The Curious Case of John Kohl

When combing through an archival collection, you’re bound to find numerous puzzling stories that over the course of history have left behind unanswered questions. Researchers cling to what a collection has to offer, and scrap for the secrets the collection has yet to reveal. The daunting task of framing numerous aged documents into one single history is like something out of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick; the “white whale” is ever elusive and hard to capture. For Archives Librarian Jennifer Greene, who oversees the archival collection at David L. Rice Library on the campus of the University of Southern Indiana, there are many “white whales” waiting to be discovered and shared within her own collection. One such “white whale” that has often peaked Miss Greene’s curiosity is the character of John Kohl. Housed in the seventy square foot preservation room at University Archives and Special Collections is the MSS 58 – John Kohl collection. The collection consists of American Civil War documents and legal documents associated with Mr. John Kohl of Evansville, Indiana. As is the case with most archival collections, the John Kohl collection leaves its viewers guessing in many areas. Who was John Kohl and what was his story are questions of particular interest to the viewer of this collection.

John Kohl was born in Germany in 1849 and immigrated to the United States at some point during his young life; no documents within the MSS 58 – John Kohl collection give a specific date for Kohl’s departure to America. Kohl must have made his way to the United States by 1864, because it was at this time when he enrolled in the 136th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Lying about his age, Kohl enlisted at the age of 15 to fight for the Union cause in the American Civil War on April 30th, 1864. Lasting 100 days, Kohl’s enlistment took him south to Tennessee and Alabama where he served alongside his fellow volunteers as a railroad guard. Many circumstances surrounding Kohl’s enlistment draw possible red flags for researchers. In particular, researchers may question why an underage German immigrant would feel compelled to partake in the Union cause. Perhaps he wanted to “see the elephant,” but it makes for a much better story to think that Kohl may have been paid off to volunteer in someone else’s stay. In reality, the actual circumstances surrounding Kohl’s voluntary service have likely been lost to history in the 150 years that have passed since his enlistment.

Upon the completion of his 100 day enlistment and discharge from the 136th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteer Infantry on September 2nd, 1864 MSS 58 - John Kohl 4, Kohl began to make a life for himself in the city of Evansville, Indiana. Not much is known about Kohl between 1864 and the turn of the twentieth century other than a mention of his arrest in the Evansville Daily Courier for causing a scene at a private party on July 6th, 1871. The article also mentions that Kohl had previously been forced to pay fines to the Record’s Court for breaking lamps on Franklin Street Bridge in downtown Evansville, Indiana. An 1876 issue of the Evansville Daily Courier also reported that Kohl obtained a liquor license for the purposes of sale. What researchers can take away from Kohl’s first thirty-six years after the completion of his military service is that Kohl likely lived somewhat of a fast lifestyle centered around the possible consumption and sale of alcohol. Despite his status as a German immigrant, Kohl began receiving a pension for his military service in 1897 MSS 58 - John Kohl 5. Kohl continued to receive his pension as a non-American citizen for twenty years. With his pension bankrolling his enterprises, Kohl became what some would call an entrepreneur through investments in stock with the Alice of Old Mining Company MSS 58 - John Kohl 3, and through buying and selling real estate in the Evansville area MSS 58 - John Kohl 2. Kohl may have also sold alcohol on the side; that is until he failed to complete an application to renew his liquor license in 1910. Of course, in what researchers could hypothesize to be true John Kohl fashion, Kohl could have continued the sale of alcohol without a renewed license; this was early 20th Century America after all. On top of his entrepreneurial ventures, Kohl worked as a stationary engineer MSS 58 - John Kohl 1.

Near the end of his life, John Kohl’s story underwent one final interesting plot twist. According to a 1917 edition of the Evansville Courier, Kohl applied to become a naturalized citizen in 1917. After sixty-eight years German citizenship, Kohl officially renounced his status as a German citizen and formally became a citizen of the United States. Once again, this portion of the John Kohl story draws possible red flags for researchers. Why after living in the United Sates for at least fifty-three years did Kohl finally decide to become an American citizen at the age of sixty-eight? One possible theory is that the United States government could have threatened to cut off Kohl’s pension unless he formally became an American citizen. At the age of sixty-eight, it’s fair to assume that Kohl likely wasn’t working and may have depended on the pension for financial security. An even more interesting theory could be that Kohl felt pressure to renounce his German citizenship and become an American citizen in 1917 as the United States made preparations to enter into World War I against Germany. After all, Kohl’s application for citizenship garnered the attention of the Evansville Courier. Perhaps the courier was playing of American resentment against Germany and the rest of the Central Powers of World War I. Another theory, of course, is that Kohl could have simply wanted to become an American citizen and that was all the motivation he needed. Similar to his Civil War enlistment, the actual circumstances surrounding Kohl’s application for United States citizenship have likely been lost to history. After two years of waiting through the application process, Kohl became a naturalized citizen of the United States on June 4th, 1919 at the age of 71 MSS 58 - John Kohl 6. Kohl lived the remainder of his life, which lasted only two more years, as an American until his death on February 14th, 1922.

The MSS 58 – John Kohl collection at University Archives and Special Collections on the Campus of the University of Southern Indiana provides an excellent example of the secrets and mysteries within archival collections that await researchers. As is true of most archival collections, the whole story of John Kohl and his experiences as a German immigrant, turned American Civil War volunteer, turned fast life entrepreneur, turned aging American citizen may never be known. As historians, it is our job to fill in the gaps left behind with what little information is provided to us.

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