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Jane Addams and the Legends of Hull House


Jane Addams, along with Ellen Gates Starr,  founded Hull House in 1889 and by 1912 they were operating 13 buildings including a summer camp called the Bowen Country Club.  They provided innovative social services to European immigrants of the West Side including day care, art, literary and music classes as well as opening the city's first public playground and gymnasium.  By 1920 there were almost 500 other agencies nationally using the Hull House model.  Jane Addams believed that the way to help people out of poverty was to bring the upper and lower classes together and have each learn something from the other.  W.T. Stead made frequent visits to Hull House in the winter following the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.  That winter was one of very high unemployment in Chicago and Mr. Stead would come to Hull House sometimes as late as midnight soaking wet and extremely tired.  He was a reformer like Addams and masqueraded during the day as a common day laborer or even as a homeless person to try to experience what it was like to be in the lower classes.  Addams recalled many visits where Stead would warm himself by the fire, smoking a cigar and telling Addams that while he was investigating the Levee district (made famous by Karen Abbott's book, Sin in the Second City) he was treated very kindly by people who perceived him as one of their own kind.  He was even offered a job as an agent at a gambling establishment which he hastily accepted.  Stead would eventually write, "If Christ Came to Chicago", a scathing commentary on the lack of morals and social programs in the city.  Stead was one of the more than 1,500 who perished aboard the Titanic in 1912.

The original settlement house of the Hull House Association is now a Hull House Museum operated by the University of Illinois at Chicago (my alma mater)  It still stands at 800 S. Halsted St. (335 S. Halsted before the address changes of 1909)  The house was originally built for Charles J. Hull, an early pioneer of Chicago and a successful real estate capitalist in 1856  His wife died in the house in 1860 and his housekeeper, Miss Helen Culver, raised Mr. Hull's two children who unfortunately died at the ages of 18 and 24.  Charles Hull died on February 12, 1889 and left his entire estate estimated at roughly $2 million dollars, nearly $50 million in today's market, to Miss Culver.  This of course angered his brothers, and many nieces and nephews.  There was a short court battle but the will stood the test and Miss Culver inherited everything.  You can visit Charles Hull's gravesite at Rosehill Cemetery.  It is actually a pretty impressive likeness of Hull seated in a chair.

While Addams and Starr were searching for a suitable home for their settlement house in September of that same year they happened across the old Hull House.  It was no longer lived in by the family who had moved to Ashland some time previous but was being used as a store room and offices for the factory that existed just behind it where the University is today.  The second floor was also being leased by tenants but after a little discussion with Miss Culver they were able to sublet the second floor of the building and the drawing room on the first floor.    It was probably at this point that the "Haunted" reputation of the Hull House began.  Jane Addams herself stated that the tenants of the second floor believed the attic to be haunted.  In fact they kept a pitcher of water on the stairs to the attic in an effort to fend off the ghosts who they believed lived in the attic.  Addams asked about the reason for the water but couldn't really understand their answer and surmised that it had something to do with the belief that spirits could not cross running water.

A second legend concerning paranormal occurrences at Hull House surrounds the story of the "Devil Baby".  The story of the "Devil Baby" depends on whether one had heard the Italian or Jewish version of the urban legend.  Basically it is the story of an enraged husband who is either an atheist and says something blasphemous while tearing a "holy" picture from the wall or is angered by the fact that he has six girls already and a pregnant wife and would rather have a devil in the house than another girl.  In both cases the devil reveals itself in the newborn baby of the wife.  The baby has cloven feet, pointy ears and a tail.  In some stories the baby is born with the ability to speak and spout profanity.  In the Hull House version, Jane Addams is supposed to have taken the child in and even attempted to have it baptized.  The rumor spread like wildfire in 1913 and multitudes would show up at the Hull House wanting and even offering to pay for a glimpse of the devil baby.  Jane Addams explains the stories of the devil baby in an article of the American Journal of Sociology from July 1914 and also an article in Atlantic Monthly of 1916. While she understood it to be only an urban legend she did appreciate the attention that it drew an also the way it helped many of the older women of the neighborhood to visit and "open up".

Even today, people claim to have seen or experienced some sort of paranormal activity at the Hull House and it is a common stop on various Chicago ghost tours.  I had the chance to speak with a DePaul student at a recent book signing who swears that as he passed the Hull House building a flower pot launched itself in his direction barely missing him.  He said that there was no way that it could have fallen off of anything given his location on the sidewalk and there was nobody around who could have thrown it at him.

One of the greatest tragedies of our current economy is the closing of the doors of the Hull House Association in January 2012 after they filed for bankruptcy.  They had served the Chicago community for over 122 years and now over 60,000 receipients of their services will now have to go elsewhere.  The original settlement museum will remain open.