John Philip Sousa’s Newly Uncovered Letters

John Philip Sousa’s Newly Uncovered Letters

By Scott Schwartz

Recently the Sousa Archives acquired the Frances Carter and Marjorie Moore Sousa Research Files documenting John Philip Sousa’s relationship with his family while America’s March King.  The collection includes Sousa’s letters to his wife; early photographs of Sousa’s bands; original scripts and schedules for 20th Century Fox’s 1952 movie, Stars and Stripes Forever; memorabilia; and magazine articles.

Photograph showing Helen and Jane Priscilla Sousa, two young girls in white dresses.
Helen and Jane Priscilla Sousa, c. 1898.

The documents were compiled by Sousa’s daughters, Helen and Jane Priscilla, and Marjorie Moore, the Marine Band’s first historiographer, to fact-check the script for Fox’s biographical movie about Sousa’s life and music.

Sousa’s influence on late 19th– and early 20th-century music is well known, but very little is known about his relationship with his family.  As a traveling bandleader Sousa gave thousands of concerts between 1892 and 1932 and spent months away from his family.

Sousa’s wife Jane and children accompanied him for some portions of tours, but he usually travelled without them.  These absences occasionally created tensions with his family, and his letters home document their very private lives.

In WWI in 1917 Sousa offered his services to the U.S. Marines and then the U.S. Army, but he was turned down because of his age and became frustrated by their responses.  However, the commandant of the Great Lakes Naval Center offered Sousa a commission as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve to organize and train Navy bands for the war.

Sousa’s short letter to Jane on September 21, 1917, announcing his Navy commissioning probably caught her by surprise because he had temporarily disbanded his civil band.  He wrote, “Dearest Jane…No dear, I am not in the Navy as a regular but as a Reserve Officer ordered to active duty which gives me as long as I am under orders as an active Lieutenant with the pay and allowance of a Lieutenant (Senior Grade) of the Navy.”

Photograph showing John Philip Sousa, with a white beard and smoking a cigar, reading the "Great Lakes Naval Recruit" magazine.
John Philip Sousa as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1917.

While on tour with the Great Lakes Naval Battalion band on May 17, 1918, Sousa wrote, “Dearest Jane, I am here with the band until Tuesday night, then to Cleveland [and] N.Y. for the war bond concert and some work in connection with the Atlantic Fleet…Hope to see you on the 28th.  With much love and kisses, devotedly, Philip.”  However, by early September Sousa’s civilian band was reconstituted to complete their Willow Grove Park performances and he left for Chicago rather than returning home.  This annoyed Mrs. Sousa.  He wrote on September 13, “Dear Jane, I am enclosing your allowance for September.  It must be a delicious and satisfying feeling to receive an allowance of $1,000 per month, and also possess the right to give your husband hell when it so moves you…Am tired.  Affectionately, Philip.”

Sousa’s tenure with the Naval Battalion Band ended in 1920, but his commission with the Navy for a dollar a year allowed him to lead his civilian band throughout 1919 when not needed by the Navy.  His 1919 civilian band tour across America and Canada left Sousa little time for family and the growing tensions on the home front.

His July 6, 1919, letter to Jane began, “Dearest wife.  The same forces that silently and relentlessly led the world into a war…started an individual and family antipathy that has no parallel in history…Our family is not the only one…Philip’s contempt for Priscilla and Helen, Helen’s contempt for the rest, Priscilla’s indifference to me and you…make each other as unhappy as possible…The average person’s judgement about other’s affairs is usually of no value…Devotedly. Philip”

It is unclear what caused this animosity, but Sousa’s continuous touring with his civilian band most likely inflamed these tensions.  However, by 1925 the tone of Sousa’s letters home had softened.

After his 71st birthday he wrote on November 11th, “My dearest little lady.  In my courting days and after I used to write you at all hours of the night and day, but it has been some time since I wrote you at 5:15am…Many thanks for your birthday greeting…the Rotary Club and others entertained me in Peoria.  I got more flowers than a blushing prima donna…I am in good condition, but a little shy on sleep…With much love, Philip.”

Photograph showing Jane Sousa, wearing a frilly white lace dress.
Jane Sousa, wife of John Philip Sousa, as she looked in the 1880s.

By 1929 his band’s touring schedule was limited to three months.  When not on tour Sousa spent his time at home in Port Washington, New York.  He wrote to Jane who was visiting her son and grandchildren in California, “Dearly Beloved, your telegram… came announcing your safe arrival…Priscilla and I were glad you…arrived safely. I do hope you’ll have a pleasant visit…Priscilla felt that I should be watched carefully and…not take more than an ounce of whiskey, all of which I obey as any dutiful and loving father should.  But please tell her not to be so hard on a poor old father.”

