Sunday, June 21, 2020

Chicago's "Devil Baby" from the Early 20th Century.

Jane Addams’ Hull House was a place of refuge for new immigrants. Built-in 1856 by Charles Hull, it served many new immigrant arrivals to Chicago and it grew to a campus of 13 buildings by the mid-1910s. Jane Addams tried her best to help those adjusting to life in America by providing food, shelter, English language, and trade classes.

In 1913, as the story is told, an Italian woman and her husband abandoned their 'devil baby' on the doorstep of the Hull-House. In about six weeks, Hull-House quickly became besieged with visitors and telephone inquiries. As the news got out, hundreds of people would flock to Hull-House to see the devil baby for themselves. The story got so out of hand that in 1916, the Atlantic news magazine even sent a journalist out to cover the story. Aadams always denied the existence that this child was the devil.

The Hull-House was claimed to be haunted well before Addams bought it in September of 1889. It was a poor house from 1860 to around the late 1880s. Many people died on campus, including the wife of Charles Hull. She’s thought to be one of the many spirits still roaming the halls of the main building. Jane often commented on the spirits, but she seemed to be amused, but not frightened.



WOMEN'S MEMORIES TRANSMUTING THE PAST
AS ILLUSTRATED BY THE STORY OF THE DEVIL BABY

Quite as it would be hard for anyone of us to select the summer in which he ceased to live that life, so ardent in childhood and early youth, when all the real happenings are in the future, so it must be difficult for old people to tell at what period they began to regard the present chiefly as a prolongation of the past. There is no doubt, however, that such instinctive shiftings and reversals have taken place for many old people who, under the control of Memory, are actually living much more in the past than in the ephemeral present.

It is most fortunate, therefore, that in some subtle fashion these old people, reviewing the long road they have traveled, can transmute their own untoward experiences into that which seems to make even the most wretched life acceptable. 

This may possibly be due to an instinct of self-preservation, which checks the devastating bitterness that would result did they recall over and over again the sordid detail of events long past; it is even possible that those people who were not able thus to inhibit their bitterness have died earlier, for as one old man recently reminded me, "It is a true word that worry can kill a cat."

This permanent and elemental function of Memory was graphically demonstrated at Hull-House during several weeks when we were reported to be harboring within its walls a so-called "Devil Baby."

The knowledge of his existence burst upon the residents of Hull-House one day when three Italian women, with an excited rush through the door, demanded that he be shown to them. No amount of denial convinced them that he was not there, for they knew exactly what he was like with his cloven hoofs, his pointed ears, and diminutive tail; the Devil Baby had, moreover, been able to speak as soon as he was born and was most shockingly profane. 

The three women were but the forerunners of a veritable multitude; for six weeks from every part of the city and suburbs the streams of visitors to this mythical baby poured in all day long and so far into the night that the regular activities of the settlement were swamped.

The Italian version, with a hundred variations: 
Visual Aid.
Not the Real 'Devil Baby.'
A devoutly Catholic woman hanged a picture of the virgin Mary on the wall but her atheist husband tore it down. He stated that he would rather have the devil himself in residence in the home rather than that picture on the wall. Several months later his wife gave birth to a deformed child – hooves, claw hands, a tail, pointed ears, and yes, horns on his head. She died from shock at first sight of her baby!

As soon as the Devil Baby was born, he ran around shaking a claw, in deep reproach, at his father, who finally caught him. Trembling in fear he brought the baby to the Hull-House. When the residents there, despite the baby's shocking appearance, wished to save his soul, took him into the church to be baptized. 

They laid him down to prepare the baptismal fountain but found the shawl he was wrapped in empty. The Devil Baby fleed from the proximity of the holy water and was witnessed leaping from one pew to another on the backs of the pew benches.

The Jewish version, again with many variations:
The father of six daughters told his wife when he found out she was pregnant had told his wife that "he would rather have a devil in the family than another girl." Upon the baby's birth, he was a true devil child with pointed ears and a tail. Save for a red automobile which occasionally figured in the story and a stray cigar which, in some versions, the new-born child had snatched from his father's lips, the tale might have been fashioned a thousand years ago.

