Evelyn Copeland (Series), Iowa History

Trouble in Mind: Syphilis in the 1930s

Felix Underwood testified before Congress in 1938 regarding his experiences managing Mississippi’s Board of Health. One patient murdered his wife and his mother-in-law then killed himself. Tragic–yes. Even more tragic because the man had lost his mind due to syphilis (1).

What did doctors know in the 1930s?

  • Caused by the corkscrew bacteria spirochaeta pallida
  • Spread through contact with sores
  • Higher percentage of cases found in cities
  • Rates of infection for Negros was higher than Whites
  • Prostitution played a larger role in its spread
  • Treatment took 6 months to a year but it didn’t guarantee a cure
  • Children were not treated for congenital syphilis (2)

Stages:

  1. Primary: A chancre develops after several weeks at the initial infection site. There may be only one, or several, or simply not visible. The chancre is painless and heals roughly between 3-6 weeks.
  1. Secondary: Several months after the chancre heals, a rash appears all over the body and may include fever, aches, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may last several weeks or on and off for over a year.
  1. Latent: Considered the ‘silent stage’ where the bacteria lays dormant for years or awakened to destroy other areas of the body
  1. Tertiary: 15%-30% of those infected develop damages to ocular, neurological, or pulmonary issues from the disease (3)

Diagnosis:

Wassermann Test:

First developed in 1906 as a means to diagnosis 80% of primary stage syphilis cases. Blood was drawn from a possibly infected patient and examined under a microscope. However, the rate of diagnosis plummeted after the patient moved out of the primary stage (4). The cost to administer and have the blood tested was $25.00, which put a simple diagnosis out of reach for many (5).

Kahn Test:

Developed in the mid 1920s by a immunologist working for the Michigan Department of Health. It was another means to test syphilis (6). The test didn’t prove any better at diagnosing second stage syphilis anymore than the Wassermann Test did (7).

Road to Ruin. Dorothy Davenport, director. With Helen Foster, Nell O’Day, and Glen Boles. 1934. Youtube. Acccessed: 18 April 2021. Interesting that the name of the test is typed incorrectly…?

If the blood test returned a positive result, the patient had several options:

  1. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts in New Mexico, swore off sex all together after becoming infected for a third time by her third husband (8). Let’s be honest, not everyone would devote themselves to celibacy
  2. Do nothing (run the risk of infecting children, spouse, or other sexual partners)
  3. Wear a condom
  4. Option for Cure

Condoms:

Danny McGoorty hated wearing condoms. He equated it to, “jacking off with boxing gloves.” Prophylactics could be purchased for around $ .25 and came in a little tin. Mary Crosby’s boyfriend didn’t share Gooty’s sentiment and preferred Merry Widows. However, during post-coital bliss, Mary recounted her boyfriend holding the spent condom up to the light (she was never sure if he was marveling at his ejaculation or checking for leaks) (9).

Condoms by the 1930s were made with varying degrees of rubber and fell under the radar of government regulation. The wearer had to basis their purchase on trial and error. However, by 1937 the federal government shed its reluctance and got into bed with the condom industry.

Borth, Gail. “Condom Testing, 1935.” America in the 1930s. Facebook. 15 Mar. 2021

Option for a Cure:

The 1930s saw a dramatic rise in reported syphilis cases. FDR appointed a Surgeon General with his main focus in eradicating syphilis through education, diagnosis, and treatment (10).

The first part was easy. Surgeon General Parran wrote a book and flooded local newspapers with articles from 1936 to 1937 making readers even more aware of the S.T.D. Diagnosis in the late 1930s became free to anyone willing to take the Wassermann Test. (11) Treatment, however, was not.

Treatment didn’t guarantee a cure. It was also long (six months to two years depending on the type of treatment). And pricy (running anywhere from $50.00 to $500.00) (12). One had to hope they could trust their doctor to cure them and not gouge their pocket book.

Ballard, Michael. “Quack Doctor, 1938.” America in the 1930s, Facebook. 30 Jan. 2021.

Arsenic/Mercury:

One received 20 injections over a twenty month period supplemented with mercury, creams, and sodium bismuth. Side effects included constant pain at the injection site, vomiting, and headaches (13).

