The Wild Adventures of “Sensational Viola”

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

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

Viola at 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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