The Devil’s Punchbowl

Here's a tale that links Boone County to Major League basesball--not one, but two teams. Does that sound odd? Odd is just the beginning...

Here’s a tale that links Boone County to Major League baseball–not one, but two teams. Does that sound odd? Odd is just the beginning

I am always amazed at the small little coincidences life is made of. As many of you know, I have just finished up a local history book for Boone County as a part of the celebration of Indiana’s Bicentennial Year. I am also working on a similar project for the Historic Mansions along Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Along the way, I keep “bumping” into intersections where Boone “things,” and Meridian “things” seem to converge.

Maybe its because geographically they are such close neighbors? Or perhaps the reason is simple serendipity. The “things” clinking around were of the “Oh, how about that” sort at first.

A former long-time resident of Meridian Street happened to Chair the Traders Point Hunt for many years. Driveways graced by a Rolls Royce were certainly familiar with Mr Albers’ dealership in Zionsville. 

Then there was the Governor connection. For years, the state-owned home has traditionally been on Meridian Street at more than two different addresses–if one counts the Circle. Our Centennial Governor, Sam Ralston, was a Lebanon lawyer before his election to Indiana’s highest office–though he lived in a private home at 2102 N Delaware (there was no official home for the Governor during those years). All these threads kept popping up, but my deadline loomed–the Boone County project was a “hurry-up” affair.

Now, as the Boone book moves farther away from my hands and down the line with editorial staffers and pre-production meetings, I’ve had time for a second look at those loose ends poking at me for attention.

One item really bugged me. It pestered me repeatedly until I chased down the story–and it was here that I found both the oddest linking of the two places, and the beginning of another mystery.

Of course it started in a graveyard, though, not really…


I’ll explain

The graveyard link has been gone for sometime now–and that’s what made it all so baffling. I just had to know whatever became of “The Devil’s Calderon” of Lebanon’s Oak Hill Cemetery–which used to “reside” in Indy, a few blocks west of 38th and Meridian Street at Crown Hill Cemetery.


Really? How could the same big pot disappear from two different burial sites?


Grab a comfortable seat and freshen your beverage. This is a long-winded tale.

John Tomlinson Brush had a tough life as a child. His father, John Senior, died in 1845, one month before little Johnny was born. His mother, Sarah, moved with her four young children from the countryside into the small village of Lawrence near the New York/ Canadian border.

Then, just after the 1850 census, tragedy struck again. John’s mother, Sarah, died officially orphaning the Brush children. Fortunately (?) a Grandfather agreed to take the homeless children in and raise them to maturity. Quarters were tight in Grandfather’s tiny shack of a home; so tight in fact that John and his brother were forced to bed down with the animals in the barn. John’s sisters slept in the house but were kept as little more than slave labor to Grandfather and his second wife. In fact, taking custody of the Brush children was a lucky break for the aging couple who treated them with marginal regard, and worked them tirelessly.

By his 17th birthday, John had submitted a sketch to a contest and won a $25 scholarship for a business college in Poughkeepsie. He left Grandfather’s barn and attended college as long as the 25 dollars lasted. At the end of his “education,” John secured a sales position with a clothing store in Boston.

Again growing restless and eager for adventure, he succumbed to the excitement and patriotic fervor surrounding the Union cause. John T Brush (often teased as John, “Tooth Brush”) enlisted in the Army. Signing on in 1864 at age 19, he did see action, but the war ended before he suffered a scratch.

Ready for more stirring exhilaration (which seemed to be a theme throughout his life) Brush stayed far away from his Grandfather and siblings in the dirt-poor back waters of New York state. Instead he aimed his future and fortunes toward the bustling city of Troy on the Hudson River. There, he met and befriended George Pixley, a principal in a newly formed gentlemen’s clothing store, “Owen, Pixley and Company.”

As it turned out, the personality of John T Brush and the trade of retailing was a perfect match. He excelled in his sales job and quickly moved up in the company, eventually becoming a full partner. By 1874  the Owen, Pixley Company, tasked their shooting star, the young Mr. Brush, with opening a branch store in the Midwest. After a months of scouting, he recommended and then purchased the newly built Napoleon III styled building at 36 North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis. The location, at the shopping district offloading stop of all interurban trains coming into the city, was perfect.

