Bughouse Square Debates

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The Bughouse Square Debates are an annual event sponsored by the Newberry Library in Chicago. The name Bughouse Square is the common nickname for Washington Square Park where the event is held. The name came from the word “bughouse” which was popular slang for mental health facilities in the early 20th century. The event is a celebration of Bughouse Square as it was one of the most celebrated outdoor free-speech centers in the United States and a popular Chicago tourist attraction.[1]

From the 1910s all the way to the mid-1960s it was common to find orators speak about issues of the day. During its height in the 1920s and 1930s, poets, religionists, and cranks addressed the crowds, but the mainstays were soapboxers from the revolutionary left, especially from the Industrial Workers of the World, Proletarian Party, Revolutionary Workers League. Many of the speakers became legendary and include anarchist Lucy Parsons, Ben Reitman, John Loughman, socialist Frank Midney, feminist-Marxist Martha Biegler, Frederick Wilkesbarr, Herbert Shaw (the “Cosmic Kid”), Kenneth Rexroth in his youth, the Sheridan twins (Jack and Jimmy), and one-armed “Cholly” Wendorf.[2][3]

Today the debates are a celebration of First Amendment rights and encourage speakers and hecklers alike to join in and speak about important topics of the day. The event also includes reenactments of speeches by famous Chicagoans as well as open mic poetry, music and food vendors.


  1. ^ Newberry Library, accessed July 29, 2012
  2. ^ Encyclopedia of Chicago, accessed July 29, 2012.
  3. ^ Brundage, Slim; Franklin Rosemont (1997). From Bughouse Square to the Beat Generation: selected ravings (Bughouse Square series). Charles H. Kerr. p. 175. ISBN 9780882862323. 

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