Guide to the Harry Olson (1867-1935) Papers

Collection Title: Harry Olson (1867-1935) Papers
Dates: 1906-1940
Identification: 1/14
Creator: Olson, Harry, 1867-1935
Extent: 4 Boxes
Language of Materials: English
Abstract: The Harry Olson Papers date from 1906 to 1940, and include biographical, correspondence, and subject files, with correspondence comprising the bulk of the series. This series represents the surviving portion of a larger body of papers, half of which were irretrievably damaged by mold, damp, and vermin. A few items are in Swedish.
Acquisition Information: The bulk of the Harry Olson Papers were donated to the Northwestern University Archives by Nancy Schwiesow, via E.W. Thompson, as accession #91-73 on May 17, 1991. One folder of pertinent material from the University Archives' biographical files has been incorporated.
Processing Information: Rae Sikula; September, 1999 (and Janet Olson, December, 1999)
Separated Materials: Approximately three linear feet of materials were discarded upon receipt due to extremely poor physical condition, mold, and vermin infestation.In 1994 one large scrapbook was separated from the accession and donated to the Chicago Historical Society. In September 1999 a number of unrelated brochures and advertisements were separated and donated to the Chicago Historical Society.Materials relating to Northwestern University (Board of Trustees minutes, budget reports, etc.) were transferred to the University Archives' General Files. A commemorative gavel, block, and wooden case presented to Olson in 1907 was added to the Archives' artifacts collection; one photograph was transferred to the Archives' photographic collection.
Conditions Governing Access: The Psychopathic Laboratory Cases file (Box 4, folder 12) can be viewed only with the permission of the University Archivist. All other files are open.
Repository: Northwestern University Archives
Deering Library, Room 110
1970 Campus Dr.
Evanston, IL, 60208-2300
Phone: 847-491-3354

Biographical/Historical Information

A son of Swedish immigrants, Harry Olson was born in 1867 in Chicago, Illinois, and spent his childhood on the Kansas frontier. After his father’s death in 1880, Olson left Kansas to attend high school in Pecatonica, Illinois. He served briefly as teacher and principal in the public schools of St. Marys, Kansas, before graduating first from Washburn College, Topeka. He received his LL.B. from Union College of Law (later the Northwestern University School of Law), Chicago, in 1891. Once admitted to the Bar, Olson married Bernice Miller, whom he had met in Pecatonica. The couple settled in Chicago.

While teaching in the Chicago Evening Schools, Olson met attorney Charles S. Deneen, who became a lifelong friend. When Deneen was elected State’s Attorney for Cook County in 1896, he invited Olson to serve as his assistant. In this capacity Olson argued his landmark corpus delicti case in 1897, persuading the jury that a bit of hair, several bones, and a wedding ring represented the murdered body of Mrs. Adolph Luetgert. This prosecution was cited in law textbooks for years to come.

In 1906 Olson was elected Chief Justice of Chicago’s newly-established Municipal Court, the first unified court in an American city to incorporate specialized divisions--such as juvenile and domestic relations courts--into its administration. Over the next 24 years the Municipal Court pioneered further innovations in judicial practice as Olson revised its procedure and structure in light of Progressive thought and the developing social sciences. New rules of practice adopted by the municipal judges in 1910 simplified court proceedings, and new branches were added, including the Morals Court for women (1913), Boys’ Court (1914), the Automobile Speeders Court (1915), Small Claims Court (1916), and the Felony Court (1929). Influenced by Northwestern University School of Law's first National Conference on Criminal Law and Criminology in 1909, Olson established the Municipal Court’s Psychopathic Laboratory in 1914 to psychologically profile delinquents and criminals. Headed by psychiatrist Dr. William J. Hickson, the Laboratory was one of the first forensic psychiatric institutions in the United States.

