Marion, Indiana: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Marion is a city near the center of the state of Indiana with a population of approximately 27,000 people.  Founded in 1831, it was named after Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox)”, a man who fought the British during the American Revolutionary War.  James Dean, the American actor, and Jim Davis, the creator of the cartoon character, Garfield, were both born in Marion, Indiana.

During the War of 1812, the Battle of Mississinewa (named after a river there) occurred near Marion.  Today, people reenact the battle every year, making it the largest War of 1812 reenactment in the country.  However, since the battle occurred between U.S. troops and a Native American tribe called the Miami, it seems like a touchy subject to reenact.  Although I lived in the general area during college, I did not have a car, so was not able to find someone to take me to the event to see what it was like.

The Marion Public Library has a wealth of information about the history of Marion, Indiana.  Not only does it have an extensive genealogy research room, where visitors can research the history of their ancestors and the surrounding area, but it also has a little museum that focuses on Marion’s history.  The museum is in the original part of the library, which was a Carnegie library built in 1902.  Andrew Carnegie, a steel magnate, donated large sums of money to create libraries throughout the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The state of Indiana has the most Carnegie libraries in the United States.

The Marion Public Library in Marion, Indiana is a Carnegie library.

While I was in college, I took a public history course.  Public history is a field that focuses on presenting history to the general public, rather than only to academics.  Museums, historic sites, archives, and oral history all fall under the category of public history.  Throughout the entire semester, my class’ primary focus was to do the research for a new temporary exhibit at the Marion Public Library’s museum.  Unfortunately, I went home for summer break and never saw the exhibit, but it focused on how the Harley-Davidson motorcycle got the nickname “Hog.”  Apparently, during the beginning of the twentieth century, different motorcycle companies would often race each other.  In 1920, at the Cornfield Classic Road Race in Marion, Indiana, the Harley-Davidson motorcyclists won.  In honor of their victory, one of the racers, Ray Weishaar, took a lap around the track with his little piglet.  Immediately after that, the piglet became the Harley-Davidson team’s mascot, which is how the company got the nickname “Hog.”

I recently returned to Marion, Indiana for a librarian conference in 2019.  While I was there, I decided to walk around the Marion courthouse, since I had wanted to in the past, but did not have a car.  On August 7, 1930, two African American men, J. Thomas Shipp (age 18) and Abraham S. Smith (age 19) were lynched from a tree in front of the courthouse.  The haunting photo of the incident, by Lawrence Beitler, soon became the most frequent representation of a lynching used in history books.  However, whereas most history books focused on the lynchings done in the South, this photo took place in the North.  A Jewish songwriter and poet, Abel Meeropol, wrote a song called “Strange Fruit,” based on the lynching, and in 1939, the singer, Bille Holiday, made the song famous.

This is the Marion, Indiana courthouse.

Shipp, Smith, and James Cameron (age 16) were all imprisoned at the Marion courthouse in 1930, because they were accused of murdering a white factory worker named Claude Deeter, and raping his girlfriend, Mary Ball.  At the last minute, the mob changed its mind about lynching Cameron.  He claims that God rescued him.  Since he left Shipp and Smith before Deeter was murdered, he was ultimately charged as an accessory to the murder, and only served four years in prison.  The state of Indiana pardoned him in 1991.  To this day, what took place between Shipp, Smith, Deeter and Ball remains a mystery.

Now, I will return to my original story. In 2019, I went to the Marion courthouse to see if I could find some sort of plaque memorializing the lynching.  Other than the fact that there were no trees in sight, I did not find any plaques.  In Europe, there are people like the French priest, Father Patrick Desbois, who make it a mission to place a memorial over every unmarked Holocaust grave.  Because a lynching is also an injustice, I automatically assumed that I would find a plaque in Marion.

After I got home, I could not stop thinking about the Marion courthouse.  I viewed it as the city ignoring or denying what had taken place there.  It would not have surprised me. During the short amount of time that I had lived in Indiana, even without a car, I had managed to find extremely racist and antisemitic graffiti; seen Confederate flags occasionally (even though Indiana was never a part of the Confederacy); and had once, to my horror, had a stranger randomly say “White Power” to me.  However, after further research on the courthouse, I learned that in 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative had tried to place a memorial plaque at the Marion courthouse, but had been prevented, not by the city of Marion, but by the families of those lynched there.  These family members said that, rather than focus on a memorial plaque, they would prefer that the city of Marion apologize for not preventing the lynching.  Additionally, they did not want to relive the memories.  Finally, they also feared that a plaque would ultimately get vandalized. Perhaps there will be a memorial at the Marion courthouse one day, but in the meantime, soil from the area was collected and brought to the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum in Montgomery, Alabama in August of 2020.

Sources and Further Reading

“Family of Indiana Lynching Victims against Proposed Memorial.” Associated Press News. June 7, 2018. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“History.” City of Marion.,of%20the%20Mississinewa%20of%201812. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“Home of the Hog.” Grant County, Indiana. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“James Cameron, Holocaust Museum Founder Born.” African American Registry. (accessed January 29, 2021).

Ksander, Yael. “Indiana’s Carnegie Libraries.” Indiana Public Media. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“The Lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith at Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930.” The J. Paul Getty Museum. (accessed January 29, 2021).

Miller, Jaylan. “NAACP: Lynching Remembrance a Painful but Important Task.” Chronicle-Tribune. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“Museum and Local History.” Marion Public Library. (accessed January 29, 2021).

Panhead, Jim. “How Harleys Became Known as ‘Hogs.’” RideApart. (accessed January 29, 2021).

“QuickFacts: Marion City, Indiana.” United States Census Bureau. (accessed January 29, 2021).


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