Review of The Social Evil in Chicago 

Carl Kelsey

REPORT OF THE VICE COMMISSION OF CHICAGO. THE SOCIAL EVIL IN CHICAGO. Chicago : Gunthrop-Warren Printing Company, 1911. Pp. 399.   

In January, 1910, Dean Walter T. Sumner read an address before the Church Federation of Chicago, which finally led to the appointment by the Mayor of a Vice Commission of some thirty members, with Dean Sumner as chairman. This volume is the report of the Commission. It is noteworthy that by unanimous vote the city council authorized the appointment of the Commission, and gave it $5,000 to cover the cost of the investigation.

The Commission appointed the following committees from its members, and the titles of these committees are, with a couple of exceptions, the titles of the main chapters of the book. They were : Committee on Existing Conditions in Chicago; Social Evil and Saloon; Social Evil and Police; Sources of Supply; Social Evil and Crime; Child Protection and Education; Rescue and Reform; Literature and Methods; Medical Questions, and Law and Legislation.

It is apparent that great care was taken to secure careful and reliable investigations of conditions, frequently second reports being made of particular matters by agents unknown to the first. The Commission was fortunate in securing Mr. George J. Kneeland as Director of Investigation, for he had had charge of the field work of the Committee of Fourteen in New York. In the volume no names or addresses are given, though key numbers are used.

It is impossible in a brief book note to condense, or even indicate, the evidence secured. The Commission itself could not print it because of its nature. I doubt sometimes if this judgment is sound, but it is certainly expedient. Summarizing as best I may the Commission's own summary : Prostitution appears as a "commercialized business" in Chicago, controlled largely by men and yielding profits of approximately fifteen million dollars per year. The business demands five thousand souls yearly to satisfy the lust of men. Side by side with the male exploiter is the "ostensibly respectable citizen," man or woman, who rents and leases property for exorbitant sums.

Instead of enforcing existing laws, the police have adopted regulations of their own. It is no wonder that the financial profits interfere with administration. About five thousand women are wholly engaged as prostitutes—the size of the clandestine and casual groups cannot be estimated. Assignation houses abound without legitimate reason. "The Commission has found in its investigation that the most dangerous immoral influence, and the most important financial interest, outside, of the business of prostitution as carried on in houses, is the disorderly saloons" The investigators "were solicited by more than 236 women in 236 different saloons, all of whom, with the exception of 98, solicited for rooms, `hotels' and houses of prostitution over the saloons." Vaudeville shows

(638) of a lewd nature are frequently conducted in rear rooms of saloons. The saloon and the business of prostitution should be immediately separated.

Children in many sections "are surrounded by immoral influences and dangers." Those who sell gum, candy, papers on the street, particularly at night, are early initiated into evil ways. Of messenger boys and newsboys it is said, "their moral sense is so blunted as to be absolutely blind." Decent amusement must be provided and sex education is necessary, but in such fashion that morbid curiosity is not aroused. Practically all of the servants in houses of prostitution are colored. Apparently vice is tolerated in districts inhabited by negroes more openly than in white districts. This is evidently very unjust to the negro children. Sexual perversion is apparently widespread and increasing. The supply comes from several sources. "The immigrant woman furnishes a large supply to the demand. Generally virtuous when she comes to this country, she is ruined and exploited because there is no adequate protection and assistance given her." Bad home conditions cause many to enter the life. "It has been demonstrated that men and women engaged in the `white slave traffic' are not organized. Their operations, however, are so similar, and they use the same methods to such an extent that it is safe to infer that they are in some way working together. The Vice Commission, after exhaustive consideration of the vice question, records itself of the opinion that divorce, to a large extent, is a contributory factor to sexual vice."

Concerning the economic aspect the Commission says: "One who has not beheld the struggle or come in personal contact with the tempted soul of the underpaid girl can never realize what the poverty of the city means to her" The truth is that thousands of girls cannot live in decent comfort on wages received. "What is the result of such an industrial condition? Dishonesty and immorality, not from choice, but necessity—in order to live."

 Many of these girls can be saved to decent life. Abolish the fining system. Try probation for first offenders under women officers.

The evidence for all these conclusions is to be found in the report. As a result of its deliberations the Commission believes in no system of recognition but that "constant and persistent repression of prostitution the immediate method. Absolute annihilation the ultimate ideal" It recommends for the city, (first) the appointment of a morals commission; (second) the establishment of a morals court.

It seems most significant that as to the important matters the Commission came to an unanimous opinion. Few people, I believe, begin to realize the things this volume sets forth. Surely, if parents knew, the children would be better safeguarded. Page after page of life stories, even though the same ones are sometimes retold needlessly in succeeding sections, have a tremendous influence on the reader. If all the people of Chicago, or any other city, were to read this volume something would be done. In my opinion this is the most significant

( 639) inquiry yet made in this field in America. Gruesome and horrible in many ways, the report is yet of compelling interest. It deserves wide attention.


University of Pennsylvania.


No notes

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