Jenny is a fictional character. The Chicago mob, white slavery and the infamous bordellos of the early 20th century were real.
It was the spring of 1968, my senior year in High School. I had obtained all the credits needed for graduation and on a whim, I had signed up for an English Composition class. English had always been an easy subject for me and with college coming up, I decided that I should beef up my GPA a little and I was pretty sure that I could pull an A out of this class.
We were down to our last big assignment for the year. We were to go find someone in our community, interview them, and then write a biography of their life. I had been procrastinating, as usual – a trait I have carried with me for life – and was down to the last few days before the assignment was due.
Kay, my best buddy and soon to be college roommate was already typing away on her final draft and I hadn’t even selected my “person” yet. As we selected our interviewee, that person’s name was added to a list on the blackboard so that none of us terrorized the same person twice, and by the looks of it, all the interesting people in town had already been taken.
I flopped down on Kay’s bed, emitting a huge sign, and she turned from her typing, giving me one of her famous “looks”.
“What’s the problem?” she said, taking note of my grumpy demeanor.
“There’s nobody good left to interview,” I said in my whiniest, most pathetic sounding voice. “There’s nobody left in this whole town that could possibly have had an interesting life! Just a bunch of boring, old people is all that lives here.” I was working up to a really awesome whine session when she cut me short.
“What about old Miss Jenny?” Kay said, with an evil gleam in her eye.
“That crazy old lady? You gotta be kiddin’. She lives out there in that creepy old cabin with about a hundred cats and twenty or thirty dogs! Are you crazy? I’ve heard people say they think she dances naked thru the woods on nights when there is a full moon, with all those cats and dogs around her. I’m not going near that place!”
“Well, suit yourself”, Kay responded, “but Dad said he heard she moved here back in the twenties when she wasn’t much older than we are and she was hiding out from some big Chicago gangster. Supposedly this guy wanted her dead and that’s why she used to be so unsociable and stayed to herself out there.” With this statement hanging in the air over my head, Kay turns back to her typewriter and starts pecking away.
“I have work to do”, she said over her shoulder, “and so do you.”
She knows how to throw me a hook – I can’t resist a mystery. With visions of trench coated men in black limos, blazing away with machine guns speeding through the streets of my small hometown, I roll off the bed and head toward the door.
“Alright, alright, I hear you,” I mumbled. “But if I disappear and they find my body in a shallow grave, it’ll be all your fault and you can be sure I’ll be back to haunt you for the rest of your life!”
“You’re as crazy as she is. Get outta here and quit whining! This assignment is due on Friday and it’s already Tuesday! You better get your butt in gear; you’re running out of time, fast!” With this, she gives me “the look” again. She’s my best friend but sometimes she can be worse than my mother.
“See ya.” I called back as I closed the front door. She was right, I really did have to get going on this.
The next day school was out for the afternoon because of some sort of teacher meetings, so I grabbed up three freshly sharpened pencils, a new spiral notebook and with a deep breath I climbed into my battered old Ford Ranger and headed east. Her little cabin was located down a narrow, winding gravel road about a mile off the main highway. Thinking back on the conversation around the supper table the evening before, I recalled what my parents had said about Miss Jenny Malone. I had told them about my plans to interview her and much to my surprise, they didn’t jump up and tell me I couldn’t go out to that crazy lady’s house or anything like that. Dad said he thought it was a great idea and he thought Jenny would love the company. He had hauled numerous loads of firewood out to Jenny’s place over the past few years and he said she had always been friendly and seems happy to see anybody who came to visit her.
“But, I never see her in town,” I said. Everybody at school thinks she’s just some loony old lady with a bunch of cats and dogs. If she likes company so much, why doesn’t she spend more time in town where the people are?”
My parents looked at each other and then Mom told me that Jenny had been in a really bad car accident some twenty five years ago and it had left her badly crippled. She had an old oak cane she used to help her walk with and now with the progression of the arthritis, she was pretty much housebound. They said that prior to the accident, she had been a pretty active part of the community and was still a member of our church, although she hadn’t been able to attend for years.
“Pastor Ron goes out a couple times each month to visit her.” Mom said. “Every time we have a church dinner we always pack up a basket for her and somebody from the church takes it out to her. She’s a really nice lady and all the rumors you kids have heard about her are just not true .” I repeated the dancing naked under the moon thing and both my parents just rolled their eyes. I had called Jenny later to ask her if I could interview her and she hesitated at first but then she had said that it might be fun and to come on out. As a result, I was feeling just a tad better about going out to her house all alone.
Rounding the last corner on the bumpy road, I glanced in the rearview mirror and observed the column of white dust the wheels had thrown up. It was a warm spring day and this part of Northwest Arkansas was in desperate need of rain. I was in a little valley with some broken down remains of the Ozark Mountains rising gently on either side of me. The hillsides were a maze of color with the redbuds in full bloom and patches of white from the scattered dogwoods. The scrubby cedars added blotches of green and the various weeds and other wild vegetation appeared to all be wearing their Sunday best.
Her little house came into view and the lump in my throat grew suddenly larger. In spite of my parents positive comments about Miss Jenny, I still could not throw off that unpleasant sensation that I was walking into some sort of weirdness. As I crunched to a stop and the dust surrounding the truck began to settle, I took a long look at my surroundings. The house was tiny but well kept. It sat in a small yard surrounded by several tall pine trees. To the right, I could see the outline of a barn showing through the newly leafed out trees and to my surprise, one lone cat sat on the porch rail. In front of the barn was an elaborately carved wooden bench. As I got out of the truck, a tall form emerged from the barn and stood by the bench. An arm waved and I heard her shout:
“We’re over here, by the barn. Come on over and join us.”
Us, I thought. I only saw one human form and immediately I had that strange feeling crawl over me. Oh boy, what had I gotten myself into? I grabbed my notebook and pencils and started toward the waving arm. As I got closer, I could see that there were two more cats, swerving and rubbing against Jenny’s legs and another stood in the barn door, watching me.
“Have a seat” she said, throwing out her right hand and grabbing mine. “Nice to meet you, Sandy. It’s such a beautiful day that I didn’t want to waste it in the house, so I’ve been cleaning out the barn. Sorry if I smell a little like hay. I’ve been trying to get the stall cleaned out from all the winter use. My little Jersey cow had to spend a lot of time in the barn this past winter and it was getting kinda smelly.”
Jenny waved her hand in the direction of the bench and I sat down, trying to observe her without being too obvious. She was a tall, slim woman. I guessed her to be in her late 60’s to early 70’s by the gray in her hair. She leaned heavily on a cane and as she maneuvered to sit down beside me, I saw her wince with the effort. She was dressed in blue denim, head to foot with soft brown leather work boots on her feet. As she leaned over to pick up one of the cats, I had a chance to view her face and saw traces of beauty that age had not been able to destroy. She had deep brown eyes and her hair, though totally grey, was thick and looked to be quite wavy. She had it pulled back and tied it in place with a red bandana. In spite of the denim and leather, she had an air of elegance about her and I suddenly felt a little intimidated by her presence.
“So, Sandy, you told me you need an interview for a class project, right?”
“Yes, Miz Jenny. It’s for my English Comp class and I have to have it ready to turn in by Friday.”
“Well, let’s get to it then. Where should I start? How much do you want to know?”
“Our teacher gave us an outline to follow, so I guess we could just go by that and I can ask you the questions and write down what you say. I hope you don’t mind, but the first question I’m supposed to ask is for your birth date. You don’t have to tell me the year if you don’t want to.”
She laughed and then seemed to relax back against the barn, rubbing her hand thru the cat’s fur. “I could care less about my age. It’s all about the quality of life and not the number of years. I’ve had a pretty good life, when I think back over it. There were a few bad years, as I will tell you about, but for the most part, I have been blessed. I don’t have much in the way of material possessions, but I’m pretty healthy except for this bum leg and the arthritis in it, but God has been good to me. How about we go in the house where I can put my foot up and get this leg a little more comfortable. I made some cookies this morning in honor of your coming and there’s a fresh pitcher of sweet tea in the ‘fridge.” She winked at me and eased herself up off the bench, leaving the cat to nap in the sun.
The interior of the house was simple and plain. She had an old leather sofa and chair in the living room and a well worn rocker drawn up by the bay window that looked out over the side yard and the big flowerbed. On the north wall was a fireplace with a huge oak beam as the mantle. She showed me through the lower rooms of the house and pointed to the staircase that led up to a loft bedroom.
“I used to sleep up there, before the accident. It’s too hard to get up and down the steps now, so I had to move into the downstairs sewing room. It’s much warmer in the winter, anyway, so I don’t miss the big bedroom upstairs too much. I mostly use it for storage now and just go up once in a while when I feel like looking through the old trunks and doing some reminiscing. Come help me get the cookies and tea and we’ll go to the living room with it.”
We settled in and while munching on a cookie, my eyes were drawn to a very ornate crystal vase sitting on the mantle. It really looked out of place in the tiny room but it was exquisite and I got up to take a closer look. My mom has several pieces of crystal she has collected over the years and I was familiar with what good, expensive crystal glassware looked like. This piece was without a doubt of very high quality.
“That’s all I have left from the life I once lived. That vase has a very special meaning to me and I’ll tell you about it. But I guess I had better start at the beginning, right? Get your pencils ready, Sandy. I’ve been on this earth for 73 years and I have done some living.”
I sat back on the sofa and had no idea what I was about to hear. This lady had indeed done some living.
She was born in the fall of 1897 in the little town of Dewey, Illinois. Her dad owned a sawmill and she had one sister who was two years older. When she was 13, her dad was killed in an accident at the mill and she and her sister, Emma and her mom were forced to move to Champaign where her mom cooked meals for a boarding house and she and Emma did the house cleaning and laundry. In exchange for this, they had a room and all the food they could eat plus their mom was paid a small stipend by the boardinghouse owner. It wasn’t great, but they got by and they had each other. One day, two men showed up at the boarding house, looking for temporary room. They said they had business in town and would need a room for about a week or so. They wore expensive suits and had an air of worldliness about them. Every day they would leave early and not return until supper time. Jenny was 15 by now and with her dark eyes and hair, she was beginning to attract the attention of most men she came in contact with, including these two strangers. They flattered her and bought her some ornate hair combs and a bottle of very expensive perfume. Her mother was concerned and told Jenny to be careful around these men. Rumors were rampant that there was an active white slavery trade that was headquartered in the Chicago area and several young girls in the area around Champaign had disappeared quite suddenly in the past few months.
On the last night that the men were scheduled to stay at the boardinghouse, a fire broke out in a house across the street and everyone rushed out into the front yard to watch. Jenny was standing by her mom and sister and one of the men, whose name was James, was standing on the porch behind them. He told Jenny she could see better if she was standing up on the porch and she left her mothers side to walk back to the porch and stand beside James. This was the last time she ever saw her mom and sister, Emma. A few moments later, an arm grabbed her around the waist and a hand clapped tightly over her mouth. She was quickly pulled back into the house and out the back door to a waiting wagon. A piece of rough cloth was tied across her mouth, preventing her from crying out and she was hastily wrapped in a quilt and thrown roughly into the bed of the wagon. She rode like this for several hours and when she was finally removed from the quilt, she was in a hotel room. James threatened her, telling her if she tried to escape they would find her and her family and kill them all. She was too terrified to even try to run and the next day she found herself on a train with James and his partner, Abe, watching her every move. They had bought her a snug fitting lace covered dress and a matching hat and shoes and to the other passengers on the train, she looked to be quite the lady.
The train stopped in Chicago and they got off. They walked a few short blocks and shortly she found herself being escorted into a large house. The interior was beautiful with heavy velvet curtains, brocade sofas and chairs and beautiful vases of fresh flowers. She was told to have a seat on one of the sofas and James and Abe disappeared down the hallway. A few minutes passed and a very attractive older lady came to the door and motioned for her to follow.
“I’m not going to go into the details of what that woman told me”, said Jenny. You’re too young and I can’t bring myself to say those things. Let me just say that that house was a bordello and I had just been sold to that woman. It turned out that it was one of the highest class houses of prostitution in the city and Josephine, the lady who ran it, catered to a very elite clientele. It’s funny to say this, but I guess in a way, I was one of the luckier of the girls who were swept up by the white slavers. Many of those poor girls wound up with terrible, life threatening diseases and were beaten and sometimes killed by their clients. It was a terrible thing to do to another human being. I still get very angry sometimes when I think about those terrible years.”
By then, I was totally without words. This woman had been forced into prostitution at 15! She was owned by another human being and she was a virtual slave! I guess I had missed that part of American History because I was horrified. How could this have happened in America? And not only to one girl, but to many. And not just prostitution, but often death!
Jenny looked over at me and said, “I’m sorry if this is hard for you to hear, but I have to tell it, because it is part of my history and I lived it for three long years. It was awful and disgusting but I lived through it. Now I want you to hear how my life took a positive turn.”
After three years in the bordello, Jenny and Josephine had become friends. Josephine was a madam and ran the house with an iron fist, but she had a soft spot for Jenny. The men she sent to Jenny were usually hand picked and she made sure they understood that this was a very special girl and there would be no violence allowed. One evening, a young man knocked on her door. But instead of the usual request for sex, he just wanted to sit and talk to her. She had seen him in the house before and had noticed his good manners and handsome young face. He began coming to see her every week, always paying the price charged for her, but never requiring anything but friendship from her. Normally, Josephine discouraged her girls from forming any kind of friendship with their men visitors, but she had grown fond of Jenny and so the friendship and eventually love, was allowed to grow between the two. His name was Alexander and he worked for a bank in downtown Chicago. He was 23, tall and dark with a wonderful sense of humor and he fell madly and totally in love with Jenny.
One night, Alexander told Jenny that he wanted to marry her and take her far away from Chicago, to a world like the one she had known before James and Abe had come into her life. She told him she could not marry him, that he deserved better and asked him how he could possibly love her, a woman who had know many men and had lost the most precious thing a woman had to give to her husband. She turned away from him and ran back to the house and had refused to see him for weeks. But Alexander loved her deeply and he just kept coming back to the house every week, asking to see her.
She finally gave in and once she saw his face, she knew she was also hopelessly in love. They began to secretly make plans to get away. A few weeks later, Alexander told her he had bought her a one way ticket on the train to Fayetteville, Arkansas. He had a great aunt who lived there and Jenny could stay with her until he was able to join her. He said it would be unsafe for them to travel together and that he wanted to know she was safely out of Chicago before he made plans to leave. Jenny was allowed one day each week as her day off and Alexander had purchased the train ticket for that day. She would leave early that morning, giving her the whole day to travel before she was missed. It was serious business when a prostitute tried to escape from a house and there were bounty hunters ready and willing to go after any girl. She was property, owned lock, stock and barrel and losing that property was not an option in their book. During this time in history, a large majority of the houses of prostitution in Chicago were owned and managed by Big Jim Colosimo and his nephew Johnnie Torrio. They were serious members of the Chicago mob and many peopled died at their hands. Prostitution was big, big business and had made Colosimo very wealthy. He had ownership in the house Josephine ran and would stop at nothing to punish a runaway.
That final morning, she got up early and fixed herself a cup of coffee. She was sitting in the kitchen sipping it and thinking about what the future would be like with Alexander and about the train ticket she had hidden away in a drawer for safekeeping. She had two hours before the departure and she decided to take one final walk through the house. She had hated the life she had been forced to live here and would be so glad to leave it behind. As she rounded the corner in the living room, the large crystal vase caught her eye and she stopped in front of it. It was beautiful Austrian crystal, the loveliest thing she had ever seen. She had always admired it but today it just seemed to really catch her eye.
“Do you know the story behind that vase?” said Josephine, slipping up behind her.
“No, tell me.” said Jenny, slightly unnerved by Josephine’s quiet appearance in her private reverie.
“It belonged to my mother. My father gave it to her as a wedding gift. She always told me it would be mine when I married.”
Turning around to look at Josephine, Jenny took a quick breath at the look on Josephine’s face. There was a deep sorrow in her eyes and Jenny saw it before Josephine quickly turned her head away. After a moment Josephine turned back to look at Jenny, answering the question on Jenny’s face.
“Yes, I was married once. He was a lawman for Cooke County. There was a shootout at a saloon and he was killed. We had been married almost a year and he was the love of my life.”
Turning away, Josephine walked down the hall, leaving Jenny standing in front of the vase. A pang of guilt hit her full force. Guilt for having a young man who loved her and was alive and strong. Guilt for running away knowing Josephine would take heat for Jenny’s disappearance. And finally, guilt for being able to leave this life behind while Josephine had to stay. She hurried to her room, packed a small bag and walked out the door, never looking back. She boarded the train that morning, left Chicago behind forever and two days later, stepped off the train in Arkansas.
“So, when did Alexander join you? How long did you have to wait?” I asked, reaching for the last cookie and washing it down with the last gulp of tea.
“I’m still waiting.”
“What happened? Why didn’t he come to Arkansas?”
“I don’t really know for sure.” Jenny said. “We never heard from him but once, and that was shortly after I got here. I stayed with his aunt for several months. I received one long letter from him and he sent me some money. It was wrapped in one of his embroidered handkerchiefs and I still have it up in one of the trunks. Everything seemed fine when he wrote the letter. He said he was making plans to come and he would let me know real soon when to expect him. I waited a few weeks then months and finally, I took a job as a nanny with a family and helped them raise their five children. It was a fun time in my life but I have never stopped missing Alexander. Four months after I left Chicago a package arrived for me. It was that crystal vase you see on the mantle. It is the same vase that was in Josephine’s house. How did she know where I was? Why didn’t she send the bounty hunters to take me back? I don’t know the answers. Somebody told her where I was and Alexander was the only one who knew that. Somehow he must have gotten word to her that I was waiting for him. Then about a year later, I got a check in the mail. It came from a big Chicago bank and it was for a thousand dollars. I have gotten one of those checks every month since. I called them several years ago and nobody could give me any answers. They just said there was a trust set up in my name and these were the monthly interest checks that they were instructed to mail to me. I know Alexander loved me and wanted to spend his life with me. Something bad happened to him but he was apparently able to get the trust set up first, to provide for me. I did find out that he didn’t just work for that bank like he told me he did. His dad owned it and it’s the same bank I get the checks from every month. I always believed that someone in the mob got to him before he was able to get away. I think he paid the price for my freedom.”
When I picked up my hastily scribbled notes and pencils and left her house that day, I knew something deep had touched my life. I went there as a silly teenager with a paper to write and left with a whole new outlook on what life can do to people and how it’s up to us to roll with the bad and make the most of the positives that enter our lives. Jenny had chosen to live the life she had with as much gusto and grace as possible. I hope I can do just half as good as she has.
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|Reviewed by Cleve Sylcox
|Sandy, wow! What a great story! This is an excellant...very nicely done...I especially like this line, "...traces of beauty that age had not been able to destroy." Beautiful, discriptive...I can't wait to read more of your work.|
|Reviewed by Jean Pike
|A really wonderful story. I love the way you have developed these characters, and your point is so well taken. Excellent!|