Friday, November 13, 2015


I have often said, when writing stories for this blog that you can’t really tell much about a person’s life just by looking at their tombstone.  You would never guess by looking at the simple tombstones of Al Capone or Michael Heitler that they had led nefarious lives. Conversely, you can’t tell by looking at the simple tombstone of restaurateur Fanny Lazzar that she was the confidant of kings and presidents.  Take a look at this tombstone from Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois:

Just from looking at her tombstone, what can you tell me about Martha Morris?  You can’t tell from the stone that Martha Morris was known as “The Armless Wonder.”  You can’t tell that she was a featured entertainer at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933, and you certainly can’t tell that she was in Tod Browning’s cult classic film ‘Freaks,’ yet all of these are true.

Since one of the purposes of this blog is to tell the story buried under the tombstone, let’s see what we can find out about Martha Morris “The Armless Wonder.”

Martha Morris was born October 10, 1902 in Chicago to David Morris (1862-1928) and Jennie, nee Strumpf (1868-1938).  Martha was born without any arms, and shorter-than-normal legs.  David and Jennie Morris had seven other children:  Joseph C. (1889-1959), Louis Frank (1891-1952), Ralph (1893-1963), Dorothy -  called “Dora” (1895-1979), Manuel Edward (1898-1966),  Benjamin - called “Bennie” (1901-1974) and Rose – called “Rosie.” (1907-1966).  Martha was the only one of the children born with birth defects.

Young Martha Morris

Both David Morris and Jennie Stumpf had been born in New York – he in December of 1862 and she on March 17, 1868.  David was from Russian Jewish stock; Jennie’s ancestors had been German Jews.  They were married in Manhattan on August 19, 1888.  David Morris was a tailor by trade, as was his father.  Their first two children were born in New York; the rest in Chicago, so David and Jennie must have moved to Chicago in about 1893. 

The first US Census that Martha was alive for was in 1910.  The Morris family was living at 2141 W. Crystal Street in Chicago:

2141 W. Crystal Street, Chicago

Jennie Morris indicated that she had given birth to eight children, and all eight were currently alive.  David indicated that he was a “Tailor in a Tailor Shop.”

Martha Morris 1918

I was unable to find Martha or her family in the 1920 or the 1930 US Census. Perhaps they were on tour as part of a traveling show when the census taker called – Martha had worked for several different traveling shows through the years.

According to Google there is an eight page booklet published in 1924 called Life History of Martha Morris: The Armless Wonder that may better explain Martha’s travels during the 1920s but I was not able to locate a copy.  We do know during the 1920s Martha appeared as a featured attraction at Coney Island, and was one of the featured entertainers at the traveling Freak City Show.

Martha's circus act - note the large posters of her on the back wall

This might be a good point to talk about Martha’s handicaps and how she overcame them.  As I mentioned at the start of the article, Martha Morris was born without arms and with shorter-than-normal legs, leaving her unable to walk.  I was unable to discover the specific medical diagnosis for what caused her to be born this way.  There are cases of children having severe birth defects if their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide, but thalidomide was not developed until 1954, so there is no chance that Martha’s mother Jennie could have used it.  The other causes for this condition are genetic.  The American Journal of Medicine lists a condition called Phocomelia (from the Greek work for the animal the seal), which is an extremely rare congenital disorder involving malformation of the limbs.  √Čtienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the term in 1836.  There is another similar condition known as Amelia with similar results.

Martha Morris was deprived not only of her arms, but a portion of her legs as well.  Her feet appeared just below the hips, leaving her unable to walk or dress herself.  Martha got around with the aid of a wheelchair and someone to push it.

But the amazing thing about the story of Martha Morris is what she did with her life.  Many families would have immediately institutionalized a child born with these severe birth defects, or kept them at home limiting their exposure to the world and its ills, but the Morris family did exactly the opposite.   New Zealand lawyer Rod Haines puts it this way, “I was born armless, not brainless.”  While on exhibit Martha would demonstrate remarkable dexterity with her feet by writing and typing with her toes as if they were full-fledged fingers.  She could even thread a needle.  Rather than hiding her handicap, Martha Morris decided to make the most of it.

Martha’s father David Morris died on September 14, 1928 at the age of 67.  He is buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery at Gate 54, Order Brith Abraham, Row 21, Lot 421, Grave 6:

As I mentioned above, Martha Morris had been on the road since she was a teenager.  By 1930 she was a veteran performer with thousands of performances and thousands of miles under her belt.  All indications are that Martha enjoyed her life as an entertainer, but the high point of her life came in 1932 when she appeared in Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks,’ alongside another famous armless wonder, Frances O’Connor.  Martha was a huge movie fan and any night she wasn't working she was at the movies.  So when the chance came for Martha to be able to star in a real Hollywood motion picture she was thrilled.

Here are two photos of Martha Morris from 'Freaks:'

For those of you not familiar with the film, 'Freaks' is the story of a beautiful circus trapeze artist who agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.  Director Tod Browning had been part of a traveling circus in his youth, so to give 'Freaks' a shot of realism he cast many circus performers as themselves.  In addition to the circus entertainers who were in the film, Martha appeared with seasoned actors Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Roscoe Ates.

The point that Browning wanted to make, was that these people who may not look like everyone else, were, in fact, just like everyone else under the surface - some good, some not so good.  In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.

All reports were that Martha loved every minute of her Hollywood film debut.

After the release of 'Freaks' Martha returned to her hometown of Chicago where she appeared at the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933.

Martha at her typewriter

Martha Morris died on April 5, 1937 in her home at 3206 W. Ainslie in Chicago (now a parking lot). The cause of death was pneumonia caused by rheumatic fever.  She was 34 years old.  Here is her death certificate: 

Here is her obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune from April 6, 1937:


and here is her Death Notice:

Martha was buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, Gate 105, Cong. Atereth Israel.  Here again is her tombstone:

Although she did not live a conventional life, Martha Morris packed a lot of living into her 34 years.  Rising above a serious disability that would have kept most people at home, she traveled the country showing just how much a person could accomplish, no matter what the handicap.  She was a featured entertainer all the way from Coney Island in New York to the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.  And to top it all off, Martha Morris, movie fan extraordinaire, got to star in one of Hollywood’s cult classic films, Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks.’  Not bad for a little girl with no arms and shorter-than-normal legs.  Some might have thought that Martha was exploited by those who put her on display, but Martha, with her positive attitude, would have said instead that it gave her a chance to travel the country and show people what you could do with pluck and perseverance.  Martha Morris is an example to us all. 

Martha Morris - The Armless Wonder - May she rest in peace.

Friday, October 30, 2015


As a student of history, as well as a life-long Evanstonian, I have always been curious about the history of notable buildings in the area, especially in central and downtown Evanston – the oldest part of town.  Some of these properties have a family connection: my grandfather designed and installed the landscaping for the Charles Gates Dawes home and the Evanston Womens’ Club, among others.  But there are some buildings that I would guess have an interesting history that I don’t know about – for example The Carlson Building on Church Street in downtown Evanston.  Who was “Carlson” and why is his name on the building?  In the 1980s I met the then-owner of the Carlson Building, local businessman Bruce Goodman (a terrific guy to know and do business with), but his name is not Carlson.  So I decided to “dig up” what I could about the mysterious “Carlson.”

The mysterious Carlson’s full name was Victor Carlandrie Carlson, and he was a contractor and builder.  He was a native Evanstonian who wanted his buildings to help keep Evanston beautiful and convey strength and longevity – traits that he felt Evanston herself had.  But he was not just the builder of the Carlson Building – he built two of Evanston’s landmark hotels:  The Library Plaza Hotel in 1922 and the crown jewel of the downtown – The Orrington Hotel, which he built in 1927.  So before we take a look at the buildings he built in Evanston, let’s see what we can find out about Victor C. Carlson.

Note:  Many sources list Victor's middle name as "Calandrie." without the first "r."  When he registered for the draft in 1917 he listed his name as "Victor C. Carlson" but when he registered in 1942 he listed his full name as "Victor Carlandrie Carlson," with the first "r" included.

Victor Carlandrie Carlson was born February 26, 1888 in South Evanston, Illinois (a separate village until 1892) to John August Carlson (1860-1949) and Hannah Karoline, nee Eklund (1858-1896).  Victor had four sisters: Hulda Josephine (1885-1916), Caroline (1889-????), Signey (1892-????), and Anna Victoria (1896-????).  He also had one half-brother from his father’s second marriage: Harold W. (1905-1994).  John A. Carlson was a building contractor by trade.

The first time Victor pops up in the US Census is 1900 when he was twelve years old.  The family is living at 1328 Washington Street in Evanston.  John lists his occupation as “Mason.”

1328 Washington Street, Evanston

About 1905, Victor C. Carlson went out on his own, going into partnership with Oscar L. Swanstrom. They called their company "Carlson and Swanstrom."  Unfortunately things did not go too well for the new partners.  In late 1906 Carlson and Swanstrom declared bankruptcy.  When the bankruptcy was discharged on June 14, 1907 they listed Liabilities of $2,000.00, but Assets of only $329.00.

The 1910 US census is the last one where Victor would be living with his parents.  The Carlsons were living at 1542 W. Estes in Chicago.  John Carlson lists his occupation as a contractor/mason, as does twenty-two year old Victor.

1542 W. Estes, Chicago

Wedding bells rang later that year for Victor Carlson and twenty-two year old Charlotte, nee Carlson (1887-1986).  They were married June 29, 1910 at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston.

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston

Here's a photo of young Victor Carlson from his grandparents' fifty-second wedding anniversary party in 1910:

Victor C. Carlson - 1910

Little by little Victor C. Carlson rebuilt his reputation and his credit rating. The Chicago Daily Tribune of Feb 1, 1914 reported that Victor had purchased a property on the SWC of N. Ashland & North Shore in Chicago.  The lot was 60’ x 125’ and was subject to an encumbrance (mortgage) of $1,710.00.

As Victor Carlson rebuilt his business, his family grew as well.  As was the case in those days, children started joining the family at a rapid pace: Charlotte Virginia (1911-1977), Victor John (1912-1999), Robert Francis (1914-1999), and Bernice Roberta (1916-1999), so when Victor Carlson registered for the draft in 1917 he could honestly say that he was supporting his wife and four children.  The Victor Carlsons were living at 6656 North Ashland in Chicago when Victor registered on June 5, 1917.

6656 N. Ashland, Chicago

Victor said he was a self-employed contractor and his place of business was at 6801 N. Clark Street in Chicago.  There is a furniture store in that spot today.

On May 16, 1917 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Victor C. Carlson had applied for a building permit to build a 3-story brick building with stores and flats (apartments) at 1601-11 W. Montrose in Chicago (SWC Montrose and Ashland).

1601 W. Montrose, Chicago

Carlson closed on the purchase of the lot and began construction in November of 1917.  There were forty-five apartments and six stores, and the construction cost was estimated at $100,000.00.

The 1920 US Census found the Carlson family living at 6645 N. Greenview in Chicago:

6645 N. Greenview, Chicago

Victor listed his occupation as "Builder in the Contracting Business." Charlotte was born in Sweden and came to the US in 1891 when she was just four years old.

As the boom times of the 1920s began, Victor Carlson's fortunes increased as well.  The Tribune reported in February of 1921 that Carlson had sold an 18-flat he owned at the NWC of N. Greenview Avenue and W. Greenleaf Street for $95,000.00

NWC Greenview & Greenleaf, Chicago

Later in 1921, Victor Carlson moved his family back to the city of his birth, Evanston, Illinois, by purchasing the beautiful home at 2219 Orrington Avenue:

2219 Orrington, Evanston

Carlson had truly come home again, and this time he would leave his mark on Evanston.

In May of 1921, now calling himself "The Victor C. Carlson Company," he contracted to build a 3-story and basement college building for the Chicago Engineering Works. 

Lawrence & Leavitt, Chicago

In 1922 Victor C. Carlson started the first of his projects set to transform downtown Evanston.  On January 8, 1922 the Tribune announced that construction had already begun on the Library Plaza Hotel at 1633-39 Orrington Avenue.

Called "The first skyscraper in Evanston," it was part of what Carlson called "Library Square"

The Library Plaza Hotel, Evanston

The architect for the Library Plaza was J.A. Scanlan, and Carlson had budgeted $450,000 for the construction and finishing.    According to the January 8, 1922 Chicago Daily Tribune, one of the "novelties" of the Library Plaza was that it contained elevators that went directly from the hotel to the garage underneath, allowing patrons to get into their cars without having to experience inclement weather. 

Here's an ad for the Library Plaza from November 5, 1922:

The Chicago Daily Tribune from January 21, 1923 announced the next jewel in Victor Carlson's crown: the $2,000,000, three-hundred room (each with its own bath) Orrington Hotel:

The Orrington Hotel, Evanston

The new gem of the North Shore opened for business in September of 1923 with rave reviews.  In fact, demand was so great that on April 6, 1924, Carlson announced that he would be constructing an eight story addition to the Orrington Hotel that added another ninety-eight rooms, bringing the total to 398 rooms and suites - both  furnished and unfurnished.    

Victor Carlson did not limit his building just to the Library Square.  On January 25, 1925 the Chicago Daily Tribune announced Carlson's next project: The John Evans Co-op Apartments at Hinman and Davis in Evanston:

About the time that Victor C. Carlson started building the John Evans Apartments he approached the City of Evanston about building a fifteen story building at the SE corner of Orrington Avenue and Church Street. The building, which he named "The Carlson Building" would be marketed primarily to the medical profession - doctors, dentists, etc. Carlson was so sure of the City's approval that he put in the foundations for a fifteen story building before he had the official OK from the City.  Carlson's reputation was so good that before he even broke ground 60% of the office space had been rented, and three of the six first floor shops were spoken for.

The Roaring Twenties were certainly roaring for Victor C. Carlson.

But he made a mistake taking the City of Evanston for granted.  As reported in the following article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 21, 1925, the Evanston City Council cut Carlson's fifteen story tower to ten stories, and the top three floors could only be used for tanks, a gymnasium, etc.  The Tribune called it "Evanston's Dehorned Skyscraper:"

Before we resume the story of Victor Carlson's real estate empire, let's take a look at the Carlson Building which still graces downtown Evanston today, 90 years after it was built:

Carlson Building, Evanston

The name at the top "CARLSON BUILDING" used to light up in neon, but not anymore:

Take a look at the architectural details Carlson built into his buildings:

Look at the elevator doors - works of art in themselves:

The lobby directory:

The lobby mailbox:

Lobby Details:

The Entrance:

An interesting side note.  The two elevators in the Carlson Building were run by two sisters well into the 1980s - long after everyone else had gone to self-starting elevators.  The two elevator operators knew all of the doctors and dentists, and greeted each by name every time they got into one of their elevators.  After the sisters retired, the then-owners decided to install self-starting elevators.  It was truly the end of an era in Evanston.

Not all of the vintage fixtures at the Carlson Building, however, are being well-maintained:

Here's a photo that includes the 1928 addition:

The downtown Evanston properties were not the only ones that Victor Carlson was building in the 1920s.  Here are a few of his other projects as reported by the local press:

1925  NEC Central & Prairie, Evanston;
          18 apartments and commercial                                                                                 $240,000

1926  Richton Park Country Club Clubhouse                                                              Undisclosed

1927  Market Square,
          Ridge & Clark, Chicago; apartments, commercial,
          indoor parking, auto sales and service                                                                 $2,000,000

1927  The Rookwood,
          712-36 Noyes, Evanston;
          52 apartments with swimming pool                                                                    $750,000

1928  Hillcrest,
          Ridge & Clark across from Market Square;
          70 apartments, garage, commercial                                                                     $2,500,000

1928  Carlson Building Addition,
          618-626 Church Street                                                                                         $800,000

1929  Elmwood Manor,
          Clark & Pratt, Chicago                                                                                         $545,000

1929  Office Building,
          610-612 Church Street                                                                                         $760,000

1929  The Sherwood,
          Sheridan & Foster, Chicago;
          52 apartments                                                                                                       $511,000

1929  Purchased the Leasehold
          under 1623 Orrington for a future project                                                           Undisclosed

In December of 1926, Victor Carlson announced that he was opening an office in downtown Chicago at 65 E. Randolph for his company, now called "Carlson Realty and Investments."


In 1927 Carlson started marketing what he called "The Carlson Plan" which would allow smaller investors to share in the tremendous profits generated by real estate in the 1920s.  Here's an ad for The Carlson Plan from February 9, 1927:

These were the boom times of the 1920s and business was booming for Victor C. Carlson.  In March of 1928 he announced that he would now have three offices in Chicagoland to serve his customers:

65 E. Randolph - covers the Loop and Near North
5927 N. Clark - covers Lakeview and Edgewater
509 Davis, Evanston - covers the North Shore suburbs 

Things were still moving along at a fast pace for Victor Carlson.  The 1920s had been very good to him, and by all indications, that prosperity would continue - or would it?

The stock market crashed on October 24, 1929.  The crash and subsequent events would usher in the Great Depression and be the end of the financial empire of Victor C. Carlson.

All of a sudden Carlson found that his cash flow dried up.  People were not staying in his hotels, or paying the rent on his apartments.  His commercial tenants went bankrupt and there were none to take their places.  He had promised his investors 6% quarterly dividends and return of their investment in seven years.  That was fine when the cash was coming in the door faster than he could count it, but those days were gone.  Carlson went around frantically trying to borrow more money but the banks had no more money to lend.  He was sure that the downturn was only temporary - that was what all the "experts" said and if he could just keep afloat a while longer, everything would work out.

Like Anders E. Anderson, who's story I recounted in an earlier blog post, Carlson's investors stepped in and went to court to get control of his assets.  The Chicago Daily Tribune told the sad tale on March 18, 1930:

Carlson found himself in the same place as so many other financiers of the time - asset rich but cash poor.  As the article above states, Carlson's properties were appraised at more than $3,000,000 against liabilities of $300,000 - far different than when he had filed bankruptcy way back in 1907.  Time passed, and his investors and lenders grew more impatient.

In the meantime, the US Census taker knocked on the door of 2219 Orrington on April 21, 1930, at the same time as Carlson's empire was crumbling.  Carlson reported to the census taker that his occupation was "Builder in Building Construction" and that the house on Orrington was worth $65.000.00.  In addition to Carlson and his wife Charlotte, their four teenaged children were living with them, and Charlotte's sixty five year old widowed mother Kersti Carlson.

As the decade of the 1930s unfolded, the country was falling deeper and deeper into depression.  One by one Carlson had to liquidate his holdings (at rock-bottom prices), or watch them be seized by the lenders.

By 1931 Victor Carlson had lost it all - including the beautiful house on Orrington.  The 1931 Evanston City Directory shows Victor Carlson living at the Georgian Hotel and by 1933 he is not listed in the Evanston City Directory at all.

As with Anders E. Anderson, Victor Carlson had mostly faded from sight during the 1930s, although by 1935 he had returned to Evanston, listing himself as a contractor and living with the family at 1834 Sheridan Road (now part of Northwestern University).  But Victor Carlson was only forty seven years old in 1935 - far too young to retire.  Plus all of the real estate investments that could have provided for an early retirement were gone, so Victor Carlson went back to work.  Luckily he was able to find work during the depression.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from June 12, 1938 gave an update on Carlson:

Home building must have been a success for Victor Carlson because he made the Tribune again - this time on July 30, 1939:

The 1940 US Census shows the Victor C. Carlson family in Evanston - at 1412 Washington Street - less than one block west of where Victor was living in 1900:

1412 Washington Street, Evanston

It was a long way from 2219 Orrington, but at least the Carlson family had a place to live and Victor had employment - that made them better off than a good portion of the population during the Depression.

When Victor Carlson registered for the draft on April 27, 1942 he was fifty four years old.  He and Charlotte were living at 1216 Main Street in Evanston, one of the eight houses he built in that area:

1216 Main Street, Evanston

He listed his employer as "Victor Carlson Associates, 11 S. La Salle Street, Chicago."  He told the draft board he was 5'-10 3/4" and weighed 172 lbs.  Although he was not living in as grand a style as he had been in the past, he had a nice home in a nice area of Evanston.

Various articles reported that Carlson continued to build prefab homes, first in Evanston and then in Glenview throughout the 1940s as the demand exploded for housing for returning veterans.

Ever the builder, the Tribune from October 6, 1961 reported that Victor C. Carlson "has developed what he calls 'The Carlson Process' for construction of low cost, condensation proof livable bomb shelter basements." 

History does not report how much of a success Carlson was with his "bomb-shelter basements" but it must not have been too successful because he soon came up with another idea:  Renting air rights over surface parking lots, and then constructing a building in the air rights space.  He made his pitch to the Evanston City Council as reported by the Tribune on October 7, 1963:

It was a novel idea that would ultimately be put into use, but unfortunately Carlson was ahead of his time.

Victor C. Carlson died on August 24, 1977 at the age of 89.  When he died, he and Charlotte were living at 617 Grove Street in Evanston:

617 Grove Street, Evanston

He died of complications from a stroke.  Here is his death certificate:

Here is his obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of August 26, 1977:

and here is his Death Notice:

Victor C. Carlson was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago in Section 14.  Here are photos of his grave:

Victor C. Carlson was born in Evanston, lived most of his life in Evanston, and was living in Evanston when he died.  He was responsible for building some of the best known properties in downtown Evanston: the Library Plaza Hotel, the Orrington Hotel, the John Evans Apartments and his flagship, the Carlson Building.  He must have had mixed emotions in later years when he drove around and saw so many properties that he built but ultimately lost.  I'm sure that every time he saw the neon "CARLSON BUILDING" sign, he must have thought "that was my building."  He could certainly feel a deep sense of pride, but that would have been tempered with an acute sense of loss.  But it is my opinion that Carlson's buildings were creations of beauty and strength, whereas today downtown Evanston is filled with so many buildings that are just plain junk.  I am grateful for the many wonderful buildings that Victor Carlson left us as his legacy.  Evanston is a more beautiful place because of the vision of Victor Carlson.

Victor C. Carlson, Evanston's premiere builder - may he rest in peace.