The knowledge of the existence of the Devil Baby burst upon the residents of Hull-House one day when three Italian women, with an excited rush through the door, demanded that he be shown to them. No amount of denial convinced them that he was not there, for they knew exactly what he was like, with his cloven hoofs, his pointed ears and diminutive tail; moreover, the Devil Baby had been able to speak as soon as he was born and was most shockingly profane.
—Jane Addams, "The Devil Baby at Hull House."
The image evoked by mention of a "devil baby" may be ridiculous or horrific. One might imagine Hot Stuff, the diaper-wearing demon-child from Harvey Comics, or one might imagine an emotion-bending monstrosity from a nightmare. The blending of innocent infant and hellish horror assaults our sense of congruence. These things do not belong together. Such demonic children have appeared in both folklore and horror stories. Perhaps the most noteworthy and influential devil child in North American lore hailed from Chicago, Illinois, in the early years of the twentieth century. It haunted an impoverished neighborhood, and faced down the city's most celebrated reformer.
Jane Addams and Ellen Starr Gates opened Hull House in 1889, an institute of progressive reform in one of America's seediest neighborhoods on Chicago's west side. Crime and poverty ran with little restraint here, as did the children of immigrants seeking a better life.
In 1912, a story began to spread that a demonic child had been born in the 'hood. The tale involves a pious pregnant woman, usually Italian, married to an atheist or, in some accounts, simply a member of another religion. (I've heard a variation that proclaims him a Satanist, but it appears to be of a later vintage). The woman hangs up a religious portrait, usually of the Virgin Mary. The unholy husband insists that he would rather she give birth to the devil than they have a superstitious relic up in the house, and he destroys the icon. A less common variation makes the woman Jewish, a pious woman with many daughters. Her loutish husband would rather she birth the devil than another girl, and his foul wish comes true. These stories are not especially original. They recall those recounting the New Jersey Devil's origins, while certain features echo past stories of the antichrist's birth. In other versions, the husband was already married when he wedded his innocent wife, and the devil-baby has its origins in this and other hidden sins.
In any case, some poor slum-dwelling woman births a monstrosity. The general description recalls the popular image of the devil: red skin, cloven hooves, horns, and so forth. The babe can speak from the start, often in several languages. He rains destruction on his home, and usually attacks the evil husband. In addition to various indignities and horrors visited upon the man, the baby in some account snatches the cigar from his blasphemous and/or philandering mouth and smokes it. Unable to cope, the mother heads out, Hull-bound to Jane Addams.
Despite her considerable experience, the reformer cannot tame the hell-child, and she locks it in the attic, where it later dies.
The story quickly spread. By Addams' own reckoning, the tale of this latest addition to her family received press a little over a month after she first heard it. Many made inquiries throughout 1913 and long after. Callers included people who knew the child (dead or alive) was on display and wanted to learn the viewing rate. The staff assured them that no such child existed, or had ever existed. The rumors lessened over time, but never disappeared. Addams wrote an article responding to the claims for The Atlantic in 1916, and addressed them again later that year in The Long Road of Women's Memory:
It was as if the young mother of the grotesque Devil Baby, that victim of wrong-doing on the part of others, had revealed to this tragic woman, much more clearly than soft words had ever done, that the return of a deed of violence upon the head of the innocent is inevitable; as if she had realized that, although she was destined to walk all the days of her life with that piteous multitude who bear the undeserved wrongs of the world, she would walk henceforth with a sense of companionship.
--Jane Addams, "The Devil Baby of Hull-House."
Rumors and urban legends run rampant in our culture, often for no really good reason. One so odd and so popular sends hearers scratching their heads for an explanation. Speculation has suggested that some impoverished immigrant mother gave birth a deformed baby, whose appearance at Hull House gave rise to the story. While this could have happened, no evidence exists to suggest it did happen. Addams dismissed all allegations of anything that might be interpreted as a devil baby. We then must turn to social, cultural, and psychological explanations. Addams suggested that the women of the neighborhood, so familiar with violence and suffering, may have birthed or embraced a legend indicating that, while the innocent may suffer, justice will eventually visit the evil-doer. She also notes another popular explanation; the story may have had a calming effect on loutish and blasphemous and otherwise difficult husbands and fathers. If they did not mend their ways, a demon-child might lurk in their futures.
The father in the original accounts is the villain; the mother is innocent, yet she becomes the conduit through which the hellish force enters the world. This may have provided strange comfort to those whose own children had turned to devilish ways. And in any story in which the devil's ugly head emerges, one might find affirmation of one's religious beliefs. If Satan exists, so does God.
The legend, predictably, has been embellished and altered by those who continue to retell it. The Devil Baby is now apparently buried in the Hull House garden— even though a building stood on that spot in the years the story took place. Yet another recent account claims that Hull House itself was built upon sacred Native American land, and connects the demon-child to that violation. This version must be dismissed out of hand. If it were true, North America would be riddled with demonic children.
Though not so popular as many other ghost stories, the Devil Baby of Hull House lives on. It may have inspired the classic horror, Rosemary’s Baby. In 1994, playwright Carolyn Gage wrote a short play, "Jane Addams and the Devil Baby." Finally, some Chicago city tours and more than a few printed pieces mention the devil-baby in connection with Hull House. Some of these claim that, on certain nights, the horrible visage of a demonic, ghostly babe still can be seen in an upper window, peering downwards.
Jane Addams. "The Devil-Baby at Hull House." The Atlantic. October 1916. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/191610/jane-addams.
Daniel Cumerlato. "The Devil Baby of Hull House." Ghosts of the World. http://www.hauntedhamilton.com/gotw_hullhouse.html.
"The Devil Baby Phenomenon." Haunted America Tours. http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/newreports/index3.php.
"Hull House." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hull_House.
Troy Taylor. "Jane Addams' Hull House." Weird and Haunted Chicago. http://www.prairieghosts.com/hull.html.
Joshua Trachtenberg. The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jews and Its Relation to Modern AntiSemitism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1943.
Weird Chicago Tours Blog. March 3, 2008. http://weirdchicago.blogspot.com/2008/03/devil-baby-of-hull-house.html.