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?”
Which stories become a part of history can be a luck-of-the-draw affair. Newspaper archives are full of stories of heroes whose tales captivated the nation once, but if no one rewrote those stories into a book later on, they were generally forgotten as generations passed. The Civil War papers are particularly replete with tales of soldiers who were national icons when they died, the namesakes of streets and towns throughout the country, but whom even the biggest Civil War buff would struggle to name today. The deaths came fast and furious in those days, and thousands of stories simply got lost in the avalanche. I have to imagine that by Autumn of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, back in April, must have seemed like a million years ago.
But there was one name from Shiloh still being bandied about in Chicago at the time: Captain Irving W. Carson, a Chicagoan who’d become the chief scout for General Grant. In addition to his duties in the field, he was moonlighting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His exploits as a scout during his short career made him famous even during his lifetime, and his death made him the first American journalist to be killed in the war – or any war, as far as I can tell. And, though his friends tried to keep his story alive and lamented that he was being forgotten even in the 1870s, this blog posts is, I believe, the first time a photo of him has ever been published.
Carson was born in 1838 – most sources say in Connecticut, though a couple of sketches of his life written by friends said he was born in Scotland (based on his writings, my hunch is that he had an affinity for Scottish culture and told people he was born there because he thought it sounded more interesting than saying he was from Hartford). After coming to Chicago in 1853, he worked for a time on the railroad, first as a mechanic and then as a conductor, before becoming a law clerk. He’d just been admitted to the bar when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.
He joined the army at once, enlisting first in Barker’s Chicago Dragoons, where he served alongside William Medill, brother of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill, for a three month hitch. Upon returning to Chicago in late July, at which point the Dragoons broke up, he appears to have taken a job with the Tribune covering military activity in Cairo, IL, a hotbed of secession activity near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. There, he was quickly taken into General Grant’s staff and put to work as a scout.
From then on, he did double duty, taking orders from Grant but largely doing his own thing; journalist Franc Wilkie recalled that Carson “wrote or fought according to the requirements of the situation.” In September, 1861, barely a month into his career, a Missouri Democrat writer referred to him as a famous scout whose adventures could fill a book, and in November, the New York Herald wrote “Carson, the tall scout, is along (with us), and commands his usual company, of which he is exclusively general, staff, colonel, and rank and file.”
Other soldiers in units that interacted with him, like the 7th Illinois, Chicago’s Board of Trade Battery A, and the 6th Ohio, may not have even realized that he was a journalist; one soldier, T.R. Dawley, wrote that “He appeared and disappeared like a flash…. We have known him to come into the room, hastily sieze his saddle, suprs, and pistol, mount his horse, dash off in a direction no one ever thought of taking, and only a few hours after would be strolling about the St. Charles (Hotel, where he was stationed) like some awkward rustic just in from the Egyptian swamps.”
The map Carson drew after talking his way into enemy fortifications disguised as a farmer.
Carson made frequent trips behind enemy lines, often in disguise, either to get a look at enemy positions or to carry messages. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he disguised himself as a Kentucky farmer early one morning, rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and stole a wagon, two mules and some corn, which he then quite deliberately let rebel General Polk confiscate. Polk, believing that the awkward man he’d encountered was just a local farmer, generously let him keep one of the mules, and even let him check out the rebel fortifications. Carson was able to draw up a full map of the the water battery near Columbus, KY, marking off all the guns, including their calibre and range, before rowing a skiff back across the river to Cairo with a the map (and a bonus mule).
In another event related by Dawley, after the Battle of Donelson one of the captured rebel soldiers was carrying a letter from his sister asking him to send her a “yankee boy” to keep as a pet. When he got the chance, Carson went to the address, told the young woman that her brother had captured him, and he was there to be her pet – and demanded to be fed. He then informed her of the truth – it was her brother who had been captured, not him – and escaped before the neighbors could catch him.
Carson seems to have been a bit bloodthirsty. In one letter to a friend in Chicago, he wrote “I have got a natural hatred for traitors and never intend to let any chance clip when I can dispose of them in a decent way.” Dawley wrote that he’d shout out curses at traitors in his sleep, and even sleepwalk brandishing his sabre. One Tribune dispatch (likely written by him) wrote of him chasing a rebel “desperado” for a mile before shooting him; a couple of months later, a New York Times reporter who’d traveled with Carson in the Bohemian Brigade (as writers called themselves) expanded on the story, stating that Carson had chased the desperado down, shot him, then ran a sword through him and left him for dead – only to find out the man was alive and well a month later. Carson told that reporter that if he had another chance, he’d cut the man’s head off and carry it fifteen or twenty rods from his body.
However, he clearly loved the dangerous life he’d carved out for himself. An unidentified friend wrote to the Chicago Journal that “the perilous business of scouting became a passion with him, and his adventures and hair-breadth escapes would fill a volume.” But for all of his recklessness, the New York Times called him “one of the most daring and serviceable men in the service,” and Grant clearly trusted him.
In the buildup to what became the battle of Shiloh, though, Carson told one friend to hang on to his “trinkets” in case he was killed, and wrote to a woman in Chicago that he may not survive the battle. At the same time, though, in an anecdote published less than two weeks later in the Chicago Journal, he was speaking the day before the battle about how much he loved his dangerous work, and marveled that “he had been fired at so often and grazed by so many bullets that he believed he had a charmed life,” and was heard to remark “The ball has not been cast, and never will be, that can kill me.”
Stories of soldiers saying things like this just before they die are common, and that was the case with Carson. Given his affinity for dangerous missions, it would be logical to guess that he died on some reckless, Poe Dameron-like crusade, but war doesn’t always play along with the rules of drama.
On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was having trouble holding his position, and sent Carson to find out whether General Buell’s troops could arrive soon enough to save the day. Just as he delivered the important news that help was coming, and that Grant should keep fighting, a random cannonball took his head off, killing him instantly and splattering the general with his blood. Even in death, he inspired legends: there were conflicting stories told about the exact extent of his injuries – most reports said his head was taken clean off, a later account side it was only one side of the top of it, leaving his chin. One account in the Appleton Crescent, written only days later, said “The case of of the celebrated scout, Carson, was horrifying. His face and the entire lower portion of his head were entirely gone, his brains dabbling into the little pool of blood which had gathered in the cavity below.” One suspects that he’d enjoy the fact that people swapped gruesome stories about him; one soldier remembered that his death was talked of for weeks by Shiloh veterans.
For a time I was skeptical that he was really a journalist, as none of the Tribune accounts of his death and funeral mentioned it. Most of the information we have about him being a reporter came from Franc Wilkie’s 1888 book Pen and Powder, which briefly named him as a Tribune correspondent. But, at length, I found a few other reports from other journalists stationed around him in 1861 and 1862 that referred to him as being among the group of “Bohemians,” and, as later accounts from his friends state that Grant took him into his staff well after he came to Cairo, it’s a good explanation for what he was doing there in the first place.
So, while I’m satisfied that he did work as a newspaper man, there remains the question of which articles in the Tribune are his – individual bylines were rare in those days. Only one writer seems to have tried to figure it out – Myron Smith, who cited several Carson articles in his book Timberclads in the War. However, I think Smith just assumed all of the dispatches that came from the right location and weren’t signed B (Albert Bodman) or GPU (George P Upton) were Carson’s. One dispatch is signed with a C, but most of the dispatches are unsigned.
It would be wonderful, though, to bring his work back to light, and there are two that seem most obviously to be his own – the one signed “C,” and one written aboard the USS Conestoga, published on a day (Feb 25, 1862) when the Tribune also published dispatches that were credited to Bodman and Upton. And from the articles that I was able to identify as his (more or less), I’m pleased to say that he was really an excellent writer. From the Conestoga dispatch, in particular, we can see that Carson really, really liked puns. This is a good clue to identify his others; many of the unsigned dispatches go to great pains to work in a pun.
Most of the dispatches are fairly mundane, just lists of what was going on in the area, what the soldiers were talking about, which brigades had arrived, what the weather was like, and other such mundanities, though sometimes he’d work in something fun – often there are references to Carson’s exploits in dispatches he probably wrote himself. One early report ends with the line “Dry time in Cairo – no whisky, no excitement.”
Here, then, are some excerpts from Tribune dispatches that are at least strongly likely to be the work of Irving W. Carson. Eventually I’ll expand and move most of these over to a dedicated page on Cemetery Mixtape.
From the Nov 11, 1861 account of the Battle of Belmont, signed “C:”
“Many shots fell near us, some short, and others beyond, and not a few fearfully near us. Shells were seen to burst at great heights; others, after drinking the water. Their large shot, eighteen inches long and terminating in cones, were projected from rifled cannon. These made horrible music as they passed near us…They fought desperately, but in an incredibly short time, the work was done. The enemy had surrendered, or abandoned their artillery, and were in full flight…Their flag pole was cut down, their colors taken possession of, and their encampment enveloped in flames.”
“Our columbiads were too much for them. Several times at the flash of one of them, I observed a dozen men and horses turn somersaults together…Never did fellows fight, or try to fight, more bravely. They seemed to actually court death at the very muzzles of our heavy guns, and vast numbers of them sought it not in vain.”
Feb 20, 1862, unsigned account marked “From our own Reporter.” Just after the union took Fort Donelson.
“There was one scene that will remain in my memory forever – that of Sunday morning when the Stars and Stripes were flung to the breeze above the ramparts of the fort. I was in a position where I could see the occupation of the surrendered fortress and the works beyond. Stand with me for fifteen minutes on the deck of the New Uncle Sam, the headquarters of General Grant. It is just nine o’clock. The day is mild and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south. The sun is shining through a cloudless sky. Far away, beyond the sound of the iron lipped cannon, one ship and shore, church bells are calling worshippers to the house of God; but here, fifty thousand men are standing in breathless expectation of an event which, in its results, is to have an abiding influence upon nations and peoples, for all coming time. They stand at one of the turning points of time…. It is a glorious moment – a Sabbath morning which will live in history. You may be sure that although I believe in keeping Sunday, I kept it on this occasion with a hurrah.”
“I was one of the first to jump on shore, and was not long in mingling with the crowd of rebels. I cannot give you a daguerrotype of the scene. Running up the bank, I came upon a squad of soldiers by a smoldering fire. They were dressed in grey pants, of negro cloth, with a strip of black cotton braid down the legs. It was not a prepossessing outfit. They showed that they had had a hard time. Some had white cotton blankets, with the smallest possible mixture of wool – white once, but painted a Spanish brown by frequent contact with the mud. There were old bed quilts, which their grandmothers had patched years ago – new bed quilts, which in mistaken patriotism had been given to the sinking cause…. I could but pity them.”
“The Tennesseans were more cheerful than the Mississippians. I conversed with them. One said he was glad it was over. He didn’t care what became of him, only he was glad he had not got to fight any more. A Mississippian wanted to know if Old Abe was an abolitionist.”
“Continuing my ramble, I came upon a rebel Kentucky regiment, which was burying its dead. There were six corpses lying in a pile, thrown together as you wold toss sticks of wood. How strange it is that man becomes indifferent to the death scenes of the battle field. The regiment paid no heed to the dead. The men who were digging the shallow graves were smoking pipes and laughing, to all appearances unconcerned as if digging post holes.”
“I counted ten dead bodies of those of our own troops which fell before the fire in front of the pit. Behind the pits were those Confederates, lying some face downwards, as if kissing their mother earth, to whose kindly embrace they had returned after life’s fitful fever* – others with their faces towards heaven, as if looking up to the Great Father of us all. Some were lying upon their sides as if in slumber. There was one with a quiet smile upon his face – a middle aged man… There was the same unconcern among the living. Men were eating their dinners with as much unconcern as they would in their own homes, with nothing around to remind them of the solemn and untried realities beyond this life of ours. I felt the same influence, and stepped upon the pools of blood, and trod the crimson gore almost as unconcerned. Who can explain the anomaly which makes us kind, considerate and tender, moved at the sight of suffering, in times of peace, while in war we are devils.”
* – this is a line from Macbeth, the exact passage Lincoln himself was reportedly moved by when reading outloud from the play only days before his assassination.
Feb 25, 1862 – we can be fairly certain this is Carson, because the other two correspondents, Upton and Bodman, signed initials to dispatches published the same day. It finds him in a jovial, particularly pun-happy mood, with some indications that perhaps other writers teased him a bit about his long, literary column excerpted above, published the day this one was written. It also includes another reference to a play that takes place in Scotland, though he’s at pains to explain the quote here – perhaps the others ribbed him for not marking the Macbeth line with quotation marks! Marked “from our own correspondent” and dated Feb 20th
“I am now lying at Clarksville. Honest confession for a newspaper correspondent. I will change it. The Conestoga is now lying here and I am writing on her gun deck by the lantern burning dimly.
First a morceau from Pillow, Gideon J Pillow, late (confederate) Generalissimo at Donelson, who took precious good pains not to be too late to get away. He is a little particular about the location of his ditches, an old trick of his, and he was careful to interpose the ditch called the Cumberland between himself and Gen Grant. Gideon, on assuming command at Fort Donelson, gave under his hand and seal the following, which I copy from the original document. The handwriting is bad. The lantern a little nearer, dear sergeant:
(Here he transcribe’s Pillow’s General Order No. 1, dated Feb 9, making himself commander of the fort and proclaiming the battle cry to be “Liberty or death.”)
Now this is well done of Gideon, who from this seems to be a very good Pillow for a military head. But the proof came later, and the valiant general in choosing between ‘liberty or death’ took excellent care that it should be the former, and of the largest pattern.
We left Ft. Donelson on the morning of Wed the 19th, following some hours after the US gunboat Cairo. Our trip was marked with little to interest. The Conestoga is of the racer breed of boats and walked the water like a thing of life, an entirely original term I beg you to note. When Gen Foot has despatch in his eye he takes the Conestoga. I have observed it is customary to praise the boat you ride on, but this is not merited, not a puff, the Conestoga not being now in the carrying trade (though by the way I take that back, she did the other day help to carry Fort Henry).
Just above Donelson we passed the still smoking ruins of the Cumberland Iron Works which do not now cumber the land with appliances to aid the rebels… The blackness of ashes marks where they stood, as the wizard remarked to Mr. Lochiel*. Will the printer stand by, and hold hard with quotation marks? And so on to Clarksville, thirty miles from Fort Donelson.
* – (note: a reference to a short Scottish poem/play, The Wizard’s Warning, by Thomas Campbell)
At 3pm the Conestoga rounded a bend in the river called Linwood Landing, and before us loomed Fort Severe. It was severely situated for us… for the muzzles of its few cannon looked almost down our chimneys from a height two hundred feet above our heads. We counted two guns and a white flag, and that settled it. There was nothing to fear from Fort Severe.
Clarksville is now in the Union and her scared residents may come home again. They are fond of the white flag. It will be better that they float the red, white and blue. Our land forces are in possession and the way is open to Nashville. We shall hear from there soon that the Stars and Stripes are floating there, and there are many in Nashville who will welcome the day. God speed it.
From March 3, 1862, unsigned letter dated 2/28 and marked “From our Own correspondent”
“I have it from good authority that numerous bottles with Northern newspapers enclosed have been thrown into the river for the edification of Reverend General Polk and his rebellious flock, who go bottle fishing with much regularity every morning. If the contents are half as effective as those other bottles, much in vogue Columbus-ward, the rebels will soon be in a tight place.”
From March 13, “From our own correspondent”
“All last night it rained heavy guns, accompanied by a violent gale of wind. The morning dawned dimly through thick murky clouds of vapor, as if there had been a terrible battle of the elements and the smoke of the conflict yet hanging over the turbid, swift-flowing rivers and the bottomless marshes and lowlands. By noon, however, the sun had shot its arrows through the mists and dispelled them, and, as I write, the sky is cerulean, the atmosphere crystelline, and the soft, balmy air proclaims that spring comes slowly up this way.”
These are just a few excerpts from the many dispatches in the Tribune that might be Carson’s work – again, it’s hard to be sure. And is hard to believe that some of these could be the work of a rookie writer in his early 20s, but Franc Wilkie later remarked that, if he’d only lived, Carson would have gone on to become a major general, or the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper.
When later memoirs and reports, particularly about Shiloh, left Carson out, or barely mentioned him, his friends objected. Two wrote to the Tribune in the 1870s that Carson should be considered one of the heroes of Shiloh. Others were annoyed that people (mostly political rivals) were claiming that Grant wasn’t really under fire or in any personal danger at Shiloh, and pointed out Carson’s death, only a few feet away from the general, as evidence to the contrary. In 1881, lamenting that history was already forgetting Captain Carson, Ebenezer Hannaford wrote “ Byron’s famous satire on military glory defined it as being killed in battle and having one’s name misspelled in the official gazette. But what shall we say of this case, where a brave man met the most tragic of deaths, and his name – nay, even his fate – was not so much as hinted? “
But in the months after his death, before it became just one of so many other lost stories, Carson briefly remained famous – his name WAS in the papers, and spelled correctly. His funeral and burial were covered by all of the major Chicago papers, and he was spoken of as one of Chicago’s two great heroes, along with Ellsworth (who is now equally unjustly obscure, though in the days after his death he was among the most famous in the country).
But that’s simply life in war – great lives are snuffed out in an instant, and the stories get lost just like so much mud and mire.
Though it seems to have been common in 1861-2 to say that stories of Carson’s adventures would fill a whole book, not enough of the stories were ever written down. This article is, I believe, the first time a photograph of him has been published. It was taken from a carte de viste that was donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 20th century. The image is tiny, but the only one known. Perhaps more letters and diary excerpts dealing with his exploits will one day come to life; I’ve certainly found quite a few tidbits about him published by reporters during his lifetime. Being one of the “Band of Bohemians,” he of course had access to lots of ears to tell his stories to!
Carson appears to have lived in what is now the loop for the whole of his time in Chicago, including one apartment that was right where the Harold Washington library is now. He is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, where I’ve started featuring his grave on tours. He was only twenty-three years old.
With posters from the 1933 Century of Progress in every gift shop and a seemingly endless series of books and exhibits on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it’s easy to forget that we’ve had OTHER great fairs around here, too. In the new episode of my Cemetery Mixtape podcast, I cover some events surrounding one that should be a lot more famous than it is: The Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair of 1865.
The fair was intended simply as a fundraiser for wounded soldiers, and one of the planned attractions would have caused particular notice: Abraham Lincoln himself. In February of 1865, a delegation representing the fair visited Lincoln at the White House and asked if he would come to give the opening speech; he told them that meeting so many people was always wearisome to him, but if he could get away from the office to make the trip – and he thought he might – he would. It would have been his first visit to Illinois since leaving for his inauguration four years earlier.
Of course, by the time the fair opened that Summer, the world had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, and the war was effectively over. The fair, then, became sort of a victory lap for the Civil War. Thomas Bryan (the founder of Graceland Cemetery, later VP of the Columbian Exposition and a major HH Holmes swindling victim) introduced such speakers as General Grant, General Sherman, and General Hooker. Included among the exhibits were an old slave auction block (and several other gruesome relics of the now-extinct institution), Grant’s horse (which was raffled off), John Brown’s carbine, the bell from Jeff Davis’s plantation, Lincoln and Douglas’s outfits from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, relics of Libby prison, the catafalque on which Lincoln’s coffin had rested barely two months before, and a wax figure of Jefferson Davis dressed in the dress he was said to have been captured in (though it was really one of the dresses taken from a trunk he’d been captured with; Elizabeth Keckley, the Lincolns’ dressmaker, identified it as one she’d made).
The fair was held over the course of several days (not several months, as the larger fairs were), and scattered between several buildings, including Bryan Hall and a “main building,” pictured above, which was on Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, around the current site of the Cultural Center.
Connections between HH Holmes and the World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition of 1893 are mostly fictional – though he did claim he was adding a third floor to his building to serve as a hotel during the fair, the “hotel” was never open for business, and the notion that he was preying on fair patrons was just something a New York newspaper casually suggested, and which gradually got folded into the legend. The number of people who came to the fair, went missing, and can honestly be connected to him is exactly one – Nannie Williams, who came to join Holmes and her sister Minnie in Chicago that year.
But, while Holmes didn’t see the fair as a great opportunity to murder people, he DID see it as a great way to make money. Nearly everyone in town did. By claiming to start a hotel, he was able to swindle investors, supplies and insurers galore.
By 1893, though, he’d already completed his biggest connection to the fair: swindling Thomas B. Bryan, the vice president and “commissioner at large” of the exposition.
Bryan had come to Chicago in 1853, when it was still a young town of just 30,000 people – early enough that later articles called him a pioneer. Though he set up as a lawyer at first, he got involved in real estate investments that proved lucrative, and by the time he met Holmes, he had been a pillar of the Chicago community for decades. He was the founder of Bryan Hall (a popular meeting place and lecture hall in Civil War era Chicago) and the founder and first president of Graceland Cemetery (a newspaper note from 1861 notes that he was arranging for an omnibus connected to the North Chicago Horse Railway to make daily trips to the cemetery; the fare would be eight cents). An now-amusing note from the Cemetery that year bragged that it was “sufficiently remote from the city never to be encroached upon, no matter what may be the prosperity of Chicago.” This was fairly silly to say even then; at the opening ceremonies a year or so before the Tribune noted that it would be part of suburbia “at no distant day.”
. In 1865, he introduced people like General Grant and General Sherman at the Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair. He later served as commissioner of the District of Columbus under President Hayes.
By 1891, he was working from an office in The Home Insurance Building (whose steel frame construction made it a landmark itself; the first modern skyscraper) and acting as Vice President and Commissioner at Large of the upcoming World’s Fair. In this capacity, he traveled the world, meeting with people like the pope to promote the interests of the fair.
Somewhere along the line, a fellow named Frederick Nind persuaded him (by sheer persistence and making a pest of himself) to become half owner in The ABC Copier Company, a company designed to sell a copy machine for which Nind had bought the patent in England. But Bryan seems to have almost immediately wanted out, as he had no real time to manage a copier machine business himself, and Nind began to look for a buyer. In late 1890 or early 1891, he met HH Holmes and told him all about the opportunity.
The connection to Bryan is what seems to have interested Holmes the most; H.W. Darrow, who ran a cigar shop in Holmes “Castle” building, later said that Holmes told him that this Bryan fellow seemed “like good fruit for a sucker.” Holmes offered to buy his half share of the business for around $7000. Bryan agreed, on the condition that his name not be used to establish credit or connections. Holmes paid him with a promissory note, the proceeded, naturally, to use Bryan’s name to establish credit and connections all over town, eventually borrowing thousands of dollars that he had no intention of repaying.
Here’s an excerpt from a deposition Bryan gave as part of the endless lawsuits that came from these borrowings:
Q: Had the business which this company was organized to carry on been previously carried on by some other company, firm or person?
A (Bryan): No, but it has since February 1891 been improperly attempted to be carried on by a man by the name of Holmes.
Q: The same one who is now president of the company?
A: He has no office. He assumed some office, but he was never appointed.
Q: He assumed the office of manager?
A: I don’t know what he assumed, but he assumed something. He never was actually appointed. He was an assumed officer.
The sheer amount of the promissory note, which Holmes (of course) never paid off, may qualify Bryan as Holmes’ single biggest swindling victim. His frequently given motto, “Take care of details, beware of cocktails,” indicates that he was what we’d now call a “detail oriented” man; in his notes to investors and his deposition, you can see how frustrating his light dealings with Holmes made him – it almost seems that it’s less about the money and more about Holmes’s exasperating tendency to obfuscate details!
Bryan died of heart trouble in Washington D.C. in 1906; he is buried there, far away from the cemetery he founded.
These days, running tours that leave from the south branch of the river, I hear a lot of tour guides talking about the Great Chicago Fire; as it started closer to there than anywhere else on a river tour route, it’s a natural place to cover it. And I while I hear plenty of false info (one company has their guides say we now know for sure that a lightning strike started the fire, which would require us to have a time machine), perhaps the most persistent lately is that Chicago is known as “The Second City” because the city that stands today was the second city built on the grounds after the fire destroyed the first one.
It’s a charming little fact, and a nice thing to tell ourselves as we nurse the eternal chip we get on our shoulder from living in New York’s shadow, but a look at the data doesn’t back it up one bit.
The term “second city” was common in the 19th century, always referring to the second-most populated city in a given region. For instance, you’d hear people talk about Lawrence as “the second city of Kansas.” By the time of the fire, people were starting to claim that Chicago would eventually surpass Philadelphia to become “the second city” of the United States.
Then, in 1889, the city of Chicago absorbed a few suburbs – places like Lake View and Englewood became neighborhoods instead of autonomous towns. This meant an instant growth in Chicago’s population, and (though Philadelphia and Brooklyn were working on absorbing suburbs and fighting for the honor) formally made Chicago the second city of the nation after New York. Annexation was necessary – the recent sensational Cronin murder, which left the various police departments mixed up and unable to work together properly made it clear that a unified city government was the way to go; within a decade New York would consolidate four neighboring cities into boroughs. But more than one person in 1889 accused Chicagoans of supporting annexation mainly because it would give them the “second city” title. So did a few people in Chicago suburbs who opposed annexation, though it was reported that nearly 15,000 people voted in favor of annexation, and only about 600 voted against.
The June 30, 1889 Tribune claims the title
For several decades, papers used the term almost exclusively to refer to the city’s status as the second most populated in the country – try as I might, I couldn’t find one single use where they meant that it was the second city built on the grounds. There must have been a few out there that I just didn’t run across (sure the fact that the “second city” was the second city built on the grounds must have occurred to somebody), but the data is clear: when people said “second city,” they definitely meant second-largest.
But that’s not exactly how the nickname came to stick, either – the title of the second city bounced around a bit, going to Philadelphia for a while, and then to Los Angeles. In the mid 20th century, New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling began to write a series of articles about Chicago, which he absolutely detested, having lived here for awhile 1949 and finding it inferior to New York. The articles eventually became a book, Chicago: The Second City in 1952. It’s actually a pretty entertaining, fairly tongue-in-cheek affair poking fun at the city, which he saw as a town in decline, living in its past glories of the 1890s and the gangster era of the 1920s. It may not have been entirely unfair – in 1952 we hadn’t had a great new skyscraper in twenty years, the population was moving to the suburbs, Los Angeles was creeping up closer in the population race, and we hadn’t had an event like the World’s Fair in some time. The great skyscrapers of the Daniel Burnham era seemed hopelessly old-fashioned – all things Victorian were hopelessly out of style, and wouldn’t start to seem cool again for another decade or two.
Liebling’s book is apparently what turned the phrase “second city” from a title to a nickname; seven years later The Second Theatre theatre took its name from Liebling’s essays in an inspired bit of self-deprecation, and since then the term has stuck.
Here’s a 1959 Trib blurb mentioning Liebling after noting the opening of the Second City:
Urban folklore in Chicago is full of stories of the city being cursed – most of which have little basis in fact. One often hears that Cap Streeter cursed the Streeterville area on his death bed (if it happened, no one wrote it down at the time), or even that Potowatomi Indians did a “ghost dance” on the present site of Hull House to curse the white man after the Battle of Fort Dearborn (I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with that). Left out, though, is the fact that for seventy-odd years, much of Chicago’d drinking water flowed through a murder site on the way to our faucets – the sort of thing that seems like it OUGHT to inspire a curse story.
Chicago’s reputation as a “murder” town is an old one. As early as 1858, the Chicago Times wrote “Another murder! The word has become so familiar to the ears of our citizens that it would seem scarcely adequate to excite their wonder. Murder is growing common in Chicago!”
Photo of the Lake Tunnel from a stereopticon image.
In the late 1850s, though, murder was a relatively minor problem – the article in question was talking about a sixth accused murderer being taken to the jails, but that year cholera was killing off hundreds of people per year. And, though they only barely understood it at the time, part of the problem was the disgusting drinking water taken from the mouth of Lake Michigan, which was mingled with all of the city’s sewage and waste.
In the early 1860s, civic engineers determined that they could solve the problem by getting the drinking water from two miles out, where the water was clearer, and in 1864 construction was begun on a tunnel beneath the lake, running from the famous water tower to a “crib” far out in the water. Though not nearly as well known as other feats of the day, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the two mile tunnel was every bit as remarkable and important a feat of engineering. And, though one still hears almost constantly that cholera epidemics in the 1880s were killing off 10-20% of the population, those stories are outright myths. The lake tunnel didn’t end lake pollution, but it helped a lot.
Few seemed to notice, or care, that the drinking water flowing through that tunnel was going right through a murder site. On August 25 of 1864, the Times announced that “about 12 o’clock on Tueday night a shocking and horrible murder was committed at the lake tunnel! A miner named Patrick Hunt was stabbed in the neck with a file in the hands of Michael Corry, and received a wound, the result of which was almost immediate death.”
Patrick Hunt and Michael Corry (or Carry, in some accounts), it seems, got into a fight over reports of how much work each of them was doing, and came to blows down in the tunnel, lit only by a lantern ten feet away. Witnesses heard Corry say something to the effect of “Let’s go up on land and fight it out,” to which Hunt agreed – but as soon as Hunt’s back was turned to head for the shaft, Corry attacked. Witness E.W. Offerman went down the shaft, where Corry, bleeding from the mouth from a blow by Hunt, was dragged to mouth of the tunnel. Corry, all the while, shouted “murder! Murder!” and Offerman shouted that Hunt had murdered Corry. But it was Hunt that received the worst of it – another worker found him slumped up against the tunnel wall, “struggling in the last agonies of death, with the blood pouring in torrents from a ghastly wound in his neck.” The file, missing its handle, had been wiped clean of blood and tossed about four feet from the shaft that lead down to the tunnel. Hunt died within seconds, and Offerman, immediately seeing that Corry was the killer, nearly took the file and attacked him in retaliation.
The sort of work Hunt and Corry were doing.
But cooler heads prevailed, and Corry and the corpse were both taken the the North Market Station House. After an inquest, Corry was taken the the jail, which would have been in the old courthouse where City Hall now stands. Crowds gathered to see the body, and, according to the Times, it took great effort on the part of the police to stop crowds from attacking Corry.
From the coroner’s report published in the Times, we see that Hunt, 34, a native of Ireland, left behind a wife and three children who lived on the west side; the coroner’s jury said he was a man of good character who only rarely drank. Corry, 28, was of Irish descent as well, but born in Pennsylvania, and had lived in Chicago since February of 1863, and, though he had been “a regular, faithful and steady man” since getting the job, he was “represented as being of an excitable and quarrelsome disposition, and as being addicted to the use of liquor.” Witness Herman Kraschell said he’d seen Corry drunk many times, though he seemed to be sober at the time of the murder.
Four months later, in December, he was indicted for murder, though no digitized paper ever seems to have offered any further news on the case. It’s possible that the final disposition of Corry is buried in a microfilm reel of an 1865 paper, but, as those can’t be searched by text, finding the article would largely be “luck of the draw.” From my own files, I see that the Times didn’t follow up much on the story; Fall of 1864 was approaching, and by the very next day editor Wilbur F. Storey was too busy bad-mouthing Abraham Lincoln and peddling conspiracy theories about the impending election to worry much about local matters. Given the accounts of Corry’s own injuries, it’s likely that he managed to establish that his attack was in self defense.
It seems odd, really, that this didn’t become more of a part of Chicago folklore, as it seems like a ghost story or curse story waiting to happen; if you’re the sort to think the Streeterville area is cursed, or that the water tower is haunted, this is probably just as good an explanation for it as any of the mythical stories that have gone around – at least in this case the history behind it is real!
Depending on how you look at things, Cousin Jim might be the first “indie” movie ever filmed in Chicago. There were plenty of Chicago filmmakers doing experiments in the early days, but by 1916, films were big business, and nearly all were made by studios. Cousin Jim stands out in film history because it was not by pros buy by bunch of members of the Casino Club – a very early example of friends getting together and making a movie. Because these friends were high society types, their venture made a lot of news, and the premiere at The Strand Theatre, at 7th and Wabash, was a big event. The film even played out of town for a while – it was a Chaplinesque comedy, but ads for the movie in other cities show that exhibitors thought it would mainly be interesting to the audience because it showed how Chicago society people lived.
Though the two-reel movie itself is almost certainly lost, The Newberry Library has two copies of the script – one typed, and one handwritten by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, namesake of the Goodman theatre. Goodman was attracting fame for himself as a playwright at the time, a leading light of the “Chicago Renaissance,” but Cousin Jim was not one of his major works. From the script, we can see that if it survived, the film would be a fascinating document of Chicago history and the history of cinema – but “fascinating” and “good” aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The first page of Goodman’s handwritten script
The son of a lumber baron, Goodman’s diary mostly shows him as a society type, dutifully recording which club he went to, who he dined with, and what yacht he was on on a given day. From what I read of it, you’d never guess he was considered a major, even edgy, writer at the time – in a way, it’s like reading Bruce Wayne’s diary and seeing nothing about fighting crime other than a meeting or two with Commissioner Gordon. Notably, it doesn’t say much about going to movies, and it’s likely that Goodman wasn’t really up to date on how the medium was evolving. The script (apparently from a scenario by John McCutcheon, an Essanay studios vet) doesn’t show a lot of creativity in terms of how the story will be presented; as a playwright, Goodman seems particularly at a loss in how to work with far less dialogue. Hence, this is the way the film opens: simply showing close-ups of the characters and their names:
Cousin Jim, reel 1
The “Count” is a waiter who knows that one of the society-men was caught cheating at cards in 1910, and blackmails him to be introduced around the clubs as a foreign big-shot, all part of his plans to marry one of the heiresses. But he’s thrown for a loop when Cousin Jim, alias Unlucky Jim, shows up in town.
William Fuller, left as Cousin Jim
Cousin Jim is a shameless Chaplin clone, alternately a victim of endless bad luck and daring adventurer (the script can’t seem to decide whether he’s a great hero or a comical loser). The Count proceeds to try to keep Jim away from society functions, eventually robbing a matron and planting Jim’s stolen fraternity pin at the scene, framing him for the crime.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it was proudly a Chicago film. I’ve seen most of the Chicago silent films that survive, and can’t think of any that make a real show of being in Chicago – most movies at the time tried to seem as they could be taking place in any old city. Cousin Jim wears the fact that it’s depicting Chicago and its socialites on its sleeve – indeed, though they generally lacked originality, the crew could have been among the first to say things like “the city itself is character in the film.”
It’s curious to note, then, that right from the start, Chicago movies seemed to have a strange sense of geography. In the 1980s, The Blues Brothers could get to Calumet City in 15 minutes, and Ferris Bueller’s dad somehow made his commute home to Highland Park by 5:30, a feat so impressive that I’d often joked about writing a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Dad’s Commute. Whatever wormhole they were using in the 80s obviously existed in 1916, a well – Cousin Jim leaves the Blackstone Hotel at 4:30, messes around outside the Art Institute (offering the lion statue a cigar), then has an adventure around the zoo and lagoon in Lincoln Park before making it back to the Casino Club, which was near the Magnificent Mile, at 5.
This adventure contained the films most famous scene: a sequence in which Jim throws two police officers off of the high bridge in Lincoln Park that was known as “suicide bridge.” News articles at the time noted that the stunt man brought in for the scene said the leap couldn’t be done, so the two actors simply did it themselves, somehow surviving a jump that most people didn’t (they called it “suicide bridge” for a reason). It’s curious to note that Goodman’s script called for special effects here, not a stunt:
Cousin Jim attempts to evade officers Bolivar and Tolivar before throwing them off the bridge, a shot captured by a Tribune photographer
A Tribune article notes that the movie was submitted to Major MLC Funkhouser, the city’s film censor – in those days, every movie had to be submitted to him, and the papers would detail which scenes he removed from any given movie (he was eventually caught charging admission to private showings of the cut bits). Though no cuts were noted from Cousin Jim, at least one scene in the script probably never would have made it past him: while Jim is in the shower, the Count steals his clothes. Jim (presumably in a towel, though the script doesn’t say) has to run to the next house and knock on the door. A maid holding a banana answers, and eats the banana as she tells him that no trousers are available. She eventually gets him a dress to wear, leading him to spend the night disguised at the society ball as “Mrs. Pick” while the Count ransacks a wealthy woman’s house, even putting the goldfish in a top hat (a title card jokes that he can’t resist anything gold). Scenes of robbery tended to be cut, and scenes of cross-dressing certainly did. If this scene got past Funkhouser, either he was feeling generous because the film was supposed to be for charity, or they bribed him.
It’s also in this scene that we get perhaps the biggest surprise: though it might not have been AS apparent to 1916 viewers, modern viewers would surely assume that someone was going to slip on the banana peel. Even 1916 viewers would have had to guess that “unlucky Jim” was about to take a fall on it – but it was the maid who took a spill.
a scene from the Onwentsia club
From here the film descends into the inevitable chase scene, after which the Count is brought to justice and Jim is revealed to have been a member of the secret service all along (a twist that makes no particular sense), and everyone pairs off to get married (Goodman’s script calls for “rice and old shows”).
Though Goodman’s diary doesn’t mention the film too much – he wasn’t involved in the filming and missed the premiere – we can see from it that it was written very quickly; after several days yachting around Florida, he first heard of the project in March. Filming began only weeks later, and the movie premiered on June 2. He mentions going over the scenes with McCutcheon once, but that’s about it. He does note, though, that after he finally saw it, a few days after the premiere, he asked for a couple of revisions and alterations to be made before the show went on the road.
The final film may differs quite a bit from the script – during the filming the Saddle and Cycle Club (at which Goodman was also a regular) objected to the Casino Club’s hunger for publicity and refused to let them film scenes there. The newspapers also describe a scene in which Jim goes fishing in the Fountain of the Great Lakes at the Art Institute, which may have just been improvised while they were filming the “giving the lion a cigar” scene (and making it even less likely that he could go up to Lincoln Park, have an adventure, and be back to the club at 5). And, again, it’s hard to imagine how they would have gotten the “eating a banana while she tells a near-nude Jim that there are no pants available” and cross-dressing scenes past Major Funkhouser.
The Newberry Library’s summary of the Goodman papers makes particular note of the Cousin Jim script, which I’m guessing would have shocked Goodman himself. A serious playwright, the papers feature manuscripts to a number of plays, including several collaborations with Ben Hecht. Though he collected a handful of clippings about the movie, the folder of clippings don’t include any of the large features about it that appeared in the Tribune during the filming, and it’s likely that he didn’t consider it to be a work of any major importance, particularly when his plays were being produced all over the country. Perhaps he still thought that movies would be a passing fad. In any case, he lived only two more years after Cousin Jim before succumbing to the Spanish Flu in November, 1918.
The proper name of Rosehill Cemetery is up to some debate. Though most official paperwork gives it as a single word, Rosehill, it’s not uncommon to see it written as Rose Hill. And several popular stories claim that the name was supposed to be Roe’s Hill, and only a clerical error resulted in the name we know today. People ask me about it on tours all the time.
The oft-given story is that the land, seven miles north of downtown Chicago, was once a farm (or tavern) owned by a stubborn old pioneer named Hiram Roe. When someone wanted to buy the land from the old man for a cemetery in 1859, stubborn old Mr. Roe only agreed when the buyer promised to name the cemetery after him – but a clerical error resulted in it being named Rosehill instead. I love to imagine Old Man Roe sitting there on opening day, gnashing his teeth and sipping his homemade whiskey from a brown bag while wealthy Chicagoans sat through the speeches and picked out their plots.
But, while there’s reason to believe Roe was a real person, the story of him wanting to have the cemetery named after him is certainly fiction. The land wasn’t bought from him, and wasn’t intended to be a cemetery when it was first purchased.
Lawsuit records recorded in The Northeastern Reporter in 1895, when a suit over payments was going on, elucidates the whole story of how the land changed hands: In 1857, Francis H. Benson bought the land where the cemetery now sits, then in the surburban town of Chittenden, for about $25,000 from the Illinois and Wisconsin Land Company. He intended to parcel it out into lots for houses, but the Panic of 1857 hit the economy hard, causing the land to lose about half its value and decimating the market for suburban real estate. The only money Benson made from the land in the first year came from selling off a bit of gravel he found on it.
But the dryness of the soil (it was a high elevation) made Benson think some of the land would make a good cemetery, so he partnered with James V.Z. Blaney, first president of Rosehill, to form the Rosehill Cemetery corporation. The company was incorporated in February, 1859, and the cemetery opened for business that summer. Benson and Blaney’s names are both carved onto the gate. When the cemetery published a promotional book in 1913, they said that the name came from wild white roses that grew on the hill.
But the story that the name of the cemetery may have grown from a hill named for Mr. Roe may not be entirely fanciful; while the “stubborn farmer who owned the land” tales are of decidedly modern vintage (probably just the last couple of decades), stories that the land was once called Roe’s Hill appear in several 19th century sources.
The first mention that I can find comes from just over 20 years after the cemetery was chartered, when the Chicago Tribune ran an article about onion farming on September 6, 1880. In the article, it said that in the early days of Chicago history, teamsters traveling in the woods seven miles north of town would often stop at the “Jug Tavern” owned by “old Man Roe,” who made a sort of whiskey that was popular enough for its fame to make them start referring to the area as Roe’s Hill.
A few years later, A.T. Andreas’ authoritative History of Cook County mentioned this as well, stating that the area of Bowmanville was once known as Roe’s Hill for Hiram Roe, whose cabin and tavern were near the current residence of one J.A. Budlong.
The Tribune mentioned Roe again in 1900, when an article on the origins of the names of various suburbs said that Bowmanville was originaly known as Roe’s Hill after Hiram Roe, “the pioneer settler (who) sold whiskey there of no uncertain proof.”
However, census records say nothing about a Hiram Roe in the area. There was a farmer named Hiram Rowe up near McHenry in those days, but I couldn’t find any evidence that he ever lived closer to the city. Furthermore, these mentions that the area was called “Roe’s Hill” in the old days (1830s-1850s) are all from a few decades later; no instance of anyone calling it Roe’s Hill in the actual “old days” has yet been found (though I’ve heard rumors about it being in some early Rosehill documents). Andreas and the Tribune may have just been repeating neighborhood gossip and urban legends.
Perhaps the tale that Rosehill was Roe’s Hill may have all been a misunderstanding; In 1856, Robert Ferguson wrote a book on Danish and Norse names in Scotland, and said that a Rose Hill in the U.K. was, he believed properly Roe’s Hill, from the Old Norse word for “King.” Perhaps someone heard that bit and thought it applied to the Rosehill in Chicago.
Still, the fact that sources knew the full name and even the location of the tavern make it look as though there was a kernel of truth in the story someplace. So, Old Man Hiram Roe remains a bit of a mystery; I spoke to Larry, a fellow tour guide who works at Rose Hill, and he said he’d pored through all of the oldest books looking for any mention of Hiram Roe without finding a thing. “He’s certainly not here now,” he told me.