Although the visitors to the Devil Baby included persons of every degree of prosperity and education, even physicians and trained nurses, who assured us of their scientific interest, the story constantly demonstrated the power of an old wives' tale among thousands of men and women in modern society who are living in a corner of their own, their vision fixed, their intelligence held by some iron chain of silent habit. To such primitive people the metaphor apparently is still the very "stuff of life," or rather no other form of statement reaches them; the tremendous tonnage of current writing for them has no existence. It was in keeping with their simple habits that the reputed presence of the Devil Baby should not reach the newspapers until the fifth week of his sojourn at Hull-House after thousands of people had already been informed of his whereabouts by the old method of passing news from mouth to mouth. 

For six weeks as I went about the house, I would hear a voice at the telephone repeating for the hundredth time that day, "No, there is no such baby"; "No, we never had it here"; "No, he couldn't have seen it for fifty cents"; "We didn't send it anywhere, because we never had it"; "I don't mean to say that your sister-in-law lied, but there must be some mistake"; "There is no use getting up an excursion from Milwaukee, for there isn't any Devil Baby at Hull-House"; "We can't give reduced rates, because we are not exhibiting anything"; and so on and on. As I came near the front door, I would catch snatches of arguments that were often acrimonious: "Why do you let so many people believe it, if it isn't here ?" "We have taken three lines of cars to come and we have as much right to see it as anybody else"; "This is a pretty big place, of course, you could hide it easy enough." "What are you saying that for, are you going to raise the price of admission?"

We had doubtless struck a case of what the psychologists call the "contagion of emotion" added to that "æsthetic sociability" which impels any one of us to drag the entire household to the window when a procession comes into the street or a rainbow appears in the sky. The Devil Baby of course was worth many processions and rainbows, and I will confess that, as the empty show went on day after day, I quite revolted against such a vapid manifestation of even an admirable human trait. There was always one exception, however; whenever I heard the high eager voices of old women, I was irresistibly interested and left anything I might be doing to listen to them. As I came down the stairs, long before I could hear what they were saying, implicit in their solemn and portentous old voices came the admonition:
"Wilt thou reject the past
Big with deep warnings?"
It was a very serious and genuine matter with the old women, this story so ancient and yet so contemporaneous, and they flocked to Hull-House from every direction; those I had known for many years, others I had never known and some whom I had supposed to be long dead. But they were all alive and eager; something in the story or in its mysterious sequences had aroused one of those active forces in human nature which do not take orders but insists only upon giving them. We had abruptly come in contact with a living and self-assertive human quality!

During the weeks of excitement, it was the old women who really seemed to have come into their own, and perhaps the most significant result of the incident was the reaction of the story upon them. It stirred their minds and memories as with a magic touch, it loosened their tongues and revealed the inner life and thoughts of those who are so often inarticulate. They are accustomed to sit at home and to hear the younger members of the family speak of affairs quite outside their own experiences, sometimes in a language they do not understand, and at best in quick glancing phrases which they cannot follow; "More than half the time I can't tell what they are talking about," is an oft-repeated complaint. The story of the Devil Baby evidently put into their hands the sort of material with which they were accustomed to deal. They had long used such tales in their unremitting efforts at family discipline, ever since they had frightened their first children into awed silence by tales of bugaboo men who prowled in the darkness.

These old women enjoyed a moment of triumph as if they had made good at last and had come into a region of sanctions and punishments which they understood. Years of living had taught them that recrimination with grown-up children and grandchildren is worse than useless, that punishments are impossible, that domestic instruction is best given through tales and metaphors. 

As the old women talked with the new volubility which the story of the Devil Baby had released in them, going back into their long memories and urging its credibility upon me, the story seemed to condense that mystical wisdom which becomes deposited in the hearts of men by unnoticed innumerable experiences. 

Perhaps my many conversations with these aged visitors crystallized thoughts and impressions I had been receiving through years, or the tale itself may have ignited a fire, as it were, whose light illumined some of my darkest memories of neglected and uncomfortable old age, of old peasant women who had ruthlessly probed into the ugly depths of human nature in themselves and others. Many of them who came to see the Devil Baby had been forced to face tragic experiences, the powers of brutality and horror had had a full scope in their lives and for years they had had acquaintance with disaster and death. Such old women do not shirk life's misery by feeble idealism, for they are long past the stage of make-believe. They relate without flinching the most hideous experiences: "My face has had this queer twist for now nearly sixty years; I was ten when it got that way, the night after I saw my father do my mother to death with his knife." "Yes, I had fourteen children; only two grew to be men and both of them were killed in the same explosion. I was never sure they brought home the right bodies." But even the most hideous sorrows which the old women related had apparently subsided into the paler emotion of ineffectual regret after Memory had long done her work upon them; the old people seemed, in some unaccountable way, to lose all bitterness and resentment against life, or rather to be so completely without it that they must have lost it long since.

None of them had a word of blame for undutiful children or heedless grandchildren, because apparently the petty and transitory had fallen away from their austere old age, the fires were burnt out, resentments, hatreds, and even cherished sorrows had become actually unintelligible. 

Perhaps those women, because they had come to expect nothing more from life and had perforce ceased from grasping and striving, had obtained, if not renunciation, at least that quiet endurance which allows the wounds of the spirit to heal. Through their stored-up habit of acquiescence, they offered a fleeting glimpse of the translucent wisdom, so often embodied in the old, but so difficult to portray. It is doubtless what Michael Angelo had in mind when he made the Sybils old, what Dante meant by the phrase "those who had learned of life," and the age-worn minstrel who turned into song a Memory which was more that of history and tradition than his own. 

In contrast to the visitors to the Devil Baby who spoke only such words of groping wisdom as they were able, were other old women who, although they had already reconciled themselves too much misery, were still enduring more: ''You might say it's a disgrace to have your son beat you up for the sake of a bit of money you've earned by scrubbing your own man is different — but I haven't the heart to blame the boy for doing what he's seen all his life, his father forever went wild when the drink was in him and struck me to the very day of his death. The ugliness was born in the boy as the marks of the Devil was born in the poor child up-stairs." 

Some of these old women had struggled for weary years with poverty and much childbearing, had known what it was to be bullied and beaten by their husbands, neglected and ignored by their prosperous children, and burdened by the support of the imbecile and the shiftless ones. They had literally gone "Deep written all their days with care."

One old woman actually came from the poorhouse, having heard of the Devil Baby "through a lady from Polk Street visiting an old friend who has a bed in our ward." t was no slight achievement for the penniless and crippled old inmate to make her escape. She had asked "a young bar-keep in a saloon across the road" to lend her ten cents, offering as security the fact that she was an old acquaintance at Hull-House who could not be refused so slight a loan. She marveled at some length over the goodness of the young man, for she had not had a dime to spend for a drink for the last six months, and he and the conductor had been obliged to lift her into the streetcar by main strength. She was naturally much elated over the achievement of her escape. To be sure, from the men's side, they were always walking off in the summer and taking to the road, living like tramps they did, in a way no one from the woman's side would demean herself to do; but to have left in a streetcar like a lady, with money to pay her own fare, was quite a different matter, although she was indeed "clean wore out" by the effort. However, it was clear that she would consider herself well repaid by a sight of the Devil Baby and that not only the inmates of her own ward, but those in every other ward in the house would be made to "sit up" when she got back; it would liven them all up a bit, and she hazarded the guess that she would have to tell them about that baby at least a dozen times a day. 

As she cheerfully rambled on, we weakly postponed telling her there was no Devil Baby, first that she might have a cup of tea and rest, and then through a sheer desire to withhold a blow from a poor old body who had received so many throughout a long, hard life.

As I recall those unreal weeks, it was in her presence that I found myself for the first time vaguely wishing that I could administer comfort by the simple device of not asserting too dogmatically that the Devil Baby had never been at Hull-House. Our guest recalled with great pride that her grandmother had possessed second sight; that her mother had heard the Banshee three times and that she, herself, had heard it once. All this gave her a certain proprietary interest in the Devil Baby and I suspected she cherished a secret hope that when she should lay her eyes upon him, her inherited gifts might be able to reveal the meaning of the strange portent. At the least, he would afford a proof that her family-long faith in such matters was justified. Her misshapen hands lying on her lap fairly trembled with eagerness. 

It may have been because I was still smarting under the recollection of the disappointment we had so wantonly inflicted upon our visitor from the poorhouse that the very next day I found myself almost agreeing with her whole-hearted acceptance of the past as of much more important than the mere present; at least for half an hour the past seemed endowed also for me with a profound and more ardent life. 

This impression was received in connection with an old woman, sturdy in her convictions, although long since bedridden, who had doggedly refused to believe that there was no Devil Baby at Hull-House, unless "herself" told her so. Because of her mounting irritation with the envoys who one and all came back to her to report "they say it ain't there/' it seemed well that I should go promptly before "she fashed herself into the grave." As I walked along the street and even as I went up the ramshackle outside stairway of the rear cottage and through the dark corridor to the "second floor back" where she lay in her untidy bed, I was assailed by a veritable temptation to give her a full description of the Devil Baby, which by this time I knew so accurately (for with a hundred variations to select from I could have made a monstrous infant almost worthy of his name), and also to refrain from putting too much stress on the fact that he had never been really and truly at Hull-House. 

I found my mind hastily marshaling arguments for not disturbing her belief in the story which had so evidently brought her a vivid interest long denied her. She lived alone with her young grandson, who went to work every morning at seven o'clock and save for the short visits made by the visiting nurse and by kind neighbors, her long day was monotonous and undisturbed. But the story of a Devil Baby, with his existence officially corroborated as it were, would give her a lodestone which would attract the neighbors far and wide and exalt her once more into the social importance she had had twenty-four years before when I had first known her. She was then the proprietor of the most prosperous second-hand store on a street full of them, her shiftless, drinking husband and her jolly, good-natured sons doing exactly what she told them to do. This, however, was long past, for "owing to the drink," in her own graphic phrase, "the old man, the boys, and the business, too, were clean gone" and there was "nobody left but little Tom and me and nothing for us to live on.'

I remember how well she used to tell a story when I once tried to collect some folk-lore for Mr. Yeats to prove that an Irish peasant does not lose his faith in the little people nor his knowledge of Gaelic phrases simply because he is living in a city. She had at that time told me a wonderful tale concerning a red cloak worn by an old woman to a freshly dug grave. The story of the Devil Baby would give her material worthy of her powers, but of course, she must be able to believe it with all her heart. She could live only a few months at the very best, I argued to myself; why not give her this vivid interest and through it awake those earliest recollections of that long-accumulated folklore with its magic power to transfigure and eclipse the sordid and unsatisfactory surroundings in which life is actually spent? I solemnly assured myself that the imagination of old age needs to be fed and probably has quite as imperious a claim as that of youth, which levies upon us so remorselessly with its "I want a fairy story, but I don't like you to begin by saying that it isn't true." Impatiently I found myself challenging the educators who had given us no pedagogical instructions for the treatment of old age, although they had fairly overinformed us as to the use of the fairy tale with children.

The little room was stuffed with a magpie collection, the usual odds and ends which compose an old woman's treasures, augmented in this case by various articles which a second-hand store, even of the most flourishing sort, could not sell. In the picturesque confusion, if anywhere in Chicago, an urbanized group of the little people might dwell; they would certainly find the traditional atmosphere which they strictly require, marveling faith and unalloyed reverence. At any rate, an eager old woman aroused to her utmost capacity of wonder and credulity was the very soil, prepared to a nicety, for planting the seed-thought of the Devil Baby. If the object of my errand had been an hour's reading to a sick woman, it would have been accounted to me for philanthropic righteousness, and if the chosen reading had lifted her mind from her bodily discomforts and harassing thoughts so that she forgot them all for one fleeting moment, how pleased I should have been with the success of my effort. But here I was with a story at my tongue's end, stupidly hesitating to give it validity, although the very words were on my lips. I was still arguing the case with myself when I stood on the threshold of her room and caught the indomitable gleam of her eye, fairly daring me to deny the existence of the Devil Baby, her slack dropsical body so responding to her overpowering excitement that for the moment she looked alert in her defiance and positively menacing.

But, as in the case of many another weak soul, the decision was taken out of my hands, my very hesitation was enough, for nothing is more certain than that the bearer of a magic tale never stands dawdling on the door-step. Slowly the gleam died out of the expectant old eyes, the erect shoulders sagged and pulled forward, and I saw only too plainly that the poor old woman had accepted one more disappointment in a life already overflowing with them. She was violently thrown back into all the limitations of her personal experience and surroundings, and that larger life she had anticipated so eagerly was as suddenly shut away from her as if a door had been slammed in her face. 

I never encountered that particular temptation again, though she was no more pitiful than many of the aged visitors whom the Devil Baby brought to Hull-House. But, perhaps as a result of this experience, I gradually lost the impression that the old people were longing for a second chance at life, to live it all over again and to live more fully and wisely, and I became more reconciled to the fact that many of them had little opportunity for meditation or for bodily rest, but must keep on working with their toil-worn hands, despite weariness or faintness of heart. 

The vivid interest of so many old women in the story of the Devil Baby may have been unconscious, although powerful, testimony that tragic experiences gradually become dressed in such trappings so that their spent agony may prove of some use to a world which learns at the hardest; and that the strivings and sufferings of men and women long since dead, their emotions no longer connected with flesh and blood, are thus transmuted into legendary wisdom. The young are forced to heed the warning in such a tale, although, for the most part, it is so easy for them to disregard the words of the aged. That the old women who came to visit the Devil Baby believed that the story would secure them a hearing at home was evident, and as they prepared themselves with every detail of it, their old faces shone with a timid satisfaction. Their features, worn and scarred by harsh living, as effigies built into the floor of an old church become dim and defaced by rough-shod feet, grew poignant and solemn. Amid their double bewilderment, both that the younger generation was walking in such strange paths and that no one would listen to them, for one moment there flickered up the last hope of a disappointing life, that it may at least serve as a warning while affording material for an exciting narrative.

Sometimes in talking to a woman who was "but a hair's breadth this side of the darkness" I realized that old age has its own expression for the mystic renunciation of the world. Their impatience with all non-essentials, the craving to be free from hampering bonds and soft conditions, recalled Tolstoy's last impetuous journey, and I was once more grateful to his genius for making clear another unintelligible impulse of bewildered humanity. 

Often, during a conversation, one of these touching old women would quietly express a longing for death, as if it were a natural fulfillment of an inmost desire, with sincerity and anticipation so genuine that I would feel abashed in her presence, ashamed to "cling to this strange thing that shines in the sunlight and to be sick with love for it." Such impressions were, in their essence, transitory, but one result from the hypothetical visit of the Devil Baby to Hull-House will, I think, remain: a realization of the sifting and reconciling power inherent in Memory itself. The old women, with much to aggravate and little to soften the habitual bodily discomforts of old age, exhibited an emotional serenity so vast and so reassuring, that I found myself perpetually speculating upon how soon the fleeting and petty emotions which now seem unduly important to us might be thus transmuted; at what moment we might expect the inconsistencies and perplexities of life to be brought under this appeasing Memory with its ultimate power to increase the elements of beauty and significance and to reduce, if not to eliminate, all sense of resentment.

Excerpt from:
The Long Road of Woman's Memory by Jane Aadams (in PDF)
Published: October 14, 1916

Jane Aadams' idea for the book 'The Long Road of Woman's Memory" was to do for old women what she did for the youth of the community in her book, "Youth of the City Streets."

Compiled and Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

1 comment:

  1. What a story! My family were Italian immigrants who lived on Polk St in the Little Italy area 100 years ago. They went to Hull House for programs and classes held there. They never mentioned the devil baby, although they did have some superstitions.

    ReplyDelete

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