Exciting news! On Thursday, August 26 at 8 pm CST, Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks, an audio musical written and composed by Evanston playwright Kristin Lems, will open to the public at the website www.SaintJanePlay.com. The two-hour musical play, which can be enjoyed in one sitting or in four separate installments, is free, asking for a voluntary donation with a suggested sliding scale. After the site goes live, listeners may attend the show any time on demand.
Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks is set in Chicago in the decade of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is about the friendship between Hull House founder Jane Addams and Nellie Wicks, Kristin’s great grandmother, in the years 1890-1905, during the early years of Hull House.
Prize-winning Chicago dramatist Douglas Post is the director, with musical direction by Diana Lawrence and mixing and editing by Dan Dietrich. Piano arrangements and performances were created by Tom Cortese of Champaign, Illinois.
The cast consists of well-known area actors and singers, including Kathy Cowan as Jane Addams, Rebecca Keeshin as Nellie Wicks, Monica Szaflik as Ellen Gates Starr, Maddie Sachs as Julia Lathrop, Patrick Byrnes as George Wicks and John Dewey, Frankie Leo Bennett as Gene Wicks, John B. Leen as Jim Wicks and Sol Friedman, Kingsley Day as Richard Crane, and Therese Harrold as Addie Wicks. The professional, non-equity cast was auditioned and selected in December 2020 and recorded in the early months of 2021.
The “audio musical” is a new genre. The singer-actors rehearse their parts together on zoom, but record and upload them individually to a single destination without being in a recording studio. Then, the scenes and songs are reviewed, mixed, and edited by the director and recording engineer. The final product is similar to an audiobook or radio play, but there are also songs, in this case, 17 original songs including “The Hull House Rag,” “Straight to Hell in Chicago,” and other memorable numbers. The new genre enables artists to release entertaining musical theatre work while keeping both performers and audience safe.
The musical will open on Women’s Equality Day, August 26, to celebrate the 101st anniversary of American women winning the right to vote. Jane Addams was active in the suffrage movement 10 years after the time of the play, along with many activist women of Hull House. Two key organizers, Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop, are characters with key roles in the show.
Kristin Lems has won many accolades as a writer, composer, and performing artist, but this is her first full-length musical. Lems was inspired by stories about the unusual friendship between the two women, told by her mother, musician Carol Lems-Dworkin (1924-2019), and along with primary materials, including a handwritten diary by Nellie Wicks, two full length unpublished novels written by Nellie’s eldest daughters, recorded oral histories, and an autographed picture given to Nellie by Jane Addams shortly before Addams died. Lems also researched Jane Addams, Hull House, and Chicago history with a 2017 sabbatical from her employer, National Louis University, where she is a professor.
Many other outstanding talents helped design the trailer, iconic poster, website, video product, and script, and many people deserve thanks and praise for moving this ambitious project forward to this day. For information about the cast, members of the pre-production, production, or post-production team, or to contact Kristin Lems, please email email@example.com.
In June, Addams biographer and Project Advisory Board member Lucy Knight got in touch with a query regarding a claim that Hull-House was a segregated space until the 1930s. The claim first made by Thomas Lee Philpott in his 1978 work: The Slum and the Ghetto: Housing Reform and Neighborhood Work in Chicago, 1880-1930. It was repeated by Khalil Gibran Muhammed’s Condemnation of Blackness (2010), and then repeated by me in a 2015 blog post reporting on Khalil Muhammed’s talk at Ramapo College. Lucy wanted to know more, because the claim had begun appearing all over the web. Since then she has gathered evidence that refutes the statement.
I wrote that blog post a few weeks after launching the project at Ramapo and did not question the statement. I probably should have, but assumed that given the time and the place it was likely true. Today I want to give the question a little more light and attention.
There is no smoking gun document — one in which a policy of segregation was clearly established. Without that it can be extremely difficult to prove whether or not African-Americans were welcome at Hull-House or in its programs and sponsored clubs. A majority of the records of Hull-House have not survived, which makes it unlikely that we will ever be able to definitively confirm or debunk the statement.
There are a couple of layers to the question. First, was Hull-House itself a segregated space? To that question, the answer is clear. It was not. Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice (1866-1958), a Black physician and graduate of Wellesley College, started working at Hull House as early as 1893, working with the Hull-House branch of the Chicago Bureau of Charities and tending to the poor.
Addams invited Black speakers to Hull-House, including prominent figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who gave the speech “The Souls of Black Folk” at Hull-House on Lincoln’s birthday 1907 (Hull-House Year Book, 1906-1907). A year earlier, Atlanta newspaperman J. Max Barber spoke about the Atlanta race riot to a Hull House “audience mostly composed of negroes.” (Chicago Tribune, October 8, 190-6,. p. 3). Addams invited Ida B. Wells to visit and dine at Hull-House. And in 1912, Addams hosted a meeting of the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the Hull-House grounds.
