Review: Chicago’s Lost Boys: Mother Chicago, by Martin Billheimer

Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters Over the Gilded Age By Martin Billheimer Feral House

Chicago is a dark place. All cities are. The more humans you pack into a space and the fewer resources they’re given, the darker things become. That darkness is most apparent in the way Chicago treats its more powerless citizens, namely its poor, sick, elderly, and especially its children. When not neglecting their education and well-being for political purposes, the city has historically heaped plenty of misuse and abuse on the kids. Usually in the name of charity; always in the pursuit of profit. It was ever thus, etc. ad nauseam.

Mother Chicago is writer Martin Billheimer’s survey of several 19th and 20th century Chicago institutions that nominally housed and cared for, but more often mistreated the city's perceived dregs. Sifting through old records and articles, and visiting former and current sites, Billheimer presents the unknown history of these establishments. He focuses on the Chicago parental schools (establishments for truant kids removed from their parents’ charge and subjected to a period of residence, instruction, military training, and farm work); tuberculosis sanitariums; and the notorious neighborhood of Dunning in northwest Chicago, which housed such unpleasant real state as an insane asylum, orphanage, poor farm, and a potter’s field. Even though these places were once part of the city’s’ language and folklore—my octogenarian parents still recall when misbehaving children were threatened with banishment to Dunning—there’s a general amnesia about them; where they were; and what went on there. But like Dunning’s potter’s field—which revealed its true nature as real estate developers and their backhoes went to work in the late '80s—old bones rise when you dig.

Billheimer wields a strong shovel himself. Mother Chicago introduces these places as living tombs, overseen by political hacks and swindlers who covered up worse crimes that occurred on their watch and were rarely punished for it. Yet, Mother Chicago is not an exposé, or even an academic or popular historical work. It resists definition. As a genre, creative nonfiction suggests itself. Even so, there are rarely consistent narratives. Meditation might work as well, since Billheimer presents much of Mother Chicago with the mien of a slightly preoccupied Virgil, making side trips, sojourns, and perambulations through these institutional hells. You may find yourself in the Peterson Park field house, regaled with his description of an eccentric mural in the basement, showing the area’s Native American history and that of the TB hospital that once occupied the spot. Swiftly, Billheimer time travels you to 19th century Latvia, detailing the early life and career of the very good but doomed Dr. Theodore Sachs, founder of the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium (located in what is now North Park Village Nature Center, with several buildings still extant). In Mother Chicago, literary whiplash is a means of transportation. But this is a Feral House book after all. Don’t expect the journalistic prose and conventions favored by the New York Times and Medill. Mother Chicago peers through the Overton window, but also throws in a few peeks over and around the edges of the frame.

Returning to Billheimer’s prose, his style seems founded in autodidactism. Per the press release he dropped out of high school and “continued his education working as a dishwasher, house painter, construction worker, and furniture mover.” He also “founded the semi-notorious noise-punk band the Devil-Bell Hippies in 1983.” At times, Mother Chicago does indeed feel like a book written by a Devil-Bell Hippie Noise Punk. As a Feral House writer then, he’s completely on point. That’s not a diss, but the reader should be prepared for an unconventional reading experience.

Billheimer does not hold the reader’s hand. His writing is idiosyncratic. Obscure references are in abundance, and unless you know the language of film, literature, Marxism, Chicago and its racial and labor history, and the passion for eugenics that still infects this country, you may get lost.

Where Mother Chicago works best is in giving a sense of how well “unnecessary” people are disappeared through purportedly benign systems. People lived and died at Dunning, the tuberculosis institute, and the Parental School. Few are remembered, and only a fraction are named and given brief sketches here, We meet, too briefly, those who slipped between the cracks. Child suicides in isolation cells. “Lunatics” who escaped Dunning and drowned in nearby swamps. Addled grannies left to wither and starve by incurious nurses. Beatings delivered at regular intervals until morale improved or a momentary scandal caused a reshuffling of staff, but rarely of management. “Who Am I?” says a photograph of an amnesiac young lad on page 75, cupping his chin in his hands and gazing out with large, empty eyes. It took a while but his cousin identified him as Donald Simsek. Indefatigably “incorrigible”—a favorite term amongst those in charge back then—Simsek escaped several detention homes, the last being the parental school. Of his missing few weeks he recalled only film noir elements: a blonde belle-dame, screeching tires, a man in black, and so forth. “Is it any wonder that such a man grows up talking to himself, and later claims he comes from a different star?” Billheimer asks. Presumably about Simsek, but the parallels with his own replete prose are unavoidable.

In our era of epidemic, Mother Chicago shows how the many attitudes favoring profit over public health remain intact. Then as now, actual experts are ignored while those placed in charge are frequently corrupt as hell, dumb as dirt, but shrewd enough to know how to work the system for their and their handlers’ benefit. Billheimer’s account of the hyper-competent Dr. Theodore Sachs, founder and heart of the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, versus ultra-corrupt Chicago Mayor William Thompson appointee John Dill Robertson is grueling. Tired of fighting the good fight for TB patients and accused of high-handedness, Sachs committed suicide. Robertson—a man who believed bathing unhealthy and beer a panacea for malaria—was put in charge. What’s the old saying—history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes?

Here’s another term to add to the description of Mother Chicago as a meditation, rumination, or shamanistic vision. Testimony, in both the religious and legal sense. In its coverage, one terrible fact stands out: the resistance of society at large to help those most in need is nothing new. As is the desire of the comfortable to call the inescapably fucked lazy, and to kick in their teeth for daring to be so. It reflects a classic Chicago trope: finding the means to chuck folks onto the ol’ ice floe and calling it charity. Periodically, as Billheimer shows, the Press back then gave a damn when something lurid happened. Regarding the periodic scandals that shook Chicago State Hospital (forever dubbed Dunning), Billheimer recalls another “Chicago Way” that isn’t as quotable:

“The financial gutting of the unsightly poorhouse/asylum/Chicago State Hospital is to force closure and the repatriation of its charges to farther flung areas, away from what is to be a northwest city vacation getaway from the hectic-paced, job-wearied and pleasure deprived citizenry. Vested interests infiltrate the establishment and by sucking funds, along with a general system of managed incompetence, will destroy it from within.”

Furthermore, every new boss with a promised new broom always, always reveals himself as a rerun.

“He swears improvements, slashes funds—and runs the place almost the same way.”

Overall, Billheimer’s prose has a profound density, almost solidity, and re-readings may be required to grasp what he’s getting at. Nonetheless, his approach has its rewards, and his avoidance of the usual well-trodden paths is refreshing. When a long-ignored history is finally revealed, it’s worth paying attention. Ultimately, when he makes a good point—and he makes a few—Billheimer glimmers like Moses fresh from Sinai. One particularly pellucid phrase sticks out as a ruinous theme for the rest of Mother Chicago, if not the city itself.

“The songs of children playing make a city a city—even more so, a city neighborhood. When these sounds ‘disappear,’ the darkest of imaginings and the most awful facts are transformed into metaphors for property value.”

Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters Over the Gilded Age is available at bookstores and through the Feral House website. Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.