Michgander Monday: Eleanore Hutzel

Happy Women’s History Month! It might be almost over, but there’s still time for me to celebrate one of my favorite Michigan women: Eleanore Hutzel. If you live in the Detroit area, you might recognize her last name and wonder if she’s connected to Hutzel Women’s Hospital, a part of the DMC. Yep, that hospital was named after her. She was highly involved with that institution for most of her life. The hospital wasn’t the only place where she made her mark, however. She also started up a Women’s Division of the Detroit Police Department in 1922. Eleanore Hutzel was a fascinating woman who made a huge impact through her work caring for the women and children who needed it most.

Hutzel was born on September 8, 1885 in Ann Arbor. Little is known about her childhood. In 1910, at the age of 25, she moved to Detroit to study nursing at Harper Hospital and Women’s Hospital. Her work as a nurse made her more aware of the difficulties poor women faced, which led to her interest in social services. It wasn’t long before she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago’s School of Social Services. After graduating, she returned to Detroit to serve as the Director of Social Services at Women’s Hospital. A true product of the progressive age, she used her position to champion a number of programs to help women and infants, particularly unwed mothers and their children.

Women’s Hospital started in 1868 with an “open door” policy, meaning that they accepted patients regardless of their ability to pay or personal situation. Initially, women unable to pay had to work off their debt, but that practice ended in 1916, soon after Hutzel returned. Hutzel worked largely with the Department of Dependent Mothers and Infants, which mostly served unmarried mothers  – in 1921 82% of the infants born under care from the department were “illegitimate” (a term that sounds unnecessarily harsh today but typical of the time). Besides maternity care, the department also operated Valley Farm Home north of the city, where pregnant women and new mothers in need of care and assistance could reside outside of the immediate time of delivery. These women were expected to use their time at the home to learn infant care, domestic skills and a profession they could use to support themselves once they left. The goal was not just to see these women through delivery of their child, but also to set them up for a better life. Another impressive program, particularly for the time, was the Detroit Bureau of Wet-Nurses. Started in 1914, the bureau’s goal was to provide wet-nurses and breast milk to infants that needed it. This program allowed nursing mothers with an oversupply to earn money by either serving as a wet-nurse or providing extra milk to the program, which then redistributed it to infants in the hospital or mothers unable to nurse. The wet-nurse part of the program proved unpopular, but the distribution of breast milk was very popular and demand increased yearly. Hutzel tried to spread the word about the program, its popularity and its benefits through an article in Mother and Child, a magazine published by the American Child Hygiene Association.

Her involvement with social services led her to a position on the board of the Girls’ Protective League, an organization that aimed to look after unsupervised women and children on the streets. This activity lead to Eleanore’s next major career change – to policewoman. She organized the Women’s Division of the Detroit Police Department to assist the police department with handling cases involving women and children. After a trial period of six months, the division became a full part of the department and Hutzel became its chief. She later wrote that changing conditions (presumably industrialization and the growth of cities) had started to bring large groups of women and girls to the attention of the police, and that they presented problems better handled by women than by men. Her vision of a policewoman’s role was closely intertwined with social services. She felt that police work with women functioned best when in full cooperation with a social services department, to which women and children could be referred for assistance and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, she understood the need for traditional police activities as well. In “The Policewoman’s Handbook,” published by Hutzel in 1933, she provides instruction in patrol work, investigation, criminal law procedure and more.

She also foresaw a number of issues for the policewomen themselves that are still issues for working women today. When discussing qualifications for policewomen, she states that they must be as well or better qualified than policemen. Cities with well qualified policewoman have accepted their role in policing society, while cities where the policewomen were less qualified have insisted that women cannot fulfill the role. She also advocated for equal pay for policewomen, due to the fact that they have the same qualifications and duties as the men. According to one survey in the 1930s, about half of the police departments with women’s divisions paid them less than then men, and another half (including Detroit) paid them the same.

Eleanore Hutzel never ceased caring about social issues or serving the people of Michigan. In 1953, after retiring from the police force, she was appointed to Michigan’s new six-member corrections commission, which took control of the state’s prison system. She also never entirely left Women’s Hospital. She served as a trustee for many years, and in 1965 the hospital honored her service by renaming itself Hutzel Women’s Hospital. Hutzel died in 1979 but her legacy lives on at Michigan’s only nationally recognized hospital devoted to women’s health. In 1999, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame as recognition of her importance to Michigan’s history.

Do you have a favorite woman from Michigan’s history? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter! The month may be nearly over, but we can celebrate women’s history all year long!


Famous Michigander Friday – Olympic Edition

The Olympics are Pure Michigan

The Olympics are Pure Michigan

One of my favorite parts of the Sochi Olympics was watching Meryl Davis and Charlie White win gold in Ice Dancing. Davis and White both grew up in Royal Oak and still live and train in the Metro Detroit area. In honor of their win, and all the Michiganders in Sochi, here are my five favorite medal-winning Michigan Olympians:

Ralph Craig

Michigan’s first Olympic medalist, sprinter Ralph Craig won gold in the 100 meter and 200 meter at the 1912 Stockholm Games. 2 golds in one game is nothing to scoff at, but what really impressed me is that Craig returned to the the Olympics 36 years later, as an alternate for the yachting team at the 1948 London games. The 59 year old Craig did not get a chance to compete, but he did receive the honor of carrying the American flag at the opening ceremonies.

Richard Degener

Diver Richard Degener competed in two Olympics, 1932 in Los Angeles and 1936 in Berlin. He won bronze in 1932 and gold in 1936, both in the 3 meter springboard event. My favorite part of his story comes right after his victory in 1936 – a few monthes later, the White House presented Detroit with a plaque honoring its athletic victories (the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings had all recently won championships). Initially, the plaque was going to honor a baseball player, football player, hockey player, power boat racer, and a boxer. The boxer would be famous Detroiter Joe Louis. However, a stunning loss by Louis weeks before the plaque was finished caused the makers to remove his image and replace it with a more up-and-coming-star: Degener. I love this story because few people remember Degener today but Joe Louis is one of the most famous Detroit athletes of all time. I’m glad Degener got a brief moment in the spotlight, he certainly deserved it!

Eddie Tolan

Another sprinter, Eddie Tolan repeated Craig’s feat of winning both the 100 and 200 meters at one Olympics  – 1932 Los Angeles. Tolan, who grew up in Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School, had some serious hometown pride. He played football at Cass Tech, and was often quoted saying that “the six touchdowns he scored in one game as a 131-pound quarterback at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School was his greatest thrill, rather than his double win in the Olympics.”

Sheila Young-Ochowicz

Michigan’s first female medal winning Olympian was speedskater Sheila Young. Young won gold, silver and bronze at the 1976 Innsbruck games in the 500m, 1500m, and 1000m, respectively. Young is part of an incredibly athletic, and Olympic, family. Her husband Jim Ochowicz, and brother, Roger Young, both competed in cycling at the 1972 Munich games, with her Jim going on to the 1976 Montreal games as well. Her brother’s wife, Connie Paraskivin-Young, was a speedskater like Sheila, competing at the 1984 Sarajevo games before switching to track cycling, for which she won a bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul. Sheila’s daughter, Ellie Ochowicz, followed in her mother’s footsteps, competing in speedskating in 2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Turin and 2010 in Vancouver.  Wow!

Shelley Looney

Shelley Looney is a hockey player who won gold with in the 1998 Nagano games and silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Her other claim to fame? In 1980, as a kid in Brownstown, she wrote a letter of thanks to Canada for their role in rescuing the six Americans who escaped from the U.S. embassy at the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Her letter was actually turned into a single by Mercury Records, called “(This is My Country) Thank You, Canada).” Her gratitude didn’t extend to hockey, however, as she scored the game-winning goal in the 1998 game to beat Canada and win the gold medal.

Honorable Mention: Mark Wells and Ken Morrow

I have to give a final mention to Mark Wells and Ken Morrow, both member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team. Not only are they both from Michigan, they also both attended and played for Bowling Green State University, my own alma mater (yes, I went to school in Ohio). Go Michigan, but also, go Falcons!

Famous Michigander Friday: Harriet Quimby

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I have previously worked on a digitization project for the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing, and also had the opportunity to attend their annual induction ceremony in October 2012. At that event, I also signed up to be a judge for the 2013 awards. Judging for the Hall of Fame was so fun! There are two categories to judge, Historical and Contemporary. Of course, I chose historical. Anybody can nominate some one for the Hall of Fame, and the judges then read the nominations and rank them. I really enjoyed reading the many nominations, which ranged well-known Michigan women to local heroes I had never heard of. One nomination really stuck out for me, and it must have for other judges too, as she was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year: Harriet Quimby. Although I wasn’t familiar with Quimby before reading her nomination, she’s actually pretty well known in the aviation world – she was the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license and the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Quimby had always been an ambitious woman. As a young woman in the early 1900s, she moved on her own to New York City and became a photojournalist at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Quimby loved writing but also loved the theater (as a girl, she wanted to be an actress) and had a flair for the dramatic. Her writing included photos and articles about her travels as well as theater reviews. In 1910, perhaps looking for her next challenge, she attended an aviation exhibition, where she met John and Matilde Moisant. Along with his brother, Alfred, John ran an aviation school. Entranced by the idea of flying through the air in a man-made machine, Quimby convinced John to teach her to fly (fun fact: the Wright brothers refused to teach women). She became the first licensed American female pilot by August of 1911. After that, she began traveling with the Moisants to exhibitions, performing in her signature custom-made purple silk flight suit.

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In March of 1912, she decided to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. So she traveled to England and convinced Louis Blériot, who had made the first successful Channel crossing in 1909, to lend her his plane. Although many believed she would fail, she completed the flight (in a borrowed plane!) a month later, on April 16th. Not long after this great accomplishment, Quimby headed back to the States to take part in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in July. Sadly, her luck would run out there. After a flight over the harbor with the event organizer, William A. P. Willard, she lost control of the plane. She and Willard were both thrown out of the machine and fell to their deaths in front of the crowd. Although her life met a tragic end, her legacy lived on as an inspiration to countless other women who looked to the skies and dreamed of flying.

At this point you may be thinking that this is an interesting story, but what the heck does it have to do with Michigan? Well, before Quimby moved to NYC, she grew up in Michigan. However, where exactly she was born is a bit of a mystery, which I think is an interesting story in and of itself. Although there is no birth certificate for Harriet, many sources state she was born in Coldwater, Michigan, where local lore claims her parents worked as tenants on a local farm. In 1988, a Michigan State Historical Marker for Harriet Quimby went up at Coldwater’s Branch County Airport. The marker itself has been used as evidence in publications about Quimby, as admitted by Ed Y. Hall, author of Harriet Quimby – America’s First Lady of the Air. Hall has stated that at the time, there was no reason to doubt a state historic marker, and so he cited the location in his book and held a book signing in Coldwater. The Mayor even created a Harriet Quimby holiday!

Hall later realized that there was little actual evidence for Quimby’s birth in Coldwater. The closest he found was a section of land owned by a “W. Quimby,” but that turned out to be a Wilsey Quimby rather than Harriet’s father, William. So in a reprint of his book in the 1990s, Hall noted the lack of evidence and asked that anyone who had any information to please contact him. He did receive a number of responses, including a woman who said she had evidence that the Quimby’s lived in Arcadia, Michigan, 250 miles north of Coldwater. Hall investigated further, and now believes that despite the lack of birth certificate, there is overwhelming evidence that Quimby was born and raised in Arcadia rather than Coldwater. Among the evidence are records showing that her father bought land in the area in 1868, birth records for other children in the families, and an 1880 census record showing the Quimby family, including a Hattie (Harriet). In 1998, the state of Michigan put up another marker in Arcadia (although the sign in Coldwater still stands as well.

There is a possible explanation for the mix-up. Before moving north, William and Ursula were married in Branch County in 1859, and had their first child, Jennie, while living there. It’s possible that the Coldwater residents who claimed they remembered a young Harriet were simply remembering the wrong daughter. But it looks pretty clear that the family moved away from Coldwater before Harriet was born.

In any case, the Quimby family left Michigan around 1885 to move to San Francisco, and in 1903 Harriet moved on to New York. She may not have had fond memories of her time in Michigan, as in later interviews she claimed to have been born in California. But here in Michigan, we’re still proud of her! At her induction into the Hall of Fame, one of the women who nominated her arrived to accept the award dressed as Quimby – complete with her signature purple flight suit. Now that’s what I call style!

Courtesy of the TheDailyReporter.com


Frank Murphy

About a month ago, I spent the weekend with my sister in Harbor Beach, Michigan, a small town in on Lake Huron in the Thumb region of Michigan. Harbor Beach is a cute little beach town best known for having the largest man-made freshwater harbor. It is also famous for one other thing: being the birthplace of Frank Murphy, one of Michigan’s most accomplished politicians/lawyers. The Murphy family home was turned into a historic house museum after Frank Murphy’s death, and my sister suggested we go check it out, knowing that I can never turn down a trip to a local museum. So we stopped by on a Saturday afternoon and got a detailed tour from one of the docents. I have to say, I went in to the tour thinking I already knew all about Frank Murphy, but it turns out I had some gaps in my knowledge. It was a short but fascinating tour.

The Murphy Museum

The Murphy Museum

As an avid Michigan history nut, I already knew that Frank Murphy (1890-1949)  had been Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan, and a Supreme Court Judge. Well, it turns out he also had one other important role in his life – from 1933 to 1936, he served as Governor-General and then High Commissioner of the Philippines. So while the house had all the typical historic house elements of family heirlooms, antique furniture and photographs, it also had a number of artifacts from the Philippines, which I had not expected at all!

Filipino artifacts

Like this awesome grass skirt

To explain how Murphy got to the Philippines, I’ll have to back up a bit. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a Famous Michigander Friday if I didn’t give the whole life story! After growing up in Harbor Beach, Murphy attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree and then for law school. In the early years of his career, he practiced in Detroit, at different times running his own practice, teaching at the University of Detroit, and serving as a judge in the Detroit Recorder’s Court. His work as a judge earned him his first moment of national recognition when he presided over the Ossian Sweet murder trial, the famous Detroit case in which Sweet, a black man, defended his new home in a white neighborhood against an angry white mob.

In 1930, after 7 years as a judge, Murphy ran, and won, the race for Mayor of Detroit. He was faced with a difficult job, as this was the early years of the Great Depression. A Democrat, Murphy faced the crisis with welfare programs, including the formation of the Unemployment Committee, which sought to identify those in need of help who were not already receiving it and provide them with aid through fundraising and charity drives. He also provided housing to thousands through emergency shelters. Murphy was also a great supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his proposed New Deal. Murphy’s support helped Roosevelt win Michigan, which then led to the Roosevelt administration paying him back with an appointment as Governor-General of the American-controlled Philippines.

As Governor-General of the Philippines, Murphy was committed to social justice and sympathetic to the plight of the poor. He also promoted independence for the Philippines, which was granted in 1935 (although WWII prevented the nation from becoming fully independent until 1946). Murphy stayed in the country for one more year as High Commissioner during the beginning of the transitional period. One of the interesting facts I learned on the museum tour was that because Murphy was unmarried, his sister (along with her husband) came along with him to his posting in the Philippines to serve as his hostess for formal gatherings.  Some of my favorite items on display at the museum were the dresses she wore while they were overseas.

I thought this was a wedding dress at first, but no, just a normal formal dress

I thought this was a wedding dress at first, but no, just a normal formal dress

More dresses

More dresses

In 1936, Roosevelt urged Murphy to return to Michigan and run for Governor, which he did. He only served as Governor for two years, but his impact was large, especially in terms of social services and labor relations. His administration saw the start of unemployment compensation and improved mental health programs. He is also well known for his reaction to the Flint Sit-Down Strike, in which he refused to order National Guard troops to suppress and expel the strikers and instead mediated an agreement that required General Motors recognize the UAW as a valid bargaining agent. Murphy’s liberal actions cost him the next election however, and he was defeated by his predecessor Frank Fitzgerald.

As if his resume was not already impressive enough, in 1940 Roosevelt nominated him to the Supreme Court, where he served until his death in 1949. Murphy played a liberal role on the court, receiving both praise as a champion of the common man and criticism for relying on his heart over his head. His most famous opinion was his dissent in the Korematsu vs. the US case, which upheld the legality of Japanese internment camps during WWII. Murphy called the decision “legalization of racism.” A plaque discussing his dissent stands outside the museum.

Plaque outside the museum

Plaque outside the museum

Murphy’s health declined rapidly in his 50s, and he passed away at the age of 59 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He has been remembered in many ways, the Murphy Museum in Harbor Beach being only one of the many memorials to his life. The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice houses part of Michigan’s Third Judicial Court (originally home to Detroit’s Recorder’s Court), and includes a plaque in his honor. The UAW commissioned the “Hand of God” statue by Carl Milles that currently stands outside the Hall of Justice in honor of Murphy. Featuring a nude figure emerging from the hand of God, the controversial statue was stored out of site for many years before being brought back out in 1970. There is also a Frank Murphy Seminar  Room at the University of Michigan, and the Bentley Historical Library at U of M houses his personal and official files. Frank Murphy’s legacy will not be forgotten.

I’m going to leave you with one last random picture from the museum – a picture the awesome fireplace in at the Murphy Museum, made from stones from Lake Huron:

I want this in my house

I want this in my house


Bak, Richard, “(Frank) Murphey’s Law,” The Hour Detroit, September 2008
Maveal, Gary, “Michigan Lawyers in History-Justice Frank Murphy, Michigan’s Leading Citizen,” Michigan Bar Journal, March 2000
Murphy, Frank, 1890-1949,” Bentley Historical Library

Famous Michigander Friday: William Beaumont

Dr. William Beaumont. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicing

Dr. William Beaumont. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

For those of you who live in the Detroit area, you are probably familiar with the Beaumont Hospital commercials. You know the ones, where a very serious sounding man asks “Do YOU have a Beaumont doctor?” as if a doctor at any other hospital is basically Jack the Ripper. Now don’t get me wrong, Beaumont is a great hospital, but those commercials have always made me laugh. Then, a few years ago, I learned who exactly William Beaumont was, and now I laugh a little harder at the commercials, because I’m not so sure I would actually want him as a doctor.

William Beaumont was, in fact, a perfectly good doctor. He was born in 1785 in Lebanon, Connecticut and became a doctor through an apprenticeship, a common method in those days. During the War of 1812, he joined the U.S. Army as a surgeon’s mate, and served in Plattsburgh, New York throughout the war. After the war he entered private practice in Plattsburgh, but he couldn’t stay away from the military for long. In 1819 he rejoined the army and was assigned to Fort Mackinac. Fort Mackinac is on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, right at the northern tip of the lower peninsula. Dr. Beaumont was not terribly happy at Ford Mackinac, especially due to the poor conditions of the post hospital, a converted storehouse. The building barely kept out the elements, so much so that patient’s beds had to be moved when it rained to keep them from getting wet. The post was also continually short of supplies, making his job difficult. Nonetheless, he began to make the fort his home, eventually taking leave to marrying Deborah Green Platt, a woman he had met in Plattsburgh, and bringing her back to the island.

It was in  1822 that Dr. Beaumont’s story gets interesting. On June 6, French-Canadian voyageur Alexis St. Martin of the American Fur Company was accidentally shot in the stomach. He came to Dr. Beaumont at the fort, who treated him the best he could but fully expected St. Martin to die from his injuries. Miraculously, St. Martin survived, but was left with a small hole, known as a fistula, in his stomach that never fully healed. The fistula was large enough that Dr. Beaumont could insert his entire forefinger into the cavity, and it had to be covered to keep food from coming out and to prevent infection.

So now St. Martin is walking around with a hole in his stomach, which is a bit of a problem for him. No longer able to work as a voyageur, Dr. Beaumont hires him to work for his family. St. Martin continued to live and work with the Beaumont family on Mackinac Island for three years, and then relocated with them to Fort Niagara in 1825 when the military changed Dr. Beaumont’s posting. It was at this point that Dr. Beaumont realized that St. Martin’s predicament, while unfortunate, could be incredibly beneficial to medical science. This was an unprecedented opportunity to observe how the human digestion system worked! And so he began to perform experiments on St. Martin. He began by tying a piece of food to a string and inserting it into the hole. Every few house he would remove the food to see how well it had been digested. He tried different types of food, including beef (fresh, salted, boiled) and bread (stale and fresh) to see if it made a difference in how quickly the stomach broke it down. He also procured a sample of gastric acid from St. Martin for analysis, which he put food into to see if it would break down outside the person. It did, which taught him that it was the acid itself, not just the action of the digestive tract, that digests food into nutrients.

Although these experiments did not harm St. Martin in any way and there is no evidence that he was coerced into participating, they still could not have been pleasant. Dr. Beaumont’s writing states that he occasionally had to stop an experiment due to intestinal distress on the part of the patient, and for some experiments he had St. Martin fast for day to see what effect it had on digestion. He also discovered at one point that anger hinders digestion, although it appears that was an accidental discovery!

Nonetheless, St. Martin continued to live with the Beaumonts and go through with the experiments until Dr. Beaumont was again transferred, this time to Green Bay, Wisconsin. St. Martin left the family to travel back home to Quebec where he married an started a family. Shockingly, the story does not end there, because a few years later in 1828, Dr. Beaumont moved yet again, this time to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin. While at Fort Crawford Dr. Beaumont paid St. Martin to bring his family out and continue his work for the family – and to continue his experiments. Clearly, the experience had not scarred St. Martin too badly, as he accepted the offer and returned. The experiments started back up in 1831, at which point Dr. Beaumont began testing the affect of temperature, exercise and emotions on digestion. In 1832, Dr. Beaumont took leave from the army and traveled with St. Martin to Washington, DC to continue his experiments. A year later, Dr. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion. St. Martin returned to Canada after the death of one of his children. Although he intended to return, Dr. Beaumont (now in St. Louis) refused to pay for the entire family to travel, and so St. Martin stayed in Canada. Their experiments would never be resumed.

Dr. Beaumont resigned from the army in 1839 to avoid being transferred to Florida. He died in 1853 after slipping on ice at a patient’s door. After his death, St. Martin visited the family once and kept up a correspondence with one of Dr. Beaumont’s sons for years. St. Martin lived to be 86, passing away in 1880. His family was fearful that scientist would continue to use his body for research, and so they allowed his body to decompose for four days and then buried it in an unmarked grave in their Catholic graveyard. Years later, his granddaughter disclosed the location and in 1962 a plaque was placed on the church’s wall in memory of his contribution to science.

Dr. Beaumont work caused him to be commemorated by many institutions and through many mediums. Along with the Beaumont Hospital system in the Detroit region, there is the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas (which also has the Saint Martin Dining Facility) and Beaumont Hall on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. You can also visit the American Fur Company Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum on Mackinac Island as well as his birthplace in Lebanon, Connecticut, which has been restored by the Beaumont Homestead Preservation Trust and currently run by the Lebanon Historical Society. His work has also been the subject of numerous books and articles, including the historical novel Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont by Dr. Jason Karlawish and an April 2012 story on the NPR radio show Radiolab.

So that’s the real story behind William Beaumont. Although he was a good doctor and his work made major advances in medical science, I’m just not sure I’d want him to be my doctor – not that I have any holes in my stomach to experiment on! However, his story is fascinating and a perfect addition to the Famous Michigander Friday series. He may not have lived in Michigan for long, but it was his time here that shaped his life and career.

Guts,” Radiolab podcast, April 2, 2012
Life of Dr. William Beaumont
Lowenfels, Albert, “The Case of the Wounded Woodsman and his Dedicated Physician” Medscape, September 2, 2009
Myer, Jesse S., Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont, St. Louis: C.V. Mosby Company, 1912

Famous Tiger Friday

Happy (home) opening day! To kick off baseball season, and since the home opener falls on a Friday, I thought I’d write about a famous Tiger player for Famous Michigander Friday. When you think of famous Tigers, you tend to jump to the big names – Al Kaline, Hank Greenburg, Willie Horton, and of course, Ty Cobb. But I wanted to write about somebody else, who you won’t find immortalized in statue form at Comerica Park but is nonetheless very important to Tigers’ history. Today’s post is about Osvaldo (Ozzie) Virgil, the first Dominican player in MLB history and the player who broke the color line in Detroit.

Ozzie Virgil's baseball card from his time with the Tigers

Ozzie Virgil’s baseball card from his time with the Tigers

Virgil was born in 1932 in Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York with his family at age 14. According to an interview in Michigan History Magazine, Virgil didn’t make the baseball team in high school, but played a lot of sandlot ball. After high school he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served from 1950-1952. He continued playing baseball while in the the Corps, and when he got out he was given a tryout by the New York Giants. The Giants signed him and he played for three seasons in the minor leagues as well as playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. Finally, in 1956, he was called up. On September 23, 1956 he went out on the field with the Giants and became the first Dominican to play for the major leagues.

Just before the start of the 1958 season, Virgil was traded to the Tigers, a move he was initially unhappy about. He thought his talents were needed by the Giants, and was worried about his reception in Detroit, as the Tigers were among the last few teams to still have an all white roster. In fact, the Tigers’ lack of integration was a point of contention in the community, and the issue was coming to a head in 1958. In April, African-American community leaders organized the Briggs Stadium Boycott Commission, which threatened to boycott Tigers games if the team did not bring in black players.

Virgil was initially sent back down to the minors, but was called up again early in the season. The team stated that he was called up because he was simply the best third-baseman in their system, however, it is quite likely that the pressure from the community had something to do with it. Whatever the reason Virgil was called up to the majors, he certainly delivered at his first game. On June 17, he took to the plate at Briggs Stadium and hit the ball into left field for a two base hit. He ended up going 5 for 5 that first fame, and on his last hit, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Although many were thrilled to finally see a non-white player on the Tigers’ roster, some black community members were not entirely satisfied with the mixed race Virgil. Many did not consider the team truly integrated until the following year, when the Tigers acquired Larry Doby. Virgil knew about these issues, but said that he didn’t much care about what the community said – he just wanted to play baseball.

Virgil played for the Tigers until 1961 when he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. He continued to hop around from team to team, eventually playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants before he retired in 1969. He played every position except for pitcher during his time in the major leagues, had a .231 batting average, hit 14 home runs and 73 RBI. After retiring from his playing career, Virgil became a coach, spending 19 seasons working with the Giants, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. Fun Fact: his son, Ozzie Virgil Jr., played major league baseball as well, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays throughout the 1980s.

Virgil’s debut may not have had the impact of Jackie Robinson’s, but it was nevertheless important. Not only did he integrate Detroit’s team, but he also served as an inspiration to young Dominican players, who have become an integral part of major league baseball. Hundreds of Dominican players have made a name for themselves in baseball, including Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (inducted 1983), more recent greats such as Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez and 5 current Tigers: Ramon Santiago, Jhonny Peralta, Al Albuquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel. In 2006, the Osvaldo Virgil National Airport opened in the Dominican Republic in recognition of his achievements. This opening day, don’t just get excited about the season that’s yet to come – remember baseball’s past, including the many players who helped make the league into the diverse organization it is today.


Anderson, William M. “Baseball at the Corner,” Michigan History Magazine, 83 no. 5 (September-October 1999, 16
ibid, “Ozzie Virgil Sr.,” Michigan History Magazine (September-October 1997), 47-53
Bak, Richard, “The Negro Leagues in Detroit, Michigan History Magazine, 96 no.3 (May-June 2012), 37
O’Gara, Connor, “Island Trailblazer,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, October 11, 2012
Rojas, Enrique, “50 Years Ago, Ozzie Virgil Made Baseball History,” ESPNDeportes.com, September 22, 2006.

Famous Michigander Friday: James Vernor

For this week’s Famous Michigander Friday, I wanted to delve into a little “pop” culture – the story of James Vernor, inventor of Vernors Ginger Ale (what can I say – I love puns!). Vernors* is, after all, quintessentially Michiganian (Michiganderan?), for as the slogan says, “it’s what we drink around here.” It is also considered the oldest surviving soda brand in the country. We all know the legend of how Vernors was supposedly created: James Vernor experimented with ginger sodas before the Civil War, but the ginger was always too strong. He enlisted in the war, forgetting that he had one batch still in a barrel. When he returned home after the war, he opened the cask and discovered that the drink had aged to perfection. But how much of that story is true? And what about the man behind the drink? What made James Vernor interested in ginger ale, and why on earth would he think it was a good idea to drink something that had been hanging out in a barrel for three years?

Image from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group website

Image from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group website

First of all, the basics. Vernor was born in 1843 in Albany, New York and moved to Detroit with his family at age 5. As a teen he worked as an errand boy for Higby and Stearns’ Drugstore. He did well in the position, being promoted to junior clerk before he left the store to enlist in the Union Army in 1862. During the war he was part of the 4th Michigan Cavalry as a hospital steward. He was captured by the Confederate Army twice, once because he refused to leave his medical post. After his second capture, in Tennessee, he escaped to Murfreesboro where he hid in an attic for three days until the Union Army captured the city.

After the war, he opened up a drugstore at 235 Woodward Ave. According to Keith Wunderlich’s book Vernors Ginger Ale, it is likely that it was only at this point that Vernor started experimenting with ginger sodas. Wunderlich argues that Vernor was an entrepreneur who started selling ginger ale along with many other non-typical items such as flowers and perfumes to get people to come to his drugstore, which was far north of downtown. He may have started selling Vernors Ginger Ale in 1866, but it was not perfected for a few more years.

This version of this story corroborates with an interview with Vernor’s son, James Vernor Jr. in 1936, in which he states that he suspects that his father had the idea for the Vernors formula in his head during the war and tested it as soon as he came home. The 1911 trademark application for the drink also notes that it was not sold until 1870.

Vernor worked at his pharmacy for the next 30 years. During this time he was very active in the community and his profession. Starting in 1887, he served on the Michigan Board of Pharmacy and helped push for standards and certifications for pharmacists. He was also a Detroit alderman and joined the Detroit Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Detroit Post was the most prestigious of the local GAR clubs. It was founded in 1887 by veterans who wanted a more gentlemanly club than was previously in the city. Also called the Millionaires Post or the Silk Stockings Post, the Detroit Post only allowed for 150 members at a time and boasted some of the most distinguished men in the city such as Hazen Pingree, August Goebbel and Samuel Burroughs. James Vernor was clearly moving up the ranks of society.

During all this time, of course, Vernor continued selling the increasingly popular Vernors drink in his store. He also sold Vernors extract to pharmacists around the country with directions on how to make it into soda at soda fountains. He refused to bottle the drink at the time as technology for bottling soda produced inconsistent results, and he was quite a perfectionist. He even went as far as sending pamphlets to soda fountain owners with specific directions for making the drink (serve it at 36 degrees, no ice) and worked with soda fountain manufacturers to make better fountains.

The Vernors Building in the 1940sImage from the Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

The Vernors Building in the 1940s
Image from the Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

Finally, in 1896, he decided that bottling technology had advanced to the point where he was comfortable bottling the drink. He sold the drugstore and focused on his ginger ale, although he still had a location with a soda fountain closer to downtown. Vernors became a true family business at this time as well, as son James Vernor Jr. came aboard. The company continued to expand, selling the drink in an ever wider market. Nonetheless, it remain rooted in its hometown as seen in its early 20th century slogan “Detroit’s Drink.”

James Vernor died in 1927 at the age of 84. His drink lives on as a beloved regional soda that has become a part of Detroit’s culture. However, it is no longer a family company, as it was sold in 1966 and after a succession of ownership changes it is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

This post is getting rather long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the best way to drink Vernors Ginger Ale. Straight out of the bottle (or can) is great, and there are a number of mixed drinks out there, but my personal favorite is the Boston Cooler. A Boston Cooler is like a root beer float, but with Vernors instead of root beer with the ice cream. The name, however, is a bit of a mystery. It has nothing to do with Boston, Massachusetts, where the drink is unheard of. One theory claims the drink was named after Boston Boulevard in the Boston-Edison district of Detroit, but that theory is questioned by those who point out that that area was not platted until 1891 and had no homes until 1905, while the drink was known to be enjoyed as early as 1880. Maybe we’ll never know know. But one thing is for sure – a Boston Cooler really hits the spot on a hot Michigan summer afternoon!

*Vernors started out as “Vernor’s,” but dropped the apostrophe in the 1950s.

Rouch, Lawrence L. The Vernors Story: From Gnomes to Now. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003
Wunderlich, Keith. Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2008
Vernors: Our History.” Dr. Pepper Snapple Group