Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ku Klux Klan in Grinnell?

Grinnell has long taken justifiable pride in its abolitionist past, even if the city was never fully free of racial discrimination. Consequently, reports in the early 1920s about the appearance in town of the Ku Klux Klan proved shocking. The Klan, founded on the heels of the Civil War but languishing in the first years of the twentieth century, had revived during World War I. The immense popularity of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation had helped galvanize the Klan, which began to hire recruiters who gradually built outposts of the KKK throughout the country, including parts of the Midwest. As a secret organization, the Klan was hard to trace, which only made more unnerving those moments when evidence of the Klan surfaced unexpectedly, as it did one night in 1923 on the grassy terrain of the Grinnell Country Club.

Grinnell Herald October 23, 1923, p. 1
The original KKK had appeared in 1865 as a reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Intent upon guaranteeing white supremacy and what Klan spokesmen called the protection of (white) womanhood, the original Klan had prospered throughout the South. Often operating as vigilantes, Klansmen terrorized black Americans, and were responsible for numerous lynchings, especially throughout the deep South.

Federal legislation in the 1870s put a serious crimp in Klan activity, although vigilantism against African Americans continued. Iowa witnessed relatively few lynchings—one of the deeds commonly associated with the KKK—when compared to the totals of other states. Moreover, Iowa's lynchings mostly victimized whites rather than African Americans.

None of these lynchings had taken place in Grinnell, so it must have been a surprise to readers of the January 18, 1907 Grinnell Herald to find an editorial taken from the Charles City Intelligencer: "A Wise Note from Charles City." The article offered a reproving account of the lynching earlier that month of James Cullen, a white man accused of having murdered his wife and step-son. A crowd of about 400 had taken Cullen from the Floyd County jail and had promptly hanged him from the Main Street bridge over the Cedar River. The editorial objected to vigilantism, here not obviously attributable to the Klan, but the hanging must have stirred anxiety and uncomfortable memories among Grinnell's mostly liberal elite.
Main Street Bridge, Charles City (
(image changed on recommendation of Beth's comment below 5/4/2016)
Nevertheless, few echoes of the KKK were heard in Grinnell before the 1923 report of the country club burning cross. The first, rather mysterious sign of the Klan's presence in Grinnell was reported on the front page of the Grinnell Herald, October 23, 1923. According to the article, on the evening of Friday, October 19th, a burning cross had been discovered on the fairway of hole number 4 at the country club, adjacent to the tracks of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroad. Although the cross only burned for about twenty minutes, a "galaxy of automobiles assembled in the immediate neighborhood" (exactly where, one wonders?) to witness the unusual event, but none of those present admitted to having seen anyone set up the cross. The newspaper went on to claim that, according to unnamed informants, "a local organization [of the Ku Klux Klan had been] formed in Grinnell two weeks ago last night" (i.e., October 8, 1923), and, in a wry conclusion, the newspaper offered "a year's [free] subscription to the person who will hand in a list of the members to be printed as is customary in an account of the formation of a new order." No such list was ever printed, but suspicion about the Klan's presence remained firmly embedded in popular consciousness.

The next summer (June 6, 1924) the Herald published a short article on a meeting of the KKK in nearby Gilman. Apparently an Ohio representative—one of the Klan's official, paid recruiters who were part of the Klan's "second wave" in the 1920s—addressed "quite a good-sized crowd" in Gilman's park, explaining the "aims and objects of the Klan." "A delegation of knights [KKK members] in their robes was present, and formed a circle around the speaker's stand," the paper continued. Afterwards, those wishing to join the Klan were invited to meet off-site with officials; the Herald remarked that "we understand [that] quite a few were sworn into the order."

Reports like these appeared occasionally in the press, all with the same vagueness that unsettled those opposed to the Klan. For example, in late October 1922, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette published a short piece on what even the headline admitted was a rumor—an organizing meeting of a local chapter of the KKK in nearby Nevada, Iowa. The newspaper reported that "Despite the fact that no definite information is obtainable the rumor [of the meeting] generally is accepted as true."
Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette October 28, 1922
Unsurprisingly, the Des Moines African American newspaper, Iowa Bystander, paid the most attention to the Klan's revived fortunes. What can only be called a screaming headline in the paper's November 20, 1920 issue alerted readers to the Klan's "invasion" of the North. The article itself, however, referred mainly to parades and demonstrations throughout the South. 
The Iowa Bystander November 20, 1920, p. 1
Nevertheless, the article quoted a letter from the Klan's Grand Kleagle that expressed the intention of opening new chapters of the Klan in New York, Maine, Illinois, Missouri, and California. The Bystander concluded by quoting an official from the NAACP: "The Ku Klux Klan is the most dangerous tendency in American life today and ought to be stamped out...."
The Bystander August 11, 1921, p. 1
But the paper had no news about the Klan's success in Iowa until the following summer.  An article in the August 11, 1921 edition of The Bystander quoted the Des Moines Chief of Police to the effect that the KKK had apparently organized a chapter in the city. "The mere organization of the Ku Klux," Chief Saunders said, "will not interest the police. But if any of them try to take the law into their own hands, then they'd better look out for the police." The paper went on to declare that the Iowa Attorney General was also keeping a close eye on the situation.
Consequently, it appears that only episodic reports of the Klan's success in 1920s Iowa made it into print. And, so far as I could discover, no further mention of the Klan appeared in Grinnell's newspapers. It is surprising, therefore, to note that at about this same time the college newspaper found several occasions to mention the Klan. In its January 6, 1923 issue, for example, the Scarlet and Black offered editorial criticism of something called "The Oracle," apparently a group of college upper-classmen, including "the huskiest and most hard-boiled athletes," who attempted to "regulate the morality and enforcement of traditions at Grinnell College." The S&B likened the group to the Klan, which, like the Oracle, kept its membership secret and felt free to enforce ("in the dead of night") its opinions upon people who had no voice in choosing them.

The following week (January 13) the college newspaper included yet another article that referenced the Klan.  This time the paper directly attacked the Klan, borrowing from an article written by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, co-editors of the literary magazine, The Smart Set. Mencken and Nathan had apparently defended the Klan as "typically American," but had also criticized the Klan's opponents as being two-faced, often supporting the very ideas for which they criticized the Klan. "The fundamental cause...of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan," the paper opined,  "is the weakness of human passions: envy, jealousy, and anger." In this view, the Klan fed off the desires of men who wanted to punish others with what they themselves could not do.
Scarlet and Black January 13, 1923
The newspaper concluded by expressing the hope that "Careful introspection and action governed by the results of this introspection will kill the Klan, if men still retain a sense of honor."

Little more was said about the Klan until the following autumn, when, according to the S&B (September 19, 1923), a freshman student used the KKK outfit as a costume for his performance during initiation rites. About a month later (October 31, 1923) the college paper reported on a "stunt" performed at Homecoming by students dressed to represent Klan members, hooded in white robes. Everyone seemed to think the stunt very humorous.
What explains this spate of local attention—some serious, some not so serious—to the KKK? For one thing, the Klan's revival in the 1920s was certainly real, and may well have resulted in a chapter right here in Grinnell. But even if Grinnell did not have its own KKK, the increased visibility of the Klan nationwide surely made the Klan more familiar to Grinnellians, both on and off the campus. Like many other towns in Iowa, Grinnell had been host to showings of Birth of a Nation, the film that had helped revive the fortunes and reputation of the KKK. Grinnellians, therefore, were familiar with the peculiar costume of the Klan's members and knew something about the vigilantism that the organization advocated. The burning cross at the Country Club had perhaps most forcefully brought home to Grinnell the reality of the Klan's revival, but long before that fiery cross was planted on the Country Club grass, Grinnellians were familiar with the Klan.

Over the long haul, however, the KKK seems to have had little impact in Grinnell. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the subject almost completely disappeared from local newspapers. Nationwide the Klan's fortunes ebbed with the outbreak of the Great Depression, but in Iowa, where the agricultural depression was already in evidence by 1924, the Klan may have suffered reverses even sooner, leaving towns like Grinnell only lightly affected by the post-World War I KKK recovery.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Bury My Leg at...Hazelwood Cemetery"

