The Politician and the Old Women of Hull House

Once upon a time in Chicago, there was an ambitious little politician who decided to make a name for himself by picking a fight with the women of Hull-House. For a man who built things for a living, perhaps he should have known better than to employ a political strategy of burning down the house. But he was new to politics, and he did not know better. He saw his path to power in the persona of “Battling Peter,” who would rattle the foundations of the city’s social reform structures to raise his voice above the progressive din. His political strategy was to attack social reformers in the city, particularly the female ones, and the institutions they supported.

Peter Bartzen, a 61-year-old proprietor of a mason and carpentry business, was that politician. The office he sought was President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. During the fall of 1910, the fiery Democrat campaigned for that office by denouncing what he called the “hypocritical horde of reformers,” particularly the women of Hull-House. Politically ambitious with his eyes on a future gubernatorial run, Bartzen was a political novice. His only political experience was a four-year stint as an appointed building commissioner. To be governor, he needed a political victory and a message to launch his political career. With an “aggressive personality,” Bartzen decided to make a name for himself by whipping up foment against his city’s “child savers” and meddling do-gooders.

Bartzen was not a popular candidate, but the incumbent he hoped to unseat was not all that popular, either. Bartzen, who was not widely known, won the election on the coattails of a historic Democratic sweep, the county Democrats upsetting Republicans who had held power for sixteen years. The women Bartzen had maligned during his campaign for office had no direct say in the election, because women in Chicago, in Illinois, and in most states across the country, could not vote. No doubt that is precisely why Bartzen was so comfortable in his attacks against them. But when Bartzen took his seat, many prominent women reformers in Chicago set their watchful eyes upon the pesky, provocative politician.

During his first year in office, Bartzen did much to earn the disdain of Chicago reformers. For instance, he took aim at many of the county’s social service institutions, arguing that they were doing more harm than good to the county’s children and their families. In particular, he launched a full-scale investigation of the Chicago Juvenile Court in July 1911 in an effort to dismantle it. At the same time, Bartzen wholeheartedly embraced the long Chicago tradition of the spoils system by appointing his political allies to various posts under his authority, including some within the court itself. When Bartzen removed the juvenile court’s chief probation officer John Witter, a professional hired through the civil service system, he renewed his personal attacks against Hull-House, as well. In a public statement about Witter’s firing, Bartzen said: “It looks as if Mr. Witter has been under the influence of Hull-House. He ought not to be listening to a bunch of old women all the time.”

The “Old” Women of Hull-House (Julia Lathrop and Jane Addams with friend Mary Wilmarth, who was, actually, kind of old, but she didn’t live at Hull-House)

That bunch of old women was led by the 51-year-old Jane Addams, a nationally respected and beloved social reformer, and the 53-year-old Julia Lathrop, who helped found the influential Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and was one of the city’s most prominent proponents of the Chicago Juvenile Court. Both of the women were a decade younger than Bartzen, but he dismissed them as members of the weaker sex, with no right to their opinions let alone their influence.  Bartzen’s position was a powerful one. He presided over a fifteen-member board that controlled some $10 million and managed much of the county’s infrastructure and its public institutions, including its civil service system. But the city’s community of social reformers was also powerful, and Bartzen underestimated the women who led them.

In September 1911, Bartzen’s fight with the women of Hull-House escalated. When he made a particular play to discredit the work of the Chicago Juvenile Court and the Illinois Industrial School for Girls, Julia Lathrop fired back. In a public speech, Lathrop responded: “Both attacks have been made for the purposes of political capital…The noble minded women who have been working for the salvation of Chicago’s children made some errors. They were not serious errors, but they were enough to give politicians a peg on which to hang an investigation.” The court had suffered some growing pains, but the court’s founders and supporters were willing to recognize problems and work to correct them. As well, the Chicago Woman’s Club and the Juvenile Protective Association, which included some very well-heeled and outspoken women, loudly reaffirmed their support of the institution in the wake of what they believed were unwarranted, politically motivated attacks against it.

