Bughouse Square Debates

Don Washington, The Mayoral Tutorial, 2014
Don Washington, The Mayoral Tutorial, 2014
Music by Environmental Encroachment, 2014
Music by Environmental Encroachment, 2014
Learn Labor History, information table, 2014
Learn Labor History, information table, 2014
"Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside" Entryway to the Dill Pickle Club, 18 Tooker Alley, n.d.
"Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside" Entryway to the Dill Pickle Club, 18 Tooker Alley, n.d.
Main Debaters Otis McDonald and Garrett Evans on Gun Control in the City, 2010.
Main Debaters Otis McDonald and Garrett Evans on Gun Control in the City, 2010.
Bughouse Square Debates, 2009.
Bughouse Square Debates, 2009.
Bughouse Square Debaters, 2008.
Bughouse Square Debaters, 2008.

Bughouse Square (from “bughouse,” slang for mental health facility), is the popular name for Washington Square Park, across from the Newberry. This park was Chicago’s boisterous and radical free-speech space from the 1910s through the 1960s. Radicals, bohemians, socialists, atheists, and religionists of all persuasions mounted soapboxes, spoke to responsive, vocal crowds, and competed informally for attention and donations. The square’s core contributors, however, came from Industrial Workers of the World union members whose radical views and wit made them perennial crowd favorites. In the park’s heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, as busloads of tourists ogled the scene, thousands of people gathered on summer evenings. World War II and a post-war crackdown against socialists and communists led to Bughouse Square’s decline and, by the mid-1960s, it had all but ceased to exist. The Newberry and community activists revived the spirit of the park with Bughouse Square Debates in 1986.

The Bughouse Debates include:

The Main Debate; past debates have tackled gun control, public school teachers’ unions and the rights of labor, immigration reform, and even the extension of slavery into the western territory (the last was a reenactment of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’s 1858 debates).

Presentation of the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award for the defense of civil liberties and free speech. The award is named for the former Illinois governor who pardoned the anarchists wrongfully convicted of the Haymarket bombing. Altgeld’s unpopular decision cost him his political career.

The Soapbox Debates; in this friendly, free-speech competition, orators mount soapboxes and have 15 minutes to have their say. Judges award the Dill Pickle to the champion soapboxer. The Pickle refers to the Dill Pickle Club, a bohemian gathering place around the corner from Bughouse Square. Established in 1914 by Bughouse regulars, the club offered a place to continue conversations begun in the park. The club attracted a stimulating mix of characters including Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, Harriet Monroe, Ben Reitman, and Lucy Parsons and other notables. For more on the Dill Pickle Club see ‘A Night in Bohemia’ and ‘The World of the Dill Pickle Club’.

The Open Soapbox welcomes all speakers (15 minute limit). Good-natured heckling by the audience is a Bughouse Square institution. Get into the spirit of the park, exercise your free speech, and be part of a proud Chicago tradition. Get involved; the Bughouse Square Debates Committee is always looking for volunteer participants in the Soapbox Debates. If you are interested in stepping onto a Soapbox, contact the Newberry’s Continuing Education Department at (312) 255-3700 or email programs@newberry.org.

View programs from previous Bughouse Square Debates.

Local organizations join the Newberry in Bughouse Square each year to support free speech, including: