Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ada Celeste Sweet: Strength In Extraordinary Circumstances

Although the possibility of under aged prisoners has long been conjectured, Ada Celeste Sweet, daughter of Colonel Benjamin Jeffery Sweet, is the only child documented to have actually lived behind the towering walls of Camp Douglas.

From an early age, Ada’s life took extraordinary turns. In the autumn of 1863, the Sweet family was residing in Wisconsin when Ada’s father, formerly a lawyer and Wisconsin Sate Senator, received the assignment to Camp Douglas as part of his service with the Twenty-first Wisconsin Regiment. This promotion immediately divided the family. In conduct highly unusual for the period, twelve year old Ada Sweet accompanied her father to Chicago even though her mother and siblings remained in Wisconsin.[i]

Officers of Camp Douglas were expected to reside within the camp. However, when their family accompanied them to their post, the officers commonly installed their wives and children in comfortable homes within the city of Chicago. This spared their loved ones the harsh, unsanitary conditions of the camp which was not considered a fit place for women and children. Following this example, Colonel Sweet, living as a single father, took up residence in downtown Chicago and enrolled Ada in a Catholic girls’ school.

When William Hoffman, commissary-general of prisoners, learned that Colonel Sweet was living in town with his daughter, he irately reported Sweet to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Unperturbed, Stanton diplomatically directed Sweet to change residence “in order that your personal attention may be given to the affairs at the camp.” Sweet quickly responded that he felt the move unnecessary as his downtown location was ideally located; being close to the telegraph, provost marshal, and quartermaster.[ii] Nonetheless, to please his superiors, Sweet moved to Camp Douglas, taking Ada with him.

By July 15th, 1864, Colonel Sweet and his daughter had taken up residence within Camp Douglas.[iii] Any account of reasons why Ada was not returned to her mother, boarded with a respectable family in town, or left in the care of nuns has been lost to history. What does remain clear is that Ada’s innocent childhood had come to a crashing halt.

While living in Garrison Square, Ada was needlessly exposed to a multitude of deadly diseases and frequently witnessed unspeakable acts of inhumanity. Each day, when Ada returned from school, she had free run of Garrison Square. One of Sweet’s fellow officers recalled the lonely “little girl” darting in and out headquarters in search of attention.[iv] Not yet a teenager, Ada daily witnessed guards forcing prisoners to “ride the mule” which was positioned near the prisons’ gate. Her writing shows evidence that Ada felt deep compassion toward these men.

“The man slipped away from the other prisoners and hide in our basement,…At night when I came home from school I saw him hiding there behind a barrel. I just kept quiet and didn’t say a word. About an hour later his absence was discovered. The alarm was given and a search was made, but it was too late. The man had run the guard and escaped. It was one of those things a child will do.”[v]

Colonel Sweet must have noticed the toll that living within the camp was taking on Ada. He wrote to Hoffman requesting to be allowed to move back into downtown Chicago. Hoffman, while tactful, remained adamant in his belief that Sweet should reside in camp, replying, “I feared that in your absence from camp it would necessarily fall into other and less reliable, hands, and for this reason I asked for the change.”[vi]

While Colonel Sweet was seen as a “reliable” officer who eventually rose to the rank of General, he was a demanding, self-centered father. By age 14, Ada’s formal education had ended. At 16, she literally became her father’s right arm. As his elbow had been seriously injured during the war, Ada was pressed to serve as her father’s secretary and scribe, writing down his every thought while he served as the United States Pensions Agent in Chicago.[vii] Ada continued in this position when her father became a deputy commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington DC. [viii] She quickly became adept at living in a “man’s world,” keeping matters confidential, and doing an adult’s work professionally.

After her father’s untimely death in 1874, 21 year old Ada was appointed as the Chicago Pension Agent. She held this position for eight years.[ix] Ada was the first female allowed to distribute money for the United States Government.[x] Legend holds that she received her post as a political favor from President Ulysses S. Grant who had learned that the General’s family would not be able to support itself without a steady income.[xi]

“Miss Ada C. Sweet has been made a United States Pension Agent at Chicago. The President has heretofore declined to appoint ladies to responsible disbursing positions, but the ability of Miss Sweet in the administration of the Chicago office while her father was Pension Agent, before he was appointed Deputy Commissioner, induced the President to make an exception in her favor. The Senate confirmed the nomination without the usual reference to a committee. ~ 'The States.'” [xii]

Despite being very effective in her work and making several improvements in the office, a scandal mars her record. In 1876 an investigation of the Chicago Pension Office was conducted after Congressman Hulbert accused Ada of bribing a male pension officer to resign so that she might have employment. Ada, who was no shrinking violet, refused to stoop so low as to answer the charge. The case was never resolved.[xiii]

During that memorable year of 1876, Ada served as president of the Chicago Woman's Club. The membership adored her. Upon her retirement, she was made an honorary life member.[xiv] Ada was also an avid member of the Illinois Audubon Society, and advocated for wild life delivering various speeches including "A Plea for the Birds."

