Reminiscences of “Bohemian Forums” in Chicago

“Dateless Data, or Reminiscences of ‘Bohemian Forums’ in Chicago,” in Public Forums in Chicago (Chicago: Works Projects Administration, 1940), pp. 41-42.

Leander swam the Hellespont on the night of October 12, 234 B.C. at 9:30.  This bit of misinformation has no connection with the above subject, except that the date I give is as reliable as any date in the history of hobohemian and nearbohemian forums of Chicago.  We know that the aquatic Greek had a romantic motive, he being young and foolish, but there the resemblance to the impresarios of the forum business in Chicago stops–those bozos were mostly fools, but they were practical enough to be unromantic lovers of nickels.

Amorous some of the tramps and ex-tramps who fathered forums in Chicago certainly were, some to the point of lechery, but none that I know of ever swam the Chicago River to get to a Helen; there was no need–the dumps they maintained in damp cellars drew females as flies are drawn to molasses, and a forum proprietor with an extreme case of testicular excitation had only to indicate his condition to one of these predecessors of the tavern bitches of the present day.  However, long years on the bum and in jail had done for these mostly old tramps, and a female with vaginal disturbance found out that she would have to pick out a Lothario from the audiences on the joint.  Sex-starved males awaited the nod, and a slattern or even a virago with a trace of femininity could be sure that her bottle of gin would be duly sucked up to the accompaniment of much clack about adult education, free speech, and other shibboleths that go good in “forums.”  Sweet-voiced males made “meet” with other queers, while the girls from the Isle of Lesbos were always sure of a “chicken” sans inhibitions by the anesthesia of moon-shine whiskey.  Many a lass was initiated into the mysteries of life in Y.W.C.A. dormitories from contact with lesbians in the so-called forums of Chicago, in many of which the subject was frankly inversion and perversion disguised as a lecture purporting to explain the theories of Freud, Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger.

Bigger and better orgies took place, history informs us, in the Elysian Fields, and in the forums maintained by the Emperors Galba and Caligula on the isle of Capri, but considering the hampering effect exercised by the Methodist Board of Temperance and the prohibition agents of the time, the Entrepreneurs of the forum business in Chicago managed, with the aid of a lecture by an unaware professor from one of the universities, a smutty one-act “play” or two, some alleged music, and dim lighted dance floors, to give diverse bums from the lodging houses and oldish maidens the thrill of their lives, price 50 cents.  (Vicarious, of course, nothing could take place in the joint–but contacts were made, and that is the big idea in the case of a lonesome old maid and a homeless bum.)

On reading over what I have written I perceive that I have betrayed too complete knowledge of the seamy side of these forum seances, and that the reader could be excused from concluding that all this degradation was not exactly foreign to my moral fibre.  I do not remember!….


Image Credit:  Dill Pickle Club Records, Newberry Library.  See Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition for others.  And don’t forget to join the fun at this year’s Bughouse Square Debates.

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