The Devil and Daniel Elston

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In 1853, a story spread that little Knud Iverson, a young Chicago boy, had been ordered by older, “wicked” boys to steal some fruit from Daniel Elston’s orchard, which stood on the banks of the river where Elston’s namesake street now crosses Division. If he didn’t, they said, they’d dunk him in the river. Knud refused to steal, so they dunked him, just as they’d promised, and he drowned.

In some versions of the story they specifically told him they’d drown him if he refused to steal from Old Man Elston, and he’d chosen death over wickedness. A local minister began promoting him as a “martyr,” and started raising funds for a monument. The story spread all over the country, and donations poured in. P.T. Barnum sent $200. Years later, people could still remember when their Sunday School had taken up a collection for the Iverson monument.  The story of little Knud was written into childrens’ morality books and sermons for years – invariably praising his decision to die rather than steal. Personally, I’d counsel kids to just steal the apples and make it up to Mr. Elston later. This isn’t the kind of thing to die over.

In some wilder versions of the story, it was even suggested that, since the “wicked boys” were never identified (the only witness was a German boy who didn’t know them very well), that one or more of them was really one of the devil’s imps, or the devil himself, hanging around the Elston Orchard leading boys into temptation. There is now a nightclub on that spot; it’s probably worth considering that it’s been pointed out as the devil’s domain!

But the Chicago Tribune got ahold of the coroner’s jury’s verdict. The jury, led by Elston himself, had ruled that the death was not a murder. Boys had been horsing around in the river, dunking one another, as they often did, and Iverson’s drowning had simply been an accident, not a case of martrydom. The whole thing, the Tribune alleged, had been a “pious hoax” perpetrated by a local minister to build publicity – and money – for himself. It was suggested that the money raised for a monument be returned to the donors, but there were several articles over the years suggesting that no one was entirely sure what had happened to it.

The story continued to get cloudy – Elston himself was said to have written to the Chicago Democratic Press saying that, while the evidence before the jury didn’t prove it was a murder, he personally believed that it was based on new information he’d received since  (update: I checked the microfilm for the Democratic Press, and while there were many letters insisting that it really was a murder, none came from Mr. Elston. All were just people speculating). Soon, everyone had picked sides – some said that it was proof that Chicago had a real problem with juvenile delinquents, and others said it was proof that Chicago was a great place for humbugs. Even before the verdict, a few papers had made cracks about it being hard to believe that a Chicago boy wouldn’t steal, or that it was just like Chicago to kill anyone who wasn’t a thief.

Knud was probably buried in the old City Cemetery, where Lincoln Park is now. If he was moved, it wasn’t recorded, but some 1870s articles mention that there was a monument to him paid for by William Bross, who published the Democratic Press in 1853, and who is buried at Rosehill. It could be that there’s some monument to Knud that was placed in City Cemetery and moved to Rosehill, where it’s now one of those illegible markers and lost to history, but it’s perhaps more likely that he’s still in an unmarked spot in what is now Lincoln Park.

Elston himself died of typhoid fever in 1855; his body was moved to Graceland in 1867.

The Cop Who Cried Wolf

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Pictured above is Officer Curran. In 1925, he was working the desk at the County Building, where gangsters John Scalisi and Albert Anselmi had just been brought in . They’d been arrested after a chaotic day in which they’d gone out with Mike Genna to shoot Bugs Moran. Genna himself ended up being killed along with two cops, in one of Gangland Chicago’s busiest and most chaotic days – it would later be said that Scalisi and Anselmi were really working for Capone (they certainly would later) and had secretly been planning to kill Mike Genna, not Moran, the whole time.

People in the county building heard the sound of two gunshots, and Sgt. Elbridge H. Curran told everyone that a bushy-haired man with a “swarthy” complexion had come in and shot at him, possibly mistaking him for State’s Attorney Crowe, who was going to be prosecuting Scalisi and Anselmi.  He believed that the gunman had escaped into the freight tunnels, the 60+ mile network of tunnels forty feet below the loop that connected every major building. There were countless nooks and crannies where a man could hide, and lots of ways that he could steal food from loading docks. A man could have lived there in hiding for months.

The 1925 manhunt in the tunnels has been written about many times – including a few articles and books that I wrote myself. Papers all over the country covered the it. But they mostly went quiet about it the next day, and never published the results. I always assumed that they gave up on looking for him and assumed he’d left the tunnels and gotten away; the gangster specifically suspected of being the fugitive, Tony Spano, was shot to death in a barber’s chair the next year.

