The Dill Pickle Club and the Search for “Chicago’s Great Soul”

1845-1945, Malfew Seklew, Ragnar Redbeard, Trevor Blake / Wednesday, March 7th, 2018
A remarkable excerpt from Vittles and Vice / An Extraordinary Guide to What’s Cooking on Chicago’s Near North Side by Patricia Bronte (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company 1952) with an emphasis on the Dill Pickle Club.  The Dill Pickle Club was a haunt of Ragnar Redbeard and Malfew Seklew among many other colorful characters.  Where today is its like?  – Trevor Blake

The Search for “Chicago’s Great Soul”

When Chicago was the intellectual and literary heart of America — and incredibly it once was — its nerve center was a rambling old barn in back of 876 1/2 North Dearborn Parkway, or, more specifically, at 18 Tooker Place. You walked down an alley and found, between two piles of ash cans, a short narrow door bearing the sign, “Step high, bend low and leave your dignity behind,” and you had arrived at the Dill Pickle Club.

It lasted from 1917 to 1932, a span of years which marks almost exactly the rise, decline, and fall of any authentic cultural vigor the city ever saw, reflecting too the glare of the wild and uproarious twenties with sound effects by tommy gun.

The Dill Pickle Club started as a high-souled movement of revolution, and the early group included Jack Jones, one of the I.W.W. founders; poet Carl Sandburg; Jim Larkin and Jack Carney, two Irish revolutionaries; William Z. Foster and Jack Johnston, two American Communists; writers Ben Hecht and Alfred Kreymborg; and Stanley Sokolsky, the sculptor.

Initially, it was the idea of Larkin, a former commander in chief of the Irish Republican Army and one of the warriors in the Irish revolution of 1916 headed by Padraic Pearce; he started it in memory of a Dublin club as a sort of rallying point of young revolutionaries.

But its Moses and leading light from beginning to end was “Dynamiter Jack” Jones, a Canadian-born, sharp-featured, bushy-haired union organizer, a house painter by trade and creative painter by hobby. First married to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, still a well-known Communist, Jones authored a book called Techup, which became the model plan for the C. I. O. ‘s industrial unionization. His life was studded with tragedy; shortly after the advent of the Dill Pickle Club, Jones married a beautiful young socialite artist. Sailing north on Lake Michigan for a honeymoon trip, their craft was overturned in a sudden storm. Jones clung to his bride and the capsized boat for a herculean eighteen hours, but she was drowned and he near death when aid finally reached them.

The Dill Pickle Club quickly became a hangout for literary and artistic rebels, and the Hobo College crowd moved over from the West Side. It was a hodgepodge, sometimes wild-eyed collection of little theater folk, flappers, society leaders, anarchists, hoboes, and writers, but the most alive and stimulating group ever assembled beneath a Chicago roof. It was, in short, a synthesis, a comradely coming together of the most imaginative and daring souls from every walk of life: the minister met the prostitute, the labor leader knew the editor, the politician met his constituents, the college student found the philosopher, the sociologist studied the criminal, the criminal discovered the beauty of art and perhaps a lawyer, and the writers found treasure beyond belief. The writers included Hecht, shaping his Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Sandburg playing his banjo, Charles MacArthur, Manuel Komroff, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Maxwell Bodenheim, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Henry Justin Smith, Austin O’Malley, John Drury, and many others; and they were joined by attorney Clarence Darrow, artist Edgar Miller, and actor Richard Bennett, father of Joan and Constance.

The declared intention of the Dill Pickle Club was to “find Chicago’s great soul.” Another purpose, said Dr. Ben Reitman, long its lecture chairman, was “to elevate the minds of the people to a lower level.” He added:

“We of the Dill Pickle Club believe in everything. We are radicals, pickpockets, second-story men, and thinkers. Some of us practice free love and free love and some medicine. Many of us have gone through religion and tired of it. Some of us have tired of our wives.”

