The Whitechapel Club:

Defining Chicago's Newspapermen in the 1890s


American Journalism, 15:1 (Winter, 1998), 83-102.


In the summer of 1889, in the rear room of Henry Kosters' Chicago newspaper-district saloon, a small group of literary-minded newspapermen founded a press club that they called the Whitechapel Club--a name they borrowed from the London slum where Jack the Ripper was stalking young women to murder and mutilate. The Whitechapel Club would live only five years, but in its short life it would become one of the most peculiar of all press clubs, as strange in its practices as it was in its name, and it would help to shape the image of the Chicago newspaperman that persisted well into the 20th century.

The era in which the Whitechapel Club was born and flourished, the 1880s and 1890s, was a period of growing professionalism in American journalism, as in the rest of American life. As Michael Schudson has pointed out, that was a time when journalists were increasingly self-conscious about their work, "as eager to mythologize [it]...as the public was to read of their adventures." Larzer Ziff noted that the mythology arose from "men who insisted on talking to one another about the hypocrisy of the social system even while they were being paid to explain it away, whose faith in the big scoop was not entirely alien to a faith in the power of prose, and who read everything they could lay their hands on and fanned each other's literary aspirations." By such means, and through their common knowledge and shared work, they developed what Burton Bledstein termed a "culture of professionalism." All of that took place wherever newspapermen gathered, whether in city rooms or taverns, but increasingly during the late 19th century, Schudson tells us, it occurred in formally organized press clubs that "provided a forum for mutual criticism and collegiality." 1

It is the purpose of this paper to examine the practices of the Whitechapel Club to catch a glimpse of Chicago newspapermen at leisure and to gain some insight into the role the club may have played in the mythologizing and professionalizing of those men.2 Unfortunately, little manuscript material related to the club has survived: only its charter and rare bits of memorabilia kept by a few members and filed away with their papers in the Newberry Library in Chicago. But some of the members--and persons who wished they had been--wrote of the club in their memoirs and some drew on their Whitechapel experiences to create occasional works of fiction. From time to time the Whitechapelers' recounted their activities in their own newspapers, and their stories were often carried to newspapers across the country by the Associated Press. All of those materials serve as the basis for this study. Useful in verifying information and helping to fill gaps was "Whitechapel Nights," by the veteran Chicago newspaperman Charles A. Dennis, who was city editor of the Morning News when the club began. While not a member himself, he was the boss of a number of the members and had a store of recollections of the club and its members which he published as a 36-part series in the Chicago Daily News in 1936.3 Although much of the material is secondary,taken as a whole it provides a rare glimpse of the personality and character of young journalists of the time.

 The Growth of Press Clubs

The Whitechapel Club was one of many social organizations business and professional men founded in cities across the country in the years following the Civil War. Chicago had a number of them, including the posh Chicago Club, Union League Club, and University Club, where the city's elite enjoyed each other's company. Though a rung or two down the social ladder, big- city journalists organized similar clubs which afforded them a more refined social setting than the seedy taverns where they ordinarily got together after a day's work, provided them with the benefits of a benevolent society, and served as arenas in which they could define themselves as journalists by agreeing on what journalists were, how they should approach their work and on a set of professional values--in short, what it meant to be a journalist.

In 1872, New York newspapermen established a press club that served as a model for similar organizations around the country. It was described as "an organization for mutual help, sympathy and culture." Eight years later, Chicago newspapermen, "recognizing the advantages of closer personal relations to raise the standards of the profession," established the Press Club of Chicago, and settled themselves in what were described at the time as "comfortable and handsome quarters. People distinguished in literature, in music, and on the stage are there received in a manner befitting the brilliant band of journalists who, by their talents and enterprise, have created the unrivaled Chicago newspapers."4

The Whitechapel boys set themselves up in the back room of Kosters', a saloon at the corner of LaSalle Street and Calhoun Place, or Newsboys' Alley, as Calhoun Place was then known. Offices of the Herald, the Examiner and the Times backed onto the alley, so Kosters' was close enough to permit a thirsty reporter or editor to sneak over for a drink when he was on duty, and it was handy for after-work gatherings. Tavern keeper Kosters even put his name down as a Whitechapel founder, alongside those of Charles Seymour and J. R. Paul on the club's incorporation papers.5

 Inside the Whitechapel

Members entered their club rooms through a heavy oak door that opened onto the alley. The door was decorated with elaborate wrought iron scrollwork , and the transom held a pane of stained-glass with a skull and crossed bones and the legend "I, too, have lived in Arcady," a statement that proved ironic after a tour of the rooms. Inside, on the first floor, was a table in the shape of a shoe smithed for a mule's hind foot. At each place was a churchwarden's pipe and a tobacco-filled bowl that had once been the brain pan of a human skull. Dr. John C. Spray, a member who was superintendent of a hospital for the insane, had made a study of skulls to try to determine differences between skulls of normal persons and those of the mentally ill. He contributed his collection to the Whitechapel Club, and the club's chaplain, decorator, and all-round handyman, Chrysostom "Tombstone" Thompson, neatly sawed off the tops, implanted brightly colored glass in the eye holes and rigged the skulls as shades for the club's gas lighting fixtures. The flames flickered eerily against walls covered with the canary yellow paper matrices of type forms. A communal keg stood in the corner for members who wanted beer. At the bar were corked bottles for those who preferred something stronger. On nights when Whitechapelers entertained guests, they served a punch concocted by Wallace Rice. In some members' memories the favorite was a milk punch they called "wild cow's milk," but Rice said that was only a rumor, one of the many unfounded stories the club would inspire.6