The following March 21, 1930, Sousa wrote from Chicago’s Auditorium Hotel about his short trip to the University of Illinois to conduct his new “University of Illinois March” with Harding’s concert band.  “My darling wife, I have had a rather hectic time since I left N.Y…Yesterday I drove out to the University 175 miles.  They had a concert by the student band.  They played splendidly.  The students gave me a medal, the bandmaster gave me a baton, a medal, and their blessing…Ever your loving Philip.”

These brief samples from the Carter and Moore collection provide realistic insight of Sousa’s relationship with his family and help dispel the storybook portrayals of him as America’s March King.  This newly acquired collection will be arranged and described this fall, and it will become available to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Sousa’s life and career.  For further information about the collection contact or call 217-333-4577.

Raiders of the Lost Archives – Archival Context and a Map to an Undiscovered Tomb

Finding information in the archives can sometimes feel like an expedition through time – a scavenger hunt in countless records to find the holy grail document that you’re looking for, sifting through ancient ruins and dusty boxes for the one scrap of information that will definitively answer your research question. On occasion, this digging will turn up the exact information you were looking for. Other times, you must answer your questions to the best of the ability of the extant sources, and results are not always as conclusive as we would like them to be.

Sometimes, you come across an item that raises far more questions than it answers. For me, this serendipitous moment occurred while browsing the Neil L. Block Papers (RS 35/3/418). This item, found within a folder inconspicuously labelled “Ancient Egypt – Notes On,” is a 12-page document, handwritten in a purple cursive script on lined, 3-hole punched paper.[1] The first page contains a brief abstract about the Pharaoh Tutankhamen: his life, his reign, the discovery of his tomb, and the grave goods found within. The following 11 pages appear to record a question-and-answer session in which the responder describes exactly where and how to find a (presumably still lost) Egyptian tomb. The 67 questions in the document are addressed to “Ouija,” and the entity responding makes references to the use of a board. Mention of a medium implies that, much like the séances conducted as part of Edwin Peebles’ research (RS 35/2/50), this conversation could have been facilitated through the use of a medium as well. The questions in the document sought to clarify the location of a tomb and how to find it, but the answers are cryptic and sometimes contradictory.

Continue reading “Raiders of the Lost Archives – Archival Context and a Map to an Undiscovered Tomb”

Hidden Truths in the Archives – UFOs

Amidst the recent UFO and balloon sightings across the United States, many are turning their eyes to the sky in the quest for the unknown. The search for unidentified flying objects and their meaning is not a new trend. At least as early as the 20th century, reports of mysterious flying objects have been filed worldwide, with explanations ranging from rogue weather balloons to full-on alien invasion.

The University of Illinois campus has not been immune to UFO interest over the years. On October 7, 1965, a student reported a UFO sighting outside the Education Building. The report was difficult to verify, however: as a letter to the editor pointed out on October 12, the image of the object printed in the Daily Illini was completely invisible. Curiosity about UFOs on campus has carried on sporadically ever since. Other sightings have been reported, clubs such as the UFO and Outer Space Clubs have been formed, and talks on the subject were advertised in student publications throughout the 1960s and 70s.

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Tales From the Nitrate Negatives: The Taking of The Miami One Two Three

For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, please humor us for a bit as we engage in a bit of train-based role play:

Imagine with for a second that it’s the early spring, 1947 and you’re finishing up a long train journey back to Champaign from Chicago. It’s a quaint Saturday morning and you’ve been expecting a relaxing ride home after a week working in the city. As you start to see the oh-so familiar corn and soybean fields flying past as your 100 mile per hour ride is whizzing through the state. As the image of  farmers riding by in tractors is starting to get a tad monotonous, you feel the train slightly lurch. Thankfully, you know this feeling well. It’s a totally normal feeling just before the train starts to decelerate on the trip into town. You feel that slightly thicker air drag on you as the body of the train begins slowing down, but you still have so much inertia dragging you forward. It’s a nice feeling, but you feel it a tad more intense than usual. Moments after that first lurch, the train lurches again. Before you can even question it, you hear the screeching wail of steel scraping against steel and you see sparks an iron go flying past these former farm-filled windows. Your cabin lurches one last time, harder than before. The rapid compression causes the windows to all shatter around you as your body is hurled over your diner car table. There is a brief moment where you are unbound by gravity just before you’re hurled headfirst into a silverware cart; your 1947 brain wonders “How in the world did some yuck, geezer, cold fish, chicken, chrome dome, 1940’s slang, train conductor just crash this train?!”. Everything goes black. You get flits of the fiery and wicked scene as you’re dragged out of the train by rescue crews and taken to a local hospital for injuries. The next morning, lying in a Champaign hospital,  you check the day’s newspaper. You read that your train somehow jumped a track injuring 197 and killing 2 people. Just before the, likely over-prescribed, morphine kicks in, you ask the question, “What in the world could have happened to this train?”


Well, the story of the City of Miami Streamliner is a graphic, yet interesting tale. On Saturday April 19th, train conductor Charles H. Redus noticed that the remote-control track switch meant to bring his train into into Champaign was hasn’t been flipped. In his reports to the investigators just before his passing, Redus noted that he’d seen a green light shine on the switch relay. While that traditionally meant he was clear to go, he saw from the front of the train that the switch itself had not actually flipped. He did his best to slow the train down in the 300 feet before the incoming disaster, but it was too late. The train hit the switch, jumped the track, and rolled itself off the train tracks. The Champaign News-Gazette of April 20, 1947, reports that it tore up more than a  quarter mile of track as the entire streamliner “went up in a nest of steel and a ball of flame.” On April 27th, a Daily Illini Article reported on an investigation by Amtrak and city officials. Their results found that an improper installation of electrical relays on the track was the culprit. Two relays, installed the morning just before the wreck occurred, were incorrectly installed. The signal was mistakenly inverted. So, when it was meant to flash yellow and signal to slow down, it shined green, and vice versa. If it weren’t for Redus’ keen eyes of the track itself, this mistaken relay could have brought the train full force into the crash zone. Just a simple electrical mistake that brought this 85 mile per hour (136 KMpH) missile of a train flying off the tracks into a ripped steel, diesel fireball.

Despite the coalescence of mistakes, the casualty numbers were thankfully very low. Initial reports said 197 people were injured, but the number was lowered to 107 by the 20th with only 32 hospitalized. The 2 casualties of the accident were the two men at the further points front and back of the train. The final car’s bagman, Charles N. Wood, and the engineer, Charles H. Redus, were the only people who lost their lives as a result of the crash. Many reports note that the tables bolted to the floor and chars adhered to the walls prevented massive structures from crushing people throughout the train.  The bagman, Charles Wood, was killed instantly. The lurches of the train and the collapse of the final car brought the bagging compartment crashing down on him. An eyewitness to the bag car reported that Wood was crushed by the luggage instantly and he couldn’t save him. The conductor, Charles Redus, was thrust into the control panel and his leg was badly injured. In a report from the April 25th Daily Illini, a passenger that rushed to his aid had to apply a tourniquet to his leg to stop the bleeding. Ambulances arrived 15 minutes after the crash when two different farmers plowing their nearby fields witnessed the explosion. The blast and sounds could be heard for miles and the response was thankfully almost instantaneous.

Within the hour, wrecking crews, garbage train cars, and Strauch himself were on scene. The images of these collection were taken around 15:00 when the wreck itself occurred at 13:15. His images capture both the astonishment of investigators, the shock on the eyes of the rescued passengers, and the grim visages of the wrecking crews. While one wouldn’t expect a series of just 31 images about a train crash to carry such emotion, Strauch captured the grueling ambiance of the scene. Gray clouds had rolled in, and the sheer carnage of a vehicle formerly so pristine is intense.

The speed at which Strauch arrived on scene allowed for history to be captured when it could have been just as easily lost to time. Almost a century later we can look back on a story so well preserved in the heart of these images. It makes us reflect on what images of the modern day tragedies we face will persevere, and what stories will be told of those caught in our versions of the train wreck? We approach a century since Strauch’s first pictures were taken, yet we still deal with the same feelings of loss and the same accidents that beget tragedy. So, the burden placed on us all is to think of how we can learn from the past to venerate those lost in the present.

Tales From the Nitrate Negatives: Home Sweet (Presidential) Home

For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, we wanted to try something a bit different from usual. Instead of focusing on a single historical event documented through nitrates, we’re tracing the evolution of a house. More specifically, we follow the history of the houses of the presidents of the University of Illinois as captured in Bernard Strauch’s nitrate films. It’s been an expectedly tricky process to track down a couple house from over a century ago, especially if half houses were torn down in the mid 1900s. It is no walk in the park strolling through 18th and 19th century city housing directories so detailed that they  person’s race,  marriage status, and even their job. Thanks to a century and a half of Champaign-Urbana growth, what was 905 East Green Street back in 1890 could be halfway through the 1400 block of West Green Street in 2022. With directories, photographs, and even presidential biographies, we got hot on the case hunting down homes. At one point, we even tracked down Regent Gregory’s library card to see if he had an alternate address we needed to track down. This project, ostensibly a small history stemming from Strauch’s pictures of one presidential home turned into a dive into Champaign-Urbana lore. Through more than 150 years and 19 presidents of the University of Illinois, we present Home Sweet (Presidential) Home.

Gregory’s Champaign Home

Our history starts back in the late 1860’s when John Milton Gregory first came to Champaign, Illinois from Kalamazoo, Michigan as part of his quest to help build the young Illinois Industrial University. Gregory, appointed as the first Regent by the board of trustees, paid for the construction of his home at, then, 709 South 4th Street, Champaign Illinois. It was a quaint, two-story, brick house with a patio lightly extended into the front lawn and ivy growing up the columns. Some things don’t really change do they? By the University’s first year, Gregory was a notable figure in the Champaign-Urbana community! Regent Gregory lived in this home all 13 years of his presidency, and for a year after his retirement before he returned home to New York. The property of Gregory’s house was purchased by the Alpha Delta Pi fraternity in 1912, and then razed for the construction of the University’s first Alpha Delta Pi chapter house.

Following Gregory’s tenure, Regent Selim Hobart Peabody was appointed to the presidency by the Illinois Board of Trustees. Before his presidential term, Peabody was a professor at the University. In his early days of teaching, Peabody was reluctant to fully commit to Champaign and leave his family’s Chicago home behind. In a biography of Regent Peabody written by his daughter, she notes that he was invited by Regent Gregory to live with him for a few months before he full decided to establish a residency. Arguably, we could call Gregory’s home on 4th street the first “President’s House” handed down between presidents because two university presidents technically both occupied it. After committing to Illinois and fully transitioning his family to Champaign, Peabody moved into a home at 709 Mt. Hope Avenue. This house remained the President’s home during his tenure at the university. Unfortunately, neither the building nor Mount Hope Avenue exists today. Mount Hope Avenue was renamed Pennsylvania Avenue in the mid 20th century, and Peabody’s home was razed in the 1940’s to make room for the rapidly expanding University of Illinois.

Wright Street shot of the President’s Green Streeet house in the winter

Continuing the pattern formed by the first two regents, Peabody’s successor, Thomas Jonathan Burrill, simply transformed his home from his time as a professor to become the President’s house. Located at was once 1007 West Green Street, Burrill’s home occupied the land between where the Hendrick House Residence and the University Astronomy Building currently reside. Not much could be traced about this house beyond the fact that the 1898 housing directory notes that Burrill lived there for almost 5 years after his term as president ended before it disappeared from public record.

Front Photo of the President’s Green Street residence

Beginning with Andrew Sloan Draper’s Presidency, we see the first true rotating home of the president. His home was a well-kept house offset a stone’s throw north of the Green and Wright Street intersection. This nice estate nestled up against the Boneyard Creek was located at 905 W. Greet Street, and would now reside at 1410 West Green. It was purchased for the Draper by the University as a official President’s home for his time here. Beyond building a legacy of expansion and a connecting the University to the peaks of American industry, Draper built the historical legacy of a presidential manor handed off when he was succeeded by President Edmund Janes James in 1904. President James occupied the same Green Street residence bringing with him small expansions like a nice greenhouse out back and a drastically reworked landscape job around the property. The University finally started the dream of having a single president’s house that could be passed on through generations. Though it’s a simple gesture now, at the time having an official President’s house added a sense of prestige and community to the University.

David Kinley and John Pershing pose for Strauch’s camera outside Kinley’s home

Unfortunately, that dream of a generations-long house did not last. Following James’s Tenure, President David Kinley opted for a more conservative choice, preferring to stay in his Urbana home from his time as a professor. David Kinley’s home, a nice 2 story building just off Nevada street is still standing to this day. Located at 1203 W Nevada St in Urbana, Illinois, his home was purchased by the University of Illinois after his departure. It was eventually given and was given to the La Casa Cultural Latina, the latino/a cultural house in 1974.

President David Kinley retired in 1930 before Harry Woodburn Chase was appointed to the presidency. Chase returned to the former presidential manor off Green Street for a bit under a year before moving to the permanent presidential home. Consequently, the former president’s home off Green Street was appropriated by the university as a temporary student health center in the mid 1920’s. It also served as a student organization home after the student YMCA relocated its services from University Hall. They occupied that location for half a year before moving to their current Wright Street location. President Chase was the first to occupy the new, and current, president’s house on Florida Avenue. Chase’s time as President during the Great Depression forced him to deal with a tight economy, and an even tighter university budget following the stock market crash of 1929. With his limited funding, he continued the completion pre-depression Board of Trustees project to construct a new and continuous president’s house in 1930 for a cost of $225,000 ($4.2 million today).

Strauch’s Photo of the President’s house days before its completion

The 14,000 square-foot Georgian revival style building. was designed by the campus’ supervising architect James M. White, and Charles Platt of the Holabird and Roche architectural company. Holabird and Roche had designed a majority of the new buildings on campus of that era, and the president’s house was set to match the standard. James moved into the residence, located at 711 W Florida Ave, Urbana, and it’s remained the university standard for over 90 years. From President Chase to David Dodds Henry, from Stanley Ikenberry to Timothy Killeen, the home of the president has remained constant to this day.