As many as seven hundred people often crowded into the Sunday night lecture meetings, and no topic was barred. Here poets read their own verses; artists talked Dadaism, futuristic abstracts, and Picasso; and experts discussed Vorticism, Freud, psychoanalysis, free love, and companionate marriage. You could get any ideas off your chest, whether you were a paroled convict, a concert musician, an unwed mother, a psychiatrist, a reformed vegetarian, or a three- headed guinea pig. You could advocate murder and arson. In a period when women were revolting against a prudery that was almost obscene in its inversion of truth and lascivious whispering silences, the “inside stuff on sex” was a big draw; the largest crowd that ever attended a lecture came to hear Magnus Hershfield when he discussed sexual abnormalities. It was the heyday of gabby greatness, and a Dill Pickle audience might hear General Coxy (of Coxy’s Army), Tom Mooney’s brother John, Frederick Cook, the uncrowned discoverer of the North Pole, Chicago Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, con man “Yellow Kid” Weil, “Big Bill” Heywood, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman.

The heckling was devastating. If the visitor didn’t leave his dignity intact outside, as the motto warned, it was battered beyond recognition inside. The detractors used powerful eloquence, vulgar sarcasm, biting wit, and Marxist logic. Lucy Page Gaston, who came to lecture against cigarettes, said later it was “the most awful adventure of my life.” When she was through, Statistical Slim unstuck himself from his chair, opined nastily about reformers in general, then announced:

“I never smoked a cigarette in my life. Always been a snuff user. But after hearin’ this woman and lookin’ into her face, I’m gonna start smokin’. Has anybody got a cigarette?” Then Chairman Reitman ordered two collections taken up, one for the Anti-Cigarette League and the other to buy cigarettes for pacifists then serving jail sentences. Lucy was “infinitely disgusted.”

The collections couldn’t have amounted to much. The Dill Picklers, gathered about the old pot-bellied stove in their old barn, were a proud proletariat, hugging their poverty. Once, some bandits wandered in and relieved the whole assembly of a total $1.02 except for one embarrassed gentleman who parted with $875. The Picklers explained hastily he wasn’t a regular.

Lizzie Davis, then queen of the hoboes, once introduced a speaker as “the famous New York gangster who ran Al Capone out of Brooklyn.” Even the Dill Picklers were skeptical until they heard later that “Wild Bill” Lovett had been killed in New York. He was wanted for fourteen murders. Lizzie, who wanted to be a writer, knew innumerable gangsters, thieves, prostitutes, con men, and hop-heads. She often sat all night talking with them. Sometimes she didn’t talk; she just stayed all night.

In addition to the serious intellectuals, the club attracted a fantastic assortment of guests; it was the rendezvous of high low-brows and low high-brows, long-haired boys and short-haired girls. There was Lena, a little old lady with a poke bonnet and a half-dozen underskirts, widow of the hanged August Spies; Countess Luddie, who wore sandals and bobbed her hair; Van Cina, the Dutch artist vittles and vice and piccolo player; Paddy Caroll from Hell’s Half Acre; a Spanish spiritualist who shaved off her hair and dyed her head green; and Reitman, in a frock coat, his red shirt showing beneath a Windsor tie, demanding silence while his wife read her poem, “I Am a Woman, Wee,” about standing in the light and looking toward the sun and cosmic love.

Reitman, a physician, an ex-anarchist press agent for Emma Goldman and once a foe of matrimony, also presided over a forum when six young women, “authorities on the subject,” discussed the faults and errors of the matrimonially-inclined male.

“Long practice has shown these ladies just where the man falls down when wooing women,” explained Reitman.

Once an unmarried pregnant girl was presented for the audience to decide her fate, suicide or abortion, but there are no records of the verdict.

