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.
“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.
While doing research for the new Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tour, I ran into some fascinating data about Baron Cut von Biedenfeld, one of the late 19th century Chicago’s more colorful characters, who is all but forgotten today. Look him up online, and you’ll mostly find references to his father writing letters back and forth with composer Richard Wagner.
Born in Germany in the early 1860s, Baron von Biedenfeld managed to blow through all his money as a young man, and moved to the States nearly penniless, earning his first money by shoveling snow in New York during the Great Blizzard of 1888. Thereafter, he moved to Chicago, where he married his way back into high society, and became known as a man about town, occasionally making the society columns in the papers and living in a mansion at 20th and Indiana, near the famous Prairie Avenue district. He occasionally made the police blotter as well; an 1892 account in the Inter-Ocean speaks of the Baron (then still known as Count von Biedenfeld) getting into a scuffle at a bar on 22nd and Michigan – when a man insisted that the Count pay for the drinks, things got rough, and ended with Von Biedenfeld hitting the man in the head with his cane six times.
the Baron shows off a horse and carriage
This was all a precursor to a day six years later, when the baron was drinking at Redpath’s Saloon on Jackson, and was heard to remark “All Turks are cowards.” Police Officer Charles McDonald, who knew the Baron pretty well and thought he was using “Turk” as a slang term for an Irishman, said “I’m a Turk, and I’m not a coward.” Baron von Biedenfeld drew a piston and shot McDonald to death.
In court, a number of witnesses from red light districts affirmed that McDonald had a reputation as a rough character, and lawyers claimed that he’d been out to get the Baron for three years. The Baron himself insisted that the “unfortunate” shooting was self defense on his part, as McDonald was reaching for his own gun. The jury agreed, and he was acquitted. He gathered his things from the county jail (pausing to joke with prisoners who asked him to come back and visit), then moved right back to Germany.
A year later, he published a book about America. Only excerpts in English seem to be available, but some of them are rather interesting: “Immigrants who do not possess a certain sum of money, or who have no relatives in the States,” he wrote, “are promptly sent back…. Americans only have use for a man who has something of which they can rob him.” He went on to say “There is one weakness peculiar to the entire American people: the respect for success without regard for the means by which it was achieved.”
Of the many fascinating characters who grace Chicago history, but didn’t really make the history books, few had quite as storied or interesting a career as Dr. Charles Volney Dyer, an Underground Railroad Conductor, vampire witness, anatomist, cemetery founder, comic, and all around ass-kicker. He’s one of the most recent rabbit-holes I’ve fallen down recently, and though I’m still gathering info, the announcement that Harriet Tubman will soon grace the $20 bill has people talking about the underground railroad, so it seems an opportune time to talk about Dr. Dyer.
Dyer settled in Chicago very early in 1835; by the age of the 30 he was the town clerk. In 1840, when John Stone became the first man hanged in Chicago, his body was given over to Dr. Dyer to dissect.
A friend of Abraham Lincoln, he was perhaps the city’s first prominent abolitionist, and it wasn’t just a theory to him: he used to shelter fugitive slaves in his home when they were on their way to freedom in Canada – by some estimates over a thousand of them. An 1868 biographical sketch says that he and the other leaders in the Chicago underground railroad “assisted in rescuing over a thousand panting fugitives from the odious wretches who, under the shield of law, hunted down God’s creatures innocent of crime.” He was known to hide slaves in the Tremont House (the same hotel where both Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth stayed) and to sneak them in among cargo on train cars. He was once nicknamed “President of the Illinois Underground Railroad.”
On one occasion in 1846, a slave-owner recaptured a slave that Dyer had been sheltering and took him to the Mansion House, a downtown hotel, where he was held under guard until a blacksmith could be found to attach new manacles to his arms. Dyer broke into the room, cut the ropes, and helped the young soon-to-be-former-slave out the window, then calmly walked out onto the street, where the slave owner accosted him with a bowie knife. Dyer, ready for action, busted his cane over the man’s head. Grateful friends chipped in to buy him a new one, which is supposedly in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, though I couldn’t find anything in their catalog about it. According to an 1870s Tribune article it was engraved with the phrase “Sic Semper Tyranis,” which would not have seemed ironic in 1846, nearly twenty years before John Wilkes Booth shouted it after shooting Lincoln.
Two years later, a fugitive slave from Missouri was on trial, and Dyer stalled things with a technicality, stating that nothing had been shown to the court proving that slavery was established in Missouri. While the court waited for such proof to be procured, Dyer helped the fugitive escape out the window, where a waiting crowd carried him away. When a constable pulled both a bowie knife and revolver to threaten Dyer, he said “You are more deserving of arrest for displaying such cutlery in the street without a license.” The constable withdrew and the fugitive, so far as is known, escaped successfully.
Dyer didn’t remain a physician long; after selling land he had bought in Chicago for a few hundred dollars a year years earlier for forty-six thousand, he pretty much retired, though in 1863 President Lincoln sent him to Africa after appointing him Judge of Mixed Court for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade.
I also mentioned that he was a “vampire witness.” In the 19th century, there was a superstition (or pseudo-scientific belief) that when a person died of tuberculosis, they could infect their family from beyond the grave. Now and then a body would be exhumed, and a few internal organs burned, in attempt to stop the spread of the disease.It was more of a New England thing (with Mercy Brown being the most famous case), but is known to have happened once in Chicago. About all that is known of this case, though, simply comes from the fact that Charles V. Dyer told demonology expert Moncure Conway about it. It may be this story that led Dyer to decide a better cemetery was needed; he was one of the founders of Rosehill (though he’s buried at Oakwoods).
Dyer was known as a firebrand and a comic; friends said he would have used his last breath for a pun. The biographical sketch stated that he would attack shams, imposters, and hypcrites viciously, and said that “When he opens his magazines of ridicule, sarcasm, and invective, nothing but absolute stupidity or the epidermis of a rhinoceros can survive the onslaught.” One example given was that he was once at a fourth of july celebration in Europe, and several British officers were present. After bashing President Lincoln a bit, one officer offered a toast to the Queen, with the common line that “The sun never sets on her dominions.” Dyer quickly responded with “That’s because the Lord can’t trust an Englishman in the dark.”
Another joke that survived: after buying some property just north of the old City Cemetery, he quipped that “I have secured a home beyond the grave.”
At one point part of Halsted Street, from 2200S to 3900S, was named Dyer Street in his honor.
Kate Kane Rossi in 1908. “Those policemen actes as brutes. If I had been a man they would have been afraid to attack me,” she said.
In the 1885 “trunk murder” case, three Italian men were charged with killing a man, stuffing his body in a trunk, and mailing him to Pittsburgh. One thing stands out in notes about their high-profile trial that diffrentiates it considerably from other such trials of the day: two of the men were represented in court by a black man, and the other was represented by a woman, Kate Kane.
And, as widely-known as the “trunk murder” case was in its time, it’s possible that lawyer Kate Kane was already more famous than her client. Sometimes said to be the only woman lawyer in Chicago at the time, a couple of years before the Trunk case she had made national news when she tired of a judge’s sexist comments and threw water in his face. In the drawing at the left, she is being ejected from the Mayor’s office in 1908, after being refused admittance to see him. “No wonder the town is full of criminals and blackhands,” she shouted. “When a little poodle like you can stand around here and order respectable people out… I couldn’t vote myself, but I went out and rounded up 22,000 votes for the Mayor.”
Only the thirteenth woman to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, Kate Kane (later Kate Kane Rossi) practiced law in Chicago for nearly forty years, representing every sort of crime, she once said, except for treason and piracy, and representing every race and creed except “followers of Zorostoar and Mahomet.” She once ran for the job of First Ward Alderman, and tried to be made superintendent of the police at one point. She would have been considerably more qualified than many men who got the job in her era, when the gig was strictly political and often went to people with no background in a field related to law enforcement at all.
But what kept Kane in the news for the first half of her career were her occasional bursts of violence. When she took her daughter to work (which she did long before “take your daughter to work day” was a thing), someone stepped on the girl’s toes, and Kate, taking it for a deliberate assault, clobbered the guy. More than once she hit a guy over the head with a parasol, and when a court worker didn’t realize she was a lawyer and tried to bodily remove her from her seat, she beat him over the head with a shoe. More than once she ended up arrested for contempt of court.
Even papers trying to compliment Kate Kane sometimes did so awkardly. Here, in 1892, the Philadelphia Inquirer holds her up as one of the most successful lawyers in Chicago, but still calls the 42-year-old Kate Kane a “Girl Layer.”
To be sure, she received her share of sexist abuse, both from the bench and the press, who might not have thought twice about a male lawyer smacking someone around (but, then again, might have). Even papers who were trying to be complimentary to Kane were known to refer to her as a “girl lawyer.” In a move that might not happen today, a police officer was once fired for winking at her. But the press also frequently praised her for her eloquence and her capabilities as a lawyer.
