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Chicago Stories: John Peter Altgeld and Me

  I lived in South Chicago—63th and Cottage Grove—for some time when I was a child. Like most children, at least at that time, I lived in a pack. The opinion of the pack was that Roosevelt must be a good person. After all, hadn't The Honorable Anton J. Cermak given his own life to save Roosevelt? (Do children still live in packs? and do the packs have collective memories? In some packs, the kids said "King's X" when they wanted immunity. In my pack, we said "John Peter Altgeld." I wonder why the memory of the Haymarket pardons endured in such a peculiar fashion?) The Honorable Anton J. Cermak (we never thought of him in any other way) had been a truly great man who had torn up the streets when the people were cold.

 Anyway, we were playing up and down the street one evening. It was hot, and the windows were all open, and from every house you could hear Roosevelt (Again, we never thought to call him anything else.) My memories are a bit like quicksilver, but I seem to recall that, by this time, The Honorable Anton J. Cermak was beginning to merge with Roosevelt in our minds. The KKK-Bund-Silver-and-Black-Shirt rally in Washington Park earlier that summer had had something to do with it, but that's another story. 

The next day, my parents took me on the train to visit my mother's family in Rock Falls. Rock Falls and Sterling were mill towns in Whiteside County, Illinois. Whiteside County had been Whig until the Republican Party was founded at Ripon. Everyone read the Chicago Tribune, but preferred the Sterling Daily Gazette, which once had an editorial criticizing Daddy Warbucks for employing "Darkies and Spiks," by which they meant Punjab and the Asp and were seriously concerned about the matter. That should tell you a good deal about Sterling and Rock Falls.

 I was sent for a haircut on Saturday and sat on a hard bench while all the grown-ups were waited on. They were talking what passed for politics, and one man said, "You know what crippled him, don't you? Syphilis; that's why his brain's all rotten inside." (It was a good deal later that I figured out what he meant. I thought he had said that Roosevelt had sniffles.) They said a whole lot more that I didn't really understand. A lot of it had to do with Eleanor Roosevelt and big bucks (At first I thought they meant that she liked money. There were no Negroes in Sterling and Rock Falls. They were against the law.)

 I was back in South Chicago a few days later, playing with my best friend, Bernard, and told him that my relatives in Rock Falls ... (You see, Rock Falls was a small town, and my mother's family had moved there in about 1820, so practically everybody was in fact my relative. That made it a bit uncomfortable, since people on the street would sometimes nod towards me and say to their companion, "Asa's boy" with something of a grim expression.

 (Asa F.R. Emmons was my great-great-grandfather and had been the town's first constable. He had thrown almost everybody's ancestor in jail at one time or another, and people still resented it. It didn't seem to make any difference that most of them were also Asa's descendants to a greater or lesser degree. I had the misfortune to be his lineal descendant, so all of Asa's misdeeds fell on my plate. I remember standing by a tall granite monument one Memorial Day, watching them decorate the family plot. A man and wife passed by and the woman said to her husband, "Of all the nerve! Standing there as big as brass!" (Yes, I'm sure that that was what she said.) Her husband said, "Now, May, leave the boy alone." She sniffed loudly, and they moved on.

  (I went to my great-grandmother and explained what had happened. She was very old and didn't pay much attention to what was going on now, since she had decided to live permanently in May of the year 1902. It was quite nice there, particularly since the lilacs were beginning to bloom. We got along quite well, since she had also decided that I was her youngest son, my great-uncle Floyd. Uncle Floyd was not pleased with the arrangement since it required that he become a salesman from Dixon, Illinois. Great- grandmother Etta would look at him intently and say, "We've already got plenty, so be about your business, young man." Floyd was particularly frustrated because great-grandmother would never tell him what he was selling. 

(Anyway, Great-grandmother looked up and said, "She was upset because you were standing by John P. Thurmond's tombstone. That was a tactless thing to do." "But why, Mother?" "She's John P. Thurmond's grand-niece." (She was actually, I discovered later, John P. Thurmond's great-grandniece, twice removed, but in May of 1902, she was his grandniece.) "And ...?" "And your grandfather Asa hanged John P. Thurmond." "Why did grandfather Asa hang Mr. Thurmond?" "I don't know, dear, but I'm sure that he must have had a good reason."

 (Being the lineal descendant of Asa F.R. Emmons was something of a burden. Especially when I considered that I was also the great-great-grand-nephew, thrice removed, of Mr. John P. Thurmond.) said that Roosevelt's brains were all rotten inside because he had the sniffles, which he had caught from Eleanor, who liked to go to sleep with big black men. Anyway, they said, he was a sheenie (which just goes to show how behind-the-times Rock Falls was; the correct term in South Chicago was "Kike"), and his father's real name was Rosenfelt. He was ruining the country and somebody ought to lock him up in the Funny Farm (by which they meant "the Loony Bin"). Bernard was thoroughly confused and reacted in a natural manner by hitting me. I hit him back, and so, both with bloody noses, we started rolling on the pavement, until we both gasped out "John Peter Altgeld" at about the same moment. We decided to go steal a ride on the back of a street car, and, while we were waiting for a westbound, I got an idea and said to Bernard, "Maybe they got a different Roosevelt in Rock Falls?" Bernard thought about it for a while, and said, "Maybe we got the different one here."

 I don't know that this reminiscence has any point, except that Bernard was basically an obscurantist. It does explain why I couldn't defend my slip of the pen in graduate school when my instructor wanted to know why I had written that John Peter Altgeld had suffered from an advanced stage of sniffles. But I don't suppose anyone really cares about that.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus  of History
University of Kansas

042404