The Indiana General Assembly, A History: Part Six (1929-1941)

The cartoon from an Indiana artist expresses the concerns of many Hoosiers during the Great Depression. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The cartoon from an Indiana artist expresses the concerns of many Hoosiers during the Great Depression. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt (1933-1937). His reforms of the Indiana state government during the Great Depression still influence the state today. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt (1933-1937). His reforms of the Indiana state government during the Great Depression still influence the state today. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Roberta Nicholson was one of Indiana's most influential liberals during the McNutt Era. Her campaigns for women's and civil rights predated a generation. Courtesy of Google Images.

Roberta Nicholson was one of Indiana’s most influential liberals during the McNutt Era. Her campaigns for women’s and civil rights predated a generation. Courtesy of Google Images.

The Dawn of the Great Depression

In the United States, the stock market crash of October 1929 sent the economy into a complete freefall. Lack of capital investment and an effective monetary policy left many Americans struggling with bank runs, bread lines, and crippling unemployment. Indiana, whose last ten years had seen expansive economic growth, also felt the ripple effects of the Great Depression. Specifically, many major cities in the Hoosier state were not immune. In LaPorte, Indiana, unemployment assistance requests also increased, from “$60,000 for the last three months of 1931…,” to “$…112,590 for the first quarter of 1932.”[1] LaPorte County even authorized over $500,000 in bond sales in 1932 to provide relief for the unemployed.[2]

This was a common practice during the early years of the Great Depression; President Herbert Hoover insisted on state and local governments as the remedy for unemployment.[3] Fort Wayne, like LaPorte, also set up a localized system of recovery resources called the Greater Fort Wayne Development Corporation (GFWC).[4] The GFWC acted as a land purchaser and lender of last resort to failing businesses in the city, and along with the Allen County Emergency Unemployment Committee (ACEUC), helped stave off further economic hardships in the region during the depression.[5] Like many states during the early years, Indiana kept its governmental programs local and largely private.

In the years 1929-1932, the Indiana General Assembly did little by way of direct aid to alleviate the crippling unemployment and poverty brought on the Great Depression. However, to say that they did nothing would be misleading. Many reforms of the late 1920s, particularly the beginnings of a state-wide road system and the state Budget Committee, created the governmental infrastructure necessary to both fund and implement large-scale government projects. 1925 saw the state’s largest budget and, by 1929, highway construction amounted to 37 percent of the Indiana state budget. Indiana’s Department of Conservation, formed a generation before, ran seven state parks with massive budgetary requirements by the end of the 1920s. Even though the legislature enacted some reforms, unemployment in the state reached nearly unprecedented levels by 1933. Jobless benefits in October of 1933 comprised 9.2% of the total Indiana population, or 503,076 persons.[6] The state and its legislature had to address some of these destructive forces of the Great Depression. Under the leadership of Governor Paul V. McNutt and the Democratic-led General Assembly, they did just that.

The McNutt Era (1933-1937)

Indiana’s government is generally typified by a weaker executive and a stronger legislative branch. However, two key eras of its history reversed that paradigm. The first was the Civil War under Governor Oliver P. Morton and the second was the governorship of Paul V. McNutt. Known as the “nation’s most powerful Governor,” McNutt oversaw an expansion of state government that Indiana had ever seen, before or since. Democrats had a powerful hold on state government after the Republican scandals of the 1920s, culminating in the 1932 elections. Rarely has a governor been given such an electoral mandate. As historian James H. Madison notes, “Democrats won 91 of 100 seats in the Indiana House of Representatives, 43 of 50 in the Indiana Senate, and all 12 congressional seats.”[7] At the heart of McNutt’s philosophy of government laid a commitment to what historian Dean Kotlowski called “security,” which came in social, political, and especially economic forms.[8] This commitment certainly influenced the actions of McNutt and the Indiana General Assembly. Between 1933 and 1935, the state government passed a whole slew of reforms tailored to face the economic realities of the Great Depression.

This period brought several major reforms, most coming out of what was described as the “bill factory,” a group of unelected advisors (mostly former legislators) that helped craft McNutt’s governmental vision.[9] From this group came many of his reforms, including the repeal of Indiana’s prohibition laws, an income tax reform bill, and a law known as the “Executive Reorganization Act,” which gave the governor control over patronage jobs and streamlined state government offices.[10] The Great Depression also pushed the legislature to create an old-age pension system for citizens of the state, which served as a precursor to the National system known as Social Security. Banking reform also came to the state in 1933, which insured banks would be reopened, failed banks would be liquidated, and all banks be overseen by a new agency, the Department of Financial Institutions.[11] The 1933 session was McNutt’s crowning achievement, and while many other reforms came during the 1935 session, it began to slow down after the Democrats lost their two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate. During the later years of his term, McNutt continued to support the New Deal, ensuring that Indiana would be one of the first states to support Social Security and also secured short-term jobs through state and federal infrastructure projects.[12] Paul McNutt’s time as Governor, alongside the Indiana General Assembly, provided many Hoosiers from relief from the Great Depression while simultaneously changing the structure and purpose of Indiana state government.

Aftermath (1937-1941)

After McNutt’s time as Governor, the state government under Governor M. Clifford Townsend pledged to continue McNutt’s course, although in a more tempered form. However, the midterms of 1938 ensured Republican victories and a scale back of some of McNutt’s reforms. The patronage system developed by McNutt spiraled out of control, and by 1939, Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives wanted to impeach then-Governor M. Clifford Townsend for executive overreach. While the plan failed, it showed that the era of McNutt and his political control over the state was not always met with support. In 1941, Indiana Governor Henry Schricker fought for the Executive Reorganization Act and its patronage powers and won, stopping a proposed bill that would limit his authority.[13] Schricker’s grace and political acumen left much of McNutt’s governmental legacy intact, with serious reorganization efforts stalled until the 1960s. Overall, the era after the New Deal saw a splintering of support within the Democratic Party and a renewed vigor in the Republicans within the General Assembly, especially after they accepted some of the New Deal’s reforms.

Notable Legislators

  • Roberta Nicholson

Roberta Nicholson was one of the most remarkable persons to have ever served in the Indiana General Assembly, and her impact on the role of women in Indiana government and public life is profound. Born January 17, 1903 in Cincinnati, OH, Nicholson was born into privilege, yet “devoted herself to fighting injustice wherever she perceived it.”[14] Nicholson was a liberal champion and ardent feminist, generations before the movement became more established. She helped found the first birth control clinic in the city of Indianapolis in 1931 and served a director of Marion County League of Women Voters before being elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 1934.[15] As the only woman of the 1935 session, her pet issue was a law that would “abolish civil cases of action for alienation of affections,” which basically would outlaw the suing of an extra-marital partner in the event of a divorce.[16] Her shrewd political management of the bill, particularly with Lieutenant Governor M. Clifford Townsend, ensured its passage into law during the session. After her time in the legislature, she worked to abolish race restrictions on soldier recreational areas in Indianapolis during World War II and served as the head of the Indianapolis branch of Planned Parenthood. Roberta Nicholson was one of Governor Paul McNutt’s ardent supporters and a woman far ahead of her time, both in political and social life of the state.

  • Chester Perkins

As a counterpoint to Nicholson’s liberalism, Chester Perkins openly opposed McNutt’s policies and took drastic steps to make his opposition known. Born January 3, 1881 in Portage Township, Indiana, Perkins lived all over the country in his early years until he settled down in South Bend, Indiana in 1919. He was a proprietor of many businesses, mostly construction, contracting, and also spent time as a realtor. First elected to the Indiana State Senate as a Democrat in 1922, Perkins went on to serve in the General Assembly for ten years.[17] When McNutt and the progressive Democrats were at the height of their power in 1933, Perkins remained a stalwart conservative who stood against all their reforms. He especially disliked the Governor’s new tax plan, and when it passed on February 25, 1933, Perkins resigned. He argued that he could no longer represent his constituents effectively and that McNutt’s governorship and the General Assembly’s actions were unlawful and violated the Indiana Constitution.[18] While McNutt may have enjoyed praise and support for many of his reforms, Perkins’s own dedication to principles stood out among his peers.

[1] George W. Boudreau, “Memory, Identity, and Heritage in the Great Depression The LaPorte, Indiana, Centennial of 1932 as a Case Study,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 2 (June 2007), 156.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iwan Morgan, “Fort Wayne and the Great Depression: The Early Years, 1929-1933,” Indiana Magazine of History 80, no. 2 (June 1984), 122.

[4] Ibid, 124.

[5] Ibid, 127.

