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INTRODUCTION TO LITTLE HELL
The Standard Guide To Chicago For The Year 1893:
At the time of the great fire the region west of Larrabee st. was almost unoccupied as far down as the river, and when the relief work began this tract was suggested as a good place for the building of houses for the people whose property had been destroyed. So a lot of small cottages and one long, low building with a room for each family in it were erected.
The long, low building was called “The Barracks.” It stood on the west side of Crosby st., just across from the gas works, and it was the center of ail the glorious doings that made “Little Hell” historical. The citizens of the “Hell” were comfortably fixed for social enjoyment. Their food and lodgings, and much of their clothing, came from the Relief and Aid Society. Work was plenty arid labor was high. They found themselves each week with a surplus on hand and nothing to do with it, unless they devote it to the pleasures of the cup that cheers. It was thus that “Little Hell” began.
The police found it out first. Every night a patrolman would come in for help from the station to subdue a riot. When an old officer was to be punished, or a new one tried, he was sent to ” Little Hell.” Sometimes he lasted a week. If he was particularly tough and courageous, and if he had a hard head, he survived perhaps a month. Then he usually went to the hospital to furnish an interesting case of compound fracture or concussion of the brain to the clinics. “Little Hell” was a “terror district” for several years after the fire and many a bloody murder was committed within its precincts. But most of the desperate characters who infested the district have been killed or sent to the penitentiary or driven out of the city. The houses in “Little Hell” are even giving way to new brick structures, but there are frequent relics of the old “relief cottages” to be seen in the famous tract.
Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1875
One of the foulest and blackest crimes which has ever been perpetrated in this city was committed some time during Sunday (January 10, 1875) night or yesterday morning. The murdered man is Frederick Ruetz, a German and a widower, 55 years old, whose dwelling was at No. 113 Hurlbut street, in the North Division, and there is not the slightest doubt that he was killed for the purpose of robbery, for he was a man in good circumstances and was in the habit of carrying a considerable sum of money with him.
Mr. Ruetz’s body was discovered about 8 o’clock yesterday morning, lying between two piles of railroad ties, opposite the freight department of the Chicago & Pacific Railroad, on Cherry street, some distance north of Chicago avenue and west of Halsted street. Two men who were unloading ties first saw saw the corpse, and on attempting to raise it up found it frozen to the earth.
Officer Whalen, who lives in the vicinity, was immediately notified, and in company with another policeman, took charge of the body and had it removed to Chicago Avenue Station. Am examination showed that a deep gash had been cut with an ax or hatchet on the left side of the head, cleaving the slouch hat which deceased had on. The head was nearly severed from the body by another wound across the neck; this was evidently inflicted with a sharp knife. On the coat were the imprints of a bloody knife-blade, which makes it appear that the murderer or murderers had wiped the the weapon off after committing the deed.
Up to 1 o’clock this morning no clew had been obtained of the murders, for it is thought there were two or more. Friday last Mr. Ruetz had $96 on his person, and his sons (he has three) believe that when murdered he had a larger sum.
Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1875
We, the jury, find that the said Frederick Ruetz came to his death during the night between the 10th and 11th of January, 1875, from injuries and wounds received, produced by a sharp instrument in the hands of an unknown man to the jury; and we, the jury, find further to discharge John Kurt, John Ruetz, and Frederick Ruetz, Jr., from prison, having not found any evidence against them. The prisoners were immediately released from custody by Capt. Gund, and rushed into the arms of their wives, and the whole six shed tears of joy.
Chicago Tribune, February 14, 1875
On the North Side there is a district bounded by Larrabee street and the North Branch which has recently earned considerable notoriety by a horrible murder committed within its precincts. It is called by the police “Little Hell,” a name, by the way, borrowed from a neighborhood in Cow Cross, London.1 “Little Hell” is without doubt poor. Its inhabitants are not only poor but vicious, including some of the most turbulent characters in the city. Its population is mixed, consisting of Irish, Swedes, Germans, Dutch, Poles, and Italians, with a very light sprinkling of Americans. Saloon-rows and stabbing affrays are not infrequent. And yet, a careful investigation shows that there is very little of real squalor and destitution in this neighborhood. The houses, though rudely constructed one-story affairs, are comfortable, and from nearly every chimney a cloud of smoke ascending shows that the inmates are by no means reduced to the direct extreme of poverty. The men are mostly employed in the gas-house or other large establishments in that part of the city.
Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1875
Chicago, like other great cities, abounds in its vices which are peculiar to the extremes of social life. Their existence, however, is not definitely known to the majority of newspaper readers, or, at least, only suspected or known in a general way from the hints which are occasionally gleamed from the Police-Court reports. Bust these indicate only particular cases of depravity, and not the state of society in a neighborhood, street, or a quarter. There are certain localities in the city which are the result of lazaroni (sic); there are others which form the regular stamping-ground of the light-fingered fraternity; still others which shelter desperadoes, and the perpetrators of all sorts of hideous integrity. There are dens, artfully constructed with underground passageways and secret doors for escape, with traps for unsuspecting victims, and yet presenting externally every evidence of respectability. Many a citizen has no doubt often wandered where all the pickpockets, and burglars and garroters keep themselves during years of residence here they have not come across any specimens of these disreputable classes. They do not know that there are hundreds of men now in Chicago who never walk the streets by daylight, who carefully keep in their hiding-places until darkness sets in, when they sally forth to plunder, to rob, and perhaps worse. The “all-night” population of the city is larger than supposed, and is ever on the increase. The men who compose it do not let their light shine before men. They are not politicians, nor are they interested in the Moody and Saukey movement. They are very modest; even more so than their female associates, for there are many women who share with them their dangers and their spoils. It is a fact well known to the few persons who have the opportunity of knowing these things, that women from an important element of the “underground” population. Without them the thief would starve in his lurking-place, he would be pounced upon by the police without warning, and he would, above all, lose a valuable auxiliary in the way of obtaining useful information as to the whereabouts of desirable property.
It is not the purpose of this article to cover all the ground occupied by the lawless element of our population. To fully describe their habits and resorts would fill a volume, and would, no doubt, amaze the respectable citizens who pursue their accustomed vocations year after year without ever changing or dreaming of the mass of ignorance and want and wickedness that exists all around them.
The North Side,
compared as a whole with the South and West Divisions, enjoys a very favorable reputation for quietude and good order. The average number of arrests at both Chicago Avenue and North Avenue Sub-Stations is not exceeding half a dozen, while fifty a day is not an uncommon number at the Union Street (West Side) Station, as well as at the Armory. But that argues little. It is a fact that there are certain districts on the North Side, which contain, if nit the most dangerous, certainly some of the most vicious elements that can be found anywhere in the city. Probably no quarter of the city has a worse reputation than that which is called
The name is not original, having been borrowed from one of the poorer neighborhoods of London, but it is quite appropriate. The boundaries of “Little Hell” are not exactly defined, but it may be generally described as lying west of Larrabee street and north of Division. It extends westward as far as Goose Island, which locality is often included as a part of “Little Hell” itself. It comprises portions of Rees, Penn, Pleasant, Wesson, and Vine streets, together with numerous crooked and densely-populated alleys which have no particular nomenclature. Two years ago “Little Hell began to acquire fame by reason of frequent rows and disturbances that occurred within its borders. Scarcely a day passed without some knifing or shooting scrape. As many of the men wore heavy boots it was not unfrequent to hear of noses being crushed or bodies injured by boot-heels. Sometimes by way of variety, ears and fingers would be bitten off. Extra efforts were made by the police to secure peace, but they met with little success. The inhabitants of this minor Satanic domination were incorrigible, and they were finally left to themselves with only the usual guard of policemen.
In the Criminal History of the City “Little Hell” figures quite prominently. Numerous have been the burglars traced to their lairs in its precincts, and plunder has been frequently recovered which have been stowed snugly away in some presumably secure hiding place. About a year and a half ago three professional garroters were nabbed at once in a cellar under a grocery, where they quietly ensconced, waiting for a little breeze to blow over which they had aroused by “holding up” a drover on Wells street, and relieving him of $800. When arrested they were playing euchre by candle-light and sipping their grog, in the peace of fancied security.