It turns out that the reason the story fell out of the news is that the whole thing was a hoax. There was no shooter hiding in the tunnels at all. Curran had made the whole thing up.

Forty-eight hours later, when the tunnel hunt was winding down, Curran burst into the Maxwell Street police station to announce that he’d been shot at in his patrol car at 18th and Loomis. But after a bit of questioning, he admitted that not only had he made up the whole thing about the guy in the tunnels, but he’d shot the bullet holes into the patrol car himself. It was all just for publicity.

And it wasn’t even the first time he’d done this sort of thing. Early in his career, four years before, he’d announced that some giant robber had beaten him up, and there was a manhunt for that guy. In 1923 he said he’d been chased by a car full of gangsters who sprayed him with bullets before driving off.  And now they’d put 250 officers with tear gas bombs onto a dangerous manhunt, all because he wanted to be famous.

And so, Sgt Curran was…. temporarily suspended. That’s the craziest thing – dude was put BACK on the force after a short suspension, and stayed there, continuing to do the same stuff, for at least another six years before he was suspended in 1931 for showing up drunk (which, besides being against the code of conduct, was still illegal in 1931). After that he drops from the news, from what I can find. He died in 1948. Listen to the podcast above for more details, and watch for his story to come up on the new Effing Chicago gangster tours, which are coming soon!

 

Cap Streeter’s Automobile Mobile Home

The legend of Captain George Wellington Streeter is well known – in 1886 he ran his houseboat ashore at Superior Street, then started charging people to dump their garbage around his boat, eventually creating the 186 acre landfill we still call “Streeterville” and embarking on a 30 year war with the city over the ownership of it, finally losing The Battle of Garbage Hill in 1918.

The truth is a bit more complicated – Streeter claimed squatting rights on a landfill and kept up his claim for years using fraud, trickery, and occasionally violence. But here in Chicago we sort of love our villains, and today there is a life-size statue of Streeter at Grand and McClurg. I think we love his sheer audacity – the general silliness of the story covers up just how big of a scoundrel he really was.

A case in point is a story I ran into in the newspaper archives lately – in part of the process of fighting for his squatter’s rights, he may have invented the automobile “mobile home.”

It was 1910, and Streeter was temporarily expelled from the property. According to an issue of Straus Investors magazine from 1918, Cap “bought an ancient chassis which mounted a delapidated engine, and on this he built a curious frame structure like a box car.”

For a while the “land boat” was “anchored” near the loop, but one night in September, 1910, after having a small party, he drove it to a theater. When the play was over, the craft was gone, and Cap found it had been moved up to Chestnut Street – right in his old “deestrict.” He and Mrs. Streeter climbed in and simply went to sleep.

The next morning a cop told them to move, and Streeter, according to the Inter Ocean, informed him that “he owned the land as well as the landboat,” then proceeded to talk the officer’s ear off for two hours explaining why the land was rightly his. The cop referred the matter to his superiors, who couldn’t think of a good reason to make the house move. There was no regulation against parking a “house automobile” on the street and simply living there at the time.

Indeed, they’d probably never seen a “house automobile” before. Though mobile homes – in form of things like covered wagons – had been around for centuries, I couldn’t find a reference to an earlier automobile mobile home than this, and I don’t think they started being manufactured until the mid 1920s. He might not have been the first to do so, but in 1910, if you wanted a horseless mobile home, you had to invent your own.

Cap told the Inter-Ocean that the invention was a good one. “The landboat is running fine,” he said. “My wife and I are going to make a trip in her overland to California this winter.”

This California trip was not to be. According to the 1918 Straus magazine retelling, “when he finally started it the curious vehicle plunged and bucked along for a couple of hundred yards and then got stuck deep in the sand. The motor died and the “Cap” never was able to start it.”

