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Asking For It


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What weirdness possesses us, on the eve of the 21st century, to look to the 19th century for guidance? For years conservatives and libertarians have been building a cult of the Victorian era. Now these cultists have rummaged through Chicago history and found an object lesson. In the July issue of "Alternatives in Philanthropy"--a newsletter published by the Capital Research Center, a conservative libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.--editor Daniel Oliver asserts, "The aftermath of the Chicago Fire offers a case study in how to help the needy."

That's an audacious claim. When Chicago burned 128 years ago it had a tenth of its current population, little underground infrastructure, and no skyscrapers. It extended north only to Fullerton and south to about 39th Street. It's hard to imagine how this very different city could offer us a model for much of anything today. But what Oliver likes is the attitude of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the private agency that distributed help to desperate Chicagoans after the fire. He might have a point, since you can have attitude in any era.

After the fire burned itself out on October 9, 1871, more than 18,000 buildings had been destroyed, nearly 300 people had died, and 100,000 were left homeless. Money and goods began to pour into the devastated city from all over the world. How would relief workers hand them out? Very carefully. The president of the Relief and Aid Society called on his workers to "stop hasty distributions, and give applications as much examination as possible." The society required people who wanted help to fill out detailed applications describing "the place of residence since the fire, the nature and extent of the losses suffered, and the particular articles or form of aid desired." They had to give personal references who would verify that they really were in need. Then they had to receive a "visitor" employed by the society who would examine their home and interview family members, neighbors, and relatives. This new, "scientific" charity was intended to make sure that relief wouldn't undermine any working-class person's work ethic. No one was to get help who might be able to help themselves.

The relief workers' careful scrutiny did find some fakers. When Kate Moran applied for materials to build a house, a visitor from the society discovered that not only did she own an undamaged house, but that she spent most of her time drunk. The visitor wrote on her application, "Would give her nothing."

Sixteen days after the fire, society superintendent O.C. Gibbs advised his personnel that plenty of construction and housekeeping work was already available. "Clerks, and persons unaccustomed to out-door labor, if they cannot find such employment as they have been accustomed to, must take such as is offered or leave the city. Any man, single woman, or boy, able to work, and unemployed at this time, is so from choice and not from necessity." Accordingly Gibbs instructed his relief workers to "give no aid to any families who are capable of earning their own support, if fully employed (except it be to supply some needed articles of clothing, bedding, or furniture which their earnings will not enable them to procure, and at the same time meet their ordinary expenses of food and fuel)."

According to Oliver and the Capital Research Center, today's philanthropists could use some of this Victorian backbone, because they're too undiscriminating and too willing to rely on government funds. He quotes a modern-day food-bank director who doesn't even count her clients, much less cross-examine them, because she's "just trying to get the food out the door." But simply giving people stuff is no way to help them, insists Oliver. It was a bad idea in 1871, and it's a bad idea today. "If a charity fails to collect even the most basic information on those it serves, how can it know if it is encouraging self-reliance or dependency? How can it tell if it is serving the genuinely needy or only those who take advantage of others' generosity?"

The philosophical question strikes deep. Is it worse to help an undeserving person or to fail to help a deserving one? Should aid relieve misery or promote future independence? How you and I answer these questions will depend in part on our gender and class background, as well as our religious and political views, if any. Today's Capital Research Center agrees with yesterday's Chicago Relief and Aid Society that aid should promote independence and that it's worse to be too generous than to be too stingy. But it's interesting to see just how much Oliver had to omit from his account of the Chicago Fire to make the Relief and Aid Society look like an example worth following.

As it happens, a historian has been over this ground. In 1995 the University of Chicago Press published Karen Sawislak's Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. The fire disrupted Chicagoans' everyday assumptions about life, and Sawislak used it as a way to learn about the tacit understandings that governed 19th-century American urban life, understandings that in ordinary times would have gone without saying. Her scholarship doesn't disprove Oliver's philosophy of welfare. But it does show that what went on in those anguished months after the Great Fire was neither scientific nor charitable.

To begin with, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society wasn't first on the scene. In the first days after the fire Mayor Roswell Mason set up an organization called the General Relief Committee, composed of aldermen and private citizens, with equal numbers of members coming from the north, south, and west parts of the city. This public-private partnership, Sawislak writes, "would virtually ensure the presence of representatives of immigrant communities and allow the elected officers of the city to draw on the special talents of those not in public service." But the General Relief Committee had barely started work when, on October 13, the mayor reversed himself and abruptly turned all incoming contributions over to the private Chicago Relief and Aid Society.

Elected officials had some say in the General Relief Committee; they had none in the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. For more than a decade it had been run by the city's commercial elite. On its executive committee sat railroad lawyer and lumberman Wirt Dexter, dry-goods merchant Henry King, industrialist George Pullman, his vice president Charles Hammond, lumber merchants Thomas Harvey and Thomas Avery, industrialist Nathaniel Fairbank, society doctor Hosmer Johnson, attorney E.C. Larned, iron manufacturer N.S. Bouton, and railway supplier J. MacGregor Adams. All were men, all were wealthy, all were deeply concerned that the fire might destabilize Chicago's social structure. The mayor put them in charge on the assumption that they were above it all--that, in Sawislak's words, they "stood apart from the 'interests' embodied by the 'corrupt' aldermen and were thus best able and entitled to decide just what steps served the 'public interest,' a best course for all the citizens of Chicago." The aim wasn't to add expertise to the relief effort but to subtract it--Fairbank and Gibbs had served on the General Relief Committee, so it would have been able to draw on private-sector talent. The effect of putting the Relief and Aid Society in charge was to make Chicago's commercial elite the only arbiter of whom to help and how to do so.