Figure ① Location of “Barracks” built for Chicago Fire refugees.
Figure ② Site where the body of Frederick Ruetz was found.
The Ruetz Murder,
committed last winter, is till fresh in the minds of the people. It created a more lasting impression than usual in such cases, for the reason that it was veiled in such mystery. The body of Frederick Ruetz, an old man, was discovered lying between two lumber-piles on Goose Island one morning. His head had been cut open with an ax. Not withstanding there was much interest manifested in the affair, and the most skillful detectives were employed to ferret out his murderers, no clew was ever obtained, and to this day they have not been apprehended. Could the mouths of some of the “Little Hell” inhabitants be opened and their tongues forced to reveal what they know of the murder of Frederick Reutz’s taking off, the mystery would be a mystery no longer, and justice would be meted out to the perpetrators of the horrible deed.
which are represented in the population of “Little Hell” are numerous. The German element is small. There are Irish, Bohemians, Poles, and Scandinavians. All these are of the poorest and most wretched class. They are the Communists who would like nothing better than to incite an open riot, and to plunder the town, on the poor pretense that they are down-trodden of the rougher natives, comprising desperate characters and professional outlaws.
in the neighborhood are mostly short, narrow, unpaved, and filthy in the extreme. Several are nothing more than lanes, having a width only sufficient for the passage of one vehicle. They are closely built up, without any apparent reference to lots, one shanty running into and abutting to another, and in the rear other shanties instead of barns. The sidewalks, where there are any, are irregular and dilapidated, and seldom run 20 yards on the same level. The gutters are odorous with slops and othjer refise.
The houses are, nearly without exception, of rough, unpainted boards, only one story in height, and contain not more than two rooms. Of course, there are more ambitious structures, whose first floor is devoted to the sale of groceries or liquors, while up-stairs is the dwelling of diverse families. Most of the huts abut on the street, although there are some instances where pretenses of a fence, and even of a front yard, are made. Stovepipes are the most popular material for chimneys. In passing along Wesson street, a few days ago, the writer observed one enterprising citizen engaged in the arduous and novel task of erecting
A Brick Chimney
over his 10-by-12 foot house. That the innovation was regarded unfavorably by the rest of the population there could be no doubt, from the audible remarks of the crowd which had gathered in the alley to watch the unwonted sight. The worker, however, pursued his occupation with dignified leisure, pausing only to relight his pipe, and utter a few genial imprecations upon the bodies and souls of the assembled audience. He was finally discouraged by a volley of rotten potatoes which was discharged at him by a regiment of hoodlums, and kicking over the pile of bricks in disgust, retired to an adjoining saloon.
The aspect of some of the habitations in this neighborhood betokens
There are many with dilapidated roofs and unhinged doors, bare rafters, and furnitureless apartments. In the summer months, when the skies are sunny and the air mellow and warm, this state of things, doubtless, is not disagreeable, or, at least, can be cheerfully endured. But it is difficult to see how people can survive our cold Northern winters un der such insufficient shelter. Near the corner of Chatham and Elm streets this poverty is most staring. A picture of life in this vicinity was seen by the writer in one of the numerous shanties recently. The house was built on piles, raised 10 feet above the low ground, and its support seemed so frail that any hard wind might topple it over. A series of rickety steps led up to the door. A knock elicited no response; hence the door was pushed open. Some moments elapsed before the contents of the narrow apartment began to assume recognizable shape. The air was darkened by a heavy cloud of tobacco smoke, which gave forth the rankest perfume. Gradually there took shape the figures of two bent and shriveled beldames, with pipes in their mouths, sitting i a corner, and nodding and gesticulating to one another. Their mumbling words could not be distinguished. What was quite singular was that these ancient women paid no attention whatever to the new arrival who had unceremoniously introduced himself upon the,, but continued mumbling and shaking their heads toward each other. A still more singular circumstance was that in another corner of the narrow room, seated on the floor and absorbed in a pleasant meditation was a baby not more than 6 months old. A strange contrast—Infancy on the one hand, Old Age on the other, and Poverty all around! What strange surroundings for a being just entering upon the precarious career of life!