John Brush set to work with a contractor, making myriad upgrades and embellishments to the recently constructed building both inside and out. Little expense was spared, but the info leaked was sparse. As the project went on, the opening date, and store name remained a tight-lipped bit of mystery. The publicly situated project with a big secret became an exceptional ploy of marketing genius.

The real story-behind-the-story was one of construction delays caused by a never-ending list of do-overs and additions by Brush as his vision became increasingly more grandiose for the new branch store of the company. Brush was a retailing visionary with a talent for dramatic spectacle easily rivaling PT Barnum.

After months of delay and a constant barrage of onlookers from the sidewalk flinging questions like: 

“What is this? Who is building this? Why isn’t is done? When will it open–When will we know?” 

Brush fanned the flames of public curiosity by plastering the windows at street-side with large banners that said only “WHEN”


No question mark, no exclamation point, no stylized letters. Only those four letters–whether as a plea or an ask–no one could be sure, just– “WHEN.”

Toothbrush - Edited

The remodeling and construction face-lift had been going on for nearly a year. In February 1875, weeks before opening, public curiosity was amplified as the place marked only as “When” began running newspaper advertisements–teases–of the exceptional values and unprecedented selection lying-in-wait behind those banners!

Now, if you’re up-to-speed on your Encyclopedia of Indianapolis reading (Bodenhamer and Barrows 1994) you have already guessed that “When” became the name of the biggest and most successful department store situated between New York and Chicago. The “When” store was THE store in Indianapolis from its frenzied opening day in March of 1875, until the doors closed in the mid 1920s. 

Eventually, John Brush bought out the interests of his partners Mr Owen and Mr Pixley, taking sole ownership of the Indianapolis When Clothing Company.

Riding a wave of great financial success, in 1890 Brush commissioned the Tiffany Company of France to cast an enormous bronze urn. The impressive piece was displayed before the Pennsylvania Street entrances of the When store for several years along with flaming columns of gas that lit up the night sky. It has often been suggested (never verified) that the When Urn–with its fanciful griffins and long graceful bowl–was the largest ever cast by the famed foundry. Certainly, given Brush’s affinity for the biggest/best/most-extravagant, it wouldn’t be out of line to accept the rumor.

Imagine that!

The largest bronze piece Tiffany ever made, standing on an Indianapolis sidewalk!

Two years before ordering and installing the urn on the sidewalk, Mr Brush lost his first wife Margaret Agnes (10 years his junior) in 1888. The couple had two daughters together, but only one had survived childhood. By this time, daughter Eleanor, was in her teens and her parents had been living separately for many years. In more than one volume of the annual city directory, Agnes Brush informed the canvassing agent that she was in fact widowed…maybe she just wished she was. Although John and Agnes Brush were long estranged, John T had Agnes buried at the prestigious, “well-situated” family plot he purchased in Crown Hill Cemetery years earlier. Barely a mention was made of her passing in local newspapers of the time.

Through his innovative, over-the-top marketing, the When brought John Brush great wealth. He tended his fortunes with an expert hand–balancing spending with gathering and amassing more.

Never an athlete, yet always a great admirer and dabbler in the fledgling sport of Baseball, in 1890 John Brush’s ultimate wish came true. He purchased the New York Giants ball club (which he owned until his death in 1912). The following year, he also bought the Cincinnati Reds which he controlled from 1891 until 1902.

In 1894, after six years of official widowhood, 50 year old John fell smitten to the charms of stage actress Elsie Boyd Lombard. At 24, Elsie was very much younger than him (being only 16 months older than his daughter Eleanor). Whether via wealth or charm, eventually the owner of the When won over the attentions of the beautiful young actress. Two years after they wed, Ms Lombard and old Brush had a daughter together, Natalie. Though John T was reportedly quite happy and doted over both his new daughter and young bride, just after baby Natalie’s birth, John’s health took a turn. Stricken with the onset of “tabes dorsalis”  (a debilitating side effect of long untreated syphilis), he became wheel chair bound for the rest of his life.

Upon his death, the beloved Tiffany piece that John T had specially commissioned from France was placed as funerary art near the burial markers of him and Agnes. Later, after the When store closed, a sleeker, much larger memorial was added to the family plot and the “old fashioned” urn was offered up for sale.


And, I guess that’s where it sort of takes a turn.

Next time we’ll start moving that urn around–grave hopping across county lines