Our scholarship informs our work at Omnia History, whether engaging public audiences online, through exhibits, or in classes and workshops. Understanding the past is a critical part of our mission to promote change in the present. In an upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library, we will be focusing on women in turn-of-the-century Chicago to explore the changing nature of gender and violence in an industrial city. Check out this excerpt from my research to get a glimpse of what we’ll be discussing in the course.
“Biler Avenue” was the nickname for a two-block stretch of Pacific Avenue in late nineteenth-century Chicago made notorious by “women without husbands” who “got ‘biling drunk,’ and were in a “state of constant riot and effervescence,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The women of Biler fought, drank, stole, and engaged in sex work to forge tenuous lives in an unforgiving industrial city. Although the women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power.
Ruby Bell, for example, began her volatile and violent career on Biler Avenue as a seventeen-year-old in 1876. She engaged in physical fights, petty thievery, and prostitution. Within two years, she ran a brothel and gained considerable local notoriety. Newspapers published colorful stories detailing the exploits of “the incorrigible Ruby Bell,” the “belle of Biler,” and “the red-headed pirate of the avenue.” On November 9, 1877, the Inter Ocean reported that police had already arrested Bell 390 times that year, an average of more than one arrest per day. During her tenure, Bell was charged on numerous counts of larceny, found guilty in at least two cases of assault, and served more than one sentence in the city’s house of correction.
Bell’s life demonstrated how violence, sexual labor, and robbery pervaded the daily life of women in the streets of Chicago. The press presented Bell as a recurring character in the urban milieu of post-fire Chicago, specifically associating her name with a public thoroughfare. Her activities frequently placed her under the custody of the law, but a constant cycle of arrest and release meant the system never fully engulfed her. Bell’s time in Chicago illuminates a historical moment when women worked and fought in city streets, saloons, and brothels to make a living before comprehensive prosecution and institutionalization. In turn, their labor, leisure, and violence indelibly shaped public life in Chicago.
P.S. I am now on Instagram! Follow me @rboyle.omnia to learn more about what daily life looks like in the world of Omnia History.