Civil War buffs will know that General Stonewall Jackson was buried without his left arm, because, when surgeons amputated the arm after Jackson was wounded at the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson's chaplain rescued the arm from the heap of amputated limbs and gave the arm a "Christian burial."  Amputation, however, did not save Jackson; he died soon after the operation, and his body was shipped to Lexington, VA, where it was buried—without the arm (commemorated by its own gravestone) that had been left behind at Ellwood Manor cemetery.
Photo by Julie H. (May 2015) (
A person might be tempted to relegate this story to the quaint, fascinating, but uninformed past. In fact, however, the issue of buried limbs continues to make an appearance in the press. For example, in 2010 the Daily Mail told the story of two men who had had legs amputated in a Leicester hospital, which refused to hand over the limbs to the amputees, despite their announced request to have them.  Bob Brownlow, one of the complainants featured in the Daily Mail story, told a reporter, "That leg had been mine for more than fifty years, and I don't understand why I couldn't keep it.  It's part of me and...I wanted to be buried with it." Similarly, in August, 2014 a Chicago-area man filed suit against a Skokie hospital "for cremating his amputated leg instead of saving it for burial as he had requested." According to the news report, Jewish tradition requires that "amputated limbs... should be buried with or near a person in preparation for the resurrection of the dead mentioned in Jewish scriptures." Islam, too, prescribes burial for amputated limbs "in respect for the human being."

I am not aware of any special discussion of this problem within Christian theology, which also makes space for bodily resurrection but emphasizes the immaterial nature of the immortal soul. Nevertheless, the practice of burying amputated limbs evidently thrived in Christian Britain. For instance, Sarah Tarlow in her book, Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, mentions the 1756 burial in Wales of the "left leg and part of the thigh" of Henry Hughes Cooper, fully commemorated by a stone marker (apparently Cooper later emigrated to America where he died and was buried without his amputated leg and thigh). Tarlow also found several nineteenth-century cases in which amputees had had coffins prepared specifically for their lost limbs, the first step toward formal burial.  This practice, Tarlow asserts, indicates that Britons thought that amputated limbs retained "some part of the individual self."

Photo by Julie Preston, 1993 (
What brought me to ponder these unusual circumstances was my recent work in Hazelwood Cemetery. In an effort to help update the inventory of persons buried there, I ran across an interesting fact: at least two burial plots in Hazelwood cemetery are occupied by amputated legs, although neither is remembered by a gravestone of its own.

What was evidently the first leg to be buried at Hazelwood belonged to Mary Ewoldt, who died at age 79 in Grinnell in late May, 1952.  Her parents, Frank Kelm and Julia Poleska Kelm, had both been born in Germany, so it was perhaps no surprise that Mary's choice for husband was also German-born, Herman Ewoldt.  The couple married in 1895 in Trinity Lutheran Church, Malcom (the record is preserved in German), but Mary later was a member of long standing at St. John's Lutheran, Grinnell.  She and her husband spent more than 50 years together farming in
Grinnell Herald-Register March 19, 1945
Washington Township, south of Grinnell, and had but one child, Hinrich, who died soon after his birth in August, 1907.  In the late 1940s the aging couple moved into town, taking up residence at 1706 4th Avenue where they could enjoy retirement. The newspaper report of their fiftieth-wedding anniversary described them both as being in good health, but Mary came to endure what her obituary vaguely described as a "lingering illness," perhaps the cause of the amputation of a limb, which  is buried in the same plot with her, her son Hinrich, and husband Herman (who died in 1953). According to cemetery records recently added to the local history archive at Drake Community Library, her leg was buried just north of the gravestone on December 29, 1949, about two-and-a-half years before Mary Ewoldt herself was buried, May 31, 1952.
Gravestone for Della and Elmer White, Hazelwood Cemetery
Elmer White contributed the second (and third?) leg to burial at Hazelwood. Born in Indiana in 1875, White only reached Grinnell in 1902, and soon thereafter married Della Cole. The 1910 census found White outside town, farming.  But by 1915 he and his wife had moved into town, with their three children taking up residence at 1215 Summer Street. In those days White worked first as a "yardman" and teamster for Grinnell College, then later as a church janitor. The official who registered White for the draft in 1918 described him as being of medium height, medium build with gray eyes and dark hair. The line on the form that asked "Has person lost arm, leg, hand, eye, or is he obviously physically disqualified?" was left blank, meaning that in 1918 White still had all his limbs. The 1940 census, however, found only Mrs. White at home in Grinnell, renting a room at 1225 Elm Street and working as a housekeeper at the college; that same census reported that her husband was institutionalized at Mt. Pleasant State Hospital where he had been residing since at least 1935. Later, whether in Grinnell or at Mt. Pleasant, White developed an illness (diabetes?), which, according to the recollections of one who knew him, finally required amputation of both legs. Hazelwood records indicate that burial of White's legs (at the east end of the gravestone) took place on April 6, 1955, meaning that amputation of the legs was probably intended to prolong White's life, as he died—legless—more than four years later. White's obituary described him as a member of Grinnell's Methodist church, but it was the pastor of First Baptist church, the Rev. C. E. Kingsley, who officiated at White's August 7, 1959 funeral; graveside services were entrusted to the Odd Fellows, one of several fraternal organizations to which White belonged. What services attended burial of Elmer White's legs remain unknown.
More than fifty years later, we have scant hope of learning why Mary Ewoldt and Elmer White had their legs buried at Hazelwood years before they themselves were interred there. Perhaps they acted out of religious conviction, hoping that, when bodily resurrection came, as they evidently believed it would, they would be recreated as they had been before amputation. Or perhaps, like Bob Brownlow in Leicester, they thought that their legs were, after all, theirs, and no one else had more claim to the severed appendages than they.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Mexicans First Came to Grinnell

