Exclusive: The History Behind Chicago’s Bughouse Square Debates

In the ’20s and ’30s, Chicago’s Washington Square Park was a hotbed of rhetoric as poets, preachers, left-wing agitators, and crackpots waxed radical before curious spectators. Popularly known as Bughouse Square, the park eventually fell into disuse, but in the ’80s its reputation as a mecca of free speech and public discussion was revived with the Newberry Library’s annual Bughouse Square Debates.

Flavorpill is the proud media sponsor of this Saturday’s 23rd Annual Bughouse Square Debates. We sat down with Newberry Library’s Director of Public Programs Rachel Bohlmann, Ph.D. to learn more.

Flavorpill: Can you tell us where the name Bughouse Square came from?

Rachel Bohlmann: Washington Square Park, which is the park out in front of the Newberry, has been historically known as Bughouse Square. We believe it got its name because “bughouse” is slang for a mental health facility. People who were taking part in free-speech oratory in the park, which is what it was known for, were considered by a lot of people as crazy and kind of nuts. So, the slang name for the square became Bughouse Square.

FP: When did Bughouse Square become known as a free-speech stronghold?

RB: It became a real center for free speech in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. It really rivaled — at its height in the 20s and 30s — other internationally known free speech spaces like Hyde Park in London and Greenwich Village in New York.

FP: Who would visit Bughouse Square?

RB: The people who were really the core group were people on the political left. Most of them were affiliated with the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, which was a radical labor organization founded in Chicago in 1905. IWW organizers were known as great soapbox orators [and for] being very witty, quick on their feet and entertaining.

FP: What was it like when these people would visit the park?

RB: It was very participatory. The orators would stand up and they would start talking about politics, religion, education or any of the issues of the day. And bystanders would stand by and heckle them, ask questions, yell things. And the speakers would respond. So it was a very interactive, and very entertaining dialogue.

One of the things that made it so powerful — and the reason why it became so famous — is that it didn’t have a lot of organization. It was a spontaneous organism that was sustained by people who were very committed to a certain point of view, to left politics, but it was also sustained by a network that was larger than that.

Bughouse orators were [only] very loosely organized as well. They would come to the park and either get up on a soapbox (literally), or they would just stand on the grass and talk, sing, or [even] have a prepared speech. But a lot of time people would just talk about the daily newspaper and go through it and provide commentary — kind of like Rachel Maddow today. They would read an editorial and comment on it, or they would get people in the crowd to comment.

dscn0406
Bughouse Square, Photo credit: Suzanne Niemoth

FP: Were there really crowds of people?

RB: Yes, there were thousands of people. We have reports from the Tribune that in the 20s and 30s there were 2000 people in the park in one night. Later, it became a tourist destination from the 30s through the 50s. People really did come through here, when they were traveling around: it was definitely known to New Yorkers and even on the international scene. It’s hard for Chicagoans today to understand that it had that kind of a profile.

FP:That sounds amazing. Why and when did Bughouse Square fall into disuse?

RB: Bughouse Square, as a center of oratory, was strongest in the 20s and 30s, especially with the Great Depression and the hard times people were going through. [But] after WWII, we see a kind of a shift. We start to see in the papers a lot more complaining from neighbors about the noise. There’s even this report from the late 40s about how ‘You can barely read or study at the Newberry library there’s so much racket going on outside in Bughouse Square!’

We also start to see red-baiting during the 50s: ‘Bughouse has been overrun by communists.’ It becomes, I think, a victim of the Red Scare and cold war politics. By the early 60s, it’s really pretty much almost gone. There’s hardly anyone going to the park anymore just to speak. So, it kind of died.

FP: So when did the Bughouse Square debates begin again?

RB: In the mid-1980s, a group of interested Chicago leftists — along with some staff of the Newberry — decided to try to revive the Bughouse debates. [They] established in 1986 a new kind of Bughouse Square Debates, the model that we know today.

We do it every year, the last weekend in July — it’s connected to our Book Fair, which is also a very nice democratic event because it’s used books, so it’s very inexpensive. [It’s] a one-day event where we revive the idea that this is a space for free speech, that it has historically been a center of free speech for Chicagoans, and should remain that way.

FP: That’s awesome. The Bughouse Square Debates is such a fun event. Can you describe it for someone who has never attended?

RB: It’s kind of freewheeling, which is what it should be.

We have a main debate during the program, and we usually line up a couple of speakers to tackle a debate of interest of the day.

We also have three soapboxes set up in the park and the soapboxers go on simultaneously, so people can kind of move around and listen to the soapboxers as they want to. It’s very informal. People can engage the speakers and shout out questions and comments as they want to. And we really encourage hecklers.

FP: Everyone loves a good heckler. What really gets them juiced up?

RB: Last year, we had somebody who was anti-gun control — and that got a huge response from the crowd. The audience that usually comes to this is mostly liberal. And so we usually get people on soapboxes who take a pretty liberal position with a left perspective. This guy was not. He had a much more right wing. Which is good because it’s not about everyone agreeing.

We also had someone speak from the ACLU, but mostly everyone in the crowd was like, “Right on.”

FP: Each year, you award the Dill Pickle Award. What’s the connection between the Dill Pickle and Bughouse Square Debates?

RB: The Dill Pickle was a club started by a group of Bughouse Square orators right before WWI. Jack Jones, who was an IWW organizer and labor leader, was the organizer of the Dill Pickle Club, which was located just off Washington Square Park.

It was kind of a little dive, but it was a great club because it really attracted people like Sherwood Anderson and writer Ben Hecht. It was very avant-garde. They would invite lecturers, like professors from University of Chicago and Northwestern, writers and all sorts of intellectuals and radicals to talk about serious topics.

Jones would ask when he would go into the Dill Pickle, “Are you a nut about anything? Don’t you want to talk to the Picklers?” He was always tying to round people up to talk. [So, each year] we reward the best soapbox speaker the Dill Pickle award.

FP: I hear there are going to be Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas impersonators at this year’s event?

RB: Because it’s 2009, it’s the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. So, we’re going to have a main debate that honors Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. We have two very good impersonators: they are going to have a 40-minute debate that highlights the main issues that these two men talked about: slavery (whether slavery should be expanded into the western territories) and Stephen’s bugaboo, which was popular sovereignty. And you can come and take a picture with Lincoln.

FP: Who wouldn’t love a cell phone pic with Honest Abe? Any last thoughts?

RB: Both soapbox speaking and heckling are kind of a fading art. It’s great that people engage with blogs and with Twitter and chat rooms. But to think on your feet and kind of have a lot of ideas and lot of aplomb and attitude — and to also be able to listen to people and respond and not just be ideological — that’s really important. Free speech is only as powerful and as strong as people exercise it. That is what Bughouse Square is about.