The Devil-Baby at Hull House
Jane Addams, 1916
First appeared in The Atlantic, October 1926.
Selected by Joyce Carol Oates for The Best American Essays of the Century (Houghton Miflin, 2000).
The knowledge of the existence of the Devil Baby 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; moreover, the Devil Baby had 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 the streams of visitors from every part of the city and suburbs to this mythical baby poured in all day long, and so far into the night that the regular activities of the settlement were almost swamped.
The Italian version, with a hundred variations, dealt with a pious Italian girl married to an atheist. Her husband vehemently tore a holy picture from the bedroom wall, saying that he would quite as soon have a devil in the house as that; whereupon the devil incarnated himself in her coming child. As soon as the Devil Baby was born, he ran about the table shaking his finger in deep reproach at his father, who finally caught him and in fear and trembling brought him to Hull-House. When the residents there, in spite of the baby’s shocking appearance, wishing to save his soul, took him to church for baptism, they found that the shawl was empty and the Devil Baby, felling from the holy water, ran lightly over the backs of the pews.
The Jewish version, again with variations, was to the effect that the father of six daughters had said before the birth of a seventh child that he would rather have a devil in the house than another girl, whereupon the Devil Baby promptly appeared.
Save for a red automobile which occasionally figured in the story, and a stray cigar which, in some versions, the new born child snatched from his father’s lips, the tale might have been fashioned a thousand years ago…(cont… below)
The Haunting of Hull House
Addams noted upon moving in that the building had a “half skeptical reputation for a haunted attic.” Over the years, numerous stories of and hauntings have surrounded Hull House, making it a stop on many of the “ghosts in Chicago” tours. Charles Hull’s wife had died in the house in 1860, and is sometimes thought to haunt it. Other candidates for resident ghosts include the many people who died there of natural causes in the 1870s when it was used as a home for the aged by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In 1913, another Hull House ghost story began circulating. According to this legend, after a man claimed that he would rather have the Devil in his house than a picture of The Virgin Mary, his child was born with pointed ears, horns, scale-covered skin, and a tail. The mother was said to have taken the baby to Hull House, where Addams was said to have attempted to have it baptized and wound up locking it in the attic. While initially annoyed about the story, which had no basis in fact, Addams became fascinated by the effect the episode had on old women in the neighborhood and used the episode as a basis for her book, The Long Road of Woman’s Memory.
While a great many erroneous stories have circulated about the building, Addams is known to have spoken to several friends about one of the front bedrooms on the second floor being haunted – she and a friend once thought they saw a “woman in white” ghost there, and the same ghost was later seen by a group of girls when the room was used as a dressing room for the adjacent theater. Though Addams called it “haunted,” she seems to have been more amused than frightened by it. (Wikipedia)
Although the visitors to the Devil Baby included people 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 people 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, and 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 at Hull-House did not reach the newspapers until the fifth week of his sojourn—after thousands of people had already been informed of his whereabouts by the old method of passing news from mouth to mouth.
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. 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.
Throughout six weeks, as I went about Hull-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 could n’t have seen it for fifty cents’; ‘We did n’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 sue getting up an excursion from Milwaukee, for there is n’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 is n’t here?’ ‘We have taken three lines of cares 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 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 ‘aesthetic 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.
But 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 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 in order to listen to them.
Perhaps my many talks with these aged visitors crystallized thoughts and impressions that 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 human experiences; the powers of brutality and horror had had 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 they were so completely without it that they must have lost it long since.
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 vouchsafed a fleeting glimpse of that translucent wisdom so often embodied in old women, but so difficult to portray. I recall a conversation with one of them, a woman whose fine mind and indomitable spirit I had long admired; I had known her for years, and yet the recital of her sufferings, added to those the Devil Baby had already induced other women to tell me, pierced me afresh.