A more complicated question was whether Hull-House’s clubs and groups welcomed people of all races. Few if any spaces in Chicago were integrated during Jane Addams’s life. By 1910, the vast majority of African-Americans lived in Chicago’s South Side in what was known as the “Black Belt.” They formed their own organizations to empower their communities, much as other ethnic and religious groups did. African-Americans who came to Chicago during the Great Migration found opportunity, but also oppression.
Hull-House was located in the Near West Side, a overcrowded community that featured a wide range of European immigrants. The area was filled with ever changing languages and customs as Irish, German, Czech, and French immigrants were replaced by Jews from Russia and Poland, Italians and Greeks. In 1895, Hull-House workers surveyed the area showing the cultural (if not racial) diversity. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that African-Americans and Mexican became a more significant presence in Hull-House’s neighborhood.
As a neighborhood-based settlement, Hull-House represented its surroundings, which meant that in its early years, the majority of its clientele were white immigrants. Photographs of early activities show this clearly.
Many of clubs and associations that operated out of Hull House were developed around ethnic affiliations, which was a way to retain community and customs in a time of rapid change and Americanization. The range of clubs at Hull-House was vast, and the numbers of people in and out of the Hull-House grounds reached nine thousand per week between 1906 and 1916. The clubs and associations were organized and operated by their members, some, like the “Greek Olympic Athletic Club,” were made up of Greek immigrants interested in athletics; others like the Hull-House Electrical Club, was made up of men who worked in electrical occupations. There were Greek and Russian social clubs, a 19th Ward Socialist Club, and the Jane Club, which was a co-operative boarding club for young women that operated its own house with thirty bedrooms. There were also general Men and Women’s Clubs, Boys and Girls’ Clubs, and educational programs in art, practical employment skills, and English language classes.
I find it unlikely that many of these clubs or programs were multi-racial in the first decades of Hull-House’s existence. Among the photographs of Hull-House activities located in archives at the University of Illinois at Chicago, photos from before 1920 depict what appear to be white groups.
There is some evidence of Black participation in clubs and groups at Hull-House before the 1930s. In 1913, the Chicago Defender wrote an obituary of George Williams, “the only Negro boy connected with Hull House as a member. He was a member of the band and took part in all the active branches of the settlement. Miss Jane Addams praised him to the highest. The day of his funeral the full band was out and his casket was borne by three Italians and one Jewish boy.” (Chicago Defender, September 20, 1913.)
An African-American women’s club was formed at Hull-House in 1925, first called “The Colored Mothers’ Club,” and later the “Community Club.” They met on Monday evenings and held monthly interracial meetings which the Chicago Defender characterized as “not only harmonious and satisfactory, but very helpful.”
The Defender continued:
In and around Hull House a large number of the foreign population moved into other neighborhoods, and their places have been taken up by our group. The residents of the famous social settlement are still living up to their ideals of helping the people in the neighborhood to adjust themselves, and our boys and girls are urged to join all of the classes, and with their elders are cordially invited to take part in all the activities of the place. (Chicago Defender, December 11, 1926, p. 5.)
But, does this one newspaper article tell the whole story? By 1937, the Defender characterized the Community Club as the medium through which Hull-House worked among the African-American community. The club was affiliated with the National Federation of Colored Women and its focus was on bettering conditions for African-Americans in their community. (Chicago Defender, September 25, 1937, p. 19.) Did Hull-House push African-American activity off to the side into one or two clubs? Did African-Americans feel welcome in the late 1930s when they walked into the settlement?
Dewey Jones, the Assistant Director of Hull-House in 1938 reported during a 1939 speech that one long-time member of the Community Club had complained that its members were not invited to take part in general community events. In 1941 a caption on a photograph depicting Black women at the Jane Addams Memorial Lilac Ball on May 24, 1941 noted that “Director Charlotte Carr insisted that African Americans be invited to the Ball.” The fact that Carr’s action was noted, makes it appear that it was not the norm.
Florence Scala (1918-2007), an Italian-American resident of the West Side and a volunteer at Hull-House from 1934 to 1954, recalled that though the Near West Side had a great mix of ethnic groups, “there were no blacks, blacks were not active in the Hull-House programs when I was going there.” (Carolyn Eastwood, Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago’s Maxwell Street Neighborhood (2002), p. 139.)
By the 1930s and especially by the early 1940s, photographs of Hull-House activities show the changing composition of the neighborhood. There were Mexican fiestas, and pottery classes, and photographs of integrated children’s activities at the Joseph T. Bowen Country Club.
So we are left with conflicting recollections and reporting. Did Florence Skala have a very different experience at Hull-House than the children who attended the Bowen camp in the 1940s? Were the adult activities more racially divided, broken into clubs that kept to their own kind? Without additional documentation, it is hard to make a determination that includes all the voices we have.
We can close with a look at what African-American reporters said at the death of Jane Addams in 1935. In an obituary written of Addams in 1935, Thyra Edwards of the Pittsburgh Courier focused on Addams and Hull-House with regard to race.
