IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State

IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State

by Douglas A. Wissing


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IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State by Douglas A. Wissing

Fueled by an insider’s view of Indiana and the state’s often surprising connections to the larger world, IN Writing is revelatory. It is Indiana in all its glory: sacred and profane; saints and sinners; war and peace; small towns and big cities; art, architecture, poetry and victuals. It’s about Hoosier talent and Hoosier genius: the courageous farmer-soldiers who ardently try to win the hearts and minds of 21st century Afghan insurgents; the artisans whose work pulses with the aesthetics of far-away homelands; and the famous modernist poet who had to leave to make his mark. It’s about places that speak to a wider world: Columbus and its remarkable architecture; New Harmony and its enduring idealism; Indianapolis and its world-renowned Crown Hill cemetery. IN Writing makes visible the unexpected bonds between Indiana and the world at large.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253019042
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/04/2016
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,280,275
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Douglas A. Wissing is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books, including Indiana: One Pint at a Time and Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times,,,, and, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

In Writing

Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State

By Douglas A. Wissing

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Douglas A. Wissing
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01910-3




It was a big deal when Red Skelton came to visit my grandfather, Clarence Stout Sr., when I was a kid in Vincennes. There was not much going on down there in the mid-1950s, and Red was definitely the town celebrity. Red would show up in a vast car and disappear behind the pocket doors of my grandfather's wainscoted office that was hung with hundreds of autographed publicity photos of show-business greats and not-so-greats from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Besides being a composer and impresario, my grandfather managed the old Vincennes vaudeville theater, the Pantheon, when Red was a penniless, rubber-faced kid with a penchant for falling off stages for laughs. He told him, "Get out of Vincennes, Red, you've got too much talent," he later recounted as he puffed on his pipe.

Skelton took my grandfather's advice, and when Red died on September 17, 1997, at eighty-four years old, America and Indiana lost a clown, and a link to our development as a people. Skelton's career spanned a broad swath of entertainment history, from medicine shows to coast-to-coast broadcasts, from a traditional rural society to a fast-paced urban one.

It is a long way from the physical clowning of a medicine show to the arid cynicism of a Dennis Miller dialogue. Yet in his career, Skelton saw it all — moving from medicine shows to tent shows to showboats to burlesque halls to dance marathons to vaudeville stages to nightclubs to radio, movies, and, ultimately, twenty years of prime-time television.

He was born in Vincennes on July 18, 1913, hitting his cue for the first time, arriving "before his brothers got home from school," as his mother hoped. He grew up in poverty that marked him for life, his family "so poor they didn't have a pot to pee in, or a window to throw it out of," as a childhood friend recalled. Red had already run away from Vincennes once by the time my grandfather counseled it. Red left town with Doc Lewis's Medicine Show when he was just twelve, peddling patent medicine in Indiana, Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri for the summer, before returning for another round of ill-fated schooling.

After a stint of street-corner entertainment and helping out at the Pantheon, he linked up with the John Lawrence Stock Company, a touring theater group playing "serious drama" under a tent, and he was off at fourteen into the world of entertainment. "Mom used to say I didn't run away from home," Skelton recalled. "My destiny just caught up with me at an early age." A week later, he and the touring group discovered his talent for comedy and his lack of talent for drama, and he found himself abandoned on the banks of the Missouri River in a fleabag hotel. As he pondered his fate, a stern-wheel showboat, The Cotton Blossom, churned around the bend, and quickly Skelton found himself afloat as an all-around entertainer. He traveled the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers for several seasons, taking pratfalls, performing in blackface in minstrel shows, and telling monologues and jokes.

Skelton's father worked as a clown for the Indiana-based Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus. Years later, Skelton encountered the circus putting up the big top in a river town, and he left the riverboat touring company to join the same circus as a walk-around clown, honing the physical comedy that became his stock in trade.

Red never really severed his Indiana connections. The circus brought him back through. He worked for a season with my grandfather's minstrel revue, playing a blackface mammy. Stock companies, carnivals, and the burlesque circuit brought him through Indiana.

As he honed his skills, he entertained the crowds at Depression-era dance marathons, where couples staggered around an arena till all but one dropped. When he later became a major star of radio, television, and movies, he never forgot his origins, returning time and again to refresh his roots, check out his birthplace, accept his awards, and establish a children's foundation, which still operates.

He was a complex man, paying the emotional price for his art. High-strung, suspicious to the point of paranoia, subject to career-threatening devolutions with the bottle, Skelton could be his own worst enemy. In many ways he was a mirror of Indiana: toting a vengeful pride born of insecurity, and sentimental to a degree found saccharine in the more sophisticated sections of the country — "corny" as only a son of the Corn Belt can be.

At his core, Skelton was a small-town, early-twentieth-century Indiana boy. Comedian Steve Allen saw "something about Red that was partly a little boy." Skelton's "Mean Widdle Kid" played out the willful churlishness in all of us. "I dood it," became a national phrase in the 1940s as his radio show took off. "I not pullin' de kitty's tail," he insisted as the pantomime cat clawed for escape, "I just holdin' on. He pullin.'"

His egalitarianism played out in his art. His characters such as Clem Kaddilehopper and Freddy the Freeloader are goofy, down-on-their-luck guys, but they comport themselves with the natural nobility of a democratic citizen. Like Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, Skelton's caricatures show us ourselves with a humor born of pathos. "To imitate a lunkhead without malice or derision is quite a feat — and Skelton brings it off everytime," wrote humorist Leo Rosten.

Performing was his "plasma," one biographer wrote. Skelton himself said, "People talk about stage fright, but what scares me is not so much the going on as the going off. I only come to life when people are watching." Though enormously wealthy after twenty years of prime-time television, canny investments, and even a burgeoning career as a painter, Skelton could not stop performing.

I met him in 1983, when he donated a rare book to Indiana University while in town to give a performance at the auditorium. He was a kindly senior citizen at the reception, gracious in his memories of my grandfather, "Oh, he was so important to me as a young man," he said. That night on the stage, though nearly seventy, he put down his cane and took off his knee braces to pratfall and silly around with his beloved characters until he had the audience of grandparents and college students howling in their seats. "The last vaudevillian," I thought, "He just can't help himself."

As always, Skelton said it best, "I love people. That's why I clown. It's simply that I love to make people laugh."




We were sitting at Nick's Bar in Bloomington, watching Indiana University lose by nearly fifty points when the doctoral candidate quoted Shakespeare, "Now is the winter of our discontent." There have been a lot of literary discussions about Bobby Knight through the years. "He's our own Shakespearean character," I have heard the lit majors say. A colossus astride the stage, fissured by his fatal flaw: Richard III, Iago, Julius Caesar. We debated the great characters, looking for clues to Knight as we sat at the Dylan Thomas booth, where the poet drank himself silly back in the 1950s. Indecisive Hamlet was never a choice, though often-prideful Macbeth was worked over pretty good. "Hubris," said one, dragging out the Greek tragedies' excessive pride that challenges the gods. "Who the gods destroy, they first make powerful," said another with an arched eyebrow.

When you live in Bloomington there is a certain unavoidable association with Knight, as befits being in the proximity of such an outsized character. Like it or not, it is what most people around the world associate with the town — Knight and the Kinsey Institute. I have had business deals go sour in Louisiana when the people learned where I was from. Knight is particularly unloved down there. I was hiking deep in a national park once, thrilled to escape a particularly clamorous bout of Knight-time fever, when a park ranger hailed me on the trail. "Was it true that Knight was going to go to New Mexico?" he asked.

Later in the year, I heard a pair behind me in the Paris airport lounge talking about Knight in French. I never turned around. A couple of years ago, I saw a Tibetan in a porkpie hat and an IU basketball t-shirt on the streets of Lhasa, Tibet. "Go Hoosiers," he said, although he knew no other English. When I met Jorgean and Angelique, a pair of hearty Germans, in Bangkok, they looked like a pair of sunburned zeppelins, having just returned from the islands off Southern Thailand. After they discovered I was from Indiana, Jorgean exclaimed, "Hooshers! Hooshers! I know! I know! Hoosher Dome! Reggie Miller! I know! Hooshers, I luf the Hooshers! Bobby Nutt! Great coach! Bobby Nutt! I know!"

"Uh, I think that's Knight," I told Jorgean.

"Embarrassed," the Indiana Daily Student headline read after last Sunday's game. "Humiliation Has a Number: The Hoosiers Lose by 48," the New York Times trumpeted. There is a truism in military strategy: Generals always fight the last war. The Germans sweeping up behind the Maginot Line facing the wrong direction is the classic example. Can Knight prosper one last time with his program? I hope so, though I am not sure. It struck me that the two most horrific losses the Hoosiers have endured have come in the last four years, including Minnesota beating us by fifty points in 1994.

As I pondered it all in Thomas's booth, his great exultation against mortality came to mind: "Do not go gentle into that good night," he wrote. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light."



The phone rang in sheriff Rod Jackson's house one cold Wednesday night last January. Jackson was acquainted with the caller, a local named Donald Holtz, who had been in trouble with the law before. Holtz wanted the sheriff to know that someone was castrating men in Huntington, Indiana, and videotaping the operations. Holtz said he had scheduled himself for the procedure, but he and his fiancée were now having second thoughts.

A week later, the sheriff; the prosecutor's investigator, Janet Walters; three deputies; and two state policemen arrived at the Riverwood Ranch Apartments, a string of decaying roadside motor cabins from the 1940s. Edward Bodkin, a slight, middle-aged man with thinning grey hair and tinted aviator glasses, answered the door nude and sporting an extensive collection of genital jewelry. Offering no resistance, he led the men inside, where they found on a table beside the fridge nine small jars, each one containing a white ovoid lump floating in viscous liquid. The sheriff suggested that Bodkin find a dressing-gown.

Huntington (population: 18,523) is an old Wabash River town plunked down in the middle of corn-stubbled farmland. Located about seventy-five miles northeast of Indianapolis, out on the swells and swales of the prairie, Huntington is the hometown of former U.S. vice president Dan Quayle and boasts the country's only vice-presidential museum. Another major attraction? Thirteen exceptionally antique outhouses clustered on the outskirts of town. But that is all. In short, Huntington is not the kind of place you would expect to find a bunch of guys looking to be castrated.

Nevertheless, it was in Huntington that the darkest, most extreme edge of the body-modification underground surfaced — in the form of a fifty-six-year-old data-processing temp blinking in the media glare. In addition to jars of testicles and boxes of lurid letters, police confiscated several grisly videotapes of operations — evidence that at least five men had been castrated in Bodkin's previous residence, a peeling white clapboard apartment house just a few blocks west of the Dan Quayle Center and Museum. John Branham, the Huntington County prosecutor, charged Bodkin with practicing medicine without a license, a Class C felony. In lieu of the $50,000 bond, Bodkin remained in the Huntington County Jail.

Rumors depicted Bodkin as another homegrown sociopath like the serial-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer — even though Bodkin's "clients," as he called them, were consenting adults who had come to him for the surgery. The media trotted out all kinds of experts, who speculated about his private life. It was painful and humiliating, and he wanted to spare his clients the same exposure. So, a few days later, Bodkin sat down and told the authorities and the spinning tape recorder his story. "Uh, everyone has their own little idiosyncrasies, little fantasies," he began.

Bodkin is a cutter; he himself is not cut. He will not discuss his sexual "preference." But standard notions of "preference" do not really apply in the world he inhabits.

An only child, Bodkin lived on a farm near Kokomo, Indiana, until he was ten, when the family moved to nearby Russiaville. He studied voice and pipe organ at Chicago's Sherwood Conservatory of Music and played the organ at various Chicago churches.

Over the next couple of decades, Bodkin led a transient life, crisscrossing the Midwest, holding a variety of jobs (gardener, housepainter, clerk), and occasionally finding himself homeless. At the time of his arrest, he was temping at a Huntington fireplace factory. After hours, he rotated his nightly watering holes (Dad's, Poff's Place), drinking vodka and grapefruit juice and writing letters. He was a loner; following his arrest, most locals were only able to come up with the he-seemed-like-a-nice-guy platitudes that people spout when they realize they have been sharing the same space, breathing the same air, and maybe having a cup of coffee at the local diner with a fellow citizen who turns out to be a serial killer, a devil worshipper, or a guy who castrates people.

Bodkin grew up watching livestock castration on his parents' farm and so developed an intense interest in the procedure. At about the age of nine, he saw someone with an undescended testicle. "I thought that was neat," he said matter-of-factly. "It fascinated me from an appearance viewpoint. When I couldn't find anyone else [like that], I thought, 'Well, make your own.' That was my motivation to find someone who was willing."

Bodkin advertised his services in Ball Club Quarterly ("a communication network for those who have 'em and those who want 'em") and the bimonthly Unique, both of which are published by seventy-threeyear-old Kenneth Schein. Schein distributes about a thousand copies of Ball Club Quarterly and two hundred of Unique from his California base — and is not given to philosophizing about the fixations and fetishes of his customers. "Ah, balls — some cut 'em off, some want to blow kisses at 'em," he summed up in his gravelly voice.

"Male, 45, interested in all aspects of voluntary castration," read a typical Unique advertisement. "Potentially seeking experienced and skilled cutter. Would also like to hear from any females interested in same matter." The key word here is "potentially"; according to Schein, a great many of the ads seem to be pure fantasy. "We've had some guys advertising in this magazine for twelve to fifteen years, looking for a cutter," he recalled.

