Read CHAPTER I - School and Factory of An Anarchist Woman , free online book, by Hutchins Hapgood, on ReadCentral.com.

When I first met the heroine of this tale, Marie, she was twenty-three years old, yet had lived enough for a woman of more than twice her age; indeed, few women of any age ever acquire the amount of mental experience possessed by this factory hand and servant girl. She had more completely translated her life into terms of thought than any other woman of my acquaintance. She had been deeply helped to do this by a man of strange character, with whom she lived. She had also been deeply helped by vice and misery. The intensity of her nature showed in her anæmic body and her large eyes, dark and glowing, but more than all in the way she had of making everything her own, no matter from what source it came. Everything she said, or wrote, or did, all fitted into her personality, had one note, her note. But perhaps the most intense quality of all was and is this never-failing though gracefully manifested energy, resulting in unity of character and temperament in expression. To keep everything in tone is a quality of art; it is also a sign of great, though not always obvious, energy.

Marie was born in a Chicago slum in 1884. Her mother, half French and half German, was endowed with cruelty truly international. Her father was a drunken machinist of German extraction, generally out of a job. Both the parents beat the little girl, the mother because she was cruel, the father because he was a beast.

Her earliest memories are connected with the smoky streets of the West Side. The smell of the Stock Yards suggests her youth to her, as the smell of walnuts brings back to the more fortunate country man the rich beauty of a natural childhood. The beatings she received from her parents and the joy of her escape to the street these are the strongest impressions derived from her tender years. To her the street was paradise; her home, hell. She knew that when she returned to the house she would find a mother half crazy with poverty and unhappiness and a father half crazy with drink; and that, if for no other reason than for diversion and relief, they would beat her.

The authorities finally succeeded in forcing the little girl’s parents to send her to school, where she remained only two years. She was not quite ten years old at the time, and the memories she has of her school life are only a trifle less unpleasant than those of her home. The last day in school especially lives in her recollection; and she thus described it in a letter to me:

“It was a warm morning toward the end of May, and room seven in the Pullman School was pervaded with an intense excitement. For soon examination day would come and the pupils were being prepared for the occasion. The children fidgeted uneasily in their seats and even the teacher became nervous and impatient, glancing often at the big clock which ticked so monotonously and slowly. Soon it would be twelve o’clock and teacher and pupils would have a respite for a few hours. If only those stupid children would solve those problems in arithmetic, the most difficult study, they would not have to stay after school. But it happened just as the teacher had feared: A dozen children, of whom two were boys, did not give correct answers. After the school was dismissed the stupids were ordered to go to the blackboard, and stay there until they saw the light.

“Meanwhile the teacher sat at her desk with a despairing look on her face and the general air of a martyr, as she noticed the futile efforts of those stupid children. But she was evidently determined not to help them out of their difficulty. After a while, one of the boys solved the problem and was dismissed. The other children looked at his work and quickly copied it before the teacher could erase it from the blackboard. Not I, however, for I was at the other end of the room and my eyes were weak. I enviously watched the other children leaving the room, until I was alone with the teacher. I tried the terrible, senseless problem again and again and became so confused and nervous that I was on the verge of tears. All the little knowledge I had of mathematics left me completely. Finally the teacher lost her patience and showed me how to get the answer.

“‘You stupid girl!’ she said, ‘you will never pass the examination.’

“But I did not care. I ran from the school-house, and on my way home kept saying to myself: ’I don’t have to pass, for I’m going to work next week, and I’m so glad. Then I’ll never, never have to study arithmetic any more. Oh, how I wish next week were here already.’ I was not quite twelve years old and I would have been working even then if my prospective employers had not instructed my parents to secure a certificate showing that I was fourteen years old.

“The next Monday morning, bright and early, with this new certificate, which was sworn to by my mother and duly attested by a notary, I presented myself at the office of Messrs. Hardwin & Co., in South Water Street. They were wholesale dealers in miscellaneous household supplies, from bird-seed and flavouring extracts to bluing and lye, the latter the principal article. Mr. Hardwin, a benevolent looking old gentleman with a white beard and a skull-cap, glanced at the certificate, and patting stupid me kindly on the head, hired me for two dollars a week, and sent me upstairs where I was put to work washing old cans collected from the ash barrels and alleys of the city. After being cleansed, they were filled with lye, and new covers sealed on them. Then they were covered with neat white labels, and packed in cases and delivered to all parts of the United States.

“This sort of work was not what I had expected to do. But I was told by my mother that all people who worked for their living had to start in that way, and gradually work themselves upwards. So I waited patiently for the time when I might, perhaps, secure the position of labelling. Then, too, I thought that great place would bring an increase of salary, for I had already learned that the lighter the work, the heavier the pay.

“About this time the firm received large orders for lye, and all hands were put to work filling the cans with this corrosive material, for which purpose rubber gloves were used. As I was the latest addition to the factory, and the greenest girl in the place, it was easy for the older and more experienced girls to secure the best gloves for the work. The old, worn out ones, which were full of holes, fell to me, who was too young and timid to rebel against these conditions. After a week of this work my hands were all eaten by the lye and it was torturing agony to move them in any way. At night my mother used to put salve and bandages on them, but this treatment was of little avail because the next day my hands would be covered with that horrible stuff which ate deeper and deeper, until the pain became unbearable.

“So, one morning, I went to Mr. Hardwin and begged him, with tears in my eyes, to let me work at something else until my hands were healed. He looked at my swollen fingers and said: ’My poor girl, you certainly shall work at something else. I will give you a nice easy job making bird-seed boxes.’

“I was immediately put at my new work, which seemed really delightful to me, but I was rather lonely, as I was the only girl on that floor. I made thousands and thousands of those boxes, which were stacked in heaps upon the shelves above my head. Directly behind me was a great belt, connected with the cutting machine up-stairs, which all day long cut out the round pieces of tin needed to cover the cans of lye after they were filled. This belt as it whirled round and round made a great noise. But I soon grew quite used to it. I became like a machine myself. All alone I sat there, day after day, while the great belt whirred out the same monotonous song. I kept time to its monotony by a few movements of the hands endlessly repeated, turning out boxes and boxes and boxes, all alike. I saw, heard, and felt almost nothing. My hands moved unconsciously and instinctively. At this time, I think, the first feeling of profound ennui came to me, that feeling which to shake off I would at a later time do anything, anything, no matter how violent and extreme it was. Only at noon time when the whistle shrieked did I seem alive, and then I was dazed and trembling.

“The great belt then stopped whirring for half an hour and I sat and ate my frugal meal, listening eagerly to the talk going on about me. Sometimes the girls made me the butt of their jests, for they were envious of me, because of my easy job, and hinted that I was not getting this snap for nothing. All of this I did not in the least understand, for I was not much more than twelve years old.

“One morning I was surprised and delighted to see Mr. Hardwin come in and ask me how my hands were, and if I still suffered much pain. I was so grateful that tears came to my eyes as I answered. That night I told my mother what an extremely kind and good man Mr. Hardwin was. He repeated these visits several mornings in succession, always asking me how I was getting along, and patting me on the head or shoulder as he went away. I had been working perhaps two months at this job, when one morning it happened that I was the first one of the employees to arrive at the factory. While I was in the dressing-room removing my wraps, a knock came on the door, and Mr. Hardwin entered. Quickly seizing me in his arms, he covered my face with kisses, and did not quit until he heard someone approaching. He left hastily, saying ‘Don’t tell!’ the only words he uttered during the scene. I was so amazed that I did not even scream. Nor did I understand, but I did feel troubled and ashamed. All that morning I was uneasy and nervous, and the following day I waited outside until some of the girls came, so that I should not have to go into the factory alone. The day following I received an envelope with my pay, and was told that my services were no longer required.

“I got a beating at home as a result of my discharge, but as I soon found another job, my parents became comparatively kind to me again. This new work was in a candy factory, where I was both startled and amazed at the way the beautiful, sweet candies were made. I remained there about six months, when I was discharged because I had been late several times in one week. The next job was in a brewery, where I labelled beer bottles. This was the cleanest and most wholesome place I ever worked in. We had a whole hour for dinner, and the boys and girls were all so jolly. Nearly every day after lunch we played on mouth organs and danced on the smooth floor until the whistle blew for work again. Oh, there, it was good to work! Three times a day each employee received a bottle of nice cold beer, which, after several hours of hard work, tasted lovely. The people there seemed to think it was not evil to be happy, and I naturally agreed with them against the good people outside. But one ill-fated day my parents heard that a brewery was an immoral place for a young girl to work in, and that if I remained there I might lose my character and reputation. So I was taken away and put to work in another place and then in another, but I am sure that I never again found a place that I liked half as well as the dear old bottled beer shop.”