Jane Addams had no ‘attitude’ toward the Negro. To her he was just one of the citizenship, one part of the whole. She recognized that the distinction of color exposed him more easily to attack and discrimination at the same time, adding a moral responsibility upon Americans to work against extraordinary exploitation because of color.
When Negroes moved into Hull House, there was no ‘consultant’ as to whether they should be accepted and in what proportions. Quite simply, new neighbors had come to Hull House and they found their way into whatever classes or groups they chose. (Pittsburgh Courier, June 1, 1935, p. 9.)
Another tribute to Addams was published in the Chicago Defender, where Eugene Kinckle Jones remarked:
Jane Addams made no special effort to lead the Negro to the Promised Land but by no act or thought did she eliminate this race from the classes or groups most in need.’ At Hull House, they had no set place but they were eliminated from no place. In her condemnation of crime, she condemned lynching. In her belief in the extension of suffrage to all, she included the Negro in her ‘all.’ (Chicago Defender, June 29, 1935, p. 3.)
Thanks to Louise Knight for her research into the question which she graciously provided.
I grew up in Illinois where the life and legacy of Jane Addams is widely known and appreciated. Illinois School children learn about Addams and Hull-House, and she is a perennial favorite topic of their book reports, term papers, and history fair essays and display boards. As a historian of Illinois history in the early years of my work, I came to know and appreciate Jane Addams at a deeper level, too, understanding better her contributions to social reform, her lobbying for protective legislation for workers, her modern arguments for woman suffrage, her importance as a philosopher, and her unwavering advocacy of world peace, even when it threatened to harm all she had built at Hull-House.
Yet the more I study the ways in which Jane Addams supported, nurtured, and inspired the women around her, and the ways in which she drew on the spirits, intellects, and achievements of those women, the more convinced I am that Jane Addams created and existed in an otherworldly orbit. An orbit where innovation and creativity and fearless determination flourished. An orbit which attracted women of myriad backgrounds and life work—educators, business women, artists, social scientists, doctors, writers, and lawyers, as well as social workers and reformers. An orbit which drew in some of the most talented and inspirational women of the era. An orbit that energized and empowered young women to find their talent and become inspirational leaders in their chosen fields and disciplines.
It was this otherworldly orbit of women that was Jane Addams’s super power.
Hull-House was a social settlement offering important educational and cultural programming for immigrants and working-class people. It was a place dedicated to social, economic, and political change to benefit all people in a society reeling from the excesses and inequalities of American industry and politics. Hull-House was also a remarkable planet of women, full of purpose and promise. And Jane Addams was the gravity that held these women together, bolstering their courage and making them so much greater than the sum of the individuals who at some point in their lives called the settlement on Halsted Street their home. Jane Addams dedicated her life to making the 19th Ward, Chicago, her state of Illinois, the United States, and the world better places to live. That work and dedication set her apart. But I believe, this orbit of women that Jane Addams created at Hull-House was what made her truly extraordinary.
One of my greatest privileges of editing the papers of Jane Addams is daily introduction to the fascinating women in Jane Addams’s orbit. Although it is only a qualitative observation, I assert that few (if any) other institutions in American history so beautifully nourished more women to do so much good in the world than did Hull-House. I suspect this inspirational characteristic of Hull-House was in part due to Addams’s feminine, motherly or sisterly guidance of her juniors and her peers, as well as the more generous hearts of women in collaborate work. But I would also argue it was the brilliance of Jane Addams to understand that women of all backgrounds had something to offer to the narrative of reform and possessed voices worthy of projection. It was the brilliance of Jane Addams to create an atmosphere of open-minded curiosity and respectful discourse for women. It was the brilliance of Jane Addams to fill up that atmosphere with as many bright and shining female voices she could find and who could find their own way to her and to Hull-House, as well.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of the long list of extraordinary women connected with Hull-House and Jane Addams. Many of those women, like Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and Dr. Alice Hamilton were well-known in their lifetimes and remembered by history today. One scholar likened some of those women to “stars” in a constellation around Jane Addams. I prefer to think of those female “stars” as existing in an otherworldly orbit with Jane Addams and with a breathtaking list of incredible women that history has largely forgotten. As a tribute to my joy in discovering the women in Jane Addams’s orbit and to amplify, like she did, the voices of the lessor known, I am going to offer a series of blog posts about some of the women you may not know who found their way to Hull-House and became a part of the wide influence of the settlement in the world far beyond Halsted Street.