And then there are the ones who are not just in it for the fantasy. Bodkin admits only to the five castrations — removing both testicles in four cases, one in the other (the man began to bleed profusely, forcing Bodkin to stop halfway through). He refuses to be specific about their individual motivations, and will only say generally that some subjects wanted to diminish their sex drive (either because they were former child molesters, gay men in denial, or both). One considered his testicles a distraction during anal intercourse. And at least one announced afterward that he was going to pursue a new lifestyle. Bodkin theorized that the man was planning to lead a life of total submission to his sadomasochism master, a woman.

Bodkin castrated his clients in exchange for the right to videotape the operations. Schein distributed the videos through his publications, selling them for $75 each, with Bodkin getting a piece of the profits. "His technique got immeasurably better as he went along," said Schein. At first, Bodkin used an orange-handled art knife, manicure scissors, a curved needle (also known as a "bodkin," coincidentally), and rusty needle-nosed pliers. "It looked like he worked on his car with them," noted investigator Walters. By the last castrations, Bodkin was using surgical equipment purchased from a veterinary supply company, and anesthetic.


Excerpted from In Writing by Douglas A. Wissing. Copyright © 2016 Douglas A. Wissing. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I. Saints and Sinners
1. The Last Vaudevillian: Red Skelton
2. Hubris: Bobby Knight
3. Odd Bodkin
4. D.C. Riddle
5. The Hoosier General: Lewis B. Hershey and the Selective Service
6. Herbie Wirth
7. Inner Vision: Amish Healer
Part II. Complicated Places
8. A Fair of the Heart
9. A Surprising Utopia
10. Architecture and Community
11. The Song of Indiana
Part III. Culinary Delights
12. 'Cook Good, Server Generously, Price Modestly': The Shapiro’s Story
13. She’s the Cheese
14. Strange Brew
15. Market Daze: Bloomington's Farmer's Market
16. Pawpaw Redux
17. Tibetan New Year Celebration
18. Lair of the Turtle Soup: a Culinary Tradition
Part IV. Artists and Their Craft
19. This Rash Adventure: Ezra Pound at Wabash College
20. Erotica Whose Purpose Was Scholarly: Kinsey Institute Art Exhibit
21. Gargoyles and other Pagans
22. Crossroads of American Sculpture
Part VI. The Present Past
24. John Dillinger’s Funeral
25. Twist the Tiger's Tail
26. That’s It: Prohibition, 1918-1933
27. Black-Gold Era’s Luxurious Perch: Evansville Petroleum Club
28. Lions, Tigers, High Wires
29. Conflict and Conciliation
30. Taliban in Indiana
31. War Fare

What People are Saying About This

author of Going All the Way and Under The Apple Tree: A WII Homefront Novel - Dan Wakefield

Douglas Wissing's IN Writing:Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State is a delightful, smart and funny book that spins great stories of everything Hoosier from Paw Paws to Dillinger!

New York Times bestselling author of So Cold the River - Michael Koryta

A must-read for anyone with affection for our state, Douglas Wissing has given me a manifesto he might not be aware I needed! Always searching for the perfect response to the (often snide) question 'why do you want to live in Indiana?' I am now equipped with a literary response. IN Writing is a smart, witty, and enchanting encapsulation of all the state’s magic. Wissing has given Hoosiers a great gift.

Congressman Lee Hamilton

As a Hoosier, if you want to learn who we are, what we do, and what our glorious state is all about, you will be enchanted with Douglas Wissing’s book.Every time I dip into it, I experience unexpected pleasures; I learn more about, and gain greater appreciation for, our marvelous Hoosier heritage.

author of Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer - William O'Rourke

Douglas Wissing’s collection, IN Writing is a revelation, an appealing insider’s look at the often overlooked and unexpected history of a great swath of Indiana, its people, history and lore. Though it begins and ends in Indiana, the reader will see how the rest of the world appears through the prism of the Hoosier state. Indiana is both a lens and a heart in Wissing’s capable rendering.

author of Michael Shelden, author of The New York Times bestseller Mark Twain: Man in White - Michael Sheldon

A dazzling tour of Indiana’s most fascinating landmarks and icons, Douglas Wissing's book doesn’t have a dull page. This is the perfect primer for understanding what makes Indiana special, and why so many Hoosiers have enlivened American life with everything from circuses to song.

author of William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist - Rachel Berensen Perry

IN Writing will be enjoyable to the general reader for its obscure or previously suppressed stories using a well-researched behind-the-scenes point of view, as well as essays about more renowned people and issues that make up the fabric of our state’s image. This is a celebration of Indiana, a state that, in my opinion, has suffered in the past from its collective inferiority complex.

author of An American Tune: A Novel - Barbara Shoup

"A Hoosier through and through, I love the way Doug Wissing reveals the quirks and marvels of our state and its people. I can’t wait to give it to my "Flyover" friends with the inscription, "I told you. We’re way more interesting than you think."

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