Content Warning: Graphic discussions of violence, racism, misogyny.
Chicago’s Cook County Jail has been overcrowded, inhumane, and torturous since its inception. There is no excuse for its continued existence. Over the last year, the jail has become a petri dish for Covid-19 infections. The jail’s notoriously brutal security force, along with toxic wastewater, carcinogens, and some of the nation’s worst air pollution all conspire to wreck the lives of people incarcerated there. And while mental health services in the city are recklessly neglected, Cook County Jail has become the largest site for mental health incarceration in the country.
This is no accident. In fact, the obscene conditions at Cook County Jail underscore the fundamental, racist attitude that city officials, cops, and bosses have always had toward people they’ve deemed criminal and undesirable. Segregation, incarceration, abuse, torture, and murder have long been their means of preserving a social order that serves the city’s predominantly white and wealthy power brokers.
While the specter of 26th and California evokes dread and violence today, it is only the most recent in a litany of the city’s long-forgotten torture centers. In previous eras, the prescriptions of segregation and torture were both intentional and official, sanctioned by the courts and rationalized by the racist pseudo-science of eugenics. As Harry Olson, the notorious chief justice of the Municipal Court of Chicago affirmed in 1922, “America, in particular, needs to protect herself against indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates, and race suicide.” Olson advocated a straight-forward program for genocide:
The Municipal Court of Chicago has pointed out the need of the permanent segregation of incorrigible defectives, which serves three purposes: First, the protection of society from the individual offender; second, the protection of the individual from himself, and, third, the restriction of propagation of the defective type due to heredity.
Olson’s hellscape of racism, eugenics, and the unadulterated vilification of Chicago’s poor were most clearly manifested in a horrifying facility located in the city’s Dunning neighborhood. Like today’s Cook County Jail, the facility epitomized the real-world practice of the city’s white supremacy. Dunning enforced the borders of race and privilege and legitimized a social order under assault from the city’s poor and oppressed peoples. The city’s rulers remained ever-frightful of social upheaval that might destabilize their power. As the public historian Elizabeth Catte has written,
The destabilization to what many eugenicists considered the “natural order” might arrive on two fronts: from Black and other nonwhite people securing rights, privileges, and access to space, a process eugenicists felt would be hastened along by interracial marriage and procreation, and from worthless white people, especially women, contaminating the race from within by producing defective children.
The Crime of Dunning
In 1989, real estate developers broke ground for the construction of new condominiums in the Dunning neighborhood. When the digging started, workers uncovered the long-forgotten mass graves of the city’s victims of racism and eugenics. At least 38,000 people were buried there, unmarked and nearly obliterated from history.
The graves were on the property of the old Chicago State Hospital, once a sprawling campus of more than sixty buildings holding as many as six thousand incarcerated people. It was one of the most terrifying destinations for the city’s poor and those labelled defective, feeble-minded, or violent. For generations of Chicagoans, Dunning was a euphemism for a nightmarish hell from which there was no escape. In many ways, Dunning was a sentence of death. On average, the Dunning facilities recorded a death every day.
From the beginning, Dunning represented a nightmare of neglect, torture, and murder. Although those incarcerated were allegedly feeble-minded, degenerate, and violent, it was, in fact, the wardens, doctors, and staff who reflected all the assumptions of race and eugenics in their prescribed practices of violence.
Cook County officials established what became Chicago State Hospital as a labor camp just nine miles from the city’s center, just prior to the Civil War. Chicago’s undesirables, segregated in a three-story poorhouse, labored under coercion and ever-present threats of violence in its fields. Fifteen years later, officials added another facility for those deemed “insane.” An infirmary and tuberculosis hospital were both added before the end of the century. But the facility was never intended for the betterment of health or life circumstances. Rather, the people incarcerated at Dunning suffered gruesome conditions that worsened their lives. Even the Chicago Tribune admitted the deplorable conditions in 1885,
The poor unfortunates, chained hand and foot, dragged on a miserable existence or died as best pleased them. Of the horrible abuses and atrocities committed there it is a shame to speak or think.