Reformers in Chicago were eager to defend the court and its mission to help disadvantaged youth escape the harsh justice of the criminal courts. They were growing particularly concerned about Bartzen replacing qualified probation officers working with the juvenile court with political hacks. Just days after Lathrop’s defensive stand against Bartzen, Dr. James A. Britton, the chief medical officer of the city’s juvenile home, resigned his post in protest. He charged that Bartzen was thumbing his nose at civil service law, which provided qualified professional probation officers to the juvenile court, and that Bartzen was “loading up the county service with political friends.” Britton was a Hull-House resident and the husband of Gertrude Howe Britton, another Hull-House resident, who was also affiliated with the Juvenile Protective Association. Mrs. Britton was just 43-years-old, but Bartzen no doubt dismissed her, and likely her husband, too, as meddling Hull-House do-gooders. Bartzan was leaving in his political wake a long list of scorned old women at Hull-House.

During the next year, Bartzen did not change his colors, and neither did the old women of Hull-House. Bartzen continued to undermine the civil service system and threaten the life of the city’s social institutions; and the city’s reformers grew increasingly certain Bartzen was a dangerous political incumbent. In the fall of 1912, Jane Addams decided to beat Bartzen at his own game: politics. She led a group of the city’s reform-minded citizens, most of them men with political clout, to select a candidate to defeat Bartzen in the November 1912 election. The committee chose Alexander A. McCormick, a former newspaper editor and progressive thinker. In August, Addams sent a telegram home to Chicago while she was vacationing in Maine, indicating the reformers’ choice: “Social workers have much to do in persuading A A McCormick to run for president of county board.” Addams believed a failure to defeat Bartzen would spell the “destruction of juvenile court.”

Jane Addams (at right) in a parade for woman suffrage.

McCormick agreed to run on a Progressive Party ticket, and Addams’s political committee went to work. The campaign against Bartzen was ruthless, focused as it was on exposing him as a danger to the county’s most vulnerable citizens. Women led the charge, giving speeches and writing letters. On Nov. 2, 1912, on the Saturday just before the election, Addams and her committee behind McCormick published in the Chicago newspapers a signed circular entitled “Call to Public Service in the Interest of the Poor, Sick, Aged and Injured, and the Helpless Children of Chicago and Cook County.” The document skewered Bartzen’s policies, accused him of wasting public funds, asserted his guilt in “crimes of neglect and mismanagement of the Cook County Hospital,” and called his attack on the juvenile court “misleading and fraudulent.” In summary, the circular cautioned readers: “A vote for Peter Bartzen means a vote for the continued demoralization of all the public service institutions of the county, on which Bartzen and his henchmen have feasted while the dependents of the county have starved and been neglected.”

It is true that 1912 was a weird political year, with the role of a spunky third party mixing things up at the local, state, and national levels. The “Bull Moose” factor definitely influenced the Cook County elections. However, Bartzen’s particular reelection chances appeared to have lost traction on the heels of Chicago’s old women weighing in so loudly on his political record. Bartzen’s political strategy of picking a fight with Hull-House and Chicago’s most respected citizen backfired, and he lost the election.

The ambitious little politician had underestimated the old women at Hull-House and the political power they could garner, even without the right to vote for themselves. Bartzen not only lost this election, but he did not become the governor of Illinois, either. Even his obituary in 1933 dismissed his brief political career as minor, remembering his tenure as “anything but peaceful.” In the end, “Battling Peter” lost his battle against the battle-tested old women of Hull-House. While those women continued to make their positive marks on the history of Chicago, history resigned Bartzen to the political dustbin.

In 1914, Jane Addams published an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal in which she hailed the value of women over the age of fifty. “The weariness and dullness, which inhere in both domestic and social affairs when they are carried on by men alone, will no longer be a necessary attribute of public life when such gracious and gray-haired women become a part of it,” she wrote. “Ever-widening channels are gradually being provided through which woman’s increasing moral energy may flow, and it is not too much to predict that in the end public affairs will be amazingly revivified from those new fountainheads fed in the upper reaches of woman’s matured capacity.”

In the article, Addams shouted praise to “old” women like Ella Flagg Young, the Chicago Superintendent of Schools; novelist Edith Wharton; and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, the long-running president of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. Jane Addams knew the fight that resided in the hearts of experienced, capable, older women. She understood the beautiful extent of possibilities for women who used their talents for the betterment of their communities and the world. Peter Bartzen probably didn’t read that Ladies’ Home Journal article, and he may have never admitted to himself or to anyone else that he had been undone by women. Who knows if he harbored any regrets about his brief political career or the choices he made to conduct it.

The story of the politician and the old women of Hull-House is not a fairytale in which the villains are defeated and heroes in the story live happily ever after. Real life is more complicated than that. But this story is, perhaps, a fable Aesop himself may have written if he had lived in Chicago during the Progressive Era, when Jane Addams and scores of smart, capable, and commanding older women roamed the city’s dirty streets in order to clean them up. The moral of that fable is this: Beware the people you look past in your blind ambition; beware the people who seem to be precisely what you assume, unthreatening and unworthy of your respect. They might just turn out to be the clever, unrelenting, powerful force that becomes the fatal obstacle you never expected.

By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor

Notes: David S. Tanenhaus, Juvenile Justice in the Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 82-110; Albert Nelson Marquis, ed., Book of Chicagoans, 1911 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Co., 1911), 42-43; Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947; Witter v. County Commissioners, 256 Ill. 616 (1912); “Editorial Musings,” The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), Nov. 4, 1910, p. 1;  Letter, Nov. 5, 1910, “Busse-Deneen Ring Is Smashed in Cook County by Democratic Victory,” Nov. 9, 1910, p. 1; “Would End Juvenile Court,” Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1911, p. 7; “Fight New Child Court Idea,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 1911, p. 4; “Bartzen Scored by Julia Lathrop,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 24, 1911, p. 5; “Physician Quits Bartzen Regime,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 26, 1911, p. 3; “Call to Public Service,” Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Sociologists Say Bartzen Is Menace,” The Inter Ocean (Chicago), Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Chicago Women, In Humane Plea, Flay Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 2, 1912, p. 1; “Save the Helpless From Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 4, 1912, p. 6; “Old and New County Board Presidents Shake Hands,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1912, p. 3; “Peter Bartzen, Old Political Battler, Dead,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1933, p. 1; Jane Addams to Julia Clifford Lathrop, August 7, 1911; Endorsement for Alexander McCormick for Cook County Board of Commissioners, 1912; Jane Addams to Alexander Agnew McCormick, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Charles E. Merriam, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Raymond Robins, August 21, 1912; Raymond Robins to Jane Addams, August 22, 1912; Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old?, October, 1914, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Jane Addams and Her Conflicts with Tolstoyism

Addams’ affection and admiration for Tolstoy is evident in both her correspondences and her published works. In her 1910 book Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams recollected her visit to the Count’s residence in Russia. She embarked in search of the answer to a question: “I was most eager to know whether Tolstoy’s undertaking to do his daily share of the physical labor of the world, that labor which is ‘so disproportionate to the unnourished strength’ of those by whom it is ordinarily performed, had brought him peace?”

leon_tolstoy_barefoot
“Leo Tolstoy Barefoot” (1901) – Ilya Repin

Addams gave a lecture in 1902 in which she explained the four types of labor Tolstoy believed every person should partake in. She noted that “he would, of course, always excuse the ill, the aged, and little children” but believed that the bulk of people should perform manual and skilled labor as well as engage in literary work and social effort. According to Tolstoy, by reducing the amount of “brutal and dehumanizing” labor that one performs it gives those unaccustomed to performing that type of labor a perspective that will change the way they view their own lives and commodities. Addams spoke of skilled labor: “If we had some of this experience we would try to simplify our lives, because we would then realize, as we do not now, some of the work on which it is founded. Many people would then stop wearing many things, and having many things in their houses which are not needed.”