 

 

Newsboys Alley and the Lost Photos of J. Ellsworth Gross

In 1899, a Michigan reporter who visited Chicago said that “Those who are desirous of studying human nature in embryo in all its phases should spend one day in Newsboys Alley. The noblest and the lowest traits of man may be found there. From before daylight till after dark they swarm like bees…They fight, and play, and trade, and swear, and gamble. Italians, Jews, Turks, Swedes, Negroes, Germans, Poles, Russians, (and) Americans all mix together indiscriminately.”
Newsboys Alley was Calhoun Place, in between Wells and LaSalle, running along the back of several newspaper offices. People who made their living selling papers – mostly kids, and mostly boys – would gather at all hours to get their supply to hawk on the streets, and to socialize and gamble (craps games were said to run constantly). There were a couple of rooms with straw on the floor and wooden benches along the wall where they were allowed to sleep, as many were homeless. Though many actually came from well-to-do homes, the newsboy community was largely a society of children who lived almost entirely free of adult supervision. They were largely uneducated, but somewhat self-sufficient. They spoke what many reporters described as their own language – a mixture of underworld jargon and phrases borrowed from the many languages they spoke, in pronunciation that rendered “Extra” as “Uxtry.” Such care and education as they got frequently came from charity; many could sleep and attend night classes at the Waifs Mission, and George Dewey, the policeman who patrolled the alley, regularly had to buy shoes and coats for the boys in the winter, and taught a great many to read. Even in studio portraits, many are running around barefoot.
I’ve never seen a really good photo of Newsboys Alley – the closest are a few realistic fakes made by photographer J. Ellsworth Gross in the first few years of the 20th century. A noted photographer, Gross made several studies of newboys on the street, but after he fell down an elevator shaft in the Fisher Building, he was no longer mobile enough to handle street photography downtown. But he was fascinated by the newsboys, and didn’t want to quit taking pictures of them. “They are a mighty interesting study,” he told the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean. “They are the strongest and rankest little trade unionists you ever laid eyes on.” When he once suggested that some of them take up shoe-shining on the side, one told him “What do you think we are, scabs? If you want your shoes shined, go to a parlor. We ain’t trying to cut out their business.”
Hence, he built a studio in his barn near 36th and Michigan and sent an artist friend to Newsboys Alley to paint him a reproduction of it on a series of blankets, then brought in actual newsboys to pose in his simulation of the alley.
The photos he took were highly regarded, but hard to find now – a 1908 fire cost him all of his archives and negatives. While several of his portraits can be found online, the newsboy studies exist mainly in copies printed in magazines and newspapers, including the one at the head of this article, which was in The Camera magazine in 1910. He had recently taken a portrait of a young man who mentioned that he grew up in Chicago, and said “I like noisy old Chicago, but this is my first visit after many years. I used to be a newsboy here.” As soon as he said it, Gross recognized him from the picture, and showed it to him. “Well, I’m blowed if that ain’t me right there!” he said. “We were a true-blue bunch, too, I can tell you. And we had a…slogan to govern our little band. If a kid wasn’t acting right or toting square, all you have to say was, ‘Be a good sport!’ and he was all straight in a minute.”
 
The newsboys may have been the most diverse group in the city, but it would be exaggerating if we said they were exactly progressive. Most of the newsboys had nicknames, and the greater number of them were highly offensive – racial slurs, references to physical handicaps, etc. You can only expect a group of unsupervised children, particularly from a century ago, to be so polite.
 
The lights were turned off in the alley in 1918 when the old Chicago Herald office closed down – articles at the time said that it had been lit 24 hours a day for the past fifty years. After that, it faded away as a meeting places. The J. Ellsworth Gross pictures that survive – grainy copies though they are, and with a recreated background – are probably the best shots we have of what life in Newsboys Alley was like.  Besides the one at the top, here are a few more shots: 

“Nishiashun,” a J. Ellsworth Gross portrait published in The Epworth Herald

“Aristocrats,” a newsboys photo by J. Ellsworth Gross in the Inter Ocean

Another Epworth Herald shot

 

Newsboys Alley – or the space where it used to be – is featured on most of our “Architecture of Mysterious Chicago” walking tours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Podcast: A Suicide Bridge Ghost Story

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This year, I had the distinct honor of running the “Haunted History” tours at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which gave me a good opportunity to research some interesting aspects of the Zoo that I didn’t know about, search as zoo director Marlin Perkins’ search for the Yeti. And, of course, the ghost stories.

In the 1890s, Lincoln Park was widely regarded as the most haunted spot in town. It had been a cemetery within living memory at the time, but that was seldom mentioned as the origin of the park’s ghosts. The Tribune wrote that “there have been violent deaths enough to furnish a ghost for every shadowy nook.”

In particular, many pointed to the High Bridge over the lagoon, which was widely known as “suicide bridge.” Exact figures for how many people jumped off of it are not known, but 100 over its roughly 30 year existence (from the early 1890s to 1919) seems about right. Its reputation as a place to do away with oneself was such that not everyone even chose to use it for jumping; some went there to shoot themselves or hang themselves.

