A plea from a ‘Good Fellow’
In 1909, thousands of Chicagoans were inspired to become Secret Santas to the city’s children
The holidays tend to inspire anonymous acts of goodwill. Every year we hear about valuable coins being dropped into Salvation Army donation kettles; just a couple of days before Thanksgiving this year, a gold coin worth $1,500 was found in a kettle in suburban Geneva.
The air of mystery is as much a draw as the acts of charity themselves — who is the benefactor? What are his or her motivations? Is one person behind it all? Members of a secret group working together?
In 1909, one Chicagoan attempted to inspire an entire army of anonymous donors to rise up with an appeal that appeared on the front page of the Tribune.
“Last Christmas and New Year’s eve you and I went out for a good time and spent from $10 to $200. Last Christmas morning over 5,000 children awoke to an empty stocking — the bitter pain of disappointment that Santa Claus had forgotten them. …
“Now, old man, here’s a chance. … Just send your name and address to The Tribune — address Santa Claus — state about how many children you are willing to protect against grief over that empty stocking, inclose a twocent stamp and you will be furnished with the names, addresses, sex, and age of that many children. It is then up to you, you do the rest. Select your own present, spend 50 cents or $50, and send or take your gifts to those children on Christmas eve.”
It was signed simply: “Good Fellow.”
The appeal was published on Dec. 10; the next day, the Tribune reported that “yesterday’s mail deliveries brought a peck of letters to Santa Claus addressed in care of The Tribune. They carry the pledge that at least 2,000 children … will know now that there is a Santa Claus.”
In the days that followed, the Tribune printed nearly daily reports on the growing response to the program. By Dec. 13, 1,011 Good Fellows had pledged to help 7,610 of the city’s children. (That Tribune report also included this clarification: “In justice to all, it must be said that the ‘Good Fellows’ are not confined to the male sex. Many letters are being received from women. While old Santa always has been represented with long whiskers and masculine attire, ‘Good Fellow’ heartily welcomes the women.”)
By Dec. 16, more than 14,000 children were on Santa’s list.
To cope with the volume of letters arriving in the Tribune newsroom, a “Christmas bureau” was created, with 12 men working under the original Good Fellow. The Tribune office was “a hive of industry,” with catalogers working late into the night to organize the children’s names.
The work paid off. On Christmas Day 1909, “Fifteen thousand children in Chicago are happier this morning because of the campaign for a full Christmas stocking started by the original ‘Good Fellow’ and seconded by about 3,000 of his confreres in the big city.”
After a successful first year, the Good Fellow campaign returned the next, inspiring not only more Chicagoans to play Santa Claus but also poetry to be written for the cause.
“Bring or send dear children contributions soon/ And address your parcels all to ‘The Tribune’/ The Good Fellows surely will your gifts divide/ Grateful to the givers for the city’s pride,” wrote one poet.
In early 1911, the Good Fellows caught the attention of the Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Co., the Hollywood of its time, which produced a movie about “a cynical old chap conveniently named Grouch” that tips its hat to the program.
Grouch’s storyline bears remarkable similarities to that of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In a notable departure, Grouch reads “a newspaper account of the activities of the ‘good fellows’” before he dreams of a Christmas past and soon after experiences a change of heart.
While it’s unclear how many viewers of the film in other cities were inspired by it to do good, there is evidence the Good Fellow program reached those outside of Chicago — and those outside the usual scope of philanthropy.
“The Tribune yesterday received the following letter,” the newspaper reported on Dec. 14, 1911. “‘Gentlemen: Inclosed please find post-office money order to the amount of $10. This is sent you by a convict at this institution.” The letter was signed by the warden of the Wisconsin State Prison.
The convict’s donation, along with the contributions of 12,000 other Good Fellows, helped fill the stockings of 19,786 children that year.
The Good Fellow program continued helping the city’s needy children for decades. It eventually became part of Chicago Tribune Charities, which still operates today.
The intent of anonymity faded as the years passed. Later articles calling on readers to become Good Fellows published the names of those who had already donated gifts.
As for the identity of the original Good Fellow, that remained a tightly kept secret in the pages of the Tribune for the first 18 years, though the paper did let slip some details.
A note in the initial 1909 appeal assured readers that “‘Good Fellow’ is not a professional philanthropist, he takes a drink, cusses a bit, and even goes out at night with the boys for a mild good time — but he has taken care of from fifteen to twenty children a year in Chicago.”
Good Fellow himself wrote about “how it feels to go down a dark street with a bundle of dolls in one hand and a gun in the other,” describing his endeavors from before the program started. “I was in a strange neighborhood with $250 in my pocket. I stopped at a friend’s place of business. He handed me a six shooter revolver. Then I trudged away, the revolver on top of the bundle of toys.
“There isn’t a man in Chicago who would have stuck me up had he known my errand,” he assured readers, “but there was a chance he might have held me up and then discovered my mission afterward.”
This unfailing confidence in the goodness of Chicagoans was found in Edward Churchill Fitch, whom the Tribune revealed as the founder of the Good Fellow charity when he died in 1928.
A few years later, in the leadup to 1932’s Good Fellow drive, the story of how exactly Fitch started the program was finally told.
The “kindly, unobtrusive” Fitch, an assistant city attorney, walked into the mostly empty Tribune offices at 1:30 a.m. and was let up to the managing editor’s office. He explained to James Keeley that he had been distributing toys to poor children for the past five years.
“Tonight I was on a party with some friends and a good deal of money was thrown away. On my way home I began to think that good fellows might spend their money in a better way,” Fitch explained. “I give you the idea for what it’s worth. Don’t use my name.”
For the next three hours, Keeley and Fitch worked on a draft for the message.
“Prior to this night in 1909 no one had ever thought of enlisting newspaper readers in good-will movements,” the 1932 Tribune article stated. “Today scarcely a large city in the country is without a Good Fellow program or its counterpart, and variations of the plan have been taken up abroad.”
Though Fitch would later move to Springfield and continue his Good Fellow work there, he kept a close eye on the Chicago initiative in its early years.
Each year he’d visit the Tribune to check on the program’s progress, he’d say: “Remember now, keep my name out of it.”
Why the insistence on anonymity? The original Good Fellow explained that in his appeal to Tribune readers in 1909.
“Neither you nor I get anything out of this, except the feeling that you have saved some child from sorrow on Christmas morning. If that is not enough for you then you have wasted time in reading this — it is not intended for you, but for the good fellows of Chicago.”
Jerry, 5, didn’t get those two front teeth for Christmas, but the truck was a grand substitute Christmas gift at Norwegian Lutheran Children’s Home on Dec. 24, 1952.
Executives and employees of Central Motor Freight Association unload 6,000 Good Fellow Christmas gifts at Tribune Tower on Dec. 12, 1963.
Richard, 2, Carmen, 5, Consuelo, 3, and Dionesio, 11, in their home on South Peoria Street after Good Fellows had come and gone in 1941.