SISTER OF THE ROAD
The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha
As Told To Dr. Ben L. Reitman
THE Sunday night before I left I stood at one of the dormitory windows just as the sun was beginning to set against the factory stacks. I felt well. I had gained nine pounds.
I thought of "the things that were" and the lines of Kipling came to me, "God, what things are there I haven't done?" I looked up at the top of the hospital. I seemed to see the large banner floating from the top of the building, and I wanted to inscribe mother's words on it: "There is no tragedy in our household."
"I'm going to have my greatest experience now," I thought. "I'm going to have a baby. A child . . . and who is his father?" How many different men had I stayed with when I was at the Globe? I had worked there two months, twenty-five days a month, and averaged thirty men a day - fifteen hundred men! Anyone of fifteen hundred men!
When I left Lawndale the next day I did not take to the road or ride a box car. In the last few weeks at the Globe, while I was on the outs with Bill, two of the girls had taught me a sure "knockdown" system, and I had succeeded in laying aside five or ten dollars a day. I had a roll of over three hundred dollars in a safety deposit vault. With this I got myself a new front, a smart black traveling dress and a hat to match. Then I bought a ticket with a Pullman on the Northern Pacific Limited train for Seattle.
I made myself comfortable in the seat, determining not to talk to anyone, but trying to think straight about my new problem. It was strange but very pleasant to think about a baby. I had always wanted a child, I reminded myself. Then I corrected that to what was more nearly the truth, that I had always taken it for granted that I would have children. I thought about my parents. My mother, certainly, had been always the mother type. But my father? He had said he was a male, not a father. What was it I really wanted? Actually, it seemed to me, what I wanted was the experience of being a mother. I had a certain curiosity about it. My body, inside my sleek traveling dress, felt good to me. The world going by between the telephone wires was green and cool. The earth was a good earth. Contentedly I looked at the people about me.
The train was crowded. The upper berth that night was occupied by a man fifty or sixty years old. He was not the type of man I had ever known much about. His reddish hair was thinning and greying. He had a spiked greying beard. He wore glasses. He sat opposite me in the daytime with his long legs wrapped around each other. His luggage contained a brief case and a typewriter.
He spoke to me several times, offered me cigarettes. I refused to talk, although I wanted to. I thought I should be planning what I was going to do about my baby. Once, when he left his seat, I saw his name, Harry Fredericks, on his brief case. On the seat he had left the papers he had been reading and marking with a pencil. They were "The Suicide Record" and the "Cancer Record." The term "consulting statistician" caught my eye. I wondered what a consulting statistician was.
By next noon my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him if he minded if we ate together, and he acceded cordially. I found him a gold mine of information. Franklin Jordan had been well-informed. To me he had seemed highly intellectual. My father was a philosopher and thinker. I had met many well-educated, informed men. But this man knew everything. He was like an encyclopedia. For every opinion of mine he had a correction or something to show me I was right. And every time he had the figures to prove it. In the two short days he gave me a new poetry, the poetry of figures. He knew the death and birth rates, the age and sex and number of Negroes in America. He knew the number of murderers and rapes and suicides and cancers in every one-hundred-thousand population. He showed me that everything could be reduced to mathematics, and how it was possible to estimate the number of persons passing Forty-Second Street and Broadway at any given hour, or the number of persons that will die in a year and the probable causes of their deaths. Among other things, he told me that out of every one thousand births in the City of Chicago that year that there were one hundred and twenty-nine illegitimate children, and of those 79.7 were Negro.
From his figures we went on to very interesting discussions, for although he always used his figures as a basis of his talk, he seemed to have all kinds of scientific knowledge you didn't see in books or hear in lectures. He warned me that many of his assertions were only opinions, but they sounded so logical that I put them down, and I remember them to this day. He said, for instance, that there were very few prostitutes of the correct weight for their height. They are all overweight or underweight, with few exceptions, he said. The heavy ones are probably most popular, he said, backing up what I knew. He gave as the reason for this the fact that many men have never gotten over a feeling for their mothers and need the sense of physical comfort they knew as children. The heavyweights among the prostitutes are very often victims of glandular disease, he said, and the same disease made them less emotional and therefore able to go into the job without being squeamish about it.
Many prostitutes, he reminded me, are unusually thin. The first cause of this is venereal disease. The second is probably the drinking that usually goes along with the job. But the third cause, one I had never thought of, probably because my body was strong, is that the job itself is a terribly strenuous job, making for unusual physical exhaustion, and often results in such diseases as tuberculosis which thrives upon exhaustion.
Of course, I kept my experiences at the Globe very carefully concealed while I talked to Mr. Fredericks. I know he thought I just had a scientific interest in what he was saying. When he got on the subject of prostitutes and pregnancy I was not only amused but deeply interested. He said that all figures proved that very few prostitutes get pregnant, and if they do it is always in the first few months. The reason for this, he told me, was because "on a path often trod no grass grows." He explained this by saying that when exposed to various sperm the ova did not respond, and also by the fact that the constant douching with high-powered antiseptics indulged in by most prostitutes almost always made for sterility.
He said that he had just completed what he called "speculative statistics" for a doctor in Chicago on a study of Chicago prostitutes and female immorals and the number of pimps they utilize. I was so interested in this that he let me use his portable typewriter and I made a copy of the tables he had compiled. Here they are, with me right among them, I suppose!
From this study it appears that about 100,000 females are required to satisfy the sex needs of 500,000 men.
It is of interest to note that every pimp has from one to five or more women whom he exploits.
Just before we got to Seattle Mr. Fredericks took my address (mother's) and said that he would send me literature and have me placed on the mailing list of the United States Census Bureau and of the United States Department of Labor. For this I have always been grateful to him, for whenever I have been very much excited by something I have heard in a public address, I know how to look up the figures on it and see if it is correct. Because of the Globe experience I shall always watch the statistics on prostitutes with particular interest.
Mother and A. E. O. met me and drove me to a home on Washington Street. Mother had given up her house and was staying with a friend, Bessie Levin, and had a lovely sunny room. Mother was just as she had always been, a little greyer perhaps and a little stouter, but with the same warm interest in people and ideas and with the same ability not to ask too many questions. A. E. O. looked me over carefully, rather speculatively, I felt. I was glad my body was lovely just then. But I was careful not to let him think he could touch me. He and mother seemed more devoted than ever, as if there was some quiet understanding between them. That I did not want to spoil. Besides, I had too much else to think about.
I told them about the baby. They seemed pleased. They did not ask me how I had become pregnant, but they did not hesitate to let any of their friends know that I was.
But I was not to stay with them long. A letter from Chicago suddenly made me turn my face east again, to go back to the city I had so recently left.
BIG OTTO had written me a number of letters, but I hadn't heard from him for some time when a letter came from the Cook County Jail, in Chicago.
"I think I am settled and there is no need of your worrying about me any longer," he wrote. "I have reformed and will never steal again. If you want to see me this side of Hell, you had better come to Chicago before February 13th. Invitations are already out for my 'neck tie party.' "
I felt as though a cold hand had suddenly been laid on my heart! Otto a murderer! The neck about which my arms had been so many times - could it be possible that it was about to feel the choking clutch of a rope?
Without waiting for any preliminaries, I caught a Northern Pacific midnight freight with four men I made friends with at hobo college. They took good care of me. Mother fixed us a big batch of sandwiches. While we were rolling along through Idaho one of them pulled a candle out of his pocket, lit it and stuck it in the floor in the front end of the car and boiled coffee for me in a big cup. We had an army canteen with us. None of those men tried to make love to me. None of them mentioned the obvious fact that I was going to have a baby. Twice, once in Montana and once in Dakota, when the train hands started to get tough, they walked away as soon as they saw my condition.
The four men were going to Minneapolis to an employment agency that had called for hands in a biscuit factory. We slid out of our box car in the western yards there, and each one soberly chipped in a dollar and handed the money to me as they put me on another freight car later, on the Chicago and Northwestern. The next morning I climbed out in the Kedzie yards and went into the city on a street car.
It was then February 11th. Otto was to be hanged on the thirteenth. He was already in the death cell. They would not allow anyone to see him but his relatives. I pleaded without success with the warden and the sheriff. A young newspaper man by the name of Hennessy heard me begging. He said, "Sister, you come with me and I think I can make arrangements for you to see him."
We sat in a little restaurant on Clark Street near Grand Avenue.
"What is Otto to you, and why are you so anxious to see him?" he asked me. "Are you in the family way? Is it Otto?"
"He was formerly a very dear friend of mine," I told him, non-committally.
"You mean he was your sweetheart and the father of your child and you are engaged to marry him. Now, you let me write the story just as I want it and I'll get you a pass to see him. I'll even do better than that. I'll get you a pass to see him hanged."
"Jesus! - Me see Otto hanged!" I felt as though I had been hit with a hammer, yet I knew that, if the man kept his word, I would go.
In less than an hour Hennessy came back with a pass and took me to the jail. We were admitted through a large iron gate and I was taken to the jailer's office and searched. The assistant jailer, a matron, and Hennessy walked in front of me as we passed through an iron door into the bundle cage. Then we went through another iron door along the first tier up a flight of iron steps into a big corridor, and to a large room at the front of the building.
"Just sit here, Miss Thompson. We'll call him."
They brought Otto from the death cell, handcuffed, with a guard on either side of him. As he entered the room I held out my hand to greet him. He looked just the same as ever, except that his hair was a little greyer, and he was very pale. He spoke:
"Hello, beautiful. How are you?"
"Just hold that pose," said the photographer.
"Hurry up and snap it," said Hennessy. "I want to get a picture of Otto holding Miss Thompson in his arms."
I was too shocked to protest. The newspaper photographer snapped a picture of us shaking hands, of me embracing him, and then of him kissing me. I did everything Hennessy asked of me. None of it mattered.
"Box Car, tell me, how've you been getting on?" Otto asked me, trying to be offhand about it. "What's your sister doing now? Do you ever see any of the old mob?"
But I could not talk to him of ordinary matters.
"Otto, aren't you afraid to die?" I found myself saying. "Doesn't the thought of being hanged bother you?"
"Well, I ain't hanged yet," he came back at me. "I've beat every rap so far. My lawyers are going to take this thing up to the Supreme Court, and I think the Governor will give me a stay of execution. You never say 'die' until you're dead, Bertha. I've been slated for an exit lots of times, but so far I've beaten every rap. In this game, the crooked live by faith."
Then his voice dropped to a whisper.
"On the level, Bertha, are you going to have a kid?" he asked. Then he added, "Say it's mine, will you?"
Tears sprang to my eyes as I heard him. Fifteen hundred lonely men! And now one man who might have been father to a child of mine, a man who was about to die, was pleading with me to say that the nameless child within me was his. How could anyone ever explain the troubled hearts of men? How could any woman ever hope to give them peace?
But I wanted to talk about him.
"Tell me, Otto, what happened? I've hardly read the papers. How did you get into such a jam? I never thought you were a burglar or a highway robber. I always thought you were a first-class, gentle sneak-thief."
The guards, with an unusual show of consideration, had stepped away leaving us, for a moment, in a little world of our own.
"I was," he said, "but I got overly ambitious. If I had stuck to the trade my father taught me, I'd have been all right. You see, Bertha, even in our racket we have our ups and downs. And ever since you left me I haven't amounted to much. I lost the courage to steal. I didn't have the training to work. I never dreamed, Bertha, that a woman could take so much out of a man when she left him as you did. Jesus, kid, I loved you. You're the only thing I ever loved in my life. I didn't want to live after you left me. I joined a cheap phoney mob of amateur hoodlums just because I thought I'd get croaked or the rope. You see, beautiful, you queered me. You made it impossible for me to be happy about stealing. There's nothing to it, Bertha; it was just a cheap cowboy drunken stunt.
"I was staying at a flop house, over on West Madison Street, and these other guys in the mob were taking a bath in a couple of gallons of Dago Red. One of them had been a bus-boy at the Drake Hotel. That's all they were, just cheap-skate, petty-larceny bus-boys. None of them had ever stolen anything more than an umbrella or a door mat in their lives. One of the guys said, and he was half stewed and the rest of us were soused, `I'll tell you how we can make a touch for fifteen grand. It'll be a cinch. I used to work over in the Drake Hotel, and the fifth and twentieth they pay. The payroll is fifteen thousand dollars. All we need is five men. It'll be a cinch.' I don't know how the hell I ever got mixed up with those punks, but we got hold of a couple of gats, and stewed to the gills, we went over there like we was Jesse James. We killed the cashier. Two of our mob were killed. One got away. Woods and I were caught before we left the hotel. There's nothing to it, but it made a good newspaper story, and just another testimony for Dago Red."
Otto kept looking at me as if his eyes could never see enough of me. And when I had to go he whispered again, "Tell me, is it true you're going to have a kid? Please, beautiful, say it's mine."
Hennessy arranged that I was to see Otto an hour before the execution and also got me a press card admission to the hanging. An hour before the State took Otto's life, I stood before the door of the death cell and held his hand. I was half crazy with wanting to say something that would help, wanting to do something, and I didn't want Otto to see how scared I was.
"How's the weather out, Bertha?"
He seemed to be listening for something.
"Otto, I want you to do something for me," I said, to divert him. "Will you?"
"Sure, beautiful, anything I can."
"All right, then. In about forty minutes you're going to say `Good morning, God.' Otto, when you do that, how about asking Him something? First tell Him I loved you and that it's terrible the State hanged you and that it's awful that you killed a working man. Then ask Him if He can't do something to stop men killing each other. Ask Him if He won't fix things so it will be easier to go straight than crooked."
He was hearing me but his face was listening for something else, too. I tried to kid him, tried to keep him from thinking about the next few minutes.
"Otto, do you think it's true that from the world to which you're going you will be able to send back thoughts and inspirations? Will you think of me, will you try to tell me how to understand people like you, how to help them?"
But it was no use. Suddenly I was throwing my body against the bar close to his body, crying out to him to kiss me, to hurt me. I heard my own voice without any control, crying: "Bite me. Hurt me. Make me feel you after you're gone!"
He looked at me then, with pity and affection in his eyes, and tried to give me strength.
"Take it easy, kid," he said. "It ain't you that's goin'."
Then the guards came and took me away.
Promptly at 7:00 A.M. a hundred and fifty of us were allowed to file into the ground floor of the jail. A temporary gallows had been erected in the bull pen. All the cells that faced the gallows had been emptied and the prisoners taken to the other side of the prison.
"Here they come."
We knew almost before we heard them.
With their heads erect, cigarettes in their mouths and their hands manacled behind them, the men about to die walked to the scaffold. Otto looked quickly through the crowd, quickly recognized me, nodded, and twisted his lips into a ghastly smile. His face was still listening. I knew what he was thinking. His eyes turned back toward the door. Every second he was expecting the telegraph boy to come in with a reprieve. He had beaten every rap in life so far. He had been in the Army for over a year and in the front line trenches for six months. German bullets and bombs and gas had missed him. He had been shot at by police and watchmen a dozen times. In drunken brawls he had been shot and stabbed, but had always escaped serious injury. By the look in his eye, I knew that he felt that he was going to beat this rap, also. He was still listening when the guards tied a rope around his feet; placed a white hood over his head that extended to the middle of his body, put a rope around his neck so that the knot came at the back. Everything was peaceful, orderly.
The floor under him dropped and he was swinging in the air. Otto swinging in the air. I tried to make myself remember him as I had been with him. I tried to remember his face before the hood was tied on. But I could not. Into my mind came only one thing, the lines of Oscar Wilde's, over and over again:
It is sweet to dance to violins
Then, there in the grey prison room with the white shrouded figures swinging slowly and more slowly, I felt deep within my body the first movements of my baby.