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Harry Olson (1867-1935) Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1/14

Scope and Contents

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.

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.

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 of the Municipal Court of Chicago; 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).

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.


  • 1906-1940


Language of Materials

A few items are in Swedish.

Conditions Governing Access

The Psychopathic Laboratory Cases file (Box 4, folder 12) may contain sensitive materials; consultation with University Archivist required prior to use. All other files are open.


4.00 Boxes


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.


The papers of Harry Olson are organized into: biographical materials (obituaries and eulogies; clippings, programs, announcements); correspondence (arranged by date); and subject files (arranged alphabetically, plus a group of Municipal Court of Chicago files).

Method of Acquisition

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.

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. A chalk portrait of Olson has been transferred to the University Archives' Oversized collection (Deering 103A, Map Case A, Drawer B).

Processing Information

Rae Sikula; September, 1999 (and Janet Olson, December, 1999)

Guide to the Harry Olson (1867-1935) Papers
Rae Sikula and Janet Olson
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Library Details

Part of the Northwestern University Archives Repository

Deering Library, Level 3
1970 Campus Dr.
Evanston IL 60208-2300 US