In a smaller room on the second floor, drinkers gathered around a coffin-shaped table studded with nails with big brass heads. The boys tilted their armchairs back against the wall, put their feet up on the table, and "kept time to their own dreadful singing by hammering with their beer mugs" on the top. They held board meetings at that table and dealt poker on it, though not for money. "Playing cards and dice for money was strictly forbidden," Rice remembered. Rolling the dice for drinks was about as far as they went.7

In the center of the coffin table was another skull, its top still attached. It had been the head of an Indian girl and it was among the souvenirs Herald reporter Charlie Seymour had brought back from the West. At least two other Sioux Indian skulls were part of the macabre decorations, both donated to the club by a Captain Stuart. Serving as a cup for honored guests was the silver-lined skull of a woman said to be "a lady of notoriously easy virtue" called Waterford Jane, Queen of the Sands. The Sands, or Sand Lots, a red-light district just north of where the Chicago River empties into Lake Michigan, was a favorite stopping place for sailors off the schooners that once tied up at the city's docks.8

The walls of the upstairs room were covered with Indian blankets (in legend they were deeply stained with blood) and so-called ghost shirts--shirts that had been blessed by medicine men to make their wearers impervious to the bullets of U.S. cavalrymen. Seymour had collected those, too. There were nooses that had hoisted badmen in the west; pistols and knives seized as murder weapons and donated to the club by law officers; portions of fire engines destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871; and Indian war bonnets, tomahawks and bows and arrows. Buffalo Bill Cody, in full costume, looked down from a handsome, autographed portrait hung on one wall. Cody had bestowed it on the Herald's Brand Whitlock after the reporter had trailed him through Chicago's saloons one afternoon interviewing him, and Whitlock had carted it to the clubhouse. A series of photographs showed Chinese pirates before and after beheading. The decorations served as symbols of the often-dark world the members covered and of the mocking posture they assumed toward it. The devices also served as totems of their fraternity.9

 The Members and Their Work

A number of the Whitechapelers were fallen-away members of the Press Club (although a few remained in the Press Club while holding Whitechapel membership), and in the latter there was a feeling that the splinters, being relatively young in the business, had left because they hadn't the money to pay Press Club dues. While that seems to have been true, at least in some cases, the Whitechapel boys enjoyed in each other more congenial companionship than could be found at the Press Club. They were literary types, while the members of the Press Club were not, and they were young and madcap--"wild and erratic geniuses," a contemporary called them--while members of the press club were older and more staid. Indeed, it would be said of the Whitechapel that, in contrast to the Press Club, it "was young with hope, and it was bizarre." 10

The official purpose of the Whitechapel Club, boldly written on its state-issued certificate of incorporation, was "Social Reform." But that was certainly tongue-in-cheek. The Whitechapelers were not "in any sense reformers, or actuated by the smug and forbidding spirit which too often inspires that species," Whitlock would write. "They were, indeed, wisely otherwise, and they were, I think, wholly right minded in their attitude toward what are called public questions, and of these they had a deep and perspicacious understanding."11 They were rebels, dissatisfied with the political and business practices of the 1890s--even clean-shaven to set themselves apart from their bewhiskered elders.12

The newspapers for which they worked were as singular as the city and perfectly suited to it. "They were written largely in the language that the still growing city understood," as the sportswriter Hugh Fullerton remembered thirty years later. "They had individuality. The Herald, which was owned by a cooperative crowd of newspapermen, set the pattern, and the Inter-Ocean and Times rivaled it in presenting the news in entertaining manner. There was nothing sedate or dignified about them except the editorial pages and the stockyards reports. They were boisterous, at times rough; they lacked dignity, perhaps, but they were readable, entertaining and amusing."13

The newspapers chronicled the daily life of the city and the burst of vitality it enjoyed at the end of the 19th century. Their pages told of murders and fires, eloping heiresses and shop girls done wrong, and police and politicians on the take. But that was not all. The city had risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of just 20 years before, and by 1890 its population had grown to one million to eclipse Philadelphia as the nation's second city. It had seen the first skyscraper rise in 1885, and in the next few years had watched others go up, one as high as 21 stories. In the early days of the Whitechapel Club, the city was readying itself to put up the alabaster buildings that would line the midway of the World's Columbian Exposition. All that, too, was rushed into print, and the resulting journalistic portrait was that of a city of contrasts. As historian Arthur Schlesinger would describe it, there was "squalor matching splendor, municipal boodle contending with civic spirit; the very air now reeking with the foul stench of the stockyards, now fresh-blown from prairie or lake."14

The journalists saw that clearly at the time, and none more so than the Whitechapel boys. They were exposed to the rawest elements of the city in their work, and they came to have doubts "whether this was a world of even-handed justice, and allowed themselves to wonder now and then whether 'anarchists' were really more vicious than the judgments which condemned them to death, whether Altgeld was not a better citizen than Yerkes, whether the papers they worked for were altogether a civilizing and regenerating influence."15 They were also frustrated by the social, economic and political conservatism of most of the city's newspapers.16 In the Whitechapel's rooms they could debate those questions loudly and at length, vent their cynicism and try to come to some accommodation with the contradictions they saw around them or, simply, relax and forget their labor in drink and boisterous camaraderie.

The newspapers were "fairly seething with talent of all kinds, and if one made an impression here it was because of a definite ability for the work and nothing less," recalled Theodore Dreiser, a cub at the time.17 The work demanded what Whitlock described with only slight hyperbole as "hard, earnest, exhausting labor, seven days and seven nights a week, with no holidays." For him and many like him, who exited the city rooms early, it was work that "soon loses the fascination which lures its victims, and descends to the level of veriest drudgery."18 For others the daily rush was entertaining, even engrossing, and Chicago "was just the size to make the lot of the young journalist enjoyable." Whether he enjoyed his work or not, the reporter's social life was constricted by the hours he put in and by the fact that he was accorded a low social status by the community at large. He was also badly paid. Whitlock earned a princely $35 a week in 1892, tops for a Chicago reporter. But he himself reported that the average young man going into journalism might start for $10 to $15 a week, but probably less--as little as $8 a week. The average wage of the editorial staff and office staff of the Evening Journal was slightly more than $20 a week--about the same as the newspaper's drama critic earned. The result was that journalists of the day generally associated with each other in their off hours, and they often joined together in a riotous living, or bohemianism, as it was considered.19

A handful of the brightest, most talented and most eccentric--most Bohemian--of Chicago's younger newspapermen began the Whitechapel Club, and they served as its soul during its short life. They were general assignment reporters, copy editors, sports writers, cartoonists and, especially, police reporters. Among them was the witty Finley Peter Dunne, reporter and editor for a variety of Chicago newspapers who would gain fame as the creator of that wry South Side tavern keeper Mr. Dooley. Others who were beginning to make names for themselves included Whitlock, then the Herald's political correspondent; humorist George Ade, just a year out of Purdue, and on his way to becoming a star reporter for the Morning News, and his fraternity bother and best friend, Morning News cartoonist John T. McCutcheon; Hugh E. Keough, sports editor of the Times; Herald reporters Wallace Rice and Alfred Henry Lewis; and the humorist Opie Read. Frederick Upham Adams--Grizzly, his friends called him--who moved from paper to paper, was the original treasurer, though it was said his job "was a sinecure, for the club never had any money; indeed, all its accounts might have been kept uniformly in red ink."20

At least 39 of the 94 men who have been identified as members over the club's lifetime were newspapermen, and perhaps more; the professions of 37 members have not been identified, and it is likely that many of those were journalists, specifically men working for daily newspapers. The Whitechapel boys would not accept reporters and editors for trade papers, which they saw as simply vehicles for advertising.21 A large number of non-journalists were members, however; like other press club founders, the Whitechapelers admitted like-minded professional men they covered or with whom they associated, including lawyers, judges and other public officials, artists, physicians and businessmen. Among them were police Captain John Bonfield, commander of the force at the Haymarket riot; Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lorin Collins; Justice of the Peace John K. Prindiville; the distinguished criminal lawyer Luther Laflin Mills; and young Robert Hammill, Yale man and son of the president of the Chicago Board of Trade, and Benjamin S. ("Sport") Donnelley, an end on Princeton's 1889 championship football team and a member of the R. R. Donnelley publishing family. An oculist, Dr. Hugh Blake Williams, was the club's vice president. Certainly, however, journalists were the moving force behind the founding and made up the core membership, for the Whitechapel was always known as a newspaperman's club.22

Some observers might have considered it odd that the Whitechapel boys invited policemen, public officials and merchants to join, given their antipathy to the establishment. And, certainly, within the club rooms it was not unusual for a Bonfield or Prindiville to contradict something he had said in public. But the Whitechapelers tended to believe that the society was shot through with hypocrisy, especially in that city of contrasts, so they apparently accepted the contradictions, just as they breathed in fresh lake air one moment and the stench of the stockyards the next. That was the way things were.23

Charles Goodyear Seymour was the club's inspiration, its first president and its guiding light, and appropriately so, for he was the kind of journalist his colleagues admired and tried to emulate. Seymour was a general assignment reporter for the Herald, which was edited by his brother, Horatio.24 "An odd little man . . . a droll quaint figure," Charlie Seymour was "always at the center of the coterie, a young man with such a flair for what was news, with such an instinct for word values, such rare ability as a writer, and such a quaint and original strain of humor as to make him the peer of any."25

Seymour was a brilliant and versatile reporter, or "special," in the parlance of the day. Whatever needed covering, he could handle, from the day-by-day to the most unusual. When Herald editors wanted a series of sketches of Eastern cities, they picked him to do the job. They ordered him to Louisville after a tornado devastated a large portion of that city. They dispatched him to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to cover an Indian uprising. He investigated gambling and prostitution that flourished in "vile dens of iniquity" in the lumber towns of northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan, a task that kept him on the go for five days "without touching a pillow or taking off his clothes." His investigation was judged "a notable piece of work, well done in every particular," by the Chicago correspondent for the trade periodical The Journalist."26

Seymour had an eye for the unusual and the originality to incorporate it in his stories. Traveling through Illinois with House Speaker Thomas B. Reed, he was so taken with whiskers worn by the farmers who heard Reed speak that he devoted half a column to describing them, and his story "long was celebrated as a classic in the traditions of Chicago reporters." Sent to cover Chicago's glittering charity ball, the grandest social event of the year, Seymour spotted two waifs huddled in a doorway and watched and listened as a policeman shooed them away: "Get along with you. Don't you know this is the charity ball." Seymour led his story with the incident, only later telling the traditional story of the grand march, led by Mrs. Potter Palmer and General Nelson Miles. The story ran on Page One of the Herald, and other newspapermen "jubilated" over it.27

Seymour was one of the earliest of the city's baseball writers, and it was said that of them all--and they had no equals in that day--he told "the best yarns" because he knew the game best. "He lived with the players, chummed with the most reckless and brilliant of them, got their views on games, and translated them into epics for his paper," Hugh Fullerton wrote.28

Seymour also had a "love of midnight drinking parties." Older brother Horatio tried to wean him away from them by promoting him to night editor of the Herald. "But the resourceful younger brother was not long in discovering slack times between deadlines and mail and city editions in which he could step down the alley to the club for moments of relaxation." He finally rid himself of the editor's chair and got back on the street, "the long hours and close confinement," it was reported, "proving injurious to his health."29

Seymour gave the club its name. He and Adams were sitting in Kosters' saloon discussing possibilities for a name. As they talked, a gang of newsboys suddenly rushed by shouting the news of Jack the Ripper's latest foul deed in Whitechapel. "Let's call it the Whitechapel Club," Seymour said. Adams agreed. The Whitechapel Club it became.30

 Wit and Good Fellowship

The by-laws authorized a limit of 51 members at any one time, though in the Whitechapel's heyday the club had no more than 40 members at a time, despite a long list of applicants. The rules for admission were borrowed somewhat from those of a Sinn Fein organization, Clan-Na-Gael, that had been in the news as a result of a power struggle within its ranks. Understandably, the Irishmen were exceptionally careful in screening new members. The Whitechapelers were similarly "cautious about admitting a man who later might prove objectionable to them," though according to Opie Read they selected some members for peculiar reasons. "One man was admitted because he had never been known to pay a debt," Read wrote. "Another man because he had never been known to smile." Read became a member, he said, because he had the ability to walk without crutches after having edited a newspaper in the hills of Kentucky.31

The club's prime qualifications were "wit and good fellowship," and three members had to vouch that a candidate offered both. Each candidate was advised to spend at least five days each week of his probationary month in the club rooms getting to know the other members, engaging in their horseplay, and enduring their sarcastic needling. The candidate's name was posted on the bulletin board and at any time during the month any regular member could tear it from the board and end the candidacy there and then. If the man survived the month, his name went before the membership for a vote. One "no" and he was out. Once admitted, the new Whitechapeler was given a number for identification, another practice borrowed from Clan-Na-Gael, and all communications were made to his number, not his name. The club turned down some of Chicago's more prominent young men, and a Whitechapel number was so coveted that in later years men claimed membership who had visited the club only as guests.32

The Whitechapel's aims, of course, were much less sinister than those of Clan-Na-Gael. Despite its stated goal of "Social Reform," its real mission was to promote good fellowship among its members "with good liquor on the table and a good song ringing clear," Charles Dennis recalled. Or, more bluntly, in the words of long-time editor Willis Abbot, "the business of the organization was steady and serious drinking and newspaper gossip." And the club provided all of those in "any of the first two or three after midnight hours of any night" during its existence. Its members sat in a cloud of pipe smoke, feet up on the table, talking. They rehashed stories they had covered, and they criticized each other's work to such an extent that members often wrote their stories with an ear to the anticipated Whitechapel critique. They talked about books and authors--the young Rudyard Kipling was a favorite, for he, too, had been a newspaperman, and he had realized his literary ambitions. More often than not, their talk turned to criticism of the pretenses of Victorian society, and they would be remembered by some as "chronic kickers of the human family." But they also enjoyed more mundane diversions of that era. In the summer they fielded a baseball team, picnicked together and occasionally made rail excursions to visit clubs in other cities.33

Other press clubs staged public programs, some cultural, some to burlesque the year's news and newsmakers. The Whitechapel's entertainments were private--and what entertainments they were, a kind of a participatory "Saturday Night Live." The members hung a smallpox quarantine sign outside the door, and inside enjoyed scheduled, though in no way formal, programs. The opening ritual seldom varied. President Seymour poured a drink from a bottle of whiskey, corked the bottle tightly, and then, with great aplomb, "recognized himself for the last time" and toasted his own health and contentment. On a typical night, several members told stories, some of which, it was said, were "even tinged with truth." Others recited favorite poems or monologues. One rose to burlesque the manner and speech of a celebrity. A writer read from a work in progress. Actors playing in the city were invited in and amused the members with the latest jokes they had heard. Toward the end of an evening, the well-refreshed members ran through a familiar repertoire of drinking songs.34

Governors William McKinley of Ohio and Theodore Roosevelt of New York enjoyed the club's fellowship. So did the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, humorist Bill Nye, and boxing champions James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan. William T. Stead, author of If Christ Came to Chicago!, stopped by. The dashing war correspondent Richard Harding Davis came and entertained one evening by reciting Kipling's "Danny Deever." Even the revered Kipling himself showed up during an American tour. The record of his visit was lost long ago, yet he would later write, "Having seen Chicago I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages."35

Guests were required to get up and tell stories--what was later called "a competitive telling of lies." The man who told what was judged to be the biggest lie was given the honor of wearing a huge Knights Templar sword that, some said, had been used to commit a murder in Louisville (others remembered that a West Side Chicago teamster had decapitated his wife with it). Republican politician and New York Central railroad president Chauncey M. Depew won the sword on two different nights, the only person to take it more than once. Depew was a noted raconteur who enjoyed quoting President James A. Garfield to the effect that "he might be president if he did not tell funny stories." Depew was made one of two honorary members of the club. The other was amagician named Alexander Hermann.36

The Sharpshooters 

When a man rose to speak, whether member or guest, the members took pride in shouting insults at him, a practice Seymour had observed--and obviously enjoyed--at Philadelphia's Clover Club, an editors' dining club he had visited shortly before the founding of the Whitechapel. The Whitechapelers called the practice "sharpshooting," and the best of them were the journalists: President Seymour and his successor, Charles Perkins, Pete Dunne, Ben King and Charley Almy. The club was not a "suitable place for thin-skinned gentlemen," said one observer. "The jesters spared nobody," including their most distinguished guests:

In his short story "Dubley '89," Whitechapeler Read sketched the sharpshooting that must have taken place. The hero, having been invited to address an alumni organization, carefully prepares a speech only to have it shredded in the telling by shouted barbs from the audience. The sharpshooting begins at the end of his first sentence:

And so it goes until Dubley is silenced by general uproar, is forced to dodge a well-aimed French roll, and is pulled into a chair complaining that he had not yet finished his speech.

"Yes, you had," the man next to him says.38

Read himself, although a board member, was so badly wounded by sharpshooters who took dead aim at one of his early novels that he walked out and never returned.39

It was the practice at the Whitechapel to end an evening's entertainment by singing "Free as a Bird" over the bodies of those who had fallen asleep. The members were especially fond of the chorus:

A Georgia editor, asked to tell what he liked best about a Georgia Press Association excursion to Chicago and Milwaukee shortly before the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition, said: "to drink with the Whitechapel Club, the jolliest lot of fellows living, who sang songs and told brilliant stories with equal cleverness."41

His group, apparently, had been spared the special treatment given to Clover Club members who were entertained at the Whitechapel during a Chicago visit at about the same time. James Wilmot Scott, publisher of the Herald, hosted a formal dress banquet for the Cloverites and, after the meal, he and Mayor Washburne of Chicago led the elegantly-clad visitors down Newsboys' Alley and through the oak door where theywere greeted by Whitechapel members in street clothes. Everyone dipped into the punch. There were speeches aborted by sharpshooting, followed by more punch. At about two a.m., someone began pounding on the door, and when it was opened a squad of police rushed in with billy-clubs drawn.

"Don't make any resistance," the sergeant in command shouted. "This place is pinched."

"My God!" Seymour yelled. "The cops are raiding us again."

Adams jumped on a chair and shouted insults at the policemen. They ignored him and went about the business of hustling the men in evening dress into three patrol wagons parked in the alley. Scott and the mayor somehow got away. The Philadelphians learned it was all a practical joke after the police drove them around for half an hour, then reined up in front of their hotel, let them out and wished them a good night. It was a scene repeated more than once.42

Creating the Story 

The club attracted what one member described as "a fringe of odd fish," hangers-on who reveled in its activities. One of those, Honore Joseph Jaxon, led the club into one of its most bizarre chapters. Jaxon was from Canada and had been educated at Toronto University. Part Blackfoot Indian, he had been convicted of taking part in an Indian rebellion and was destined for the gallows when he escaped and fled to Chicago where he became a union organizer. He somehow managed to take over a room in the Chicago Times building on Washington Street, where he set up a deer skin teepee that was said to have "a smell as of ancient goats or the father of all foxes." With his proximity to the news room, he got to know many of the Whitechapel boys, and because he was the sort of eccentric they liked, they included him in some of their festivities. It was Jaxon who introduced the club to a man who signed in on the visitors' book as "Morris A. Collins, president Dallas (Texas) Suicide Club."43

The members knew who Collins was. He had argued publicly for legalization of suicide in public "death chambers." What they could not know was that after his visit to the clubrooms with their skulls and other trappings of death, Collins would buy a revolver and kill himself. (In some memories, Grizzly Adams taunted Collins to fulfill his club's principles.) He left a note to Jaxon asking that his body be dissected for scientific purposes and the remains burned.44

When Collins' sister agreed to cremation but not dissection, Jaxon appealed to his friends in the Whitechapel Club for help. Someone recalled that Lord Byron had disposed of Percy Shelley's body on a funeral pyre on the Italian coast and urged a similar ritual for Collins on the Indiana dunes of Lake Michigan. The idea was especially appealing to the social critics in the club because cremation was still generally thought of as an unholy practice, and it gave them a chance to flaunt propriety in a way sure to shock many people.