By this time, Olson was firmly convinced that criminal behavior was the result of inherited mental and emotional defects rather than environmental influences. In frequent public appearances, he advocated the early identification of such defectives and their segregation onto farm colonies, in order to prevent them from passing on their traits to future generations. Olson advanced his segregation plan through the “Psychopathic Committee,” an organization of legal and medical leaders who studied mental defects in conjunction with the Court’s Psychopathic Laboratory, and supported segregation bills in the Illinois state legislature.

Olson also explored the possibility of sterilizing mental patients. Olson contributed a brief position paper to Eugenical Sterilization in the United States, a study by noted eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, which was published by the Psychopathic Laboratory in 1922. As Eugenical Sterilization’s sole distributor, Olson was flooded with orders for the book from such distant countries as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Kingdom of Serbia, as well as from educators, lawyers, and libraries across the United States.

However, while many Progressives and eugenicists (including Laughlin) worked to restrict the number of “undesirable” Southern and Eastern Europeans immigrants to the United States, Olson advocated the unrestricted admission of individuals of every nationality, as long as they were mentally sound. In 1913 he spoke against the Congressionally-sponsored Dillingham Commission’s proposed imposition of immigration quotas which favored Western and Northern Europeans at the expense of Mediterranean and Slavic groups. Though a Lutheran, Olson maintained a good relationship with Chicago’s Catholics (who were mainly recent immigrants) and received invitations to many Catholic functions.

He also preserved ties to his own ethnic group, participating in Swedish-American organizations and founding the John Ericsson League of Patriotic Service during World War I

In 1925, Olson razed his home at 3933 Clarendon in Chicago and, on the site, constructed a 76-unit apartment hotel which he named the Millsfield (after orator/lawyer Luther Laflin Mills and poet Eugene Field).

After serving four terms as Chief Justice, Olson, a Republican, lost his position to Democrat John J. Sonsteby in the Democratic Party’s general sweep of Chicago government in 1930. Olson then worked as an attorney in private practice in Chicago's Loop until his death on August 1, 1935.

Among Olson's many activities, he was a founder and the first chairman of the American Judicature Society; a trustee of both Northwestern and Lake Forest Universities; a member of the American Eugenics Society, the American Institute of Law, the American Institute of Law and Criminology, and the Chicago Press Club; and a mayoral candidate for Chicago (1915). He received honorary LL.D. degrees from Washburn College (1915) and Lake Forest University (1923).

In 1938, speaking at the unveiling of a portrait of Olson at the Municipal Court, his friend Charles S. Deneen remembered Olson as “always cheerful, tolerant, optimistic, and with unbounded faith in the improvement of law and government, and in the progress of the race.”

Scope and Content

The Harry Olson Papers date from 1906 to 1940, and include biographical, correspondence, and subject files, with correspondence comprising the bulk of the series. This series represents the surviving portion of a larger body of papers, half of which were irretrievably damaged by mold, damp, and vermin. The destruction of these papers accounts for gaps in date spans. Many of the remaining papers are also damaged, but are still legible. A few items are in Swedish.

Dating from 1935 to 1940, the biographical materials include obituaries, the program of Olson's funeral, and eulogy texts and drafts, including a draft of an editorial by John H. Wigmore of the Northwestern University School of Law, a folder of materials compiled by Charles Deneen, and what appear to be the first pages of an undated autobiography. Newspaper clippings, programs, and announcements document Olson's mayoral race, his views on immigration, crime and heredity, the construction of the Millsfield Apartments, and his public appearances.

Arranged chronologically, Olson's correspondence dates from 1906 to 1928, with the majority of the correspondence falling between 1913 and 1923. Files include both incoming and outgoing correspondence, as well as memos, reports, and other materials. Letters broadly pertain to Olson's career as Chief Justice; his interest in eugenics and psychiatry; his ties with Chicago's ethnic leaders; his appearances before local and national organizations (including many invitations to appear, along with his responses); and his connection with Northwestern University and its School of Law.

More specifically, the correspondence dating from 1906 to 1912 documents Olson's efforts to refine Municipal Court procedures and explain to concerned individuals the limits of the Court's responsibilities. Letters from this period suggest some initial public confusion as to the process of collecting fees and methods of recording and publicizing Court activities. Olson also received inquiries regarding proposed vagrancy law reforms (April 22, 1907; May 1, 1907) and the value of medical expert testimony in cases involving insanity (from Dr. F.C. Studley; December 19, 1907). Many working people wrote to Olson for legal advice; Olson's replies indicate that he often complied with their requests. (An example is his correspondence with William Richardson, dated May 26, June 5, and June 10, 1908.) Other interesting correspondence from the period 1906-1912 involves the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who offered to house female repeat female offenders in their institution (December 7, 1909), eliciting a favorable response from Olson (December 11, 1909); Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Co., who inquired after the appointment of court interpreters for the immigrant population (September 15, 1911; September 18, 1911); and John H. Wigmore, Dean of the Northwestern University School of Law (December 4, 1912).

Olson's correspondence between 1913 and 1921 largely concerns the establishment of Municipal Court branches, particularly the Boys Court and Domestic Relations Court; the founding of the “Psychopathic Committee” and Municipal Court Psychopathic Laboratory (April, 1914); the distribution of Municipal Court publications; business of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees; and Olson's speaking engagements before various interest groups, including legal and philanthropic associations. Correspondence with Senator Lawrence Sherman (January 2, 1913), the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers (February 7, 1913; February 20, 1913) and the Charities Aid Association of New York City (February 18, 1913; February 21, 1913; February 24, 1913) document Olson's opposition to the 1913 immigration bill. Interesting particulars of Psychopathic Laboratory case work may found among the letters from 1917. Interspersed throughout the correspondence are letters to and from John H. Wigmore, Northwestern University President A.W. Harris, Northwestern Business manager William Dyche, and Law School Professor Robert Gault regarding the Board of Trustees. Other prominent correspondents include Oswald Garrison Villard of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Ida Wells Barnett, journalist and president of the Negro Fellowship League (December 18, 1914; December 16, 1916); and Charles A. Comisky, owner of the Chicago White Sox (September 23, 1915; Chicago 28, 1915).

From 1922 to 1928 correspondence pertains mainly to the distribution of Harry Laughlin's Eugenical Sterilization in the United States, published by the Court Psychopathic Laboratory in 1922, and includes many orders and receipts for the book. Other letters relate to Northwestern University, the Municipal Court and Psychopathic Laboratory, and Harry Olson's public appearances. Distinguished correspondents from this period include Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes (January 3, 1923); William Howard Taft, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (January 3, 1923); and Laughlin (December 9, 1924).

Alphabetically arranged, the scanty and fragmentary subject files date from 1910 to 1930 and relate to Olson's professional interests and activities, with the exception of a file on his personal real estate development, the Millsfield Apartments.

One issue of the Journal of the American Judicature Society (vol. 7 no. 2, August, 1923), is “wholly devoted to presenting the views of Chief Justice Harry Olson … on the prevention of what he calls 'fundamental crimes.'”

Dating between 1910 and 1930, the Municipal Court files are arranged in order of increasing specificity. General materials include publications by Olson describing Court function and structure, and annual reports containing budget and statistical data for the Municipal Court and several of the branch courts. One folder holds descriptions of the intent and activities of the Boys Court. The file on the Court's Psychopathic Laboratory contains a publication on the subject by Olson and two reports by Dr. Hickson. One file contains a few case studies from the Psychopathic Laboratory which may have been used as examples in Olson's speeches. Perhaps the most unusual files document the matter of journalist Hadrian Baker, a self-described “purveyor of rare information” who published ratings and exposés of legal professionals in his bulletin The Letters of Junius during the 1910s. Baker was arrested on July 16, 1915, presumably on charges of libel. Later Baker claimed that Municipal Court judges had attempted to commit him to a mental institution--a charge denied by the Court, though Olson personally was convinced of Baker's insanity.

