The Devil-Baby at Hull House

A tale of poverty, superstition, and the struggles of ordinary women.
IV

The story evidently held some special comfort for hundreds of forlorn women, representatives of that vast horde of the denied and proscribed who had long found themselves confronted by those mysterious and impersonal wrongs which are apparently nobody’s fault but seem to be inherent in the very nature of things.

Because the Devil Baby embodied an underserved wrong to a poor mother, whose tender child had been claimed by the forces of evil, his merely reputed presence had power to attract to Hull-House hundreds of women who had been humbled and disgraced by their children; mothers of the feeble-minded, of the vicious, of the criminal, of the prostitute. In their talk it was as if their long rôle of maternal apology and protective reticence has at last broken down; as if they could speak out freely because for once a man responsible for an ill-begotten child had been ‘met up with’ and had received his deserts. Their sinister version of the story was that the father of the Devil Baby had married without confessing a hideous crime committed years before, thus basely deceiving both his innocent young bride and the good priest who performed the solemn ceremony; that the sin had become incarnate in his child which, to the horror of the young and trusting mother, had been born with all the outward aspects of the devil himself.

As if drawn by a magnet, week after week, a procession of forlorn women in search of the Devil Baby came to Hull-House from every part of the city, issuing forth from the many homes in which dwelt ‘the two unprofitable goddesses, Poverty and Impossibility.’ With an understanding quickened perhaps through my own acquaintance with the mysterious child, I listened to many tragic tales from the visiting women: of premature, ‘because he kicked me in the side’; of children maimed and burned because ‘I had no one to leave them with when I went to work.’ These women had seen the tender flesh of growing little bodies given over to death because ‘he would n’t let me send for the doctor,’ or because ‘there was no money to pay for the medicine.’ But even these mothers, rendered childless through insensate brutality, were less pitiful than some of the others, who might well have cried aloud of their children as did a distracted mother of her child centuries ago,—

That God should send this one thing more
Of hunger and of dread, a door
Set wide to every wind of pain!

Such was the mother of a feeble-minded boy who said, I did n’t have a devil baby myself, but I bore a poor “innocent,” who made me fight devils for twenty-three years.’ She told of her son’s experiences from the time the other little boys had put him up to stealing that they might hide in safety and leave him to be found with ‘the goods’ on him, until, grown into a huge man, he fell into the hands of professional burglars; he was evidently the dupe and stool-pigeon of the vicious and criminal until the very day he was locked into the State Penitentiary. ‘If people played with him a little, he went right off and did anything they told him to, and now he’s been set up for life. We call such innocents “God’s Fools” in the old country, but over here the Devil himself gets them. I’ve fought off bad men and boys from the poor lamb with my very fists; nobody ever came near the house except such like and the police officers who were always arresting him.’

There were a goodly number of visitors, of the type of those to be found in every large city, who are on the verge of nervous collapse or who exhibit many symptoms of mental aberration and yet are sufficiently normal to be at large most of the time and to support themselves by drudgery which requires little mental effort, although the exhaustion resulting from the work they are able to do is the one thing from which they should be most carefully protected. One such woman, evidently obtaining inscrutable comfort from the story of the Devil Baby even after she had become convinced that we harbored no such creature, came many times to tell of her longing for her son who had joined the army some eighteen months before and was stationed in Alaska. She always began with the same words. ‘When spring comes and the snow melts so that I know he could get out, I can hardly stand it. You know I was once in the Insane Asylum for three years at a stretch, and since then I have n’t had much use of my mind except to worry with. Of course I know that it is dangerous for me, but what can I do? I think something like this: “The snow is melting, now he could get out, but his officers won’t let him off, and if he runs away he’ll be shot for a deserter—either way I’ll never see him again; I’ll die without seeing him”—and then I begin all over again with the snow.’ After a pause, she said, ‘The recruiting officer ought not to have taken him; he’s my only son and I’m a widow; it’s against the rules, but he was so crazy to go that I guess he lied a little. At any rate, the government has him now and I can’t get him back. Without his worry about him, my mind would be all right; if he was here he would be earning money and keeping me and we would be happy all day long.’

Recalling the vagabondish lad who had never earned much money and had certainly never ‘kept’ his hard-working mother, I ventured to suggest that, even if he were at home, he might not have work these hard times, that he might get into trouble and be arrested,—I did not need to remind her that he had already been arrested twice,—that he was now fed and sheltered and under discipline, and I added hopefully something about seeing the world. She looked at me out of her withdrawn harried eyes, as if I were speaking a foreign tongue. “That would n’t make any real difference to me—the work, the money, his behaving well and all that, if I could cook and wash for him; I don’t need all the money I earn scrubbing that factory; I only take bread and tea for supper, and I choke over that, thinking of him.”

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In