Walter Freeman and Me

As the time comes ever nearer for the publication of Examined Lives, I am still trying to understand the man who performed a lobotomy on my mother. I never met Walter Freeman, the man who was the very public face of lobotomies as cures for mental illness in the mid-20thcentury and at whose own reckoning performed some 3,500 such operations.  The photo below of his performing a lobotomy, without mask or gloves, in front of curious bystanders was one of his publicity stunts.  The procedure he used extensively, as depicted, involved hammering an ice pick-like device through the eye socket and wiggling it back and forth to severe connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.25616

Freeman performed that operation on my mother in 1950.  He saw her for the first time on a Friday, pronounced her a paranoid schizophrenic, and did the procedure the following Monday.  The man wasted no time.

The operation drastically changed my mother’s life and so my own.  Her diary and scrapbooks reveal her to have been a vivacious, competent woman.  She came to Chicago on her 20th birthday and began her rise in the hospitality industry, starting with serving at the lunch counter at a busy Walgreen’s Drugstore at Rush and Oak Streets, where she ended up supervising 12 other waitresses, to serving as room captain at the Camellia Room of the Drake Hotel, frequented by the likes of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.  In her off hours she devoured the nightlife, visiting numerous clubs on any one night with a string of young swain, several of whom wanted to marry her. One was Jerry with whom she visited a night club and “afterward on the way home Jerry and I spied a baby buggy in an apartment house hall and we stole it and I rode down Rush Street in a baby buggy.  Fun. They took the buggy back though.”

After the lobotomy, her drive and “sparkle,” as my aunt put it, was taken from her and in fact she ended up being “adjudged insane” and institutionalized for a period of time.

What led to her having the lobotomy?  That is the story I tell in my book Examined Lives, based on thousands of pages of family letters, diaries, scrapbooks, medical records, an unpublished novel, poetry, and photographs.  And, yes of course, on the writings of Walter Freeman.

Here We Go!

Although Examined Lives is not yet on the digital market or on bookshelves, I am starting my efforts to get the word out.  My first event will be a reading and discussion at Woman Made Gallery, described in the release below.  Just click on the link.  I hope that those of you in Chicago can attend.

I welcome any suggestions about further opportunities to make my voice heard.  The book offers so many possible angles:  the glamour of my mother’s life in 1930’s Chicago, a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, the hopeful message that it can be faced and overcome, a cautionary tale about embracing medical practices based on hype and  little data as well as about the responsibility one has for making medical decisions for someone else.

WMG Talk



The Confusing and Confused A. Montgomery Ward


I have not blogged in a while but I have been busy on my book projects.  I am shepherding Examined Lives through the publication process and researching and writing Coming to Amerika.  I have written a great deal about United States history in my life, but working with my family documents I have learned much that I did not know before.  It is totally engrossing and I hope the product will be so to others.

I, however, have not forgotten Montgomery Ward.  Today I started working with the large amount of material available at the Chicago History Museum.  In just a few short hours I was in the midst of controversies about his birthdate and in which house in Chatham, New Jersey he was actually born.  The birthdate I had long ago settled; the controversy arose from sloppy estimate of ages in the early censuses.  The house is really not material.  But among the documents was a copy of a brief memorandum Ward had handwritten himself in about 1890 about his life.  Historians had quoted from this memorandum, but this was the first time I had read the whole thing.

In my blog post What’s in A Name? I had discussed the origin of his name.  Among all the accounts I had read which quoted from his memorandum, no one had quoted on this topic.  So it was a total surprise to me to find Ward saying that he was named after Gen. A. Montgomery Ward of the French and Indian War and brother to his great-grandfather Captain Israel Ward.  I of course have immediately investigated.  First, there was no General named A. Montgomery Ward who fought in the French and Indian War and second, Israel Ward did not have a brother named A. Montgomery Ward.  As I discussed in my abovementioned blog, Israel Ward had a son named Aaron Montgomery Ward, who was our Ward’s grandfather.  So what was going on here?

