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August 24, 2017

The 1883 Newspaper War

The 1883 Newspaper War

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Since the earliest days of journalism, newspapers have known that a way to attract readers is to find something sensational and create a news event.  Other newspapers would then respond to create a media hullabaloo that was sometimes out or proportion to the original subject.  In the early 1880’s, the Noblesville papers evidentially got tired of topics like the new telephone system and trotting races.  The Republican-Ledger went all out in October of 1883 and wrote a series of articles titled “Noblesville’s Bagnios”.

The articles allegedly exposed Noblesville’s houses of ill repute.  They went into extraordinary detail, which is helpful to historians, but would be very legally questionable today.  The articles were answered by the Independent who said that they were based on unfounded rumor.  The Republican-Ledger then accused the editor of the Independent of being a defender of houses of ill fame.  It was a sordid topic but the exchange of views was lively.

The articles list locations of the houses, names of the women, nicknames, and even some customers.  Readers could learn about Elizabeth Hudson AKA “Bet Slick”, Jenny Adams AKA “the Sheet-Iron Blonde”, and Bell Hooper AKA “the Drum Major”.  Apparently the Post Office, which was on the northeast corner of Courthouse Square, was the main assignation point.

The controversy began when a mob burnt down an alleged brothel run by a Mrs. Jack Conner (unrelated to William Conner) on October 10.  It was on the south side of town near where the Firestone plant used to be.  Many of the alleged houses were in this area.  The Republican-Ledger started the series on October 19 and it ran at various intervals until November 26.

The Independent accused the Republican-Ledger of libeling the city and called the editor a “rickety, addle-brained little nincompoop”.  The R-L responded by printing letters of support from various citizens.  One of the points of controversy was that the R-L had claimed that there were 26 brothels in Noblesville.  The Independent was skeptical of this and said that they had only heard of six.

Interestingly, some of the women tried to answer the accusations by writing letters to the paper or talking to the editor.  The Republican-Ledger did dismissive reports of this.  However, looking at it from today’s point of view, some of the statements that got printed raise questions of whether the accusations were true.  The women were often poor and had little means to defend themselves.

This happened at a time when the county was very strict about morality.  Temperance was a very big issue.  The year before, a group of women had demolished and burned a saloon in Westfield.  There were even night riding vigilantes called “White Cappers” who would flog saloon owners, drunks, and men who abused their wives.  Hamilton County kept this attitude for many years and it would be highlighted by events such as the Sunday Baseball Trial in 1908.