Salvaran:

A hypo-thermotic treatment where the solution was highly unstable when exposed to air, needed to be refrigerated, and diluted with water before usage. Possible side effects were kidney failure, seizures, rash, infections, and death. It’s cousin, Neo-Salvaren was more stable and offered up the same side effects. Both were ineffective in treatment of second stage sphyilis. (14)

Fever:

Also called the Wagner-Jauregg Cure developed in 1917. It amounted to getting the body to 103-107 degrees to kill the bacteria. The means could be done via a machine or giving a patient malaria to induce the high level of constant fever. It was also ineffective with treating anything beyond first stage syphilis (15).

Penicillin:

Did not become in steady use for the curing of syphilis to the masses until WWII even though it was first discovered in 1928 (16). Danny McGoorty said, “Think how easy it is today. The doctor just gives you a shot of penicillin and you don’t have clap or syph [sic] anymore. Kids today don’t know what hell is.” (17)

IOWA

“New Cases of Syphilis in Iowa.” Des Moines Register, Morning, 27 Sept. 1937, p. 10.

By 1937 Iowa had 75,000 reported syphilis cases (18). The state of Iowa in 1937 did not require a blood test as a perquisite for getting a marriage license. Many couples in Illinois simply hoped the boarder to get one (19). The Wassermann Test was still the basis and the results were sent to the University of Iowa laboratories for testing. Results were then sent privately to a physician who would share the results and discuss treatment with the patient (20).

SOURCES:

  1. Lord, Alexandra D. Condom Nation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 52.
  2. Even the Assistant Surgeon General to the United States couldn’t help but play the race card when trying to explain his reasoning behind Iowa’s lower syphilis rates when compared to other states (“Syphilis Rate Low in State.” Des Moines Register, 29 Apr. 1936, p. 3). His superior left out race in his “The Reasons for War on Syphilis.” Des Moines Register, 31 Jan. 1937, p. 16; Do a google search on Tuskegee Syphilis experiment and you’ll see how race bias controlled how doctors justified the spread and treatment of syphilis. 
  3. Syphilis.” Mayo Clinic. 2021. Accessed: 18 April 2021. Location:
  4. Hemarajata, Dr. Peera. “A Brief History of Laboratory Diagnostic for Syphilis.” America Society for Microbiology. 6 January 2020. Accessed: 18 April 2021. Location:
  5. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, 62.
  6. Shapiro-Shapin, Carolyn. “‘In the Course of Routine Analysis’: Re-Envisioning Research in State Departments of Health, 1920–1940.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 70, no. 3, 2015, pp. 333–364.
  7. Osmond, T. E., and Douglas McClean. “A Comparison Of The Kahn And Wassermann Tests On 500 Serums.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 3301, 1924, pp. 617–618. 
  8. Ropper, Ph.D., Allan H. How the Brain Lost Its Mind. Peguin Random House, 2019, 130.
  9. Both Danny McGoorty and Mary McCarthy recount their experiences with sex in the 1920s and 1930s. Byrne, Robert. McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler. Broadway Books, 2004, pp. 23, 24; McCarthy, Mary. How I Grew. Harcourt, Brace, Joranovich, Inc., 1987, pp. 77-78.
  10. Lord, Alexandra D. Condom Nation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 49, 52, 56, 67.
  11.  “The Reasons for War on Syphilis.” Des Moines Register, 31 Jan. 1937, p. 16. Newspapers.com accessed 17 April 2021, displayed 252 articles combined in The Tribune and The Des Moines Register referencing syphilis from January 1, 1936 to December 31, 1937. Articles ranged anywhere from what Iowa was doing as well as neighboring states, doctors, symptoms, cures, testing, statistics, and editorials regarding syphilis.
  12. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, p. 52.
  13. Ropper, Ph.D., Allan H. How the Brain Lost Its Mind. Peguin Random House, 2019, p. 131.
  14. Ibid, pp. 119, 123, 130, 131.
  15. Ibid, p. 139.  Grant, Donald. “Fever Device to Fight Two Diseases.” Des Moines Register, 14 Oct. 1936, p. 3.
  16. Firth, John. “Syphilis — It’s Early History and Treatment Until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins.” History, 4. Volume 20. Accessed: 18 April 2021.
  17. Byrne, Robert. McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler. Broadway Books, 2004, p. 27.
  18. “New Cases of Syphilis in Iowa.” Des Moines Register, Morning, 27 Sept. 1937, p. 10.
  19. Poirier, Suzanne. Chicago’s War on Syphilis, 1937-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, pp. 55, 67.
  20. Owens, Herbert G. “Calhoun County Drive Against Syphilis.” Des Moines Tribune, 9 Dec. 1937, p. 20.
Craft-Research, Evelyn Copeland (Series), Iowa History

Famous Iowa Trees

Two of my favorite trees are the burr oak and the cottonwood. I played under a leaning, rickety, crooked-limbed burr oak filled with all sorts of imaginings as a ten year old. While I stayed with my grandfather on his farm, he told me stories of how the giant cotton wood which loomed directly east of the house helped make the family butchering easier.

Elm Farm (Dec 1965)
Elm Farm, 1965 — Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Both tree species had a strong influence in altering the landscape of the native prairie. The Timber and Culture Act of 1873, granted 160 acres of public land to a claimant as long as forty acres of it were planted in trees. With any law, abuses mounted, amendments were added in 1874, 1878, and it was repealed in 1891.

IMG_0165
Tree in the Middle of the Road, 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Burr oaks and cottonwoods are native species found along rivers, streams, or in groves out in the middle of the nowhere. They were favorites of the pioneers because of their hardiness, height, girth, and wonderful buffers against the harsh prairie. The female cottonwood often gets a bad rap and many cities have banned their planting. According to Rick Hall, professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management the wispy white seeds produced in late June early July are in fact similar to the cotton plant, “but much shorter fibers and much smaller aggregation around each seed than the cotton plant has” (Iowa Radio).

Volunteers such as Mark Rouw have been on a mission since the 1970s to map Iowa’s largest, oldest, and biggest trees (“Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter”). If you feel a local tree deserves to be cherished for future generations, you may nominate it to Iowa DNR’s “Big Tree Program”. Nomination forms may be found here.

If you’re looking for a quiet, scenic tour of two of Iowa’s famous trees, you can’t beat Tree in the Middle of the Road or The Plow in the Oak.

TREE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD:

Off Interstate 80 and up and down steep minimum maintenance roads, and at the convergence of four intersections, sits a giant cotton wood some 100 feet in height and 20 feet in diameter.

IMG_0160
Tree in the Middle of the Road 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

According to local legend, the tree was planted in the 1860s. Two brothers were surveying the land. One of them had used a cottonwood sapling as a walking stick. Once they reached the invisible boundaries between Cass and Auburn counties they sharpened the sapling and stuck it into the ground to serve as a marker. The tree sprouted and so it remains.

THE PLOW IN THE OAK:

Roughly thirteen miles away sits another famous tree. Alongside Hwy 71 in a small park is The Plow in the Oak.

Tree Near Exira Iowa 1934
Shari Beymer,  “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.

Local legend has it a farmer upon hearing of the Civil War, set his plow against an oak tree, joined the Union never to return. Paul Walther, the agriculturist for Audubon County, said there could be some truth to the legend as the oak does predate the Civil War (Klingaman). An image from Shari Beymer on Facebook from 2018, shows much more of the plow in 1934. By 2020 the oak has pretty much swallowed up the plow.

IMG_0178
Courtesy of Lisa Taber 2020

If you feel like you want to take a scenic drive to one or both of these two famous Iowa trees, you won’t be disappointed.

Directions:

  • Tree in the Middle of the Road: Tree in the Road, 2401-2449 350th St, Brayton, IA 50042
  • Plow in the Oak: Plow in the Oak Park, Exira, IA 50076

Map of the Two

Sources:

Beymer, Shari. “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Big Tree Program.” Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 2020. Accessed: 08 August 2020.
Bur Oak.” Extension and Outreach. Iowa State University. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Butler, Bill. “Cottonwood Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 5B. Newspapers.com Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Cottonwoods, Maples ‘Overproducing’ Seeds This Spring.” Radio Iowa. 2 June 2008. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Goetz, Katheryn R. “Land For Trees: The Timber Culture Act of 1873.” MinnPost. 4 June 2013. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
Ise, John. “The Early History of the United States Forest Policy.” Ames Forester, Vol 3, Article 5, 1915. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
James, Bob. “Iowa Has Two Historic and Unique Trees, Just Miles Apart.” 98.1 K.H.A.K. 10 January 2019. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Klingaman, Mike. “Iowa Harbors Two Legendary Trees.” The Baltimore Evening Sun Online. 4 October 1990. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Kutzi, Marilyn. “The Secrets of the Cottonwood Tree.” Clinton Herald Online. 24 September 2016. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter.” The Gazette Online. 01 July 2018. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Raffensperger, Gene. “Motorists Yield for Fabled Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 1B & 5B. Newspapers.com Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road to Plow in the Oak Park“. Google Maps. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road.” Travel Iowa. 2020. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Young, Aaron. “This Iowa Road Has a Massive Tree Growing in the Middle of It.” Des Moines Register Online. 14 December 2016. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Craft-Research, Evelyn Copeland (Series), Iowa History

Summer Nostalgia

I just wanted to know more about private swimming pools.

A lead character in my current WIP comes from a very wealthy family. He had an injury where swimming/exercise alleviates pain and lessens his dependence on prescribed opiates.

I put off researching swimming pools for a couple of reasons:

  1. I hadn’t yet reached the necessary point in my story,
  2. Ignorance (how they work/who had them/ect.; swimming, as a child, wasn’t my thing).

One of my go-to sites is a closed group on Facebook called “Lost Des Moines“. Pictures and stories are posted about Des Moines, Iowa, where nostalgia often supersedes fact. For the most part, I treat this site as I would Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point, but if I want better truths I look elsewhere.

Terrace Hill Pool Party, 1937
“Pool Party at Terrace Hill, 1937.” Courtesy of John Pemble & Terrace Hill. “Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

“Lost Des Moines” posts regarding public pools were from adults who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Private pools, like anywhere else in the United States, were reserved for the wealthy. I was able to find swimming pools belonging to The Hubbells and Ding Darling (across from the Hubbell mansion, Terrace Hill, now home to the Governor of Iowa). Pool houses and how the swimming pools worked, I found in books centering on the wealthy elite from New York or Los Angeles. Technically, I found what I’d set out to find: the what, how, and why of private swimming pools. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t done. An NPR story and Clare Foran’s CNN article on Senator Tom Cotton solidified for me just why my research wasn’t complete.

The insidiousness of sites such as “Lost Des Moines” is nostalgia erodes the sharper points of history. The troupe of “things were better back then” may be true for one person, but not another. While Des Moines was often touted as an “open town” in the 1920s-1940s, well intentions often bucked reality.

When Marguerite E. Cothorn took her son swimming in the 1940s, she was often harassed or made to feel uncomfortable for allowing her son to play in Birdland Pool. Her harassers wanted to know why she wouldn’t take her son to Good Pool.

Good Park
“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Good Park has University Avenue on the north and Keosauqua Way on the east. The park and pool were also located near Center Street, a segregated African American business district (destroyed under the guise of urban renewal and McVicar/235 Hwy). Good Pool was a WPA project completed in 1936. The upkeep of the pool amounted to $3,000 a year for the city. The Des Moines Register and city ofificals perpetuated racism in several ways. While articles never specifically stated it was a segregated pool, they did a make a point to state, “There will be a Negro lifeguard at the pool.”  Or when other pools in Des Moines had to list the prices for admission ($ .25 for adults; $ .15 children), Good Pool’s cost would “probably be lower than at the other two pools”.

Misogyny plays a far bigger role in my current work than racism (single woman/P.I. 1937–you get the picture). However, when I am confronted with the uncomfortable realities of the past, unlike the Senator from Arkansas, I make a conscious effort to try and educate myself. And I still have a long way to go.

Sources:

“13 Acres Along River Wants City to Buy a Park Purchase Price is Set at $2,200.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 29 May 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

“City Swimming Pools Open June  1.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa, 13 April, 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Cothorn, Marguerite E. “Civil Rights and Black History of Iowa.” Audiocassette. Vol. 72. 2 vols. Iowa Oral History Project. Des Moines, Iowa, 1986.

David, John. “Stalking Des Moines with my Camera.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. Accessed: 22 Juy 2020.