Many people fear meeting their favorite celebrity since it is possible it will result in embarrassment or the shattering of a previously held illusion. Addams likely experienced both upon meeting the revered author. She recounted the “distrustful” manner with which Tolstoy regarded the sleeves of her dress during their first meeting. Tolstoy, who was clad in peasant’s clothes, commented on the excessive amount of fabric on Addams’ dress and remarked that “there was enough stuff on one arm to make a frock for a little girl.”

Despite originally feeling disconcerted, Tolstoy’s comments did not dissuade Addams from searching for the answer to her question. Addams recalled a particular instance in which she attended dinner with Tolstoy, his family, and his traveling guests in Twenty Years. She wrote:

The countess presided over the usual European dinner served by men, but the count and the daughter, who had worked all day in the fields, ate only porridge and black bread and drank only kvas, the fare of the hay-making peasants. Of course we are all accustomed to the fact that those who perform the heaviest labor eat the coarsest and simplest fare at the end of the day, but it is not often that we sit at the same table with them while we ourselves eat the more elaborate food prepared by someone else’s labor. Tolstoy ate his simple supper without remark or comment upon the food his family and guests preferred to eat, assuming that they, as well as he, had settled the matter with their own consciences.

coffee-house
Immigrant Visitors Congregating in the Coffee House, 1900

Addams’ time among Tolstoy, his family, and the peasants elicited such strong feelings in her that she made a mental vow to spend two hours each morning in the bakery which had recently been added to the coffee house at Hull-House. Upon her return she realized her vision was not possible due to her overwhelming responsibilities. In Twenty Years she wrote: “The half dozen people invariably waiting to see me after breakfast, the piles of letters to be opened and answered, the demand of actual and pressing wants—were these all to be pushed aside and asked to wait while I saved my soul by two hours’ work at baking bread?”

Earlier she pointed out Tolstoy’s difficult stance:

Doubtless all of the visitors sitting in the Tolstoy garden that evening had excused themselves from laboring with their hands upon the theory that they were doing something more valuable for society in other ways. No one among our contemporaries has dissented from this point of view so violently as Tolstoy himself, and yet no man might so easily have excused himself from hard and rough work on the basis of his genius and of his intellectual contributions to the world.

While Addams admired Tolstoy, his way of life was incompatible with the life she had already established in Chicago. She wished to emulate him in some capacity, but her duties to Hull-House subsumed a great deal of her time. While writing books, giving lectures, traveling, and worrying about her own health and the health of her friends and family, Addams was always finding new ways to improve Hull-House. It is no surprise, then, that she was incapable of designating even two hours each morning to bake bread. The question remains: how might one find a compromise between Addams’ way of life and Tolstoy’s?

Hull-House later received five hundred dollars which were left over from Tolstoy’s profit from publishing his novel Resurrection. The bulk of the profit was given to the Dukhobors, a Russian religious group who had recently settled in Canada with the help of their government. When faced with the choice of what to spend the money on, Addams felt that it was only natural to use it “for the relief of the most primitive wants of food and shelter on the part of the most needy families.”

Ultimately, Addams assisted the Nineteenth Ward without spending two hours per day in the Coffee Shop baking bread. Instead, she used her talent as social reformer to improve the lives of those living in poverty around her. Although she saw the value in performing manual labor, Addams realized there was greater value, in her situation, in devoting her working hours to her role as the head figure of Hull-House.

