Among the Ashes

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By Geo. E. Bowen.


Michael Carroll, 1142 North Hoisted Street, Discovers Infant in Rear Yard.

On investigation what he believed to be the crying of a cat, Michael Carroll, 1142 North Halsted Street, last night found a newly-born baby girl in his rear yard, wrapped in a newspaper. The police placed the child in St. Vincent's asylum.

Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1907.

This is a complete story of the present state of modern society, told in six lines.

So, by its smug and sanctimonious sermons of morality, the newspaper, instead of saving a soul for heaven and a beautiful human body for the service and possession of earthly joy, has actually become the wretched sign of a mother's shame, and might have been intended as a shroud for the saddest sin of society.

The editorial page of the newspaper was probably dark with vengeance for those "outlaws" opposing divorce; fierce with rage against the "destroyers of society" who dare expose the dual privileges of the masculine side of holy matrimony; vehement in denunciation of all rational efforts to dignify race culture without the indelicate and officious dictation of the law and the pious commands of the pulpit; horrified by any "obscene" suggestions for the open and intelligent study of sex-science, and brutally intolerant of the rights (or even the wrongs) of motherhood without the sanction of the Church and of the State.

Obviously a society, faithfully represented by such a press, is consistently and conveniently supplied with asylums for the uninvited waifs of its incongruous and irresponsible system.

Poor little outcasts of love or crime! Their cry is so common that it is mistaken for the yowling of alleycats, and the mockery of fate clothes them with copies of the daily paper that preaches big families, big sticks, and big morality.

One wintry night, in a dark and dingy back yard, dressed only in the secure comfort of an orthodox newspaper, we find the hypocritical sum total of social progress. A human sacrifice to the fearful gods of bigoted public opinion. Civilization briefly and brutally epitomized.

We can not read the antecedents of this little life— whether its destiny was molded in a palace or in a hovel. But we stand self-condemned and self-confessed before this accusing atrocity of a Christian community.

Who was my sister's keeper? A scion of swelldom or a brute of the back district? There is no difference. They believed in a common shame and forced it upon their unfortunate victim.

Was she a superficial drawing-room ornament, an unsophisticated shop-girl, or their more popular sister of the red-light region—graduate of either extreme? We shall not know, nor docs it matter.

Only the child is in question—and the cause of its uncredentialed and most unhappy advent.

Mother-love, the strongest, bravest, tenderest human force, the most persistent human passion, could not willingly fling its wailing and blanketless first-born over among the ash-barrels and snow-drifts of a strange backyard on a wintry night—not even with newspaper protection.

Doctors of social diseases will rise to explain. Sit down, good sirs! Explanations do not explain. The child is here—naked and alone. The society that sacrificed him must save him—also itself.

What will you do with his future, or hers?

The bastard brand is set against his progress. Or she is scarred with hopeless shame.

Whose is the fault?

Yet your churches open gladly to the bank-thief, the millionaire murderer, the political traitor and to the sleek seducers of the serving class, whose gifts are potent to please the gods with incense and sweet songs of purity.

What shall be done with human impulse, with sexstarvings, with the unfilled yearnings of the motherheart?

There can not always be wars to divert or consume the higher passions of men. Nor can the struggles of servitude or the unproductive strainings and strivings of high life stifle the unbidden, irrepressible and mysterious forces that pray for motherhood.

The potential power of sex survives all your laws.

If you can not provide an adequate and friendly economic system to support natural life, what sane excuse has the vigilant authority of your social system for its positive prohibition of human desire or human expression?

Shall your administrators insolently continue to give us rules instead of reasons?

You have sent your science a-wandering among the distant stars. Yet here, beneath your contemptuous feet, wrapped in one of your smart, pretentious newspapers, is all of life that should first concern us—crying for recognition, food and opportunity.

And you have disowned it, cursed it, cast it into the ashes—a helpless, reproachful part of your own dishonest life.

Is this cowardice or cruelty, or a mere merciless trick of your cheap conventionality?

God help you when fortune turns, when your heartbroken appeals learn the mockery of your own laws, when shame or starvation have seized your loved ones and driven them to monstrous, inhuman crimes.

Folded in every daily newspaper in the land is a deserted child, a betrayed mother, a social scandal of "the 400," or a pitiful sex-tragedy of the slums.

Courts and churches do not cure this condition. Laws and leagues, missions and missionaries—they are always in time to find the crying child, to clothe it with charity and christen it with disgrace.

And they call this social progress.

Described in six lines.

  • George E. Bowen, “Among the Ashes,” Mother Earth 2, no. 2 (April 1907): 86-89.