The Dunning buildings were overcrowded and typically at double their intended population capacity. Moreover, the facility was widely recognized as “antiquated and miserable . . . the worst fire trap in the city, county or State.” Indeed, several catastrophic fires resulted in numerous deaths in subsequent years.
An endlessly rotating cast of inept quacks and racists ruled over the facility. While superintendents came and went, other administrators were regularly embroiled in physical hostilities and political squabbles among themselves. One editorial in the Tribune noted that the internecine conflicts happened with such regularity that ”recent scandals there are not forgotten before still others occur.”
Still, incarcerated persons were more often the target for the officers’ abuses. In 1895, one prisoner, George Budizick, was savagely beaten to death by “cruel attendants.” In 1916, Fred Redman was boiled to death. Others often simply disappeared.
When the tuberculosis epidemic spread across the city, poor TB patients were sent to Dunning as well. And the quackery continued. Orlando E. Miller, a notorious pedlar of snake-oil pharmacology and professor of eugenics and sanitary science at Glen Elyn’s Ruskin University, congratulated himself as the “discoverer of a wonderful cure for consumption [tuberculosis].” Miller experimented with his “wonderful cure” on incarcerated people at Dunning throughout 1908. Of his eleven test subjects, six died immediately, four disappeared, and another developed advanced tuberculosis.
Quack eugenics doctors reserved particular scorn for women at Dunning. The Chicago Sunday Tribune’s health columnist, Dr W. A. Evans, argued in 1913, “Some years ago at Dunning we noted that consumptive women who, prior to contracting consumption, had been drinkers or who had been notoriously immoral succumbed rapidly to the disease.” Young women were frequently targeted and sent to Dunning and other facilities around the state. Fourteen-year-old Elsie Strubble, for instance, was judged “a high-grade feeble-minded girl” and incarcerated after being raped by one man and three boys in 1924. Often, incarcerated women suffered even further abuse.
The malnourishment, vermin infestation, disease, abuse, and murder continued at the Dunning facility for more than six decades before finally being shut down. But Dunning was no aberration. Rather, it was the practical reflection of racist ideology and its pseudo-science collaborators in the field of eugenics. The city’s bosses and power brokers never balked at the opportunity to justify and legitimize their racism and repression. Indeed, eugenics and racism were centerpieces for the two biggest carnivals in the city’s entire history.
Pedigree, Carnival, and Racism
In the early years of the Great Depression, the City of Chicago added a new star to its flag. The red hexagram memorialized the city’s role as host for the 1933 World’s Fair: A Century of Progress. The monstrous carnival was an epic stimulus plan for the city’s bosses. Their festivities included a monument gifted to the city by Benito Mussolini that celebrated the fascist colonization of Libya and Ethiopia. And racism, thinly veiled in the pseudo-science of eugenics, was a headline attraction.
Carnival barkers and eugenics hucksters implored visitors to witness the superiority of the white race. Racist depictions of the world’s “primitive people” like the “Darkest Africa” exhibit, “manned by dusky natives,” were showcased alongside the outrageous “A Superior Family: The Roosevelt Family-Stock.”
The main eugenics exhibit spanned a wall forty feet long and six feet high. As Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Records Office described, the feature was “designed primarily to be understood by the average intelligent and interested visitor.” As he explained its theme, “Pedigree-study in Man”:
Historically, it developed first in reference to cattle and horses, then spread to other farm animals, then to grains and other plants, and last of all to man. Within the human realm, as a principle of general appreciation, it applied first to racial traits, Chinese produced Chinese; Negroes, Negroes; and white people, white people—if the “blood,” that is the pedigree, was clear. Later the factor of heredity was studied and appreciated in human anatomical traits, then in physiological qualities, then in intelligence and specialized mental capacities, and now the last group of human qualities—those of the character and personality are being analyzed, diagnosed, weighed, measured and traced in human families to find the rules of inheritance of the several basic elements of personality.
According to Laughlin, one of the goals of eugenics was, “To determine which portions of the population will survive to . . . the end of social usefulness, and which will lack survival strength—all in reference to inborn quality.” He was a rabid advocate of forced sterilization. And although Laughlin classified nonwhites at the bottom of his racial order, he obsessed over the “excessive” insanity of some Europeans. Laughlin played a central role in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which created the Border Patrol, banned immigration from Asia, and severely curtailed immigration from Italy and Eastern Europe.