One ghost story I heard from zoo employees was that a little girl was sometimes heard crying in the middle of the night near the north end of the zoo. Now, it’s worth noting that zoos are FULL of noises that could lead to mistaken identity, but the story goes that one employee was so disturbed by the sobs that she quit her job.  The location was near enough to suicide bridge that I felt that it was worth looking to see if a historical story might be connected to it.


I did have some vague recollection of an article in which a boy had been begging his sisters to “stay away from Suicide Bridge,” and pulled it up to find a real heartbreaker of a story (with a photo, above, that is probably the saddest, and, let’s be honest, spookiest, photo I could possibly find).

It was 1907. Two young girls, Emma and Clair Pontius, ages 12 and 10, fell from the bridge into the lagoon. At first, it wasn’t noticed for some time, as it was thought that there were no witnesses. After the bodies were found, their father and stepmother speculated that one of the girls had fallen, and the other had jumped in after her. Their grandmother, though, had a different theory: she said the girls had been suicidal over their mother’s death and their stepmother’s treatment of them, and had spent the day at their mother’s grave at Graceland before going to Lincoln Park, away from which their brother, superstitious about the bridge, had begged them to stay.

It was eventually ruled an accident, but a witness, a young boy, emerged with a detail that seems to me to establish that it was likely suicide: the girls hadn’t screamed. One had simply slipped in, followed by the other. He also added another detail: that a man had gone into the water to save them and never returned. It was several days before the third body, later identified as John Duetinger, was found.  Duetlinger had spent two years recovering from a nervous breakdown, and was in the habit of walking in the park every day. An expert swimmer, he had saved a child from drowning in Douglas Park the year before.

Now, whether this really led to the sound of a crying girl being heard near the bridge site is impossible, but I always like it when someone tells me a ghost story and I can connect it to something historical. Another example at the zoo is a ghostly woman who is said to haunt the women’s bathroom at the Lion House.  In 1912, when another bathroom in the park was renovated, it was announced that their would be an attendant hired in both the mens and womens’ room; the man would be paid $55 a month, and the woman would get $50. Now, statistically, that’s a bit ahead of the “pay gap,” but if I were that woman, I’d probably want to haunt the place myself!

I plan to be back to run the zoo tours again next year. See ya there!

“The Black Hole” of the South Loop, 1882

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Recently, Valancourt began republishing a bunch of novels by Michael McDowell, who is best known for writing the screenplays to Beetle Juice and Nightmare Before Christmas. Mostly forgotten, his horror novels are fantastic books that deserve to be among the first rediscovered as readers start sifting through the rubble of the 80s-90s horror boom. I’ve been devouring them. While the six part Blackwater saga is probably his masterpiece, I particularly liked the hilariously gory The Amulet, which manages to be a dark meditation on the legacy of the Vietnam War, insanely gruesome, AND extremely funny. But my favorite is Gilded Needles, about one aristocratic family and one criminal family in Victorian New York.

In Gilded Needles, one of the aristocratic guys writes a series of articles for a newspaper about a neighborhood in lower Manhattan (where Soho is now) called The Black Triangle – the articles run alongside sermons about the crime and sin-infested area. Though there were certainly neighborhoods like that in New York, I couldn’t find anything specific about a place called The Black Triangle. And I wish McDowell was still alive so that I could ask if he’d seen the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean articles about the area they called The Black Hole, which are exactly like the articles he describes.

We had a lot of “vice districts” in Chicago over the years, and mapping them out isn’t usually an exact science. One can find any number of articles plotting out the areas known as Cheyenne, Little Hell, Bed Bug Row, Hell’s Half Acre, The Levee, Satan’s Mile, Whiskey Row, etc. After all, even “official” neighborhoods don’t have strictly designated boundaries most of the time; I’ve seen my own neighborhood listed as River West, West Loop, Ukranian Village, Noble Square, West Town or Wicker Park, depending on how any given realtor wants to market it. A realtor might say an apartment is in “West Bucktown” and mean just about anything east of, say, Cicero Avenue.  This is hardly unique to Chicago; in Los Angeles a real estate listing saying “Studio City-adjacent” can mean you’re in Mexico.

But with The Black Hole, we have a specific map, published right at the time, giving a distinct area. It overlaps some with The Levee, Whiskey Row, and other unsavory places – and might well have been largely an invention of the reporter.

A typical Inter Ocean Headline, Jan 28, 1882

The Inter-Ocean began writing of The Black Hole in a series of articles beginning in 1882. In the area bounded by State and LaSalle at the east and west, and by Van Buren and 14th at the North and South, they said there were roughly 400 saloons, 200 “houses of ill-fame,” 50 or 60 pool halls, and several “variety theatres” and “concert halls” that they considered the worst of the lot. They also claimed that at least 3000 “abandoned women” (prostitutes) lived there.  It was an area “where more souls are given to the devil annually than we can dream of.”  “By day,” they wrote, “it is a plague spot. By night, it is a hell.”

Now, how seriously we should take these claims is hard to tell; just looking at the map it seems like it would be hard to fit them all in, and that 3000 women could hardly be enough to provide employee for the number of brothels they counted.  And, throughout the articles, there are broad hints that the authors know that the stories won’t stand up to fact-checking.

For instance, the author declines to say what, exactly, is so shocking about the place. Early on in the first article, they note that “It would need a graphic pen to depict in all their horrid outlines the dark side of Chicago city life. In doing this one should not lose sight of the fact that he must not outrage public taste. For to describe crime and sin in a way that would pander to a morbid curiosity on the part of those whose only delight in such reading is to learn something more of ‘ways that are dark and tricks that are vain’ would do no good whatsoever.”

The reporter also noted early on that if someone came to check the area out for themselves, they’d probably think he was exaggerating, and tried to defend against such claims right from the start: “The respectable citizen, who does the correctness of this article,” he wrote, “cannot do better than himself to go over the ground which has been mapped out. He will see enough to surprise and disgust him but he will not see all. The reason why he will not see all may be told right here. The proprietor of a den wherin exists that which should not be is no man’s fool. He is a good judge of human nature, and can at sight tell the difference between a man who comes to spy upon him and a man who comes to ‘see the elephant’ and pay for it.”

Hence, the reporter helpfully volunteered to go around to various “dens” as a paying customer, beginning with a few of the small shops that dotted the area, which he referred to as “dago dens” (it’s worth noting that the writer was racist as all get out; the line about “ways that are dark” is from a common anti-Chinese poem from the era). “The dago,” he wrote, “always speaks very bad English. He has no heart, no conscience.” These shops were mostly small versions of what we’d now call bodegas, usually with a rudimentary bar attached. The reporter assumed they were all fronts for brothels.

But worse than such “dens” were the variety theaters, where one would see “Tier on tier of women, some of them shapely enough, and never a skirt in the party.”  And “worse immeasurably” than the variety show was the concert saloons, most of which were essentially “open mic” affairs where volunteers would sing songs at the piano. “The proprietor of the place is never known to smile. The waiters are saturnine and insolent. How any one can go to such a place for amusement is a mystery. There is no amusement there. The idiotic songs fall on deaf ears….these places are nothing more than assignation houses where the courtesans meet their friends and count the gains of their last venture, and plan new schemes of crime.”

Now, keep in mind, this is 1882. I can only imagine what this guy would have thought of the jazz clubs that came up a generation later!

Since it’s to be assumed that the stories were exaggerated, one has to wonder why the reporter would go to such lengths to make the area look bad. One reason was to drum up business and prestige for the pastors who sermons against the neighborhood were printed alongside the articles. More importantly, though, they were supposed to make mayor Carter Harrison look bad. After all, Harrison was a democrat, and the Inter-Ocean was a proudly republican paper. “Suppressed under Republican administrations, (these places) always flourish as soon as a Democrat takes hold for a term.” They went on to say that every single low-down establishment and den of thieves had a portrait of the mayor on the wall.

This was, of course, a ridiculous claim, but a Democratic paper probably would have said the same about a Republican mayor (and been just as racist while doing so). Trying to connect the modern parties to their Victorian roots is a fool’s errand – what positions were liberal vs conservative then, and which party was which, simply don’t always line up with modern times.

Really, the Inter-Ocean seems to have been the only place that called this area The Black Hole. Other sources divided it up into other luridly-named neighborhoods – one really can’t overstate the extent to which the articles about it were largely about publicity and politics.  But they weren’t just making up stories outright- right in the midst of the area was Carrie Watson’s famous “resort,” after all, and as late as the early 20th century one can find reports of judges refusing to prosecute criminals who worked the area because men who went there and got robbed should have known better than to go there in the first place.

It’s always hard to know just how seriously to take stories about these neighborhoods when one reads them now. Many stories one sees about historical vice today come from 1940s pulp retellings that were probably at least half fiction (Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of Chicago, alias Gem of the Prairie, tends to be a particular culprit; Asbury wrote really entertaining history but wasn’t shy about repeating hearsay, or even making things up outright). Sometimes the stories about these places came from reporters and politicians who were just telling wild tales to score political points (or, perhaps more often, fire up people’s racial prejudices and sense of moral outrage).  And, of course, this continued to happen into the years – just as the Inter Ocean guy said every criminal had a portrait of Mayor Harrison, 50 years later similar Frank Loesch, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, claimed, in some versions of his story of meeting Al Capone, that Capone had a picture of Mayor Thompson on the wall.

– how many people on TV have you seen saying that we Chicagoans can’t walk to a grocery store without getting shot?

The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Whatever Happened to Baby Rembrandt?

Tree Studios on E. Ohio Street opened as an artists’ colony in 1893, and right from the start the papers loved telling crazy stories about the bohemians and weirdos who took up residence there. It’s always been fun to make fun of hipsters.

Tree, which is still standing as an event space, became home to several prominent writers and artists over the years, and stories about things that happened there could probably fill a book on their own. But even prominent artists whose work was mostly very formal, “high brow” work in traditional disciplines could be total bohemians and free spirits, and one enduring mystery they left behind stands out to me: Whatever became of Baby Rembrandt, the baby boy left in the studio that they artists decided to keep?

Tree Studios on East Ohio Street, Chicago – photo from wikimedia commons

 

Officially, Tree Studios was a “no children allowed” zone in 1902 – the owner thought they’d spoil the mood of the place. But in July of that year, artists were surprised to hear the cries of a baby coming from the door. Janitor Edward Torrey ran for the Ohio Street entrance and found that a three week old infant had been left in a basket on the doorstep, wrapped in a shawl and a petticoat.  The screaming baby was brought inside, and the artists decided they simply had to keep him and raise him as an artist. They named him Rembrandt Michael Angelo Tree Torrey I. It was announced in the press that Torrey and his wife would adopt the baby, but it was understood that it would belong to the artists, half a dozen of whom immediately began to works in shifts as babysitters.

Though it’s hard to imagine that the city didn’t immediately get involved and take the baby elsewhere, the child became sort of a celebrity in the city. A milk company donated all the necessary formula, and it was reported that little Rembrandt was chugging down 15 bottles per day. One paper said that “he is to be brought up on novel lines; that is, he is not to be hampered in any way, and will be allowed to follow his own inclinations.”

The Guardians

At the end of July, five of the artists appeared in court, where they were given some sort of guardianship, and the child was given the more formal name of James Vincent Whistler, after the recently deceased painter. Those named as guardians include several artists who went on to be reasonably well-known: Julia Bracken (sculptor), Geneve Rixford Sargeant (painter), Louis Tipton (composer), John Johansen (painter), and Marie Gelou Cameron (painter). Bracken may be the best known; in 1893 she had worked on several architectural sculptures for the World’s Fair, and several of her pieces are still prominently displayed around the world.  Johansen would be hired to paint the first official portrait of President Hoover.

After the judge formalized the guardianship (or some sort arrangement), a couple of charity events were held for the baby’s welfare. As of early September, it was said in the press that the child was currently residing at St. Vincent’s home, but that his five guardian artists were arranging for him to be adopted by “a childless young wife of culture and sympathy and with their ideas as to his rearing.” Though it was said that she was an artist’s wife, the names were not disclosed.

Most of the early September data comes from a Boston paper reprinting a Chicago American article for which the microfilm reel is missing at the library here; it’s possible that the original had more data, or that the American later gave an update that I haven’t stumbled across yet and wasn’t reprinted by any paper that’s been digitized. So far, though, I’ve found no data on what became of the baby after September of 1902. It’s likely that he didn’t keep the name of James Vincent Whistler. Though a couple of possible matches to that name come up in the census records, there’s no one I can definitely connect to the “Tree Studio” baby.

There may be more clues in the probate records, but for now it stands as a strange story from a time when adoption was a very different process!

 

 

The Wild Adventures of “Sensational Viola”

I was researching a whole other story in the old Chicago Post 1903 microfilms when I came across an article about Viola Larsen, a 17 year old girl who was on trial for plotting to kidnap one of her neighbors. She told the judge that she was just looking for material to work into the books she planned to write one day – just like she was when she was caught stealing a horse and buggy the previous fall, and when she’d written “letters of a peculiar character” to another friend a few months before.

Viola, it seems, was desperate to become a famous – and scandalous – author, the sort whose books shocked the world almost as much as her wild and crazy lifestyle. In explaining why she stole the horse and buggy, she wrote “I wanted to feel just as the hero of my book will feel.” In another article, she said “What right has a writer to imagine things and call them truths?” In yet another, she said stealing the buggy and being chased by police made her feel “Delicious, beautiful, wonderful. The blood tingled in the veins (and I was) wild, intoxicated with pleasure.”

Viola at 25

By July of 1903, when the “kidnapping” was attempted, she was also running a group called the Genevieve Meredith Mischief Club, a rival to another club she’d started, The Sacred Annoying Club – a socialist club that she’d quit when all the other girls became anarchists. All of this was “research” and “gathering material” for her book, which she intended to call The Adventures of a Young Girl.  “Although this discourages me considerably, to be arrested again, I do not intend to give up,” she told the Post. “The book will be published, and then I will be famous.”  When asked if she’d read Mary McClane, a scandalous author she was accused of trying to emulate, she said admitted she had, but said “I am a stranger character than that.”

Viola’s adventures were only beginning. Soon, she’d shoot at herself in Jefferson Park, have herself committed to (and escape from) an insane asylum in Kankakee, spent some time in jail, and, eventually, offer to sell her index finger to a wealthy woman who’d lost her own. These adventures made the press, both in Chicago and around the country – half the reporters in the world seemed to have come to her for quotes when she was in jail for the horse theft, and she gave juicy quotes to each of them.  They called her “Sensational Viola.”

Viola married three times when she was young, though none of the marriages lasted very long. She once said that the first didn’t count because the man was an actor; the second ended when the new husband, a much older man, died. The third she married after a three day fling, and before they went to the judge she made him sign an agreement promising to “let her do as she pleased,” including receiving “admiring letters from intellectual friends,” but the union lasted only days; she explained at the time that she liked her love affairs to be intense and brief – and to furnish her with writing material. “I played on the strings of his heart as carelessly as an amateur handles a violin,” she said, “but to me he represented just so much gray matter that I might manipulate, experiment with. The trouble with him is an intense desire to spread his happiness over a lifetime. This does not appeal to me. As in my childhood days, I did not care for the bread and molasses unless I could lick the syrup off in one quick taste… I do not want his love. Especially I do not want his love which, interpreted, means physical desire.”  As early as 1902, when she was just 16, she told a reporter that she didn’t understand how girls could be interested in “just one boy.”

Alienists and psychologists of the day absolutely loved to talk about Viola; she herself spoke often of having a “dual personality,” frequently comparing herself to Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  One 1903 article in The Alienist and Neurologist held her up as an example of “mixoscopia” in teenagers – a term that now refers to the fetish of watching others have sex, but in the article just served as a catchall term for all sorts of fetishes.  They may not have been wrong;   the “letters of a peculiar character” to her friend referred to fantasies about “marring” her beauty, and there’s a section of her book in which The Sacred Annoying Club orders that a rich girl be stripped and dressed in rags. Some accounts even say that in 1908 she took out an ad in the papers offering herself as a slave.

Between the lines in several articles about her are vague hints of lesbian tendencies, and her own description of herself as a “man hater” who didn’t believe in love or marriage doesn’t exactly discourage this interpretation. The “annoying” letters she wrote to Stella Berger don’t survive in full (that I’ve been able to find), but they apparently contained references to having fallen in love with her face, and one excerpt published in The Chicago Journal contains the line “You are beautiful; I say this much even if I am a girl. Girls can admire as well as men.” The impression I get was that the letters told Stella that the “Sacred Annoying Club” was planning to attack her because she was too beautiful, and Viola’s plan was to “save” Stella and win her gratitude – a very roundabout (and ill-advised) way of trying to impress a girl on whom she had a crush.

Really, reading over the articles about her, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person from her era more clearly coded as gay. And though the meaning of the word was different then, it’s difficult not to chuckle at a 1903 article she wrote entitled “My Confession.” The first line of chapter one was “To begin with, I am queer.” The first line of chapter two: “Yes, I am queer.”

That she was grappling with sexual feelings that would have made her feel out of place in 1903 is further evident from a clue much later in her history – in the 1940 census, 55 year old Viola was living in an apartment near Ashland and Erie with a French woman listed as her “partner.”

By then, Viola’s life had taken a stunning turn. After a twenty year absence from the news, she suddenly reappeared in 1936, when she was given the Eichelberg International Humanitarian Award for her work rescuing lost, stray, and abused dogs. Working out of her apartment, and then a shelter at 513 N. Ashland, she was rescuing around 3000 dogs per year. The Tribune called her “a one woman humane society” and proudly called her “Chicago’s dog lady.” Nearly every day, she would venture out on foot, armed with an axe and a pistol (she bragged that she could shoot the ace off of a playing card), looking for dogs who needed help. She even made a return trip to jail once – after breaking down a garage door with her axe to save a dog who was being beaten, the owner had her jailed for six hours. She proudly told reporters later that it was well worth it – the man never got the dog back. Shortly after winning the Eichelberg award, she got her picture in the papers for the first time in 25 years for keeping people from panicking when the film in a movie theatre caught fire, organizing the orderly evacuation. This time, instead of the “serious” photos of her youth, she was shown smiling, surrounded by dogs.

From then until her death in 1962, she was locally famous for her humane work. Though census records make it clear that “The Chicago Dog Lady” and “Sensational Viola” were one and the same, none of the later articles ever brought up her wild past. One wonders how she’d react if she were asked about it in her sixties!

This still leaves us with the mystery of what became of her two books. The Inter-Ocean published a bit of the preface of Adventures of a Young Girl, as well as a portion of the chapter about the Sacred Annoying Club, and detailed descriptions of what each chapter was about,  but it doesn’t seem to have ever come out; The Search for Realism may simply be an alternate title. The 1910 article about her in The Alienist and Neurologist refers to The Search for Realism as an article she wrote for the September, 1909 issue of Towle’s Magazine, which seems to have been a very, very obscure periodical.   Around 1908 she was saying that the book hadn’t come out merely because no publisher would “come to her terms.”

A judge in 1903 told her in no uncertain terms that she was a lousy writer.  “A ten year old child could do better,” he said. “Get these notions out of your head, and go home and mind your father and your mother.” But he may have just been what we would now call “a dick.”  Calling a patrol wagon “the hearse of shattered hopes and dead ambitions” may veer a bit towards purple prose, but Viola’s own account of her carriage theft written in 1902 for The Pittsburgh Gazette under her alias, Viola Nesral (“Larsen” spelled backwards), is reasonably well written; in 1909 she even wrote at least one regular article for The Inter-Ocean, a profile of a woman who was teaching “occult” techniques such as hypnosis to helps parents raise their children. The surviving excerpts of The Adventures of a Young Girl are not exactly lost literary gems, but they’re certainly comparable in quality to the “scandalous” novels of the day that she was trying to emulate.

In the mid 1910s, she wrote regular letters to the editor of the Chicago Day Book; the letters were well-written, well-reasoned, and even quite progressive. In one, she castigates a southerner who’d tried to justify his prejudice against black people by saying that some of them commit crimes (a letter that seems distressingly modern). In another, she compared Billy Sunday, the popular preacher, to P.T. Barnum.  But even in 1915, excerpt for the daring move of mocking a preacher, she seems miles removed from the “Sensational Viola” of a few years before. To put it in very simplistic terms, she’d grown up.

Reading of her early exploits, it’s easy to get the impression that she must have been an absolute pain in the neck, constantly going out of her way to shock and impress people, fully convinced that she was a genius and that usual rules and laws didn’t apply to her. I can just imagine her on Tumblr today, posting videos of herself singing “Blank Space” but insisting she hates Taylor Swift.

But one also can’t help but admire her for being so daring and adventurous, especially given the notoriously stuffy standards of the day, and how she must have struggled to understand her own sexuality. Just imagine being not just gay, but kinky, in 1902.  How would you know that anyone else had the same feelings you did?  Though there’s always a chance that Viola didn’t really feel that way (it’s always hard to diagnose someone from this far into the future, and I’m usually very conservative about it), but she certainly thought no one else in the world was like her when she was young. And, at least to some extent, she loved that about herself.

“My object,” she said in 1908, “which caused many persons to believe me insane, was to be able to show people how life could be lived we dared… To live – that was the whole cry of my soul.”

A wonderful shot of Viola from the Chicago American, November 1902. She looks like Claire Danes here. “My So-Called Edwardian Life?”