Civil Rights Civil War Racine History

Peter D. Thomas: Ex-slave, Civil War veteran, and coroner

As a former resident of Racine County and a person interested in mortuary sciences, history, and human rights I have always been surprised about the important tidbits of Racine history I have never heard of. Many years ago, when I had been working at a museum in Racine for five or so years I first heard about an extraordinary gentleman—Peter D. Thomas. It was about a year ago that I photocopied the newspaper articles on him and tossed it on my large stack of “to-do”s. Though long overdue, today is the day I finally type his article up. Peter D. Thomas, the first person of color to be elected to an office in Racine County, and possibly the first in the state of Wisconsin. Peter D. Thomas, a former slave, a veteran of the Civil War, a pillar of the GAR community. Thomas’ legacy is a rich thread that today I’d like to share with you.

Early Life

Peter D. Thomas
Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Peter D. Thomas, 3399. Viewed online at

Peter D. Thomas was born on April 8, 1847, in Tiptonville, Tennessee five miles from Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River.[1] The plantation he lived on was owned by a wealthy widow who looked after her four daughters. Originally, Thomas was charged with accompanying the young girls on their horseback rides to ward off “undesirable company” and to make sure if they met with an appropriate suitor that they would not be interrupted. When Thomas turned thirteen, however, he was sent to work in the fields.[2] A short year later, the Civil War began.

Beginning of Freedom

Thomas was sent to help defend the fortification on Island No. 10, as all plantations were required to send some of their slaves to help in the war effort. When the Battle of Island No. 10 broke out Thomas was nearly hit by a cannonball, but luckily for him, he saw the end of the fight and the beginning of his freedom.[3]  It was in October of 1862 that Union troops scored a victory at Island No. 10 and announced that the slaves forced to work on the fortification were now free and could go wherever they wished.[4] This left many former enslaved people with no idea where to go next, so Thomas, like many others, followed the army. Thomas tagged along with Captain Charles B. Nelson of Company G of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He acted as Captain Nelson’s servant for the time being, as people of color were not yet allowed to enlist in the military.[5] Map of Island 10 and New Madrid

While alongside the Captain he saw the Battles of Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, Dalton, Resaca, and finally Dallas—where Captain Nelson was wounded. Thomas left along with Captain Nelson, escorting him on the trip back to his home in Beloit, Wisconsin.[6] There, briefly, he worked on Nelson’s farm before the military began allowing former slaves and other African Americans to enlist in the army. Thomas traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin and from there was sent to Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.[7] On August 8, 1864, Thomas was mustered in as a part of the 18th U.S. Infantry, a division of African American troops.[8]

The War Ends

During his enlistment, he served in the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, with the war wrapping up when he was 18 years old.[9] Right after the war Thomas moved back to Beloit and worked on the farm as he attended high school and one year of college.[10] Thomas wanted to use his newfound knowledge to go back to the South and teach former slaves, but he found himself in Chicago for some time. It was then that Thomas decided the bias against African American teachers was still too great in the South, and he changed his line of work.[11] In 1870, Thomas became an expert whiskey sampler at a wholesale liquor house.[12] Before another move, Thomas married his wife, Carrie Prime, on May 17, 1879.[13] Then in 1883 that Thomas moved back up North to Racine, Wisconsin.[14] Thomas began working as a custodian of both the First National Bank and the Racine County Courthouse.[15] Three years later he was nominated for county coroner by acclamation and made his way onto the ballot as a Democrat. There was hardly any commentary from Racine newspapers regarding his race as a factor in the election—Thomas was a beloved member of the community, regardless of the color of his skin.[16] Thomas won the vote, 2,430 to 1,422.[17] He served for two years, continuing his work at the courthouse and bank after his term was up.[18]

Memorial Hall, 1979
Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, Memorial Hall, Racine, Racine, Wisconsin, 11302.

Prominent Community Veteran

Governor Louis P. Harvey
The namesake of Wisconsin GAR Post 17 Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Portrait of Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey, 117538. Viewed online at

While in Racine, Thomas also became a member of Governor Louis P. Harvey Grand Army of the Republic Post 17.[19] Post 17 was founded in 1881[20] and was an important part of the Racine veteran community—62.6% of eligible veterans were a part of the organization.[21] Thomas was described as an “active member” and could always be found in the GAR room at Memorial Hall, recounting his experiences of the Civil War with other veterans. Once during his time with the GAR, he even served as the Junior Vice Commander and the chairman of the headstone committee.[22] This was important, as most posts of the GAR were heavily segregated by the 1880s but there are no records indicating that Post 17 was.[23]

Unfortunately, Thomas died at the age of 73 on December 11, 1925, in his home on Center Street. His death was the result of accidental asphyxiation when gas from his furnace began to leak into his home.[24] The Journal Times reported that “the gas that escaped from his coal furnace cost him his life.”[25] Peter D. Thomas was an accomplished man and an incredible part of Racine’s history. His life and part within the community reflect Racine’s diverse roots and narrative of equality. Though today Racine is struggling with both its diversity and equality, Thomas should serve as a reminder that everyone is equal and those who are allowed to flourish can do amazing things and even make history.



  • [1] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 20, 1993.
  • [2] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 2, 1992.
  • [3] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), February 22, 1922.
  • [4] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [5] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War; Series Number: M123; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Record Group Number: 15; Census Year: 1890.
  • [9] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [10] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [13] Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920.
  • [14] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [15] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [16] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [17] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [18] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [19] Eugene Walter Leach, Racine County Militant. (Racine: Eugene Walter Leach, 1915), 134-136.
  • [20] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 133.
  • [21] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 355.
  • [22] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [23] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001) 194-195.
  • [24] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [25] “Looking Backward,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) December 12, 1955.
Other History

The Nazi Blindfold: Nazi Propaganda in Germany

It is the year 1933 and Germany is doing great once again. The Nazis have held true to their promise of repairing both Germany’s economy as well as their national pride. It seems like everything is going well despite the impending war. Although it looks that way evil is lurking behind the scenes of everyday life in the country. Before the eyes of the citizens of Germany rests a blindfold, carefully tied by the Nazi party to keep the true terror of the war a secret- the true terror of their intentions a secret. Every book, every television show, every radio program and all other forms of media were all meant to spoon-feed German citizens with a pro-Nazi message intricately designed by Adolf Hitler and fellow party members. Slowly but surely the Nazis would rise to the position of ultimate power before a brainwashed Germany. Through this propaganda aimed at the common citizen, children, and German soldiers the Nazi party was able to gain both the power and support they needed to take over Germany.

Propaganda put in its most simple terms it is the usage of imagery and words to reach a goal. Most propaganda is viewed as meant to deceive, mislead and confuse a people into believing one’s scheme. Everything is factored into propaganda to carefully design a brainwashing medium. Propaganda is most often seen in certain mediums including film, television programming, speeches, books, magazines, newspapers, posters, advertisements, and rumors. It generally is meant to evoke both emotion and reason in a person. When both come together it generally presents an internal conflict and makes people more susceptible to new information.[1] The Nazis were able to master the art of propaganda and utilize it.

Nazi propaganda was intended to unite all Germanic people throughout Europe for a common cause- support of the Nazi party.[2] Through carefully manipulated newspapers, books, radio programs, posters, advertisements, magazines, and television shows the Nazis were able to instill their beliefs upon German citizens throughout the world, but mainly those in Germany.[3] Propaganda was not just meant to make citizens support the party through common ideals but also through fear. By using both types of propaganda, the Nazis were able to be quite successful in manipulating German citizens.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany he planned his ascent well, taking the legal avenue which not only maximized his presence but made it possible to use less force in the long run.[4] He took advantage of both his powerful public presence, as well as his affiliation with the Nazi Party. According to Gordon Craig, Hitler had “political genius” as well as a great sense of timing, confidence, and an impressive presence.[5] He knew each one of his strengths very well. For example, through his mastery of public speaking, Hitler was able to capture a crowd and rally support.[6]

Joseph Goebbels

Hitler had big plans for Germany and his vision just so happened to draw the support of Joseph Goebbels, a powerful propaganda strategist.[7] Goebbels became the head of Hitler’s Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and was responsible for most of the distribution and creation of Nazi propaganda, including deeming whether or not it was fit to be used in the support of the party.[8] Everything was factored into the creation of their propaganda, including the iconic and bold reds, dark blacks, grays and whites used in many of their posters. These colors not only created a striking appearance but also caught attention and stood out. Goebbels and Hitler both knew much about propaganda and how it had to be applied on a massive scale in order for it to be effective. Goebbels thought that propaganda was like the oil for a well-run machine and that machine was the German state.[9] Luckily through the organization of the Nazi party distributing, it on such a scale became an easy task.


Most Nazi propaganda was aimed at the common citizen including many working-class families. After the loss of World War I Germany’s morale and economy were both at an all-time low.[10] The Nazi party took advantage of this and used the impressionable citizens as a platform to grow their party from. They promised to help a downtrodden Germany and bring her back to her former glory.[11] After winning the election they seemed to keep true to their promises as well, making German citizens very happy. The golden years of the Nazi party were when the ministry was pumping out their best and most attractive propaganda yet, making Goebbels incredibly successful and indispensable to the party.[12]

Patriotic events like parades and rallies were frequent in Germany and led by the Nazi party, helping raise morale and rally national support with showy celebrations, but the biggest show of all came in 1936.[13] The 1936 Summer Olympics was one of the Nazi’s best chances to show off and put on a good image of the “New Germany.” During the opening ceremonies of the game, Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach welcomed guests with a short greeting, “We, the youth of Germany, we, the youth of Adolf Hitler, greet you, the youth of the world.”[14]  This quote sets the tone for a whole series of impressive welcoming displays from Germany that were meant to show that nobody could put on a better show than the Nazis. From their impressive Olympic complex to their talented all-Aryan athletes, the Nazis knew exactly what to do to make their country look like a shining success.

Gustaf Adolf, Hitler & Göring at the 1936 Olympics

Ritual was a very important part of the Berlin Olympics and was meant to have a propagandistic effect.[15] Nazi party members, as well as citizens of the city of Berlin, gave the Olympic athletes red-carpet treatment. The German airship, the Hindenburg, flew back and forth over the stadium as a sign of both Germany’s inventive genius, as well as national pride. Impressive scores of music and performances, including an Olympic hymn by Richard Strauss himself, were all displayed with great organization and rigor.[16] Visitors to Berlin to view the Olympics had plenty to do when not watching the games as well. All over Berlin, there were cultural events, galleries, and exhibits that promoted the party and Germany.[17] By the end of the Olympics, the Nazis considered the event a huge victory overall. The country’s morale was at an all-time high, tourists left feeling good about their trip, and the reviews of the Nazi complex and athlete housing were raving about the lavishness of it all.[18] The victory helped the Nazi party exhibit the power of their new and improved Germany.

Walter Bruch recording the 1936 Olympics

Among one of their more impressive varieties of propaganda was television programming. German television under the Reich was on air for nine years.[19] In the beginning, Nazi television was broadcast live for about four hours a day.[20] When it was first starting out not many people were able to afford televisions and instead viewed their favorite programs at T.V. parlors. Every day people would gather around the television to watch the newest T.V. show or news report.[21] By broadcasting current events as well, viewers were made to feel well informed about their country’s happenings. It was during the 1936 Summer Olympics that the Nazi party had their first real chance to show off their programming. Views skyrocketed as the Nazi party broadcast the event live and the nation was filled with a sense of pride.[22]

After their large success, the Nazis began to develop a wider variety of programming, made to appeal to everyone. The programs included shows about arts and crafts, cooking, hunting, politics, and many more topics to entertain the average viewer. Every single show, however, was carefully censored and contained one or more pro-Nazi messages in it.[23] During musical programs, Nazi party songs were sung by charming young men and docile young women. Programs about everyday life included many Nazi ideals in them. Celebrities even came on T.V. quite often to show their support for the Fuhrer, who was treated like a celebrity himself. Cleverly phrased metaphors often passed on anti-Semitic messages or information about the so-called “Jewish Conspiracy” and T.V. hosts always said, “Heil Hitler!” at the beginning and end of each program as if it were a greeting.[24]

Along with German television, the Nazis had another form of media at their disposal, that of radio. German radio programs were also popular among the people and censored much in the same way television was at the time. Joseph Goebbels thought “what the press was to the nineteenth century, radio will be to the twentieth”, making mastering the medium a must for the propaganda ministry.[25] Dr. Adolf Raskin, one of the men working under Goebbels for broadcasting, made it clear that the radio propaganda was all meant to fit in with the idea of German race, blood, and nation.[26] By 1936 it was clear that the Germans had managed to create a radio broadcasting system that rivaled all other counties at the time. The Nazis managed to secure some of the best technology and were well staffed with loyal party members.[27]

In Germany, anti-war material in any medium was banned and propaganda that supported war and loyal heroism were distributed in their place. Everywhere the average citizen turned, one-sided information was at their disposal, while all the opposing material was hidden away or burned. Pleasant posters asking for donations to “help build youth hostels and homes” were plastered on walls while in reality, the money was going toward preparations for the war.[28] Propaganda under the Reich went so far as to single out certain groups of people and idolize them, not only making other people see them as important but giving these people a boost of self-confidence as well. Some of these groups included farmers and workers and mothers- all advertised as important roles in German society.[29]Kinder, kuche, kirche” was a common saying describing the duties of a woman as children, kitchen, and church. Women who had at least four children were even given a medal called the Mother’s Cross every year on Hitler’s mother’s birthday.[30] These ideals for women kept them uninvolved in politics and busy with their so-called duties.

Mutter mit Kindern
German mother with her children c.1933

Nazis were even able to put many of their ideals in German churches through anti-Semitic sermons fed to church-goers every Sunday. These sermons focused on messages about “blood and race”.[31]  Hitler believed that churches needed to be carefully monitored just like any other potential threat to their party’s message due to the fact that churches were very important to everyday German culture and life.[32] The Nazi party accomplished this by not only threatening clergymen and other people involved with the church, but also by creating their own church called the “Reich Church.” The traditional crucifixes of the church were replaced with portraits of Hitler. These churches, however, were not so much filled with the teachings of God as they were filled with the teachings of the Nazis. Many pastors praised the party and Hitler’s messages as a national and religious renewal.[33] It seems impossible now to escalate anyone from our government to that same god-like position that Hitler had, but the Nazis managed to make the transition almost flawlessly by eliminating many of the other options people had. Nazis were at war with the Catholic and Bavarian Protestant church from the start due to the fact that they objected to many of their ideals and teachings.[34] When the Nazi Party’s power had grown enough, they were able to combat this by bribing or arresting clergy members and commandeering churches’ land.[35] To Christians throughout Germany, it seemed like the Nazi Party’s teachings were God’s will.

Since anti-Semitism was already fairly common among citizens it was also easier for the Nazis to build off that platform and instill even more extreme views onto the people.[36] Every day Germans were fed information about the Jews being the inferior race and how the Germans were the master Aryan race. Inferior treatment of the Jews, as well as other persecuted groups including anyone of non-German descent, homosexuals, and the disabled, were able to be spun as a part of everyday life.[37]


The Nazi party was also quick to produce propaganda aimed at German children of all ages and was known as a party of the youth.[38] Aside from family television programming, the Nazi party put their ideas into schools, the home, and youth groups, like the Hitler Youth. Goebbels was one of the first to realize the powerful effect linking the Ministry of Education and the Propaganda Ministry would have.[39] Because of this attitude, the Nazi party was very aware of how impressionable children were and were determined to raise loyal citizens from a very young age.

Young people were constantly exposed to this kind of ideology. Nazi propaganda even reached into the classroom and started as early as kindergarten. Children were taught proper National Socialist ideology and how to behave at home. Sometimes their teachers even made home visits with their parents to make sure their education was continuing at home.[40] In schooling at all ages, teachers gave anti-Semitic lectures and taught children to be obedient and to follow the Fuhrer and party no matter what. Educational films were shown, usually documentary style, that discussed ideals like German freedom and expansion under the guise of geography and history.[41] It was exposure like this that began to create a new pro-Nazi generation.

Colored image of Hitler Youth c.1933

The Hitler Youth was the main way the Nazi party reached out to German youth. This party run organization was much like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to German children. Though membership was originally optional it became required after 1939.[42] The Hitler Youth boasted six million German citizens under the age of 18 as members.[43] The Hitler Youth was created to teach children to be strong, brave, loyal, and obedient to their country while instilling the ideals and thoughts of the Nazi party into their heads.[44]

Young girls went camping and learned homemaking skills during their meets. They also played organized sports and were taught how to be good future mothers. These teachings were meant to keep them busy throughout their life, so they would be dissuaded from ever pursuing a career. Both genders participated in events where they got to meet Nazi party members who talked to them about the importance of their lessons through the Hitler Youth. When the Hitler Youth finally wrapped up it was considered an almost too successful venture for the Nazi party. So many members were enrolled that the organization had a hard time dealing with such a large number of children.[45]

Children’s most crucial role in Nazi Germany however, was the message they took home to their parents and other adults. Children were encouraged to tattle on anyone who said anything against the Fuhrer, the war, or the Nazi party as well as anyone who supported the Jews.[46] The party used them almost like spies. Children that were members of the Hitler Youth were even given small portraits of Hitler to hang on their walls at home.[47] This made parents that did not support the Nazi party’s ideals fearful. If they did not support the party their own children may have turned against them and ratted them out to the Nazis. The children who were once many parent’s source of happiness were now a source of constant fear.

Many of the children raised on Nazi ideology were also a later generation of soldiers, going off to fight in the war. From the beginning, the order and direction of the Nazi party’s German army attracted many young men who sought order in their life to join its ranks. Others joined for the sense of adventure, and others yet for the cause while some simply needed the job.[48]


Propaganda was what really helped the soldiers of Germany into the right mindset, thoroughly convincing many that they were truly the superior race and fighting to protect their country. Even soldiers not of the Nazi party were often convinced that they were fighting for the noble cause of defending their country.[49] A Nazi party endorsed anti-Semitic newspaper called the Der Sturmer was given free to all soldiers as well.[50] National Socialist Leadership Officers were officials sent to the front lines to give informal lectures and pep talks meant to both boost soldier morale as well as hype them up in support of the cause.[51]

Auszeichnung des Hitlerjungen Willi Hübner
Goebbels awarding 16-year-old Willi Hübner the Iron Cross

Hitler gave a speech to his army on December 11th of 1941 when they declared war against the United States of America. In his speech, he convinced German soldiers that though they may be killed they will never be forgotten for their sacrifice to Germany. Hitler even addressed President Roosevelt’s refusal of Germany’s kindness and diplomacy as well, claiming he was trying to rile up his people to support the war in America. The German people watched this impassioned speech and felt as a country they must stay united. For better or for worse the German army had been brought together to defend their country against the enemy.[52]

Der Sturmer logo

Killing the “enemy” was viewed as a heroic act, rewarded by the Nazi party and encouraged to be shown-off. That view is supported by this fragment of a letter, written by an unknown German soldier:

Can you receive Belgrade with your radio; every evening they broadcast German news at eight and 10 p.m.? Maybe you will have a chance to hear it. But don’t be shocked if the number of executed Jews and Communists happens to be announced. They are listed daily at the end of the news. Today a record was set! This morning one hundred and twenty two Communists and Jews were executed by us in Belgrade.[53]

From this, it’s easy to draw that soldiers felt that killing the enemy was for the greater good of Germany, and with the reward of being recognized, soldiers were encouraged even more.

The German army was also very good at trying to save face with soldiers who had seen the terrors of the war they were fighting. Soldiers were encouraged to go to their commanding officers and report to them if they no longer believed they were able to fight. When a soldier was deemed psychologically unfit he was relieved of his duty and sent back home to do another, less stressful line of work. Although this process seemed kind on its facade it was just to keep German soldiers from snapping and possibly shooting their comrades and wasting valuable supplies[54].

Though some may argue that the Nazi’s expertise in military was their true key to success, that isn’t the case. Though the Nazis had a strong military, without winning the support of the people they would have never been able to come to power. Every form of information was controlled- from books to movies, radio to television, magazines to the spoken word. German citizens were living in a controlled environment designed and meant to filter out anything that may challenge the Nazi party’s ideals. It was brainwashing and those who weren’t blindfolded and ignorant to the true horror of the Reich were controlled by their fear. Through the effects of propaganda, the Nazi government was able to gain the support they needed in taking over Germany- and from support comes power. When the war ended and Germany lost, it became quite apparent to the German people that they had been controlled by their consumption of biased media. Propaganda has the power to sway, to control, and to mislead a people and the Nazi Party employed their techniques upon Germany resulting in her takeover.


  • [1] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 11.
  • [2] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [3] Ibid. 56
  • [4] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 24.
  • [5] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 7.
  • [6]Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 32.
  • [7] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 3.
  • [8] Ibid. 29.
  • [9] Ibid. 29-31.
  • [10] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 6.
  • [11] Ilse Koehn, Mischling, Second Degree (New York: Greenwillow Books, 1977), 20.
  • [12] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 39.
  • [13] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 8-9.
  • [14] David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 192.
  • [15] Ibid. 190.
  • [16] Ibid. 195-196.
  • [17] Ibid. 203-205.
  • [18] Ibid. 202.
  • [19] Television Under the Swastika, directed by Michael Kloft (1999; CA: First Run Features), DVD.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Horst J.P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 6.
  • [26] Ibid. 6-7.
  • [27]  Ibid. 7-8.
  • [28] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 22.
  • [29] Anthony Rhodes, Propaganda The Art of Persuasion: World War II (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976), 12.
  • [30] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 28.
  • [31] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 55.
  • [32] Ibid. 79.
  • [33] Ibid. 55.
  • [34] Ibid. 68.
  • [35] Ibid. 69.
  • [36] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 54.
  • [37] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 20.
  • [38] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 65.
  • [39] Ibid. 69.
  • [40] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 83.
  • [41] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 66-69.
  • [42] Ibid. 72.
  • [43] Ibid. 72.
  • [44] Ibid. 72.
  • [45] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 31.
  • [46] Ibid. 30-33.
  • [47] Ibid. 33.
  • [48] Tom Streissguth, Adolf Eichmann (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 2005), 20.
  • [49] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [50] Ibid. 54.
  • [51] Ibid. 56.
  • [52]  Adolf Hitler, “Speech Declaring War Against the United States” (December 11, 1941).
  • [53] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 56.
  • [54] Ibid. 57.
Other History

“Food Will Win the War”: Food in the Military During WWI

“Food will win the war.” Was Herbert Hoover’s rallying cry while in charge of the United States Food Administration during World War One.[1] This statement, although an oversimplification often made on all sides of the war, had an element of truth to it.[2] All powers involved in World War One had to deal with the issue of supplying their troops with the proper nutrition to fight a war while facing shortages, shipping and delivery issues, and quality control. Food, as a result, was one of the most important factors of the First World War and created an entire culture around it. From developing new technology, industries, organizations, and other forms of participation in the distribution and production of food for the troops, food saturated the First World War.

Theory and Planning on Rationing

Herbert Hoover

America was late to the war, entering in 1917 without a very large force of men to support the European Allies, America had to catch up to their well-established counterpart’s manpower quickly. In order to do so the Selective Service Act of 1917 was deemed the most democratic process to build up a massive army in a matter of months. Thus, it was enacted, making the United States combined force of the Regular Army and National Guard (which originally was only about 208,000 men) to more than 3.7 million men with the new National Army.[3] The Americans were quickly overcome by the same issue the rest of the European troops had been facing for years now: How to supply food to their troops. Issues from the lack of proper troop diets in the Spanish American war and the questions of the quality and sanitation of meat and meat packing industries addressed in Upton Sinclair’s classic book, The Jungle, led to much debate among Americans as to how to remedy this situation before another war came knocking.[4] The Pure Food and Drug Act was established in 1906 to uphold a standard of sanitation and safety within slaughterhouses and meat plants and research into food nutrition and dietary needs began to take root in American society, preparations which would soon aid them in the war, soon to come.[5]

With a newly reorganized War Department after the Spanish American War, the United States began to examine the nutritional needs of men serving in their forces. During the previous war men serving in tropical areas had issues receiving their rations and receiving adequate rations given the harsher conditions of a tropical climate.[6] The United States was not the only country to focus heavily on a nutritious diet and just what exactly that constituted. British dieticians had determined that men only needed 3,574 calories a day to have a healthy diet but recognized that given the hard labor and conditions soldiers were meant to endure, they would need a few extra calories.[7] The rations for troops on the front lines are as follows, with the American troops receiving the highest daily caloric intake at 4,714 calories. French troops had the second-best ration system by calories, coming in at 4,466 calories, though the information was misleading since 600 of those calories were meant to be purchased by men on their daily allowance of five centimes. The British troops clocked in at 4,194 and the Germans at 4,038 calories, making their rationing the smallest of the powers.[8]

Soldiers drawing rations in France

Meat was one of the most important foods to the caloric intake of troops. American soldiers were allocated 1 ¼ lbs. of meat daily, the Germans and British received 1 lb., and the French received just less than a pound. Specialty meat like turkey could be served on Thanksgiving and Christmas, if possible.[9] Vegetables were the second most important source of nutrition in ration planning. German men received over a pound of vegetables a day, the British a little over a half pound, the French had no fixed official amount, and Americans were given 1 ¼ lbs. of potatoes to work with.[10] These numbers, sadly, are only in theory. Actual rationing ranged greatly from location to location, month to month, and sometimes day to day.

In the United States, the Office of Quartermaster was the official avenue through which troops were provided food. They were developed to consolidate food production and purchasing for the military[11]. The Quartermaster controlled many different types of food in every stage of production including flour, sugar, canned vegetables, dehydrated fruits, salmon, sardines, canned milk, and fresh beef.[12] The Quartermaster Corps requested certain foods from the Food Administration purchase list and the quantity which they needed. The Food Administration would divvy up the production of these items between different producers and their capacities before it was shipped to a general supply depot where prices were decided on by the Food Purchase board. The Quartermaster Corps purchased these rations from the general supply depots nearby army posts to lessen the shipping distance and to minimize the effect that purchasing food in such quantities would have on civilian prices for these goods[13]. They also published many manuals, like the 1910 Manual for the Subsistence Department of the U.S. Army. These manuals contained guidelines on ways to select the best ration items for quality and price, as well as the proper way to purchase these items and record ration values.[14]

The Quartermaster Corps established depots for storing the different goods they procured for the military after they purchased them. There were three main types of depots. The first of which were base depots, in which they received the initial products to unload them as fast as possible and allow the ships to go back for more shipments right away. The second type of depot was closer to the front lines. They were called intermediary depots and served as the resting point for goods between the base depots and their final destination, advanced section depots. The advanced section depots were located nearest to the front lines where the supplies would be used by troops.[15]

The French and British armies had another way of providing food to their troops, through planting vegetable gardens near more permanent types of camps close to the front line. These camps usually were used for training or hospitals, since they were moved less frequently than the lines themselves and allowed for military members to cultivate and harvest their small gardens more frequently and in general take better care of them. This system was so successful that the United States Quartermaster Corps copied it and created their own Gardens Bureau to oversee the distribution of seeds and plants for these gardens.[16] For the U.S. Army, the Quartermaster Corps only provided about 40% of all the food that the military consumed.[17]

The establishment of military training schools for cooks and bakers was one of the most necessary measures for the U.S. Army and their plans to provide the American Expeditionary Force with food overseas. In 1905 the first school for bakers and cooks was established at Fort Riley, following ration problems from the Spanish American War. This was significant because they provided men with the training and resources to cook for groups of anywhere from 20-100 men.[18] The Regular Army and National Guard already had their own mess organizations, but the newly formed National Army was desperately in need of their own cooks now that they had expanded so much. These training schools filled that void.[19] Army cooks were able to use newly developed improvements to the classic rolling kitchen, like W.A. Dorsley’s compact oil-burners that could be used within these kitchens to cook more efficiently for the men.[20] The rolling kitchens were commonly known as “Liberty Kitchens” in the U.S. and were either horse-drawn or vehicle-drawn during World War One.[21] Army bakers were given technology like continuous ovens and intermittent ovens to bake bread for the military in a variety of conditions.[22]

Specially trained cooks and bakers were not the only ones who were expected to be able to provide food for soldiers though, as sometimes nurses were called on to abandon their current medical duties to provide their patients with food. “A well-fed patient has many times the chance of recovery than the wounded soldier who is served with ill-prepared food or has an insufficient diet.”[23] Since women were part of the domestic sphere, which included caring for others and cooking it was thought that this was no issue, but as the war progressed it was made clear nurses were far more valuable to the military when able to focus completely on their jobs of providing health and healing. [24]

Rationing and Reality

The realities of rationing in every military power were far less ideal than their theoretical plans that they had begun the war with. Facts and figures could only predict so much and the reality of the situation was that the military needed to figure out ways to get more food to their men more efficiently. Shipping was one of the most difficult problems to overcome. None of the powers had enough ships, especially the Americans, to ship the rations they needed. The AEF relied heavily on food purchased in Europe initially when they arrived in 1917.[25] To free up space on ships new food shipping technology was introduced, including de-boning meat and dehydrating vegetables. These techniques took up less space than previous methods of packing.[26] De-boned beef came in three varieties of 100 lbs. cubes including tenderloins, sirloins, butts, top rinds, and shoulder steaks; prime ribs, rumps, and bottom chucks for roasts; and flanks, plates, blades, necks, shanks, and trimmings for stews. This made meat easier to prep for field cooks as well, since they no longer had to spend as much time prepping and de-boning the meat.[27] Dehydrating vegetables, the creation of soluble coffee, and the expansion of refrigeration were all other technologies that further aided the solution to the shipping problem and became even more common after the war ended.[28]

Not all issues were solved by this new technology. Some were more complicated, like the fact that even before the war began Britain imported most of the food they consumed and the German U-boat attacks and blockades made it even more difficult to import food into the country during wartime.[29] Not to mention with all the men gone to fight in the war there were constant labor shortages in industries where Britain was able to produce their own food.[30] Germans suffered some of the worst food shortages throughout the war because of the scale and scope of the Allied blockade.[31] The French had fewer issues with shortages than they did with damage to their supply and distribution system throughout the war. In 1915 an inspection found that over half of France’s 300,000 field kitchens were completely unserviceable.[32]

Due to issues like these men often got far less than the “official” ration, and as the war went on even less due to supply/distribution difficulties.[33] What food the men of the military did have in the war was usually shared quite freely between soldiers and officers. Comradery was a contributing factor, but it was also a burden to carry extra food around with them, especially food that was sent in care packages.[34] Travel troops that were not in distance of a cooking facility had a diet of bread, canned corn beef or corned beef hash, baked beans, canned tomatoes and roasted or ground coffee. If coffee was unavailable men were given twenty-one cents a day to purchase liquid coffee.[35] When troops were near serviceable kitchens, they received more elaborate meals like chipped beef on toast (commonly known as SOS among the troops) and had access to purchasing extras like candy at canteens. Candy was eventually a part of official overseas rations for U.S. troops in December of 1918.[36]

Food provided to the American draftee in training were some of the most complete meals that the soldiers would receive before going into battle. The menu from Summer of 1917 at Fort Riley gives an excellent example of a typical daily ration for the trainees:

Breakfast- Cantaloupes, corn flakes, sugar and milk, fried liver and bacon, fried onions, toast, bread, and coffee

Dinner- Beef à la mode, boiled potatoes, creamed cauliflower, pickles, tapioca pudding, vanilla [sic] sauce, bread, and iced tea

Supper- Chili con carne, hot biscuits, stewed peaches, and iced tea[37]

Pork and beans were a more common “prepared” meal in a can that troops would receive once deployed, which they could warm up or eat cold. It was similar to today’s baked beans, made with haricot beans and pork fat.[38]

Soft and hard breads were also a staple of all militaries. Bakers had the ability to bake both soft and hard breads, but as the war went on hard breads became more common because it was less prone to damage while transporting it, though it did take longer to bake because of how much denser it was.[39] During the war, one of the best field bakeries output was from a U.S. bakery company. They baked 12,096 lbs. of field bread a day at their peak.[40] The United States troops had a bakery company of around 61 personnel (which would be reduced to 48 during peacetime) for every division of men and used the Manual for Army Bakers for their recipes.[41] Hard breads were also known as “field bread” or “army biscuits” depending on the way they were produced, packaged, and consumed. The army biscuit of the Royal Artillery was “so hard you had to put them on a firm surface and smash them with a stone or something” according to one private.[42] Soldiers came up with many different methods to serve the biscuits including smashing them to a pulp and adding sultanas to make a mushy substance that they would then boil in a sandbag. When it was finished each man would take a sawed-off piece, sandbag still intact.[43]

World War One also saw the development and refinement of the emergency ration. Sometimes these were called iron rations[44] or Armour Emergency Rations, named after the company that produced them.[45] These rations were meant to be food that the troops could fall back on in case of an emergency where other food was not accessible or they were cut off from their supply lines. These products weren’t the most appetizing and it was a general rule that soldiers could not consume their emergency rations without officer permission.[46] European iron rations consisted of a tin of bully beef, tea and sugar, a few biscuits, and a wedge of moldy cheese.[47] American Armour Emergency Rations were just as bad. They consisted of three cakes made of parched wheat and powdered beef and three cakes made from chocolate and sugar. The beef cakes could be eaten dry or boiled in three pints of water for soup, and one pint of water for a porridge substance, or even sliced and fried up. The chocolate cakes were either eaten dry like candy or made into a drink by adding it to hot water.[48]

Substitution during the war was boiled down to a form of art, so to speak. Soldiers often were unable to get the original foods that their rations were supposed to consist of, so the military came up with lists of foods that could be used instead to substitute the original products. Soft bread made from flour often had to be substituted with hard bread or 50/50 bread, fresh meat with canned meat or pickled fish, dried fish, or canned fish, fresh vegetables with desiccated vegetables, and fruit was to be 30% prunes when possible.[49] The Turnip Winter of 1916-1917 was one of the most notable examples of army substitutions. Due to food shortages, the German army was forced to eat turnips in nearly everything, which was commonly thought of as animal fodder or face starvation. They ate bread made of ground turnips and sawdust with mashed turnip paste on top for flavor. They also resorted to horse meat stew with nettles, commonly called “barbed wire entanglements” as their vegetable source.[50] The Germans, also due to shortages, reduced their meat ration from twelve ounces to six ounces over the course of the war, eventually only consuming meat about nine days out of the month.[51]

Maconochie can from Musée Somme’s collection

Food for men in the war could be scarce, often face substitutions, or even be cut but much of the food soldiers did receive was undesirable in taste, quality, and variety. Canned meats were often regarded as disgusting, like the French’s “monkey meat” (a nickname given to the unidentifiable canned meat claimed to be pressed beef the French received in rations, and eventually American soldiers as well)[52] or the British’s Maconochie. Maconochie is referred to as such because of the company’s name emblazoned across the can in which it came. It was a mixture of sliced turnips and carrots with gravy described by one officer as “warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller”.[53]

Even simple things like tea were often foul-tasting due to packing and preparation methods. To save room the tea was packed mixed in with sugar, which frustrated soldiers who wanted to separate out their sugar to use in other things.[54] Since all of the foods and drinks were generally prepared in two large vats by field cooks the tea often tasted like meat and vegetables or like the chloride of lime used to sterilize the water. The fact that food and drinks were often transported in petrol cans and canteens were nearly impossible to properly clean did not bring any relief to soldiers seeking a warm cup of tea that tasted like tea.[55]

The repetitive nature of meals in the army was also universally disliked, though there were little options to remedy this due to the all-around supply issues the militaries faced. Jam was one food often complained about. The British jam company Ticklers produced jams originally in plum and apple, eventually also expanding to gooseberry and rhubarb, but these bland flavors did little to make men happy, especially when they used jam near-daily. Men wondered when strawberry or raspberry jam might be introduced to mix things up, but they never were.[56] Estaminets behind front lines often only served fried eggs with chips or omelets, earning the whole La Bassée Sector the nickname of the “Egg and Chip Front”.[57] The care boxes soldiers received from their families were often the highlight of their diets, varying things with some good fresh food from home, as one solider describes in a thank you letter to his family:

You can not really appreciate what it means to me or would mean to any man down here. The meals are very much alike and plain. Now I can answer the mess call with a jar of heavenly jam under my arm and a piece of cake or pie for dessert and you don’t know how it will add to the meal. The other things— all those nuts and apples and oranges and raisins and pudding and salad and cocoanut and what not— I was simply overwhelmed when I unpacked the box.[58]

Sometimes it was the small things, like variety, that kept soldiers going through the war.

Drink was also an important ration to the men of the First World War. Every army in World War One received a form of alcohol rations for their men except the Americans, who were forbidden alcohol for fear of moral compromise and drunkenness.[59] British drink rations included one earthenware gallon-sized jug of rum a day per every sixty-four men. The bottles were marked “SRD” for “Services Rum Diluted” which soon came to be known as “Soon Runs Dry” by British soldiers, a more fitting translation in their eyes.[60] German and French had a ration more closely related to brandy, called “98%” by the Germans, who received 0.17 of a pint daily. French gnôle was described as a “cross between methylated spirits and paregoric elixir”.[61] French and German troops also had official wine rations which the French referred to as le pinard and frequently replaced water within their canteens.[62] The drunkenness that American military leaders feared from their soldiers should they have access to liquor was largely a non-issue. Though occasionally there were court martial cases involved in drunkenness and alcohol was used by some men to self-medicate, for the most part, disorderly conduct due to alcohol was so infrequent it was hardly an issue.[63]

Difficulties in the Trenches

Nowhere were supply issues more apparent than in the trenches.[64] Rear areas frequently had significantly better diets than that given to the soldiers suffering the hardships of the frontline positions.[65] Since trench warfare had very specific conditions men usually faced their rations too, had to reflect that. From gas attacks, sanitation issues, and the lack of fires allowed in the trenches to cook foods regular meals were made difficult. The America trench ration included a one-pound can of meat (bacon or corned beef), two eight-ounce tins of hard bread, two and a half ounces of sugar, a little over an ounce of coffee, and a little less than a fourth of an ounce of salt. This amounted to 3,300 calories a day in a difficult to carry cylindrical tin can. The containers were galvanized to protect them from gas and could also be used to float two men in the sea at a time.[66] Soldiers often referred to the canned salmon that was sometimes placed in their trench rations as “goldfish” and the can of meat as “canned willie”.[67]

Field kitchen near Ypres 1917

Getting food to soldiers while it was hot was near impossible. Field kitchens were not even brought close enough to the front lines to provide troops with food until 1915.[68] When field kitchens came closer to the trenches food was carried to the soldiers in dixies, petrol cans, and jam tins, all packed into straw-lined boxes. This food usually arrived to the soldiers cold.[69] Hot soup, commonly known as “slum”, stew, and coffee were brought as close to the men as possible by ration runners on two-wheeled carts drawn by two mules. Then the food was carried into the trenches on a pole by two men.[70] The luxury of carts was not always available either. In 1914 French cooks had to crawl as close to the trenches as they could get and throw food down to the men.[71] Inevitably, being a ration runner was a dangerous job and many men died trying to bring food to the soldiers.[72]

Fire was banned in the trenches because smoke was likely to give their position away to enemies.[73] This was unfortunate due to the lack of ways to heat or reheat certain food and drink items, offering comfort and sometimes sanitation to men. Some men used improvised cookers, which were rifle pull-through rags soaked in whale oil that would be lit in a cigarette tin. The flame lasted just long enough to heat a mess tin of water, which was sometimes gathered from the bottom of shell holes when fresh supplies ran out. Boiling the water was the only way to ensure some level of sanitation since it was often tainted by gas or rotting corpses.[74] Luckier men made use of Tommy Cookers, which were pocket size solidified alcohol stoves which gave off a slow and weak heat hardly any better than the improvised cookers.[75]

The Battle for Food on the Home Front

The militaries of every power faced the inevitable issue of certain foods being lost, pilfered, or thrown away before they reached the troops[76], but the American government faced a larger issue overall with their food— the quality. The Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted in 1906, well before the start of the First World War, but played a huge factor in the war when the Food Administration was created to enforce the act.[77] The Food Administration, now known as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), can be described as a series of “crisis-legislation-adaption cycles”.[78] The Spanish American war and meat packing industry abuses were just two of the reasons the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, consumer protection becoming a necessary action for the government to take, especially when it endangered the health and safety of soldiers in the future war.[79] When the act was passed there was little done to actually enforce its policies[80] which was why in 1917 Woodrow Wilson established the Food Administration. The Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, was to control the production, processing, distribution of meats, fats and oils, wheat, sugar, milk, fruits, and vegetables, all valuable commodities during wartime.[81] This process was aided by food and drug reviews also carried out by the Food Administration.[82]

At home, each and every power had their own ways of ensuring food got to their soldiers through civilian centered propaganda techniques that encouraged people to waste less and make more of their own food to save most of it for the men fighting. Hooverization, as it was called at the time, was one of the most effective of these propaganda campaigns. It was Hoover’s plan to conserve food without rationing. Hoover claimed, “voluntary action has the great value of depriving those who can afford it and not those who have no margin for sacrifice.”.[83] Hoover’s plan was directed at and embraced by the middle class, especially women due to their caring and domestic nature.[84] Who was better suited to take care of the boys off fighting than women at home? He believed that the fighting of the war was one of the greatest national tasks ever presented to the American people and that through their acceptance of this task, victory was made possible.[85]

Substitution guide for “Victory Bread”

The domestic sciences, which was largely marketed toward women to help with nutritious meal prep and focused on new research about caloric intake and balanced diets, were more popular than ever at the turn of the century.[86] Women who studied and mastered these skills could make things like victory bread or 50-50 bread, which used substitutes for 20% or more of the ingredients typically in bread.[87] This meant that the ingredients they weren’t using were able to be provided to soldiers. In the summer of 1918 when there was an overabundance of potatoes produced American housewives made potato bread instead of wheat bread.[88] Hoover emphasized that Americans needed to eat less wheat, meat, fats, and sugar at home.[89] Popular posters embodied that sentiment with slogans like “Eat Less of the Food Fighters Need”.[90] Women mostly, but also men who did not fight in the war, worked in many different food production job[91]s and even grew their own gardens at home to help supply soldiers while using less of that supply.[92] Posters, radio, and cinema reels promoted the ideal involvement of the civilian[93] and led to the popular movement of planting these gardens at home, known as Victory Gardens. They also canned their own foods to make what was grown in the gardens last even longer.[94] The American Food Administration ended up reducing the domestic consumption of food by 15% without ever having to institute civilian rationing. They used their propaganda, patriotism, and organization to their advantage.[95]

Non-military organizations were also very involved in the war effort, ensuring that rations were not the only way soldiers got their food. Aside from military surplus depots[96], many organizations like the Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army, National Catholic War Council, Jewish Welfare Board, War Camp Community Service, and the American Library Association provided other food for men on the front lines or moving out to fight.[97] The Red Cross, YMCA, and Salvation Army were some of the most successful in providing aid to soldiers on a large scale.[98] The Red Cross began their Canteen Service in 1917 which gave troops food, snacks, and leisure activities while in transit at ports and railway depots. They also had mounted rolling canteens to get food out to the men already on the field.[99]

Food parcel from the Red Cross

The YMCA became known for producing cookies, milk chocolate bars, caramels, jam, drinking chocolate, sweet chocolate bars, chocolate cream bars, and nut covered chocolate rolls in their own factories for the troops. The YMCA sold these goods at wet canteens throughout Europe.[100] The Salvation Army was perhaps the most highly regarded aid organization among soldiers. They were known for their good cheer and serving lemonade, coffee, cakes, and pies, but most importantly doughnuts to the men.[101] The Knights of Columbus, War Camp Community Service, Jewish Welfare Board, YWCA, and the American Library Association provided smaller scale assistance like giving coffee, chocolate, and chewing gum to soldiers.[102]

Without the combined effort on the behalf of so many different governments, businesses, organizations, and people the soldiers of World War One would have been in a much direr situation. All these factors allowed troops to receive the food they needed to fight and in the case of the Allied powers, food really did win the war. Each power did their best to overcome the issues of shortages, shipping and delivery problems, and to give soldiers a better quality of food that would have been provided in previous wars. Food was, and always will be, one of the most important factors of the First World War and paved the way for even more important advances in technology by the time World War Two came about. Without the discoveries and developments of methods for food distribution and production during the war, society would be in a much different place than it is today.


  • [1] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military: A History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011), 142.
  • [2] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 41.
  • [3] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115.
  • [4] Ibid. 128.
  • [5] Ibid. 116.
  • [6] Ibid. 115-116.
  • [7] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 125.
  • [8] Ibid. 125.
  • [9] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117-118.
  • [10] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 125.
  • [11] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115.
  • [12] Ibid. 116.
  • [13] Ibid. 116.
  • [14] Ibid. 119.
  • [15] Ibid. 122.
  • [16] Ibid. 125.
  • [17] Ibid. 116.
  • [18] Ibid. 118-119.
  • [19] Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 36.
  • [20] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 124.
  • [21] Ibid. 124.
  • [22] Ibid. 120.
  • [23] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country. 41.
  • [24] Ibid. 41.
  • [25] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 123.
  • [26] Ibid. 123.
  • [27] Ibid. 123.
  • [28] Ibid. 122-127.
  • [29] Hockenhull, Stella. “Everybody’s Business: Film, Food and Victory in the First World War.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 35, no. 4 (2015) 580-581.
  • [30] Ibid. 580.
  • [31] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127-128.
  • [32] Ibid. 127.
  • [33] Ibid. 127.
  • [34] Ibid. 132-133.
  • [35] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [36] Ibid. 118-119.
  • [37] Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars, 65.
  • [38] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [39] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 120.
  • [40] Ibid. 120.
  • [41] Ibid. 119.
  • [42] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [43] Ibid. 129.
  • [44] Ibid. 127.
  • [45] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [46] Ibid. 117.
  • [47] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [48] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 117.
  • [49] Ibid. 116-117.
  • [50] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [51] Ibid. 128.
  • [52] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 125.
  • [53] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 129.
  • [54] Ibid. 129.
  • [55] Ibid. 130-131.
  • [56] Ibid. 130.
  • [57] Ibid. 132.
  • [58] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 131.
  • [59] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 134.
  • [60] Ibid. 133.
  • [61] Ibid. 133.
  • [62] Ibid. 133.
  • [63] Ibid. 134-136.
  • [64] Keegan, John. The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 136.
  • [65] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 130-131.
  • [66] Ibid. 118.
  • [67] Ibid. 118.
  • [68] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 125.
  • [69] Ibid. 125.
  • [70] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 123-125.
  • [71] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [72] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 125.
  • [73] Ibid. 130-131.
  • [74] Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell. 127.
  • [75] Ibid. 127.
  • [76] Ibid. 125.
  • [77] Borchers, Andrea T., Frank Hagie, Carl L. Keen, and M. Eric Gershwin. “The History and contemporary Challenges of the US Food and Drug Administration.” Clinical Therapeutics 29, no. 1 (2007) 2.
  • [78] Ibid. 1.
  • [79] Ibid. 2.
  • [80] Ibid. 6.
  • [81] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 115-116.
  • [82] United States. Food Drug Administration. History Office. A Guide to Resources on the History of the Food and Drug Administration. (2002).
  • [83] Kingsbury, Cecilia Malone. For Home and Country. 27-31.
  • [84] Ibid. 28.
  • [85] Ibid. 54.
  • [86] Ibid. 50.
  • [87] Ibid. 53.
  • [88] Ibid. 29.
  • [89] Ibid. 52.
  • [90] Ibid. 52.
  • [91] Ibid. 46.
  • [92] Hockenhull, Stella. “Everybody’s Business: Film, Food and Victory in the First World War.”  589.
  • [93] Ibid. 579.
  • [94] Fisher, John C. & Carol Fisher. Food in the American Military. 145.
  • [95] Ibid. 142-143.
  • [96] Ibid. 119.
  • [97] Ibid. 127-128.
  • [98] Ibid. 128.
  • [99] Ibid. 128.
  • [100] Ibid. 129-30.
  • [101] Ibid. 129.
  • [102] Ibid. 130.
Other History

“The Most Solitary of Afflictions and the Most Social of Maladies”: Britain’s Attitude Toward Madness and Its Effect on Bedlam Asylum

Historians have a unique task of explaining the past, rather than simply relaying facts and figures to the public. This is because history is more complicated than simply recounting facts. The context of events, places, and peoples of the past must be explained in order to understand them. Historians explain that context. Similarly, sociologists often explain the behavior of individuals and society, often in a more modern context, but not limited to the present. Therefore, in the case of mental health, it is difficult to keep sociology and history apart from each other.[1] Each is very important to explain the complex behaviors and attitudes society has had toward mental illnesses in the past. Michael MacDonald once said, “Madness is the most solitary afflictions to the people who experience it; but is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects.”[2] For Great Britain, from the beginning of the 13th century, this holds very true.

“Madness” was a term most popular to describe mental illnesses in Europe prior to the 20th century. Madness could take many forms but there were two most common distinctions between different types of madness— the raving and furious versus the melancholy. Today we have many different types of mental illnesses that cover a variety of different symptoms and have plenty of different names, but in early Britain, nearly all afflictions could boil down to fitting within one of these categories. Today we might label these cases of madness as learning difficulties, epilepsy, brain tumors, personality disorders, and other common illnesses.[3] Unfortunately for those with these illnesses before the more modern era of medicine, treatment could be often found in asylums, which for the most part were places of great horror before 19th-century reforms began to take place.

Social attitudes and understandings of mental illness have evolved quite a bit in Britain since the 13th century, but there is once infamous asylum which for many years, remained untouched by the outside world’s opinions and advancements in technology. This asylum is most known by its nickname, Bedlam. Bedlam is one of many asylums that left some people to believe that madness was a fate “even more deplorable than death itself” in England.[4] Bedlam has a very unique history and experience from other European asylums throughout the ages. Bedlam remains distinct because of its seeming uncaringness toward popular social attitudes and movements for the majority of its operating years. Bedlam’s failure to change with the times, as well as its unusually cruel methods of “treatment” was what led to the notorious asylum’s downfall in the early 1800s.

Old Bedlam postcard
Colored wood engraving of Bethlem Hospital, more commonly known as “Bedlam”

Demons and Animals

To understand Bedlam’s failure to keep up with society it is crucial to first look at society itself during the operating years of Bedlam. In the 1200s the mentally ill were thought to be possessed by demons and usually religious organizations like parishes were charged with taking care of the ill.[5] The idea of the mentally ill being possessed was popular through the 16th century until the Age of Enlightenment came in the 17th. Luckily though, in medieval Britain, the mentally ill were often left alone unless they were a threat to others or causing a disturbance.[6] Often the treatment of those who were taken in by parishes was cruel and painful, the main idea being to “drive out” the demons, oftentimes using violence.[7]

At the turn of the 16th century, the number of those affected by madness rose in Britain along with the sudden rise in the poor. Poverty was becoming more rampant due to high rates of unemployment, inflated prices, and the enclosure of land that was once free to roam.[8] To be mad was to be idle in society. The mad were those “generally incapable of productive labor.”[9] Defining madness in such a way meant that everyone from the poor and old or to the misfits and crippled could fall under the umbrella term of madness. Despite the rising commonality the mad were depicted in horrifying manners, especially through art. They were shown biting, beasty looking, tense and contorted, often in shredded clothing or shamelessly naked. It is said that these depictions were inspired by medieval depictions of Hell and the Last Judgement.[10] Madmen became a symbol of the bestial possibilities of those people who lost the “governing principle of reason.”[11]

Due to these animal-like ideas of the mad, the idea of domestication as a form of treatment became popularized.[12] “Domestic” had two different meanings at the time. The first was the ideal of domesticity in a familial way. Though this was an idea at the time, this didn’t surface very often in early asylums as it did in ones later, past the 17th century. The second meaning was domestication in the way animals would be tamed. This was the most popular use of the domestication ideology in Britain asylums from the medieval period until the late 18th century.[13] With the increase in the mad and these frightening depictions of them, asylum culture began to formulate. Rather than being an option for those who were too dangerous or disturbances to the public more and more of the mentally ill were being placed into madhouses on the grounds of “maintaining social order.”[14] In Andrew Scull’s book Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective he brilliantly sums up this growing attitude by saying it was an attempt to “conceal the ultimate affront to bourgeois sensibilities.”[15] 17th through 18th-century asylums began to advertise themselves as places to confine the mad and morally disreputable, rather than a place to treat and assist them.[16] Asylums became Britain’s place to hide away those they would rather forget about.

