Servetus: The remote, atmospheric Joseph McCarthy Connection

bust.125wSo — now that it’s signed and sealed: As everyone knows by now, The Crucible fictionalizes elements of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s as an allegorical comment on the anti-Communist sentiment of the 1950s U.S. A major figure in the creation of that mood was Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Joseph McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin — a township in the area that’s been the location of many a meeting between me and Obscura — and lived out his childhood and teen years on a farm less than two miles as the crow flies from the house where I grew up. McCarthy Road was the school district boundary between my school district and the next one over, and the school bus drove past that farm every day. When I was growing up, you could see the original farmhouse, and we knew the (unrelated) family who farmed there, but I haven’t driven that way recently so I don’t know if the house is still there. The joke was that the failure of McCarthy’s agricultural ambitions (he had a sideline in chicken farming that didn’t take off) led to his decision to finish high school (in Manawa) and then move on to higher education (at Marquette University in Milwaukee). Of course, I did the obligatory report on Senator McCarthy in high school history. At that time you could still look at the original plat book for that part of town; in the meantime most of the McCarthy memorabilia in the public library has been either archived or defaced beyond legibility — it was already a problem with the library books in the 1980s when I did my report, although it was interesting to read all the different opinions people wrote in the margins of those books. McCarthy died while my parents were in high school, but my father worked in bookkeeping with his sister, Olive, in his first job out of high school at the (now demolished) Elm Tree Bakery on West College Avenue. He’s buried in one of the Catholic cemeteries in Appleton and a fair number of people who are still around remember him.

When I was a kid, the bust above was on display in the Outagamie County Courthouse — McCarthy was a local hero and respected figure in the area, and he’d been a Outagamie Circuit Court Judge. The first attempts to have the bust removed began in the mid-1980s, when I was in high school, and for the last decade or so, the figure’s been housed in the Outagamie County Museum.

Other random McCarthy-era judicial / political data that you might not know unless you remember the 1950s personally or are from the area: Greta van Susteren, of CNN and Fox News fame, also comes from our area — her father was Urban van Susteren, betimes a close friend of McCarthy and also an Outagamie County Circuit Court judge (an elected position). His judicial career ended in the mid-1980s over a series of accusations of judicial misconduct as a result of which he was suspended from his position by the state Supreme Court. I remember that vividly — it was all over the papers just as I was getting interested in reading news.

~ by Servetus on April 16, 2014.

11 Responses to “Servetus: The remote, atmospheric Joseph McCarthy Connection”

  1. Now that was pretty fascinating. I’m embarrassed by all the things I don’t know about American politics!


    • Glad you liked it. I tried not to make it into a history lecture (occupational hazard), though it is “Wisconsin history” too. McCarthy was very popular in Wisconsin — all of my grandparents voted for him and they never believed the accusations of misconduct raised against him. Even in his second run for the Senate, after many of the things for which we criticize him now transpired, he got (iirc) a 54% vote.


      • I’ve decided, a while ago, not to be surprised anymore when the people I consider least qualified and most corrupt, lead staggeringly successful political lives. Apparently, I’m alone in my political opinions. (It’s probably better that way) 😉


        • He said the sort of things people wanted to hear at the right time, at least until relatively late in his career — that will often make one successful.

          I think a lot of us are alone in our political opinions …


  2. Having been politically aware in the 1950s, I was terrified by Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. I realized that people could be tarred with the brush of association and destroyed. I knew he was from Wisconsin, but not the details of his life.


    • Probably the other historical detail that’s of larger significance in McCarthy’s life is that in his first Senate campaign he defeated “Fighting Bob” Lafollette, who was the leader of the Progressive Party — one of the most important political forces for change when the Democrats were still primarily a southern, conservative party. Its heyday was in the 20s and 30s, and LaFollette had just rejoined the Republican Party. LaFollette was a really important figure in both Wisconsin and national history — and his defeat was one index of the nation’s postwar / Cold War turn to conservatism.


  3. Serv, loved reading this because:
    I really enjoy posts about your home/roots
    I am just about to delve deeper into the Crucible, starting with a thorough read through
    My MA is in American culture and I’ve been been meaning to dust off the Salem witch hunt/ the McCarthy era
    I’m genetically inclined to pay attention to anything connected to communism (as crazy as it may be)
    Can’t wait to read more 🙂


    • Thanks!

      I’ve been thinking about whether I’m going to reread The Crucible b/c I won’t get to see it and given this director and set designer I suspect (and hope) it won’t be a super-traditional production anyway, but I probably will. It’ snot that long …


  4. […] There was some posturing about McCarthyism on both sides, which was a controversial topic, given where we came from. But Mrs. A. didn’t say much about the historical features of the play, either about Salem or […]


  5. […] Following up on this. […]


  6. […] for becoming a historian, one of them was the plat book I found there that introduced me to my close geographical connection with Joseph McCarthy. They also had summer reading programs, which I loved. And they would inter-library loan anything […]


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