‘I had eleven children, some born in Bohemia and some born here; nine of them boys; all of the children died when they were little, but my dear Liboucha, you know all about her. She died last winter in the insane asylum. She was only twelve years old when her father, in a fit of delirium tremens, killed himself after he had chased us around the room trying to kill us first. She saw it all; the blood splashed on the wall stayed in her mind the worst; she shivered and shook all that night through, and the next morning she had lost her voice, could n’t speak out loud for terror. After a while her voice came back, although it was never very natural, and she went to school again. She seemed to do as well as ever and was awful pleased when she got into High School. All the money we had, I earned scrubbing in a public dispensary, although sometimes I got a little by interpreting for the patients, for I know three languages, one as well as the other. But I was determined that, whatever happened to me, Liboucha was to be educated. My husbands’ father was a doctor in the old country, and Liboucha was always a clever child. I would n’t have her live the kind of life I had, with no use for my mind except to make me restless and bitter. I was pretty old and worn out for such hard work, but when I used to see Liboucha on a Sunday morning, ready for church in her white dress with her long yellow hair braided round her beautiful pale face, lying there in bed as I was,—being brought up a freethinker and needing to rest my aching bones for the next week’s work,—I’d feel almost happy, in spite of everything.
‘But of course no such peace could last in my life; the second year at High School, Liboucha began to seem different and to do strange things. You know the time she wandered away for three days and we were all wild with fright, although a kind woman had taken her in and no harm came to her. I could never be easy after that; she was always gentle, but she was awful sly about running away, and at last I had to send her to the asylum. She stayed there off and on for five years, but I saw her every week of my life and she was always company for me, what with sewing for her, washing and ironing her clothes, cooking little things to take out to her and saving a bit of money to buy fruit for her. At any rate, I had stopped feeling so bitter, and got some comfort out of seeing the one thing that belonged to me on this side of the water, when all of a sudden she died of heart failure, and they never took the trouble to send for me until the next day.’
She stopped as if wondering afresh that the Fates could have been so casual, but with a sudden illumination, as if she had been awakened out of the burden and intensity of her restricted personal interests into a consciousness of those larger relations that are, for the most part, so strangely invisible. It was as if the young mother of the grotesque Devil Baby, that victim of wrong-doing on the part of others, had revealed to this tragic woman, much more clearly than soft words had ever done, that the return of a deed of violence upon the head of the innocent is inevitable; as if she had realized that, although she was destined to walk all the days of her life with that piteous multitude who bear the undeserved wrongs of the world, she would walk henceforth with a sense of companionship.
Among the visitors were pitiful old women who, although they had already reconciled themselves to 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 have n’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 upstairs.’
This more primitive type embodies the eternal patience of those humble toiling women who through the generations have been held of little value, save as their drudgery ministered to their men. One of them related her habit of going through the pockets of her drunken son every pay-day, and complained that she had never got so little as the night before, only twenty-five cents out of fifteen dollars he had promised for the rent long overdue. ‘I had to get that as he lay in the alley before the door; I could n’t pull him in, and the copper who helped him home left as soon as he heard me coming and pretended he did n’t see me. I have no food in the house nor coffee to sober him up with. I know perfectly well that you will ask me to eat something here, but if I can’t carry it home, I won’t take a bite nor a sup. I have never told you so much before. Since once of the nurses said he could be arrested for my non-support, I have been awfully close-mouthed. It’s the foolish way all the women in our street our talking about the Devil Baby that’s loosened my tongue—more shame to me.’
Above, left: Jane Addams (date/photographer unknown); left, a collage of images (see Other Sources for site credit).
There are those, if possible more piteous still, who have become absolutely helpless and can therefore no longer perform the household services exacted from them. One last wish has been denied them. ‘I hoped to go before I became a burden, but it was not to be’; and the long days of unwonted idleness are darkened by the haunting fear that ‘they’ will come to think the burden too heavy and decide that the poorhouse is ‘the best.’ Even then there is no word of blame for undutiful children or heedless grandchildren, for apparently all that is petty and transitory falls away from austere old age; the fires are burnt out, resentments, hatreds, and even cherished sorrows have become actually unintelligible. It is as if the horrors through which these old people had passed had never existed for them, and, facing death as they are, they seem anxious to speak only such words of groping wisdom as they are able.
This aspect of memory has never been more clearly stated than by Gilbert Murray in his Life of Euripides. He tells us that the aged poet, when he was officially declared to be one of ‘the old men of Athens,’ said, ‘Even yet the age-worn minstrel can turn Memory into song’; and the memory of which he spoke was that of history and tradition, rather than his own. The aged poet turned into song even the hideous story of Medea, transmuting it into ‘a beautiful remote song about far-off children who have been slain in legend, children who are now at peace and whose ancient pain has become part mystery and part music. Memory—that Memory who is the mother of the Muses—having done her work upon them.’
The vivid interest of so many old women in the story of the Devil Baby may have been an unconscious, although powerful testimony that tragic experiences gradually become dressed in such trappings in order 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 emotion 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, even as effigies built into the floor of an old church become dim and defaced by rough-shod feet, grew poignant and solemn. In the midst of their double bewilderment, both that the younger generation were walking in such stranger paths and that no one would listen to them, for one moment there flickered up that last hope of a disappointed life, that it may at least serve as a warning while affording material for exciting narrations.
Sometimes in talking to one of them, who was ‘but a hair’s breadth this side of the darkness,’ one realized that old age has its own expression for the mystic renunciation of the world. The impatience with all non-essentials, the craving to be free from hampering bonds and soft conditions, was perhaps typified in our own generation by Tolstoï’s last impetuous journey, the light of his genius for a moment making comprehensible to us that unintelligible impulse of the aged.
Often, in the midst of 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. Her sincerity and anticipation were 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 reassuring that I found myself perpetually speculating as to how soon the fleeting and petty emotions which seem so unduly important to us now 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, stupidity and resentment.
Above, left: Jane Addams, date/photographer unknown (Public Domain); right: article on the Devil Baby from a magazine of the time (see Other Sources, below,for site credit).
As our visitors to the Devil Baby came day by day, it was gradually evident that the simpler women were moved not wholly by curiosity, but that many of them prized the story as a valuable instrument in the business of living.
The legend exhibited all the persistence of one of those tales which have doubtless been preserved through the centuries because of their taming effects upon recalcitrant husbands and fathers. Shamefaced men brought by their women-folk to see the baby but ill-concealed their triumph when there proved to be no such visible sign of retribution for domestic derelictions. On the other hand, numbers of men came by themselves. One group from a neighboring factor, on their ‘own time,’ offered to pay twenty-five cents, a half dollar, two dollars apiece to see the child, insisting that it must be at Hull-House because ‘the women folks had seen it.’ To my query as to whether they supposed we would exhibit for money a poor little deformed baby, if one had been born in the neighborhood, they replied, ‘Sure, why not?’ and, ‘It teaches a good lesson, too,’ they added as an afterthought, or perhaps as a concession to the strange moral standards of a place like Hull-House. All the members in this group of hardworking men, in spite of a certain swagger toward one another and a tendency to bully the derelict showman, wore that hang-dog look betraying the sense of unfair treatment which a man is so apt to feel when his womankind makes an appeal to the supernatural. In their determination to see the child, the men recklessly divulged much more concerning their motives than they had meant to do, and their talk confirmed my impression that such a story may still act as a restraining influence in that sphere of marital conduct which, next to primitive religion itself, we are told, ahs always afforded the most fertile field for irrational tabus [sic] and savage punishments.
What story more than this could be calculated to secure sympathy for the mother of too many daughters, and contumely for the irritated father? The touch of mysticism, the supernatural sphere in which it was placed, would render a man perfectly helpless.
The story of the Devil Baby, evolved to-day as it might have been centuries before in response to the imperative needs of anxious waives and mothers, recalled the theory that woman first fashioned the fairy-story, that combination of wisdom and romance, in an effort to tame her mate and to make him a better father to her children, until such stories finally became a rude creed for domestic conduct, softening the treatment that men accorded to women.
Above, left: the author, Jane Addams in 1907; right: children on the playground at Hull House, ca. early 1920s (Public Domain).
These first pitiful efforts of women, so widespread and powerful that we have not yet escaped their influence, still cast vague shadows upon the vast spaces of life, shadows that are dim and distorted because of their distance origin. They remind us that for thousands of years women had nothing to oppose against unthinkable brutality save ‘the charm of words,’ no other implement with which to subdue the fiercenesses of the world about them.
During the weeks that the Devil Baby drew multitudes of visitors to Hull-House, my mind was opened to the fact that new knowledge derived from concrete experience is continually being made available for the guidance of human life; that humble women are still establishing rules of conduct as best they may, to counteract the base temptations of a man’s world. Thousands of women, for instance, make it a standard of domestic virtue that a man must not touch his pay envelope, but bring it home unopened to his wife. High praise is contained in the phrase, ‘We have been married twenty years and he never once opened his own envelope’; or covert blame in the statement, ‘Of course he got to gambling; what can you expect from a man who always opens his own pay?’
The women are so fatalistically certain of this relation of punishment to domestic sin, of reward to domestic virtue, that when they talk about it, as they so constantly did in connection with the Devil Baby, it often sounds as if they were using the words of a widely known ritual. Even the young girls seized upon it as a palpable punishment, to be held over the heads of reckless friends. That the tale was useful was evidenced by man letters similar to the anonymous epistle here given.
‘me and my friends we work in talor shop and when we are going home on the roby street car where we get off that car at blue island ave. we will meet some fellows sitting at that street where they drink some beer from pail. they keep look in cars all the time and they will wait and see if we will come sometimes we ill have to work, but they will wait so long they are tired and they dont care they get rest so long but a girl what works in twine mill saw them talk with us we know her good and she say what youse talk with old drunk man for we shall come to thier dance when it will be they will tell us and we should know all about where to see them that girl she say oh if you will go with them you will get devils baby like some other girls did who we knows. she say Jane Addams she will show one like that in Hull House if you will go down there we shall come sometime and we will see if that is trouth we do not believe her for she is friendly with them old men herself when she go out from her work they will wink to her and say something else to. We will go down and see you and make a lie from what she say.’
The grand staircase at Hull House. Many ghostly photos have been taken in the area surrounding the staircase (Photo credits: See Other Sources, below.)
The story evidently held some special comfort for hundreds of forlorn women, representatives of that vast horde of the denied and proscribed who had long found themselves confronted by those mysterious and impersonal wrongs which are apparently nobody’s fault but seem to be inherent in the very nature of things.
Because the Devil Baby embodied an underserved wrong to a poor mother, whose tender child had been claimed by the forces of evil, his merely reputed presence had power to attract to Hull-House hundreds of women who had been humbled and disgraced by their children; mothers of the feeble-minded, of the vicious, of the criminal, of the prostitute. In their talk it was as if their long rôle of maternal apology and protective reticence has at last broken down; as if they could speak out freely because for once a man responsible for an ill-begotten child had been ‘met up with’ and had received his deserts. Their sinister version of the story was that the father of the Devil Baby had married without confessing a hideous crime committed years before, thus basely deceiving both his innocent young bride and the good priest who performed the solemn ceremony; that the sin had become incarnate in his child which, to the horror of the young and trusting mother, had been born with all the outward aspects of the devil himself.
As if drawn by a magnet, week after week, a procession of forlorn women in search of the Devil Baby came to Hull-House from every part of the city, issuing forth from the many homes in which dwelt ‘the two unprofitable goddesses, Poverty and Impossibility.’ With an understanding quickened perhaps through my own acquaintance with the mysterious child, I listened to many tragic tales from the visiting women: of premature, ‘because he kicked me in the side’; of children maimed and burned because ‘I had no one to leave them with when I went to work.’ These women had seen the tender flesh of growing little bodies given over to death because ‘he would n’t let me send for the doctor,’ or because ‘there was no money to pay for the medicine.’ But even these mothers, rendered childless through insensate brutality, were less pitiful than some of the others, who might well have cried aloud of their children as did a distracted mother of her child centuries ago,—
That God should send this one thing more
Of hunger and of dread, a door
Set wide to every wind of pain!
Such was the mother of a feeble-minded boy who said, I did n’t have a devil baby myself, but I bore a poor “innocent,” who made me fight devils for twenty-three years.’ She told of her son’s experiences from the time the other little boys had put him up to stealing that they might hide in safety and leave him to be found with ‘the goods’ on him, until, grown into a huge man, he fell into the hands of professional burglars; he was evidently the dupe and stool-pigeon of the vicious and criminal until the very day he was locked into the State Penitentiary. ‘If people played with him a little, he went right off and did anything they told him to, and now he’s been set up for life. We call such innocents “God’s Fools” in the old country, but over here the Devil himself gets them. I’ve fought off bad men and boys from the poor lamb with my very fists; nobody ever came near the house except such like and the police officers who were always arresting him.’
The front of Hull House, then, and now (See Other Sources for photo credits.)
There were a goodly number of visitors, of the type of those to be found in every large city, who are on the verge of nervous collapse or who exhibit many symptoms of mental aberration and yet are sufficiently normal to be at large most of the time and to support themselves by drudgery which requires little mental effort, although the exhaustion resulting from the work they are able to do is the one thing from which they should be most carefully protected. One such woman, evidently obtaining inscrutable comfort from the story of the Devil Baby even after she had become convinced that we harbored no such creature, came many times to tell of her longing for her son who had joined the army some eighteen months before and was stationed in Alaska. She always began with the same words. ‘When spring comes and the snow melts so that I know he could get out, I can hardly stand it. You know I was once in the Insane Asylum for three years at a stretch, and since then I have n’t had much use of my mind except to worry with. Of course I know that it is dangerous for me, but what can I do? I think something like this: “The snow is melting, now he could get out, but his officers won’t let him off, and if he runs away he’ll be shot for a deserter—either way I’ll never see him again; I’ll die without seeing him”—and then I begin all over again with the snow.’ After a pause, she said, ‘The recruiting officer ought not to have taken him; he’s my only son and I’m a widow; it’s against the rules, but he was so crazy to go that I guess he lied a little. At any rate, the government has him now and I can’t get him back. Without his worry about him, my mind would be all right; if he was here he would be earning money and keeping me and we would be happy all day long.’
Recalling the vagabondish lad who had never earned much money and had certainly never ‘kept’ his hard-working mother, I ventured to suggest that, even if he were at home, he might not have work these hard times, that he might get into trouble and be arrested,—I did not need to remind her that he had already been arrested twice,—that he was now fed and sheltered and under discipline, and I added hopefully something about seeing the world. She looked at me out of her withdrawn harried eyes, as if I were speaking a foreign tongue. “That would n’t make any real difference to me—the work, the money, his behaving well and all that, if I could cook and wash for him; I don’t need all the money I earn scrubbing that factory; I only take bread and tea for supper, and I choke over that, thinking of him.”
A sorrowful woman clad in heavy black, who came one day, exhibited such a capacity for prolonged weeping that it was evidence in itself of the truth of at least half her statement, that she had cried herself to sleep every night of her life for fourteen years in fulfillment of a ‘curse’ lad upon her by an angry man that ‘her pillow would be wet with tears as long as she lived.’ Her respectable husband had kept a shop in the Red Light district, because he found it profitable to sell to the men and women who lived there. She had kept house in the rooms ‘over the store,’ from the time she was a bride newly come from Russia, and her five daughters had been born there, but never a song to gladden her husband’s heart.
She took such a feverish interest in the Devil Baby that when I was obliged to disillusion her, I found it hard to take away her comfort in the belief that the Powers that Be are on the side of the woman, when her husband resents too many daughters. But, after all, the birth of daughters was but an incident in her tale of unmitigated woe, for the scoldings of a disappointed husband were as nothing to the curse of a strange enemy, although she doubtless had a confused impression that if there was retribution for one in the general scheme of things, there might be for the other.
Since Hull House was built, there have been not only stories of Devil babies, and other mysteries, but also many photographs have been taken that have caught what appear to be spirits, specters, or ghostly figures descending the grand staircase. Below, are some of the most famous photographs taken (See Other Sources for photo credits.)
When the weeping woman finally put the events of her disordered life in some sort of sequence, it was clear that about fifteen years ago she had reported to the police a vicious house whose back door opened into her own yard. Her husband had forbidden her to do anything about it and had said that it would only get them into trouble, but she had been made desperate one day when she saw her little girl, then twelve years old, come out of the door, gleefully showing her younger sister a present of money. Because the poor woman had tried for ten years, without success, to induce her husband to move from the vicinity of such houses, she was certain that she could save her child by forcing out ‘the bad people’ from her own door-yard. She therefore made her one frantic effort, found her way to the city hall, and there reported the house to the chief himself. Of course, ‘the bad people’ ‘stood in with the police,’ and nothing happened to them except, perhaps, a fresh levy of blackmail; but the keeper of the house, beside himself with rage, made the dire threat and laid the curse upon her. In less than a year from that time he had enticed her daughter into a disreputable house in another part of the district. The poor woman, ringing one doorbell after another, had never been able to find her, but the girl’s sisters, who in time came to know where she was, had been dazzled by her mode of life. The weeping mother was quite sure that two of her daughters, while still outwardly respectable and ‘working downtown,’ earned money in the devious ways which they had learned all about when they were little children, although for the past five years the now prosperous husband had allowed the family to live in a suburb where the two younger daughters were ‘growing up respectable.’
At moments it seemed possible that these simple women, representing an earlier development, eagerly seized upon the story simply because it was primitive in form and substance. Certainly one evening a long-forgotten ballad made an unceasing effort to come to the surface of my mind, as I talked to a feeble woman who, in the last stages of an incurable disease from which she soon afterwards died, had been helped off the street-car in front of Hull-House.
The ballad tells that the lover of a proud and jealous mistress, who demanded as a final test of devotion that he bring her the heart of his mother, had quickly cut the heart from his mother’s breast and impetuously returned to his lady bearing it upon a salver; but that, when stumbling in his gallant haste, he stooped to replace upon the silver plate his mother’s heart which had rolled upon the ground, the heart, still beating with tender solicitude, whispered the hope that her child was not hurt.
The ballad itself was scarcely more exaggerated than the story of our visitor that evening, who had made the desperate effort of a journey from home in order to see the Devil Baby. I was familiar with her vicissitudes: the shiftless drinking husband and the large family of children, all of whom had brought her sorrow and disgrace; and I knew that her heart’s desire was to see again before she died her youngest son, who was a life prisoner in the penitentiary. She was confident that the last piteous stage of her disease would secure him a week’s parole, founding this forlorn hope upon the fact that ‘they sometimes let them out to attend a mother’s funeral, and perhaps they’d let Joe come a few days ahead; he could pay his fare afterwards from the insurance money. It would n’t have take much to bury me.’
Again we went over the hideous story. Joe had violently quarreled with a woman, the proprietor of the house in which his disreputable wife lived, because she withheld from him a part of his wife’s ‘earnings,’ and in the altercation had killed her—a situation, one would say, which it would be difficult for even a mother to condone. But not at all: her thin gray face worked with emotion, her trembling hands restlessly pulled at her shabby skirt as the hands of the dying pluck at the sheets, but she put all the vitality she could muster in his defense. She told us he had legally married the girl who supported him, ‘although Lily had been so long in that life that few men would have done it. Of course such a girl must have a protector or everybody would fleece her; poor Lily said to the day of her death that he was the kindest man she ever knew, and treated her the whitest; that she herself was to blame for the murder because she told on the old miser, and Joe was so hot-headed she might have known that he would draw a gun for her.’ The gasping mother concluded, ‘He was always that handsome and had such a way. One winter when I was scrubbing in an office-building, I’d never get home much before twelve o’clock; but Joe would open the door for me just as pleasant as if he had n’t been waked out of a deep sleep.’
She was so triumphantly unconscious of the incongruity of a sturdy son in bed while his mother earned his food, that her auditors said never a word, and in silence we saw a hero evolved before our eyes: a defender of the oppressed, the best beloved of his mother, who was losing his high spirits and eating his heart out behind the prison bars. He could well defy the world even there, surrounded as he was by that invincible affection which assures both the fortunate and unfortunate alike that we are loved, not according to our deserts, but in response to some profounder law.
This imposing revelation of maternal solicitude was an instance of what continually happened in connection with the Devil Baby. In the midst of the most tragic recitals there remained that something in the souls of these mothers which has been called the great revelation of tragedy, or sometimes the great illusion of tragedy—that which has power in its own right to make life acceptable and at rare moments even beautiful.
At least, during the weeks when the Devil Baby seemed to occupy every room in Hull-House, one was conscious that all human vicissitudes are in the end melted down into reminiscence, and that a metaphorical statement of those profound experience which are implicit in human nature itself, however crude in form the story may be, has a singular power of healing the distracted spirit.
If it has always been the mission of literature to translate the particular act into something of the universal, to reduce the element of crude pain in the isolated experience by bringing to the sufferer a realization that his is but the common lot, this mission may have been performed through such stories as this for simple hard-working women, who, after all, at any given moment compose the bulk of the women in the world.^
Read the essay at The Atlantic, here:
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