Bughouse Square Debates

Environmental Encroachment performing for the crowd.

Environmental Encroachment performing for the crowd before the Debates.

Troy LaRaviere (left) and Bruno Behrend listen to a question from the crowd during the Main Debate.

Troy LaRaviere (left) and Bruno Behrend listen to a question from the crowd during the Main Debate.

A representative from the Midwest Workers Association speaks with an attendee.

A representative from the Midwest Workers Association speaks with an attendee.

Wendy Kaminer and David Spadafora, President of the Newberry. Kaminer received the 2015 John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award.

Wendy Kaminer and David Spadafora, President of the Newberry. Kaminer received the 2015 John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award.

Society of Smallness hecklers at the open soapbox

Society of Smallness hecklers at the open soapbox

Bughouse Square (bughouse is slang for mental health facility) is the popular name for Washington Square Park. Just south of the Newberry, this park was Chicago’s most boisterous and radical free-speech space from the 1910s through the 1960s. 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 the 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 officially revived the spirit of the park with the Bughouse Square Debates in 1986.

The Bughouse Square Debates include:

  • The Main Debate. Past debates have tackled public education in Chicago, gun control, 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 and attracted a stimulating mix of characters including Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, Harriet Monroe, Ben Reitman, 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. All are welcome to speak or perform as time permits. No need to sign up in advance—just show up and get in line!
  • Food and entertainment. Recent performers include the Environmental Encroachment Marching Band, the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, Young Chicago Authors, and the Chris Madsen Quartet.

Good-natured heckling by the audience is a Bughouse Square institution. Get into the spirit of the park, exercise your First Amendment rights, and be part of a Chicago tradition. If you would like to get involved, email programs@newberry.org.

View programs from previous Bughouse Square Debates.