MONMOUTH, Ill. — Fads come and go. Those who were alive during the 1970s, for example, remember the national obsessions with streaking, CB radios and Pet Rocks. Every generation has them and most of them are benign and eventually forgotten. Such was the case with a fad that swept the nation during the early 20th century, and gripped the city of Monmouth 105 years ago — in November 1913.
That was the month when Jack the Hugger came to town.
On Dec. 4, 1913, it was reported in the Monmouth Daily Atlas that over the past few weeks, a man had been “trying to make life miserable for the women who have occasion to travel in certain fashionable sections of the city after nightfall.”
It reported that the “hugger” generally struck between 6 and 7:30 p.m., after the sun had gone down but before the streetlights had been lit.
The Monmouth police had been frustrated, however, because “Jack” was elusive, rarely appearing in the same locale. The paper reported that attacks had become so prevalent in one part of the city that the men of the neighborhood had loaded their shotguns with rock salt, hoping to teach the attacker a lesson.
Nationwide, Jack the Hugger had been on a rampage. He first appeared in the media in 1889, just a year after Jack the Ripper made his debut in London. In that year, “Jack” reports were made in Little Rock, Memphis and Detroit. In 1890, a “hugger” attacked young women in Denver, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
More hugging incidents occurred throughout that decade. In 1894, a man in St. Paul, Minn., seeking to avenge an attack on a woman, donned a dress and managed to draw a hugger’s attention, then proceeded to beat him up. By the time the police arrived, though, the hugger had vanished.
In 1899, a Jack the Hugger terrorized Pittsfield, Mass. — riding a bicycle. At the same time, two young Pittsfield women thought it would be fun to play the part of Jack and put on brothers’ clothes with false mustaches. When they attempted to hug a young girl, she attacked them with what had by then become the regulation defense weapon for young women in the days before car keys — a hat pin.
Over the next decade, Jack the Hugger incidents were reported across the country, from Syracuse, N.Y., to Butte, Mont. In Appleton, Wis., two Lawrence University coeds were attacked on April Fool’s Day, 1905.
The “hugger” fad would again capture the public’s imagination in 1913. That February, two “athletic” sisters in Oakland, Calif., gained headlines when they beat up an attacking “Jack.” By year’s end, Jack was active throughout Illinois, plaguing Rock Island, Danville and the Chicago suburbs.
On Dec. 4, a boy came hurrying into the Monmouth police station with information that the “hugger” had just attacked a young woman — this time later than usual, after 8 p.m.
At the same time, the Atlas reported that some “mischievous students have taken advantage of the operations of the ‘hugger’ and have been having a little fun on their own account, but that some other parties are concerned also seems evident, and some of these fine evenings the miscreants are apt to find their pranks may not be all fun. Complaints from the south end of town last night told of a possible ‘peeper,’ who like the ‘hugger,’ has the faculty of making himself scarce when steps are taken to learn his identity.”
It was reported on Dec. 8 that Monmouth’s hugger “has developed into a lecherous tongued individual who hurls the grossest insults and vilest epithets imaginable at his victims.” In the neighborhood of North Third Street and East Boston Avenue, he hurled obscenities at two young women who were walking downtown. The corner was one of the most dimly lighted in town.
On the night of Saturday, Dec. 20, two “hugger” incidents were reported, and the testimony of one woman on the south side caused police chief Morrison to arrest a young male suspect. Mrs. Fred Barnett and a woman companion had been attacked on East Ninth Avenue and Mrs. Barnett was thrown to the sidewalk as the assailant attempted to choke her. When her companion began to scream the “hugger” ran away.
Mrs. Joe White, accompanied by her mother and sister, was walking along the same avenue on Saturday evening when she was attacked by a young man who released her after she had screamed loudly enough to be heard by the people living near by. All three of the party were badly scared and gave up their trip to town.
After being identified by Mrs. Barnett as her attacker, Leroy Hoon of South Sixth Street was arrested on Sunday afternoon. He was also identified by a citizen named Haz Hedge, who had heard the screams and followed the assailant for some distance. The police noted that Hoon wore a “raincoat and light colored cap” similar to those reported in other “hugger” incidents.
Hoon, who was employed at the grocery store of W.T. Morris on the south side, had never had any legal trouble. He was released on bond and ordered to appear in court. At the hearing, his attorney, George Cox, demanded a jury trial and six jurors heard the case.
Attorney Cox called a number of witnesses to the stand who testified about Hoon’s good character and gave convincing evidence that he could not have been in the neighborhood of the alleged assault at the time it happened.
W.T. Morris, Hoon’s parents, the Rev. E.P. Smith, and a number of others all testified on his behalf, and convinced the jury the charge against him was not substantiated. Of the witnesses for the state, Mrs. Barnett was the most explicit, and Haz Hedges endeavored to corroborate her testimony. On cross examination, however, Hedges testified he had only returned to Monmouth three weeks ago after a long stay in another city and was not well acquainted with the defendant. He admitted there might be some possibility of his being mistaken in his supposition that the assailant of Mrs. Barnett was the young man on trial.
Following a verdict of “not guilty,” all hugging instances ceased and Monmouth settled in for a peaceful Christmas and New Year.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.