Joliet, a poem by Ellen (Nell) O’Reilly Tucker

Ellen Dorothy OReilly Tucker, model

Pictured “Eileen Dhu’- Dorothy (Nell) O’Reilly Tucker
Published early 1900s

A child came fresh from the prairies
Where the clean-faced sun comes leaping o’er the mesas,
Drawing a veil of mystery over the sage-brush
And gilding the horns of the cattle;
Came to live, for a while, in a mill-town.

This was the town;
First were “The Flats”, where all was ugly and dismal
Except to the south, where business streets seethed and glittered;
Far to the north towered the Prison
Trying to smile in its front yard with a brave show of scarlet and green
But at the back settling down to the railroad and ashes,
–A labyrinth squint-eyed and forbidding.

Then came the mills, and the hives of the workers.
The river and tracks crawled by them,
And the poor, choked canal, all slimy and dark with secrets and odors.
Over that was the bluff, where green things dared to grow
And children could play ‘I spy’ in the bushes.
Above these rose ‘The Hill’, with stately big homes of citizens most respected;–
Mill-owners, and bankers, and brewers–aloof, serene, unmolested.

But the mills- ah, there was the soul of the place,
For they were wonderful at night, for one lucky enough to live on the bluff,
looking down on them, not too close.
A hundred great throats uttering flame;
Smoke rolled and twisted in fantastic figures;
Leaping sparks challenging the stars.

And I, the child, looked and exulted–
Until the time when I saw them by daylight;
And something died then within me, or something was born—
Perhaps it is much the same.

I had joined some kind of Christmas Club for children,
And we worked with the Ladies Aid;–
Oh, I blush when I think how we went about it.
The ladies gave us some names of ‘worthy poor’,
And we went on Christmas Eve, four little girls, driving a safe old horse,
In a carriage loaded with clothing and goodies.
But the mill folks, worthy or not, must have been hungry,
For they mobbed us, and tried to take our cargo.
We were frightened a little, yes; but these ‘foreigners’ mustn’t see it.
The old horse managed to get us away, and our goods were rightly delivered;
But one child, I know, took away more than she brought.
For she carried away a picture that burned in deeply:

Christmas Eve in the mill district;
Cinders and snow intermingled, soot sifting slowly down,
Children half-clad and stolid, women desperate and unlovely,
Houses dull-eyed and hopeless,
Mills like a Minataur sprawling,
Ever demanding more victims;–

And the child, fresh from the prairies, remembered the Lady Mesquite
Shaking her feathery flowers in the clean-scented breeze
While a mocking-bird sang in her branches.
While here, snow and soot were fighting for the mastery,
With ever the soot triumphant.
Always after, this dreary scene came back with the sound of the ‘accident whistle’
And gave it new terror and meaning.
That was a curious custom they had there.
When a man at the mill was killed or terribly hurt
They blew a certain whistle;
Like a wail it was, from the Inferno.
The children heard it at play, and suddenly ceased their chatter
-Some of us crossed ourselves and murmured a prayer for the soul departed.
Or if it shrieked through the night, perhaps that child sought out her father,
and clinging tightly in silence, said a prayer the children bereaved.

Long ago they quit blowing that whistle, because it “hurt the morale” of the workers.
–But the deaths never ceased; — no, the toll grows greater and greater.
Blood still goes into the steel, –hope and youth into the ashes.
Souls pour out of the smoke-stacks, writhing and reaching and fading.

And the poor, with their terrible patience, shall they crouch down forever in cinders
Bearing and waiting forever?
No! By God and the stars, and the green things and beauty denied them
They shall take up the shriek of the whistle of death that was throttled;
And that cry will come up from the mills, many-throated, shouting in flames;
Death scream of every victim, minted into the profits;
Moan of every youth, broken and crushed in the output,
Sigh of every woman, robbed of love and beauty,
Sob of every child cheated of laughter and joy;

The awful sound of all these, blending together
Shall pour through the throats of the mills
And startle the world into hearing!

This poem was written by Jamie’s Great Aunt Nell, born in 1883, who was a first student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. She was a model, illustrator, and poet. She was a passionate activist for social justice, a true artist, and an inspiration to her niece and Goddaughter Dorothy “Dottie” O’Reilly, and a long-line of strong women. The wife of Irwin St. John Tucker, (known as Tuck), she was the mother of Barney, Ernest and Dan. Hollywood actress Busy Phillips is her great-granddaughter.

Jamie O’Reilly’s Chief O’Neill’s performance In Old Chicago, on October 16 will feature this poem, writing by Dottie, and Jamie’s own stories of Chicago neighborhoods. Songs will be accompanied by John Erickson on piano.
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Jamie O'Reilly
Iwona Biedermann Photography