The Turners, Forty-eighters and Freethinkers by Maria Gascho (June/July 2002)

In downtown Indianapolis, there’s a beautiful old European-style brick and stone building called the Athenaeum. Today many people work out in the gym, enjoy a show at the cabaret theater or eat at the Rathskeller restaurant there, but have no idea about the significance of the structure. The building is rich in German-American, freethought and athletic history.

It was originally called “Das Deutsche Haus” and was built as a joint effort by various German clubs in the 1890s. In the early 1850s, a number of Germans called the Forty-eighters moved to the city. Many of them were political activists who had been persecuted in their homeland or were disillusioned with German politics. The revolution of 1848 had not brought about the liberal social and political changes they’d hoped for in Germany, so they came to America. The first organization established by the Forty-eighters in Indianapolis was the Turnverein. A German named Friedrich Jahn, known as the father of gymnastics, founded the Turner movement in 1811.

He invented the parallel bars, the rings, the horse and the horizontal bar used in gymnastics today. His motto was “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” He promoted physical exercise programs as well as intellectual development. Many Forty-eighters embraced his philosophy. Turner clubs sprang up in Germany and later in many American cities.

They provided physical education, lectures, libraries, musical entertainment and other services to the German community. They acted as a kind of “welcome center” for newly arrived immigrants and helped keep their German language and culture alive, yet promoted American ideals of democracy and freedom. Several of the original Turner buildings are still standing today in our city, including the Athenaeum. The gym at the Athenaeum, now run by the YMCA, has been in use since the 1890s for athletic training. The Athenaeum provided a training program for physical education teachers from 1907 until 1941 when it merged with the Physical Education Department of Indiana University. Some of the more radical members of the Forty-eighters and Turners were freethinkers. They founded the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis in 1870 to promote freethought ideas. Author Kurt Vonnegut’s great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, was the first president of the organization.

He was a well-respected businessman in the community and a member of the Indianapolis Public School board for many years. The group fought against religion in the schools and started a Freethinker’s Sunday School. The freethinkers, many of whom were highly educated, strongly supported public education, particularly vocational programs. Emmerich Manual High School, located on the south side of Indianapolis, opened in 1894 as a manual training school. It was later named for Charles Emmerich, an active member of the Freethinkers and the school’s first principal.

Although the Freethinkers Society dissolved in 1890, their ideas continued to live on through the nonsectarian educational system they helped establish in the city. Members of the Turners were quite influential and politically active in the city. They founded German newspapers, businesses, schools, singing groups and orchestras. Some of the singing groups, Saengerchor, Maennerchor and Liederkranz, are still in existence today. They created innovative physical education programs in the Indianapolis Public Schools for both boys and girls. Indianapolis hosted large Turner festivals with hundreds of members from all over the US and Germany participating in parades, singing events and gymnastic competitions.

Turner groups supported progressive ideas like better working conditions, educational reform, the emancipation of women and the abolition of slavery. The Turner Hall of Indianapolis became the anti-slavery headquarters in the city. Shortly after the start of the Civil War, a number of Turners enlisted to fight for their new country, even though many spoke little or no English. The 32nd Indiana Regiment was composed of Turners from Indianapolis, Madison, Lafayette and other Hoosier towns. Other Turner regiments were formed throughout the U.S. Over 70 percent of the Turners fought on the Union side.

At its peak in 1894, the American Turners had 317 societies with over 40,000 members. The organization suffered declines in membership due to decreasing German immigration rates, anti-German sentiments during the world wars and the Americanization of the German population. When their loyalty to America was questioned during the First World War, the Indianapolis Turners changed the building name from “Das Deutsche Haus” to the “Athenaeum” and offered the use of the place to the Red Cross. Today there are approximately 60 Turner societies in America with about 13,000 members.

The American Turners headquarters is now located in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the years, the Athenaeum’s structure fell into sad decay. I attended an event there in the early 1980s and saw sagging ceilings, water damaged walls and rotted roof timbers. Fortunately, a few years ago, various far-sighted individuals raised money to restore it to its former glory. The Indianapolis Cabaret Theater opened in a beautifully renovated section. The Rathskeller restaurant and the beer garden in the back have reopened to serve German food and drink with live music. The YMCA took over the gym and it has become a popular downtown fitness facility. I was in the building for a dinner recently and noticed that many improvements had been made to other sections of the building since my last visit. One former Turner building in Indianapolis has been converted into expensive condos! If you are fortunate, you may find a Turner club or old building still in existence in your town or city.

Writes Marcia Gascho: “I’ve been a member of FFRF for over 20 years. My grandfather was German, I majored in German in college, I’ve visited Germany three times and have been interested in German culture for many years. “I’m a computer programmer for a large insurance company in downtown Indianapolis. My freethinker husband Bruce and I have been married for 16 years (Dan Barker performed the ceremony!) and we have a freethinking teenage daughter that we adopted 6 years ago.” She notes: “The book, The Germans in Indianapolis 1840-1918, by George Theodore Probst, tells of German-American contributions to the city. I found information about the Turner participation in the Civil War in the book, Der Turner Soldat, by C. Eugene Miller and Forrest F. Steinlage.

On the Internet I found a long list of websites of Turner clubs in the U.S. and in Germany. “On the website of Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), I discovered Annette Hofmann’s 1998 speech at the Athenaeum, ‘150 Years of Turnerism in the United States.’ It provided much interesting data about the historical background of the Turners. ‘The Freethinkers in Indianapolis,’ an article by Claudia Grossman, Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at IUPUI, also contained excellent information about the Forty-eighters and freethinkers.” Marsha Gascho in front of Indianapolis’ historic Turner building

Freedom From Religion Foundation