Skip to main content

Olson, Harry, 1867-1935



  • Existence: 1867 - 1935


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.”

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Harry Olson (1867-1935) Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1/14

Harry Olson graduated from Northwestern University's Law School in 1891. He served as Chief Justice of the Municipal Court of Chicago from 1906-1930. 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.

Dates: 1906-1940