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March 21, 2016

You Can’t Believe Everything You Read

You Can’t Believe Everything You Read

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

While researching women’s rights for blog posts this month, I came across an extraordinary claim in some newspapers which, after investigation, provided some insights into Victorian newspaper practices. It began when I found a notice in the Terre Haute newspaper, the Saturday Evening Mail, from November 30, 1872 which said:

[blockquote text=’“If the Ledger, of Noblesville, Ind., is to be credited, Col. Tennie C. Claflin has an ex-husband living and residing in that flourishing town.”’ text_color=’#8dc63f’ width=” line_height=’undefined’ background_color=” border_color=” show_quote_icon=’no’ quote_icon_color=”]

This was repeated in the Columbus, Indiana, Republican on December 5. Then, on December 9, the Indianapolis News stated:

[blockquote text=’“It is said that Bodenhamer, of the Noblesville (Indiana) Ledger, was a former affinity of Tennie C. Claflin, but proved a gay deceiver and she discarded him. It is also said that she still admires his style, and may yet return to her first love.”’ text_color=’#8dc63f’ width=” line_height=’undefined’ background_color=” border_color=” show_quote_icon=’no’ quote_icon_color=”]

ClaflinThis would seem to be enormously important. Tennessee Claflin was a woman of national significance. While it wouldn’t be completely accurate to call her the Kardashian of her time, there are similarities in that she was often famous for being famous. (Incidentally, the term “gay deceiver” uses the older definition of being blithely shallow and unfaithful rather than homosexual.)

Tennessee Clafilin and her sister, Victoria Woodhull, were two early suffragists who were the first women to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street. They were able to do so because Tennessee had been the mistress of multi-millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. Tennessee also spoke out for civil rights for African Americans, women serving in the military, and legalized prostitution. She acquired the title of Colonel by being elected to the post by a New York African American National Guard regiment. She ran for congress and her sister Victoria ran for president in 1872. Their activities were constantly front page news.

The person accused of being her ex-husband was William J. Bodehamer (1830-1879), the publisher of the Noblesville Ledger. He had begun working on newspapers in Ohio at age 14 and moved to Indiana when he was 21. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union army in 1862 and was a part of Sherman’s March to the Sea, among other battles. He came to Noblesville in 1871 and began publishing newspapers here.

WoodhullWas it possible that someone in Indiana could be the ex-husband of a nationally-known woman? It was actually very easy. Due to a loophole in the Indiana marriage laws, the Hoosier state was one of the easiest places in the US to get a divorce. (Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of the ruins of Troy, came to live in Indianapolis in 1869 specifically for the purpose of divorcing his first wife.)

We don’t know much about Bodehamer’s personal life, other than that he married Elizabeth Rose in Floyd County, Indiana, in 1857. There is no record of what happened to her. However, there is also no record of Bodehamer ever marrying someone named “Claflin”.

So what is happening? Well, in the 1870’s, it’s important to know that newspaper publishing was something of a contact sport. The public understood this and enjoyed it thoroughly. Mark Twain worked in newspapers at this time and has some lively descriptions of the efforts that editors would make to get attention and sell papers. One of the most notorious newspaper hoaxes – the “Central Park Zoo escape” – happened at this time. I’ve already discussed one Noblesville newspaper hoax from 1897.

Bodenhamer had been the target of sarcastic squibs before this and would be afterwards. The Indianapolis News seems to have taken particular enjoyment in this, such as this paragraph from February 3, 1873:

[blockquote text=’“Bodenhamer, being a Pennsylvania Dutchman, calls the city of his adoption Nobleswill. A natural misapprehension of the meaning of the name was what first enticed him to locate there.”’ text_color=’#8dc63f’ width=” line_height=’undefined’ background_color=” border_color=” show_quote_icon=’no’ quote_icon_color=”]

(Bodenhamer had actually been born in Maryland.) The News followed this on July 24, 1874, by quoting the Logansport Pharos newspaper and adding a comment:

[blockquote text=’“A nickel against a toothpick that Bodehamer of the Noblesville Ledger hasn’t worn a paper collar for three weeks. – (Logansport Pharos) Of course not. Bode is no hypocrite. Besides a collar wouldn’t stay in place with nothing to button it to.”’ text_color=’#8dc63f’ width=” line_height=’undefined’ background_color=” border_color=” show_quote_icon=’no’ quote_icon_color=”]

There’s a lot of subtext here. A soft cloth collar would be worn by a workingman, a starched linen collar would be worn by a gentleman, and a paper collar would be worn by someone who wanted to pass for a gentleman, but didn’t have the money for a linen collar. Linen and paper collars were detachable for cleaning and disposal. “Having nothing to button it to” says that he was too poor to afford a shirt to go under his vest and coat. A plain shirt was viewed then much like a t-shirt is today.

These exchanges can be seen as the ancestors of things like “memes” and “trolling” on today’s Internet. Unfortunately, the copies of the Noblesville Ledger from 1872 are missing, so it’s unlikely that we will be able to find out what started this all. Still, it’s an interesting exercise in the translation of old jokes and satire.