Soapbox Speakers

‘The Bughouse Square Debates’.

The ‘Bughouse Square Debates’, in Chicago every July.

“Bughouse Square” (Washington Square) is in front of the Newberry Library on Walton Street Chicago. From the 1860’s the square was a place of protest, and it grew into one of America’s leading soapbox venues. The square reached its heyday in the 1930’s.

Over the years, thousands of speakers spoke there: the famous writers Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht (Kirk Douglas’ script writer); poet Kenneth Rexroth; lawyer Clarence Darrow; and radical unionist, Big Bill Haywood, to name a few.

There were also the not-so famous: the artists, trade unionists, socialists, ‘single- taxers’, and Druids. There were geologists proving the world was flat, and geologists proving the Earth was a hollow sphere. 
 There were atheists, suffragists, and people who had been in communication with the inhabitants of Mars.

Prohibitionists from the Moody Bible Institute also expounded their views in Bughouse Square.

A prominent Bughouse Square identity was Slim Brundage, a beatnik poet and speak-easy manager of the nearby Dill Pickle Club.

In 1968, Mayor Daley had the venue closed during demonstrations at the Democratic Convention.

The late Studs Terkel, famous Chicago author, helped revive soapbox oratory by promoting ‘The Bughouse Debates’.

Every year, for one day in July, the Newberry library in Chicago, (one of the world’s leading manuscript libraries) pays homage to the soapboxers of the past by staging these debates in a park opposite the Library. They honour the memory of their Speaker’s Corner that once occupied the square in the 1930’s. Speakers are invited from all over the City on the day. I was guest speaker in the library and one of the judges at the debate of 1995. It was the highlight of my travels in the USA. If you would like to know more about this year’s event:

https://www.newberry.org/bughouse-square-debates

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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