[6] Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Unemployment Relief Census, October 1933 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1934), 12.

[7] James H. Madison, Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 257.

[8] Dean J. Kotlowski, Paul V. McNutt and the Age of FDR (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 43-44, Ebook.

[9] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 443.

[10] Ibid, 444.

[11] Ibid, 446.

[12] Madison, Hoosiers, 258-239.

[13] Walsh, Centennial History, 484.

[14] Ibid, 579.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 280.

[17] Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 2: 1901-1984 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 331.

[18] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 579


The Indiana General Assembly, A History: Part Five (1891-1928)

The 11th Infantry at Fort Harrison, Indianapolis- 1917. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

The 11th Infantry at Fort Harrison, Indianapolis- 1917. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

D.C. Stephenson (Left) used his power as Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan to help elect  an Indiana Government  sympathetic to the Klan's wishes, with Governor Ed Jackson (Right) being the embodiment of that influence. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

D.C. Stephenson (Left) used his power as Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan to help elect an Indiana Government sympathetic to the Klan’s wishes, with Governor Ed Jackson (Right) being the embodiment of that influence. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

The Progressive Era

The turn of the century saw Indiana growing increasingly more urban, more diverse, and more socially conscious, at least in the ambitions of the Progressives. Progressivism, as a philosophy of governance and life, was dedicated to the use of governmental power to improve the material, political, and economic conditions of the working classes. Indiana, always a more pragmatic state, typified its own version of Progressivism. While some of the more nationally-known progressive ideals like women’s suffrage and the income tax were put on the back burner, the Indiana General Assembly did enact some deeply progressive reforms.[1] In 1899, the legislature passed the Hurty Pure Food and Drug Act (named for Indiana’s Secretary of the State Board of Health Dr. John N. Hurty), which served as a basis for the national Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.[2] One of Indiana’s most Progressive reformers, Albion Fellows Bacon, also championed the need for better housing for the poor.[3] Her efforts led to the passage of Indiana’s first housing law in 1909, which was later expanded in 1913 to include all cities of the state.[4]

Two of the biggest legislative accomplishments during the Progressive Era were the General Primary Act of 1907 and the Statewide Enforcement Law of 1915. These two pieces of legislation secured the direct election of all primary nominees for local, state, and federal elections. It also made sure that party delegates for Presidential elections were chosen through a direct, majority vote. For the first time in Indiana’s history, nominees were chosen directly by the people, rather than through the traditional party process. These reforms, along with the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women’s suffrage, helped to broaden the enfranchisement of voters throughout the state. While attempts were made to repeal these laws during the 1920s (with a serious repeal of the 1915 law in 1929) the voter reforms endured and the process was largely readopted in subsequent years.[5] In all, the Progressive era came to Indiana through pragmatism and a concerted effort, by both legislators and activists alike, to improve the lives of Hoosiers.[6]

Ralston’s Progressivism and the Indiana Centennial

In 1916, Indiana turned 100 years old, and the legislature prepared for the joyous occasion with resources and celebrations. No one quite embodied the progressive spirit of Indiana during the period like Governor Samuel Ralston, elected 1912. His governorship brought Indiana swiftly into the twentieth century, ushering in a new era of rapid industrialization and urbanization and believed that government’s role was to secure these economic gains through legislation that served the needs of all citizens. One of his greatest achievements was the creation, with the passage of a public utilities bill of the Indiana General Assembly, of a Public Service Commission that would help regulate public utilities throughout the state.[7] However, Ralston’s commitment to the Indiana Centennial remains another key achievement of his time as Governor.

The Indiana General Assembly, after a request from Governor Ralston, passed a bill that appropriated $25,000 to the creation of an Indiana Historical Commission that would oversee the Centennial celebrations.[8] Interested in creating displays and programs that were in keeping with the patriotic fervor of the Governor and the Historical Commission (of which he was President). While the General Assembly agreed to the Commission and its subsequent funds, it was not interested in some of the Governor’s specific initiatives. One of these initiatives was a state highway system, originally introduced in 1913. The “Hughes Bill” called for a statewide system of roadways and taxes that would connect the rural and urban sectors of Indiana. Pressure from rural citizens, who thought it was their responsibility to handle local roads, brought the Hughes bill to defeat, with a vote of 79 to 13. While federal funds insured the creation of some roads in the state, a state highway system would have to wait.[9] Nonetheless, Ralston’s leadership during the centennial era saw both successes and failure, and both were inexorably tied to the interests of the General Assembly.

World War I

            World War I, known in its time as the “Great War,” ravaged Europe for three years before the United States joined the conflict in 1917. While many soldiers served honorably during the war, the General Assembly’s actions towards German-Americans on the home front presented deep challenges to the Hoosier State. At the time, the Indiana population had nearly 500,000 immigrants from Europe, with a significant number from Germany and Austria. Once the war broke out, a form of “superpatriotism” took hold on the country and Indiana, one that began to see German-Americans as an antagonistic force (even though German-Americans had become a well-respected sector of the state and the city of Indianapolis). This nativism and jingoism saw its way into the public school system, where new laws, passed in 1919 by the General Assembly, ended the decades-long German language classes in Indianapolis Public Schools.[10] Indiana’s treatment of German-Americans during World War I presented a clear contradiction to the Progressive era’s humanitarian goals.    

The General Assembly and the Klan

            During the 1920s, the Indiana state government came under control by one of the most discriminatory and oppressive regimes in American history: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, by 1925, had control over not only the majority of the General Assembly but also had the blessing of Governor Ed Jackson. Their objectives not only pushed for discrimination against African-Americans, but they also had a strong antagonism towards Catholics and immigrants. This “second wave” of the Klan (the first wave appeared during the tumultuous years after the Civil War) had nearly 300,000 members, and its explicit purpose was to use governmental influence to push forward its discriminatory agenda.[11] The man behind the Klan’s control of Indiana state government was David Curtis (D.C.) Stephenson. Stephenson, who became the head (“Grand Dragon”) of the Indiana chapter in 1923, used his power and influence to both break off from the Klan’s national leadership (and its leader, Walter Bossert) in 1924 and to elect a state government sympathetic to the Klan’s agenda. His victories led Stephenson to being referred to as “the law in Indiana.”[12]

When Governor Ed Jackson and the “Klan Assembly” came into power in 1925, it had specific legislative goals that represented both the Stephenson-led and Bossert-led factions of the Klan. Their educational agenda, focused on the dismantlement of religious freedom in parochial schools and textbook requirements in all schools, was a strategic move to disrupt the lives of Catholics in Indiana.[13] Known as the Murden Bill, these educational requirements did pass the Indiana House, but would die in the Indiana Senate. The Senate never came completely under the Klan like the House did, which led to the death of many pieces of Anti-Catholic and Anti-African-American legislation involving schools, highways, and places of public accommodation.[14] After each successive legislative failure, the Klan began to lose its grip on Indiana government. Later that year, Stephenson was convicted of the rape and murder of Indianapolis woman Madge Oberholtzer and sentenced to life in prison. When Governor Ed Jackson refused to pardon Stephenson, the former Grand Dragon turned in evidence against Jackson, noting his collusion with Klan in state government. Jackson was charged with crimes of bribery and underwent trial while he was still in office. While acquitted in 1928, Jackson left office in disgrace and never sought another public position.[15] The Ku Klux Klan, for a brief moment, had a severely tight grip on Indiana government, to the detriment of all citizens of the state. While this political storm consumed Indiana during the 1920s, the next decade would bring an equally traumatic economic storm that would test Indiana government in a way unseen since the Civil War.

Notable Legislators

  • Booth Tarkington

Booth Tarkington, one of Indiana’s most successful and critically-acclaimed novelists, found inspiration for his writing from his time as a member of the Indiana General Assembly. Born July 29, 1869 in Indianapolis, Tarkington came from a wealthy family and was educated at the prestigious Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He also graduated from Purdue and Cambridge University, in 1891 and 1893, respectively. He served as a State Representative during the 1903 session, and he came into the session “to help some blind constituents who did not want to go to the poorhouse.”[16] Tarkington introduced a bill that would have given blind citizens training in broom making, and while it passed in the legislature, it was vetoed by Governor Winfield T. Durbin.[17] His experiences in the House, particularly his support of a controversial bill for Sunday baseball, inspired his novel In the Arena, published in 1905. Tarkington’s two nephews, John Jameson and Donald Butler, assisted their uncle in the General Assembly and inspired the characters for his successful Penrod trilogy of novels.[18] Tarkington’s time in the General Assembly served as a backdrop for many of his novels, and along with his contemporary James Whitcomb Riley, ushered in the “Indiana Renaissance” of literature in the early twentieth century.

