Friday, October 16, 2009

The Chicago’s Devil Baby of Hull House

The most famous American Devil Baby has to be the Chicago’s Devil Baby of Hull House. At least, this is certainly the most widespread legend.

Hull House represented the life’s work of Nobel Prize winning philanthropist Jane Addams. It was a place envisioned as a stepping-stone for underprivileged and impoverished members of Chicago’s poor immigrant society. Because of Addams’ particular interest in suffrage and women’s and children’s rights, it was natural that immigrant women and mothers would be attracted to the beacon of Hull House.

Despite Addams’ fervent denials (she dedicated more than 40 pages to the legend and its impact on her life in her autobiography) the story persisted that Hull House was the home of a creature not of this earth.

Originally, the rumor was just a whisper among the large immigrant population of late 19th century Chicago. Mostly superstitious and uneducated, it is certain that they brought with them from their homelands many ethnic and cultural beliefs that shaped their perception of their new foreign world. However, the “facts” were no fabrication: Most sources agree that Jane Addams, out of charity, took in the female who would bear the burden that would plague the good woman for generations to come.

The mother of the Devil Baby, though nameless, is said to have fled to Hull House to escape a brutal marriage. This is a central part of the story and an important one: evidently the young immigrant woman found herself pregnant once again and the husband, already having too many mouths to feed on his meager income, is said to have ruthlessly beat his wife, all the while cursing the unborn child. When the young woman fled to the shelter of Hull House, she found an understanding matron who was prepared to take her in and to protect her through the difficult pregnancy.

And it was a difficult pregnancy, according to the written accounts of Hull House servants who rendered firsthand descriptions of the notorious events. The mother-to-be complained of unusual pains throughout the pregnancy, of hearing voices and of having vivid, frightening nightmares. Jane Addams and the Hull House physicians put this down to the tormented life that the woman had led prior to escaping to Hull House, exacerbated by the continuous efforts of her husband to gain access to her.

As the time of her delivery came due, the horrible nature of what she had carried and nurtured for nine months was finally revealed. A writhing monster child full of scales and reptilian coldness with gleaming, black eyes, clawed hands and feet, and the protrusions of tiny horns on its forehead.

Legend has it that the mother died on the spot, mercifully released from this world. But in an unexpected turn of events, it is said that Jane Addams was overcome with such compassion that it moved her to take the child into her care.

Thus the story grew up over the years, whispered in every quarter, that behind the walls of Hull House an evil was growing.

This infant grew to a child – a monstrous lump of a human-like creature – that prowled the darkness and had full run of the dreaded third storey of Hull House. It is said that the child would peer from the windows, envious of the other children with whom it was not allowed to associate. Children and other residents of Hull House often awoke in the night to strange scrabbling noises and furtive breathing near their faces, only to discover in the lamplight that they were completely alone.

Eventually, Jane Addams died, but the legend of the Devil Baby of Hull House lives on and even today passersby and visitors to the location report seeing the shadow of “something” childlike peering at them from the darkness.

  • Facts

A link between ghosts and cemeteries has a certain logic, but a connection between specters and a monument to good works is less explicable. Nevertheless, a demonic spirit supposedly haunts Hull House, site of the most famous settlement house in America.

In 1889, Jane Addams and another social worker took over the Hull mansion at 800 South Halsted and turned it into a community center. The house, now part of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, is currently a museum dedicated to Addams and her work.

Addams was a hardheaded, progressive reformer, a proud and determined do-gooder in an age sorely in need of one. She and her colleagues turned Hull House into a community center, supplying shelter, food and practical advice to the huge number of bewildered young immigrant women in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the winter of 1913, Addams could have used some advice herself to deal with what must have seemed to her no-nonsense mind a case of mass hysteria. Women were streaming into Hull House with a very particular request: They wanted to see the Devil Baby. Stories were circulating throughout the city about a child born with scaly skin, horns, hooves and a tail. Some of the rumors included accounts of the young demon flying about the rooms of Hull House while social workers tried desperately to catch him. "He looks just like Satan himself," a witness told newspaper reporters.

Depending on who told the story, the infant's origins varied. Jewish women claimed he was the offspring of an unfeeling father with a large family of daughters who declared that he'd rather his wife give birth to a demon than to another baby girl. Italians said the Devil Baby's mother was a God-fearing woman who had had the misfortune to marry an atheist. When the woman put a picture of Jesus on her wall, the husband angrily tore it down, saying that he'd rather have the devil himself in the house. And, according to this version, he got his wish. These and other variations ended with a desperate family taking the baby to Hull House and pleading for help.

In the beginning, Addams was furious at the rumors, which she tried to combat with appeals to common sense. Eventually, however, she worked out a sociological explanation that, to her way of thinking, explained the phenomenon. She noted that many purveyors of the Devil Baby story were older immigrant women, isolated in their new country, deprived of whatever domestic power and authority their age might have afforded them in their native villages. "The old women who came to visit the Devil Baby believed the story would secure them a hearing back home," Addams reported, "and as they prepared themselves with every detail of it, their faces shone with timid satisfaction."

But despite Addams' sensible, secular debunking of the Devil Baby as the outcome of a pitiable bid for attention, many Chicagoans still believe that a strange creature of some sort really existed. Some suggest that the Devil Baby may simply have been a horribly deformed child, kept by the Hull House workers to shelter it from an unforgiving world. Other believers still claim to see a devilish little face peering out of one of the House's second-floor windows.

Addams would doubtless have scoffed at such superstitious claptrap — or maybe not. In her diaries, she reported hearing strange noises coming from the upper rooms of the Hull House. She didn't know what made the racket, but she habitually put large buckets of water at the top of the stairs to keep it — whatever it was — at bay.

No comments: