Abel and Jerusha Hess, 1903. Eyes later defaced by rivals.
Abel and Jerusha Hess
St. Louis, 1904
Gold Medal, Corn Navigation
When you mention the phrase “Children of the Corn” today, people’s minds leap to the infamous horror movie based on the Stephen King novel. And indeed, the images of the terrifying children haunting their elders is difficult to forget. What most people don’t realize, however, is that King based his book on a very real tradition originating in the American Midwest.
At a time when sprawling corn fields across the “Grain Belt” provided the bulk of the region’s food and income, an unfortunate consequence began to emerge. As farms grew bigger, reports of farmers becoming lost within the rows of corn trickled in from across the prairies. Sometimes these lost farmers would die from starvation, chlorophyll poisoning, or stalk fever before anyone could find them. But a far more common result was an ailment known as “Corn Madness.” This terrible illness was brought on by seeing nothing but rows and rows of corn for days at a time. It’s a similar affliction to snow blindness, but the consequences are much more severe, and include lifelong paranoia, uncontrollable bouts of hysterical laughter, Cornophobia, rage, and the tendency to repeat the word “corn” over and over. More often than not, victims of Corn Madness chose to commit suicide if the corn didn’t kill them first. The fear of contracting this deadly illness dominated conversations, and was immortalized in the folk song “I Ain’t Going Out in That Corn No Mo’” by the Corn Tar Boys.
As the epidemic of Corn Madness spread, some farmers thought they found an elegant solution. Children had a natural homing instinct, they thought, and could easily guide lost farmers to their homestead. Farmers began taking children with them on corn expeditions, ready to employ them in case they lost their way. When the Omaha Courier-Gazette printed a feature story on the practice in 1899 with the headline, “And a Child Shall Lead Them,” child guides became widespread. These ‘children of the corn’ were hailed as local heroes, and it became a path out of poverty for many prairie youth. It also radically shifted the culture- soon, many of the best guides were making more than their parents for less work, a reality that threatened the social fabric.
A study commissioned by the fledgling University of Nebraska in 1907 found that contrary to public opinion, children had no special ability to lead farmers out of the corn, and that corn fatalities had actually tripled in the 10 years since the practice began- largely because the children now died with the farmer when they became lost. Also, children were particularly vulnerable to Corn Madness, and to being eaten by lost farmers who suffered from Corn Madness. It took a few years for the study to overcome the popular image of the precocious child geniuses, but finally the practice fell out of favor, and was never seen again after ladders were invented during World War I.
But in 1904, there were no bigger stars in the Midwest than the children of the corn, and the IOC succumbed to extreme pressure and allow St. Louis to hold a corn navigation event in the enormous fields to the east of the city. More than 8,000 children were entered by their parents, all but one of them American and Canadian (the exception, Miguel Angel Davidilla, was a 37-year-old Mexican con artist posing as a child, and nearly made off with $10,000 in entry fees before being apprehended and hung from a tall corn stalk).
On August 1st, these 8,000 children were led to different parts of the vast cornfield in groups of two, each with an adult sponsor to pose as the farmer. They had one month to find their way out of the cornfields, and each time they succeeded, they were brought to a different spot. The children who found their way out of the fields the most times in a month would be declared the gold medalists.
Abel and Jerusha Hess were Amish children whose family had left Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County ten years earlier to find more fertile land out west. Abel was only 2 years old at the time of the Olympics, while Jerusha was 6. But together, they showed an incredible ability to find their way back to the scorekeepers’ station. Existing documents are unclear as to how they managed the feat, but local legend maintained that the Hess’ abilities stemmed from Jerusha’s extreme fear of the morning sun, which caused him to flee from it in a westerly direction until he became exhausted by noon and had to rest. Inevitably, these efforts carried he and his brother westward toward the city. Each time they escaped and were brought back to the cornfield, Jerusha’s terror doubled and his progress was even faster. All total, the Hess’ came out of the field 16 times, more than double the total of their nearest competitor.
By the time the month had ended, 1,012 children had died (a figure that includes Davidilla) and 5,126 more came down with Corn Madness. But the Hess Brothers became instant celebrities, and were hailed across the Midwest as shining examples of heartland values- resourcefulness, practicality, and integrity.
At the medal ceremony, the presenter jokingly held the microphone up to young Abel, asking him for his comments on the win. He was not expecting any reply, but the young lad shouted a single word: “corn!” The delighted crowd applauded at the adorable spectacle, but the sad truth was that they had witnessed the onset of the Corn Madness that would soon take Abel’s life.