As may be naturally supposed,
Children Are Abundant
in “Little Hell.” In fact, they are about the cheapest commodity in that market. The streets are overflowing with juveniles—ragged, hatless, saucy, dirty, noisy juveniles. As they disport themselves in little groups along the gutters, one can scarcely notice any difference between them, except as regards sex, and even then the distinction in dress is so slight as to be almost imperceptible. In the narrow streets the right of way in strenuously and continually contended for small boys, geese, and hogs. One little chap, who wore a brimless straw-hat and only half a pair of trousers (one leg being quite bare) informed the writer with great gravity that his name was Timmy Lannyghin, and that his father didn’t do anything for a living, which statement was doubtless as correct as it was refreshing. Another mature urchin of about 8 years proudly asserted that his father and mother were both in jail. The manifest arrogance of his tone was no less amusing than the deference paid to him on that account by his companions.
There Are a Few Shops and Saloons
in “little Hell,” although the inhabitants depend mostly on Division street for their supplies. A specimen shop is that kept by Mrs. Flannery. The building occupied by her is a two-story dwelling, with a small door and two windows in front. A pine board nailed beside the door contains the rudely-painted word “Grocery.” A shelf running on the inside of the window displays samples of stock to the passer-by—two or three half-decayed oranges, several glass jars of stick-candy, a can of preserves, clay pipes, etc. Mrs. Flannery herself is a corpulent, red-faced matron of 40, with a cheery voice and a short black pipe habitually in her mouth. As you enter her premises she rises from her low arm-chair, which has a big red cushion in it, and salutes you with a bow so profound as to seem almost ironical. She is voluble, and will talk you bewildered in fifteen minutes. If you buy anything, she insists on shaking hands with you affectionately at parting, and follow you out to the sidewalk, making the air resonant with her hearty expressions of gratitude and wishes for your good fortune. If you fail to buy, woe betide the hour when you set foot in her shop. She has a vocabulary like a fish-woman.
Of the Saloons
in “Little Hell,” not much can be said. One of these, kept by an unpronounceably-named Bohemian, was visited by the writer. It was simply a shanty among shanties, being distinguished only by the incomplete word “Sal————” painted in red letters upon the dingy window-pane. Entering, there was seen a low, narrow apartment, half of which was taken up by the counter, behind which were several rows of suggestive black bottles. There was also behind the bar a man of wide proportions, sleepily leaning his chin upon his hands, with his elbows sprawled over the counter. Several hard-looking customers were seated at a small table playing cards. At the entrance of the writer the saloon-keeper sprang to his feet and cast a rapid and cunning glance at the new arrival and thence to the group at the table.
“Vat you want, eh?” he exclaimed sharply.
It was several minutes and only after repeated assurances of friendly intentions, that the worth host became at ease. He had evidently thought that the stranger was “mit de police.” Even after he had become apparently reassured, he still kept a sharp lookout, and going over to the group at the table, whispered a few words whereupon they quietly disappeared by a reaqr door.
But space cannot be given to further details of the interesting characteristics of this neighborhood. Much might be said of the winding alleys, lined with tumble-down little sheds, each of which is thickly populated with human beings. Squalor and filth reign here supreme. Shock-headed children with dirt-begrimed faces peer desolately out of hat-stuffed windows. Sometimes pale women may be seen inside, bending toilsomely over the needle-work. Yes oftener, the faces that stare and glare from these hovels are bloated and blear-eyed, telling the monotonous story of wasted lives— over-powered, stupefied, and brutalized by the hideous monster. Intemperance. There is room for missionary effort in “Little Hell.”
Excerpted from Chicago Tribune, May 21, 1885
Another fond and endearing name is “Little Hell.” This is a policeman’s term, meant to designate the affectioaqnte and tender habits of the inhabitants of some little district. There was a few years ago one “Little Hell” over on the North Side, from Chicago avenue, near Crosby and Larrabee. Of late years, however, the Devil has left that part of the country, and is now, according to the police, quartered in a West Side “Little Hell,” to wit: on Williams street, between Aberdeen and Centre avenue.
Inter Ocean, May 8, 1900
For over a quarter of a century the district bounded by Chicago avenue and Division streets, Milton avenue and the river have been known as “Little Hell.” Its denizens have always been of the rough and ready kind, but, in the language of one of them who is now serving the city on the police force, “They are fist, not gun, fighters.”
The eastern boundary of the district is peopled largely by Scandinavians and Italians. The latter have been increasing so rapidly that the Scandinavians have become uneasy and are now seeking to change the character of the neighborhood. The Scandinavians are the property-owners and the Italians the tenants. The landlords held a meeting Sunday afternoon, at which it was agreed that the only way to rid themselves of their undesirable tenants was to raise the rent.
The Italians are wrought up over the matter, and their committees were busy yesterday calling on the property-owners, who have agreed to make an increase of 100 per cent in rents. Samuel P. Luzzo is the leader of the Italian forces. He said yesterday the Italians outnumber the Swedes three to one, and that if it comes to a fight the Italians can hold their own.
Four girls in the neighborhood previously known as “Little Hell” in 1902.
The name “Little Hell” was first given to the district immediately after the Chicago fire, when a number of relief shanties were erected in the vicinity of Catham, Crosby, and Division streets. Inspector Heidelmeister traveled a beat there; so did Detective Whalen, Officer James Riley, and many others now on the force. Officer Riley came near losing his life there twenty years ago. He tried to arrest some persons who were disturbing the peace and was shot four times, each shot making a hole in his clothing. Jack O’Neil was the king of “Little Hell” in those days, and he was a power in politics. He is now an inmate of the soldiers’ home in Milwaukee.
The Irish have moved from the district, and there are few Celtic families there now. The Scandinavians, who have largely taken their place as land-owners, are sober, industripus people, and they believe if they can force the Italians out they can increase the value of their holdings and obliterate the evil name of the district.
Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1940
“One neighborhood may be known as Little Hell or Black Hollow to the federal housing authorities, but it is home to us and we want to stay there.”
That was the sentiment yesterday of a committee representing 160 property owners and residents of the near north side area which the Chicago Housing authority seeks to acquire for its latest housing project, to be financed by the federal government. The committee appeared before Ald. Arthur G. Lindell (9th), chairman of the city council housing committee, to protest the housing authority’s proposal. The members accused the authority’s agents of deception and unfair tactics.
Action to Be Deferred,
Later Ald. Lindell and council leaders conferred with Mayor Kelly. The mayor then announced that council action on the proposed project probably will be deferred several weeks to give the property owners time to develop some other plans for neighborhood improvement.
The Chicago Housing authority plans to build the $10,002,271 project in an area bounded by Larrabee, Division, and Sedgwick streets and a line one-half block north of Chicago avenue.
Attorney Lawrence Marino, 902 Cambridge avenue, one of the spokesmen for the protest committee, said:
- Some of the men sent to appraise our property pose as G-men. Some of the men told our people their neighbors had already agreed to sell their property when their neighbors hadn’t.
Charges They’re Kept in Dark.
We have asked the housing authority for some idea of the price they will give for our property. That might help us in planning our own future. But we have been kept in the darkness.
“You aren’t the only ones,” Ald. Lindelll remarked. “The housing authority keeps the city council in the same darkness. We didn’t know they planned to build a project in your district any sooner than you did.”
“Seventy-five per cent of the residents of this district are property owners,” spoke up Dr. A. J. Lendino, 1429 Sedgwick street, a dentist.
“We did have a reputation for crime and delinquency and at one time had the name of Little Hell, but our north side civic committee has been cleaning things up. We now have seven Boy Scout troops.
- 1 Cowcross Street and more so Turnmill Street harbored some of the worst slums of mid-Victorian London. Much publicity was given to them in the 1860s and 70s, particularly to a patch dubbed Jack Ketch’s Warren or “Little Hell.” This was an area around Broad Yard and Lamb Court, at the north end of Turnmill Street. “Little Hell” disappeared in the clearances for Clerkenwell Road, but even in the late 1890s slum conditions persisted in courts off the north side of Cowcross Street.