When Madness Becomes Trendy

Despite hiding away those that society did not accept into their “sensible” ranks, society did not forget about those who they’d locked away. In fact, madness actually became quite a popular subject in the upper classes. Sensible society became voyeurs of the mad.[17] Constantly madness was depicted in media all around. From art to literature the fascination was rampant. Plays featuring scenes in Bedlam, or other unnamed asylums were their most popular in the 17th century.[18] William Hogarth, a renowned artist, sold expensive paintings to wealthy aristocrats of Europe while selling slightly cheaper mass-produced engravings of them to the less wealthy. Many of his works included scenes depicting the moralless, sinful, and the mad.[19] 1771’s popular novel The Man of Feeling, by Henry Mackenzie, had a scene in which the main character visited Bedlam to be entertained by the patients of the institution, a practice that was not wholly uncommon at other asylums around the time.[20]

“The Rake’s Progress: Scene in Bedlam” by William Hogarth

Despite all of this, madness did not reach its peak in popularity until King George III’s case of insanity became public in the late 18th century.[21] King George III’s ailment was thought to possibly be caused by porphyria, though it is still officially unknown if this is the case. George III was locked away and subjected to humiliating and painful treatments, considered to be a “violent patient” during his bouts of madness.[22] The notorious physician of Bedlam at the time, Dr. Monroe, was even consulted and gave his opinion that King George III was helplessly insane and would never recover.[23] After his “treatments” which ranged from being intimidated and beaten to being starved and forced into a straightjacket, King George III’s madness went away, even if only for a short while.[24] Suddenly all of Britain had reason to celebrate. Their king was once again well. The fact that George III recovered also led to an interesting change in attitude toward the treatment and institutionalization of the mad. If George III was able to be “cured” of his madness, others might be able to be cured as well. If this was the case, many people began to realize, the way those were locked away were being treated, or rather the way they weren’t really being treated, had to change.[25]


Cue Moral Reform and Science

Portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay

Institutional psychiatry was forced to broaden and diversify with the new calls for moral reform.[26] The reform, although partially spurred by George III’s own experience, was also part of a much larger concern at the time. People were becoming more and more involved in natural and human rights and other reform movements popping up because of this interest.[27] Britain was coming to the realization that although intimidation and coercion often modified the different symptoms of insanity, they did not produce any lasting or positive results, instead often making the patient’s condition even worse than before.[28] These attempts to tame and domesticate madness were increasingly seen as misguided. Interestingly enough the religious institutions that had believed the mentally ill to be possessed by demons were now becoming a more popular place to go for those who were seeking help with their mental state. Because of the horrid nature of institutions of the time, people were returning to religious-based psychiatry.[29]

During the late 1800s, there were significant discoveries about mental health made which changed much of the way we view mental health nowadays.[30] Both crises like war and revolution increase those who suffer from mental health problems due to the very brutal nature of the events.[31] Because of increases like this, it is easier to understand why the social pressure to reform asylums became so great in the late 17th and 18th centuries.[32] Scientists were beginning to realize that the body functioned much like a machine and that different parts of the body functioned like different parts of a machine, for instance, the function of the brain as the place where thoughts were created.[33] What today may be considered common knowledge were new discoveries then and it was discoveries like this that mad explaining madness and treating it advance so quickly, helping to reform asylums.[34]

The most significant of asylum reform came in the 1800s, but reform began earlier in a number of institutions.[35] Forward and modern thinkers were cropping up everywhere, bettering the lives of the mentally ill one step at a time. One of such thinkers was a doctor by the name of Thomas Bakewell. Bakewell believed that by treating the mad as if they were not afflicted by madness in any way that they would usually behave as if nothing was the matter with them.[36] Another important figure in asylum reform was John Connolly. John Connolly was originally one of the strongest critics of the asylum system and its effects on the mentally ill, but later on, Connolly adopted a more moderate stance on them, more interested in reform than abolishing the system altogether.[37] Connolly’s most notable criticism of asylums was the fact that they often paid little attention to the needs of the individual, often lumping many with many different symptoms together despite the fact that he believed it would do more harm than good to those not as mad as others. He also was opposed to the increasing amount of greed and profit-seeking within asylums, advocating instead that asylums should be a place for aspiring physicians to learn how to identify and treat illnesses for the betterment of medicine.[38]

John Connolly’s most important reforms made to the asylum did not come in the form of either of these concerns, however. After securing a position as a resident physician at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum in Middlesex, Connolly began to practice many of the methods he preached, including non-restraint treatment. Connolly believed that restraint was seldom determined based on the individual patient’s needs and often excessive and harmful. Originally Connolly’s definition of restraint was very broad, meaning the mads’ confinement within institutions, but by the time Connolly began working for Hanwell Lunatic Asylum his definition had narrowed, now focusing on the excessive use of straitjackets, chains, and other similar devices.[39] Initially, much of what Connolly advocated for was largely ignored by other physicians at the time, but after he began to demonstrate great success with the system at Hanwell in the mid-1800s this idea became more and more popularized. So popular, in fact, that it caught the attention of Robert Gardiner Hill, the house surgeon at Lincoln Asylum. Hill claimed that Connolly got the idea of his non-restraint system from a visit to Lincoln Asylum two years prior to earning his position at Hanwell.[40]

The York Retreat was another successful attempt at asylum reform. The institution was set up by former Quaker William Tuke, who believed in a more nurturing and calm environment for those afflicted with madness. The York Retreat was described as brighter and airy with about 30 patients at any given time. The retreat’s different approach to the asylum environment proved quite successful with 40% being “restored to good health.”[41] In 1845 the Lunatic Asylums Act made public provisions compulsory for lunatic asylums. Though many communities delayed building or funding their own asylums it was a step in the right direction for making asylums less profit-oriented.[42] Progress was finally being achieved.

L0012306 The Retreat, York
York Retreat

Bedlam’s Early Days

Throughout the years Bedlam was the exception, not the standard, in British lunatic asylum reform.[43] Though we now know Bedlam as England’s most infamous madhouse, its evolution toward becoming such was quite gradual.[44] Bedlam didn’t begin to specialize in treatment of the mad until the 14th century and wasn’t the large institution we think of today until the 18th and 19th centuries.[45] Bedlam, originally founded in 1247, was actually a proto-hospital ran by the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The guiding star of Bethlehem served as its emblem. It wasn’t until later that the shortened nickname “Bethlem” was popularized, and eventually “Bedlam”.[46] Monks were charged with taking care of the city’s rich, poor, and homeless for a variety of different ailments, not all of which were mental illnesses.[47]

In the early 1300s, Bedlam began to build up a reputation for housing the mad despite only having about six patients, most of which were those without friends or relations to take care of them or those who posed some sort of threat to society.[48] It was during this period that Bedlam made its slow ascent into becoming more of a prison than a hospital. The more patients Bedlam got the more they were crowded together in the small building, usually left without beds or furniture because the straw mattresses would rot far quicker than they replaced them.[49] The typical patient was a pauper, sent by their parish to be detained in Bedlam, but some patients were members of the aristocracy and supported by their families. Unfortunately, this monetary support that was meant to go toward food, clothing, and other provisions was often abused. The food that was meant to be given to patients was sold and the clothes were stolen.[50] Patients were usually beaten and chained to the walls, some even developing gangrene where the restraints would rub against their skin. Everywhere abuse and disease was rampant in Bedlam, lice, fleas, ticks, and starvation just a few other common conditions those locked away would have to deal with.[51]

The “New” Bedlam

In 1666 a fire known as the Great Fire of London struck and destroyed much of the city proper. Bedlam, which lay just outside of the city’s walls saw an opportunity in this destruction and decided to build a new location, solving the issue of their crowded, decaying, and outdated facility. In 1676 the new Bedlam was finished, now closer, but still just outside the walls of London. Robert Hooke built the grand and rather imposing looking building, which by the late 17th century was home to over 100 patients.[52] In 1728 the building was added onto once again to create more accommodations for chronic patients.[53]

Woodcut of a woman using leeches from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche

Bedlam’s original methods of treatment relied on a medical theory called the four humors. This theory, which dates to ancient Greece, was the commonly accepted medical knowledge well into the 18th century. It was based on the assumption that the human body had four fluids called “humors” that needed to constantly remain in balance with one another. The four fluids were known as black bile, yellow bile, white bile, and red bile. These humors needed to be drained if you had too much of one or the other. In the case of patients who suffered melancholic madness, it was assumed they had too much black bile in their body. For those who suffered from rage and aggression, it was too much red bile.[54] Both biles were drained using bleeding. Those who were lucky were bled using leeches. A single leech can drain nearly 60ml of blood in just a half hour. Sadly, for those at Bedlam leeches were often a luxury they didn’t have. Leeches were more expensive than knives, so special knives were used to bleed the patients. This meant a significant amount more risk because with knives the amount of bleeding was much more difficult to control.[55] Blistering was another method for when a doctor needed to draw out yellow bile. This method was done by applying caustic substances to the skin so that it would create an infection that they could drain the bile from. Laxatives were also seen as a cleansing agent, but left patients exhausted and humiliated, the strength of the medicines often causing violent vomiting and diarrhea.[56] Nicholas Robinson, a physician at Bedlam, once said that they used the “most violent Vomits, the strongest purging Medicines, and large Bleeding… often repeated.”[57]


As the years went on at Bedlam more “modern” treatments were employed. These treatments, along with some of the four humors treatments, were used to keep patients docile and well behaved. Treatments could be withheld for good behavior or doubled down on for bad behavior.[58] These treatments included intimidating patients and using menacing language to frighten them into submission, cold baths, spinning chairs, straitjackets, and devices like the one invented by Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave that was essentially a coffin with holes drilled into it meant to plunge an unsuspecting victim into cold water and nearly drown them, pulling them up right before they needed more air.[59] In some ways the straightjacket was one of the most pleasant forms of restraint at Bedlam, making the patient less susceptible to the injuries that metal restraints caused and preventing the necessity of corporal punishment.[60] Patients at Bedlam were still frequently bound and chained to the walls, beaten and whipped to keep them in check.[61] Luckily those who were from the aristocracy could expect slightly better treatment, as it was widely accepted that they responded better to “flattery” and “gentle physick” than harsher treatments.[62]

Electroshock machine circa 1960

Somehow, despite the Enlightenment and advances in science and medical technology much of Bedlam remained rooted in the past. The concept of “incurable care” never fully went away within the institution.[63] The only modernization that seemed to be coming to Bedlam’s medical treatments was thanks to William Lawrence, a surgeon at Bedlam in the 1800s. Lawrence believed that the mind was a function of the brain and that the physical treatment of the organ was the way to treat mental ailments.[64] Some bones excavated from the cemetery that was built beside Bedlam suggest cranial autopsies that were performed post-mortem showing the effort of understanding the brain by some at Bedlam.[65] Electroshock therapy was eventually introduced into Bedlam and patients were often connected to wires or meant to touch a brass cylinder that when cranked fast enough would induce shocks of varying intensity.[66]

Bedlam, Profit, and the Press

In 1751 Bedlam got its first dose of competition when St. Luke’s Hospital opened its doors, and unfortunately for them only more followed.[67] The Monroes, the notorious family in charge of Bedlam at the time, were known for monopolizing madness for their own profit. James Monroe was responsible for many scandals at the time that he oversaw Bedlam. One of the most famous cases of his abuse was when he ordered the detainment of a man by the name of Alexander Crutton. Monroe committed Crutton on the instruction of one of Crutton’s romantic rivals and detained and medicated him within Bedlam for over a week. Crutton alleged that Monroe even wrote the prescription for his medication six days before he was knapped off the streets and that Monroe wouldn’t release him despite his claims that he was perfectly sane.[68] This type of sensational drama was common at Bedlam during the Monroe family’s rule and the British tabloids ate it up and had a field day with it. Bedlam was so interested in profit that it offered (for a mere penny!) the opportunity to tour and view the facility and patients like a sort of human zoo, or cabinet of curiosities. Sometimes people were even upset when patients didn’t act “mad enough” and roar and bellow like animals.[69]

The “good” press didn’t last very long for Bedlam. The 19th century began the peak of Bedlam’s bad notoriety. Asylum reform was already a sympathetic movement by the time the cases of James Morris and James Tilly Matthews were published, and half of London had already toured the horrors of Bedlam first-hand. James Tilly Matthews was a patient with delusions of a group called the “Heirloom Gang” which he claimed built an elaborate contraption in the House of Commons that sent messages through the air and controlled the minds of government officials. Today we would classify what Matthews suffered from as paranoid delusions but agree that he likely posed no threat to himself or others. Matthews was noted to be well educated and able to create compelling arguments and persuasive and detailed drawings of and about said contraption. When his story was published, people were compelled and intrigued by the intelligent madman.[70]

L0001481 James Tilly Matthews'. Assassins Air-loom machine.
Drawing of the Airloom machine by Matthews


Edward Wakefield, a man who had gone undercover into Bedlam as a physician, was the man who discovered James Morris. Morris was an American sailor who had been chained up for the past ten years. Wakefield claimed the man was perfectly sane, but a little haggard looking after such terrible treatment and published a story accompanied by a depiction of him in the press. This led to much outrage, as no good explanation could be given as to why this innocent man had been detained in the madhouse for the past ten years.[71] Richard Dadd, although dangerous, was another case that intrigued the public. Dadd had cut off his father’s head and was detained in Bedlam temporarily. While there he was allowed to continue his work as an artist and created several truly haunting but beautiful paintings. When these paintings were seen by the public they were amazed to think a madman had such creative genius and seemed so human, somehow. Other patients’ depictions of their confinement were occasionally published and proved to have the power to move the public.[72]

It was not until 1815 that a parliamentary investigation of Bedlam was finally ordered and set up. This investigation led to the downfall of the Monroes and their corruption within Bedlam as well as a relocation of the institution itself. The relocation marked the end of hundreds of years of terror and abuse as well as the dawning of a new and better quality of mental health care. Bedlam’s fall, although long overdue was able to occur thanks to the changing attitudes of the British public toward mental health. Although such attitudes started off quite bleak around the 12th century, by the 19th century Bedlam was finally able to fall, and asylum reform was accomplished across the country with advancements in technology and social reform movements.


  • [1] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 3-4.
  • [2] Ibid. 8.
  • [3] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [4] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 58.
  • [5] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [6] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.
  • [7] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [8] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 161.
  • [9] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [10] Ibid. 113.
  • [11] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 59.
  • [12] Ibid. 16.
  • [13] Ibid. 55-57.
  • [14] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 171.
  • [15] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 15.
  • [16] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [17] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 158.
  • [18] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 106.
  • [19] Ibid. 129-130.
  • [20] Ibid. 144.
  • [21] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154-155.
  • [25] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [26] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [27] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 275.
  • [28] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 74.
  • [29] Ibid. 27.
  • [30] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 244.
  • [31] Ibid. 178.
  • [32] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [33] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 276.
  • [36] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 75.
  • [37] Ibid. 163.
  • [38] Ibid. 173-176.
  • [39] Ibid. 164-172.
  • [40] Ibid. 191-194.
  • [41] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [42] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 197.
  • [43] Ibid. 213.
  • [44] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84.
  • [45] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [46] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84-86.
  • [47] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [48] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 121.
  • [49] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [50] Ibid.
  • [51] Ibid.
  • [52] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 85.
  • [53] Ibid. 136.
  • [54] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [55] Ibid.
  • [56] Ibid.
  • [57] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 172.
  • [58] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [59] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 68.
  • [60] Ibid. 69.
  • [61] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154.
  • [62] Ibid. 172.
  • [63] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 185.
  • [64] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 211.
  • [65] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [66] Ibid.
  • [67] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 136.
  • [68] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [69] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 60.
  • [70] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [71] Ibid.
  • [72] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 233-234.
cemeteries Racine History

SECOR: The Story of Racine’s Most Colorful & Controversial Character

Martin Mathias Secor—it’s a name that may not ring a bell to you, dear reader, but I assure you in all my research I have done, this man stands apart from the crowd. M.M. Secor was a Bohemian immigrant with a motto— “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing right.”[1] He was a character, an eccentric, some might say. With a tall stovepipe hat[2] adorning his already 6-foot stature, flowing white hair with a windswept mustache,[3] a flower from his garden always tucked in his lapel,[4] and a golden knobbed cane,[5] Secor was a man of distinction. He had a booming voice, people said, but a kind one nonetheless.[6] He was an entrepreneur who owned several businesses, including a nationally renowned luggage company, and he was a well-respected member of the Bohemian community.[7] Not only was he financially successful, but Secor also spread his wealth through various charitable avenues and to his own workers.[8] M.M. Secor was the man who could, and did, do it all.

A Bohemian Businessman

In 1851 Secor made his trip from Bohemia to the United States, and at the young age of eleven Secor had arrived in Racine County with his parents, Mathias and Fanny Secor, three sisters, and a brother.[9] His family soon settled in to a log cabin on Four Mile Road.[10] He stayed on his father’s farm doing work until the age of fourteen when he left to start doing work of his own—odd jobs, mostly.[11] After living in Racine for a while Secor found his future wife, Frances Hayes, also the child of Bohemian immigrants and on February 4, 1862 he married her.[12]

820 Secor, M.M
Portrait of Martin Mathias Secor

After building up a reputation for himself, in 1868 Secor decided it was time to plunge into the business world on his own and borrowed $100 at 10% interest for ten years. Along with $80 of his own money he invested in his first company, the Northwestern Bag Company.[13] Originally, Secor made his trunks in his wife’s kitchen until he had the money for his own location.[14] The location he chose was on Main Street, but his company was growing so rapidly that it soon required its own building to be constructed. Soon Secor’s trunk company stood on Lake Avenue, slowly growing until in 1888 the plant had eight buildings[15] and around 125 employees.[16] It was recorded in 1918 that the building stretched all the way from 127 to 407 Lake Avenue.[17] Eventually Secor even incorporated several other companies and renamed his own the Northwestern Trunk and Travelling Bag Company.[18] The buildings remained on Lake Avenue until their demolition in the Summer of 1987.[19]


656.02 Lake Ave c.1880 Middle Large Building was Secor's Trunk co there is a trunk on a pole in front of the building 200~1
Lake Ave c.1880–the middle large building was Secor’s Trunk company–there is a trunk mounted on a pole in front of the building

Secor had not only developed an impressive production of trunks that were popular with Racine residents, but they were popular nationally. Secor’s trunks stood for quality, bringing us back to his favorite motto, “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing right.” It was said that one day on a trip to a department store in Denver, Secor purchased a trunk made by another manufacturer and dissected it with a jackknife in front of everyone to prove its “inferior quality.”[20] It is easy to just assume that the claims of the quality of his trunks were just legend but if you’re out around Racine in the summer stop by some thrift sales—some of his trunks that are well over 75-100 years old are still in decent shape being sold as antique luggage.[21]

Park of China Asters

With a successful business comes profit. M.M. Secor’s home, commonly known as the Park of China Asters, exemplified that wealth.[22] Secor moved from above his trunk salesroom on Main Street in 1874 to a beautiful mansion on Milwaukee Avenue (now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) that took up the entire block. The building is thought to have originally been built for a lumber dealer in the early 1850s.[23] Secor lived there with his wife Fanny and his four daughters.

820 Secor Home c1870 1014 Milwaukee Ave 72 dpi watermark
Park of China Asters c.1870

They had a lavish garden with Secor’s favorite red and white roses he often cut to wear in his lapel, along with a rare species of black roses. He had a small orchard complete with a fig tree, a dwarf lemon tree, and many orange trees. There were two conservatories on the property and a five-basin goldfish pond, which was just an example of Secor’s exotic pets that lived on the ground. Secor had a proper menagerie on his estate.[24] Secor’s menagerie was home to a coyote—his first animal—two bears, a monkey, six deer, many parrots, rabbits, mockingbirds, a goat, and seven peacocks, five of which were killed by dogs that got onto his property in 1889. A deer was also injured in the attack.[25] Secor was incensed and threatened to shoot the “vicious canines” if they attacked his pets again.[26] After his death it was said that the Ringling Brothers Circus bought several of his animals.[27]

Progressive Philanthropist

Secor’s home was much larger than he needed for a small family of six, even with the additional animals that lived on the property, so Secor decided to use his home as a boarding house for some of the men who worked for him at the trunk company.[28] In an 1880 census there were 28 people recorded as living in the Secor mansion—Secor and his own family, the family gardener and teamster, and eighteen boarders from his own company.[29] On his 2 ½ acre property his gardens also provided much of the food his boarders ate and the excess was sold to others at a discounted price. Secor was an individualist and believed firmly in free enterprise, but also in humanity.[30] Secor was by all accounts, a very generous and progressive business owner. He believed that a man’s religion was how he lived and what he did, not what he believed in and Secor lived up to that very ideal.[31] Aside from providing room and board to his workers, Secor was well known for a work holiday of his own invention—Thirteenth Day. On Thirteenth Day, which occurred once a year, Secor would give every one of his employees an extra month’s salary.[32] He was proud and often reminded people that 95% of his workers owned their own homes.[33]

His benevolence was recognized around town and extended beyond his own company. Residents recalled how when he saw a poor or “shabby” child on the streets he would take them to the nearest shop and buy them coats, caps, and other clothing.[34] He also donated to charities, hospitals, and the local orphanage, the Taylor Home.[35] Because Secor did not believe that religion was in itself a charitable organization he made a point to never donate to churches.[36] Secor also donated to the city for construction projects that would benefit the public and was the mayor when Racine’s streets were first paved.[37] At one point in time, the Chicago Tribune published an article about Secor accusing him of being a drunk (due to his anti-prohibition views)[38] and of embezzling funds from a new bridge he built in Racine.[39] He successfully sued the Chicago Tribune for libel and purchased a new illuminated four-sided clock that was installed in the tower of City Hall,[40] a building that he had at one point donated $7,000 toward the construction of.[41] Secor later said that the clock would ensure that there would be no excuse that people didn’t know when it was midnight—the time saloons closed in Racine.[42]

Secor was also the owner of the Nelson Hotel,[43] the First Bohemian National Bank of America, and a set of Turkish baths which were all located in the present-day Main Place (also known as the McClurg building).[44] He was also the first business owner in Racine to have his own business telephone, installed in 1881, and his daughters were the first stenographers in Racine because Secor was also one of the first men to own typewriters in his office.[45]

Mayorship and the Assassination Attempt

Secor was not only a prolific businessman but also involved in politics. He ran on both the Republican and Democratic tickets for different positions and considered himself to be independent.[46] Secor ran twice for mayor, winning his first term as in 1884 and his second term in 1888.[47] Although he did many things for the city in his time as mayor, perhaps one of the most notable parts of his mayorship was when he was almost assassinated. To this day he is still Racine’s only mayor to have an assassination attempt.

The attempt was made during his first term as mayor in 1884.  He was riding home from a city council meeting when his carriage rode over a bomb that was placed in front of his home. The bomb did not immediately go off as the carriage rolled over it, so the bomber came out of hiding to inspect it—as he did so, it went off seriously injuring the man.[48] The suspect fled but spots of blood led back to the home of a former bookkeeper of Secor’s who had recently been dismissed. Although the bookkeeper was not the bomber, the suspect was, in fact, hiding in his home, a man by the name of John Jambor from Milwaukee. Some believe that the bookkeeper was in on the plot, but it was never proven.[49] Secor was apparently so rattled by the near-death experience that from then on he was always seen holding the reigns from the backseat of his carriage, where he felt safer.[50]

A Lasting Legacy

820 Secor Gravestone 150 dpi watermark
M.M. Secor’s tombstone at Mound Cemetery, Racine WI

Secor died in his home after a deadly fall in 1911 at 69 years old. The news article that reported his death said he fell a week prior on a Tuesday when he was getting up from his bed. Secor fell upon one of his bedposts, breaking three ribs, one of which punctured his lungs. He contracted a serious cold afterward and died due to complications. The flags at City Hall and his trunk company were lowered in honor of the former mayor.[51] His company continued for a full seven years after his death,[52] being one of the largest in the United States at the time.[53]

Before his death, Secor had his headstone erected in Mound Cemetery. It caused quite a bit of controversy. Engraved in the headstone was a somewhat tendentious quote by Voltaire, a favorite philosopher of his.




So many people were outraged by the message on the tombstone that is was debated on whether or not it would even be placed in the cemetery. However, it was. Attempts have been made to have the headstone removed from the cemetery as late as the 1930s.[55]

Secor’s progressive attitude and sense of philanthropy have left a lasting impact on the Racine community. He may have been mostly forgotten but this character can never be dashed from the historical record. Secor’s life and legacy are a fascinating look into Racine’s manufacturing history and politics of the late 1800s.


  • [1] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today (Madison, WI) June/July 1990.
  • [2] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 19, 1973.
  • [3] “Forty-Two Men Held Mayor’s Post During Racine’s 105 Years as a City,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 6, 1953.
  • [4] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [5] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [6] “Forty-Two Men Held Mayor’s Post During Racine’s 105 Years as a City,” Racine Journal Times
  • [7] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today
  • [8] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [9] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter (Racine, WI) Spring 1990.
  • [14] “Business started in his kitchen,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) April 26, 1986.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [17] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter
  • [18] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [19] “So what’s new about Hill hotel proposal?” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 1, 1987.
  • [20] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter
  • [23] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) January 15, 1983.
  • [26] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [27] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 26.
  • [28] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [29] Ibid.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [33] Ibid.
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [37] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [38] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [39] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 17-18.
  • [40] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times
  • [41] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [42] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times
  • [43] “So what’s new about Hill hotel proposal?” Racine Journal Times
  • [44] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 5.
  • [45] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [46] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [47] “Long, short terms,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) April 29, 1984.
  • [48] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [49] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today
  • [50] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [51] “Ex-Mayor Secor Has Passed Away,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI) January 5, 1911.
  • [52] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 26.
  • [53] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [54] Ibid.
  • [55] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today


Unconventional Historian will be going on a brief hiatus this week and will be returning on November 17th with an article about M.M. Secor, one of Racine’s most colorful and controversial characters and one of our most prolific mayors.


Paranormal Points of Racine County Racine History

Paranormal Points of Racine County Volume II: The Orphanage

“Orphanage”. The word brings to mind images of miserable unwanted children and rampant abuse. In Racine however, those that know of the Taylor Home Orphanage think of hundreds of happy children and the dedicated charitable hearts of its founding couple, the Taylors. The Taylor Home was a beloved place and many who lived there recall a past full of fun, laughs, simple comforts, and caring staff. Still, these happy times do not change the fact that many believe the site of the old orphanage is haunted by someone or something. I happened to have a unique opportunity of joining a paranormal team in their investigation of the former site of the orphanage and learned quite a bit about the alleged paranormal occurrences and experienced a few strange happenings myself during the night I spent there. It’s difficult to say for sure if the site is truly haunted, but today we’ll explore the history of the Taylor Home before we delve into the stories of the supernatural.

133.04 Taylor Home 100 dpi watermark
The Taylor Home building

History of the Home

The Taylor Home was founded by Issac and Emerline Taylor for the purpose of giving orphans the “chance to grow, be happy, and enter community life on sound footing.”[1] The idea for creating an orphanage came from Issac Taylor, who had been an orphan himself. As a child, he was often mistreated by many of his male caretakers and he made the decision that if he ever had the money that he would create his own orphanage to be a better place for children to grow up.[2] Issac died in November of 1865 of pneumonia, but his wife Emerline continued in his footsteps. Emerline too ended up passing away a year after Issac, but her will had created a future for the orphanage Issac had dreamed of.[3] After her death, 38 acres of farmland were bought to place the orphanage on, south of Racine’s city limits. Construction began in 1868 and was completed in 1872, the official opening took place on July 17th, 1872, Mrs. Taylor’s birthday.


The orphanage was self-sufficient, subsisting off of an endowment Mrs. Taylor had left when she died, as well as growing their own fruits and vegetables and raising livestock like cows, chickens, and pigs. Most of their homegrown and raised food was on the dinner table each night, but they also sold the excess of their labors back to the community.[7] Children were usually placed in the care of the orphanage due of the loss of one or more parent from disease, war, poverty, and—most commonly—tuberculosis.[8] The Taylor Home children enjoyed entertainment and events like ice cream socials, magic shows, fairs, concerts, and open houses, cementing its exceptional reputation with the Racine community. In the years that the Taylor Home served as an orphanage, over 1,000 children passed through its doors living the exact kind of life Issac Taylor had hoped they would.[9] The fate of the Taylor Home was unsure for a brief time in 1955 when the state of Wisconsin passed legislation that closed down orphanages in favor of foster care and social welfare, but the Taylor Home adapted.[10]

133.04 Taylor Home Children feeding pigs 300 dpi
Children of the Taylor Home feeding the pigs

The Taylor Home abandoned the orphanage model and moved their focus to becoming an institution that cared for the mentally disturbed and troubled youth—dubbed “psychological orphans” at the time. Kearns, who was in charge of the Taylor Home when it made the transition, believed that a child “needs to understand his own negative behavior rather than becoming resentful and trying to ‘get back at society’ for what he thinks life has done to him.”[11] It was this philosophy that the Taylor Home adopted in an effort to aid troubled children and help the return to a normal life. Five cottage-style buildings were built on the grounds, starting in the 60s, and these buildings gradually replaced the original building.[12] For a short time children that were part of the residential and day-care programs would dine in the old Taylor Home building,[13] but by 1973 all construction of the cottages was complete and the original building was razed, leaving only the cottages on the grounds.[14]

Notably, there were a few deaths at the orphanage. Three caretakers died there over the years, including Nellie Jane Wright, Medora Roskilly, and Nora Harnett. Nellie Jane Wright lived in the orphanage nearly her whole life, arriving there in 1873. Her records listed her as a “little lame girl” due to her limp and crutch.[15] The orphanage soon became Nellie’s favorite place to be and she enjoyed her time there so much she never left, staying there for 60 years. She continued to work at the orphanage even after she grew up by becoming a caretaker for the children. She befriended many of them and was beloved by nearly everyone.  Nellie stayed at the Taylor Home until 1933 when she died of a heart attack.[16] Dying in similar circumstances, Medora Roskilly, a supervisor of the Taylor Home, passed at the age of 62 of a heart attack in 1952. Fire and Rescue squads had been called to the Taylor Home, but she had already died before they arrived. She had been working there since 1946.[17]

The death of Nora Harnett in 1899 was the most bizarre, though she did not die on the orphanage grounds.  Nora worked at the orphanage as a domestic and was well-liked by her employers there.[18] Though it was unsuspected until after her death, Nora was thought to be possibly psychologically disturbed. It wasn’t until one April day when she was walking down Sixth Street that she swallowed two ounces of carbolic acid and took her own life. She left three letters, one to her mother, one to a man to deliver the letter to her mother, and one to her employer at the orphanage. What she wrote to her employer is unknown.[19]

133.04 Taylor Home Children in Snow 100 dpi watermark
Children of the Taylor Home playing in the snow

Tragedies aside, the Taylor Home holds a special place in the Racine community. The Taylor Home officially ended its programs in the early 2000s, but it was not forgotten. In 2015 while walking the grounds Wendy Spencer found a large marble slab lying face down around where the old orphanage building once stood. It turned out to be the plaque that once adorned the building before it’s demolition. With the help of the community, a monument was erected on the old Taylor Home site, the marble slab being the centerpiece of the memorial.[20] Currently, the Taylor Home site is privately owned and houses various institutions including the administration of the village of Elmwood Park. It is also what some believe to be a paranormal hot spot.


Haunts of the Home

This volume of Paranormal Points of Racine County is a special one. Reports of ghostly activity on the site have centered mostly within a school that occupied one of the newer cottages. To accommodate the growing student population the school planned to relocate to a larger building and preparations for the move began in June of 2018. With the impending move, staff at the school saw an opportunity to call in a team of investigators to explore some of the alleged paranormal activity they had experienced. I was personally invited to come along and participate in the investigation and serve as a consulting historian. Prior to the investigation I researched the location. the above report is a summary of my findings. On June 15, 2018 I arrived at the Taylor Home site and met some staff from the school and the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIM). Before the investigation began, we did a walkthrough of the building and were informed of the various paranormal incidents that have occurred throughout the building.

Staff sitting at the front desk in the lobby of the building have often heard the sounds of running footsteps in the hallway to the side of the desk, sometimes even accompanied by the sounds of giggling and the rustling of the papers hung on the walls, like someone is running by at top speed. The noises have also been heard on the walkie-talkies while only staff is present. Near the lobby a teacher was working inside during recess when she heard the voice of a child ask, “Can I go?” At first, she responded, assuming it was a child that had been left behind in the building, ready to go out for recess, but she realized moments later no one was there.

Many of the incidents have occurred in room 23, a classroom on the first floor of the building. One afternoon, around 1pm when classes had finished for the day, a teacher in room 23 felt as if there was a presence in the hall outside of her door. She got up and shut the door but after she sat back down she heard the paper decorations on the outside of her door rustling as if someone was running their fingers up and down them. She then saw a beam of yellowish light sweep beneath the door, similar to a flashlight beam, before it suddenly disappeared. Frightened, the teacher stayed in the room for several hours before she left. The same teacher reported that she and her students have heard knocks on the door while it was open. A student got up to answer the door, but no one was there. The same teacher also has had chairs fly off onto the ground after being carefully stacked on the tables at the end of the day. While the teacher is out sometimes other staff have reported hearing furniture moving around in the room but when they investigate it appears as if nothing has moved. In the hall outside of room 23 a black shapeless shadow has been seen darting around the hall on multiple occasions.

820 Taylor, Mrs Issac 150 dpi watermark
Emerline Taylor

Outside of the school, multiple teachers have spotted a woman through one of the front windows of the building’s first floor. The woman is wearing a blouse with a tall collar and ruffled front with her hair tied back into a neat and tight bun. The entity seems to be friendly, leading staff members to speculate that she may be the spirit of Mrs. Taylor, back to check on the children. One teacher’s young son, around 3 at the time of the incident, was sitting in the back of the car outside the building with a sibling. He began to make faces out the window towards the school and when asked about who he was making faces at he said he was playing with the little boy he saw in the window.

No haunted location would be complete without creepy basement stories, and the Taylor Home site has plenty. Once, a teacher was alone in one of the basement classrooms when she began to feel uneasy. The uneasiness turned into an uncontrollable sadness and she began to cry. The feelings stayed with her the entire time she was at the school, following her until she passed the stoplights on Durand and Taylor Avenues, when they abruptly stopped. , but one particular incident in the basement stood out. While teaching, one of the teachers felt something touch her back and jolted a little. One of her students noticed and asked, “Did it get ya?” For three weeks the teacher had back spasms around the area she had been touched.

The storage room in the basement is also host to a few strange incidents, including the lights frequently turning on and off, a general feeling of oppressiveness reported by those who have entered the room, and once a door slammed shut behind a staff member entering the room to gather supplies for a project. almost like water running through the plumbing despite the fact that no one is in the bathrooms. Early one morning a teacher was in room 222 to prep for class when she started to hear her door handle rattling from the inside of the open door. When she looked over it was not moving, but after a few minutes, she heard another doorknob rattling across the hall, outside of the room. When she looked up again a door that had been closed when she arrived was now wide open, before it suddenly slammed shut.

The Investigation

After listening to the staff and their stories, PIM began the investigation. There is nothing quite like being in an empty school building after dark. While I was there several minor incidents occurred, mostly small noises that were left unexplained. The investigation team went to great lengths to come up with plausible explanations for many of the incidents, but some were left unknown. During controlled silences, we heard the sound of a soft female voice whispering something and a chair shifting near room 23. In the basement, we heard many other shifting noises along with creaking and shuffling sounds—some which could be attributed to the building settling, while others seemed too distinct. One of the staff members that was there heard a series of three short breaths in front of her face while sitting in the basement classroom, but it was not recorded on any audio, as she was sitting a distance away from the members with recording devices.

It was nearing midnight when the strangest incident occurred. we were in the second basement classroom when we heard a very loud thud from upstairs that sounded similar to something heavy falling, or maybe a large textbook being dropped in the middle of the floor. A storm was starting to roll in but the rain and wind had not yet picked up and the sound was very unlike that of thunder. The team quickly made their way upstairs but the source of the noise was never determined. As the storm began to roll in, faint knocks could be heard from various parts of the building but definite sources could not be discerned, though the storm may have been the cause. The storm eventually became too loud to continue the investigation any further and we dispersed after the equipment was taken down. From that night I cannot say for sure that the Taylor Home site is haunted, but I can say the experience was unsettling and I heard many unexplained sounds that left me wondering.


  • [1] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), November 24, 1968.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] File 1, Folder 1. Taylor Home Vertical File (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Taylor Orphan Asylum,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), August 20, 2003.
  • [8] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [9] File 1, Folder 1. Taylor Home Vertical File (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [10] “Taylor Orphan Asylum,” Racine Journal Times
  • [11] “Taylor Home Adopts New Concept of Child Care,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 9, 1955.
  • [12] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] “Taylor Memorial Monument dedicated,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), November 15, 2017.
  • [15] “Death Takes “Miss Nellie” From Racine Orphan’s Home Which She Entered as a Lame, Young Girl 60 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), March 29, 1933.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] “Medora Roskilly Dies Suddenly,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), January 7, 1952.
  • [18] “The Suicide of Nora Harnett,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), April 29, 1899.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] “Taylor Memorial Monument dedicated,” Racine Journal Times
cemeteries Racine History

Mound Cemetery: Home of the Dead

Humans have had a long history of both honoring and burying their dead leading some historians to recognize cemeteries as some of the first permanent human settlements. [1] Cemeteries are where we gather the remains of our loved ones and send them on to their next life, whatever it may be. Together, our ancestors inhabit the ground for us to visit and honor. In Racine, Wisconsin Mound Cemetery is one of the state’s most unique settlements of the dead with burials spanning hundreds of years. The cemetery itself is home to over 5,000 unknown and unmarked graves with thousands of more known gravesites that contain the remains of some of Racine’s most noteworthy individuals.[2] The most unique features of Mound Cemetery are the very mounds it is named after; Ancient Native American burial mounds. The mounds within Racine’s oldest standing cemetery are also believed to be some of the oldest man-made features in Racine.

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Mound Cemetery, Racine, WI

The land that Mound Cemetery is currently situated on is part of a plot of land purchased by two early settlers of Racine from a man named Joseph Antoine Ouilmette.[4] Early records indicate Ouilmette was one of the earliest settlers of the area, coming to Racine in 1834 from Crosse Point, Wisconsin. With him, he brought his wife and children.[5] Ouilmette himself was listed as both Indian and French based on different sources, but his wife was Potawatomi.[6] This explains why many records indicate that the land was purchased from, and originally belonged to, the Potawatomi.[7] Early white settlers Norman Clark and James Kinzie purchased the land from Ouilmette in a sales agreement on February 3rd, 1851. Ouilmette described the land as the “burial place of his fathers” and reportedly signed the contract with “his mark.”[8] In November of 1851 the City of Racine purchased thirty acres of Kinzie and Norman’s land and named the area Mound Cemetery shortly after.[9]

The Excavation of the Mounds

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A mound near two headstones in Mound Cemetery

Some of the earliest recorded speculation as to who the mound builders were was by one of the men responsible for excavating them, Dr. Philo Hoy. Hoy came from a region in Ohio that also was home to many mounds and speculated that the mounds in Racine were constructed by the same people.[10] Hoy was considered a scientist, pioneer archaeologist, and was a practicing physician as early as 1846.[11] In 1852 Hoy along with Increase Lapham began to survey and plat the sixty mounds within the cemetery. Hoy is credited with excavating several of the mounds along with Lapham and writing detailed descriptions of their findings.[12]

Hoy described the mounds as basin-shaped holes, approximately two feet deep. They were hand dug into the grounds and covered with bark or logs and layers of soil. [13] The majority of mounds were about two to four feet in height and thirty to forty feet in diameter[14] though one of the mounds was recorded at almost seven feet tall.[15] He believed the mounds were each built one at a time due to the lack of stratigraphic evidence in the soil.[16]

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A sketch of one of the skulls found in the mounds

When the mounds were excavated local newspapers reported that the remains of over 100 Native Americans had been discovered, though this claim is rather shaky and difficult to prove since remains were often moved and few records were made of the removal and movement of bodies.[17] When Hoy and Lapham decided to excavate the mounds they carefully chose fourteen of them to take a closer look at. Inside they found multiple skeletons in most. One mound had the remains of seven individuals, but most contained only one to four sets of skeletal remains.[18] The bodies in the mounds were found sitting up facing east, with their legs flexed beneath their body.[19]

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A sketch of the position of skeletons within the mounds

Although most mounds only contained unornamented skeletal remains, in one of the mounds some pottery was recovered, similar in style to Burmese cooking pots. Three of the pots were reconstructed from the fragments found within the mound and given to the Smithsonian.[20] Two of the vases in better condition were recorded in detail by Dr. Hoy. He described one vase as made from a sandy cream-colored substance that resembled pale brick and could hold about five quarts. The other vase was a red brick color and considerably smaller. [21]

Hoy and Lapham used dendrochronology to date the burial mounds at the cemetery site and produced some interesting results (dendrochronology, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the science of dating events and variations in environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood).[22] One of the tree stumps examined near the mound had 250 rings in it and had not been cut in ten years but another stump showed an even earlier origin of the construction of the mounds. Another stump that had 310 rings in it was found next to a human skull in a remarkable state of preservation. From this evidence, the two archeologists were able to conclude the site was at least 1,000 years old[23] and thus part of Racine’s prehistoric history.[24] They thought that the people who constructed the mounds must have been a barbarous people and not any more advanced than modern Native Americans, showing a sad but common attitude toward the native cultures of America.[25]

They speculated all sorts of causes as to why the burials had so many skeletons and were constructed just one at a time. They wondered if they had died of battle or pestilence, or perhaps they had died of more natural causes in the winter and were buried once the ground thawed in the spring.[26] Ethnologists have also taken a stab at cracking the mystery of who the mound builders were, concluding they were most likely ancestors to modern Native Americans.[27]


Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Mound Cemetery site was its careful preservation. Mounds had once existed in many areas in southeastern Wisconsin including the nearby areas of the Town of Norway, City of Burlington, and Raymond Township, but the vast majority of these have been destroyed and lost to time.[28] Racine too used to have dozens of more mounds, many along the bluffs of the Root River.[29] North of the plots Hoy and Lapham originally surveyed, there were even three lizard effigy mounds, one long mound, and six conical mounds, none of which exist today.[30] Subdivisions have been built over many of the areas where these mounds once were.[31] Construction, natural forces, relic hunters, mound diggers, and agriculture have all likely contributed to the disappearance of the mounds.[32] The records Hoy wrote of the mounds are some of the only things that remain of these lost mounds and were not published until 1903 by George A. West in the Wisconsin Archeological Society Report.[33]

Mound Cemetery was officially dedicated on June 3rd, 1852. Hoy was a part of the committee to preserve the mounds in the cemetery. He plotted 1,768 cemetery plots[34] in eight blocks with his committee.[35] The paths of the roads were made around the mounds and have not needed to be altered since their creation due to the roads’ original width of eighteen to twenty feet, wide enough for the modern car.[36] Hoy was a self-described naturalist and used native flora to the area to help preserve the mounds. Around each mound, he planted a variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants including elms, willows, hawthorns, and berry plants.[37]  Currently, thirteen mounds remain preserved in the cemetery[38] and now have preservation markers created by Racine’s city council.[39] The mounds that currently reside in the cemetery have never been excavated and remain mostly untouched.[40]

Mound Cemetery Today

Mound Cemetery is an important archeological and historical site to the City of Racine. Over four generations of Racine’s residents have been buried in Mound Cemetery[41] and many of those remains were even relocated from other earlier cemeteries to protect them from natural threats and construction.[42] On May 12th, 1976 Mound Cemetery was designated as an official landmark of the City of Racine and was granted special protections.[43] Due to the uniqueness of having both Racine residents, many of which who were important figures in the city’s history, and Native American burials it was given its landmark status.[44]

135 Mound Cemetery 100 dpi watermark
Soldiers’ monument at Mound Cemetery

Other than the mounds in the cemetery some of the known and famous gravesites of the cemetery include Gilbert Knapp, the founder of Racine; the first white settlers of the county; a handful of veteran’s from George Washington’s army; Lucius Blake, the father of Racine industry; Jerome Increase Case, the founder of J.I. Case Tractors; Henry Mitchell, a leading Racine industrialist; William Horlick, a man who revolutionized the distribution of milk to the troops during World War I; Samuel Curtis Johnson, the founder of S.C. Johnson; and soldiers from the Spanish-American War. Also, M.C. Secor, one of Racine’s most interesting mayors with one of the most famously controversial headstones, rests in the cemetery. The stone reads, “The world is my home. To do good is my religion. Why has a good God created a bad devil?”[45]

In 1985, Wisconsin Act 316 assured that all human burials were to be treated equally with respect and human dignity without any regard to the buried people’s ethnicity, cultural affiliation, or religious beliefs.[46] No persons may intentionally cause or permit the disturbance of a cataloged burial site without a permit from the director of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.[47] Racine recognized the importance of Mound Cemetery and has made efforts at preserving it and its history for generations to come. The burial mounds are one of the most important features of Mound Cemetery but in the future, Racine’s burials will also become the subject of archeological studies.



  • [1] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] E. W. Leach, History of Burying Grounds in Racine, (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, 1921), 8-9.
  • [6] Ibid. 9.
  • [7] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [8] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Serge Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine Ethnologists Can Only Theorize Who Their Builders Were. (Racine Sunday Bulletin, 1954)
  • [12] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [15] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Home of the Dead, (Daily Journal, 1889)
  • [18] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [22] Ibid. 2.
  • [23] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [24] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [25] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [26] Ibid.
  • [27] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [28] Ibid.
  • [29] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [30] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.
  • [33] Ibid.
  • [34] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [35] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 10.
  • [36] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [37] Ibid.
  • [38] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [39] Leach, History of Burying Ground in Racine, 2.
  • [40] Logan, Mystery Shrouds Burial Mounds in Racine, (1954)
  • [41] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [42] Leach, History of Burying Grounds in Racine, 5-8.
  • [43] Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mound Cemetery. (Racine, 1976)
  • [44] Ibid.
  • [45] Box 1, Folder 1. Racine Mound Cemetery Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [46] Register’s Office Racine County, WI. (1999). Notice of Location of Catalogued Burial Site.
  • [47] Ibid.
Paranormal Points of Racine County Racine History

Paranormal Points of Racine County Volume I: Burial Grounds

Cemeteries and other burial grounds have a long history of being considered sacred sites to humankind. The places where we put our loved ones to rest hold deep significance to our funerary rituals and beliefs in the afterlife. Unfortunately, these sites can be forgotten or deteriorate as time goes on and they are forgotten. They are not always given the reverence and care that would be assumed of such a site. Doing research on supposed haunted locations in Racine County I ran across three sites that shared a similar history and have chosen to write about these three sites for my first volume of Racine’s paranormal locations. 

Winslow Elementary School and Saint Luke’s Hospital Site

Formerly Racine’s first official cemetery

Racine’s first official cemetery was established in 1842 between current-day 13th and 14th Streets and College and Villa Streets.[1] It was simply known as “the Old Cemetery” by residents of the village during the pioneer days of Racine. Little is known about the site itself, but one of the first residents to be interred in the cemetery was supposedly a man who died of consumption, a disease the plagued early Racine.[2] Much more is known about the cemetery’s fate than the cemetery itself. Not long after the cemetery was established, the land was set to become the site of the future Third Ward School.[3]

Several hundred bodies had been buried in the Old Cemetery and had to be exhumed before the school was constructed, most being moved to Mound Cemetery or nearby Evergreen Cemetery.[4] Notice, written by city clerk J. Redburn, was given via Racine’s newspaper in 1853:

Notice is hereby given to all those having an interest, that in accordance with a resolution passed by the City Council of the City of Racine, November 7th, 1852, all the bodies buried in the Old Cemetery must be resolved by the 1st day of January 1854.[5]

121.02 Winslow Elementary School 72 dpi watermark
Third Ward/Winslow Elementary School after its renovation by Chandler

The Third Ward School was constructed along with two other schools, known as the Fourth and Fifth Ward Schools, after Racine’s original schools began to run out of space. In 1855 money was raised to establish them and in 1856 they were completed.[6] Later they would be known as Winslow, Janes, and Garfield Elementary School, respectively.[7] The original buildings were designed by Lucas Bradley, brother-in-law of Horatio Gates Winslow, and were constructed of cream city brick and limestone in an “Italianate style” at a cost of $4,500.[8] In 1899 expansions were made to the buildings by James G. Chandler and very little of the old building’s exterior remained. The building was instead constructed in a Victorian and castle-like manner. It was in use for over a century and a half and went through many additions during its lifespan.[9]

Although the architecture and history of Winslow are interesting in their own right, Racine residents were far more fascinated by the history of the lot as a cemetery. Residents who had loved ones buried in the original cemetery and could no longer find their remains were especially interested in the ex-cemetery.[10] During construction of many nearby homes over the years since the cemetery was converted, homeowners began to find bones on their property. It seemed that while exhuming the bodies in 1853 they missed a few.[11] The number of bones found near the lot is unknown but at least two complete skeletons have been found over the course of Winslow’s history.[12] Even children who attended the school were aware of the lot’s history, occasionally finding bones in the school yard and referring to the water that came out of the pump on the lot as “skeleton juice.”[13] Over the years paranormal occurrences have also been reported at the site, including the nearby hospital, St. Luke’s.

132.01 St. Luke's Hospital Old Building 72 dpi watermark
Old St. Luke’s Hospital
132.01 St. Luke's Hospital May 1988 72 dpi watermark
St. Luke’s Hospital 1988

Patients staying at St. Luke’s have reported strange occurrences during their overnight stays; from creepy sounds to handprints and writing appearing on windows after they had just been cleaned to showers and sinks turning on by themselves in patient bathrooms. Those who have worked at St. Luke’s have had even more experiences with the haunts of the site, including hearing voices and seeing shadowy figures roaming the halls when they thought they were alone. One third shift employee was in the kitchen when everything began to go off including the alarms, steamers, ovens, and lights before the power went out completely. Another employee who worked third shift experienced multiple patient deaths during her time working at St. Luke’s. Often times patients would claim to see Jesus, or other ethereal beings before their death and when patients died it was common practice among staff to open all the doors and windows in a room to make sure their souls would not become trapped. Almost all employees who reported strange happenings worked third shift and agreed that the kitchen was a hot spot between 1:00am and 4:00am.

Winslow School itself was also home to many paranormal occurrences, that both students and staff witnessed over the many years it was in operation. Staff said it often felt like they were being watched when completely alone in a room, or that while walking through the hall they would pass through an unusually cold spot. Orbs have also been repeatedly sighted all over the building. In 2009, right after receiving new computers students were playing with the webcams and taking pictures of themselves. After going through the photos, a teacher said she saw a young child she did not recognize in the background of one of the photos. It was a young girl with dark hair in long braids and a dress that appeared to be made from animal hide. Before she could send the photo, the computer crashed and everything on it was lost.