With immigration now much in the news in this the 50th anniversary of the 1965 immigration act, it seems a good time to think about the history of immigration to Grinnell, especially the role that Mexicans played in Grinnell's immigration history. As you might expect, many of Grinnell's early residents were immigrants: according to the 1895 census, about 6.6% of the 3332 people then living in Grinnell were foreign-born; even more were children of parents who were foreign-born.  And, as was true in much of the rest of the country, almost all Grinnell's immigrants had come from Canada or northern and western Europe—in late nineteenth-century Grinnell, there were no Latino immigrants whatsoever.  By 1915, a slightly larger percentage—about 6.8%—of the town's 5000+ residents was foreign-born, and, as before, the great majority of the newcomers had journeyed from northern and western Europe.
Some Points of Origin for Mexican Immigrants to Grinnell
One change, however, was already evident in 1915 Grinnell: a dozen Mexicans were part of that year's census. Most had been born in central Mexico (Guanajuato and Michoacán), worked as section hands for the railroad, were single, and lived in Grinnell only temporarily, soon moving off with the job or to still another job.  Only the 1920 Grinnell census discovered Mexican families who had settled in Grinnell. Most of the new arrivals, like their predecessors, had been born in central Mexico, and came to Grinnell to work for the railroad, or for labor-intensive industry like Iowa Light, Heat and Power.  A few of these Mexicans lived out their lives in Grinnell and subsequently were buried in Hazelwood Cemetery, adding their names to Grinnell's stories.
Gravestone for Tony and Mary Torres, Hazelwood Cemetery.
So far as the records can confirm, the first Mexicans who found their way to Grinnell crossed into the United States around 1910 or soon thereafter.  For example, Fidencio Estrada, whom the 1915 census located in Grinnell, had crossed into Texas on the El Paso Electric Railway in October, 1910. Already in his twenties then, Estrada reported his last residence as having been the little town of Calvillo, Aguascalientes, north of Guadalajara. How he found Grinnell we don't know, but in 1915 he worked as laborer in Grinnell's brick yard, reporting that in the preceding year he had earned only $400 total. By 1920 he had left Grinnell for points unknown.
El Paso Electric Railway at Santa Fe Street International Bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, TX
Also counted in 1915 Grinnell was "Joe" Garcia, who gave his age as 30. He, too, identified himself as a laborer, although exactly where Garcia labored the census card does not say. If we can believe his report, in 1914 he had earned even less than Estrada, telling the census-taker that he had accumulated only $250 in 1914 wages. Like Estrada, Garcia deserted Grinnell by 1920, having moved to Des Moines where that year's census found him living in a boarding house at 403 E. Locust. Garcia evidently did not tell the census worker what year he immigrated, so it is difficult to know for sure his origins. But one José Garcia who crossed the US border in 1912 might be the same man who worked in Grinnell and Des Moines: reporting his age as 27 when he appeared in Laredo, Texas, he would be 30 in 1915, just as Grinnell's Garcia was. Likewise, the 1912 immigrant reported his home as San Francisco del Rincón in Guanajuato, not far from the hometowns of other Mexicans then living in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, December 1, 1916
The 1915 count does not remember Refugio Garcia, but the December 1, 1916 Grinnell Herald reported that "Repujio [sic] D. Garcia, a Mexican," had died in the city hospital November 29. The paper did not identify any relatives, mentioning only that Garcia had been buried in "the Catholic cemetery." But if the Herald meant to point to the Catholic section of Hazelwood, no gravestone or burial record survives to confirm that destination and nothing provides any additional biographical detail. However, when the 1915 census-takers visited Creston, Iowa, they found there a Refugio Garcia, age 35 and Mexican, who was a "railroad laborer." Perhaps this was the man who soon after the 1915 census in Creston came to Grinnell, only to die there. (What the paper meant by the man's "chaotic" domestic relationships we may never know.)

Census officials also did not find Jesús Negrete in 1915 Grinnell, but we know that he was there by 1916 when he figured in a crime story reported by local newspapers. Perhaps as an indication of how "foreign" the Mexicans appeared to white Grinnell, the newspapers were not sure of the names involved, and only later could report that "Pete" Negrete had been the victim of a knifing in a house at 717 Spring Street that he shared with another Mexican. By the time he registered for the draft in 1918 the 19-year-old Negrete was living at 1902 2nd Avenue, adjacent to the railroad tracks by Penrose Avenue (probably in a railroad facility of some sort). Born in León, Guanajuato in 1898, Negrete had found his way north to work for the Rock Island railroad.  When he left Grinnell is not clear, but before his 1939 death in Fort Worth, TX, Negrete had crossed back and forth from Mexico several times, apparently without ever returning to Grinnell.

Also part of Grinnell's small Mexican community in 1915 was Estéban Contreras, only 20 years old and single. Apparently born José Estéban Contreras in Cuautitlán de Romero Rubio in 1895, Contreras worked for the railroad, and seems to be the same person whom the 1920 census found in Fort Madison, Iowa, still working for the railroad. According to the 1915 report, Contreras had earned $400 the preceding year, which he'd evidently spent elsewhere as he told the census-taker that he had immigrated to the US in 1913, but had been in Iowa only a few months.

Frank (Francisco?) Eskey (?) likewise entered the United States in 1913, but had apparently come straight to Iowa—at least he reported to the 1915 census that he had been in the United States and Iowa both for two years. At age 38 he was older than many of Grinnell's other Mexicans, but, like most others, he was single and worked as a laborer, earning only $300 in 1914. Given the name reported in the census—apparently an anglicism—learning where Eskey hailed from is impossible, and tracing his future whereabouts just as difficult. Nevertheless, the 1920 census knew no one by that name in Grinnell.

Even older than Eskey was Prestianos Ramirez; at the time of the 1915 census he reported his age as 44. Ramirez was also distinguished from his fellow Mexicans in having his wife ("Rebecca," according to the census card) living with him in town. Ramirez identified himself as a laborer, although his 1914 reported earnings were miserly—only $100, according to the census, which may explain why his wife also worked. Ramirez evidently hailed from Salamanca, Guanajuato, as his brother, Felix Ramirez, living in 1918 at 2nd and Broad in Grinnell and working for the railroad, gave this place of origin when he registered for the US draft. By 1920, however, none of the Ramirez family was still resident in Grinnell.

"Frank" Fields, who entered the US in 1909, represents a special case. Evidently Fields only arrived in Grinnell after the 1915 census, for his name does not appear among that year's census cards. Instead, his name first surfaces in the columns of  the Grinnell Herald of January 25, 1918: describing Fields as "colored," the newspaper reported that he had entered a plea of guilty to the charge of having raped "two little colored girls" in Grinnell, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Fort Madison, where the 1920, 1925, 1930, and 1940 censuses all found him. But Fields was born Mexican—at least that was what he reported from prison when in 1918 he registered for the US draft; he said the same to all the census-takers who came to Fort Madison, and identified both his parents as Mexican-born.
Still more Mexicans—about 30—resided in 1920 Grinnell.  As before, most worked for the railroads, and some bunked in freight cars that stood on railroad siding. By 1920, however, a distinctly more familial image developed around Grinnell's small Mexican community.  In addition to the single men known earlier, several Mexican families took up residence in Grinnell, bringing to Grinnell's schools an ethnic difference not much in evidence earlier.
Drawing of proposed new power plant for Iowa Light, Heat & Power, Grinnell Register, Aug 10, 1916; so far as I know, this building was never constructed

One man who gave signs of settling down in Grinnell was Joseph (José) Torres, who worked at the Iowa Light, Heat and Power plant.  Born in Mexico in 1886, Torres entered the United States in 1912 or 1913, leaving his wife and children behind. Only in 1917, by which time he was already settled in Grinnell, did he arrange for his wife, Adela, and their two children, Simon and Sarah, to join him. The family occupied a house at 305 Park Street (now demolished), and Simon and Sarah began school in Grinnell, learning English as best they could. In March, 1919 Adela gave birth to a third child, but what happened to the baby girl is unclear—the 1920 census does not include her, nor do available Iowa death records. By 1930, however, "Joe" Torres was gone from Grinnell, along with his family, some of whom returned to Mexico.
Simon Torres ca. 2000 (photo from Dave Adkins, "Grinnell Ramblings and More: The Family Named Torres of Grinnell"

Border records confirm that Simon Torres, the six-year-old son of "Joe," crossed into the United States the first time in 1917, and at that time reported his birthplace as Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the southern banks of the Rio Grande, across the river from Brownsville, Texas. It seems likely, however, that the Torres family had only settled there temporarily when José decided to enter the United States. As the record of José's brother, Antonio, shows, the family originated in Michoacán in central Mexico. Indeed, Simon's obituary reported that he had been born in Morelia, Michoacán, so Matamoros must have been only a temporary address where the family could wait until summoned.

After the family left Grinnell, Simon returned to Mexico, then later re-entered the US, working at jobs in Texas and California. When in 1943 he enlisted in the US Army he was living in Fresno, CA, but after the war he returned to Grinnell where he worked many years in construction for Allen Latcham. Between his early days in Grinnell and his later return, Torres had married and perhaps had had children, but he spent his last years in Grinnell apart from his family, and died in Grinnell in 2004.
Gravestone for Simon Torres, Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell
Antonio Torres, a brother to José, was born in 1890 in Quiroga, Michoacán, Mexico, and entered the United States in 1910. According to Dave Adkins, "Tony" arrived in Grinnell by train in 1914, and, having inadvertently missed his train after lunch, went in search of work in Grinnell, landing a job shoveling coal for Iowa Light and Power. The attractions were such that Torres never left.  Within two years of his arrival, Antonio married Mary Seely, who had been born in Excelsior Springs, MO and raised in a Seventh-Day Adventist home.  What brought her to Grinnell is unknown, but she and Tony enjoyed more than fifty years of marriage, making their home at 703 Summer Street. Apparently no children graced the Torres household, but for some years Tony's dad, Eugenio, lived with them at their Summer Street home before his 1953 death.
Gravestone of Eugenio Torres at Hazelwood Cemetery.
"Frank" Duran also worked for Iowa Light, Heat and Power. Like the Torres family, Duran had his wife (Cresencia) and child (José) living in Grinnell with him, occupying a house at 622 East Street (now demolished). José Francisco Duran entered the US at Laredo, Texas in September, 1917, giving as his birthplace Guadalajara. This might have been Grinnell's "Frank," despite the fact that Duran told the 1920 census-taker that he had entered the country in 1916. The 1925 Iowa census found all members of the Duran family still residing in Grinnell.

The largest family among early Grinnell's Mexicans was headed by "Frank" Espinosa who, with his wife, Salome, provided for five children, all of whom lived in a rental house at 628 State Street. Francisco Espinosa is not an unusual name, so it is difficult to say with confidence when and where Grinnell's Espinosa entered the US. The 1920 census claims that the entire family immigrated in 1918, but the closest match to Espinosa's age among the surviving border crossings dates to October, 1916 when a 42-year-old Francisco Espinosa headed to San Antonio, TX, coming from Pénjamo, Guanajuato.

Jesus Fregoso was 52 when he entered the US at Laredo, TX, along with his wife, Refugio, so they had been in Grinnell only briefly when the 1920 census was taken, living in a railroad car on a siding near East Street. Jesus was born in La Barca, Jalisco state, about 70 miles from Guadalajara and perhaps a bit closer to Pénjamo. In recent years La Barca has become known as the site of several mass murders connected to the Mexican drug cartels, but in Fregoso's day the city had not yet acquired this nasty reputation.

Living in another railroad car closer to High Street were José and Augustina Almaguer, who declared to the 1920 census-taker that they had immigrated in 1916. Apparently they were already living in Grinnell by late autumn, 1917, because on November 15 of that year Augustina gave birth to a child who died three weeks later, and was buried December 8, 1917. Hazelwood cemetery, however, preserves no record of the unnamed Almaguer baby, who may have ended up in an unmarked grave in potter's field near the cemetery's southern border.

Ursulo Escamilla was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico in 1888. The 1920 census found him, his wife, Inocencia, and their young child, Luis, in Grinnell where Escamilla worked for the railroad.  Evidently the family did not stay long in Grinnell, as their names did not appear in the 1925 census; in fact, border crossing records from that year show Escamilla re-entering the US from Mexico, and his name appears in the same source again in 1935, by which time Escamilla and family were living in Menasha, WI; in those years Ursulo worked for the Soo Line railroad in Neenah, WI.

Of course, not all members of Grinnell's small Mexican community enjoyed the presence of their families. For example, Daniel Ochoa, age 25 in 1920 and working as section hand for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P), was rooming at 624 State Street. Like the Torres family, Ochoa hailed from Michoacán, telling the US draft registry official in 1918 that he had been born in La Piedad, Michoacán. Ochoa's hosts were Quirino and Paulina Flores. Quirino was 41 at the time of the 1920 census, and, like Ochoa, worked for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad; Paulina, whose age the census reported as 70, was Quirino's mother, and it was she who kept house at 624 State Street. Flores entered the US in 1916, reporting that he had been born in San Francisco del Rincón, Guanajuato in central Mexico.
624 State Street, Grinnell (2013 photograph)
Like Ochoa, the Alvarez brothers—Pedro and Luis—who in 1920 were bunking together in a railroad car on a siding near Second Avenue, hailed from Michoacán.  Pedro, age 38, was about ten years older than Luis, but both had immigrated in 1917. For a time Luis had worked for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in Kansas City, where in 1917 he registered for the US draft. But by 1920 he was living side-by-side with his brother, both working for the CRI&P railroad in Grinnell.

It seems strange to think about all these folk who lived and worked here a century ago, but who left only the scantest trace in the records.  Clustered in railroad cars on sidings or living in a few small houses, speaking only Spanish in an English-speaking world, Grinnell's first Mexican immigrants must have lived fairly lonely lives, working hard for low wages—a formula that is still familiar to  today's Mexican immigrants.

Although the origins of some remain unknown, it is interesting to note that the majority of Grinnell's first Mexicans came from central Mexico, especially from Michoacán and Guanajuato.  So far as the records can confirm, few lived in the same towns or shared close kinship. But somehow, crossing the border in Texas and traveling far into the US heartland, they landed in Grinnell. Some experienced great pain here, burying newborns in the soil of a foreign land; some collided with the law, and at least one spent the rest of his life in prison at Fort Madison; but most worked, got by as best they could, and then left, either to return to Mexico or else to seek work in yet another yanqui settlement. For them Grinnell represented no more than a few pages—perhaps a few paragraphs—of a much longer story with a distinctly different plot.

For a handful, however, Grinnell became a new home. Men like Tony and Simon Torres authored entirely new stories here. Sadly, the public record of those lives remains slim, and their stories barely visible, the concluding pages inscribed on gravestones in Hazelwood Cemetery.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Before Trigger Warnings...

These days we hear a lot about trigger warnings—"statement[s] at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material." Increasingly teachers and others in the public eye insert these warnings before producing prose or video that might prove offensive or distressing to their students or their audience.  But this idea seems to have had no currency among the newspaper editors of early Grinnell who felt free to print not only what we might consider altogether private information (detailing who left on vacation, who had fallen ill, who was entertaining guests, who had purchased a new car or built a new house, etc.), but also included in reports of death and injury a surprising level of gruesome detail to which today's readers are not much accustomed. So let me here declare my own trigger warning: some of the material in this post includes graphic, potentially-upsetting descriptions of violent death.
Grinnell Register December 18, 1916, p. 1.
An example of this sort of reporting comes from the Grinnell Register, which in December 1916 told the story of a man who had fallen from a train entering Grinnell from the west. According to the paper, two men (who had done some drinking) had boarded the train in Des Moines on "blind baggage"—standing outside the car adjacent to the coal tender, a car that was without a door adjacent to the coupling. Intending to reach Davenport without having to pay the fare, the men were balanced precariously above the track for some fifty miles in mid-December weather. Only when the train reached Grinnell did one of the two men report to trainmen that a few miles outside Grinnell his friend had slipped and fallen, "and without doubt had been ground to pieces under the train."

Even this language probably would not make it into today's newspaper, but the Register was not yet done, describing in detail exactly what the coroner, sent back along the track, had found: "gruesome evidence scattered along the track for a full half mile. Bits of human flesh, blood, intestines, liver, a leg here, an arm there...." The victim, whose face had somehow escaped mutilation, was duly identified, and the report concluded with an expectation of an inquest. To its credit, the Grinnell Herald (December 19, 1916) published a more restrained account; its headline reported only that a "Young Man Is Killed," and the story provided none of the provocative particulars employed in the Register's account.
Grinnell Register August 24, 1916, p. 1.
Another example of newspaper explicit reportage concerns suicides. Except for tabloids devoted to scandal, today's newspaper readers rarely encounter stories about suicide; contemporary reports commonly obscure the circumstances, the better to protect survivors from shame and comment. But Grinnell's early twentieth-century newspapers knew no such discretion, and routinely reported on suicides, often filling in all the details. A story from the August 24, 1916 Grinnell Register illustrates the tendency. Writing about a man who had killed himself with a shot gun, the paper did not shrink from describing the details.  Having identified the deceased, the newspaper felt obliged to report that the man had gone "into [the] orchard, placed [the] barrel of [the] gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with a stick."  The result was graphically reported in the story's headline: "Suicide at Kellogg Blew Top of Head Off." Moreover, the newspaper speculated upon the cause, reporting that the dead man had been despondent, nevertheless concluding that the deceased "was respected by the people in his community."
Grinnell Register December 4, 1916, p. 1.
Accounts of suicide were not unusual in Grinnell's newspapers of this era. Another story from the 1916 Grinnell Register proved only slightly more restrained than the example cited above. In this case the paper reported on the death of a Montezuma man who had used his own .22 caliber rifle to kill himself. His son found the man dead in their barn, "the ball [bullet] [having] enter[ed] the victim's throat." Again the Herald (December 5, 1916) printed a more restrained story; like the Register, the Herald identified the man, and the headline left no doubt that it was suicide: "Takes His Own Life." Readers of the Herald did not learn exactly where the shot had fallen, but the paper added the explanatory detail that the deceased had left behind a letter that told of the man's despondency and ill health, an apparent explanation of the act.
Grinnell Herald September 19, 1916
The Herald was not always so circumspect, however. Another report of suicide, this one appearing in the September 19, 1916 issue of the paper, made a verb out of the noun: "Suicides by Hanging."  After having identified the retired farmer and the way his wife had discovered the "lifeless body," the story articulated precisely how the man had arranged his own death: "He had placed a two by four across the opening into the hayloft, fastened one end of a rope to it and the other end about his neck, then climbed up on a trestle and ended it by kicking the trestle out from under him."

How to explain this sort of reportage? No doubt at least some of the explanation lies in the competition between Grinnell's two newspapers of that era. I have not seen any figures on their relative sales, but we know that just at this time both papers had invested heavily in new buildings (the Herald in 1915 and the Register in 1916) and new printing equipment.  Both papers, therefore, had reason to try to amp up their sales, and salacious headlines offered the prospect of attracting readers who were more interested in entertainment than recitation of fact. Presumably similar thinking informs the editorial policies of today's tabloids.

But even if we grant a business motivation to the papers' editors, we must confront the fact that ordinary readers of early twentieth-century Grinnell newspapers apparently took no umbrage at the sometimes lurid prose they encountered. Indeed, we must assume that readers themselves often provided newspapers with the details of their lives that ended up in the columns that dominated newspaper coverage. And if that is so, then we must also suppose that men and women of that era brought to their reading attitudes toward privacy and appropriateness rather different from those that inform today's trigger warnings.  It might be—and this is only speculation, of course—that they who routinely bid farewell to the dead at home experienced death more often close at hand than do we, and that they therefore brought more hardened sensibilities to their reading of the world than do we.  On the other hand, when large cohorts of today's population have immediate access through smart phones and other devices to the latest violence anywhere on the globe, we might imagine that each of us—witnesses via television to the 9/11 tragedy, to countless examples of gun violence, and to seemingly endless warfare—has incorporated into consciousness more instances of violent death than any of our forebears could imagine.

Explanation, therefore, remains elusive, but perhaps we would do well to ponder the apparent difference and what it tells us about ourselves and our ancestors.