Thursday, April 1, 2010

Quirky Trivia

When you’re writing a book—or, rather, when you’re researching it—you come across a lot of trivia. A lot of the time, it has nothing to do with the plot, so you have to leave it out of the story. But as a history buff, I still think this stuff is pretty cool. So I thought I’d share some of the ironic, silly, or just plain bizarre things I found in writing 1871.

Incidentally, there’s more where this came from, but this is a start:

Prohibition in Evanston

If you went to school at Northwestern—or if you’ve hung out there on a Friday night—then you know that Evanston is basically dry. The city only allows alcohol sales under very specific restrictions. Here’s why:

Just before the Civil War, a group of Methodists got fed up with what they felt was “wanton greed” in Chicago. So they headed north and founded a town where alcohol was banned throughout. They named it after their leader, Reverend John Evans.

In true Chicago fashion, a bunch of saloonkeepers wanted to make money off the deal, so they challenged these laws in court. The case went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. But on the day they heard the suit, the saloonkeepers’ attorney was so drunk that the city attorney was left to argue both sides of the case. Not surprisingly, the court ruled in Evanston’s favor.

Just think: if that lawyer had just stayed sober, then generations of college students’ lives could have been different.

The Inadvertent Hero

Speaking of saloonkeepers, here is one who became a hero… sort of.

As I mentioned in the book, a huge fire tore through the West Side of Chicago on October 7, 1871. It was the biggest and most destructive blaze the city had ever seen, although it only held that record for about twenty-four hours; then the O’Leary Barn ignited, and the rest is history.

At any rate, the Saturday fire could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for a guy named Daniel Quirk. He owned a saloon on Adams Street, which was right in the path of the fire. He figured he had nothing to lose, so he gave out free drinks and cigars as the fire approached. His patrons were so grateful that they rallied to save his building. Sure enough, the barflies kept the fire at bay, and they stopped it from spreading further north.

The moral of the story is that if you give out free drinks, you will be rewarded. Or at least I like to think so.

Mrs. Packard and the Insane Asylum

As I said in the book, the Nineteenth Century was really the Stone Age of mental health care. Modern psychiatry was still years away, psychoanalysis hadn’t been invented, and there was certainly no such thing as Prozac or Cymbalta. So nobody really knew what to do with the mentally ill; all they could think of was to stick them in an institution.

At the time of the fire, Illinois had very strict laws on the issue. That’s part of the reason why Robert Lincoln was so distraught over his mother, because as an attorney, he knew how hard it would be to have Mary Lincoln committed. But that was all due to a bizarre case from a few years before, involving a woman named Elizabeth Packard.

Mrs. Packard was married to a Congregationalist minister, the aptly named Reverend Theophilus Packard. At some point in their marriage, she had a crisis of faith. She started exploring Universalism, spiritualism, and a handful of other religions. The last straw came when she tried to switch to—gasp!—the Methodist Church, which her husband found literally insane. So he had her committed, stuck her on a train, and whisked her off to the asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois. (In those days, wives were considered the property of their husbands, so legally he could do that.)

As it turned out, Mrs. Packard was hardly insane, and she was certainly no fool. On the contrary, she was smart, articulate, and publicity-savvy, and she knew how to fight for her cause. She publicly demanded her release, and she openly battled with the head of the asylum, Dr. Andrew McFarland. But as luck would have it, Dr. McFarland was the head of the national psychiatric association, so he had a reputation to defend, and he refused to admit that a mistake had been made. It turned into a years-long feud, and it spilled into the papers just as the women’s rights movement was gaining traction. Eventually Mrs. Packard sued her husband and won her freedom.

The whole affair became an embarrassment to the State Hospital, and to the mental health system in general. It ended up spurring a lot of reforms; among other things, the law was changed to require a jury trial for “any idiot, lunatic or distracted person” in the State of Illinois.

That’s why the law was so strict in 1871. For the record, that law is no longer on the books, because it’s hardly politically correct. But still….