This is speculation on my part, but speculation based on circumstances.  As a young child we do not know what story our Ward was told and he may have gotten it garbled.  He never met his grandfather, who died in 1841, several years before his birth in 1844.  In addition, Ward’s grandfather was not in Chatham when he died, but for whatever reason he had gone westward and died in Chicago, Illinois.  There is obvious irony in this given what happened later.

What I said in What’s in A Name? still stands.  Even a primary source can be confused.

The Restless and Ambitious Montgomery Ward


According to the census records, in 1860 Aaron Montgomery Ward was living with his family in Niles, Michigan with a listed occupation of shoemaker, his father’s trade.  Just 12 years later he was founding his company.  That was a spectacular journey.

Ward was a young man with ambition who looked to do better in life than be a shoemaker.   His father’s trade had hardly bettered his family’s straitened circumstances.   Soon after 1860 Ward moved to St. Joseph, Michigan and worked first in a shoe store and then in a general country store, working his way up to general manager, continually earning better money.

Later in life Ward described himself as “self-educated, self-made” and his succeeding jobs certainly bear witness to that.  After the Civil War he went to Chicago and first sold corn salve (under what circumstances remains to be investigated).  1865, however, saw him employed as a traveling salesman for the Case & Soben Lamp Co., probably to stores in the Midwest.  Next he spent two years in Chicago with the dry goods firm of Field, Palmer & Leiter (forerunner of Marshall Field & Company).  He then switched employers and worked for Willis, Greg, Brown & Co. until they folded.  He had a cousin Thomas Budd in St. Louis and worked as a traveling salesman for him for the Walter M. Smith Co., this time traveling to country stores in the South.  He returned to Chicago and was employed by C.W. & E. Pardridge & Co., for whom he worked while he was organizing his own venture.

Why he changed jobs so often—more money, more challenge and experience or all three—I would not venture to speculate now.  But certainly he was restless and striving and obviously learned a lot about salesmanship.  Indeed he was to become one of the greatest salespeople of all times.

What’s in a Name?

Sources on the life of Aaron Montgomery Ward, including a privately printed genealogy prepared for Ward’s daughter by the American History Society, state that his name derived from that of a Revolutionary War General, to whom he was related or at least was named after.  I had no reason to question so abundant “evidence,” but I wanted to determine just why this general had special meaning for Ward’s family.

To my shock, I found out that nobody had checked out this story all these years.  There is no General Aaron Montgomery Ward!  So where did the name come from and why is it connected in family lore with the Revolutionary War?  The first name Aaron is not such a puzzle as it is a Biblical and common enough first name.  It is the “Montgomery” which puzzled me as I could find no evidence of its appearance as part of a Ward family name until the Revolutionary War period.

The first of our Aaron Montgomery Ward’s ancestors to bear the name was his grandfather, who was born in 1776.  This Aaron Montgomery Ward was the son of Captain Israel Ward, a captain in the Eastern Battalion (also known as the New Jersey Brigade) during the Revolutionary War and an ardent supporter of independence.  On December 31, 1775 General Richard Montgomery was killed leading an attempt during a blizzard to take Quebec.  Given the fact that Israel’s son was born soon after, the best explanation of his including Montgomery in his son’s name was to commemorate this fallen hero.  Our Montgomery Ward then would have been named after his grandfather.

As I have discussed in my blog on A Soldier Called Henry Smith, family stories often are wrong but have a grain of truth in them.  I think in the case of Ward family history there was a confusion of a story about the name being associated with a general and the fact that there was a famous Ward general, Artemis Ward, who among other achievements oversaw the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Artemis Ward was, however, no relation of Aaron Montgomery Ward .

Chronicles tend to feed on and repeat each other.  Done enough times, statements get taken for facts.  It requires going back to original sources to set the record straight.  It looks like I have a lot more digging behind stories ahead of me.