Life and Theft in Bughouse Square

John Drury was a writer for the Chicago Daily News, from 1926 to 1944. He often covered Chicago street life. In compiling notes for “Towertown,” an unpublished inventory of the near north side, Drury typed out the length of an article by Wallace Willits, as if performing a ritual of historical memory. Willits’s piece, printed October 4, 1921, in the Daily News, celebrates Bughouse Square (officially, Washington Square Park), located directly across the street from the Newberry Library. In the early twentieth century the square was a renowned free-speech forum for bohemians, political radicals, and other self-styled iconoclasts. According to Willits, Bughouse Square nurtured an even more varied collection of social misfits.

Willits’s index of Bughouse personalities takes note of the “ardent vegetarian,” “the psychopathic expert,” “atheists and left-wing socialists,” “Freudian psychologists,” and a drunk hoping to “promote” 50 cents from some distracted passerby so he can purchase another pint. “Free speech never was freer than in this unique spot on the near north side,” Willits writes. This freedom, he seems to imply, is also the freedom to speak without making any sense. It occurs in a space outside state surveillance and iconography, which the shedding of “Washington” in popular reference to the park reflects.

Whether the Bughouse Square residents disengaged themselves from official life or were disowned by it, doesn’t seem to matter. They will air their grievances, declaim their psychoanalytic theories, and fight for survival. They are the inexorable debris of humanity. According to Willits, it’s a scene that nature is about to close: with winter on the horizon, “Bughouse Square will relapse into dreariness, waiting for spring again.”

Summer has revived Bughouse Square. Learn more about this year’s Bughouse Square Debates, to be held Saturday, July 26, across from the Newberry.