Jane Addams and an Anonymous Bull Moose

Members of the losing party of a presidential election are met with disappointment and sadness. In the following months the party is left to recuperate and reorganize. The losing and winning party must also plan how they will function with each other in the future. In the election of 1912, the election involved a variety of political parties with some overlapping and some clashing goals. Jane Addams had an important role in the election of 1912 and its many political parties as she became the first woman to nominate a presidential nominee by seconding the nomination for Theodore Roosevelt in the Progressive Party. The backlash she received for seconding the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, was astounding. It lead to some of the most interesting letters I have ever read throughout my time at the Jane Addams Papers Project. After the election, Addams continued to receive letters about her participation in the 1912 election.

roosevelt-and-addams-cartoon
A 1912 US cartoon, showing the “Big Four at the Two Chicago Conventions”. Front row (Progressive or “Bull Moose” party): Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Hiram Johnson, Albert Beveridge. Back row (Republican party): Boies Penrose, William Barnes, Jr., Winthrop M. Crane, Elihu Root.

While the Progressive Party was attempting to recover after a presidential loss, Addams received a letter that claimed that the party would potentially be destroyed by all of the other political parties involved in the election of 1912. An anonymous writer, referring to himself as “a Bull Moose,” wrote Addams on December 13, 1912 an at first seemingly innocent letter, praising Addams for her efforts with the suffrage movement. As “Bull Moose” continues, he wrote to Addams about an alleged “disaster” for the Progressive Party. In this alleged disaster the Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, and Prohibitionists had created a trap for the Progressive Party to fall into and ruin the party forever. “Bull Moose” decided to take it upon himself to create five “shamtraps” for the Progressive Party, in order to expose the traps of the other parties, but the “shamtraps” needed to be dealt with before December 15th or the plan would not work.

This was not even the strangest part of the letter. “Bull Moose” then goes on to say that Addams can tell no one else about the letter except Theodore Roosevelt, who he refers to as “our future President,” despite the fact that Roosevelt has already lost the 1912 election. “Bull Moose” must have been hoping for a 1916 victory for Roosevelt. Unfortunately for “Bull Moose,” Roosevelt would not enter the 1916 election. “Bull Moose” proceeded to give Addams a list of instructions that will prevent the other political parties from trapping the Progressive Party. The first few seem pretty reasonable – instructions such as “not to side with either Drys nor Wetts,” which makes sense since the Prohibition Party is allegedly involved in this “shamtrap” plot. Instructions six and seven are the strangest. In rule number six, “Bull Moose” instructed Addams that he would come to her as a “polish tramp to wash windows, with a raincoat on” and told her all of the horrible ways to treat him. Rule number seven instructed Addams to treat a hobo the same way, perhaps worse, if “Bull Moose” should have sent a hobo in his place.

Addams was instructed by “Bull Moose” not to share the contents of this letter with anyone besides Theodore Roosevelt until 1917. So far there has been no indication that Addams ever shared the contents of the letter with anyone, including Theodore Roosevelt. The Jane Addams Papers Project works chronologically so we have not yet read and transcribed the letters from 1917. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for any letters about “Bull Moose” once we get there.

political-humor-1912
This political cartoon follows the 1912 Presidential Election in which Woodrow Wilson (D) won in a landslide defeat over Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive/Bull Moose Party), William Taft (R), and Eugene Debs (Socialist Party). (From the November 8, 1912 issue of the Sandusky Register.)

“Bull Moose” was not entirely off the mark when he said that the other political parties were planning to destroy the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party ultimately did fall because of other parties, mainly the Republicans. The Progressive Party essentially merged back together with the Republican Party, especially after Roosevelt refused to accept the Progressive presidential nomination in 1916 and chose to campaign for the Republican Party. Maybe the Progressive Party would have lasted longer if Addams had followed “Bull Moose’s” instructions!

This document can be located on the Jane Addams Papers microfilm on Reel 7, frame 542. It will soon be freely available to read and view in digital form on our database website, which can be found by clicking the link to the right of this post.