Materials for the funeral pyre would cost money, perhaps $500, and while the members had cheek they had little cash. Peter Dunne and Wallace Rice, who knew a newspaper story when they were about to perpetrate one, went to publisher Scott of the Herald. He agreed to pay for everything provided the event take place on a Saturday night so that he could print the details the following morning. And provided he got an exclusive. The Whitechapelers claimed Collins' body from the city morgue and began preparations.45

The ceremony took place on July 16, 1892. With the help of eight hired farm hands, club members built a pyre of cordwood and driftwood on a dune that rose 100 feet over the coast. The tower measured eight feet wide, 18 feet long and 100 feet high. Embedded in it were two barrels of tar wrapped in cotton waste that had been soaked in kerosene. Collins' body, in a long pine box, was taken from the train that had brought it from Chicago, placed aboard a spring wagon and driven to the tower on the beach. Dr. Spray, donor of the clubhouse skulls, and Dr. Williams, the oculist, examined the body. Then it was hoisted to the top of the pyre. Various members spoke eulogies or gave readings, and at 11 p.m., the Whitechapelers lit their torches and solemnly marched around the pyre three times to the music of a harp and a zither. Then they set the pyre ablaze. It burned for five hours and was so hot that the sand below it vitrified.

Rice and Dunne filed their story from the telegraph office in nearby Miller's Crossing, and when the group returned to Chicago they were greeted by newsboys shouting the gist of it: "Man's body burnt to ashes! Git the Herald!" The stack of headlines, written by Whitechapeler Rice, read:

The story filled the first page and spilled onto a second, with sketches by two of the artists who were there. 46

The End of the Whitechapel 

For all its vivacity, the Whitechapel Club was short-lived. Within five years it disbanded, the victim of financial difficulties from which it could not recover. In part, it suffered from a move from Kosters' to new, larger quarters at 173 Calhoun Place in 1892-a move attended with the boys' usual self-conscious ceremony to which all received an invitation:

The boys gathered at Kosters', and for nearly three hours they "sang songs of many climes, from Ireland to Palestine" and told all of the old jokes they could recall. Thus "roasted," the old chestnuts were never to be told again. At midnight, some of the members put on black academic gowns and the group straggled out into Newsboys' Alley toward LaSalle Street. A fiddler, a member carrying a bass drum and another beating the drum headed the procession. They turned right at LaSalle Street and headed south to Madison Street. There they turned west to Wells Street, where they made another right turn and paraded back to the alley and up to the oaken door of their new club house. They fired rockets and broke a bottle of champagne over the threshold, then, all shouting, they trooped in.

At the entrance was a pane of stained glass that spoke of the members' literary pretensions: a raven perched on a pen. The vestibule was hung with bronzed matrices of the Chicago newspapers. Just past the entranceway, on the right, was a buffet room painted in red and black, and straight ahead was a sitting room with walls lined with matrices of leading newspapers from throughout the country. It was furnished with "plenty of comfortable arm-chairs and tables." In an effort to keep the members in tune when they sang, the clubrooms also had a Steinway piano, a pipe organ and an aeolian harp. In the new library on the second floor, reading material, at least in the beginning, was limited to back numbers of three magazines, Undertaker, Casket, and The Police Gazette. Members found their souvenirs of Indian battlefields and murder scenes already in place, along with their mule's shoe and coffin tables.48

When the club moved, the members were assessed $5 each andwere asked to add as much as they could to that--"to come downhandsomely," as it was put in a dunning letter. Even with special assessments, however, by the next year the expense of keeping up their own facility overwhelmed them. It wasn't long before they were heavily indebted to liquor dealers, tobacconists, utility companies and the landlord.49

As a stunt, back in 1891, the club had run Grizzly Adams at the head of a ticket in the city elections. Their platform was "No gas, no water, no police." That was in fun, though the successful candidate, Hempstead Washburne, named Adams city smoke inspector.50 In the election season two years later, however, Tombstone Thompson suggested the club might not only have fun but get some relief from debt if the members took the race more seriously and ran a mayoral candidate who could attract campaign contributions. The members settled on Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor, a charming and wealthy young writer who had not long before started, then abandoned, a political and literary weekly magazine, America. Chatfield-Taylor had resources of his own and would be able to draw campaign funds from his affluent friends.51

Putting fun before funding, at Adams' suggestion the members added to their 1891 platform the slogan "No rent, No taxes." They also demanded "the removal of white coffins from undertakers' windows" and stated their opposition to "all Turkish baths and other sweatshops." However, they disappointed Adams by turning down his resolutions demanding that churches be closed during the Columbian Exposition and that a civic committee be appointed to welcome a threatened outbreak of cholera.

The odd campaign did little to improve the club's financial situation. In fact, it may have been the beginning of the end. While the club had always had non-journalists as members, now it beefed up its membership with men who were wealthier and more important, and its character changed. A short time later, like other press clubs in which non-journalists made up a substantial portion of the membership, the Whitechapel Club went out of existence.52 Its corporate charter was not canceled until 1902, however, and even then the club remained on the books for another 19 years, until 1921, when the Superior Court of Cook Countyofficially dissolved it.53

In later years, some who were members or guests remembered the Whitechapel Club as "the strangest organization known to man and has never had a duplicate"54 Certainly, it provided a great deal of fellowship to those who had passed through its oak doors and it furnished them with stories aplenty for their later years. They remembered "the cursory comments on passing phases of the human spectacle . . . [that were] apt to be entertaining and instructive, though they were uttered with such wit and humor that they were never intended to be instructive." Without doubt, many felt as Judge Collins did. "I have always considered myself fortunate in having had the privilege of seeing greatness in the making," he said. "More true wit and humor could be found there in one night than circumnavigation of the world would give."55

Of that "informed, observant, intelligent and sensitive group of fledgling geniuses" many went on to other things, while many enjoyed satisfying journalistic and literary careers. Whitlock, who would soon go to Springfield, Illinois, to serve in the reform administration of Gov. John Peter Altgeld, later became mayor of his native Toledo and, during World War I, served as ambassador to Belgium. He also published a string of well-received novels. Grizzly Adams would become one of the muckrakers as founder of The New Times, a magazine of social reform. Finley Peter Dunne and Alfred Henry Lewis, would also be considered muckrakers within a few years. Dunne's fame has persisted through Mr. Dooley, whose pithy comments on politics are as apt today as they were a century ago. George Ade's work still has an audience. Adams, Lewis, Read and Rice would all write novels. Rice was also a poet and, for a time, was literary secretary to Joseph Pulitzer. Hugh Keough would establish the Chicago Tribune's "In the Wake of the News," which has been continued into our time. In fact, many of the members "climbed the first rungs of the literary ladder while grubbing for the day's news." A count some years later put their literary output at more than 100 books ranging from serious exposes of abuses in political, social and economic life to satirical treatment of the country's institutions and practices of the times. 56 Unfortunately, some died before they could fulfill their promise, including the beloved Charlie Seymour.

The Whitechapel Club meant many things to its members, some of which were apparent to them. The fellowship with like-minded men, and the club's rituals-bizarre, macabre and even adolescent, as they may have been-strengthened the bonds among them. The police reporters, especially, who covered the rawest aspects of life could pour sentiment into their stories but steel themselves against sentimentality through bizarre jokes and relaxation among their trophies of death.

More important was an intangible result. In that society they defined themselves as journalists.57 During those late nights around the mule's shoe table critiquing each other's work they argued their notions of what journalism was and the role it had to play in that contradictory society, and that led to a common view of the work. Very much creatures of the 1890s, with that decade's emphasis on realism, on facts, they nevertheless idealized the literary and strove to imbue their writing with individual style; and thus it was when a Charlie Seymour led the story of a society ball with a cop chasing two children of the street they could "jubilate." In their self-conscious rituals and ceremonies they mimicked the rituals and ceremonies which, Bledstein observed, dominated the relationships of a broad cross-section of Americans in the late 19th century and served to "consolidate the emerging culture of professionalism."58 In short, the Whitechapel boys consciously created the character and image of the reporter of that time: the heavy-drinking, devil-may-care, fast-talking, wise-cracking cynic, out to get the facts, hardened to the tragedy of the facts he found, but ready to piece them together into a story that would "read" as well as inform. And while the Whitechapel died, the image its members forged endured not only in their own minds but in the values and behavior of journalists for many years after.


Endnotes 

1 Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 68-70; Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s (New York: Viking, 1966), 165; Bledstein, Burton. The Culture of Professionalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 80-105.

2 For detailed discussion of Chicago journalism and journalists during the period, see Sims, Norman Howard, "The Chicago Style of Journalism." (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1979), and Duncan, Hugh Dalziel, "The Rise of Chicago as a Literary Center from 1885 to 1920: A Sociological Essay in American Culture." (Totowa, N.J.: The Bedminster Press, 1964).

3 Dennis' series ran Monday through Saturday, 27 July 1936-5 September 1936, as an editorial page feature. Subsequent references will be to Dennis.

4 Lee, Alfred M. The Daily Newspaper in America (New York: Macmillan, 1937), 666-7; Schudson, 70. Pierce, Bessie Louise, A History of Chicago, Vol. 3, The Rise of a Modern City, 1871-1893 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 410; Bryan, Charles Page, "The Clubs of Chicago," The Cosmopolitan, 7:3 (July, 1889), 211-15.

5 Secretary of State, Certificate of incorporation, October 19, 1889; Chicago Inter-Ocean, 6 March 1892; Dennis, 27 July 1936.

6 Dennis, 27 July 1936; Wallace Rice to Dennis, 11 August 1936, Dennis Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago.

7 Dennis, 28 July 1936; Rice to Dennis, 11 August 1936.

8 Dennis, Ibid; The Journalist, 11:22 (16 August 1890), 7; The memories of the members grew hazy and confused as time went on. Opie Read said the first owner of the skull-turned-cup was "Roxey Brooks, an ancient fighter known as 'Queen of the Sand Lots.' " Read, Opie, I Remember (New York: Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1930), 232.

9 Dennis, Ibid; Chicago Inter-Ocean, 6 March 1892; Nevins, Allan (ed.), The Letters and Journal of Brand Whitlock, The Letters (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1936), 541-2.

10 McGovern, John, "The Whitechapel Club," The Scoop, December, 1915 (4:52), 1005; The Journalist, 11:15 (28 June 1890); Dennis, 30 July 1936; Abbot, Willis J., Watching the World Go By (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1933), 87.

11 Certificate of incorporation; Whitlock, Brand. Forty Years of It (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1916), 42.

12 Dennis, 29 July 1936.

13 Fullerton, Hugh. "The Fellows Who Made the Game," Saturday Evening Post, 21 April 1928, 18.

14 Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Rise of the City, 1878-1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 86.

15 Linn, James Weber, James Keeley, Newspaperman (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1937), 38.

16 Duncan, 113. See also, Nord, David Paul, "The Business Values of American Newspapers: The 19th Century Watershed in Chicago," Journalism Quarterly, 61:2 (Summer, 1984), 265-273. Nord determined the newspapers "seem to have been early proponents of progressive-era views on business and labor."

17 Dreiser, Theodore, Newspaper Days, ed. By T. D. Nostwich (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 44.

18 Brand Whitlock to Rufus M. Potts, Feb. 26, 1894, Nevins, 2.

19 Abbot, 86-87; Duncan, 114-15; Whitlock to Potts, Nevins, 2; Thompson, Slason, Way Back When: Recollections of an Octogenarian (Chicago: A Kroch, 1931), 291-2. Green, Lacy and Folkerts, who compared family characteristics of Chicago journalists and rural journalists, concluded that while "Chicago journalists were bohemian in nature," the stereotype was exaggerated. Green, Norma, Stephen Lacy and Jean Folkerts, "Chicago Journalists at the Turn Of the Century: Bohemians All?" Journalism Quarterly, 66:4(Winter, 1989), 813-21.

20 Dennis, 28 July 1936.

21 McGovern, 1005.

22 Wallace Rice and Tombstone Thompson compiled a list of members which was printed by Dennis, 29 July 1936 and 5 September 1936. Sims added identifications to many of them. Sims, 285-93. Two additional names were gleaned from a report of the Whitechapel election of 1890 (The Journalist, 11:26 (13 September 1890)), and one other was found on the club's certificate of incorporation. See also Hermann, Charles H. Recollections of Life & Doings in Chicago: From the Haymarket Riot to the End of World War I. (Chicago: Normandie House, 1945), 129; Dennis, 28 and 29 July 1936; Whitlock, 42; New York Times, 25 May 1934; Dictionary of American Biography, 20:137 and I:59; B. S. Donnelley file, Princeton University Archive.

23 McGovern, 1005.

24 Horatio Seymour was renowned in his own right; As telegraph editor of the Times, he became celebrated for his alliterative headlines, including the infamous "Jerked to Jesus;" He was also known as a masterful editorial writer; Chicago Times, 27 November 1875;

25 F ullerton, 19. Whitlock, 44;

26 The Journalist, 9:20 (3 August 1889), 6; 11:3 (5 April 1890), 6; 12:12 (6 December 1890), 6; 7:26 (15 September 1888), 4.

27 Whitlock, 48; Dennis, 18 August 1936.

28 Fullerton, 18.

29 Dennis, 18 August 1936; The Journalist, 14:26 (12 March 1892), 2.

30 Chicago Inter-Ocean, 6 March 1892; Dennis, 30 July 1936.

31 Read, 232.

32 Dennis, 31 July 1936; Whitlock, 44; Read, 232.

33 Abbot. P. 88; The Journalist, 11:22 (16 August 1890), p. 7.

34 Dennis, July 28, 1936.

35 Hermann, p. 130; Kipling, Rudyard, American Notes (Boston,1899), 91.

36 Dictionary of American Biography, V, 246; Dennis, July 29, 1936; Abbot, 90.

37 The (Chicago) Sunday Herald, 7 July 1889; Dennis, July 28, 1936; John K. Prindiville, quoted in Dennis, 31 July 1936.

38 Ade, George, In Babel: Stories of Chicago (New York: A. Wessels Co., 1906), 125-35.

39 Sims, 240.

40 Dennis, 5 September 1936.

41 Atlanta Constitution, 28 June 1891.

42 The Journalist, 13:15 (27 June 1891); cf. New Orleans States, 21 June 1891; Abbot, 92; Read, 236.

43 Dennis, 4 August 1936; 5 August 1936; Abbot, 83.

44 Dennis, 28 August 1936; Read, 232.

45 Dennis, 29 August 1936.

46 Dennis, 31 August 1936.

47 "Fo'teen, Secretary" to ?, 8 January 1892, Wallace Rice Files, Newberry Library, Chicago.

48 Chicago Inter-Ocean, 6 March 1892.

49 Dennis, 14 August 1936; Read, 236.

50 Abbot, 91.

51 Thompson, 283-5. Chatfield-Taylor, "a representative young leader in the progressive life of this metropolis of progress," not only had a foot in the Bohemian Whitechapel Club. He also belonged to the toney Chicago Club, of which he "was fitly chosen as secretary and treasurer." That club numbered among its members a dozen or so multi-millionaires, including Marshall Field, George M. Pullman, and Philip D. Armour. Bryan, 212.

52 Whitlock, 44; Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 604.

53 Secretary of State, State of Illinois, Certificate of Cancellation of Charter, 1 July 1902; Clerk of the Superior Court of Cook county, In Chancery Genl. No. 14135, 12 April 1921.

54 Whitlock, 42; Read, 232.

55 Dennis, 1 September 1936.

56 Filler, Louis, The Muckrakers (reprint ed.; Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993), passim.; Schlesinger, 195; Dennis, 28 July 1936.

57 Schudson, 70-1; Sims, 245-9.

58 Bledstein, 94-5.

 

Personal sketch 

 Courses

Publications 

Home

Books to read

 Sites to visit

 Occasional writing

Miscellany