|Chicago Examiner, 10/31/1913|
On Halloween, 1913, exactly a century ago, the Chicago Examiner broke the story that the west side of Chicago was alive with rumors that a “devil baby” had been brought to Hull House, the settlement house Jane Addams operated on the West Side. By then, it was all they’d been hearing about at Hull House for six weeks (though Addams kept up a very busy schedule with other matters).
The story was generally ridiculed in the press at the time; Addams went on to write a book about the phenomena entitled The Long Road of Woman’s Memory in 1916. Though the rumors that the baby was real persist, there was never any evidence to support it. There may, as Addams have mentioned, been a deformed baby on the West Side someplace, but it was certainly never brought to Hull House.
Rather, what happened was a sort of sociological phenomena that was given to happen in urban areas made up largely of recent immigrants; one of the hardest adjustments people had to make was finding out that things they’d grown up believing were regarded as local superstitions outside of the “Old Country.” In particular, Addams wrote, it was hard on the women, who found themselves neglected by their successful children, many of whom drifted away from their parents’ old world religious views. With the Devil Baby, they were in their territory. To them, it was a validation of all of their old ways, the ones that their families had rejected and even ridiculed. Even Addams herself tended to feel bad about having to tell them that the baby wasn’t real.
Chicago, 1913, was not the only time Devil Baby rumors went around; the same story went around in Cleveland in 1888. One major difference, though, is that when it went around other cities, people would line up planning to kill the thing. At Hull House, they lined up offering to pay admission to see it. It may have been baby steps, but it was progress.
One still hears all sorts of stories about the baby. Some say that it was real and that it haunts the Hull House. Some say that it was the inspiration for Rosemary’s Baby. Some say that Addams later admitted that there was a baby with harlequin ichthyosis who was brought to Hull House and inspired the story. Some even say that Jane Addams buried it alive in the garden next door (If you’re slandering Jane Addams like this, then we’ve got business!) None of these are true. As far as can be determined, the story simply came out of nowhere, as it did now and then (a similar rumor was widespread enough to make the papers as recently as the 1980s in Virginia).
Even now, it seems that no matter what I tell people about the baby on tours, many get the impression that it was real. Last year the fountain in the courtyard was removed, leaving a bare, circular patch of dirt in the center. I get a lot of questions about whether that patch of ground is the devil baby’s grave!
We recently covered the story here:
Devil Babies: Hull House and Beyond
Why, we even have an ebook available from Llewellyn Worldwide:
Devil Babies by Adam Selzer