Foran, Clare. “G.O.P. Senator Tom Cotton Pitches Bill to Prohibit Use of Federal Funds to Teach 1619 Project.” CNN Online.  24 July 2020. Accessed: 24 July 2020.

Gary, Thomas A. “The Rise and Fall of Center Street: 1945-1972.” Masters, Iowa State University, 2003.

Gillespie, Bob N Betsie. “Terrace Hill.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 9 July, 2017. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Jabbar, Akil. “Terrace Hill Pool.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 14 April 2015. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Leeuwen, Thomas A.P. van. The Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1999.

“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 1, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Craft-Research, Iowa History

Speakeasy in Des Moines

Two years after statehood, the Iowa legislature attempted unsuccessfully to pass its first prohibition law. They finally succeeded in 1916. Up until the federal government enforcement four years later, sheriffs and local agencies did the enforcement. Prohibition worked but wasn’t popular. While federal prohibition ended in 1933, many states continued to have some

In January a tour of an old speakeasy became available through the Des Moines Historical Society.

From the outside, the 1920s bungalow didn’t appear to have secrets, but there were clues if one looked close enough. The rocked arched way could have clued patrons to the basement stairway. Inside patrons could have enjoyed all kinds of booze. A huge boiler remains. There was speculation by the owner that it may have been used to distill alcohol. Elaborate designs on the woodwork and peepholes added to the general mystery. If only these walls could talk I’m certain they would have a lot to say!

Sources:

Bauer, Bryce. Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Porter, Sierra A. “Shhh! Des Moines Woman Discovers Hidden Speakeasy.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 January 2020, p. 1E, 3E.

Craft-Research, Evelyn Copeland (Series), Iowa History

Booze and Writing

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammitt is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s relatively short, hits all the marks for what a mystery should be, and the dialogue is just plain awesome. I adore the sexually charged banter between Nick and Nora Charles (and they’re actually a married couple!).  Re-reading it again recently I was also struck by the exceedingly high levels of their alcohol consumption.

My current novel takes place in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937, where Hammitt placed his characters in 1934 New York. After Volstead was repealed each state was left to determine how much alcohol they’d allow their citizens to consume.

Iowa has a long history of tried and failed attempts at prohibition. They were one of a handful of states that went dry prior to the Federal government demanded it with the passage of the Volstead Act. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Liquor Control Act the following year, giving the state a monopoly over the wholesale and distribution of all alcohol except beer.

Liquor by the drink was banned in restaurants and taverns (beer had to be > 3.2% alcohol content). However, an individual could still buy liquor by the drink. They applied for a liquor logbook which they were required to take with them when they made their purchases at the state-run liquor store. These stores were often in run-down and out of the way places. Browsing was not allowed. An individual filled out a form and the liquor store clerk pulled the bottles off the shelves. From the 1930s to the 1950s punch cards were used. The store clerk had sole discretion on what and how much they sold to an individual. If you had more punches then they thought reasonable they had the right to deny the sale. By the 1950s the punch cards were replaced with logbooks.

Many businesses flouted the rules to meet the needs of their customers. Illegal “key” clubs were the direct results. The business kept a row of lockers where individuals would store their liquor. An individual would give the waiter their key and the restaurant would supply the set up (glasses and ice). The legislature in the early 1950s made key clubs legal, but selling booze directly to restaurants was not. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a charismatic politician decided to change the law that Iowa’s liquor by the drink controversy would meet its end.

Harold Hughes was a WWII vet, former alcoholic, truck, driver, and, astute politician. He made it a part of his platform as governor to change the law. He said:

Let’s face it. You know and I know and every honest person in Iowa knows that we have liquor-by-the-drink in this state now…The moral issue, then is: Shall we straight-forwardly legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink, enforce the law and really control the liquor traffic in this state? Or shall we perpetuate the present wide-open club system that subsidizes the bootleggers and racketeers with revenue that rightfully belongs to the taxpayers of Iowa?

In January 1963 Hughes wielded his powers of the executive branch and began a system-wide crackdown on businesses, taverns, and even places like the VFW. Public pressure pushed the Iowa legislature to act and by July 4, 1963, liquor-by-the-drink was legal. The legislature, however, continues to hold a monopoly on the distribution of all liquor (except wine and beer) in the state.

Sources: