The Rickers Gain Children
Early December, 1918 found the Rickers in Washington, D.C., where B. J. had gone as part of his effort to further the glove company’s contracts with the U. S. Army. But with the end of World War I, the government halted all orders for gloves, and B. J. and Mabel set off for home, stopping briefly in Oak Park. The preceding summer Ben had marked his 50th birthday and Mabel had turned 44; there seemed no hope that they could generate children of their own. Nevertheless, they did not abandon all hope of children, and increasingly their thoughts turned to adoption.
Adoption at this time was only just coming under government regulation, so those seeking adoptees followed some surprising paths. For example, despite the intentions of reformers, the so-called orphan trains of the mid-nineteenth century delivered many children of urban America onto the farms of the midwest. Many children found loving homes there, but others entered domestic life as free labor rather than as sons and daughters, all too often adopted only in the most casual sense.
Grinnell had experienced orphan trains since at least 1893 when, according to the local newspaper, a representative of the Northern Indiana Orphans’ Home had arrived with 26 children. Only six of the kids were girls, which might explain why “It was no trouble to dispose of these little people, as a good many citizens were on hand early to get a choice.” Nearly all the children immediately found takers, about 15 of them going to Grinnell homes.
Soon after B. J. and Mabel married and moved to Grinnell another contingent of orphans arrived. The Grinnell Herald reported that in early October, 1899 children from the New York Juvenile Asylum trained into Grinnell. Notice of their arrival had been posted a few days earlier, soliciting homes for the children, aged eight to fourteen.
At least one more orphan train is known to have come to Grinnell in the time the Rickers were living here, but apparently B. J. and Mabel never participated in these impromptu adoptions, perhaps because, as later accounts maintained, the couple had somehow set their hearts on finding twins. As Florence Walrath, who for many years operated her own child placement service in Chicago, observed, “Twins are scarce—and popular.”
Of course, the Rickers might have done what many other parents in their situation did—place want-ads in big-city newspapers. For instance, the December 1, 1918 Sunday Chicago Tribune included this personal classified advertisement: “Wanted for adoption. A baby girl from 5 to 3 months, healthy. Good home.” A few days later another ad sought an “infant from 3 mos. to 1 1/2 yrs old. Good suburban home.” The Rickers might have advertised like this, although survey of Chicago newspapers from this time did not produce any obvious evidence of the Rickers.
On the other hand, even following the Chicago papers might have helped the Rickers find children, since parents who wished to place their offspring also sometimes resorted to the classifieds. The same December 1, 1918 Chicago Tribune referenced above announced: “Bright, healthy boy 3 yrs of age offered for adoption to responsible parties.” A week later in the same newspaper another ad offered “A healthy, intelligent child of good parentage, 10 years of age, in a good home with means.” In these years the Rickers certainly had the means, and might well have been tempted by ads like these.
Reading these classified ads almost a century later, one struggles to understand them. But the world of 1918 Chicago was vastly different from today’s. For one thing, adoption has become a more highly (though not perfectly) regulated (and increasingly international) process, and newspapers or other media simply cannot advertise children like so many commodities. In other respects, however, similarities persist. As several of the ads quoted above indicate, parents who proposed to give away their children often did so with regret, hoping somehow to guarantee a healthy, safe environment for offspring whom they could no longer afford to maintain; in other words, the parents’ poverty made their children expendable. On the other side of the equation were prospective parents who, often enough, enjoyed a surplus of resources that allowed them to seek out children whose parents could not afford them.
In addition to these enduring dynamics of adoption, 1918 Chicago brought one more powerful vector into play: influenza. In the summer and fall of 1918 Chicago had a whirlwind encounter with the deadly virus that swept around the globe that year. An ancestor of today’s H1N1 virus, the 1918 flu brought fever and chills, nausea, diarrhea, delirium and a host of similar symptoms. Deadly within days, especially for those between ages twenty and forty, the so-called “Spanish flu” was easily and rapidly transmitted. The first Chicago-area report of influenza came in September at the Great Lakes Naval Training base, but the flu soon found its way into urban Chicago with devastating effect. Declaring a medical emergency in September, the public health commissioner closed theaters, dance halls, and similar entertainments, and even prohibited public funerals (of course, funerals continued, but no more than ten persons could attend any given burial). Men caught spitting might be arrested on the spot, and public notices urged citizens to avoid communicating the disease to others.
Nevertheless, the epidemic spread rapidly. On one day in mid-October, 381 Chicagoans died and 1200 more were diagnosed with the infection. Chicago newspapers reported, often in tabloid style, cases of feverish victims jumping out of windows to their deaths; other stories were more sober, detailing the gradual eradication of entire families as the flu spread from one person to the next. By late December, when a cold snap suddenly snuffed out the epidemic, about 8500 Chicagoans had died and many thousands had fallen ill with the flu.
Among the Chicagoans to experience the 1918 epidemic was a young Australian woman and her three children. In 1912 Sarah Murray had married Oscar Rosier, a Melbourne advertising executive; she subsequently bore him three children: Oscar, Jr., born in 1913, and twins, Edith and Ivor, born in 1914. The following year Oscar left Australia for Chicago, ostensibly in search of better career opportunities. In 1916 Sarah and the three children followed their husband and father on the long journey, arriving in Chicago sometime in September. Apparently Oscar invited and paid passage for his family to join him in Chicago, but the 1917 Chicago directory has them living at separate addresses; autumn 1918 Oscar moved to Philadelphia to take another advertising job.
Sarah and the children, however, remained in Chicago, where they all fell victim to the flu. According to later reports, the children first contracted the illness, and Sarah nursed them back to health in their apartment at 4040 N. Keystone, a typical brick walk-up just north of Irving Park Boulevard. But early in December, Sarah herself contracted the virus, and soon was so ill that she was moved to a nearby hospital where on December 11 she died, leaving her three children behind. Word of her death promptly reached Oscar in Philadelphia, and he soon came to Chicago where he took charge of his oldest child, Oscar, Jr., but decided to give the twins up for adoption.
Meanwhile, the Rickers, having returned to Iowa from the east coast just days before, somehow got word of this adoption possibility, and rushed off to Chicago where they met the twins, had them examined by a doctor, and promptly proceeded to adopt and rename them (Elizabeth instead of Edith; Edward instead of Ivor), the formalities being recorded before a Cook County judge. Who was the intermediary for this action, and what caused Oscar Rosier to give up his children remain unknown; attempts to get these documents released from the embargo of Illinois law were refused by a Cook County judge, who defended the confidentiality of the process.
The Rickers themselves, however, felt no need of confidentiality. At their Lasalle Hotel suite they hosted a party for friends to welcome and celebrate the adoption, an event reported by the Chicago Tribune. Finding exaggeration irresistible, the paper reported the story in the simplest, if not fully accurate, terms: “For years Mr. and Mrs. B. J. Ricker of Grinnell, Ia., blessed with millions, but childless, dreamed of and hunted for a pair of twins.” The flu had made the twins available, the paper admitted, but now Elizabeth and Edward would “enter a fairyland, such as only loving parents and wealth can provide.”
There can be little doubt that the Rickers lavished all their love on the twins. And if not millionaires, the Rickers were at least very well-off. B. J. Ricker was among the richest and most powerful men in Grinnell. Unknown to him, however, all that was about to change.