Bughouse Square Debates

This weekend I attended the Bughouse Square Debates at Washington Square. In the early 20th century, Washington Square (Bughouse Square was its popular name) was a place of free speech. People from all different classes, view points, etc, would  give speeches on various topics. Heckling was part of it too.

Each year, Newberry Library celebrates this history with the Bughouse Square Debates in conjunction with their amazing book fair. There are four soapboxes; three have scheduled speakers that range from topics like food trucks, labor activism, homelessness, economic policy, etc. I think they get about 10 minutes a piece. The four soapbox is open so anyone who feels the need can go up and talk for five minutes. And heckling is still a part of it. The first time I went with my fiancé, I was totally taken aback by the heckling. It wasn’t something that happened at conferences and lectures that I had been too (though I do recall someone yelling at Henry Kissiniger). But heckling is an important part of Bughouse Square debates as long as it remains civil.

Two years, my fiancé and I had the opportunity to portray historical figures of Bughouse Square as it celebrated its 25th anniversary since its rebirth. I played Red Martha Biegler, a university graduate turned Marxist. She wrote for the Chicago Daily Socialist and was a frequent speaker at Bughouse about the evils of capitalism. She ran a boarding house and helped desperate people. However, she became destitute herself and became an inhabitant of a rooming house like the one she used to run. I was honored to play her for the 25th anniversary. I gave a speech called “On the Madness of Capitalism.” It was fun. I knew I should expect heckling and I did get heckled. It was a strange experience for me since I’ve never dealt with before. I went on with my speech but I should have responded back a bit more. Alas! My fiancé was Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, and gave a speech “About the Holy Bible.” It was a great day. Friends of ours did a snake oil salesman bit. Yellow Kid” Weil was selling the amazing “Doc Meriwether’s Miracle Cure-All Elixir!” Throughout the show, various people would come up with ailments and would be cured with the elixir. Of course, all these “people” were the same person but with an eye patch, cane, etc. It was great.

Bughouse Debate 2012
Bughouse Debate 2012

Last year, my fiancé and I moderated the Open Soapbox, which was exhilarating experience. It was interesting to watch the crowds ebb and flow. Some speakers were quite fascinating while others were frankly not. Spectators would get into it with the speakers, which was amazing. When things got a bit dull, people would wander off. It got a little hairy when someone had a racist conspiracy rant, but the tuba came in just in time to signal the end of the soapbox debates.The tuba is my spirit animal.

This year, I came as a spectator, which was fun. I gravitated towards the open soapbox since it was really hopping. This year, the Society of Smallness was moderating it with assistance from Paul Durica. They were really great. When I came, the microphone wasn’t working so they assisted one gentleman and his talk. He’d say a sentence and then 2-3 of them would repeat it louder so people could hear. I had fun just watching people interacting with each other. At one point, a speaker asked “What is the limit of my free speech here at Bughouse Square?” A heckler responded “5 minutes.” Classic.

That’s all for now!


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