DeKoven Center and Lake Front Site

Formerly Racine College and Evergreen Cemetery

Evergreen Cemetery was dedicated on June 12, 1851 and the first burial at the cemetery was reportedly in 1852.[14] The cemetery was established along the scenic Lake Michigan, close to the water below. No official records of the cemetery’s burials were kept until 1870[15] and those that were kept afterward were destroyed in Racine’s infamous Blaze of 1882.[16] Shortly after the first burial the charter for Racine College, an all boy’s school, was granted. Today we know the site as the DeKoven Center, named after James DeKoven, a warden and president at the school who, after his unfortunate death in 1879, was buried on the site near St. John’s Chapel—his favorite building.[17] The college was to share a border with Evergreen on the southeastern corner of the lot.[18]

After Mound Cemetery was opened, it the newly preferred burying grounds in Racine County and Evergreen began to fall into disrepair and neglect. The property was sold at one point to Daniel Bull for the purposes of farming, and it was his responsibility to exhume and relocate the bodies on the property, but only 76, of what was assumed to be originally hundreds, were found.[19]

113.04 DeKoven Center 72 dpi watermark
DeKoven Center
113.04 DeKoven Center St John's Chapel 100 dpi watermark
St. John’s Chapel

The cemetery began to become a problem when vandals went after the remaining headstones and medical students from Milwaukee and Chicago robbed some of the graves for cadavers.[20] Students from Racine College would also frequent the property, and on one occasion a 12-year old student was injured when part of the embankment fell out from beneath him. After he was rescued the students found a coffin jutting out of the side of the land and pried the bottom open. A complete skeleton was discovered and the college took possession of the bones and burned them.[21] Seeing coffins jutting out of the side of the embankment and bodies falling into the lake became common-place.[22]

In the late 1920s a battle over the fate of the abandoned Evergreen Cemetery began. The parties involved with the most authority over the site were Racine College and the town of Mt. Pleasant. Both had different ideas for how to handle the ill-kept site. Racine College wanted to clean up the property since it shared a border with the school and there was a lack of any supervision of the site.[23] Mt. Pleasant, on the other hand, wanted to take ownership of the land to turn it into a park. They believed it would add a more beautiful landscape to the sewage plant that was being built nearby.[24] This problem would not be an issue for very long however, as a majority of the site became washed away by the lake, leaving little of the original land behind. Family members of those who had been buried at Evergreen were never notified if their loved ones were reburied elsewhere, or if their body was one of the unlucky souls that would become a victim to Lake Michigan.[25]

Though the cemetery no longer exists on DeKoven Center’s border, it has not been forgotten. In 1984 sand was brought from the sewage plant and hauled to a lot on the 5300 block of Wind Point Road. It was to be used in construction for a new home.[26] During construction the crew found a human skull, pelvis, and other bones in the pile of sand. The bones were speculated to be from Evergreen Cemetery since they were over 100 years old.[27] The unfortunate homeowners thought that would be the end of their taste of Evergreen Cemetery, but 33 years later they found out that would not be the case. Late November of 2017 the owners of the home began digging to widen their driveway. While digging they found a human jawbone with several of the teeth still attached, multiple ribs, an arm bone, and many other bone fragments. They contacted the Racine County Sheriff to find out that these bones were also likely from Evergreen, from the same sand deposit they had used on the lot years earlier.[28] That being said, it’s no wonder why so many believe that the DeKoven Center and the surrounding area are haunted.

One resident of the DeKoven area moved into her home a mere two blocks away from the center. Oftentimes she would hear footsteps and doors opening and closing around the home after her family had already gone to bed. Strange noises aren’t particularly uncommon in old homes like the ones built around DeKoven, but this homeowner and her husband both saw apparitions in their home. One was of an old woman standing in the bedroom doorway and another was of a union soldier in the basement, an experience her son also claimed to have had. After talking with a neighbor, she found out that she was not the first resident to see the soldier’s apparition in the area. Other homeowners nearby have experienced opening and closing doors and appliances turning on and off, as well as the unnerving feeling of being watched at night.

Apparitions and other-worldly occurrences have also been reported on DeKoven’s grounds. A woman wearing a wedding dress can sometimes be seen among the trees at night and some who have visited for weddings have reported cold spots and seeing apparitions in the garden and surrounding grounds. A woman who lived in the gatehouse at DeKoven had several auditory experiences. The woman was often plagued by the sounds of old flute music, footsteps running up and down her apartment stairs, or the sound of doors being slammed shut. When she walked her dog around at night near the closed gymnasium she could hear gym shoes squeaking on the wooden floors and basketballs being bounced on the floor. The presence apparently even tied her shoelaces and vacuum cord in knots once.

Pritchard Park, High Ridge Centre, and Regency Mall Site

Formerly Gatliff/Racine County Insane Asylum, High Ridge Hospitals, County Home/Poor Farm, & sunny Rest Tuberculosis Sanatorium

The location which Racine’s Regency Mall, High Ridge Centre, and Pritchard Park currently occupy has a very long and troubled past, unknown to many residents of the city. The location sits between Highway 11, 21st Street, Ohio Street, and may extend slightly past Highway 31, where more paranormal experiences have been reported. This is where the Asylum for the Chronically Insane was built in December of 1889.[29] Most Racine residents simply referred to it as Racine County Insane Asylum, and over the years it went through other names like Gatliff Asylum and High Ridge Hospitals.[30] Patients included not only the insane, but also the elderly, immigrants, and poor. By 1904 the asylum held 133 patients when it suddenly burned down in a fire. All of the patients were able to escape mostly unharmed and their records were saved by staff. Within a year the building was already rebuilt.[31] The County Home, better known as the poor farm, moved to the same property as the asylum around the early 1900s. Some of the patients were occasionally transferred from the asylum to the poor farm when they were able to show that they could do well in a less structured environment.[32]

133.01 Racine County Asylum 1898 100 dpi watermark
Racine County Insane Asylum 1898

The asylum and poor farm were mostly-self sustaining, growing their own food, raising livestock, and sewing many of their own garments.[33] This also meant that the asylum and farm had their own burial grounds for unclaimed deceased patients and inmates.[34] Originally, it appeared that the cemeteries were kept separate from each other, but around 1910—after problems were being brought up about the neglected condition of both burial grounds and a lack of headstones for the buried individuals—the cemeteries were merged. Records of burials were also found be inadequate[35], raising further concerns about the manner in which they were buried, and sometimes reburied in incorrect graves. At one point the land was bought and the bodies that were set to be removed ended up being left buried and plowed over to even out the land.[36] By 1916 it was decided that the graves would be marked and that the grounds would be kept up and given more attention than before.[37] At the time there were thought to be over 250 graves that were known on the property.[38]

Though not much is known about the care of living patients in the early asylum, in the 1940s two cases were brought against staff members at the asylum for abuse, neglect, and use of excessive force. The accused were Mr. and Mrs. Overson, an orderly and a matron at the asylum.[39] Mr. Overson was accused of handling a male patient roughly and using turpentine to make him easier to deal with. Mrs. Ezra Overson was accused of keeping female patients in straight jackets and straps for over twelve hours a day, to the point where some of them had discolored, possibly dead hands.[40] The witness and expert that were brought in to testify both attested to the cruelty of such a method. When restraints are used they often cause fear, anger, and injury to patients including stretching nerves, muscles, and tendons which can cause severe nerve damage.[41] The court was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these actions were, in fact, abuse.[42]

133.01 High Ridge Hospitals 10-15-1967 100 dpi watermark
High Ridge Hospitals 1967

This wasn’t the last time that ill-treatment of patients at the asylum was brought to the forefront either. In 1954 a visiting psychiatrist criticized the facility claiming it was akin to a medieval dungeon and that care was “lacking and inadequate.” Records were incorrectly kept and many patients were physically sick.[43] In 1971 county employees went on strike, citing the degrading treatment of patients.[44] The asylum was closed c.1970 and razed c.1980. The pond that sat on the edge of the property still exists on what is now known as High Ridge Centre, a local shopping center by Regency Mall.[45]

Also on the same plot of land as the asylum and poor farm was Sunny Rest Tuberculosis Sanatorium, opened in November of 1913 to treat victims of the deadly disease, often known as consumption. During the time the sanatorium was open they treated thousands of patients.[46] Though the sanatorium was fairly successful in treating patients, due to the nature of the disease, many died there. Sunny Rest was closed in 1962 when tuberculosis was no longer as threatening as it had once been.[47]

The rumors about paranormal activity on the High Ridge and Regency Mall site are numerous. Between employees at the old Office Max, Culver’s, Home Depot, and K-Mart there is no shortage of stories to tell. Carts would roll around the grounds overnight and doors in dressing rooms would open and slam shut. Occasionally things would knock themselves off shelves within the stores and employees claimed to have to go back to the same fallen item and pick it up multiple times in night. One employee even recalled her experience during a closing shift at K-Mart where Christmas music kept coming on even after they had turned everything off. At the mall, signs would mysteriously fall over and strange sounds unnerved employees. Cameras and sensors would also occasionally detect movement at night after the mall was closed and no one was there. Affectionately, some employees would blame these occurrences on the “ghost children.”

Paranormal occurrences have been reported in Pritchard Park, behind Regency Mall. Apparitions have been spotted multiple times in the wooded areas and sometimes at night strange sounds and voices can be heard. A group of ghost hunters even caught what appeared to be a voice while recording on site. Those who know about the burials in Pritchard have also talked about the feeling of being watched and seeing things out of the corner of the eye in the park. Some are even afraid to enter the park after dark because of the oddities and unnerving atmosphere.

Even the site across the street from High Ridge Centre and the mall has had its share of strange stories. One in particular, told by a former employee of Lone Star Steakhouse, sticks out. She recalled an early Monday morning when the manager was taking in shipment alone by the bar when three steaks were thrown onto the kitchen floor while no one was around. She also attested to the number of times that employees felt like they were being watched or heard voices. Perhaps one of the most unnerving experiences occurred after an employee died in a car crash. As protocol, her employee number and other information were taken out of the system by corporate, but in a bizarre turn of events orders behind the bar and in the kitchen would often turn up with her name on them, even late at night after they closed. They would be random items, like a steak or a vodka tonic, but they never had any table number listed on them. After years of the phantom orders, management called corporate offices to make sure that her number had been removed from the system only to find out it had indeed been removed for the past several years.

Racine has had a rich history of the dark and bizarre, and these are only three of many sites rumored to be haunted throughout the county. Stay tuned to read future volumes of Paranormal Points of Racine County, in which we’ll explore the history of even more mysterious locations.



  • [1] “Little known about early cemetery,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), July 14, 1984.
  • [2] “Early Days,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), October 24, 1885.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] “That Skeleton,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), November 26, 1890.
  • [5] Daily Morning Advocate (Racine, WI), December 19, 1853.
  • [6] File 1, Folder 1. Winslow Elementary School Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine WI)
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] “Buried in Racine in 1846,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), May 5, 1905.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “That Skeleton,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [13] File 1, Folder 1. Winslow Elementary School Vertical File.
  • [14] “Evergreen burying ground dedicated here in June 12, 1851,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), May 5, 1931.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), November 12, 1886.
  • [17] “Historic Racine College, Episcopalians Shrine, will observe centennial,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 28, 1952.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), November 12, 1886.
  • [20] “Vandals at work,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), May 5, 1894.
  • [21] “Students ghastly find,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), February 13, 1902.
  • [22] Racine Review (Racine, WI) June 7, 1928.
  • [23] “Old Cemetery to figure in court battle,” Racine Review (Racine, WI) December 14, 1928.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] “A Mystery Unearthed,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) November 17, 2017.
  • [26] “Bones found in wastewater plant sand,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 14, 1984.
  • [27] Ibid.
  • [28] “A Mystery Unearthed,” Racine Journal Times
  • [29] File 1, Folder 1. Racine County Asylum Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine WI)
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.
  • [33] “Insane asylum self sustaining,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), November 22, 1910.
  • [34] “Death claims man who gave his life to a hobby,” Racine Journal News (Racine, WI), May 12, 1915.
  • [35] “Abandon old basis of equalization,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), November 22, 1910.
  • [36] “Not to remove bodies,” Racine Journal News (Racine, WI), October 17, 1916.
  • [37] “More care to be given to graves of the poor,” Racine Journal News (Racine, WI), November 21, 1916.
  • [38] “County of Racine operates 5 institutions; all showed progress during past year,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), January 7, 1939.
  • [39] “Defense rests in Overson case; arguments scheduled March 31,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), March 20, 1942.
  • [40] Ibid.
  • [41] “State rests case against Overson,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), March 13, 1942.
  • [42] “Overson free on 3 counts, Fined on 4th; Wife Cleared,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), June 26, 1942.
  • [43] “Racine psychiatrist criticizes facilities at county hospital,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), April 29, 1954.
  • [44] “Employees on strike at county institutions,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), August 31, 1971.
  • [45] File 1, Folder 1. Racine County Asylum Vertical File.
  • [46] “Sunny rest annex, recently completed at cost of $50,000, to be dedicated soon,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), November 15, 1939.
  • [47] “TB loses status as No. 1 Killer,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), April 5, 1964.
Disaster History Racine History

Top 5 Historical Disasters of Racine County

Racine County was once one of the most populated towns in Wisconsin. It was the center of manufacturing, shipping, inventing, scientific advancements, and leisurely activities. Back in the days of old, so to speak, Racine was filled with things to do, places to go, and sites to see. Still, this did not stop Racine’s residents from pursuing one of their favorite pastimes—disaster spectating. It should come as no surprise to those who know about how popular public executions were to watch that people are drawn to the gruesome and curious nature of death and disasters. Today we’ll be taking a look at the top five historical disasters of Racine County and take a journey of our own to fulfill our morbid curiosities.

#5: Winter of 1912

DEATHS: 0 | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: unknown | DATE: March 3-8, 1912

Winter is hardly ever a fond memory for Wisconsinites. It’s more like a looming inevitability. The Winter of 1912 in Racine, WI was more like a bad dream that Racine residents would never forget. Many captains, sailors, and lighthouse keepers recalled the Winter of 1912 as one of the worst in Racine’s history.[1] The winter was rough through the months of January and February, the temperature dropping below zero 27 times in less than 45 days.[2] Racine’s harbor, the center of the town’s livelihood, had completely frozen over and winds were howling at nearly 60 mph from the northeast.[3] Nearing the end of February things finally began looking up for Racine. Then two of the worst storms in Racine’s history hit.[4]

32103 Reef Lighthouse March 27 1912 72 dpi watermark
The Reef Point Lighthouse covered in 25 feet of ice in winter of 1912

On March 3, 1912 two lake steamers by the names of the Racine and the Iowa became trapped in the ice off Racine’s harbor with crews of around 75 men trapped inside. The ships had been headed to Milwaukee when they became trapped in the ice floes a mere one and a half miles from one another and about the same distance from shore.[5] The winds were particularly harsh that day and the ships decided to try to wait out the bad weather in Racine’s harbor. Unfortunately, whilst trying to get back to the harbor each of the ships became stuck in nearly fifteen feet of blue ice.[6] When word spread around of the ships’ circumstances, hundreds of Racine residents came out in the chilly weather to look at the ships trapped in the ice.[7]

Residents were lined up between 10th and 15th Streets to watch the spectacle. Sailors were not as thrilled, however. Daniel Hoey, a sailor on one of the stuck ships, reportedly walked to shore to go purchase tobacco for his vessel. He made it about a mile using a broomstick as assistance but as he tried to jump over an area of open water he lost his footing and fell in. According to accounts he pulled himself out, continued his journey and got his tobacco and returned to the ship.[8] It wasn’t until the following day, on March 4th that rescue was attempted. A tugboat by the name of Langlois was sent to rescue the Racine but it too became stuck in the ice.[9]

As time went on with no progress in rescuing the ships Racine residents became more daring and tried to approach the ships themselves. John Campbell, a sailor aboard the Iowa, recounts what he saw from his ship, “About 500 men and boys walked across the ice from the end of Thirteenth St. to see the ships imprisoned in the immense ice floes… I remember reading that scores of boys broke through air holes in the ice and were soaked and chilled before getting ashore and home.”[10]

After five days of being stuck in the ice, the ships were finally rescued on March 8th. Rescuers had dynamited channels around the ships large enough for them to return back to shore and the winds had shifted enough that the ice floes were no longer piling up as badly.[11] On March 7th the Racine Journal-News offered its opinion on the whole spectacle, “The reckless manner in which children and young men venture on the ice in Lake Michigan in order to get near the steamers and tug may result in loss of life. Yesterday afternoon 100 trooped across the frozen water, and while ice was being dynamited stood close by. A number of boys fell through holes into the water and would have drowned had companions not pulled them out.”[12]

#4: The Train Wreck of 1891

DEATHS: 2 | INJURIES: 50-60 | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $200,000-$250,000 | DATE: March 24, 1891

Racine’s prime location between Milwaukee and Chicago have always made it a hub of locomotive activity. This was never truer than in the late 1800s when business was booming in the city. Multiple major transportation lines crossed through the city regularly, both carrying both freight and passengers. That being said, Racine was no stranger to train wreckages. With the number of trains coming through the city on a daily basis, there was bound to be accidents. One of these accidents was particularly memorable and came to be known as the Wreck of 1891.