Tragedy haunted the Sweet family. In 1879 when their mother died in a train accident, the Sweet children became orphans. Ada, now a single working woman, was left to rear two younger sisters. Her brother Lawrence had died in August 1872. Another brother ran away and was not found until 1889 when he was discovered working as a ranch hand in Arizona.[xv] Thus Ada and her sisters were left alone against the world.

The task of guiding and nurturing her sisters was not without its hazards. Matilda, whom the family called Minnie, was the Sweet’s second daughter. As a rather impetuous young woman she hastily became engaged to a recently arrived German emigrant. On October 5, 1880, 23 year old Minnie wed Frank Weber. While this couple went on to have two children, their marriage was not a happy one. The youngest sister, Martha Winifred Sweet, was equally headstrong. Winifred failed quite miserably in a career as an actress in New York. However, when she changed coasts, and changed careers at Ada’s urging, she rose to success as the noted “Sob-Sister” journalist Annie Laurie. Winifred gained her fame through writing investigative articles for the San Francisco “Examiner.” She married twice, neither time produced happy results. Made cautious by what she witnessed and her overriding feelings of unwillingness to surrender a hard earned independence, Ada never married. Instead she focused proudly on furturing her career.

(Pensioner Dropped.)
U.S. Pension Agency
Chicago Ill.
July 1, 1883

Wm. W. Dudley
Commissioner of Pensions


I hereby report that the name of Sarah J. DIXON, widow who was a pensioner on the rolls of this agency under Certificate No. 72253 and who was last paid at $8 to 31 Dec 1882 has been dropped because of REMARRIAGE.

Very respectfully,

Ada C. Sweet
pension agent”

Ada was a highly successful career woman at time when most women’s lives centered upon on housekeeping and children. However, her life was never without challenge, notoriety, and adventure. In 1886 Ada visited Europe and upon her return she began work as the literary editor of the Chicago “Tribune.”[xvi]

“Are We A Homeless People?

By Ada C Sweet

Puzzle to me is why so many American women find themselves useless at home – so useless, so uninterested that they can spend time and money in Europe, leaving their husbands to drift about in hotels or clubs or to live in their gloomy half shut houses, attended by servants and without anything that makes a house a home. Here on this side of the ocean…..”

Following her father’s example, Ada always strived to further her career. In 1888 she became an Untied States Claims Attorney and held the position until 1905.[xviii] Yet, even in this position of power, Ada never forgot what she had seen at an early age at Camp Douglas. She became a political activist and member of the Civic Federation.[xix] She championed the rights of poor working women, worked with women prisoners, and fought for sanitary improvements within the city of Chicago.[xx]

The experience of residing in Camp Douglas where unsanitary conditions and common childhood diseases claimed the lives of thousand marked the course of Ada’s adult life. In 1890 Ada worked doggedly to raise funds and donate the very first ambulance to the Chicago Police Department. In 1892 she founded the Municipal Order League of Chicago. As its first president, Ada successfully lobbied for the creation of a department of street cleaning. Instead of being collected by a variety of private contractors, trash was now collected by the city and incinerated.[xxi] Ada also lobbied for public bathhouse citing that poor women often lived in tenements which had no facilities for bathing. Ada believed that every woman, regardless of her social class, deserved a safe place to bathe herself and her children. Ada was active as a suffragist and lent her name and strength to the movement. Indefatigable and never contented with the status quo, Ada worked on. In 1894, Ada organized the Columbian Ambulance Association in connection with the Chicago police department.[xxii] Concern for public health ran in the family. Ada’s sister Winifred wrote an undercover article for the San Francisco “Examiner” detailing the plight of poor working women who fell ill in public and the often brutal treatment they received from police officers and medical personnel.