  • Herbert P. Kenney, Sr.

Representative Herbert P. Kenney, Sr. was one of the many legislators who expressed their opposition, often with more than his voice, to the Ku Klux Klan’s control of Indiana state government during the 1920s. Born April 5, 1883 in Lake County, Indiana, Kenney was a graduate of the Jefferson School of Law in Louisville, Kentucky and admitted to the bar in 1913. Alongside his law practice, he also had a successful career as a dairy farmer. Kenney, a Democrat, was first elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1923, and was reelected in 1925 and 1931.[19] Kenney’s shining moment in the Indiana General Assembly came in 1925, during the infamous “Klan Session” of the legislature. He opposed the Murden Bill, which required that religious and parochial schools use the same textbooks as public schools (which had been grossly edited to the Klan’s approval). The legislators who supported the measure and the Klan tried to strong-arm him into the supporting the measure, he displayed a pistol on his belt. They never tried to intimidate him again.[20] Kenney was one of the strongest objectors to the Klan’s abuse of power, and he used his wits, and his weapon, to defend the Indiana Constitution.

[1] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1986), 222.

[2] Madison, The Indiana Way, 222-223.

[3] For more on Albion Fellows Bacon and her impact on the Progressive Era on Indiana, see Robert G. Barrows, Albion Fellows Bacon: Indiana’s Municipal Housekeeper (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[4] Madison, The Indiana Way, 222-223.

[5] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 360-363. For more on the movement to allow direct voting of primary nominees, see Ray Boomhower, “To Secure Honest Elections’: Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., and the Reform of  Indiana’s Ballot,” Indiana Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (December 1994): 311-345, accessed February 20, 2015,

[6] The Progressive Era was not without its controversies. Eugenics, the supposed method of population and pregnancy control, became very influential to the Indiana General Assembly. They passed many pieces of legislation that curtailed the reproductive rights of many Indiana citizens, which led to state-sanctioned sterilizations. The state removed many of these pieces of legislation under the leadership of Governor Otis Bowen in the 1970s. For more on this subject, see Alexandria Minna Stern, “We Cannot Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear’: Eugenics in the Hoosier Heartland,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (March 2007): 3-38, accessed April 15, 2015,

[7] Suellen M. Hoy, Samuel M. Ralston: Progressive Governor, 1913-1917 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, Indiana University, 1975), 60-78.

[8] Suellen M. Hoy, “Samuel M. Ralston and Indiana’s Centennial Celebration,” Indiana Magazine of History 71, no. 3 (September 1975): 248, accessed March 13, 2015,

[9] Ibid, 260-266. Another key victory during the Ralston era was the creation of the state park system, particularly the crown jewel of the era, Turkey Run. For more on this see Ibid, 253-259.

[10] Paul J. Ramsey, “The War against German-American Culture: The Removal of German-Language Instruction from the Indianapolis Schools, 1917–1919,” Indiana Magazine of History 98, no. 4 (December 2002): 286-303, accessed April 8, 2015,

[11] Ron F. Smith, “The Klan’s Retribution Against an Indiana Editor: A Reconsideration,” Indiana Magazine of History 106, no. 4 (December 2010), 381, accessed April 15, 2015,

[12] M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1991), 114. This particular phrase is almost apocryphal at this point; while Stephenson may have never said it in exactly these words, it was referenced in the Indianapolis News in 1925. See ibid, 332n1.

[13] Ibid, 153-154.

[14] Walsh, Centennial History, 319-324.

[15] Madison, The Indiana Way, 294.

[16] Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 2: 1901-1984 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 96.

[17] Walsh, Centennial History, 409.

[18] Walsh, Centennial History, 410.

[19] Charles W. Calhoun  et. al., A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, 96.

[20] Walsh, Centennial History, 317-319, 322.

The Indiana General Assembly, A History: Introduction

The Indiana General Assembly, founded in 1816, has served the needs of Hoosiers for nearly 200 years. It has had many challenges and victories over this time, from the increasing demands of infrastructure, education, war, and commerce to the challenges presented by the United States and the World. This blog is an attempt to present this history to the general reader in the context of the State, the United States, and the World. Presenting these posts in increments of ten years, it will show the challenges to Indiana and how its legislative body responded to them. The first post, covering 1816-1825, will be posted within the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!