Murder by “Mineral Water”: the Death of Richard Owen

richard owen

Richard Owen ca. 1870

According to Indiana University legend, Richard Owen – namesake of Owen Hall, first president of Purdue University, second Indiana state geologist, IU professor of natural sciences – died from ingesting embalming fluid. The circumstances in which this curious mistake occurred, however, are rarely mentioned when the story is shared. Luckily, the Bloomington Progress (vol. 24, No. 6; 2 April 1890) published a special report on the death of Professor Owen which elucidated the strange incident:

A jug of embalming fluid was sent by mistake to A.H. Fretameot, a merchant and a neighbor of Prof. Owen labeled medical water. Thinking it mineral water from some friend, the two drank a small quantity. Its deadly quality was soon discovered. Medical aid was summoned but Prof. Owen succumbed under its effects and died. Mr. Fretameot vomited freely and it is hoped he may recover.

Whether of not the unfortunate Mr. Fretameot survived the mistake is unknown.

Bloomington Progress, Vol. 24, No. 6; 2 April 1890

Bloomington Progress, Vol. 24, No. 6; 2 April 1890

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Sincerely Yours – Letters from the Archives: A Captain in the Union Army, John D. Alexander

Born on February 6, 1839 in Bloomington, Indiana, John D. Alexander graduated from Indiana University with A. B. and A.M. degrees in 1861.  In 1860, while Alexander anticipated his graduation, Southern tensions reached their peak. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln.  In his “Recollections of Indiana University, 1856-1861” Alexander notes the intense atmosphere in Bloomington following South Carolina’s secession.  He recalls,

One fine morning a Red flag with One White Star was flying from the highest point of the University Building.  The whole town was thrown into a frenzy of excitement.  Students and people of the town soon filled the Campus – the flag was torn down and dragged through the street to Doctor Nutt’s residence – then to the Court House Square where speeches were made denouncing the ones who put the flag there and particularly South Carolina and the flag was burned.

Alexander taught school for a year and then enlisted as a private in Company E, 97th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers in August 1862.  On June 27, 1864, Alexander was wounded in his right hip at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.  He quickly recovered, however, and returned to his company in October 1864.  Alexander and the rest of the 97th Regiment marched in Sherman’s army from Atlanta to Savannah, from November 15 until December 21, 1864.  The following letter is written by Alexander to his parents.  He describes his experience in the Battle of Grindswoldville in Georgia, the first battle of Sherman’s March to the Sea, as well as movements of the regiment and news of his promotion to Captain of Company D.  Just a note that within the letter, Alexander invokes some language of the time that would be offensive if employed today. See full transcription below the images.

C623_2005 C623_2004

Camp Anderson, Geo. 9 miles South West of Savannah

December 18, 1864

My Dear Parents,

I am still alive for which I thank the Good Lord. We left Atlanta, Geo. the 15th of November.  The 15th Army Corps take the extreme Right of the Army. The 17th Corps the Right Center, the 20th Corps the Left Center and the 14th Corps the extreme Left. We were all to move on roads as nearly parallel as possible. Nothing of interest occurred until we struck the Macon and Savannah Railroad where we all stayed and encamped at night. The next morning – Nov 22nd our brigade 2nd under Gen Walcott was ordered to make a reconnaissance. Once in the direction of Macon we started and got within 2 miles of the Macon and Montgomery R.R. when the Rebels Cavalry under Wheeler attacked our Cavalry and whipped them badly. Our brigade threw out Skirmishes and we drove them back to Grindswold a small Station on the Railroad and finally beyond there. Our brigade then retired to a small elevation of ground overlooking an open field where we stopped to get our drummers. We were sitting round not expecting any danger when the Georgia Militia attacked our pickets and they commenced coming in and we went to making breastworks out of rails, bags, chunks, whatever we could get together. Before we had them done however, they came upon us in three lines of battle.  They came with a vengeance and some were killed within 50 yds of our works.  The fight raged with fury for three hours and when it ceased Such a sight! The Rebels literally lay in piles, 10 men in a place all killed together. Their loss was estimated at 2,000 killed and wounded. Ours only… [section of letter missing] The Brigade Genl Walcott was wounded early on…[section of letter missing] with a piece… [section of letter missing] Shall look… [section of letter missing] Command of the Brigade and behaved with much gallantry. He still commands the Brig. Capt. Elliott of Co “H” commands the Regt. After we left there we had our ups and downs. Dec. 10Crossed Ogeechee River on the 11th we were wakened by the Reb Battery and our Shelling. On the 13 of this month Fort McAllister at the mouth of the Ogeechee River was taken by the 2nd Div of our Corps. They captured between 2 and 300 prisoners, 17 guns, 200 artillery Horses, $2,000 worth of wines and cigars. That Opens our Communication we got mail night before last and I got your letters up to Nov 30″/64. Some from Bettie also and Sam Kate and Will married Hannah. I was glad to hear you got home safely from Sister Sophia’s. Did you get my photographs I sent home? I got my Commission to Captain night before last. Will be mustered today. I will be assigned to command Co “D” for a while. Then if Captain Oliphant resigns I will be transferred to Co “E” if possible. We only have to go on the front lines every 3 or 4 days. Tell Captain O – I will write to him this evening and more if I can. Give my love to All. I am in perfect health am as fat as a pig. Have had a pack mule to carry my Blankets and Grub and a darky to lead him and cook. I have 3 blankets Always sleep comfortable. The boys have been down to where the water comes up to get oysters and can hear distinctly the roaring of old Ocean. The country here is level and swampy. Give my love to Boone, Mary, Bettie, Felix, Mat, Lee, Sam, Sallie, and families and believe me you.

Affectionate Son,

John D.  Alexander Co “D”

In April 1865, Alexander was appointed Acting Assistant Inspector General of the Second Brigade by General John A. Logan in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was mustered out of service on June 9, 1865 following the Grand Review of the Armies, a victory procession through Washington, D.C.  Following the Civil War, Alexander served as a lawyer in Bedford and Bloomfield.  He went on to hold several elected positions in state and county government. Alexander was also regular attendant to all national and state encampments of the G.A.R. His involvement in the G.A.R. led him to write a History of the Ninety-seventh Regiment of Indiana Volunteer Infantry in 1891.  In 1929, Alexander was the oldest living graduate of Indiana University. He died on February 27, 1931.

The above letter, along with 11 others, can be found in C23 John D. Alexander Family Papers. To learn more about Indiana University and the Civil War, contact the IU Archives.

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1883 Fire!

Today is the anniversary of the most destructive and institution-altering fire in Indiana University’s history. Read below for details and for more info other Bloomington campus fires, see Ava’s post from June 22

July 12, 1883 = FIRE!

July 12, 1883 = FIRE!

On July 24th, 1883, the IU Board of Trustees met for the first time since the fiery destruction of their campus to discuss the future of the university. After reading a number of letters of sympathy from alumni and presidents of nearby colleges, the Board determined their immediate courses of action: clear the debris of the burned building, salvage any potential building or educational materials from the wreckage, begin planning construction for a new science building and library.

The IU faculty minutes from just after the incident capture the chaos of the fire, the cause of which was later found to be a lightning strike to the telephone wire that led to Theophilus Wylie’s room:

On the night of Thursday July 12th 1883 a little after 10 o’clock, the new college building was found to be on fire and the alarm was given. As the crowds gathered, the flames were seen bursting out from the second story, from the room used for storing apparatus and as a work room on the East side. The Fire Dept. of the town with its new steam fire engine, and its smaller engine, did its best to extinguish the flames. In this attempt it failed but succeeded by energetic work in saving the old building by keeping the roof and end adjacent to the burning structure soaked with water. Within two hours from the discovery of the fire, the entire roof had fallen in and only the walls with a few clinging timbers remained. The building thus destroyed was three stories in height and was built in 1873 at a cost of $33,000. It contained the Library of 14000 volumes the Museum in which was the Owen Cabinet of 85000 specimens carefully labeled and displayed in suitable cases. The Ward caste of Extinct Animals and many other valuable collections. In the third story was Prof. Jordan’s collection of fishes.

While not the only fire in IU history, as illustrated in part one of this post, the 1883 fire was by far the most significant, both financially and culturally. Though different sources list varying estimates of the fire’s damage, the Indiana Student of January 1885 states a total loss of $104,200. This number, of course, does not account for the irreplaceable artifacts and books lost, including a number of unique volumes and manuscripts related to Indiana history. The Board explored a number of tactics to raise the $77,000 that they determined was necessary to rebuild the campus and repopulate its laboratories and library. Proposals included doubling Monroe County citizens’ taxes for a year to soliciting donations from alumni. The first donation, a gift of $5 from Sarah Morrison, IU’s first female student and graduate of IU, was used to purchase a new minute book for the Board of Trustees’ meetings, as the previous book had been lost in the fire. Through this variety of means, the university obtained an astonishing $50,000 from the county’s citizens, illustrating Bloomington’s overwhelming support of the institution and allowing the university to boast that it had rebuilt without “taking a penny” from government funds. The insurance received after the disaster accounted for the remaining $77,000 and allowed IU to begin construction on its two initial buildings on the now relocated campus: Wylie Hall, devoted to chemistry and physics, and the smaller Owen Hall, dedicated to the natural sciences.

Owen & Wylie Halls, circa 1885

Owen & Wylie Halls, circa 1885

Though many irreplaceable specimens and volumes were lost to the flames, the incident provided the university with an opportunity to expand and develop its campus and to re-evaluate its role in Indiana’s higher education. Established as the Indiana Seminary by an act of legislation in 1820, the institution that opened its doors in 1825 became Indiana College in 1828 and Indiana University in 1838. As the student population and their interest in the sciences grew, IU began to want for more classroom and laboratory space as well as housing for their increasing library collections. The 1883 fire provided the opportunity to move the campus away from the noisy rail-way bordering the west side of the Seminary Square campus and into the scenic and spacious Dunn’s Woods, where the university had purchased a 20-acre plot for $300 per acre. The destruction of the campus prompted a minor (and unsuccessful!) movement to consolidate IU, the State Normal School and Purdue University. Luckily, the resulting outcry, which argued that IU needed to remain a “strictly literary institution” to complement the focus on “agricultural and mechanical industries” of Purdue and on teacher training at the Normal School, convinced community and Board members alike to continue to support Indiana University as an independent institution.

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Mail Call: Correspondence at IU during WWII

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” — Sir Winston Churchill in My Early Life: A Roving Commission

War is never easy, especially for those serving in the armed forces and those they leave behind. Throughout the various wars in our short history, our military members and their loved ones have made countless sacrifices in order to defend our country and protect the freedoms which we all enjoy so dearly. Separation from our loved ones can be a particularly difficult thing to bear during these times of conflict.

But whereas we now have email, skype, and various other methods of communication to keep in touch with those on the battlefield, there were no such luxuries in the Second World War.  People relied on snail

“Mail Call” from the 1944-1945 Sycamore Logbook

-mail to receive news from the frontlines which, in some areas, could be less than frequent. Letters could easily be lost in the mail as well.

Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in WWII. One can imagine these soldiers clinging desperately to photos of their loved ones and sitting in their shelters or in the trenches reading and rereading those letters from home dozens of times over. All the while sitting. Waiting. Hoping for the end of hostilities so that they can once again return to their former lives.

It was no different for those at home. One can be sure that many individuals sat by the mail box waiting with bated breath as the postman came up to deliver the mail, hoping to hear some news from the front. Students at Indiana University seem to have been no exception to this rule. While I was processing a set of scrapbooks from Sycamore Hall (when it acted as a women’s residence hall), I stumbled upon this little gem embedded in the Volume 5 of Sycamore Log book from the 1944-1945 academic year whose faded pages revealed what was going through many a young woman’s mind here at IU when it came time to receive the mail during WWII.

The following is a transcription of an account written by one of the copy editors of the Sycamore Hall dorm logbook:

Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945 Archives image no: P0044228

Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945
Archives image no: P0044228

Mail Call

Mail Call is the most important event in the day for almost all of us girls at the University. Even on days when we could sleep late, our alarm clocks will usually be set for ten a.m.

We jump out of bed, dress in a flash, and dash downstairs. In each of our hearts there is a solemn prayer that, maybe, today is the day a letter will come from the most important man in the Army, Navy or Marines.

Each of us goes downstairs with a happy look of expectancy written on her face. Some of us come away smiling and happy; others leave the mail boxes depressed and sad.

The conversation each morning rambles on something like this:

 “Hi, Kelly, is that a letter from Bob?”

“Yes, he got his wings yesterday, and he’ll be home next week. Barbs, you had better dust off the Wedding March because we are going to be needing that song.”

“That is grand, Kelly,” comes in a chorus from the girls.

There is a scream of delight as Kay rushes for her mail box, which is packed full of letters. She stands there laughing and crying at the same time, as she counts twelve letters from her Bill. Bill is a Navy flier, and he is in the South Pacific; mail from him comes only every six or eight weeks.

Cluching [sic] the letters as though her life depended on them, Kay dashes for the big chair in the living room. Incoherent phrases tumble from her lips.

“Jeepers, and gee, he is still my man! Oh, his is wonderful – – twelve letters!  Happy day, oh happy day!”

 “Darn! Just a letter from Carol,” comes the disgusted words from Ruthann.

“That’s my luck, too,” replies Donna.

“I know Dick is busy, but – -“

“Cut it, Ruthann; there is Janie, and she did not get a letter again today.”

No, I must not forget to tell about Janie. She is a little thing and pretty as a doll. She is the pet of every girl in the house. Her Marine is in the Philippines, and she has not heard from him since Manila was taken. Janie does not say anything about not hearing from him, but we know how worried she is; we sense the heartbreak she feels when she looks at her empty mail box. I guess she realizes we would all “crack up” if we put our feelings into words.

She saw us looking at her and smiled.

 “Everything is all right, chums; Jack is all right, and there is always tomorrow.”

Julia Ann Bookout

Little did these ladies know that they did not have long to wait for their loved ones to return. The war would soon come to an end with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 (which is known today as V-J Day) with the formal surrender to follow on September 2nd. We can only hope that Jack returned with the rest of his brothers in arms to US shores to celebrate the Allied victory with Janie and the rest of his family and friends.

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A history of IU fires

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Leading up to the anniversary of the disastrous 1883 fire that changed Indiana University Bloomington’s future, intern Ava D. provides a short history of some of the most significant fires IU has faced in its nearly 200 years. Stay tuned for the story of the 1883 … Continue reading

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