On Oct. 21, 1902, Jane Addams penned this letter:
My dear Miss Monroe The twenty [minutes] will be perfectly convenient for us and affairs have so adjusted themselves that the little room now vacant may be yours so long as you care to keep it. The word little however is used advisedly—perhaps it would be better for you to see it before you decide on your belongings. Faithfully yours Jane Addams
The letter was to Harriet Monroe, a 41-year-old poet from Chicago. Monroe, who became a Hull-House resident for a brief time, delivered a public lecture about Milton on Dec. 3, 1902, at the settlement. She became a Hull-House teacher, offering an advanced class on English poetry and establishing a reading club at the settlement. Monroe was born and raised in Chicago, where her father was a successful lawyer before the Chicago Fire, after which his financial situation deteriorated. From a young age, Monroe developed a love of literature by exploring her father’s library. Although her family was not Catholic, she was educated at the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, DC. In the 1880s, she lived in New York City, from where she wrote articles on the arts for the Chicago Tribune, before returning to her hometown in 1889.
In 1902, when she arrived at Hull-House, Monroe was not a well-known poet, not a household name, nor a novelist, as she had reported her occupation to the census taker in 1900. She struggled to make a literary name for herself, although she had published a few poems and penned a special verse, “The Columbian Ode” to open the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Poor health and failure to attain critical acclaim for her literary work frustrated her, but she kept writing and developed a widening circle of literary friends, which would come to include Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field, Richard Watson Gilder, and Vachel Lindsay. In the years after her time at Hull-House, Monroe supported herself as a journalist, writing more than 200 articles for the Chicago Tribune, mostly on the arts, and she published sporadic freelance pieces in popular publications like Atlantic Monthly and Century Magazine. It was a meager existence, but Monroe remained committed to writing, bemoaned modern American society’s general disinterest in poetry, and began to articulate the need for poetry in American cultural life.
As was typical with most Hull-House residents who came and went, Monroe maintained her connection to the settlement and to Jane Addams years after her departure. She was a frequent guest at the settlement, made donations and offered gifts, and in 1905 wrote “The Troll’s Holiday,” an operetta set to music by Hull-House music teacher Eleanor Smith and performed at the Hull-House Music School. Over the years, the letters between Addams and Monroe reflect a respectful, friendly relationship infused with admiration and staunch support for one another’s work. In 1908, Addams wrote Monroe about her poetry: “It seems to me very remarkable, to be able to express the subtler side of the background of life as you…” In 1910, Monroe praised Addams’s latest book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets: “It seems to me profoundly thought out and beautifully done; thought and done with fine intelligence and exquisite sympathy. Surely it will have a far-reaching affect.”
Women supporting women was the foundational characteristic of the orbit Jane Addams cultivated, and that super power of hers became the super power of other women, too. To be in Jane Addams’s orbit was to remain there, to want to stay close to the spirit of the woman, to feel the pull of the supportive energy of Hull-House, no matter the time or the distance. To have experienced Jane Addams’s orbit was to wish to create your own orbit of inclusion and support and purpose beyond the self.
I suspect Harriet Monroe either learned at Hull-House the lesson of going beyond yourself and connecting your talents to others, or while there she practiced the lesson which was already in her own heart. Because ultimately, Harriet Monroe’s greatest contribution was not her own poetry but rather her fierce support of the art form and the poetry of others. At the age of 52, Monroe conceived of the idea to create an American journal of poetry, to seek out great poets and good work, and promote that work in the pages of a popular magazine. In October 1912, Monroe published the first issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. When she launched the magazine, Monroe sent Jane Addams a complimentary subscription. Addams would not have it, however, writing in reply: “I am not in the least willing to have my name stand on an honorary list. Please let me send the enclosed and assure you that I have seldom subscribed to a magazine with more pleasure.”
Poetry was an immediate critical and popular success. For the remainder of her life, Monroe edited the magazine, raising American interest in poetry and launching the careers of many of America’s greatest poets, like Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. Eighty-four years after Monroe’s death in 1936, Poetry magazine is still in publication, still a venue for new poets, still a vehicle for a great American art form. Hull-House and Jane Addams may or may not have directly inspired Monroe’s direction in life. I dare not give either the credit for Monroe’s brilliant vision and stunning contribution to modern American poetry. But in reading more and more stories of the lives of people who were in the orbit of the woman and the settlement, even for very short periods of time, one cannot dismiss the excellence of that orbit, either in what it may have inspired or the inspirational figures it drew into its remarkable sphere of influence.
For the twenty years I edited Abraham Lincoln’s papers, I never had a strong desire to own a Lincoln document. Well, let’s be honest, I never made enough money to buy a Lincoln document. Even a clipped Lincoln signature will set you back a few grand. Instead, my Lincoln collection included a bookcase full of Lincoln mass-market biographies and edited volumes, a nice bust, one significant historic print, a few mugs, salt and pepper shakers, and a weird-but-adorable Lincoln rubber ducky.
My Lincoln collecting was not at all sophisticated, based as it was on a scholarly editor’s pocketbook, but it was great fun and it still gives me much joy. Looking back on my collection now, I understand the value of my kitschy Lincoln stuff for the giggle it inspired in me as I conducted my serious scholarly work and for the little breather it provided from the rarified air of academic history. History should be fun, darn it, and part of the reason I think so many Americans find history boring is because they had teachers who squeezed no fun out of history at all.