The Relief and Aid Society leaders knew how to organize a working bureaucracy quickly. In a matter of days they converted an organization that had served 3,000 people a year on a budget of $25,000 into a juggernaut that helped 157,000 people and dispensed over $4 million in about 18 months.

Most of the fire victims were neither rich nor native born. The leaders of the Relief and Aid Society didn't know them and didn't empathize with them. The society wanted to relieve suffering, but its efficiency was always tempered by its desire to offer only the minimum of relief necessary to keep workers on the job. Thus people who'd lost their homes and livelihoods had to stand in line for hours or days to get blankets or clothes or tools. Cash grants were rare.

The cultural gap was as wide as the class gap. The fire had devastated north-side neighborhoods inhabited largely by German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants, in an era when it was a matter of course to distinguish such people from "Americans." The society at first established no relief depot on the north side, even though all the bridges connecting it to the rest of town had been burned. Fire victims in search of help had to make their way through the long, dark, crowded Clark Street tunnel. Again, many of the victims knew no English, but the society published no official notices in German or any of the Scandinavian tongues. Nor did it hire bilingual or bicultural "visitors." Native-born visitors assumed that poverty and filth went hand in hand. If they found a clean German home, they assumed that the people in it were doing OK.

Worst of all, the society routinely cut off help as soon as a recipient found a job, even though no ordinary worker got paid in advance. "Many Chicagoans," writes Sawislak, "endured a period of one or two weeks when they had jobs but no cash to show for their labors--and no access to relief." The Tribune published a letter describing "children crying and begging for bread merely because their fathers have found work."

These measures could hardly be described as scientific, since they were at least as likely to weed out the deserving as the undeserving. Because the society wasn't accountable to the public, there was none of the feedback an aldermanic presence would have provided. What was called "scientific charity" turns out to have been a system of charity run by the rich for people the rich could sympathize with. The society even built this double standard into its organizational structure when it organized a "Committee on Special Relief" in addition to its "General Plan."

Special Relief was for prosperous middle-class victims. Thus A. Poncelet, who'd lost her four-story residence and French fashion shop to the fire, received a $300 cash grant the day after she applied. In contrast, when carpenter Jeremiah Healey asked Special Relief for $50 to finish rebuilding the house he'd lost, his request languished for a month and apparently was never acted on. Such examples of discrimination go unmentioned in "Alternatives in Philanthropy," perhaps because they don't fit conveniently into the Capital Research Center's notion that private charity is good and government charity bad.

The society didn't require Special Relief applicants to stand in line with laborers and widows gabbling in foreign tongues. Nor did they have to make do with in-kind assistance. "The operations of the General Plan--long lines, long waits, and sparse handouts--would not, the Society claimed, 'serve the needs of those whose previous condition in life unfitted them to the exposure and suffering incident to such modes of receiving relief,'" writes Sawislak. "By contrast, these elite men assumed that poverty and distress would to some degree be a natural (and bearable) part of the life of every worker." After the first harsh winter, some workers got wise and applied to Special Relief for help. They didn't get it. Nicholas Kalter, a German Catholic father of seven, was physically incapacitated but didn't qualify for help because he was a carpenter. Augusta Sansbach, a widow with four children and no other family in the city, had been here less than a year and spoke no English. She was so desperate she went to work stacking bricks in a brickyard, "a form of backbreaking labor the Society would never have countenanced for any woman of means," Sawislak notes. Sansbach didn't qualify either. Mary Johnson, with a large family, an ill husband, and a house "so poorly finished that the rain blows in on all sides," according to a society visitor, was denied aid from Special Relief. Her dwelling, the visitor wrote, was "as good as other houses of the kind."

In charity as in anything else, squandering resources does no one any favors. The Relief and Aid Society did have to be careful not to waste the contributions that came in. Conceivably, what looks to us like tightfistedness might have been careful stewardship in a time and place much less affluent than today. In the dead of the winter following the fire, the society cut 800 families off altogether, claiming that they were "chronic poor" and should be taken care of by Cook County. The county was nearly bankrupt at the time, and its commissioners protested. But the society stood firm. It claimed to have no prudent alternative, since it expected to disburse all of its remaining $600,000 by the end of April 1872.

But the society hadn't disbursed all the money by then. Even when relief formally ended in 1873, it still hadn't. Evidently the society had decided that it was in the public interest for it to hang on to the cash. "The Fire donations they refused to relinquish to the city provided a comfortable operating fund that allowed the organization to suspend all of its own fund-raising for over ten years," writes Sawislak. "Only in 1885 would the elite supporters of the work of the agency again be asked personally to contribute to the cause of relieving the want of the 'worthy poor.'"

There's a certain irony here. Mayor Mason had given the society the job of handing out relief because businesspeople feared that aldermanic involvement in the relief effort would lead to corruption. What would the business owners then--or the Capital Research Center today--have said if the original General Relief Committee had remained in charge, been stingy about helping the needy, and later quietly converted the resulting surplus to its own purposes?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.

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