Monday, March 3, 2008

The Devil Baby of Hull House

Many people come to this site (or, even worse, go to Hull House) looking for photographs of the "Devil Baby." There aren't any. If you see any on other sites, they're fake. The Devil Baby story was just a rumor that went around in 1913 (after having gone around in other cities many times before). Though Jane Addams saw a lot of value in the story (and in folklore in general), and even speculated that perhaps a deformed baby had been born somewhere on the West side, no such baby was ever brought to Hull House.

The story goes as follows:

In the early 20th century, rumors went around that the devil had been born (in baby form) somewhere around the Levy district and dropped off at Hull House, the settlement house on South Halsted. Exactly how this came to happen varied (largely depending on the ethnicity of who was telling the story), but most variations stated that the baby had red skin, horns, and spoke English, Latin and Italian fluently. Hundreds of people came to Hull House demanding to see it. When I tell the story on tours, people tend to snicker.

But in those days, people really believed.....oh, who am I kidding? Some people STILL believe that the story was true. They give me dirty looks for saying that it wasn't, and for saying that the devil baby's ghost doesn't haunt Hull House to this day. Some of them even go to Hull House and bug the staff about it, just the way people did back in the old days. It's in the realm of possibility that some poor, deformed baby was brought there (it's a safe bet that fetal alcohol syndrome was rampant in the neighborhood, and pre-natal care barely existed), and someone saw it and let their imagination get carried away with them, but Jane Addams denied that the story had even that much truth to it, and I'm willing to take her word.

So I'll just say this once: there was never a devil baby, and there's no devil baby ghost, at Hull House. There may be some ghosts in there (I had enough weird nights on tours I brought there in 2006 to at LEAST give it a "maybe"), but the devil baby isn't one of them. Some legends that aren't true are harmless, or even beneficial to a city and its view of itself. Some of the rumors about Hull House, though, aren't harmless. There are enough TRUE stories about the place that the legends and rumors should be presented as legends, and nothing more. However, a couple of tours, in particular, have been spreading some real crap about the place. It's irresponsible on their part, since there are plenty of TRUE stories about the place that they usually ignore (if they know them at all).  Devil Baby stories (a common urban legend at the time) could get ugly - in one town, a family had a mob at the door wanting to sacrifice their (perfectly normal) infant.

Most of the more famous stories about Hull House - and most of the pictures - are bogus.  Smudges and glare on the window leads to a lot of 'ghost on the stairs' shots, and every "monk ghost" picture I've seen has turned out to be (I swear I'm not making this up) the reflection of someone's ear. There is no headless ghost that will follow you home if you don't cross yourself before entering the garden. The garden is not a burial ground. I'm not out to spoil anyone's fun here, but I don't think it's worthwhile to waste time hunting for ghosts that I know aren't real.

In 2006, during renovations to the building, I did run a lot of tours in which weird stuff happened there. We heard babies crying from inside the garden one night (there's no graveyard in there and no portal to the netherworld; but when Jane Addams first moved into the house, that spot was occupied by either a brothel or an undertaking parlor). For a couple of weeks the shutters were opening and closing, apparently of their own accord. And we did get a few pictures that I've yet to explain and don't really expect to.

While doing research today, I came upon a BIG article Jane Addams, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Hull house herself, wrote about the Devil Baby for Atlantic Monthly in 1916. You can read it yourself here, and I highly recommend that you do. It's a fascinating read - does anyone know which ballad she's referring to when she talks about a ballad in which a mistress demands that her lover bring her his mother's heart on a plate? I pride myself on knowing my gory folk ballads, but this one has me stumped.

Anyway, while it may be haunted, DON'T believe everything you hear, and, for goodness sake, don't go bugging the people who work in the building about ghosts, and certainly don't show up with equipment expecting to be allowed to run some hunt for the ghost of the devil baby.



DEVIL BABIES
Devil baby stories have been told for years—stories of infants born with horns, hooves, and claws . . . and a habit of using profane language with ministers. Join paranormal authority Adam Selzer as he investigates the legendary Devil Baby of Chicago’s Hull House, the famous Jersey Devil, and the satanic baby reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1888. You’ll never look at babies the same way again!
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3 comments:

Ashleigh said...

I don't know much about the story, but it could be a story of Harlequin Ichthyosis. If you look up Devil Baby on youtube, you will see what I am talking about. Scary? Yes. Unexplained? Nope. Cheers!

Adam Selzer said...

That's possible - there were certainly likely to be a lot of kids with, say, fetal alcohol syndrome in teh neighborhood. It's possible that someone saw something and let their imagination get carried away with them - but probably more likely that the story came out of nowhere.

Anonymous said...

I heard the ballad of the lover who demanded that he brings his mother's heart from a Chechyan man.(Chechnia, - Muslim/Soviet Caucasus) The point of the story was not be gory but to underline the neverending love of mother for her son. (The son cuts out his mother's heart and while bringing it back to the lover he trips and his mother's heart still inquires whether he is hurt or not.) I think it also plays on the wife and daughter -in -law relationship.

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