Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Doctor, The Dame and The Commodore


I woke up this morning (always a B-I-G relief) to find that it was the first day of November.  Wow, a whole month has gone by since the last time I dropped a blog feature onto this site.  I’ve been remiss.

But October is the month I set aside to raise my barbaric yawp as a protest against aging.  So a few weeks ago I drove out to Starved Rock with a few of my buddies and went camping in the rain.  The next weekend we drove to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio and spent the weekend screaming our lungs out on the coasters, the Top Thrill Dragster, the Millennium Force, and the Magnum XL200.

Then it was off to Washington, D.C. with Jill and a couple of old college friends, Mark and Andreatte, where we spent three days seeing the glorious sights of that great city in the rain as I battled the cold of the century.

I also managed to lead a couple dozen tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the most memorable of which netted me a nasty yellow jacket sting between the index and middle fingers of my right hand while I was pointing at 360 North Michigan Avenue.  I have to tell you . . . when that little sucker stung me I thought I had been electrocuted.

Here we are, though . . . in November.  And the holidays are on the way.

The former Lessing Apartments, Ruby Dean's home in 1917 (JWB, 2011)
I promised over a month ago to finish the story of the Commodore Apartments, formerly The Lessing, on Broadway and Surf.  Still magnificent today, The Commodore is a great Edmund Krause design created for the heirs of Johann Ernst Lehmann, the merchant who started Chicago’s Fair Store.

It was on Friday, September 17, 1917 that The Chicago Tribune broke the story.  The banner headline that day screamed about a huge battle off Ireland in which two dozen Allied merchantmen battled seven U-boats with four of the steamers going to the bottom of the sea.

Lower down Page One came the story with the headline “Shoots When She Learns He Is Married: Dr. Louis Quitman Wounded by Cabaret Singer; May Die.”

It’s an old story . . . the facts of the matter could be part of any one of hundreds of stories and films over the years.  Miss Ruby Dean, a cabaret singer, learned from a lady friend that her special fella, the veterinarian Dr. Louis H. Quitman, was married.  When he called on her at the Lessing Apartments on the night of September 16, 1917, he learned that a woman scorned was capable of putting a bullet in his belly.

Wailing her confession later that night at the Sheffield Avenue station, Miss Dean said that Quitman had presented himself to her as a single man despite the fact that he had a wife and child.

The Commodore's Surf Street Entrance
(JWB, 2011)
“I was wild about him,” she said.  “I love him still.  He told me he wasn’t married and that he was going to marry me.  He was always welcome to my apartment and he came often there.  He came there tonight.  But a friend of mine told me he was married.  I asked him about it and we quarreled.”

It took nearly six months for the full story to come out.  But all of the lurid details were reported in The Tribune’s May 1, 1918 edition as it covered the trial of Ruby Dean in Judge John J. Sullivan’s courtroom.

The paper reported, “It was the story of the infatuation of a man of more mature years and a girl of the cabaret; of the man’s double dealing both with the girl and his wife; of the girl’s willingness to love him still, and of her willingness to “run away with him to Texas.”

Miss Dean testified that Dr. Quitman had for months posed as Dr. Joseph Springer, a coroner’s physician, a discovery that had come to light through a private detective agency.

The singer spoke during the trial as though she were a part of a Frank Capra movie, telling how she sat by the lake with the doctor early one morning after her cabaret act and told her what she had discovered.

“’Doc,’ I said to him when we were seated, ‘Doc, don’t you think it’s time you quit this little farce and be on the square with me?’  (On the square – THAT’S a phrase we ought to try hard to bring back.)

“’I don’t know what you mean,’ he said.

“’O, yes,’ I said, ‘you know what I mean,’ and then I told him I had found out who he was and he admitted it all.”

“He told me that night he wouldn’t tell me any more lies and he would use his own name after that.  He told me he would go to a hotel when he left me and register under his own name and I called up to see if he had kept his word and he had.”

The relationship – the cabaret singer and the veterinarian she thought was a physician in the coroner’s office – went so far that the two traveled to a courthouse in Crown Point to be married.  But the doc apparently had gone as far as he could, and at the courthouse he confessed that he was married to another woman and if he married Miss Dean, he would have to go to jail.  He asked her to wait a short while, assuring her that he had a case already in court to divorce his wife.

He was always welcome to my apartment and he came often there.
(JWB, 2011)
On the return ride to Chicago Miss Dean discovered the initials “L.H.Q.” on Dr. Springer’s belt. He told her the initials stood for his wife’s name, Lillian Hammer Springer.  Back on the job she covinced a man seated at a cabaret table to give her a gun.  She even had the doctor oil it for her so “it would work.”

What’s a potboiler without irony?

Well, the gun eventually got used.  Immediately after the shooting Dr. Quitman accused his hysterical paramour of the deed.  In the end, it seems, the two-timer was able to summon his last strength in a final chivalrous act.  As he lay dying, he retracted his original statement and insisted that the shooting accidentally occurred as the two lovers struggled over the gun.

It was on May 13 of 1918 that the jury in Miss Dean’s trial went into deliberation.  The jurors were gone for just an hour, returning with a “Not Guilty” verdict.

Miss Dean gave a “quick, low laugh, that was half a sob.”

All those backlit windows . . . all those
stories (JWB, 2011)
“O, I’m so glad,” she smiled through her tears.  “I will hardly be able to believe when I wake up tomorrow that I am free.  After eight months.”

Hard to believe that when you walk past the Commodore today just down from the Great Frame-Up (I’m not kidding.) and Johnny Sprocket’s bike shop, that this all unfolded nearly a century ago.

Ruby Dean was a single gal in a big, big city.  In 1880 there were 3,800 women like her trying to make their way in Chicago.  By the time Ruby and the doctor had their tryst there were 31,500 single women working in the Chicago – three times the national average. [Abbott, Karen.  Sin in the Second City.] 

Miss Ruby’s story is an old story.  When the sun goes down and you look out at this vast and glimmering city, you have to wonder how many stories like hers are unfolding.  The hundreds of thousands of backlit windows hide the details.  But you know they are there.

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