Play review: Murder in Triplicate

Of course, April wouldn’t be complete without my annual visit to Candlelight Theatre. This local play company that performs inside the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is a real gem. Resident playwright James Trofatter, along with Donna Wing (the creative director of the troupe), wrote three more engaging murder vignettes for this spring production. Trofatter and Wing shared in the directing responsibilities too.

Candlelight Theatre usually performs either a single play that takes place throughout the house or three shorter plays performed in different rooms of the house. In either case, the audience rotates through the house to see the different scenes or plays. Murder in Triplicate was the latter case: three plays performed in various rooms (the dining room, the master bedroom, and the back parlor).

I started out in the dining room with the performance of The Photograph Album. I recognized John West, Heather Wing, and James Trofatter immediately. The story, set in 1927, was engaging. A sister and brother were involved in a yearly ritual: looking through a family photo album in hopes of uncovering some long buried secret that would explain why their parents died in a murder-suicide. Twists and turns and unnatural manipulations of a photo revealed unknown family secrets.

Next, my group was led up the front stairs to the master bedroom, where Benjamin Harrison died in 1901. As we waited for the bell to toll, to signal the three plays to begin (the plays all start and end at roughly the same time…there must be an art to writing and performing plays of similar lengths), I felt my ears prick up in canine-like curiosity.

One of the actresses was sitting in a chair covered with a crazy quilt—once again showing how the troupe makes good use of their Victorian surrounding. (Crazy quilts were a brief fad of upper class wealthy women in the late 1800s—and this play was set in 1898.) Then I noticed that the bedspread on the Harrison bed was a crazy quilt. I did not remember seeing that before.

I asked our room hostess about it; the one on the chair was a prop but the one on the bed was original. As we filed out of the room, I peered at the quilt but not long enough to gain any satisfaction. I noticed signatures in the scraps of clothes used to make the quilt and a fan shape—a nod to the Orientalism of the time. The hostess later explained that the Site rotates the spreads on the bed. (So maybe I didn’t notice it before because it wasn’t there…or it was before I knew about crazy quilts.)

In this second play, The Companion, I recognized Sue Beecher, always a delight to see perform. I did not recognize Tim Long or Laura Kuhn from previous performances, but all were excellent. As usual, things in the play weren’t always what they seem. Sue played a grouchy invalid wife, Tim her loving and devoted husband, and Laura her nurse accused of murdering a previous patient.

During intermission, we were shepherded down to the basement for a biobreak. The basement is lined with photos, which to my amazement seemed to be different than earlier visits. Photos ranged from those of Harrison’s grandfather (William Henry), Benjamin Harrison himself with other generals in the Civil War, himself as a staunch upright patriarch, and one of Lincoln as a young attorney and counselor at law (as written on the photograph).

The third play, Betsy, took place in the back parlor. I immediately recognized Ellis Hall, Donna Wing, and Ken Eder. Often a ham on rye, this time Ken played a maniacal lawyer. Set in 1925, this play centered on a pair of newlyweds who married after a brief romance. The wife slowly learns from the lawyer the twisted family circumstances that she married into. Again, nothing is quite as it seems.

When Candlelight Theatre productions are three separate plays rather than one long one, the cast gathers in the front hallway to greet the audience as they leave. First up was James Trofatter whom I thanked for all of the plays that he has written and I have enjoyed. He seemed a bit taken aback (which made me wonder how many people are regular attendees—his reaction suggested that I might be an odd duck).

As I worked my way down the line of actors, the tables turned. Donna Wing expressed that she was happy to see me, that she recognized me from previous productions. It was my turn to be a bit taken aback. Of course, in the setting of a historical home where the actors perform a mere inches from the audience (and on occasion include the audience), it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience registers with the actors. Her noticing my attendance at production after production caught me a bit off guard but added to the delight of the evening.

Murder in Triplicate runs for another weekend. But if you cannot make it, any of their productions would be fantastic to see. (Be sure to stop by the house for a tour too.) Candlelight Theatre used to perform just spring and fall productions, but in recent years expanded to include more productions. Next up is in July—The Trial of Nancy Clem—a previous production perhaps (Cold Blooded) but this time being performed at the nearby beautifully restored Indiana Landmarks Center.

Dubois County Historical Museum

I find county museums a little bit quirky but fascinating glimpses into local history and identity. What the museum contains says a lot about what the county values and considers important, and how the county residents see themselves.

As I entered the Dubois County Historical Museum, two people greeted me. One took me around to see the entire museum. This would have thrown me—Why am I being walked through the museum? Aren’t I able to see it on my own?—except that I had encountered this not so long before. Maybe it is a rural museum tradition?

The pride he had in the museum and county was evident. The museum looks deceptively small from the outside. In actuality, the museum is housed in the old Kimball International warehouse. He seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t instantly recognize Kimball International (oh yeah, they made pianos, right?), and I tried not to be embarrassed—and then annoyed as the minutes dragged on as we walked through the museum together with him pointing out everything.

The museum layout is a bit odd. The front part of it is divided into sections or rooms with different exhibits that focus on the founding of the county, the ethnic identity of the early inhabitants, wars, sports, and furniture companies (remember Kimball?) associated with the county’s history.

And then a doorway opens up into a huge warehouse full of farm equipment (county identity—rural and agricultural), a pioneer log cabin, and miscellaneous large objects. Sections are devoted to silver smelting, bees, butchering, woodworking, and blacksmithing.

He pointed to a small, climate-controlled room to the side of the warehouse. The man giving me a tour of the museum beamed with pride. The room, he explained, contained stuffed exotic animals hunted by someone whose name I was supposed to know. (To those familiar with my blog and love of animals, you won’t be surprised to know that I was horrified.) Clearly, hunting and stuffing are some of those things that make up the county’s identity. I swallowed hard as we thankfully walked by the room without entering.

Eventually I was left to peruse the museum on my own. The exhibits at the front of the museum contain a slew of information that I painstakingly reviewed. The fossil collection contains artifacts older than 200 million years. I learned that the Illinoisan glacier (is that what the glacier was called?) reached as far south as northwestern Dubois County.

The county is named for Toussaint DuBois, a Frenchman born in Montreal. DuBois joined another Frenchman, Lafayette, in fighting for American independence. He was, like many other Frenchmen in the New World, a fur trader. And like other fur traders during skirmishes (Michel Brouillet for example), he managed spies and scouts during the Tippecanoe Campaign (1812). He was a captain (and later major) during the War of 1812. He was the first landowner in what became Dubois County, but alas he never lived on the land. He died crossing the Wabash River in May 1816 and is buried in Vincennes (which is not in the county that bears his name).

The land that makes up Dubois County came from a 1803/1804 treaty that Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison made with the native Americans. In 1817—a year after Indiana became a state—Governor Jennings approved an act creating Dubois County. (Incidentally, Dubois is pronounced Dew-Boys, a decidedly non-French pronunciation.)

People moved in quickly. By 1820, Dubois County contained 202 non-native American families (1,168 people). The Lincolns, as in Abraham Lincoln’s birth family, lived just seven miles south of the county line. Ethnically, the county included Scots-Irish and Germans—lots of Germans. A good portion of space in the museum is devoted to explaining the providence of these German immigrants, their dialects, and their voyage to Indiana from native Prussia.

Another section highlights the religion in the area, but the focus of the museum in large part is on the military experience of inhabitants. Each war has its own exhibit stock full of artifacts. Indiana is a land of war memorials, and in Dubois County, they seem to take their military history very seriously.

The museum contains an impressive array of military artifacts, including such things as a flag from Company K of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (the flag was carried in the Battle of Antietam, Maryland September 17, 1862), “souvenirs” pilfered from the enemy dead of WWII, and four (not one, four!) Belgian rifles from the Civil War.

At 14 pounds (!), I couldn’t help but think that the soldiers that carried these Belgian rifles were of a hardy stock—and brave. Not the safest rifle, according to E. R. Brown of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company C, “They were all deadly at the muzzle end, and some of them were next to deadly at both ends. Their kick was like the recoil of a cannon.”

Dubois County was heavily wooded and historically had a large lumber industry with sawmills and furniture factories. Many different desks, pianos, and even a complete kitchen with real AristOKraft cabinets are on display. (The museum considered getting a hold of the AristOKraft cabinets a minor coup. AristOKraft later became MasterBrand.) The furniture makers are a litany of past local companies: Jasper Desk, Indiana Cabinet Co., Jasper Office Furniture, Indiana Furniture Industries, and Jasper Corporation (which later became, you guessed it, Kimball International).

As if proving my point about the quirkiness that is a county museum, immediately next to the furniture is a glass exhibit case about Bill Schroeder, an inhabitant of the county who received the first mechanical heart on December 25, 1984. Unfortunately, after the procedure, Schroeder only lived 620 days; he suffered a series of strokes and died on August 6, 1986.

I moved through the doorway to the warehouse portion of the museum. I looked over the various mini-exhibits for different trades, such as silver smelting, blacksmithing, and woodworking. The warehouse section contains many farming implements and machines: buggies, wagons, threshers, water pumps, a 1923 Kitten steam engine, and even a restored 1924 Maxwell.

I found myself face-to-face with that small room, the recently opened Wildlife Adventure Exhibit.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself before entering. The room was full of stuffed animals (not the type of stuffed animals I like!): bears, moose, elk, panthers, cougars, etc. You name it, it had been hunted, stuffed, and put on display here. A section contains trophies from the numerous trips local businessman Frank Fromme Jr. made to Africa starting in 1968. I found myself staring at two elephant feet—the native tribes got the meat, Frank was allowed to take two feet. I breathed easier as I stepped back into the warehouse proper.

Out of the myriad of items, the mechanical item that caught my fancy though was the dog-powered butter churn (yes, really!). A dog would walk (run?) on a slanted treadmill that powered an arm attached to a butter churn. I suppose all members of the family in the early 1900s had to earn their keep. (It reminded me another out-of-the-ordinary butter churn with a side crank that I saw in the childhood home of Ernie Pyle in Dana, IN.)

The centerpiece of the large warehouse room, not dwarfed by the large mechanical equipment around it, is a huge German log cabin. The cabin was built in the 1880s near Patoka Lake at Celestine. In 2004, the cabin was taken apart, moved to the museum, and rebuilt inside the building. In fact, the cabin is too large for the warehouse; they ran out of room to rebuild the second story of the cabin. The logs are incredibly well preserved thanks to weatherboards that covered them from almost immediately after the cabin was built.

The cabin came from the Welp Homestead, which is still farmed by the family today. It housed Gerhard Welp (1823-1897), his parents, and four siblings who came to the US to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The warehouse ends with murals depicting important buildings in each city in the county, such as Ferdinand and Celestine. As I exited, I passed through a reconstructed downtown from the early 1900s. On display are a variety of shops and services: shoe repair, jail, photographer, barber, millinery, saloon, bank, doctor, store, school, hotel, undertaker, kitchen, news office, surveyor, and church.

As I left, I felt as though I had a better feel for Dew-Boys County, learned a few things, and discovered a few things I wanted to follow up on. County museums—they are a great way to get a feel for a place and learn about local history.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Birth of a State

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book of the same name by Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

Birth of a State covers the period of time from when Indiana lobbied for statehood to just before the Civil War. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the President of the Levi Coffin House Association (Janice McGuire, who was my docent when I visited the historical site—by the way, she is outstanding!), the Director of Historic New Harmony (Connie Weinzapfel), and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

Indiana was originally part of the Indiana Territory, which included Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. The capital of the territory was Vincennes. (You can visit many historic sites there.) The Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison was pro-large landholdings and pro-slavery—positions that didn’t sit well with others in southern Indiana.

In 1813, a vote moved the capital east to Corydon on the Ohio River (and away from Harrison’s nexus of power, I’d argue). In 1816, 43 delegates met in the new courthouse in Corydon for a Congressional Convention. In December 1816, Congress recognized Indiana as a state. (Side note: You can visit the grave of Robert Hanna, one of the delegates and signers of the state constitution, in Crown Hill Cemetery.)

At the time, Indiana was home to numerous Indian tribes: Potawatomi, Wea, Miami, Delaware, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Huron, Wyandot, Ottawa, Seneca, Kickapoo. Eventually the Indians were either removed from the land or killed. Probably the most famous violent confrontation is the Battle of Tippecanoe of 1811, when Harrison decimated the Indians led by Tecumseh and the Prophet.

But also instructive is the 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of nine Indians that shockingly led to the trial of the white perpetrators and the execution of three of them. Unfortunately, this trial and conviction of white violence on non-whites didn’t set a legal precedent.

The documentary weaves a history through key places, people, and events throughout Indiana, mostly focused on southern Indiana as that was the first part of the state to be settled. Originally the inhabitants were Native Americans and French trappers and fur traders. Whites and blacks moved into Indiana from Kentucky and North Carolina—both slave states. However, the migrants from North Carolina were Quakers from Guilford County who left North Carolina due to slavery. The Underground Railroad thrived in Indiana.

The documentary discusses important early settlements like Vincennes (as the territorial capital) or Madison (as an international commerce hotspot on the Ohio River) or New Harmony (as the location of utopian societies: first German millennialism and then utopian socialism) or black settlements (Beech Settlement, Walnut Ridge, Corydon).

People, some well-known, some not, are discussed as being influential to Indiana history. William Conner, whose homestead exists as an historical park, went native, marrying a Native American woman. Later, he helped negotiate deals with the Native Americans that led to their removal (along with his wife and child) to Oklahoma. He then married a white woman and became a respectable businessman, clearly riding the wave of commerce moving from trapping and trade with the Native Americans to commerce with white settlers and landownership.

Lincoln, regularly touted as hailing from Illinois, lived his formative years (ages 6 to 21) in southern Indiana. Sophia Ramsdell Fuller left a detailed diary of her pioneer life in Vigo County. Mary Bateman Clark had a profound effect on the lives of slaves and former slaves in Indiana, setting a legal precedent about indentured servitude.

The Ohio River was key to the early settlement of southern Indiana—rivers being an important mode of transport for people and goods. The rivers allowed commerce and prosperity (for some). Canals, like the Wabash and Erie, were created for the same economic and commercial purpose. The financial woes brought on by the canal led to a revised constitution.

The original constitution borrowed language from the Ohio and Kentucky constitutions. The Indiana version became a model for later state constitutions. The 1816 constitution stressed the importance of education, legally proclaimed Indiana as a free state (though not always in practice), and gave all white men the vote regardless if they were landowners.

The constitution revised in 1851 prohibited debt (being debt-free even if that means not investing in the future seems to be a long-standing source of pride in Indiana), granted free education, and prohibited African-Americans from moving into the state (!). African-Americans already living in Indiana were required to register—a horrible idea but a fascinating source of historical information about African-Americans living in the state.

The documentary continues with a second part that looks at Indiana from the Civil War to World War I.

Vincennes State Historic Sites: Fort Knox II

The buildings and sites associated with the Vincennes State Historic Sites are either clustered together just south of Vincennes University or scattered downtown (Old French House and Indian Museum, Old State Bank). Fort Knox II is one of two administered by the museum that are located far from either location.

Fort Knox II only exists as a grassy field with posts indicating its contours and placards discussing its history. There is not much to see but much to read.

Fort Knox, named for the first US Secretary of Defense Henry Knox, actually existed in three incarnations at three different locales between 1787 and 1816. The changes in locations were prompted by changes in threats.

The first incarnation of the fort was built in 1787 at the site of the British Fort Sackville (which Clark captured in 1779) in downtown Vincennes. As the town grew and threats from Native Americans came from the north, the fort was moved outside of town and became Fort Knox II.

Fort Knox II (1803-1813) was an important outpost during a time of confrontation with Native Americans in the Indiana Territory. In 1811, future president—then Captain—Zachary Taylor built a stockade at Fort Knox. Another future president—then Territorial Governor—William Henry Harrison assembled an army to march on Prophetstown to battle Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet in what became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe.

With the War of 1812, the city proper was threatened again. The timbers of Fort Knox II were dismantled and floated downstream back to Vincennes to secure the city. In 1816, the fort closed for good. Fort Knox III was dismantled and the garrison moved to Fort Harrison in Terre Haute.

Fort Knox II is a strange historic site to visit, not just because no structure really exists there, but because a within a stone’s throw lies a log cabin not connected with the historic site. The log cabin clearly houses modern-day residents who have no connection to the fort or the museum. As I wandered around the site of the fort, I had the distinct impression that I was wandering around people’s front lawn.

General Assembly money woes

Excuse me? The legislature of the Indiana Territory was kicked out of the county courthouse because it was delinquent on rent payments? (Incidentally, the General Assembly settled its accounts with the county in 1812.)

During a recent visit to Vincennes, I was surprised to hear that the legislature of the Indiana Territory did not have a set meeting spot. The Red House at the Vincennes State Historic Sites is touted as the capitol of the General Assembly, but that is not the full story. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.)

In 1800, the Indiana Territories came into being, created by Congress from the lands of the Northwest Territory and signed into existence by President John Adams. In 1805, the Indiana Territory “elected” its own representatives for its bicameral legislature. (Technically, President Jefferson was responsible for appointing the members of the upper house, but since he knew none of the men, he deferred to Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison  to select its members.)

The General Assembly had no set meeting place but met in different private houses, the courthouse, and taverns. (Yes, taverns.)

  • 1805: the General Assembly met in the private house of Antoine Marchal.
  • 1806: Knox County leased Marchal’s house for use as a courthouse. The General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1807: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1808: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1809: no meeting of the General Assembly due to confusion caused by the separation of Illinois Territory
  • 1810: the General Assembly subleased the courthouse.
  • 1811: the General Assembly met in Marchal’s house and then in a red house (the Red House of present fame).
  • 1812: no meeting of the General Assembly. (The War of 1812 was in full swing.)
  • 1813: the General Assembly met at Mark Barnett’s tavern.

Out of all these buildings, the only one that remains standing is the Red House as part of the Vincennes State Historic Sites.

For years, the General Assembly lobbied to move the capital but were thwarted by the governor. After the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison did not return to Indiana to continue as the territorial governor. With him out of the way, any impediment to the legislature moving the territorial capital to Corydon was gone. In 1813, the General Assembly met for the last time in Vincennes.

For more details about the early capital of Vincennes and the meeting places of the General Assembly, check out CAPITAL OF INDIANA TERRITORY BY RICHARD DAY. (Incidentally, Richard Day is an outstanding docent at the Vincennes State Historic Sites and was a torchbearer for the Indiana bicentennial.) Or visit the Vincennes State Historic Sites and hear about it directly from Richard Day.