At one time an unnamed patron was going to donate $250,000 for a club building; the first floor was to be used for a forum, a little theater, and a dance hall; the second and third floors would contain rent-free quarters for struggling young artists. The quarter of a mil- lion in cash never materialized, but miraculously, the group managed to follow that general plan of action in its ramshackle old carriage house. The Dill Picklers presented plays salvaged from the purgatory shelf which couldn’t appear in legitimate theaters: Dreiser’s labor drama, The Girl in the Coffin, Pendleton King’s Cocaine, Padraic Pearce’s The Singer, and a Russian refugee performed Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Death by violence was no stranger among the Dill Pickle members. In a period of revolt, it occurs among rebels whether there is physical revolution or not. Life and ideas run at a furious pace, and sometimes the pace is too great. One poet got a cop’s bullet in the neck while trying to break into a store one night to get paper to write his poems. Another arranged for a drinking wake and then put a bullet in his head. Harry Batter had left an estate of four hundred dollars with instructions to spend fifty dollars to bury him and drink up the balance. It was the most popular wake Chicago ever had.

A minister, Dr. Thornton A. Mills, once pastor of the New England Congregational church at Delaware and Dearborn, in the same block as the Dill Pickle club, constantly defended Jones, and it cost him his parish. To the distaste and alarm of his fashionable flock, he believed that the membership of his wealthy church needed augmenting, and he saw a field of service among the Dill Picklers; he felt they could be brought into his fold and re-educated. His first wife divorced him, and his third suicide try was successful.

Of course the Dill Pickle Club spawned its branch temples. Eddie Clasby opened the Seven Arts Club (among the arts were Vice, Vulgarity, Sacrilege, and Midnight Slumming), Berty Weber’s House of Blazes was the most disreputable branch. Big John’s Coal Scuttle, Dick Vail’s Blue Fish, Berger’s House of Correction, and Monty Randall’s Montparnasse were all poor imitators. Even today, on North Clark Street, there is a latter-day remnant of the Dill Pickle called the College of Complexes.

The Dill Pickle itself began coming apart at the seams about 1931. The Chicago press had constantly derided them, but conceded at the end that, of the 57 varieties, the Dill Pickle Club was most entertaining. The newspapers accused them of plotting “the over-throw of New York’s Greenwich Village and the Latin Quarter in Paris… with pink-shaded lamps, black cats, incense and Turkish cigarettes.” Actually, they could afford no fancier trappings than ten-cent egg sandwiches. It was strictly “Art for Art’s sake. We’re going to make Chicago the center of intellectual expression, the Mecca of the free-minded,” they insisted to the last.

The hecklers were supplanted by people who hurled rotten vegetables at the speakers; one night, Dr. Reitman was kidnapped, robbed, and beaten. At the end, members were hounded by cops (Jones had 150 arrest slips the last winter), landlords, gangsters, Prohibition agents, and finally the Internal Revenue department. Through the years, Dill Picklers had constant run-ins with Volstead officials, though there was never any bootlegging; indeed, it was unnecessary, as the visitors brought their own flasks, and Jones sold ginger ale. Then the government revenue men decided, after fifteen years, the club was not “educational” but for profit, though Jack Jones was still yelling his heart out when the final decision came in. But the denouement was a typical Chicago climax: hoodlums tried to horn in and seize control of the club. It started when five gangsters tried to collect a “Capone defense fund”; they wanted to install their mobsters to act as short-change waiters, serve bootleg liquor, and see that the proper crooks got their proper cut. Jones refused to pay vittles and vice off. Suddenly a swarm of city inspectors descended on him and decided he’d been breaking the law for years. Jones finally closed the club himself rather than turn it over to underworld operation.

“Dynamiter Jack” then got a job in a WPA printing project and used to hang around Bughouse Square in the evening, in the shadow of the raucous old glory that was the Dill Pickle Club. He died, broken and unknown, in 1940, followed by Reitman in 1943. The next year there was one last election for the presidency of the non- existent Dill Pickle Club, and one-armed Cholly Wendorf, who is still the Dean of Bughouse Square, won out over Jeff Davis, king of the Hoboes of America, Inc., Jimmy Sheridan of the Sheridan brothers, and Herbert Shaw, the Cosmic Kid.

The moral of this story may be: Chicago has a lot of everything else, but it never had a soul.

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