100 Years of the Hull House Devil Baby

Chicago Examiner, 10/31/1913

On Halloween, 1913, exactly a century ago, the Chicago Examiner broke the story that the west side of Chicago was alive with rumors that a “devil baby” had been brought to Hull House, the settlement house Jane Addams operated on the West Side. By then, it was all they’d been hearing about at Hull House for six weeks (though Addams kept up a very busy schedule with other matters).

The story was generally ridiculed in the press at the time; Addams went on to write a book about the phenomena entitled The Long Road of Woman’s Memory in 1916. Though the rumors that the baby was real persist, there was never any evidence to support it. There may, as Addams have mentioned, been a deformed baby on the West Side someplace, but it was certainly never brought to Hull House.

Rather, what happened was a sort of sociological phenomena that was given to happen in urban areas made up largely of recent immigrants; one of the hardest adjustments people had to make was finding out that things they’d grown up believing were regarded as local superstitions outside of the “Old Country.” In particular, Addams wrote, it was hard on the women, who found themselves neglected by their successful children, many of whom drifted away from their parents’ old world religious views. With the Devil Baby, they were in their territory.  To them, it was a validation of all of their old ways, the ones that their families had rejected and even ridiculed. Even Addams herself tended to feel bad about having to tell them that the baby wasn’t real.

Chicago, 1913, was not the only time Devil Baby rumors went around; the same story went around in Cleveland in 1888. One major difference, though, is that when it went around other cities, people would line up planning to kill the thing. At Hull House, they lined up offering to pay admission to see it. It may have been baby steps, but it was progress.

One still hears all sorts of stories about the baby. Some say that it was real and that it haunts the Hull House. Some say that it was the inspiration for Rosemary’s Baby. Some say that Addams later admitted that there was a baby with harlequin ichthyosis who was brought to Hull House and inspired the story. Some even say that Jane Addams buried it alive in the garden next door (If you’re slandering Jane Addams like this, then we’ve got business!) None of these are true. As far as can be determined, the story simply came out of nowhere, as it did now and then (a similar rumor was widespread enough to make the papers as recently as the 1980s in Virginia).

Even now, it seems that no matter what I tell people about the baby on tours, many get the impression that it was real. Last year the fountain in the courtyard was removed, leaving a bare, circular patch of dirt in the center. I get a lot of questions about whether that patch of ground is the devil baby’s grave!

We recently covered the story here:
Devil Babies: Hull House and Beyond

Why, we even have an ebook available from Llewellyn Worldwide:
Devil Babies by Adam Selzer

Some Hull House Ghost Myths and Realities

Seeing as how October is coming around, I thought I’d clear up some things people are likely to start hearing about Hull House, the 1856 mansion that Jane Addams turned into a settlement house where she basically invented American social work.  That the house is haunted is a story going back to at least 1889, and some ghost sightings and weird stories there are quite well documented. But stories about the house, and especially the garden/court yard next door, get a bit wild. Most ghostlore and crime lore breeds some exaggerations, and much of it is fairly harmless. There’s no evidence that HH Holmes really tortured people in his basement, but there’s no real harm in thinking he did; it’s not like your besmirching the honor of a good man. However, if you’re going to go around slandering Jane Addams, we’ve got business.

Some stories I get questions about:

1. The garden next door was an Indian burial ground.
Not that anyone knows of. Without extensive archaeological work, we can’t say it for SURE (there were burials all over), but such a dig bringing anything like that up would be a surprise.

2. There used to be a well on the grounds of the garden next door, and  Jane Addams used to throw dead babies and fetuses into it.
Actually, the site next door a garden in Jane’s day at all – there was always a building there. First apparently an undertaking parlor (which ought to be spooky enough), and then a children’s center. Now, there was at least one baby who died in the children’s center. This was early in Jane Addams’ time at Hull House, and the original plan was to have the county bury it. This provoked a HUGE uproar in the neighborhood, cost them a lot of goodwill, and was eventually seen by Addams as a big mistake on their part, and a big failure to account for the culture of the neighborhood. Even if there was a well there, she would most emphatically not have thrown babies down it. Please, please do not show up at the Hull House museum with a shovel.

3. Jane Addams buried the Devil Baby alive in the garden.
A century ago, in autumn of 1913, a rumor went around the neighborhood that a “devil baby” with red scaly skin, horns, and the ability to swear in three langauges had been born nearby and was being hidden at Hull House. It was all the staff heard about for a good six weeks. This same story went around in a few other cities over the years. There’s no evidence at all that the baby was real, or even that a baby with some sort of deformity inspired the story. And even if there was, Jane Addams would never, ever have buried it alive. Again, please, please do not show up at the Hull House museum with a shovel.

The garden on a misty night in 2006.

4. Indians performed a “Ghost Dance” on the grounds in 1812 after the Battle of Fort Dearborn to curse the grounds.
The Ghost Dance movement came decades after 1812, for one thing. For another, given that Jane Addams won a Nobel Peace Prize, it would have been a fairly incompetent curse.

5. There’s a ghostly girl named Becky or Rebecca who haunts the house.
In the summer and fall of 2006, we got a LOT of photos on tours of what appeared to be a girl about 8-10 years old. Just, a LOT of them. And good ones, too – the kind that don’t require a lot of imagination to make you think it’s a ghost. No one had ever really talked about a ghostly girl there before, and the photos seemed to stop after about 2007, though I’ve seen one occasionally since then. We have many people who describe themselves as psychic on the tour, and in 2006 two of them said the girl was named Rebecca. For two psychics to tell us the same thing is pretty unusual, so we sort of went with it. The story has snowballed a bit over the years. I’ve never found good documentation of a girl named Rebecca – or, indeed, any girl that age – dying there.

6. The “haunted room” was really a “smush room.”
This is one that a few people have speculated on – that the real source of the “rustling noises” in the room Addams herself called “the haunted room” was really just lesbians having sex, and the “ghost” story was something they made up to cover for it. The exact nature of Addams’ relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, with whom she was spending a night in the room when she claimed to see a mysterious woman in a rustling dress, is up to speculation, and I’m in no position to say with any confidence what went on in their shared bed. However, a few of the stories about the haunted room and the woman in the rustling dress can’t be explained away with this explanation, and it’s all in the realm of speculation, anyway.

That said, here’s a basic rundown of some true stuff (much more is in the book linked in the banner at the bottom):

1. The grounds where the garden now stands was the site an an undertaking parlor when Addams moved in, and eventually was the site of the Hull House children’s center. At least one baby died there.

2. The house itself is probably the place where Millicent Hull died. Charles, her husband, was a spiritualist, so it isn’t impossible that he was holding seances in there in the 1860s. One of his sons may have died there as well (his other children died elsewhere).

3. In the 1870s, the house served as a home for the elderly run by a group of nuns. Many people died there in those days.

4. There was one bedroom that even Jane Addams herself referred to as “The Haunted Room,” and she herself thought she may have seen a ghost there one time – a woman in a rustling dress.

5. Even after taking literally hundreds of tour groups out there, even now I still have nights when I’ll step into the garden and get so freaked out that I step right back out.

6. Though I’m pretty conversant with all the things that can generate false positives here (various things like lamps and fireplace mantels can look remarkably like feminine forms in photos taken through the windows), now and then I still see one I truly can’t explain.

Devil Babies – Hull House and Beyond

It’s that time of the year when the story of the Hull House Devil Baby is being retold again and again – often repeated as fact, just as it was in 1913. That was the year that rumors that a “devil baby” had been born on the West Side and dropped off at Hull House first circulated through the midwest, attracting thousands to the door step, where they begged to see the deformed baby that was said to have bright red scaly skin, horns, hooves, and a tail. It was said that it was already fluent (and profane) in English, Latin, and Italian, and its birth was the result of an expectant father saying he would rather have the devil than another girl, or than having a picture of the Virgin Mary in the house (or any number of other blasphemies, depending on who was telling the story).

Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, said that the story could have been a thousand years old (except for some variations involving a red automobile). In fact, the sensation of wild rumors of a demon child attracting throngs of curious onlookers was not unique to Hull House. It was a story that came up now and then – one of the great urban legends of the 19th century. Variations probably go back centuries, but around the late 19th century, there were actually a number of other cases when rumors of a devil baby created a sensation.

In 1888, a rumor that a devil baby had been born in Newburg, a Cleveland suburb, was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Here’s a picture published in their 3/25/1888 issue – according to later issues, eyewitnesses said it was quite accurate:

The paper remarked that the widespread rumor had been good for the Newburg railway, as a constant stream of people had come looking for it. A “freak man” from Detroit was running all over town offering $10,000 for the use of the baby for four months. Rumor had it that the “devil kid” juggled hot coals for fun and that he ate a box of matches every day.

 The Plain Dealer actually insisted that the story was real for a whilel, and even published an interview with the midwife who delivered it, though they declined to print the correct address to protect the family. They were, in fact, the outlet that broke the story. Their March 22, 1888 edition announced “Satan Incarnate: A Demonical Monstrosity in a Polish Family.” It described the kid as being bright red, with hair all over its body (like a satyr), horns, claws, and hooves, said and was known to use profane language to ministers (having been born able to talk). The paper speculated that the baby had been born as a result of the mother having seen a play about the devil, and cited a similar case when a man became enraged when his wife became pregnant and beat her about the head with a dead crow, causing the baby to be born with a crow’s head.  This all makes more sense when you realize that this was all written in the week leading up to April Fool’s Day.

But thousands believed the story and flocked to Newburg hoping for a look at the thing, and the paper kept the story alive. Other papers – which were initially curious enough to send reporters to Newburg, heaped scorn all over the Plain Dealer and called them all sorts of names.

In July, the Plain Dealer – still saying the story was real – announced that the baby had died in May, and that its embalmed corpse would soon be on display in a dime museum. The “baby” on display was actually made of paper mache.

The Plain Dealer seems to have had a knack for such pranks – in 1890, they printed an April Fool’s story that an ancient underground city had been found in a local cavern. Thousands came to look, and other papers actually repeated the story as fact, and the Erie Dispatch advised them to check the date and remember the Plain Dealer’s “yarn” about the devil kid. A painting of it – probably a more detailed version of the drawing above – was a huge hit in a local dime museum.  Does anyone know whatever happened to the painting?

Cleveland was not the only place where a story similar to the one at Hull House sprang up. A few years later, a brief sensation was caused by rumors that such a child was on display at a Museum in Washington, DC.

In 1891, a Minnesota mother was said to have caused a sensation by giving birth to a devil baby (the sight of which caused her to go insane). In a story almost identical to a common variation of the Hull House tale, the baby was said to have been born shortly after the mother turned a Bible salesman away, stating that she would rather have a devil in her house than a Bible. The salesman raised his arms and said “then I will send a devil to you!”

A similar baby was said to have been born on Elizabeth Street in New York in 1902. The actual address of the house was published, and police reported that it was no good telling the curious that there was no devil baby (or any other baby, for that matter) in the house. Several curiosity seekers were arrested and fined $5.

In 1904, a case was reported in Detroit. This one was said to be pitch black, hair, with horns, and a strong appetite for coal. According to rumor, when the family took the baby to be baptized, it escaped from the cradle and was found hiding in the stove. When investigators failed to find the baby, the superstitious locals insisted that it had simply disappeared.

In 1907, a story went around Kentucky that the widow of a preacher had burned a Bible on her husband’s grave and given birth to a devil baby three days later. The baby told her he would torment her for seven years, and after that she would die and go to hell.  One paper said “considering such dire threats highly reprehensible, especially from someone so young,” the mother tied a rock around it and threw it in the water – but it swam right back.

By 1912, the year before the story hit Hull House, an Illinois paper was calling the story a “classic romance” and saying that a new version was cabled over from Europe every five years or so.

The stories certainly did catch on in those days – and still do. Most people snicker when I tell the story of the Hull House devil baby cursing a priest out, but some people really do still believe it, no matter what I tell them.

DEVIL BABIES
Devil baby stories have been told for years—stories of infants born with horns, hooves, and claws . . . and a habit of using profane language with ministers. Join paranormal authority Adam Selzer as he investigates the legendary Devil Baby of Chicago’s Hull House, the famous Jersey Devil, and the satanic baby reported by the 

Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1888. You’ll never look at babies the same way again!

devilbabiesbanner

Murderous Superstitions

(WARNING! THIS ONE IS PRETTY GROSS)

In 1888, the Tribune had a great article about strange superstitions that were widely believed by muderers. These included:

“The Corpse Candle” – some murderers (primarily in Germany) believed that if you made candles from the body of a murder victim, the light would make the murderers invisible. It was also thought that it could turn the body into a sort of sleep-walking zombie, like in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

“The Dead Man’s Hand” – apparently, at this time it was popular for criminals to carry a “dead man’s hand” – an actual , dried and withered hand of a person who had died a violent death. It was said that these hands had the power to put people to sleep. A variation of this was to carry a dead man’s hand that was holding a lighted candle, with the belief that the light the candle shed could only be seen by the person carrying the hand. More than once, it was noted, it ended up having the reverse effect, and the light shed on the criminal caused him to be caught.

These were primarily European customs, but Chicago police had to keep an eye out for them, as many of the immigrants around the city who were coming from Eastern europe brought their supersitions with them. Superstitions from all over the world were being thrown together into areas that were heavily populated by recent immigrants, such as the near-southwest area around Hull House. This is part of why the “devil baby” story caught on so quickly in 1913, and gives you some idea of what Jane Addams was up against when she started Hull House. Most of the people had no idea that their superstitions were local beliefs, not facts that everyone in the world grew up knowing. Addams was adamant that clinging to superstitions was a major roadblock keeping these people from succeeding in America, but for many, one of the hardest parts of becoming an American was letting go of some of those folk beliefs – one reason that so many seemed so desperate to believe in the devil baby was that it gave them a new reason to cling to their old superstitions. In a weird way, the story that the devil had been born in the neighborhood gave people hope.

Coming tomorrow: The Ghostly Gunshot in the Florentine Ballroom – caught on film?

The Devil Baby of Hull House

Many people come to this site (or, even worse, go to Hull House) looking for photographs of the “Devil Baby.” There aren’t any. If you see any on other sites, they’re fake. The Devil Baby story was just a rumor that went around in 1913 (after having gone around in other cities many times before). Though Jane Addams saw a lot of value in the story (and in folklore in general), and even speculated that perhaps a deformed baby had been born somewhere on the West side, no such baby was ever brought to Hull House.

The story goes as follows:

In the early 20th century, rumors went around that the devil had been born (in baby form) somewhere around the Levy district and dropped off at Hull House, the settlement house on South Halsted. Exactly how this came to happen varied (largely depending on the ethnicity of who was telling the story), but most variations stated that the baby had red skin, horns, and spoke English, Latin and Italian fluently. Hundreds of people came to Hull House demanding to see it. When I tell the story on tours, people tend to snicker.

But in those days, people really believed…..oh, who am I kidding? Some people STILL believe that the story was true. They give me dirty looks for saying that it wasn’t, and for saying that the devil baby’s ghost doesn’t haunt Hull House to this day. Some of them even go to Hull House and bug the staff about it, just the way people did back in the old days. It’s in the realm of possibility that some poor, deformed baby was brought there (it’s a safe bet that fetal alcohol syndrome was rampant in the neighborhood, and pre-natal care barely existed), and someone saw it and let their imagination get carried away with them, but Jane Addams denied that the story had even that much truth to it, and I’m willing to take her word.

So I’ll just say this once: there was never a devil baby, and there’s no devil baby ghost, at Hull House. There may be some ghosts in there (I had enough weird nights on tours I brought there in 2006 to at LEAST give it a “maybe”), but the devil baby isn’t one of them. Some legends that aren’t true are harmless, or even beneficial to a city and its view of itself. Some of the rumors about Hull House, though, aren’t harmless. There are enough TRUE stories about the place that the legends and rumors should be presented as legends, and nothing more. However, a couple of tours, in particular, have been spreading some real crap about the place. It’s irresponsible on their part, since there are plenty of TRUE stories about the place that they usually ignore (if they know them at all).  Devil Baby stories (a common urban legend at the time) could get ugly – in one town, a family had a mob at the door wanting to sacrifice their (perfectly normal) infant.

Most of the more famous stories about Hull House – and most of the pictures – are bogus.  Smudges and glare on the window leads to a lot of ‘ghost on the stairs’ shots, and every “monk ghost” picture I’ve seen has turned out to be (I swear I’m not making this up) the reflection of someone’s ear. There is no headless ghost that will follow you home if you don’t cross yourself before entering the garden. The garden is not a burial ground. I’m not out to spoil anyone’s fun here, but I don’t think it’s worthwhile to waste time hunting for ghosts that I know aren’t real.

In 2006, during renovations to the building, I did run a lot of tours in which weird stuff happened there. We heard babies crying from inside the garden one night (there’s no graveyard in there and no portal to the netherworld; but when Jane Addams first moved into the house, that spot was occupied by either a brothel or an undertaking parlor). For a couple of weeks the shutters were opening and closing, apparently of their own accord. And we did get a few pictures that I’ve yet to explain and don’t really expect to.

While doing research today, I came upon a BIG article Jane Addams, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Hull house herself, wrote about the Devil Baby for Atlantic Monthly in 1916. You can read it yourself here, and I highly recommend that you do. It’s a fascinating read – does anyone know which ballad she’s referring to when she talks about a ballad in which a mistress demands that her lover bring her his mother’s heart on a plate? I pride myself on knowing my gory folk ballads, but this one has me stumped.

Anyway, while it may be haunted, DON’T believe everything you hear, and, for goodness sake, don’t go bugging the people who work in the building about ghosts, and certainly don’t show up with equipment expecting to be allowed to run some hunt for the ghost of the devil baby.

DEVIL BABIES
Devil baby stories have been told for years—stories of infants born with horns, hooves, and claws . . . and a habit of using profane language with ministers. Join paranormal authority Adam Selzer as he investigates the legendary Devil Baby of Chicago’s Hull House, the famous Jersey Devil, and the satanic baby reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1888. You’ll never look at babies the same way again!
devilbabiesbanner