Why is Chicago the “Second City?”

I swear I don’t have a major axe to grind against my fellow tour guides spreading bad information – we all repeat stories and facts that turn out to be wrong now and then, no matter how hard we try –  but I do seem to have a lot of posts clearing up common “tour myths,” and I’m particularly irked that a lot of companies actually require them to be told. I’ve worked for companies that expect their guides to stick to a particular outline, if not an outright script, and those outlines tend to be full of misconceptions, outdated facts, and outright myths. In the past, I’ve covered how the term “windy city” did not start with World’s Fair boosters being full of hot air, the myths about Samuel Insull building the Civic Opera House for a wife/daughter/girlfriend who couldn’t make it in New York, the story that Al Capone had a speakeasy under the dome of the Jeweler’s Building, and the tale that sculptor John Storre thought no building would ever be taller than the Board of Trade. When enough guides tell a story, others pick it up, and next thing you know, everyone just assumes it’s true that cholera killed 90,000 people in one year in the 1880s, that HH Holmes killed dozens of fairgoers, or some other such “fact” that isn’t even close to true.

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: 

Murder in the Drinking Water: The Lake Tunnel Murder of 1864

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!

The tunnel was in use until 1936, but the murder was forgotten almost as soon as it happened, and only recently started to rediscovered, having been retold in a couple of books on the Lake Tunnel, most recently Benjamin Sells’ excellent The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel that Saved Chicago.  

Examining Chicago’s First Indie Film: Cousin Jim (1916)

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 “Widow in Green” Blackmail Mystery

“Does anybody know the woman in green?” asked the Tribune in  November of 1908. “Can anybody tell the name of the mysterious woman motorist who for the last month has been an unfailing topic of conversation for those who have time to observe humanity as seen in Chicago’s streets? Who is she?”

For a month, Chicagoans had been observing a woman, roughly 30 years old, driving around the loop in a rented green touring car, dressed from head to foot in green, including a green hat and veil (except for a couple of days when she tried red or white outfits, each time with a matching car). Each day, she’d drive a circuit through the loop, occasionally stopping for some sort of meeting in the Marquette building. Once in a while she’d have a chauffeur, and once she nearly drove off the road, having been agitated by the sight of a certain man with a black mustache, but she was otherwise said to be perfectly capable of handing the car herself – the paper noted that she “handles her machine in a manner which shows her mastery over the art of chauffeuring”

In the Tribune’s 1908 feature, one gets the impression that they could have solved the mystery easily enough – she went to the same garages and drove the same route daily – but preferred to revel in the wild, romantic backstories people were inventing for her. It might seem odd today, more than a century on, to imagine that someone driving around could create such excitement, but we have to remember that this was 1908. Cars weren’t quite the novelty they’d been a few years before, but they were still in their infancy. Female drivers might have been a bit of a shock to some, as well. The veil, the tendency to match her outfit to her car, and her taking the same route daily were about all it took to attract attention.

It may be, though, that the real story was wilder than the Tribune dared to hope.

In January, the Inter-Ocean began telling stories of a “Widow in Green” who’d been blackmailing wealthy hotel guests. The Inter-Ocean certainly thought it was the same woman; stating that there was a small gang of blackmailers operating “under the leadership of the ‘woman in green,’ who created a furore among residents of the Michigan Avenue hotels by appearing each day dressed entirely in green. A large green touring car was constantly at her beck and call.”

The “Widow in Green,” it was said, was “a beautiful brunette, very attractive and a good conversationalist (who) speaks with a slight French accent.” She would scan the registers of Michigan Avenue hotels, find wealthy men who were in from out of town, and then seduce them in the dining rooms with her brilliant powers of conversation (though the “seduction” may have amounted only to go to their hotel rooms to discuss an investment plan for the money she claimed to have inherited, with her simply signing into the hotel as the man’s wife). Later, the wealthy men would receive letters demanding money, always signed with the single name “Gladys.”

Stories of Gladys the Green’s life of crime spread quickly – there were tales of her having a fist fight with the woman who owned one of the hotels, of her forging a check at another hotel. Though saying she was part of a “gang” might have been overstating it, she did employ a couple of “attorneys” who dealt with unruly victims, and who helped her draw up bogus mortgages to sell. To one victim, she sent a valentine showing a man being beaten with a rolling pin; the back read “I hope the new year will bring you as much happiness as you have brought me unhappiness – Gladys.”

The man who received the card told the press (through his attorney) that he’d remained silent and paid a fortune up until now “because his wife and children had been heretofore unaware of his escapapde with the dashing ‘widow in green,'” whom he’d met at the Lexington Hotel.  But his attempts to find her seem to have been in vain.

The flair for the dramatic may have been her undoing – though most papers in town barely mentioned the story (to my surprise – it seemed like the kind of story the American would have been all over), the Inter-Ocean covered it in several articles over a week or so in January, 1909, and several out of town papers picked up their coverage as well. With her newfound fame, the Widow in Green’s cover was blown, and operating in town likely became too risky. She presumably took off for parts unknown, and her story disappeared from the papers. So far as I know, she was forgotten by the end of the winter.

The Unmarked Grave of a Revolutionary War Widow

As a cemetery tour guide, on my favorite things is finding great stories that have escaped the history books – it’s often just a matter of finding an interesting headstone and looking up the name. But which stones to choose? The most obvious are the big and impressive ones, but sometimes it can also simply be a person with a strange name, or an interesting symbol.

One of these was Elizabeth Ely Gridley Butler, whose stone includes a “Real Daughter” plaque, signifying that her father was a Revolutionary War soldier. These are very rare in Chicago, where no verifiable Revolutionary War veterans are buried (we’ve covered the two supposed ones, William DuVol and David Kennison, a time or two before). But what struck me about Elizabeth was her birth date – 1826. I figured there had to be a story there, as the youngest Revolutionary Veterans in 1826 would have been comfortably past middle age.

As it turns out, her father, Theodore Gridley, of Clinton, NJ, served for seven months in the New York state militia during the war; family legend a century later said that he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (the war service is backed by records, though they indicate that the Bunker Hill part was probably not true). It wasn’t until around 1816 that he married Amy Ely, who was already 40 years of age – very old to be getting married in those days.  In 1825, according to an 1875 Tribune article, the two of them rode in a carriage to Boston to see the cornerstone laid for the Battle of Bunker Hill memoriale, and heard Daniel Webster speak.

Amy was nearly 50 years old when Elizabeth, her only child was born; Thomas died the next year, and Amy moved to Chicago in 1854, when her daughter married G.S. Butler there, and lived there for a rest of her life. The family hid in a cabbage patch outside of the city limits during the Great Chicago Fire, by which time Amy was close to 95 years old.

She survived the fire, though was a bit worse for wear. Her hearing began to suffer, and she stopped taking daily walks. By 1875, the Tribune said that her chief form of amusing was “rumpling handkerchiefs, from which she seems to derive considerable amusement.” It also noted that “unlike the conventional old lady, she does not smoke a pipe or require much attention.”

Amy Ely-Gridley died in her daughter’s home in 1876, and, at 99, was thought to be the oldest woman in Chicago. According to Graceland Cemetery records, she is buried in the unmarked spot directly next to her daughter’s. I’ve exchanged a few emails with the D.A.R. in hopes of getting a marker placed there, but nothing has come of it yet (possibly because Amy was Theodore’s third wife). Here’s hoping! Amy is a part of history who deserves a memorial of her own.

Kathryn Evans: Witness to History at Rosehill Cemetery

On a recent walk through Rosehill Cemetery, looking for new stories to tell on tours, I came upon the gravestone of Albert H. Dainty, whose epitaph read “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee.” This was a line from The Song of Solomon in the Bible. Translations vary, but the full line is something like “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn to me, my beloved, and be like a wild elk among the rugged hills.” Go, Albert H. Dainty, go!

Some research showed that this epitaph would have certainly been chosen by his second wife; his first, Laura, left him to go on the stage, ignoring his pleas to come home for a decade before he finally obtained a divorce. She was a fairly well-known elocutionist in her day, and turned out to have connections to any number of other people in Rosehill (though she herself is in Forest Home). Later in life, she was very active in the Hull House theater, where she directed a performance of a play called Hazel Kirk in 1917 as benefit to raise money to get a retired actress named Kathryn Evans into the Episcopalian Home.

Kathryn M. Evans

I was delighted to find the connection to Evans, whose nondescript gravestone on the north side of the cemetery is one of Rosehill’s many little-known treasures.

Evans was an actress, and a fairly popular one in her day, though what earned her a place in history was her role as Mrs. Sharpe, a housekeeper, who had the first line in a comedy she later said “Wouldn’t be considered very funny today.” That comedy was Our American Cousin, and Ms. Evans appeared in it at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated there in 1865.

The details in the story she told of that night – over and over for the rest of her life – seem to change a bit in the telling, but she gave a particularly vivid description to a Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean reporter in 1914. “I was in the green room,’ she recalled, “chatting with Maggie Gourlay, the ‘Skillet’ of the play, and waiting for my cue, when I heard the shot ring out…. I knew when I heard the shot that it couldn’t be a part of the play…. A moment before young Booth had leaped to the stage. I heard someone shout ‘Stop that man!'”… I looked up and saw Lincoln unconscious, his head drooping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face.

“After the tragedy I ran upstairs to the dressing-room. The stage was filled with secret service men, who seemed to have gone crazy. They had arrested ‘Peanut Johnnie’ (the peanut vendor who held Booth’s horse) as an accomplice – poor ‘Peanut,’ who did nothing more than hold Booth’s horse. They were looking for Ned Spangler, our stage carpenter, who had innocently held the door open for the assassin. My husband was also under suspicion, as he had had a drink with Booth in George Harry’s cafe next door before the play began.”

Evans went to a dressing room, where she wiped the makeup off her face, certain that any second a detective would knock on the door to arrest her, too. Eventually the property manager assured her that she was safe, and she walked into the empty theatre, which wouldn’t see another audience in her lifetime. Her husband was arrested, but released. The property manager was held in the federal jail in the capitol building for a time, and his frantic wife lived with Evans for a bit. In the heady hours after the assassination and Booth’s seemingly easy escape, everyone in the theater was under suspicion.

She had worked with Booth a little bit before, and thought him the perfect gentleman. She had even seen him that day, and said that he betrayed no nervousness regarding what he was about to do. “My last glimpse of him,” she said, “was as he stood with his arms outstretched at the entrance to the theater, facing the stage. We all liked him.”

“It was an unhappy season for us,” she recalled. “The theater was closed, and we, who had been favorites a week before, were out of work. We were all more or less under suspicion because Booth was an actor… my husband died shortly after. It was a sad year for me.”

Years later, visiting Washington for the first time since 1865, she visited the federal prison and was appalled to see a guard prodding an elderly prisoner with a bayonet. She loudly protested, until the guard said the prisoner, was “Still a rebel at heart; he told me he was glad the blankety-blank old rail splitter had been killed. “Give him an extra prod for me, then,” Evans said.

Evans remained an actress for years, eventually retiring in Chicago. In 1920, a play about Lincoln was performed at the Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Norman), and Evans viewed the play from a box, where she sat alongside Sgt. A.W. Boggs, who’d been in the audience at Ford’s Theatre that night, and W.J. Ferguson, who’d been in the cast with her that night. They hadn’t seen each other since, though Ferguson was still a working actor; he was currently appearing in the The Little Whopper at the Studebaker, and had recently played Lincoln in a silent film.

 

I’m indebted to Dave Taylor and Kate Ramirez, Booth family scholars who told me about Evans; we located her grave at Rosehill over the summer when they came through town on their “Boothie Road Trip.” Check out his site boothiebarn.com!

The Sad Saga of Jeanette Hoy

Newspaper writers of the early 20th century found lots of amusing euphemisms for LGBT couples – enough that one sees references to a young woman and her “aide” and it’s tempting, at least, to wonder if they were more than friends. Jeanette Hoy and Katherine Davis don’t seem to have been a couple, exactly (to Hoy’s chagrin), but papers referred to their “odd friendship” and used the word “chum” in scare quotes after Hoy shot Davis, then herself, in 1921.

Davis told reporters that she met then-20 year old Hoy in 1919, when she was living in an apartment of her own in the Eleanor Club (a chain of women-only rooming houses that survived until the 1990s) on Indiana Avenue. The two struck up a friendship, going to the theater together regularly (and, in some accounts, rooming together), before Davis decided she didn’t want to see Jeanette anymore, presumably after Jeanette declared that her love was not platonic. Jeanette didn’t take it well, continuing to show up at the Eleanor Club and sending gifts and money. And then she sent one with a bullet enclosed, threatening to kill Davis and herself. The letter reportedly read, in part, “You probably don’t understand how a girl can love another girl as I do you.”

Jeanette, in an undated photo.

Jeanette, in an undated photo.

A few days later, April 28, 1921,  Jeanette appeared at the Madison and Wabash L platform. When Davis got out of a train, Hoy shot her, then ran down the stairs and into the alley (I’m thinking the one behind the Chicago Athletic Association, though there are a couple of alleys around there – it may just be wishful thinking on my part because I love that place so much!), where she shot herself three times. Both young women were taken to St. Luke’s Hospital, where they recovered. The Tribune story was headlined “Girl Shoots Her Chum, Tries to End Own Life – Bullets Reveal Strange Friendship” and spoke of Hoy’s “unusual attachment.”  The case made national news, including a write up in the New York Times.

Hoy was naturally taken to court, but Davis eventually waived the more serious charges against her former friend, and Hoy was only fined $100 and costs (and eventually had to pay Davis $5000). However, two years later, Hoy was back in the news after threatening to kill an 18 year old woman named Anna Melbuhr, after circumstances that papers described as nearly identical to her case two years before. The last I’ve seen of her in the news is from the day after her threat to Anna, when she was reportedly taken to a “psycopathic hospital” for observation.  Though there are a few people named “Jeanette Hoy” who appear in papers decades later, I’m not sure yet whether any are the same person. I’ve only just started looking, but so far I’m not sure whatever happened to Jeanette after 1923. It’s a mystery in progress. There might be some records on her in the state archives, and surely more first-hand accounting in the Chicago papers that I haven’t checked yet. I ran into the story in the Evening American archives on microfilm while researching a whole other story; the other papers of the day (Daily News, Herald Examiner, Journal, etc) probably covered it as well.

What’s interesting now is simply to read the way papers described the relationship between the two. The Evening American spoke of Davis as a victim of a “Girl Love Shooting,” and the Tribune said that Hoy “fancied herself the victim of unrequited love.” Elsewhere there’s talk of “strange friendship,” and a “weird love affair.” Somewhat remarkably, though, I haven’t seen any that editorialize much. Other than words like “weird” or “unusual” showing up now and then, they pretty much treated Jeanette the way they’d treat any other jilted lover.

It’s easy now – and certainly tempting – to see Hoy as a victim of her times, when lesbianism was far less understood and sometimes treated as the sort of thing that, all by itself, could get you sent to a psychopathic hospital.  But it also important to remember she shot a person and threatened to do it again; she clearly needed some sort of help, at the very least. Given the times, though, it’s unlikely she would have gotten the sort she really needed. There’s a chance that after 1923 she simply got married and changed her name, but the fact that she seems to vanish from the record after being sent for observation is ominous, to say the least.

 

 

 

“I Keep the Tavern Like Hell and Play the Fiddle Like the Devil”

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Mark Beaubien, Chicago’s original musician, taken from an oil painting that may not still be extant.

In 1880, the Calumet Club held their annual reunion of early Chicago settlers. Now approaching a population of a million, half a century before Chicago had been little more than a mud-hole, where, one settler remembered, a typical sunday consisted of taking champagne to church to drink the preacher’s health, then hanging around the church door shooting pigeons and prairie hens.

Midway through the reception, a club member informed Mark Beaubien, a settler who was then nearly eighty years old, that someone had requested that he play his violin. Beaubien replied with something to the effect of “I never played the violin. I played the fiddle.”

But one of his old fiddles was produced, and Mark tuned it up, spit on the strings, and played a tune, tapping a table with his foot, while 80 year old men danced reels, just as they had in his tavern nearly half a century before.

At the previous year’s reception, Mark had played them a tune called “The Devil’s Dream,” which seems particularly appropriate, given that his most famous quote is “I keep the tavern like Hell, and I play the fiddle like the Devil.”

This fiddle-playing took place well before there were any theaters or music halls in town – just the tavern attached to Beaubien’s Sauganash Hotel at what is now the corner of Wacker and Lake, just beside the Chicago River. It was, by some accounts, Chicago’s first frame house, but it wasn’t exactly the height of luxury. Anyone who asked for a mattress to sleep on would have been laughed at – Mark rented blankets for fifty cents per night. According to one account, Mark would rent someone a blanket, wait until that person fell asleep on the floor, then take the blanket and rent it to someone else, repeating the trick several times per night.

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Beaubien’s Sauganash Hotel, Wacker and Lake (then Market and Lake).

But it was the fiddle that people remembered. Long into the night, as some danced and some gambled (and some tried to sleep on the floor beneath their rented blankets), Mark would play songs like “Money Musk,” “Indian Solo,” and “Believe Me If All those Endearing Young Charms.”  Notably for the time, the dancers often included people of multiple races. He was particularly friendly with the local Potawatomie Indians.

Long John Wentworth, an early mayor, remembered that Mark was always available for parties, and if his strings all broke (as they sometimes did), he could just hum the dance music.” Wentworth also noted that Beaubien particularly enjoyed singing satirical songs making fun of General Hull, who had ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in 1812. He had been present when Hull surrendered Detroit to the British.

Beaubien died in 1881, survived by just a few of his twenty-three children. The Chicago Historical Society still has a fiddle said to have belonged to him, and a 1930s Tribune article notes than when their museum at North and Clark first opened, there was a recreation of the Sauganash Hotel set up inside of it, featuring a recording of period music made using the Beaubien fiddle and a flute from Fort Dearborn.

The exact provenance of this fiddle is hard to determine – a few early sources state that Beaubien only ever owned one of them, which he bequeathed on his deathbed to Long John Wentworth, who then gave it to the Calumet Club. But that fiddle was burned up in a fire in 1893. The one currently in the museum was one reportedly given to one of Beaubien’s nephews around 1860.

A rare photo of Beaubien from late in his life. Source uknown.

A rare photo of Beaubien from late in his life. Source uknown.