30801 Chicago and Northwestern Wreck of 1891 72 dpi watermark
Photograph taken by Milt M. Jones of the train wreckage

Back in the 1890s it was customary for trains to all come to a full stop within 400 feet of the St. Paul railroad crossing.[13] It was on March 24th, 1891 that this rule was violated and one of the nastiest train wrecks in Racine occurred. A southbound freight train that had pulled onto the main line to take water was being backed into the siding to make room for an incoming northbound passenger train when the crash occurred. The freight train was nearly in the clear when the passenger train came barreling down the tracks at 40 mph, seemingly unable to stop.[14] The head brakeman aboard the freight train went onto the tracks with his red lantern to try and signal the passenger train to come to a stop, but when it became clear that he could no longer safely remain on the tracks he hurled his lantern at the locomotive and jumped off the tracks.[15] The trains collided head-on, reared up into the air and swayed an instant before they both came toppling down onto the east side of the tracks, destroying the wooden platform at the junction. The debris from the passenger and baggage cars burst into flames moments later.[16]

Later in court, D.E. Burke of Milwaukee, the engineer of the passenger train, testified that he tried to apply the brakes multiple times before the 400-foot sign but when it became clear that they were not working he tried to reverse the train but the lever failed to catch and the train continued to barrel forward. It was later determined that the wreck was caused by the failure of the air breaks to work, though the cause of the failure itself was never identified.[17] There are conflicting reports of the number of passengers injured in the wreck, ranging from 50-60. It is said that hospitals were at maximum capacity and drug stores nearby reported a boom in business immediately following the wreck.[18] Those who escaped with minor injuries were the lucky ones.

William Roe of Kenosha, an engineer on the passenger train jumped to the west as the crash occurred and escaped with only minor injuries.[19] Those who jumped to the east were not so fortunate. John Gobben of Milwaukee, a fireman aboard the passenger train leaped out of the train as they were about to collide but instead was caught up within the wreck and badly wounded. He was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital but died of his injuries about 22 hours later.[20] Willis Andres, a resident of Crystal Lake and a fireman aboard one of the trains, met a similar fate. When he saw that a collision was inevitable he jumped out of the train but was quickly buried beneath the wreckage. When his body was finally recovered several hours later it was reportedly “badly mangled.”[21]

Word of the train wreck spread quickly and soon hundreds showed up to look at the fiery wreck. One witness, Milt M. Jones, an amateur photographer with one of the first box cameras produced that used roll film, even got a few snapshots of the wreckage that quickly became in high demand as souvenirs.[22] The congestion caused by the crowds of onlookers made it difficult for emergency services to reach the wreck and one fire engine even became stuck in the mud on its way to the scene.[23] Loss of life and injuries were not the only problems victims of the wreck had to face. As more spectators came to look at the crash, so too did looters looking to capitalize off of the tragedy. Passengers complained of jewelry and money theft and even reported seeing spectators trying to rob beer bottles that had been being transported on the freight train.[24] A New York salesman reported losing over $2,000 worth of merchandise in the fire[25] and over $6,000 of money that had been on the train had burned up within an overheated safe.[26] Overall, losses were estimated between $200,000-$250,000 and both locomotives were deemed unsalvageable.[27]

#3: The Blake Opera House Fire

DEATHS: 3 | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $197,000 | DATE: December 28, 1884

Many large cities back in the day had multiple entertainment venues to occupy their citizens’ leisure time. One of the most popular of these venues, especially in Racine, were opera houses and theaters. The Blake Opera house was built in 1882 and praised for being the finest venue in the state.[28] The opera house resided at the northeast corner of Sixth and Barnstable Streets[29] and was a popular destination for the citizens of Racine. The night of the fire a production of the Beggar Student had been going on just hours earlier.[30] On the frigid evening of December 28th flames were to be discovered shortly after midnight[31] when two explosions rocked the building. Within moment fire had engulfed the northeast end of the building.[32] The flames quickly ate away ate the ornamental façade of the opera house along with adjoining hotel, which at the time of the fire was filled with guests.[33]

250 Blake Opera House 72 dpi watermark
The Blake Opera House

It wasn’t until 1:05am that the first alarm was sounded by a police officer who spotted the flames from his post on Main and Fifth Streets. By 1:15am six steamers from the fire department were pumping water at the blaze, including a steamer by the name of “L.S. Blake.”[34] Efforts shifted from trying to extinguish the fire to trying to prevent the spread of the fire due to the cold winds that made it impossible to stop.[35] Hundreds of residents from nearby turned out at the late hour to watch them battle the fire. Women in nightgowns, children, and men were all witnessed running from the building in a panic.[36]

Spectators even claimed to see a woman hanging out of a fourth story window screaming for help. Allegedly someone shouted to her “jump for your life” but it was too late as another explosion was heard and the woman was swallowed in flames.[37] This was likely the housekeeper, Mrs. Patricks, who was one of three killed in the fire. The servant’s quarters in the upper story of the hotel were one of the first to be cut off when blazing rafters fell, making escape impossible.[38] Two others, a husband and wife that were both a part of the Thompson Opera Company were lost to the fire. Mr. and Mrs. Glover’s bodies were not recovered until several days later[39], reportedly found clutching one another in their charred state.[40]

Aside from the loss of life the fire did an estimated $197,000 worth of damage.[41] What little insurance money that was received after the disaster was split between stockholders and the lots where the opera house once stood were to be sold off to the highest bidder. Even coins found in the wreckage were sold to spectators as momentous of the tragedy.[42] The Thompson Opera Company reported $6,000 in damages[43] and multiple benefits were hosted on behalf of the survivors of the fire.[44] Though morbid, Racinians were grateful that the fire happened as late as it did, rather than when the opera house was still filled with guests from the show. They were relieved that the loss of life was not greater from such a disastrous fire.[45]

#2: The Blaze of 1882

DEATHS: 1 (indirect) | INJURIES: unknown | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $750,000-$1,000,000 | DATE: May 5, 1882

The Blaze of 1882 was Racine’s most devastating fire. It began in the evening of May 5th, 1882 and was not stopped until late the next afternoon.[46] Winds were coming from the northeast at nearly 20 mph and causing destructive waves to crash against the harbor.[47] Out in the dock sat the tugboat called Sill, near the Goodrich warehouse. It was when sparks went flying from the smokestack and landed on the roof of the warehouse that the fire began.[48] Around 10pm people began smelling smoke[49] and at 10:45pm the fire was first reported.[50]

656.02 Main Street 300 Block 72 dpi watermark
Buildings that were destroyed in the blaze on the 300 block of Main Street before they perished

The fire first consumed the Goodrich Transportation Company warehouse which was located on the south harbor pier near the shore.[51] The warehouse was filled to the brim with dry goods which acted like kindling to the fire[52] which smoldered in the building for at least one hour before breaking through the roof.[53] Nearby was the abandoned Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company’s grain elevator, towering around 156 feet tall. The fire had no problem making its way from the warehouse to the grain elevator, eating away the structure and hardly giving firefighters a chance to stop the flames before they reached the next-door lumber yards. The Jones, Knapp & Co and Kelly, Weeks & Co both lost over 10 million feet of lumber to the fire.[54] Schooners that were docked nearby were in danger of burning up from the magnitude of the fire and had to be moved away from the harbor.[55]

At the time the fire department only had two horse-drawn steamers which were completely inadequate for dealing with the flames.[56] The Racine Daily Journal equated the steamers to “squirt guns” in the face of the flames.[57] Without proper firefighting equipment, the fire grew large enough to be seen from Milwaukee and a schooner captain in Two Rivers even reported being able to see it.[58] The fire threatened to burn D.P. Wigley’s building, which at the time housed a linseed oil factory known as Emerson & Co.[59] and if it could not be contained before it reached that building it could even reach as far as Monument Square.[60] Unfortunately, the flames did reach Congress Hall, a premier hotel in the city which Mary Todd Lincoln had stayed for a few weeks in 1867 after her husband died. The building was lost.[61]

The bluffs near Chatam Street prevented firefighters from being able to access the lake[62] and by 11:30pm Mayor William Packard realized the city was in trouble and called Milwaukee for assistance.[63] A train carrying help from the Milwaukee Fire Department arrived around 2:45 am and a shoe shop building was dynamited to help stop the advance of the fire.[64] At 4:30am trains carrying men and equipment from Chicago’s fire department also arrived. Though the fire had mostly been stopped on Main Street it was still burning on Wisconsin Street.[65] Even Kenosha’s fire department is said to have assisted in fighting the flames[66], and by 5am the fire was under control.[67] Still, the fire was not completely extinguished until around 2pm.[68]

Miraculously, the only death attributed to the fire was that of an elderly woman, who reportedly died of a heart attack from the shock of the fire.[69] Sadly, the loss of homes and businesses were immense. Over 44 buildings had been completely destroyed in the fire[70] and dozens of families were left homeless.[71] Financial losses directly after the fire were exaggerated but as things calmed down loss estimates were still anywhere from $750,000 to $1,000,000.[72] Only $300,000, or about a third of the loss was covered by insurance.[73]

Looters also made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of goods during the chaos of the conflagration. [74] Stocks had been moved outside of buildings and into the streets to keep them from the damage of the fire. Unfortunately, they were largely unprotected. Among the goods stolen newspapers reported that coffins, over 52 pairs of boots, and many raw materials for shoe production had been stolen. A firefighter visiting from Milwaukee was even witnessed to have stolen a roll of felt from Miller Boot Co. to use as a horse blanket.[75] The Racine Daily Journal called for looters to return their stolen goods to their rightful owners.[76] Out of all the damage caused by the fire there was one silver lining. Racine residents demanded the fire department be equipped with more up to date firefighting technology[77] and new equipment was purchased shortly after the fire.[78]

#1: The Cyclone of 1883

DEATHS: 7-10 | INJURIES: 85-100 | FINANCIAL LOSSES: $70,000 | DATE: May 18, 1883

The cyclone that hit Racine in 1883 was the first that had touched down in the county since its settlement.[79] Previously it had been believed that due to its lakeshore location Racine was immune to the path of cyclonic storms.[80] Residents soon found out that they were wrong. At 4pm on May 18th, an electrical storm began to brew in the sky and temperatures were unusually cool for the season.[81] By 5:30pm the sky had gotten unusually dark and the temperature rose rapidly.[82] At 7pm the tornado touched down, coming from the southwest.[83] First, it uprooted farms outside of the city before moving to Horlick’s Food Factory and the Mt. Pleasant School, destroying all within its path.[84]

189 Cyclone of 1883 100 dpi watermark
The aftermath of the tornado

The path of the tornado was about three city blocks wide[85] and took a northerly path toward the residential areas of Racine, destroying homes and businesses.[86] The few houses that had existed between Horlick’s Food Factory and the city were gone. The scope of the tornado’s damage had exceeded anyone’s expectations, destroying all of the north side of High Street and Douglas Avenue[87], to Flat Iron Square, making it to the west side of North Main Street at its furthest reaches.[88] Most of the homes that had been destroyed were made of wood, but several were also brick, showing the true power of the tornado.[89] Anvils, farm equipment, and other heavy machinery had been thrown about as if it were nothing[90], including a house that had been picked up and carried onto the Northwestern train tracks, delaying trains for nearly a day.[91] When the cyclone finally passed into Lake Michigan it created water spouts nearly 300 feet high[92] that witnesses described as “beautiful.”[93]

Most residents who were able to reach their cellars were safe from the storm’s full force, but those who were still outside when it hit were not so lucky.[94] Victims included men, women, and children alike and estimates of those killed by the tornado ranged from 7-10 individuals.[95] One young girl was picked up by the wind and thrown against a home, instantly being killed.[96] Another incident that had originally been seen as a miracle soon became a tragedy. Fourteen people had made it safely out of Petura’s Grocery Store when the building was ripped apart by the winds. Unfortunately, the following day the bodies of two young sisters sent to fetch groceries before the storm hit, were found beneath the wreckage.[97] Their ages were six and eight years old.

Somewhere between 85 and 100 people were injured in the cyclone and that night both the living and dead were removed from the rubble.[98] The bodies of those that had died were guarded overnight until they could be taken to the courthouse the following day[99] and those that were injured, 31 of which were considered dangerously injured[100], were taken to St. Mary’s and St. Luke’s Hospitals for treatment.[101] Over 250 people were made homeless[102] and over 128 homes and buildings were destroyed.[103] Many of those who were victims of the storm were foreign-born laborers who had now lost everything.[104] Losses were estimated at $70,000.[105]

The following day ruins were visited by people of all different localities, many of them venturing on train from Kenosha, Chicago, Waukegan, and Milwaukee. One year after the great blaze Racine had once again become a target for spectators and looters.[106] Everyone wanted a part in the drama, prompting many to make up their own stories of how they were involved in the windstorm. In one newspaper a fifteen year old boy had his own tall tale told: “John Schootens, a boy about 15 years old, declares that he was taken up by the wind, carried far away from the starting point and landed in a mud puddle clear up to his chin. Being unable to pull himself out, and no one coming to perform that office, he philosophically made the best of circumstances and slept warm and comfortable all night. In the morning he was seen by a passer by and extricated. Some say the boy lies.”[107]

Racine’s Common Council immediately pulled into action, trying to provide relief for those that had become victims of the storm.[108] Temporary shelter was offered at the Blake house and many found refuge with neighbors and relatives that were unharmed by the cyclone.[109] Within a short amount of time a Tornado Relief Association was formed and many of the prominent and wealthy men in the city donated. They managed to collect a grand total of $20,340 for those in need. $17,007 was spent on those in need, 19% going towards personal property lost, 57% going towards lost dwellings, 2% going toward sundry bills, and 5% for wounded parties. The remaining 17% was put toward a fund for the relief of future disasters.[110] With the spirit of community, Racine once again collected itself and moved on from yet another tragedy.



  • [1] “Veteran Sailors Declare Winter One of the Hardest in 20 Years,” The Racine Review (Racine, WI), February 8, 1929.
  • [2] “Winter-Weary Racine Long Remembers Below-Zero Weather and Storms of 1912,” The Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI).
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “Photos of Racine Train Wreck of 1891 Published for First Time,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), December 5, 1937.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Ibid.
  • [26] “Wreck at the Junction,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 14, 1956.
  • [27] “Photos of Racine Train Wreck,” Racine Journal Times
  • [28] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette: New York (New York, NY), January 17, 1885.
  • [29] File 1, Folder 1. Fires (General) Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine WI)
  • [30] “Weird Wreck,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), December 30, 1884.
  • [31] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette
  • [32] “A Night to Remember,” Retrospect (Racine, WI)
  • [33] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette
  • [34] “A Night to Remember,” Retrospect
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette
  • [37] Ibid.
  • [38] Ibid.
  • [39] “Removing the Ruins,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), January 2, 1885.
  • [40] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette
  • [41] “Remembers Opera Fire 65 Years Ago Today,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), December 28, 1949.
  • [42] “Weird Wreck,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [43] “Death in the Flames,” The National Police Gazette
  • [44] “Remembers Opera Fire 65 Years Ago Today,” Racine Journal Times
  • [45] “Weird Wreck,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [46] “Old Photograph Shows Stores on Main Street Which Were Destroyed n the Great Fire of 1882,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 24, 1937.
  • [47] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), 1982.
  • [48] Ibid.
  • [49] “The Great Fire,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), May 8, 1882.
  • [50] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), April 29, 1984.
  • [51] “Old Photograph Shows Stores on Main Street Which Were Destroyed n the Great Fire of 1882,” Racine Journal Times
  • [52] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [53] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [54] Ibid.
  • [55] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [56] Fire destroyed 44 buildings
  • [57] “The Great Fire,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [58] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [59] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [60] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [61] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [62] Ibid.
  • [63] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [64] Ibid.
  • [65] Ibid.
  • [66] “Fire Destroyed 44 Buildings On Main Street, May 5, 1882,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 14, 1956.
  • [67] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [68] “Fire Destroyed 44 Buildings On Main Street, May 5, 1882,” Racine Journal Times
  • [69] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [70] Ibid.
  • [71] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [72] “The Great Fire,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [73] “100 Years Ago: The Big Fire of ’82,” Racine Journal Times
  • [74] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [75] “Looters Robbed Downtown During Racine Fire of 1882,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), April 5, 1936.
  • [76] “The Great Fire,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [77] “The Big Fire,” Racine Journal Times
  • [78] “The Great Fire,” Racine Daily Journal
  • [79] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [80] “Booklet Tells of Tornado 56 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), May 21, 1939.
  • [81] “The Centennial of a Killer Storm,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), May 7, 1983.
  • [82] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [83] “Racine Disasters,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (Madison, WI), September 1921.
  • [84] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [85] Ibid.
  • [86] “The Centennial of a Killer Storm,” Racine Journal Times
  • [87] “Tragedy Stalked Racine 2 Years in a Row,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), July 1, 1934.
  • [88] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [89] Ibid.
  • [90] “Booklet Tells of Tornado 56 Years Ago,” Racine Journal
  • [91] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [92] “The Centennial of a Killer Storm,” Racine Journal Times
  • [93] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [94] Ibid.
  • [95] “Racine Disasters,” Wisconsin Magazine of History
  • [96] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [97] Ibid.
  • [98] Ibid.
  • [99] Ibid.
  • [100] File 1, Drawer 1. Tornado Subject Card File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [101] “Racine Disasters,” Wisconsin Magazine of History
  • [102] Ibid.
  • [103] “Booklet Tells of Tornado 56 Years Ago,” Racine Journal
  • [104] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [105] File 1, Drawer 1. Tornado Subject Card File.
  • [106] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [107] “Freaks of the Wind,” Racine Advocate (Racine, WI), 1883.
  • [108] “Racine Disasters,” Wisconsin Magazine of History
  • [109] File 1, Folder 1. Windstorms (General) Vertical File
  • [110] File 1, Drawer 1. Tornado Subject Card File.