Ada was a strong, invincible woman who refused to view herself as incapable of anything that could be accomplished by a man. She was simply not the sort to settle for the victim’s lot or tolerate pity. Her short story, “Poor Miss Pym,” which is the work most descriptive of her personal ethos, was published in “Harper’s Magazine” in 1899. Autobiographical in nature, the story tells the tale of an older single woman who, after witnessing the failing and abusive marriages of several friends, delivers a paper to a civic club objecting to the “idea that a woman who remains single is an object of pity.” Sadly, the “friends” of her story were in reality her own mother and sisters.

Ada tried to enter semi-retirement in 1905 when she became an editorial writer for the Chicago Journal. However she proved a most prolific writer, and contributed to a great number of newspapers and magazines. [xxiii]

“Don't make too much of the faults and failings of those
around you even be good to yourself, and don't harry your
soul over your own blunders and mistakes.

__ Ada C. Sweet”[xxiv]

Ever restless and striving for something more, Ada returned to full time employment in 1911. She served as manager of the women’s department of the Equitable Life Assurance Society until 1913.[xxv] Finally, in her late 60’s, age and the longing for closer family ties caught up with Ada.


What music sings no words could say,
And all the hidden springs of tears
Start forth into the light of day,
Grief has again its first sharp dread,
And disappointment cuts anew;
Mine eyes behold the loved and dead
And weep again the lost and true.
All the sweet voices heard no more,
And dear faces that have flown,
All the bright hopes my young life bore,
My heart recalls with every tone.
The smothered sweet of harp and flute
The human thrill of violin,
Make all my soul stand still and mute,
While memories flutter out and in.

Ada C. Sweet”[xxvi]

Lured by the warmer climate and the desire to live near her sister Winifred, Ada left Chicago for San Francisco. By the time of the 1920 Census, Ada had settled in Santa Rosa, California and in 1922 she was included in a "Who’s Who among the Women of California" which listed California’s Women Artists, Writers, and Musicians.[xxvii] On September 17, 1928, Ada died at the home of her sister, Mrs. Winifred Black Bonfils, (Annie Laurie) in San Francisco, California.[xxviii] Ada was 72 years old and had run a good race.

“Miss Ada Celeste Sweet

Special to the New York ‘Times’

CHICAGO. Sept. 17 – Miss Ada Celeste Sweet, A past President of the Chicago Women’s Club and pension agent at Chicago during the Administrations of Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur, died today at the home of her sister, Mrs. Winifred Black Bonfils, at San Francisco, according to word received here. Born in Stockbridge, Wis., Miss Sweet was the daughter of General Benjamin J. Sweet, whose office of Pension Commissioner she filled after his death.”[xxix]


[i] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 13, p. 207
[ii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 13, p. 218
[iii] Kelly, Dennis. “ A History of Camp Douglas Illinois, Union Prison, 1861-1865” p. 65
[iv] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 14, p. 229
[v] Camp Douglas Newspaper File, Chicago Historical Society
[vi] “ Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” Ser. II, Vol. VII, p. 644.
[vii] “Portrait and Biographical Record of Cook and Dupage Counties, Illinios” p. 609
[viii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[ix] New-York Times. May 9, 1876, March 19, 1878
[x] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xi] Wood, Sharon E. “The freedom of the streets: work, citizenship, and sexuality in a gilded age city” By Sharon E. Wood p. 38
[xii] Faithfull, Emily. “Victoria Magazine” Vol. 23 May – October 1874
[xiii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Epilogue, p. 368
[xiv] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xv] Abramson, Phyllis Leslie. “ Sob Sister Journalism” p. 34
[xvi] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xvii] Sunday Morning Globe, Washington, D. C.
[xviii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xix] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xx] Sivulka, Juliann. “From Domestic to Municipal Housekeeper: The Influence of the Sanitary Reform Movement on Changing Women's Roles in America, 1860–1920”
[xxi] Chicago Metro History Education Center. “Chicago Women History”
[xxii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xxiii] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xxiv]Haines, Jennie Day. “The Blue Monday Book”
[xxv] Pierce, Bessie Louise. “ As other See Chicago” p. 317
[xxvi] Tourgee, Albion W. “Our Continent” Vol. 2 July – December 1882
[xxvii] Loughporough, Jean. “Who’s Who Amount the Women of California 1922”
[xxviii] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xxix] The New York Times, September 18, 1928

No comments: