Burying the "Destroyer of One Happy Home": Manhood, Industrial Authority, and Political Alliance Building in the Murder Trial of Ira Strunk

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1885, Ira Strunk, a teacher and proprietor of a small business college in New Albany, Indiana, read in a local gossip column that "a prominent married lady was having an affair with a local bachelor."(1) He assumed this referred to his wife, Myra, and Charles Hoover, the single middle-aged son of a leading wholesale merchant. After threatening the editor of the paper for spreading what he wanted desperately to believe was a lie, he grew increasingly despondent. He soon separated from Myra and before long found himself unable to perform his duties at the college. On confronting Hoover at a men's clothing store, Strunk shot at his nemesis. But the effort was ineffectual; the gun misfired, and he was arrested for assault and battery. After posting bail, he divested himself of his New Albany interests and moved to Florida.

The story assumed a more tragic nature during the summer, when Strunk returned to appear in court. It was then that he spied the man he blamed for ruining his marriage walking down the street with his merchant father. That it was noon in the middle of town seemed not to have occurred to Strunk who stalked the men through the business district of New Albany on his tip-toes. When Charles Hoover turned and saw the gun-wielding Strunk, he pushed his father out of the way, but not before the merchant had been wounded by two discharges from the Strunk revolver. When the elder Hoover pleaded "for God's Sake don't shoot me any more," Strunk turned to his main target and fired two shots at close range. After Hoover fell on the floor of a nearby barber shop, Strunk rushed to the dying man's side and proceeded in a mad frenzy to bash in his skull with the butt of his gun until he was stopped by witnesses.

The murder trial of Ira G. Strunk became a cause celebre in New Albany. Details of the case filled the press, and some 1,500 friends and acquaintances visited Strunk during his 73 days of incarceration. While the courtroom always has the potential for great theater, rarely has the audience been as pleased with the performance as were those who came to see Strunk get off. For the public nature of the trial and its timing allowed it to be more than one man's verdict; instead it turned into the judgment of an entire class of men. For these reasons it provides us with a view into the manner in which class resentments affected the terms of public and political discourse during the Gilded Age, and how public languages like domesticity - which celebrated the virtue of the domestic environment and the ability of a man to protect it - operated as the instruments by which aspiring politicians and plebeian constituencies identified and manipulated each other.(2) Elsewhere I have argued that in the industrial city Gilded Age party politics often played a crucial role in creating the possibilities of the broad community support for the cause of labor that has been a central theme of the new labor history. Rather than accommodating workers to the prevailing order and defusing their militancy, party politicians could reaffirm worker militancy and ignite it.(3) In this instance, the murder trial of a business college professor offered an opportunity for Democratic hopefuls to appeal to a long politically dormant and culturally divided working class that was just being united into a powerful electoral constituency by the Knights of Labor.

At first glance, we have little cause to suppose that this trial should have posed such an opportunity. The murder victim, the defendant, and the defendant's wife all came from the city's better sort. Witnesses from the business community testified for both prosecution and defense. But it was the public nature of the alleged violation of sexual morality, the sensational nature of the crime, and Strunk's general popularity that filled the courtroom with observers and the newspapers with trial-related coverage.(4) All this served to make the trial a forum for politically aspiring defense attorneys, two of whom - James Kelso and Charles Jewett - were politicians who relied on the support of local workers. …