The undated Psychopathic Committee file contains rosters of committee members and drafts of Olson's plan for the segregation of mental defectives, for presentation to the State of Illinois.

The undated speech files consist of copies and published extracts from Harry Olson's public addresses. The speeches, which were read before legal professionals and various interest groups, pertain to Municipal Court structure and procedure, and to the relationship between crime and inherited mental defects.


Corporate Name

Illinois. Municipal Court (Chicago)

Personal Name

Olson, Harry, 1867-1935


Eugenics--United States--History


Container List / Contents

  • Obituaries and Eulogies, 1935-1940Box 1, Folder 1
  • Clippings, Programs, Announcements, 1915-1929Box 1, Folder 2
  • Correspondence
    • Correspondence, 1906Box 1, Folder 3
    • Correspondence, 1907Box 1, Folder 4
    • Correspondence, 1908-1911Box 1, Folder 5
    • Correspondence, 1912Box 1, Folder 6
    • Correspondence, 1913, January-MarchBox 1, Folder 7
    • Correspondence, 1913, April-MayBox 1, Folder 8
    • Correspondence, 1913, June-OctoberBox 1, Folder 9
    • Correspondence, 1913, November-DecemberBox 2, Folder 1
    • Correspondence, 1914, January-FebruaryBox 2, Folder 2
    • Correspondence, 1914, March-AprilBox 2, Folder 3
    • Correspondence, 1914, May-SeptemberBox 2, Folder 4
    • Correspondence, 1914, October-NovemberBox 2, Folder 5
    • Correspondence, 1914, DecemberBox 2, Folder 6
    • Correspondence, 1915, January-MarchBox 2, Folder 7
    • Correspondence, 1915, April-JulyBox 2, Folder 8
    • Correspondence, 1915, August-OctoberBox 3, Folder 1
    • Correspondence, 1915, November-DecemberBox 3, Folder 2
    • Correspondence, 1916, January-MayBox 3, Folder 3
    • Correspondence, 1916, June-DecemberBox 3, Folder 4
    • Correspondence, 1917-1918Box 3, Folder 5
    • Correspondence, 1919-1922Box 3, Folder 6
    • Correspondence, 1923, JanuaryBox 3, Folder 7
    • Correspondence, 1923, February-AprilBox 3, Folder 8
    • Correspondence, 1923, May-AugustBox 3, Folder 9
    • Correspondence, 1923, September-DecemberBox 3, Folder 10
    • Correspondence, 1924, January-JulyBox 4, Folder 1
    • Correspondence, 1924, August-DecemberBox 4, Folder 2
    • Correspondence, 1925-1926Box 4, Folder 3
    • Correspondence, 1927-1928Box 4, Folder 4
    • Correspondence, n.d.Box 4, Folder 5
  • Subject Files
    • Journal of the American Judiciary Society, 1923Box 4, Folder 6
    • Millsfield Apartments, 1925, n.d.Box 4, Folder 7
    • “Psychopathic Committee”, n.d. (ca. 1918)Box 4, Folder 15
    • Speeches: Judicial Reform, n.d.Box 4, Folder 16
    • Speeches: Crime and Heredity, n.d.Box 4, Folder 17
    • Municipal Court of Chicago
      • General, 1910-1930Box 4, Folder 8
      • Annual Reports, 1927-1930Box 4, Folder 9
      • Boys' Court, 1919-1921Box 4, Folder 10
      • Psychopathic Laboratory, 1913-1922Box 4, Folder 11
      • Psychopathic Laboratory: Cases, 1916-1919Box 4, Folder 12
      • Hadrian Baker, 1915-1917Box 4, Folder 13
      • Hadrian Baker: Publications, 1912-1919Box 4, Folder 14