Stories from her trials in the archives are endlessly fascinating. When prosecuting a father for neglecting his wife and baby, the baby died in the courtroom in the middle of the trial. She had one woman excused of vagrancy on the grounds that women were “not made for work” and thus could not be vagrants. When her husband pawned some of his clothes, she tried to sue the pawnbroker for taking stolen property (since she, not he, had paid for them).
Stories from her career could make a dynamite TV series – partly because the main character would be complicated and frankly flawed. Though her quick and sometimes violent temper is probably understandable, she was also recorded making racial comments during fights with black lawyers and officials that were uncalled-for and shocking even by 1890s standards, and would be instant career-enders today. We can hope that the reports were just “newspaper talk,” but a few of the nastier ones were quoted by multiple reporters in town. The fact that someone is a pioneer doesn’t mean they aren’t also a product of their times.
Kane-Rossi’s name in a sample ballot in the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, October 1896. Her campaign was not a success; after the first ballots were counted, the front-runner had about 22,000 votes, Rossi had about 30.
Still, she did admirable work; later in her career she seems to have focused on defendingprostitutes and “white slaves,” whose oppression she campaigned hard against, even running for State’s Attorney as a member of the “Abolition of Female Slavery” party. Her ground-breaking career – she was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court in 1900 – deserves more attention than it’s gotten to date. Figuring out exactly what sort of person she was, and what her politics were, can be a bit tricky based on extant sources; far more of her character was probably revealed in a regular column she had commenting on people and events of the day in a newspaper called the West Side Weekly. However, that paper doesn’t seem to survive. Could a microfilm reel be out there someplace?
She remained in the profession until 1920, and died in 1928. I’ve also been unable to find many photographs of her; usually more photos will exist of prominent people who lived until that late, but all I’ve come across so far are the one photo seen twice above and newspaper drawings of it. The local Hearst papers (few of which are currently easy to search) probably have more of them. Though not all of her views and actions would be considered admirable today, the story of Kate Kane Rossi deserved to be studied in more depth than it has been.
Back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term as president, an old pickpocket named George Summers spoke to the Tribune about the old days. “You know what’s the matter with the cannon (pocket picking) racket today?” he asked. “Stickups! These young punks ain’t willing to go through a long apprenticeship anymore, like we had to. You had to be good to be a dip…. In my time tailors made mens’ pockets so deep it took 15 seconds for a good man to pinch a poke. Nowadays they’re so shallow it can be done easy in five.”
The first time Summers was arrested was during the 1893 World’s Fair. The detective who’d arrested him, John W. Norton, was still active when Summers made his statement in 1939. When asked why he’d become a detective in the first place, Norton said, “I was a damned fool. Like all kids, I thought it would be grand to be a policeman.”
Though his name comes up in a lot of works on Chicago crimes of the 1920s, none of them seem to realize just how far back the man’s career went. Back in 1895, he was one of two detectives who were in charge of investigating the the “Holmes Castle” on Sixty-Third Street. Later recaps of his career only really talked about the last half of it, so it took me a while to realize that the “Lt. John Norton” mentioned in so many cases of the 1910s and 20s, and who became Chief of Detectives from 1930-32, was the same “Detective Norton” papers were always talking about during the Holmes case!
To say Norton had a long and fruitful career barely hints at things. Just a brief overview:
In 1889, Norton made the news for the first time after arresting a member of a coal-burning gang who’d been on the run for nine months. Not yet with the police, he was working as a private detective for a railroad company at the time.
Norton in 1895
In 1892, now with the Chicago Police, Norton was involved in a fierce battle with pickpockets at Clark and Madison. Having caught one, another pointed a gun at Norton’s head and said “let the fellow go, or I’ll blow your brains out.” Norton knocked the gun aside and managed to draw his own, wounding the would-be killer (and getting smashed on the head in the process). This was the first of many wounds he sustained on the job.
In 1893, he made national news for his attempt to capture Barney Burch, a notable pickpocket, who escaped by throwing red pepper in Norton’s eyes.
In 1895, Detective Sgt. Norton and Inspector Fitzpatrick supervised the explorations of the HH Holmes “murder castle.” Of the two, he comes off better; Fitzpatrick was far more apt to see a rope and assuming there must have been hangings. Norton seems a bit more cautious.
In 1926, when asst. state’s attorney William McSwiggin was shot to death in a drive-by (along with members of the O’Donnell gang, with whom he was hanging out for reasons never entirely clear), police raided all sorts of known Capone hideouts. Norton was on the raid at Capone’s brother’s place that uncovered a whole arsenal full of weapons. Rifles were disguised as curtain rods.
Detective Norton at right in 1926. When he found all the guns in hidden compartments at Ralph Capone’s house, did he think back to digging through the hidden compartments at the HH Holmes “murder castle” more than 30 years before?
1930, he was made chief of detectives (replacing a man J. Edgar Hoover said was getting give grand a month from Capone), in in 1931 was in charge of such duties as controlling the crowds outside of Capone’s trial.
In 1940, when he retired after more than 50 years as a detective, with over 100 citations for bravery to his name, he’d been serving as commander of the Maxwell Street Police Station.
Now, I don’t want to go overboard with calling the guy a “hero.” The 50 years that Norton was with the force are not exactly 50 proud years in Chicago police history; it was a long era of corruption, incompetence, and police brutality. The Maxwell Street Station he commanded, in fact, has a particularly grim repuation. And Norton was sort of an old-fasioned detective – a bit more likely to use his billy club than his magnifying glass. “I am not of the Sherlock Holmes type,” he once said. “(But) I consider myself a close student of crime. I have made the running down of criminals my business. Then, too, it is a pleasure to me. It is almost my whole enjoyment, and to work overtime is no hardship… I do not want it understood that I have no faith in the theory of deduction; I have the greatest faith in it, but I consider it secondary to the plain methods of police work.”
But Norton was only rarely accused of forcing a confession out of anyone (which, in context, is a pretty good record), and I’ve never found anything about him being on the take during prohibition, or any other charges of corruption, which is almost a miracle, given his era. It just amazes me that the same man worked against both H.H. Holmes and Al Capone!
Mary E. Holland is a largely forgotten figure today, but she was well known around town in her time, and deserves to re-take her place as a famous part of Chicago history. One of the first female detectives in America, she presented forensic analysis at the first modern trial in which a man was convicted on fingerprint evidence, and was assistant editor of Detective magazine. Her real adventures inspired the fictional Madelyn Mack, star of a series of Hugo Weird novels which became a series of silent films.
She even played a role in one of Chicago’s enduring mysteries: The Bate Murder:
The facts of the murder are these: on a cold November morning, 1904, young William Bate was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car out beyond the edge of the suburbs. A bullet hole in his head made the cause of death obvious. His hand was still clutching the gear levers. No one had ever been murdered in an automobile before, which made the story bigger news. Making it bigger news was the fact that there was no clear motive, and the car and driver had been rented by a mysterious figure known only as “Mr. Dove.”
Who was Mr. Dove? Why did he kill Bate? And where was he?
The story was all the papers talked about for a week or two, and in the middle of it the police called upon Mary to investigate. She analyzed the car, the bloodstains, the coat fibers in the seat, and the fingerprints, and determined that Mr. Dove may not have been the killer. There was a third person in the car – her theory was the Dove was the victim, and before dragging Dove’s body away, the killer also murdered Bate to keep him silent. “There exists in the blood stains on the automobile the unmistakable evidence that some person or heavy object has been dragged from the rear seat over the right side of the machine,” she wrote. “This was done when the blood was wet. I cannot be mistaken in this.” The American was a full-on tabloid in those days, even publishing photos recreating the murder (it was one of those papers that took full advantage of the new ability to use photographs), but, like even the worst of the tabloids, sometimes their intrepid reporters did get some fantastic info, and sometimes they did things like inviting a female detective to weigh in.
Mistress of Mysteries: Three Stories.
At the time of the Bate murder, Mary was helping to educate U.S. authorities in the science of fingerprint analysis, which she’d studied in London. While not an official member of the Chicago police, she often consulted for them. Testimony she gave about fingerprinting led to the first person hanged for murder based on fingerprint evidence in 1912.
Whether she was right about the third person in the Bate murder is still not known – the mystery was never solved. I’m now working on putting together more of the mystery of her own life; I knew she died around 1915, but I’m not sure what the cause of death was. And her probate file brings up some NEW mysteries: she’d been divorced from her husband in 1909 (he sued for divorce on the grounds that she’d deserted him for two years), then remarried and divorced again very quickly, and was on good enough terms with her first husband in 1913 that he was a witness when she signed her will.
I had never heard of Holland until I ran across an article she wrote for the Chicago American about her findings from examining the Bate Murder car, but she turned out to be fascinating. In 1913, she even wrote a series of short stories about her adventures under the name “Mistress of Mysteries;” one of them was about the Bate murder. I located some of them and republished a compilation on Amazon for the lowest price they’d let me – they’re delightful cozy city mysteries. I also included an introduction about her life and a copy of her analysis of the Bate murder car(and priced it as low as Amazon would let me). I feel as though her career as a writer was probably just getting started when she died in 1915.