor of the nineteenth century. Published in Negro History Bulletin, April 1949, pp. 162-64

"Roughshod Up the Mountain" (1953) © Arthur Clifton Lamb, May 13, 1953  DU34057.  Produced at Tennessee A. &  I. State University, Nashville, TN, June 25, 1956; presented as the American entry in the Annual International Festival, Sarah Bernhardt Theatre, Paris, June 1946; staged at University of Iowa Experimental Theater, November 21-22, 1952 (Daily Iowan, November 15, 1952; Muscatine Journal, November 15, 1952); produced Off-Broadway by Ira Aldridge Players of Morgan State College for a Producers' Showcase performance, November 22-25, 1956 (Los Angeles Sentinel, November 1, 1956); produced in Paris for 11th International Theater Festival, summer 1964 (Muscatine Journal, February 7, 1964).

"Mistake Into Miracle" (1961) 90-minute teleplay, adapted later into full-length play that dramatized the life of George Washington Carver (Baltimore Sun, March 27, 1988). Produced at Morgan State College, Baltimore, December 8, 1961.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Iowa Olympian You Never Heard Of...

Many Iowans have competed in the Olympics, as Don Doxsie showed in his survey a few years ago ("Olympic Dreams Blossom in Iowa," Iowa History Journal [July 2012]:4-6, 32-34), and a fair share of them returned home with medals.  Jerry Winholtz (1874-1962), who took a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis (ibid., p. 6), was apparently the first Iowa Olympic medal winner. Few now remember Winholtz, but plenty of Iowans remember Shawn Johnson East (b. 1992), the much-decorated Iowa gymnast who won one gold and three silver medals at the 2008 summer Olympic games. Earlier, Dan Gable (b. 1948), famed wrestler and long-time wrestling coach, won Olympic gold in 1972, attracting a lot of media attention. Older Iowans may remember F. Morgan Taylor (1903-1975), who won medals at the 1924, 1928, and 1932 Olympics. 

1906 Old Gold, yearbook of Iowa State Normal School

However, not even Doxsie's long list of Iowa Olympic competitors identifies the first Iowan to bring home Olympic gold: Frank "Red" Hamilton, who at the 1908 London Olympic games set a torrid pace in the first leg of the 1600-meter relay that the American team won handily. Frank grew up in Rock Creek township, his father operating a rented farm there. The Hamiltons took their mail in Grinnell, used the Grinnell telephone system, and young Frank received at least a part of his education in the Grinnell schools. So, today's Grinnell Story introduces readers to Red Hamilton, a forgotten Iowa Olympic champion who grew up right here in central Iowa.


William Franklin Hamilton (1883-1955) was born in State Center, Iowa where his father farmed. Although records offer some difference over the year of his birth, Frank, as he was usually known, was certainly the youngest of five boys born to William Miller Hamilton (1832-1906) and Laura Manley Hamilton (1842-1923). When in 1885 Iowa census officials found the Hamiltons, Frank's dad was 52; Laura was 42, and mother to the five boys who peopled the farmer's household: George (1873-1925), 13; Paul (1874-1970), 11; Walter (1876-1948), 8; Alfred (1878-1945), 6; and "Franklin," then just two years old. Almost immediately afterward, the Canada-born farmer moved his family to Jasper County, renting a farm in Rock Creek township. Officials conducting the 1900 census found only two sons still at home—Alfred, then 21, and Frank, 18—but a servant helped carry the load for 68-year-old William and 57-year-old Laura.

Grinnell Post Office Listing for William M. Hamilton in 1892 Iowa Farmers' Directory

Details of young Frank's schooling are vague. According to later reports, Hamilton "received his primary education in the rural schools of this county [Jasper], the public school of Grinnell, and the academy at Newton" (Gen. James B. Weaver, ed., Past and Present of Jasper County, Iowa [Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen & Col., 1912], 2:1112). A newspaper report confirms that young Frank did attend Rock Creek Township school no. 7, but the rest remains unconfirmed. 

Notice from the Rock Creek column of the Kellogg Enterprise, December 13, 1889
(thanks to Harley McIlrath who shared this find with me)

According to some accounts, Frank finished school—whether he graduated or not remains unclear—in Newton, attending the Newton Normal College, a successor to the Hazel Dell Academy, but I have yet to find any record to corroborate this claim.

Newton Normal College, ca. 1905
Digital Grinnell

Over the first eighteen or nineteen years of life Frank did not attract much attention, his name rarely appearing in the public records. It is possible, however, that at exactly this time Frank began to run; a photograph of the 1901 Grinnell High School track team includes the slight figure of a boy who resembles the later Frank Hamilton; unfortunately, no identification of those photographed accompanies the picture. 

Photograph of 1901 Grinnell High School Track Team; back row, far right, possibly Frank Hamilton
(Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Summer 2010, p. 67; State Historical Society of Iowa archives)

If Frank ran track for Grinnell at this time, he did not run with the success that attended his later performances. In these years a trio of young Grinnell high schoolers—George Longshore (1883-1911), Karl Kiesel (d. 1963), and William Hodgdon (1884-1965)—regularly won the high school races reported in the newspapers. All through the 1900, 1901, and 1902 track seasons, the names of Longshore, Kiesel, and Hodgdon appear in newspaper accounts; not even in the sprints that later became Hamilton's forte did Frank's name ever appear. Consequently, if Hamilton did run with the Grinnell High School team in these years, he did not distinguish himself.

George Longshore, Karl Kiesel, and William Hodgdon at June 7, 1902 National Meet in Chicago
(Digital Grinnell) 

As a nineteen-year-old, William Frank Hamilton entered the Iowa State Normal School (ISNS) in the fall of 1902, enrolling first in the preparatory department, an indication, perhaps, that he had not in fact graduated from high school. Choosing ISNS was not common for Iowa young men of the time; women made up the great majority of students at the school, which aimed to prepare public school teachers, an occupation that was overwhelmingly female. For the academic year 1905-1906, for instance, women accounted for 777 of the 1003 students regularly enrolled (Sixteenth Biennial Report of the Iowa State Normal School [Des Moines, 1907], p. 14). But a handful of men did enroll at Cedar Falls, and Frank Hamilton was among them, perhaps at that time aiming to become a teacher.

Iowa State Normal School Enrollment Card for William Frank Hamilton
(Courtesy of University of Northern Iowa Archives via Harley McIlrath)

But what brought Frank—or "Red" or "Reddy," as his auburn hair came to identify him—to public attention in these years had little to do with schoolwork. At ISNS Red rather suddenly bloomed into a track star, anchoring an increasingly successful track and field squad.

Publications from ISNS confirm that Frank did join the school's track team spring 1903, but he seems not to have made much of an impression that first season. As a retrospective glance from 1907 made clear, in his first year at Cedar Falls Hamilton "had then no record to distinguish him, in an athletic way, from any of the other youthful aspirants" to running success (1907 Old Gold, p. 254). A notice from late May 1903 reports that Hamilton was taken to that year's state meet, but only because he was among the "promising men for next year" (Normal Eyte, June 10, 1903). That promise, however, was enough to impress coaches and fellow track men, because in January 1904 they named Frank team captain (ibid., January 16, 1904), an honor that seems outsize for a man who had so far proved little on the cinder track. An article assessing the squad's chances in the upcoming season observed that,

While Red Hamilton is much faster than [he was] last year...he does not begin to be in the same class with the greased-lightning sprinters which our sister institutions are praising so loudly (ibid., March 19, 1904).

Against this rather modest assessment, unexpected illness further tamped down expectations. In late March measles interrupted Hamilton's running, and the ISNS newspaper worried that it was "now doubtful whether Hamilton will return for spring term as his eyes are bothering him" (ibid., March 26, 1904). Frank did return, however, and almost overnight became what the Normal Eyte enthusiastically called "our champion sprinter" (ibid., April 29, 1904). At Normal's home meet in late April, Hamilton exploded into sporting glory, winning the 100-yard, 220-yard, and 440-yard dashes along with a third-place finish in the 220-yard hurdles (ibid.). The same man, who one month earlier was so seriously ill that he contemplated abandoning running, now ran four races in the same meet, and won three of them. At the Inter-State meet held at Normal in early May, Red continued his hot pace, again winning the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard dashes, beating the old school records (ibid., May 10, 1904). Quite suddenly Red Hamilton, who may not have run at all in high school and who in his first year at Normal only "showed promise," had become a collegiate sprinting star and the darling of ISNS track fans. How had it happened?

It bears emphasizing that Red's successful 1904 times were not much different from the winning times put up by Grinnell High School track men when Frank himself was a high schooler. Now more mature and practiced, Hamilton—described as "stout" in his 1917 draft registration—was still running at times younger competitors had reached years earlier. For instance, Hamilton's May 1904 record in the 100-yard dash, 10.5 seconds (Cedar Falls Gazette, May 10, 1904), barely reached George Longshore's best time in that event (10.4 seconds) in 1902, when Longshore was just a high school junior (Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 9, 1902). (To be fair, a couple of days later Red ran the 100 in 10 flat [Iowa State Reporter, May 13, 1904].) Even as a high school freshman, Longshore had won the 100 in the 1901 State Meet with a time of 10.6 seconds (Cedar Rapids Republican, May 18, 1901). Something similar might be said about the 220, which high schooler Longshore won in Chicago in 1902 with a time of 22.8 seconds (Des Moines Daily Leader, June 8, 1902); two years later collegiate sophomore Red Hamilton set the record at ISNS with a time of 23 seconds (1906 Old Gold, p. 76). In other words, Red's improvement, though real, was not quite as gobsmacking as it must have seemed to the young man enjoying the recent glow of athletic fame.

All the same, Hamilton continued to improve and impress. Several times during the 1905 season, Red ran the 100 in ten seconds flat, the new ISNS record. Moreover, as before, Hamilton routinely ran at least three races at each meet, setting new records not only for the 100-yard dash, but also for both the 220 (22.6 seconds) and 440 (52 seconds). As the Normal Eyte reported about the May 1905 dual meet with Coe, 

Reddy Hamilton was the star of the meet. He ran the 100 in ten seconds flat, leaving Coe's sprinter far in the rear. He took first in the 220 and 440 dashes, and, in the most exciting half mile ever run on Normal's track, overtook the fleet-footed Cameron of Coe and finished with more of a lead than he had handicap at the start. The crowd simply went wild (May 21, 1905).

Hamilton's successes accumulated, leading an ISNS commentator to declare Red "the greatest college sprinter in Iowa" (1905 Normal Eyte Annual, p. 76). Hamilton's speed encouraged him in 1905 to experiment with playing football for ISNS. Typically stationed at right end, Red used his speed to evade tackles (and tickle the heart-strings of ISNS fans).

Frank Hamilton in Football Gear at ISNS
(Normal Eyte, December 13, 1905)

But it was on the cinder oval that Red achieved his greatest successes. During the 1906 season Red continued his winning ways, competing in (and winning) multiple events on the same day. At a Cedar Rapids meet in May, for example, he won the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard hurdles, and the broad jump. In addition, he anchored the half-mile relay team which also won (ibid., May 23, 1906). At the annual Conference Field Meet in Chicago in June, Hamilton again walked away with the 100- and 220-yard dashes, successes that led some trainers to appeal to Red to come to their universities. Back in Cedar Falls, fans viewed with regret the end of Hamilton's ISNS running days.

We feel very sorry to lose our faithful athlete but realize that it is for his best welfare that he leaves us...In large measure Mr. Hamilton's success is due to his clean personal habits. Unlike many athletes, he is in training every day of his life as he is entirely free from degrading habits or vices, and takes great care to maintain the perfect physical condition and vigorous health that he enjoys (ibid., June 6, 1906).

1906 ISNS Track Team; Hamilton: 2nd from right, 2nd row
(1907 Old Gold, p. 237)

But what would be next for the track sensation? In early 1906 Frank had experimented with teaching mathematics at Cedar Falls High School (Normal Eyte, January 31, 1906), a not unlikely result of having attended ISNS. But by summer 1906, Red seems to have had other ambitions, and running remained at the center of his attention. 

Cedar Falls High School, ca. 1903 (no longer standing)

Two autumn articles reported that Red had decided to enroll at Drake University Medical Department (Drake Times Delphic, September 22, 1906; Normal Eyte, September 26, 1906). Inasmuch as "Doc" Pell, Hamilton's track coach at ISNS, had also signed on with Drake, Red's decision seems easy to explain. However, within a month Hamilton withdrew from Drake and announced that he was determined to enter medical school at Chicago's Northwestern University. More importantly, Red told reporters that "I shall never appear on the cinder path for a college again." Saying so did not mean, however, that he would not run. "I enjoy running," Red said, "and don't like to think of giving it all up...so I may possibly join some athletic club and thus keep on the track..." (Des Moines Register, October 31, 1906).


The abrupt farewell to Drake began the next stage in Red's career that culminated in his appearance at the 1908 Olympic games in London. Within days of his departure from Des Moines, Hamilton signed up with the YMCA Training School in Chicago (Coe College Cosmos, November 8, 1906) and resumed competitive running. In March 1907 Frank ran both the 60-and the 440-yard dashes at the A.A.U. championship. Commentators thought Hamilton a good bet to win, recognizing him "as a speedy man when he gets started, but [he] is slow in the getaway" (Inter Ocean, March 8, 1907). A month later Red participated in the Cook County YMCA meet, running in the 120, 220, and 440 (ibid., April 5, 1907). All spring Frank appeared in meets throughout greater Chicago, honing his technique and strengthening his legs.

By summer, Red decided to travel to England where he would give "exhibition runs" (Des Moines Register, June 11, 1907). This plan generated gossip about whether the former ISNS star might go professional (Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 17, 1907). Instead, under the sponsorship of the Chicago Athletic Association Hamilton continued to compete in amateur meets. In late August he set a new central AAU record in the 220 (22 2/5), but was disappointed to lose to another Grinnell speedster, Harry "Doc" Huff (1880-1964), in the 100 (Inter Ocean, September 1, 1907). A few days later Hamilton won the 440 at the Metropolitan Athletic Association meet (ibid., September 3, 1907). 

Inter Ocean, October 31, 1907

The pace was punishing, and cannot have left Red with much time to think about medical school. Perhaps this circumstance explains why in October 1907 Frank announced that he would enroll in the medical department of the University of Louisville (ibid., October 31, 1907). Medical school or not, Hamilton was not yet ready to abandon running, his eyes firmly set on making the US Olympic track team. In May 1908 the years of conditioning and competitive racing paid off handsomely at the US Olympic qualifying meet in Chicago: Frank won both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, thereby earning a spot on the American Olympic Track and Field team (Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1908; Des Moines Tribune, June 9, 1908). 

Much was written about the US squad and its journey to England aboard the SS Philadelphia. Organizers attempted to provide the means by which the athletes could continue to train while the ship plied the North Atlantic en route to England. According to American officials,

the men will train all the way over [the ocean]. They will use the poop deck for the work, and a board track will be rigged up for running and the jumping. They will have a special training table and a gymnasium with all the necessary apparatus aboard (Inter Ocean, June 28, 1908).

The long journey extended public anticipation of Olympic competition, but when fog slowed the Americans' arrival, American newspapers could only groan (Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1908).

Sprinting in London in mid-July might not be a runner's first choice, but by the time the American Olympians reached London, the athletes were eager to make their mark. Hamilton was among the favorites in the 100-meter dash, but, because there were so many entrants, organizers had to run 17 heats to narrow the field. Red won his heat—the eleventh—with a time of 11 1/5 seconds, but officials scratched him from the semi-finals, so he did not run in the final, won by R. E. Walker of South Africa. Again in the 200-meter Hamilton won his heat—the tenth— with a time of 22 2/5 seconds, but lost a close race to Canada's Kerr in the first semi-final heat, and therefore could not run in the finals (The Fourth Olympiad, Being the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1908 [London: British Olympic Association, 1909], pp. 50-53). Since both the 100- and 200-meter dashes were thought to be Hamilton's best events, it looked as though Red might go home without any Olympic medals.

The American 1600-meter Relay Team at 1908 London Olympics:
L-R: Nathaniel Cartnell, John Taylor, Melvin Sheppard, and W. F. Hamilton
(University of Pennsylvania Archives: Digital Images. UPF 1.9 AR, Alumni Records Collection, Box 2702. https://library.artstor.org/asset/SS7732016_7732016_12330220)

But then fate intervened. Harry Huff was scheduled to run the first leg (200 meters) of the 1600-meter relay, but an injury forced him to withdraw (Grinnell Herald, July 28, 1908). Hamilton took his place and did all that the Americans could have wished. In the qualifying heat, Red gave his teammate, Nate Cartnell (1883-1967), a two-yard advantage. By the time Cartnell touched John Taylor (1882-1908) (the only African American on the squad), the American lead had expanded to six yards. Taylor kept the advantage, handing off to Melvin Sheppard (1883-1942) for the final 800 meters. Sheppard, who had already won gold in the 800-meter race (Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1908), widened the gap, winning by 25 yards. The final proved that the American semi-final win was no fluke. In the first 200 meters Hamilton opened up a six-yard lead, and Cartnell extended the advantage to eight yards. John Taylor's "remarkable stride widened the gap very considerably, giving Sheppard a 15-yard head start which he widened to twenty-five yards by the time he broke the tape" (ibid., pp. 98-99). The American team easily won gold, and Frank Hamilton, stymied at the 100- and 200-meter dashes, now had an Olympic gold medal to take home. 


Although the Olympic games had to have been the high point of Red's running career, perhaps because of disappointment at the 100- and 200-meter races in London, afterwards Red continued to compete in sprints. Immediately after the Olympics, Hamilton won the 200-meter race in Paris, setting a time of 22 seconds flat (Grinnell Herald, August 4, 1908). Back in the States, Hamilton competed in Amateur Athletic Union meets, including the Travers Island championship September 19 when Red won the 100 in 10 1/5 seconds (Des Moines Tribune, September 21, 1908).

But then the Amateur Athletic Union received complaints that alleged that Hamilton had lost his amateur status by having competed for a cash prize in a Sioux City race (Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1908). To put it as one newspaper did, Frank had "sullied himself by racing against a negro for a fiduciary consideration" (ibid., October 9, 1908). While AAU officials investigated, allegations against Hamilton penetrated the press, which could only have complicated things for Red. Finally in December the AAU "temporarily suspended" Frank, who "neither affirmed nor denied the charge" (Normal Eyte, December 16, 1908). As spring broke across the plains, the AAU restored Hamilton to good standing, having been provided evidence that proved that Hamilton could not have been in Sioux City on the day in question (ibid., April 21, 1909).

1911 University of Louisville Yearbook, The Colonel, p. 81

Whether the smudge on his reputation ever lifted is unclear, but Red certainly continued to race throughout 1909. Newspapers speculated upon his chances at making the 1910 Olympic squad, but Hamilton himself seems not to have set his hat to return to the international track. Of course, he led the University of Louisville track team and also bent himself to the study of medicine, emerging with an MD in 1911. By this time Frank, who turned 28 in 1911, was coaching high school runners in Louisville, his peak performances now behind him (Louisville Courier-Journal, April 9, 1911).


Record of the November 1911 Marriage Between William Hamilton and Shirley McLennon

That same year Dr. William F.  Hamilton opened his medical practice in Baxter, Iowa. In late November he married, taking Shirley McLennan (1883-1952) as his bride. Within a few years, the Hamiltons moved to Marshalltown, where Red practiced medicine for almost thirty years. Before long they welcomed to the family two daughters—Shirley (1914-1957) and Sally (1917-1978) (who briefly attended Grinnell College 1936-37). Frank's brothers remained in central Iowa, where they died and were buried. But midway through World War II, Frank decided to move to Southern California where he passed the last decade or so of his life, still practicing medicine. He died August 1, 1955, and was buried in the Glendale section of Forest Lawn Cemetery. No one has yet felt the need to provide findagrave.com a photograph of Frank's grave which, like his Olympic achievements, now stands forgotten. But back on that muggy July day in 1908 London, Frank "Red" Hamilton was a gold-winning Olympic champion.


As often happens, I owe this story to friends who brought Red Hamilton to my attention. I had never heard of Hamilton, but then Martha Pinder, John Kissane, and Harley McIlrath included me in a small hurricane of emails about Hamilton. Harley was especially assiduous in seeking out details of the Hamiltons, and generously shared his findings with us all. Harley knows a lot more about Red Hamilton than I will ever know, and I hope that he will find the occasion to tell the whole story, and not just the fragment that I present here. But I owe Harley, Martha, and John my thanks for including me in this historical scavenger hunt, and for generously sharing with me the numerous fruits of their historical searches: thank you!