"Then stand to your glasses steady
And drink to your comrade’s eyes
Here’s a toast to the dead already
And hurrah for the next who dies."
It was credited as: Drinking song popularized by Chicago reporters at the Whitechapel Club, Chicago’s informal version of Washington’s Gridiron Club
Mmmmm, The Whitechapel Club. Didn't strike a bell, just a vague recollection from the Encyclopedia Chicago:
The gritty realism that characterizes the work of Dreiser, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel, and which critics have dubbed the “Chicago School of Literature,” found its earliest expression not in literary societies, but in nineteenth-century newspapers. Beginning in the 1870s but especially in the 1890s, Chicago's large dailies nurtured a galaxy of talented reporters and promising writers. As part of the economic hurly-burly that was making the city internationally famous, Chicago's reporters attracted the recognition and readers that escaped Monroe's “Columbian Ode.” While engaged in the business of writing, Eugene Field, Finley Peter Dunne, Brand Whitlock, Ray Stannard Baker, William Payne, Opie Read, Theodore Dreiser, George Ade, and others assembled in newsrooms and saloons, creating a literary culture rooted in vernacular realism and shaped by the conventions of urban masculine subcultures. The Press Club grew out of these gendered work conditions, and its weekly lunch meetings enabled reporters to swap stories and build social relationships. The Whitechapel Club, a more hard-boiled version of the Press Club, made a ritual of iconoclasm, once cremating the body of one its members on the shores of Lake Michigan. Ribald and creative in ways that barely resembled the Little Room's sense of humor, shenanigans like these exemplify the street-savvy reporting of Chicago journalists.
So, off I went looking for more information. The first thing I turned up was an interesting article by Dr. Larry Lorenz of Loyola University in New Orleans titled: The Whitechapel Club: Defining Chicago's Newspapermen in the 1890s. It became more interesting when the same article turned up on Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Once you've read the essay and the accompanying 1890 reprint of a Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel story titled: WHITECHAPEL CLUB: A CURIOUS AND UNIQUE CHICAGO INSTITUTION, you'll know why. Describing the group as "curious and unique" may be a monumental understatement! Read on...
A few other newspaper reports of the club's activities turned up in the New York Times archives beginning in 1891:
The Initiation of a New Member, June 4, 1891 - DEPEW IN STRANGE COMPANY.; INITIATED INTO THE MYSTERIES OF THE WHITECHAPEL CLUB
The Cremation of a Member (mentioned in the Encyclopedia Chicago excerpt), July 18, 1892 - CREMATED ON THIS LAKE SHORE.; A STRANGE AND DRAMATIC MIDNIGHT SCENE NEAR CHICAGO
The Request to Buy the Body of William Kemmler, the first man executed in the electric chair, August 6, 1890 - KEMMLER'S LAST NIGHT; TO DIE IN THE EARLY HOURS OF THIS MORNING
In a city of colorful characters, the journalists who made up the The Whitechapel Club, an "offshoot of the Chicago Press Club," were unique to say the least. The roster included George Ade, Eugene Field, Finley Peter Dunne, cartoonist John McCutcheon, Brand Whitlock, poet Benjamin Franklin King and many others of equal note. In Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, Michael Schudson explains:
The Whitechapel Club in Chicago, founded in 1889 and named after the London site of some of the crimes of Jack the Ripper, was a gathering place for reporters. The club was decorated with mementos of crimes - murder weapons, human skulls, and a coffin-shaped table; the reporters glamorized their familiarity with the rawness of city life while also creating the atmosphere of a college fraternity. But the club had an important practical function, too, for reporter's critisized one anothers work there. Reporters became as sensitive to the reception of their stories at the Club as to the judgments of their city editors.
So, that's how I spent my birthday and I had a marvelous time. The thing I like best about writing this blog is that I get to learn new things about Chicago history everyday and then share them with my readers. Thank you all! I couldn't have asked for a better gift.
UPDATE 10/8/2008: The Weird Chicago Tours Blog has a three-part post on the Whitechapel Club beginning with "A Night in the Whitechapel Club - Part 1."
Photo Credit: Chicago Unbelievable