Moreover, poor whites in the US were not spared from Laughlin’s invective against racial degeneracy. One portion of the World’s Fair exhibit called attention to a group labeled Ishmaelites by the eugenicists. A series of captioned photos described these poor whites as,
A degenerate family . . . which, despite opportunities, never developed a normal life. Shiftless, begging, wanderers, sound enough in body, their hereditary equipment lacked the basic qualities of intelligence and character on which opportunity work. (Emphasis mine)
Ishmaelites (or the Tribe of Ishmael) were popularized forty years earlier by the Reverend Oscar McCulloch in his book The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation. McCulloch described reputedly degenerate whites around Indianapolis, whose families “came mostly from Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.” Although perceived as a liberal social reformer, McCulloch seethed over the cost of degeneracy to the public welfare, which he argued only encouraged the Ishmaelites’ “idle, wandering life.”
McCulloch’s diatribes against the poor white Ishmaels held remarkable longevity. Nearly three decades later, one influential doctor Hazel Irene Hansford warned, “We can expect the members of this community to become a source of annoyance and danger to the welfare of the county and state.” A later pamphlet claimed that this “group of degenerates” had spread throughout six states and grew from six thousand persons in 1890 to ten thousand persons by 1921. For the white supremacists, the Ishmaels were a contagion of white degeneracy. And they argued for their incarceration and segregation.
The publication of McCulloch’s Ishmaelite fiction coincided with the first World’s Fair hosted in Chicago, immortalized in the third star of the city’s flag. The 1893 World’s Fair: Colombian Exhibition was a nationalist bacchanal, celebrating Colombus’s invasion of the Americas. The carnival’s cluster of neoclassical buildings, plastered and painted chalky white, borrowed its name from the nearby whites-only amusement park, White City (later the location of the Parkway Gardens public housing, aka O Block).
The White City carnival was anything but harmonious. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and others lambasted the fair’s racism in a pamphlet titled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Colombian Exhibition. The city’s specially created police force delighted in harassment and brutality of fair attendees so much that even the Chicago Tribune noted, “Persons who are interested with police power have too much fondness for the laying on of hands.” And just weeks before the fair was meant to open, four thousand workers’ from thirty different unions staged a one-day strike. The Colombian Exhibition also served as the backdrop for the serial killer and misogynist Herman Mudgett, who lured young women searching for work to his World’s Fair Hotel in Englewood where they were tortured and murdered.
The exhibition’s overseer was the newly elected mayor Carter H. Harrison, aka “The Eagle,” one of the early politicians responsible for centralizing the city’s Democratic Party machine later solidified by Anton Cermak in the 1920s. While the media often painted Harrison as sympathetic to the labor movement, he actively sought to marginalize the city’s socialists. As August Spies pointed out, “When the Socialists asked for bread, Carter Harrison appointed 400 new policemen to drive them from their homes and hovels.”
But, in the waning months of the Colombian Exhibition, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, an Irish immigrant shot and killed Harrison. One commentator at the time called Prendergast “imperfectly educated and physically and mentally defective,” while another charged that “the man was a thoroughly degenerate and defective individual.” In an orgy of panic and repression, the prosecution harnessed eugenics arguments and sought to make a public example of him for “other weak-minded but possibly dangerous individuals.” Ultimately, Prendergast’s defense was overwhelmed by the eugenicist onslaught. Prendergrast was eventually hanged in the summer of 1894, the only client of Clarence Darrow to ever suffer that fate.
The World’s Fairs in Chicago were racist publicity campaigns to legitimize the city’s ruthless practices of segregation, incarceration, and abuse. Each carnival served as a bookend for the city bosses’ fetish for racial purity and misogyny, cloaked in the veneer of eugenics science. Dunning, and other facilities like it, were the practical implications.
Although the bodies are still being discovered, the Dunning facility no longer exists. And the racist amusements of White City were long ago swept into the dustbin of history. Today, however, the city’s rulers continue to funnel ungodly amounts of cash and legitimacy to the torture center known as Cook County Jail.