Parlor Games A Novel
Author:Maryka Biaggio



I knew not a soul in Chicago. There I was—eighteen years old, unfamiliar with any city more than two miles square, and marked as an out-of-towner by my battered suitcase and tawdry straw hat. I possessed only a single pair of shoes, the two new dresses Maman had made for me, and a plan that depended wholly on my own wits.

To make matters worse, my brother Paul and I had quarreled before my departure. While I was packing, he’d slipped into my bedroom, quietly closing the door behind him. “Do you know Maman emptied the household savings for your new dresses?”

“I told her not to be extravagant.”

“Maman? Not extravagant? With her darling daughter going to the big city?”

Our mother, in fact, was not overly encumbered with common sense, but that was beside the point. “You just don’t want me to go.”

Paul flashed his open palm toward me, threatening a slap. “Don’t you trifle with me.”

I gripped the skirt of my faded cotton dress and shook it. “You expect me to help our family by showing up in Chicago in this old rag?”

“You can help by staying right here and keeping this house.”

“Stay in Menominee? What future is there in that?”

“Your family’s future.” He poked his chin at me. “Unless that doesn’t matter to you.”

“That’s precisely what matters.” I smoothed out my skirt and returned to my packing, hoping to conclude the conversation. But that only perturbed him all the more.

“You really think some rich man’s just waiting for you, like you’re Cinderella off to marry her prince?”

I spun around. “I’ll wager I can do better than a lumber miller’s salary in Chicago. And that’s what I intend to do.”

That last comment dogged me during the whole train trip. Paul worked hard to support the family, and I ought not to have insulted him. But he’d pushed me to the brink, and I refused to countenance his bullyragging one moment longer.

Still, as I stepped off the train at Chicago’s Wells Street Station, I pined for the familiar company of Maman, Paul, and Gene. Row upon row of tracks surrounded me, reaching out behind the station, big as the prongs of a gigantic pitchfork. A putrid odor hung over the expansive train yard—a metallic and sewage-like brew—and I surmised the Chicago River lay nearby.

Along the platform, well-dressed men and women, with the occasional child in tow, ambled past me. Expectant parties milled in chattering clutches under the shadowy sheds, all of them oblivious to the bewilderment of travelers, such as myself, who were strangers to this place. Humidity hung in the late-afternoon air, as thick and suffocating as a wool blanket. As I sauntered along, emulating the nonchalant bustle of the crowd, perspiration prickled my brow. A man in an ill-fitting uniform passed by, leaning nearly horizontal, tugging a flatbed cart overflowing with trunks and suitcases. I ventured a smile, but he only proffered a quizzical, wide-eyed glance, as if he were unaccustomed to simple friendliness.

I marched into the station’s cavernous waiting room, where, against one wall, racks of newspapers confronted me. So many newspapers—the Chicago Banner, Citizen, Chicago Daily Tribune, Knights of Labor, Chicago Times, among many others—with blaring headlines—“Coffee Prices Tumbling”; “A Senseless Shoemakers’ Union Strike”; “Millions Lost in Wheat Panic”; “Jewels Disappear in Mysterious Safe Robbery”; “Protests Against the Return of Captured Confederate Flags”; “Carlisle Graham Survives Barrel Ride in Niagara Waterfall”—that Chicago seemed the very hub of the world, a world so vast I feared it would swallow me up if I did not make something of myself in it.

I parted with a penny for a Chicago Herald—it promised the splashiest coverage of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee—lifted my suitcase, and prepared to greet my new city. Outside the station, I hired a horsecar, instructing the driver to take me to a modest hotel near the business district, though I had no idea where the business district was, what kind of hotels were nearby, or how much a modest room might cost. Our open, one-horse carriage rattled down Kinzie Street and turned onto State. We crossed over the sluggish, mud-brown Chicago River, which ran under the long bridge, and I wondered whether fish of any sort managed to dwell in its mucky filth.

The carriage wove its way among red-and-bright-yellow trolleys and all manner of fancy carriages and hansoms traveling this way and that. City racket swarmed around me: streetcars dinging as they drifted along; horses’ hooves clomping on the brick streets; brougham bells tinkling; and boys in knickers hollering from street corners, hawking newspapers bundled under their arms.

Puffed-up men in derbies and natty frock coats strode, as if they owned the sidewalks, alongside women in dresses with ample bustles, trim waists, and lovely summer colors—peach, sage green, ivory, and baby blue. The women’s hats, some decorated with long feathers, others with bows, all broad-brimmed enough to protect the delicate, white-powdered faces beneath them, drifted along the walkways like a sea of fancy bobbers.

As we rumbled down State Street, I tried not to crane my neck, but the gleaming new buildings—so tall they cast long shadows even under June’s high sun—filled me with awe. Their wide expanses of glass reflected the passing pedestrians and vehicles, multiplying the busyness of the crowded street scene. I mustn’t be daunted, I kept telling myself: I’m equal to this challenge.

The next day, after settling into the Howard Hotel, I undertook the task of acquainting myself with the city, its denizens, and the lay of its streets. State Street beckoned me back, and there I wandered into the six-story Boston Store. Up and down the elevator I rode (for the first time in my life), surveying each of the floor’s offerings. I stopped on the fourth floor to peruse the bins of silk and spun-cotton chemises and petticoats—so plentiful, and in so many styles and designs, that I would have been hard-pressed to select just one.

The main floor attracted me the most. Close to the front doors, in a cleared area lined with potted petunias, a gentleman of about fifty in a dapper, dove-tan waistcoat sat at a piano playing folk tunes. I lingered nearby, sifting through dresses with elegant bustles, all the time basking in the piano’s welcoming melodies and studying women shoppers as they sized up the dresses’ lace collars and bead-galloon trimmings. I strolled by the piano player, delighting in his rapt expression. He looked up, nodded at me, and mouthed “Good day”—the first truly warm gesture anyone had offered since my arrival—and I smiled in return.

I circled around to the other side of the first floor, to women’s shoes, and admired the selection of Curaçao-kid, pebble-grain, and French-kid styles. But I could afford no purchase, and self-consciousness overtook me, as if I were a maid pretending at her lady’s mirror. Reluctantly, I withdrew, promising myself I would return another time.

The next day, I wandered into three small banks to inquire how I might open an account, whether a certain balance would be required, and what benefits each bank could offer. It pleased me to explain that I was exploring several options and would return if I chose to do business with them.

Over the next several days, I visited other places of business, and shops as well, engaging the proprietors in both business exchanges and casual conversations: law firms (in search of a lawyer to advise me on a family matter); architectural offices (in the event I decided to build a home); dry-goods stores; apothecaries; and art galleries. I scrounged rumpled newspapers from hotel lobbies and pored over them by the smoke-stained lamp in my cramped hotel room. An article in the June 22 Chicago Times caught my eye:

Detective Wooldridge Saves Three from White Slave Trade


Early yesterday morning Detective Clifton Wooldridge, accompanied by a band of three police officers, staked out a house at 404 Dearborn Street. He was said to be acting on a tip from a courageous citizen who picked up a note flung from an upper window of the residence. The detective and his troops stormed the place at dawn, no doubt hoping to take the sleeping occupants-cum-captors by surprise.

An officer on the case reported that Violet Hastings and her solid man, Bo Cavanaugh, were wakened from a liquor-laced sleep and proceeded to carry on like stirred-up hornets, hollering that the police had no cause to be there and demanding to know whatever happened to their protection, though not in such genteel words.

Detective Wooldridge and his party made their way to the attic, where they broke down a bolted door and discovered three cowering girls, all dressed in flimsy gowns and living in dirty, cramped conditions. Upon seeing the police they cried out, “We are saved.”

Violet Hastings claimed she had kept the girls there for their own safety, but Wooldridge told this reporter that the young ladies had been seized at the train station, imprisoned by Miss Hastings, and likely slated to be sold to some associate of Hastings who would force them to work as harlots. Wooldridge explained, “These places conceal Chicago’s most shameful secret—young women stolen off the streets, locked in rooms against their will, and desecrated by men who care only about earning money from their misery.”

According to Wooldridge, hundreds of young ladies are abducted each year by white slave traders and held captive in one of the many houses that night after night defile women and the soul of this city. Detective Wooldridge says he will not rest until he uncovers all the degenerates who trade in white slaves and that the Levee District ought to know he’s not making idle threats.

Was it true? Hundreds of women forced into prostitution? Perhaps. But I would not be subject to such trickery.

By the end of my first week in Chicago, I had greatly deepened the half-moons worn into my shoe heels, all in the service of elevating my grasp of the city’s sundry businesses and identifying its most elegant dining rooms. I decided the time had come to try out my strategy. Donning my lilac dress with French-pleated belt and bow, I settled in the dining room of the Haverford Hotel and prepared to attract a gentleman of means. If necessary, I would explain I had traveled to Chicago to tend to some family business.

For six days I dined alone at various hotels and fine restaurants, beating back the fear and desperation that welled up in me as my allowance dwindled. Uncertain as my plan was, I could ill afford to forgo Robby’s help, though you, gentle reader, will no doubt grasp how much it pained me to deceive him.

June 28, 1887

My precious Robby,

I have found a humble room here in Chicago, in a rooming house run by the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Ellwood. They are very discreet and do not allow mail delivery here so you must write me at general delivery. As fortune would have it, Mrs. Ellwood knows a practiced midwife who lives nearby. Helga is quite solicitous. She is sure the baby will be healthy, and she will gladly help me find just the right family for her. (Both Helga and I believe the baby will be a girl.)

This city is so big I am nearly overwhelmed by it. But when I think of you and our future together I manage to summon the courage to carry on.

The allowance you so kindly provided is holding up well, as I am being very careful with my expenses. But I would like to take a course in business. It would occupy my time and remind me of you. Just think: We could be a modern couple. I could manage the books for your business, and you could spend your time designing furniture. I think about you every minute of every day, my dearest,

All my love,


Some might consider books and courses an unwarranted extravagance, especially since I could hardly afford my hotel room. But I had to prepare for my future. In order to pay for an education and stretch my allowance, I moved from the Howard Hotel to a room on South Wabash—a modest room with a narrow bed and mismatched chair and vanity. Thank goodness, Mrs. Farnsworth provided breakfast, a generous fare that included hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and biscuits or bread. Each morning, I slipped an egg into my pocket, and that sufficed for lunch as I explored the city and its neighborhoods.

One afternoon, I ventured outside the downtown district, west along Van Buren, and then wove back and forth among the streets running perpendicular to it. Along one stretch, crowded-in hovels teemed with occupants—ill-dressed women and uncouth children housed in congested quarters. Ropes strung with laundry crisscrossed between the buildings, and weeds sprouted in the alleys on narrow patches of packed earth that had somehow escaped trampling by unruly youngsters.

Farther along, I came upon a strip of blocky, unadorned factories with frosted-glass windows and large-lettered signs spanning their entrances—Storm and King Wholesale Dry Goods, McManus Clothiers, and Emery Shoe Company. Alongside the shoe factory, two coal heavers in grimy overalls shoveled coal from a wagon into a chute, and a cloud of coal dust rose up and wafted in my direction. I bustled along, and as I passed in front of the company’s entrance, a woman stormed out the door, nearly running into me. Startled, she muttered some strange phrase, trained her eye on the sidewalk, and rushed past me. I’d only had time to observe her unkempt black hair and red-rimmed eyes. Had she lost her job? Did an ailing mother need her at home? I turned to watch her hurry away. She kept her head bent downward, as if ashamed to show her face, and her dress flopped lazily about her legs, revealing the flick and shift of buttocks and bulge of each calf: The poor thing wore no petticoat.

A vexing mix of sympathy and scorn welled up in me—such coarse, bedraggled creatures lodged in this neighborhood, the likes of which never frequented the Boston Store. It seemed Chicago had many sides: the prosperous business-and-shopping district populated by the wealthy and successful; the outlying areas with their factories and poor foreign workers; and the sinful Levee District.

To which did I belong, with my undersized bustle and shoes as wrinkled as an old fisherman’s face? A most unsettling notion swept over me: Was it possible the cultured gentlemen I’d been trying to attract took me for a fraud?

I hurried back to my room, brushed off my clothes, and cleansed my face and hands of any coal dust or dirt that might have settled on me. Standing before the flaking mirror over my washing bowl, I studied myself. Mine was not an unpleasant face, a near-perfect oval, with a dainty set of lips and soft-sloped nose. Perhaps my clothes were not up-to-the-minute, but I had other gifts. I would not succumb to the self-abasement of a haggard factory worker or low-class prostitute. Even if I did not yet measure up to the city’s modern styles, I could comport myself with the pride of a patrician, as if I’d chosen to conceal my wealth for reasons of safety and discretion.

Still, I worried I had miscalculated: All the care I took combing and fashioning my thick chestnut hair and the forethought I put into selecting just the right restaurants could not overcome the dated design of my dresses or my lack of acquaintance with Chicago’s high society. My future depended on the success of my plan, and it appeared to be failing. Furthermore, I couldn’t manage indefinitely on Robby’s allowance, especially in view of his first correspondence to me.

July 8, 1887

My dearest May,

I was so relieved to receive your letter. I’ve been anxious about your condition, and I’m miserable without you. You mustn’t ever let so much time pass without writing. You know I worry about you down there in Chicago. And I don’t want to hear any of your “I can take care of myself” nonsense. It’s a big city, and you’ve never been to such a place before. You must be careful about who you trust.

I’m sending your allowance and a little extra money for a class. I consider it an investment in our future.

You won’t like this, but I’ve decided we must keep this baby. Look at how my poor Uncle James lost his wife and child to the influenza. A baby is a precious thing, and I simply won’t allow you to hand ours over like a sack of potatoes.

I propose that I settle my affairs here, persuade Father to loan me the money to start my furniture business, and then come and fetch you in Chicago. We’ll get married right away. We can move to Green Bay. Or Milwaukee if you prefer. I’ve thought it all through. The baby will be born in our new home. Nobody there or in Menominee will ever know how much time has lapsed between our wedding date and baby’s arrival. And we won’t be far from Menominee, so you’ll be able to visit your mother whenever you wish.

I anxiously await your response,

Your loving husband to be,


Clearly, if I didn’t break the engagement off soon, I risked Robby’s telling all of Menominee of our betrothal, and I didn’t want Paul—or Maman, for that matter—to hear of it. They would only expect me to return to wed one of Menominee’s most eligible and wealthy bachelors. Robby’s earnestness convinced me all the more of the necessity of forging ahead with the plan I’d already invested many months in.

July 15, 1887

My darling Robby,

You are the most loving man a girl could want. I’m not surprised to hear that you want to keep this baby. But I really must put my foot down when it comes to your plan. I refuse to start our marriage under a cloud of shame. Perhaps you believe the circumstances of our baby’s birth can be kept secret, but I must ask you to think about me. The mother always bears the burden of such scandals. I would be forever known as the woman who allowed herself to be sullied before her wedding. I will not marry you while I am with child. I must think about my future, your future, and, yes, what is best for this baby. Imagine what she would have to endure if our families found out about her birth. Please be reasonable.

Thank you so much for the allowance. I have started my class and study every day. I hope to make you proud of me.

Think of me kindly, and with understanding,

Your loving wife to be,


Dear reader, it vexed me sorely to pretend at this engagement, but my plight was fast becoming desperate. Not only had I not sent any money home, I’d become quite dependent on Robby’s allowance. I could not lead him on indefinitely; compassion and fairness dictated that I break off the engagement sooner rather than later. I redoubled my efforts to meet some gentleman who might, at the very least, extricate me from Robby’s benefaction.

To my deep chagrin, I only managed to secure dinners with the sort of men who had no intention of anything beyond amusing themselves for an evening. When one man invited me to a dance hall after dinner, I demurred. Despite his immaculate attire, I did not believe his entreaties. He claimed he could find me employment as a secretary (as if that interested me anyway) and assist me in securing a pleasant room at a very good price—just the sort of claims one might expect from a pander.

I needed to meet a respectable man, but I had failed to secure a single introduction to Chicago society. And all this time Robby continued to press me.

August 2, 1887

My dearest May,

I know you believe you are doing the right thing, but my plan is quite foolproof, and I refuse to allow you to give up on our baby so easily. I don’t give a damn about reputation, and I know you don’t either. Have you forgotten how we laughed when Sheriff Hersen bought that gaudy house so he and his wife might host fancy dinners? Or how we zoomed along the lakefront on my bicycle last summer with your skirts flying every which way? You don’t fool me one bit when you claim to care about what other people think.

Besides, we can start a new life together someplace other than Menominee. I insist you come to your senses. No one’s going to know the baby was conceived out of wedlock.

Let’s get married as soon as possible. With the baby on the way, we mustn’t waste time. All is in order on my end. Father has agreed to fund the furniture business. I can be there to pick you up on a day’s notice. What is the address of Mr. and Mrs. Ellwood?

Your loving husband to be,