I am a historian who squeezes a great deal of fun from the work I am lucky to do. I am also a historian who embraces my historical subjects with a big hug, leaning in and opening my heart as well as my head to my work. I am passionate about finding the humanity of the historical figures I study. I think at least in part, the fun I had collecting Lincolniana humanized Lincoln for me and humanized the scholar in me, too. It allowed me to see Lincoln as a man (and a bobblehead), not as a god or a myth, and to allow my work to delight me. My editing work made an important contribution to Lincoln scholarship, but allowing humor and humanity into the work provided me with balance. My joyful approach to Lincoln rooted my feet to the ground, where history actually lives, and kept my head out of the ivory tower, where history is sometimes self-important and inaccessible.
When I started working for the Jane Addams Papers Project in January 2017, I naturally approached Jane Addams in the same way I had approached Lincoln. Joy and a sense of fun balanced my very serious effort to get to know the woman and the social reformer Addams was, to understand her era, and to learn all I could about the fascinating historical contexts of her life. In the beginning of my work with the project, I immersed myself in biographies about Addams, and I studied her surviving correspondence, the speeches she delivered, and the articles and books she published. However, I also immediately coveted the Jane Addams doll that was sitting on a shelf in the project’s offices in New Jersey. All work and no fun is just not my style.
It took a few weeks, but I found said doll on eBay for $10, and Jane the Doll has been sitting next to or on my desk ever since. In her smart gray frock and sensible black hat she stands, with a slight muppet-like smile, holding her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House under her arm and wearing her Nobel Peace Prize medal around her neck. To me, Jane the Doll is a muse, of sorts, juxtaposed as it is to the ever more solemn nature of the life-changing reform work in which the real Jane Addams was engaged. I also like that the doll is the silly to Jane Addams’s serious. It is, as well, a daily physical reminder that while my work may be a scholarly business, it is also an honor and a pleasure. I actually get paid to do work I love, so why not embrace the passion and the fun within it.
As I did with Lincoln for twenty years, I now do with Jane Addams. I balance the serious with the silly. I admit it is sometimes harder to find the funny bone in Miss Addams than it was to find it in Mr. Lincoln, but that is no bar to my finding levity in the painstaking and labor-intensive scholarly editing work I do. Collecting my subjects is my way of bringing fun into my life as a historian, so it was exciting for me to learn it will be well within my financial reach to collect first editions of each of Jane Addams’s published books (five already down six to go!). Although memorabilia of Addams is far more rare than it is for Lincoln, in my growing collection of Addams kitsch, I have already added a peace poster for the wall, buttons with “I Love Jane Addams” and “I love Peace,” a coffee mug, and a “Peace, Love, and Jane Addams” t-shirt. Only recently, however, did I realize that a Jane Addams document could be available to me for purchase.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for a Lincoln event and to meet up with a group of people who have come into my life through our shared interest in Abraham Lincoln. One of those people who joined me in the sunny beer garden across from the Lincoln Home that afternoon brought me a surprise from the rare bookshop where he works: a printed calling card signed by Jane Addams! It is not a historically important note or a romantic letter to Jane’s beloved Mary Rozet Smith. It is not large, measuring just a 3½ by 2¼ inches. It is not in perfect condition, either. In fact, it has some damage on the printed side from glue which held it in position in an album or adhered it to matting within a frame, and one blob of gluey residue obscures the printed script of “Hull-House.” However, the handwritten side is pristine and features legible-for-Jane-Addams scrawl and her characteristic loopy signature. It is a humble document, indeed, but its imperfections do not lessen my enchantment with it.
Holding that little note in my hands for the first time tendered a tangible spark through my fingers and up to my heart, sending me back in time 100 years. To noisy, dirty, Progressive-Era Chicago. To Hull-House in the city’s impoverished and overcrowded 19th Ward. To Jane Addams, “the world’s best-known and best-loved woman” of her time, standing in the doorway. Handling a historic document has always been for me a kind of handshake with the historical figure of the past who wrote it. Over the years of searching for Lincoln documents in repositories across the country, I shook hands with Lincoln a great many times. But because I work with digital copies of documents at the Addams Papers, this was the first time I had the pleasure of this special and particular introduction to Addams. My day trip to Springfield got even better when I carried that little scrap of Jane Addams handwriting home for fifty times less than it would have cost me had Abraham Lincoln been the one who had penned it.
It annoys me to know that the manuscript market is as sexist as the world. To deem as practically worthless a handwritten note with a fine signature, written by a woman who was the most significant reformer of the Progressive Era, is, I think, almost a crime. But the market’s misjudgment and loss is my gain, allowing me to own a piece of historical magic. My little Jane Addams note is priceless to me. It is the star of my collection of Addamsiana, and I plan to have it conserved and encased in a two-sided archival frame. I do not have aspirations to collect additional documents in the hand of Jane Addams. This one will be enough for me (at least for now, I think). It conjures the handshake, inspires my joy, and provides a palpable human connection to a woman I get to hang out with five days a week.
Anyway, from the perspective of historical memorabilia, in going from a $1 Lincoln rubber ducky to a signed Addams note worth about 100 bucks, I’ve come a long way, baby. Maybe not the equivalent of Jane Addams getting the right to vote, but still super cool for this historian, who is having way too much fun.
Jane Addams made the acquaintance of renown African-American journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells in the summer of 1899. The circumstance of these two extraordinary women in Chicago engaged in different but overlapping endeavors to make the world a better place is one of those remarkable and inspirational historical coincidences that reinforces my fascination with the past. Continue reading “Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and Racial Injustice in America”
Sara Catherine Lichon is writing a series of blog posts about interesting characters that she comes across while working as a co-operative education student for the Project this semester. Her work involves identifying and describing the over 5,000 unique individuals mentioned in Addams’ correspondence.
As a student, I’ve heard many a time that academic honesty is of the utmost importance, and that plagiarism can end one’s academic career. But back in the early 1900s, plagiarism was responsible for the rise of poet Scharmel Iris’s career, who made a living by fooling others.
Iris was born in 1889 with the name Frederico Scaramella in Castelcivita, Italy. When he was three years old, his mother married a man who helped them immigrate to the United States where they settled in Chicago. Iris changed his name and in 1905, when he was sixteen years old, his first poem was published in a Chicago Catholic newspaper. Soon his career skyrocketed as he was published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, received positive reviews from Chicago newspapers, and published his own collections of poems. He received most of his funding and notoriety with the help of other famous poets and artists, such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Salvatore Dali, and Picasso, who wrote praise-filled letters to Iris’s patrons.
There was one major problem with Iris’s success, though…it was based entirely on lies. Rather than being a great poet, Iris was simply a con-artist. Letters and praise from Eliot, Yeats, and Picasso were forged by Iris himself, and Iris even wrote about himself to publishers and patrons under the pseudonym Vincent Holme. Forgery and plagiarism, rather than talent, provided the base for Iris’s career and fame.
Jane Addams herself was a victim of Iris’s scams. Iris spent part of his life as a Hull-House resident, and when he published Lyrics of a Lad in 1914, he supposedly received praise from art critic John Ruskin and poets Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edmund Gosse. In January 1913, Addams wrote a letter to Harriet Monroe describing how Iris claimed she had told him to reach out to Gosse and even Yeats. Addams stated, “Poor Scharmel Iris really has no right to say that I advised him to write to Miss Guiney, or to Edmund Gosse, or to Mr. Yeats.” Words had been put in Addams’ mouth by Iris, and she was only one of many.
Iris’s scams even extended to his living situation. He lived at Lewis College, a Catholic school near Joliet, despite not working or teaching there. He stayed there until he was asked to leave in 1966, and he spent the remainder of his life at St. Patrick Retirement Hotel. He died in 1967.
Regardless of Iris’s talent as a poet, it’s hard to deny that he had a talent for fooling others. Iris’s entire life and career was built on plagiarism, yet he lived the life he had always dreamed of — that of a successful, well-known poet . . . even if it was actually a lie.
Announcement of Lyrics of a Lad by Scharmel Iris, 1914.
Inventory of the Scharmel Iris Papers, 1911-1964, The Newberry Library.
Jane Addams to Harriet Monroe, January 20, 1913.
Nina C. Ayoub, “Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 17, 2007.
In the early twentieth century, newsboys were a characteristic of the urban landscape, a ubiquitous presence on big city street corners across America. Boys and girls as young as five or six peddled penny and two-penny papers in the wee morning hours, during the school day, and long, long, long after dark. On muggy and sunny summer days and on blustery winter nights, children sold the news and collected their pennies. In 1900, there were ten major, general-circulation newspapers in Chicago and dozens more specialty publications, as well; and at least 4,000 newsboys and newgirls sold them from established newsstands, from pull carts advertised with newspaper mastheads, from makeshift box displays, and from right out from under their own little arms. The exuberant voice of the newspaper crier, which cut above the chaotic din of the bustling Chicago streets, was more often than not the voice of a child.
And where there was the voice of a child on the streets of Chicago, there was, of course, Jane Addams. In a number of speeches in the early 1900s, Addams argued that “something should be done to take the babies from the streets.” Through her work at Hull-House, Addams witnessed firsthand the dangers faced by children who earned a living on the urban streets. Popular culture has romanticized the newsboy as a “saucy, chattering” chap, whose smudged, little face and crooked Gatsby-hat belied street smarts and worldliness that made him wise beyond his years. Yet Addams would never have succumbed to such romance, for her experiences had shown her otherwise. So while Chicago’s newsboys raised their voices to sell Chicagoans the news, Jane Addams raised her voice to protect them.
Many programs at Hull-House kept children off the streets, maybe even keeping some from resorting to the sale of the evening news. Addams spent a lifetime lobbying for child labor laws, and her hard-hitting articles and widely attended speeches raised public awareness about the difficulties of life for poor children, particularly those of Chicago’s immigrant families. But as was the way of the world in the Progressive Era, many children in the inner city had few choices; and for some, the freedom of movement and money in pockets made selling the news quite an alluring prospect. There were a few newsboys who made $3-5 dollars a day. One small Italian boy named Antonio, who operated two stands on the corner of Clark and Monroe streets, sold 1,000 newspapers a day. The thirteen-year-old Antonio had inherited the prime location from his father, and he benefited from a corner monopoly at a very lucrative location. Antonio was one of the lucky ones, however. Most newsboys were fortunate to take in a fraction of Antonio’s income, as typical pay was just 50 cents per 100 penny papers sold each day; and most did not have the luxury to stand still in one spot and sell such a large quantity of papers. Instead, they lugged heavy, wheeled carts, toted bulky satchels, or secured their product under their arms, as they searched the streets for customers. And it was those roaming newsboys who were, of course, most vulnerable to the dangers and temptations of the city.
Children selling papers at rush hour, at dark, in terrible weather, and without protective supervision faced many perils. In June 1903, Cornelius Scanlan, a twelve-year-old newsboy was selling papers to street car travelers on 47th street when he was hit and killed by a northbound train. Many newsboys were orphans or from poor families and were inadequately attired for Midwestern rains and for Lake Michigan cold. One newsboy named Peter was found sleeping in News Alley at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest days of the winter. He claimed to be an orphan who came to Chicago from Milwaukee. Weather was a constant problem for those who worked and lived out of doors. Newsboys were also frequently the victims of crime. William Cullen was a blind newsboy who was “a familiar figure” at Blue Island Avenue and Twelfth Street. He sold newspapers from a small wagon and with the protection of a dog, but one night as he slept two men stole his newspaper stand, jeopardizing his means of subsistence.
Particularly troubling was the potential for sexual assault. The Chicago police collected evidence on one adult news dealer who had a prosperous corner on Halsted Street. He made eight boys who worked for him come to his room to receive their pay “and there committed violence” on each, most under the age of 14. One-third of the newsboys sent to one reform school in Chicago had venereal disease, an unfortunate reality for many kids who risked life and health on the streets. Of course, even those who were not abused suffered lung ailments and other sicknesses that went untreated; and if they became too unwell to sell papers, they lost income, as well. Sadly, too, adults who should have protected them were often the perpetrators of mistreatment. Many parents, some desperate themselves, pressed these children into the newsboy “economy.” Police officers were sometimes guilty of harassment, as some in Chicago took payoffs from newspaper companies to guarantee particularly lucrative corners, muscling away newsboys who “trespassed” upon those monopolies, and even arresting others for loitering.
In 1902, a group of some 200 newsboys organized the Chicago Newsboys’ Protective Association. This union tried to mediate the conditions of newsboy employment with newspaper publishers, to lobby for better conditions, and to help members who were sick or injured. Strides were minimal, and the streets were no less dangerous. As well, newspapers in this era had multiple editions, and papers were published at morning, at noon, and at night. As such, days for newsboys were often long; and truancy from school was a common problem. Working on the streets also exposed newsboys to the temptations of gambling, smoking, and other vices that resulted from a vagrant lifestyle. Some of these kids were runaways. Edward Fink, a twelve-year-old from South Bend, Indiana, took $30 from his mother and traveled to Chicago on a freight train. He was selling papers on the streets of Chicago and living with other newsboys when he was arrested and returned to his parents. Another boy, a sixteen-year-old from Texas moved to Chicago to work as a newsboy because black newsboys were not allowed in his town. But when he arrived in South Chicago, police arrested him for vagrancy.
In 1903, Jane Addams was part of a two-day investigation into the lives of newsboys in Chicago. Commissioned at the behest of the Federation of Chicago Settlements, a committee of twenty investigators hit the streets to interview 1,000 newsboys (including 20 newsgirls) in Chicago’s “Loop.” They reported that “while favorable to the legitimate features of the newspaper industry” their investigation confirmed their “impression that Chicago needs a city ordinance which would obviate many of the abuses now apparent in the news trade.” The committee printed a 28-page, illustrated pamphlet, which outlined the work and social conditions of the children who sold newspapers and offered proposals for child labor laws to protect them. The investigation in Chicago reported that the newsboys they interviewed had ranged in age from 5-22 and that 127 of them (12%) were under the age of 10. Among the number, Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish immigrants were numerous. The investigators turned up one five-year-old child and five other kids who were just six. The report noted that “the small boy, under ten years of age, is on the ragged edge of the newspaper business.” No doubt, younger newsboys faced the most hardships and dangers, too.
The pamphlet garnered some attention, but six years later Addams was frustrated. In a speech in March 1909 about children and street trading, she complained that newsboys had fallen in the category of “merchant” and were not subject to child labor regulations. Addams was annoyed that even as Illinois had enacted a child labor law, which should have limited the working hours of all children and protected them from harsh labor conditions, it did not apply to Chicago’s newsboys. “So far, we have been unable to secure any legislative action on the subject,” she lamented. “It is a very disgraceful situation, I think, for Chicago to be placed in while the Illinois child labor law is so good. The City of Chicago is a little careless, if not recreant, towards the children who are not reached by the operation of the state law.” And so, Jane Addams’ battle for the safety and wellbeing of all children would continue.
The remarkable, illustrated pamphlet that Jane Addams and her group published is now a part of the Jane Addams Digital Edition, where you can read the document in its entirety. You will also, no doubt, enjoy the poignant photos of real newsboys and newsgirls who worked on the gritty streets of early twentieth-century Chicago.
By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Assistant Editor
Sources: Jane Addams, “Address to the Merchants Club, March 8, 1902,” Jane Addams Digital Edition; Jane Addams and Federation of Chicago Settlements, Newsboy Conditions in Chicago (1903),” Jane Addams Digital Edition, accessed March 31, 2017; Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 May 1903, 3:1; 24 June 1903, 1:6; 9 October 1903, 4:3; The Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL); 5 August 1903, 9:5; 13 September 1903, 25:1-7; Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, and Immanuel Ness, eds., The Encyclopedia Strikes in American History (New York: Routledge, 2015), 614; “Chicago Newspapers,” https://chicagology.com/newspapers/; Myron E. Adams, “Children in American Street Trades,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 25 (1905): 23-44. The photos featured here are included in Newsboy Conditions in Chicago.
“Clowns Gathering in the Woods,” blares CNN. “Creepy Clowns: Serious Matter or Sick Joke,” asks The Guardian. It all started in South Carolina, where groups of children swore that clowns, lurking in the shadowy woods, and attempted to lure them to an abandoned house deep within the forest. Police could not find any clown paraphernalia at the scene, but that did not stop another group of children from seeing a shady clown just one week later on the other side of town. Once again, police could not find any hard evidence of red noses, water-squirting flowers, or tiny cars that can somehow fit ten people inside.
Americans chuckled to themselves, “Oh those South Carolinians are too much!” Then the clowns went national. They started showing up all along the East coast, from Florida to Maine. Then, in some sort of clown-manifest-destiny, the clowns traveled West to Texas, Colorado, Utah, and eventually were found scaring fish and surfers in California. It is not known if any clowns have swam across the Pacific to haunt Hawaii.
Scary clowns are not unique to the fall of 2016. Oh no. As I was reading through old newspapers from 1912 Chicago in an attempt to find out more information about a specific correspondent, I stumbled across an incredible byline on the adjacent page. It was about a murderous clown, living in Chicago not far from Hull-House, where Jane Addams was busy toiling away, and his vaudeville singer wife who plotted the downfall of their wealthy roommate.
In early October, 1912, a Baltimore heiress named Sophie Singer came to Chicago with her fiance, Will Worthen. They were met at the station by a “Mrs. Conway” who suggested that they all get a flat together instead of a hotel. “Mrs. Conway” was really Mrs. Louisa Cramer, wife of Charles N. Cramer (alias Charles Kramer, alias Charles Conway). The couple was part of a traveling circus, he as a human cannonball and a clown, and she as a singer and a lion tamer. Oh, and he had a wooden leg, too.
The three moved in together, and were shortly joined by Mr. Cramer. The Cramers, under the alias of the Conways, were dirt poor and only lived off the wealth of their heiress roommate and her well-to-do fiance. All was well until Ms. Singer decided that she would move back to Baltimore, leaving the Conways with no well of money to draw from. This did not sit well with the carny couple, and one night while Mr. Worthen was away gambling, the one legged clown made his move.
Worthen came back to find the key-hole stuffed. Breaking down the door, he found Sophie’s tangled legs sticking out from under their bed. She had clearly been strangled to death; her hands were tied with thin wire and Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so deep into her throat that police needed pincers to remove it. Her jewelry had been stolen.
Several months later the Cramers were caught in Lima, Ohio. Mrs. Cramer quickly confessed and threw her husband under the bus as well. Charles would eventually confess as well, though he insisted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder.
During the arrest and subsequent trial Cramer the Clown decided to lighten things up with a couple jokes. “Say, Captain?” he asked during the trial. “Do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the Captain said he’d never heard of a law like that, Cramer said “You have to use a rope!” Ba Dum Cha!
Charles was sentenced to life in prison, and only narrowly avoided the gallows. As he was led away, he vowed that he would “get out of this,” and twelve years later he made good on his promise. In 1925, despite his assumed lack of running ability owed to that wooden stump on his left side, Cramer ran away from a work farm in Joliet, Illinois. He was never seen or heard from again.
The next time you hear about a clown sighting in your neighborhood, you may want to exercise extra caution. Who knows? Maybe its Conway the Clown, 100 years old and still chasing people with his stump leg.