Milwaukee’s unlikely public health advocate

Lea Dacy
Rochester, MN, United States

 

Compilation of photos including one photo of Dirty Helen
Upper left: The author’s mother, Rita Troiano, a year or so after the incident at the Sunflower Inn; Lower left: the author’s grandparents, Philip and Evelyn Troiano, ca. 1928, both from the author’s personal collection. Right: Helen Cromwell at the Sunflower Inn, Feral House Publishing, used with permission.

The story of my mother’s possible childhood episode of pertussis (also known as whooping cough) has lived on in family lore because of its link with a notorious legendary figure in Milwaukee history. One Sunday afternoon, Helen Cromell (she later changed it to Cromwell), or “Dirty Helen” as she is best known, noticed a couple with a little girl in tow at her tavern, the Sunflower Inn at 1806 West St. Paul Avenue. While the adults sipped their drinks, the little girl ate peanuts, which provoked a prolonged coughing fit. Because the couple frequently patronized the Sunflower Inn, Helen knew them and notified the health department of a case of whooping cough. The following day, my grandparents were informed that they were under quarantine.

The exact timing of this event is not quite clear. As a child, I did not pay close attention when this story was retold at family gatherings, and now all the eyewitnesses have passed on. (If they had still been alive, the current COVID-19 pandemic would have reminded them of their unwanted quarantine and the unlikely figure who reported them to the authorities.) Rita, my mother, was born in 1930. The Sunflower Inn was certainly an odd place to take a little girl, but my grandparents, Philip and Evelyn Troiano, whose only other surviving child was a son already in his teens, were surprised by her arrival and not really eager to resume the role of doting parents to a young child. Married during the war on Phil’s weekend furlough from Camp McCoy, they partied through the Roaring Twenties and beyond. (They were loving parents, but U.S. society was much less child-centered before the Baby Boomer era. “Helicopter parents” and “soccer moms” are a relatively new phenomenon.) Even so, they probably would not have brought Rita to such a place pre-Repeal (1933), when the Sunflower was still a speakeasy. Also, Evelyn’s mother, who had lived with the family and provided babysitting, died in 1935; therefore, I believe this incident might have occurred in 1936 or 1937.

Before a vaccine became available in the 1940s, pertussis, an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, was a common childhood disease and a major cause of childhood mortality. It remains a major health problem in developing countries.1 A Google search of “Milwaukee, pertussis” yielded no specific information about an epidemic in the 1930s. Sadly, recent outbreaks have occurred, in part because of fears raised by a 1982 documentary (DPT: Vaccine Roulette) that claimed a link between the pertussis vaccine and seizures in young children.2,3

Be that as it may, Dirty Helen was an unlikely public health warrior. Born into a respectable Indiana family and once a housewife and mother of two (she was to marry six times in all), she worked variously as a prostitute (her preferred term was “good-time party girl”) and ran a brothel in Superior, Wisconsin before opening the Sunflower Inn as a speakeasy in Milwaukee in 1926. The location was recommended by her good friend Al Capone, who assured her that the organized crime scene was too small-scale and disorganized to interfere or demand protection. Other friends, including some police officials, also offered business tips. Shrewdly, she acquired the services of a young friend with an engineering background to advise her on safe concealment of her liquid merchandise. This same friend also advised her on the 70-second rule: the time needed for liquid poured down the sink to exit the S-trap in the drainpipes. This was how much time she needed to engage the raiding cops in conversation before allowing them to inspect her facility. But in fact, she avoided many raids simply by closing at 9 p.m.; if she were in business today, no doubt she would find a way to stay open despite COVID curfews and occupancy restrictions. In fact, Helen’s early closing time foreshadows current pandemic guidelines; some states have allowed restaurants and bars to remain open, but they are required to close at 10 p.m., with the reasoning that carelessness in masking and social distancing (similarly to violating Prohibition) is more likely to happen late at night.4

After the repeal of Prohibition, the Sunflower Inn continued to operate as a legal tavern until 1960. (Helen says in her autobiography that Senator Joseph McCarthy actually tended bar part-time for her while a student at Marquette University.) It was in an industrial neighborhood, and its only notable furnishing was a large painting of a nude woman that Helen acquired in an auction in the late 1920s. Her bar served Old Fitzgerald bourbon and one type of scotch; that’s all. My father, Jack Colquhoun, who moved to Milwaukee in the early 1950s after World War II and attending UW-Madison on the GI Bill, described an evening at the Sunflower Inn as a rite of passage for young guys like himself. On a dare from his buddies, a brave young man would go to the bar and order, say, a Southern Comfort Manhattan or a champagne cocktail, so that Helen would unleash the flood of invective for which she acquired her nickname. At the conclusion, she would serve him bourbon or a scotch. And they came in droves, young professionals like my dad, university students (from Marquette, of course, but as far away as UW-Madison), and sailors on shore leave. Helen was a larger-than-life personality who did not disappoint.

Helen’s original autobiography, co-written with Robert Dougherty, was published in 1966. Out of respect for the readers’ sensibilities, this original version was carefully laundered to remove Helen’s profanity. Pundits advise us that our current times are notable for coarseness. As if in proof, Helen’s autobiography was re-released in a new 2019 Feral House edition that restored her original expletives.5

According to some accounts (including, of course, her own), Dirty Helen was the proverbial whore with the heart of gold. During World War II, she allegedly showed great kindness to the servicemen who swarmed her tavern, feeding them at no cost and listening to their stories (offering a racier, “cool” alternative to the USO). Later, she also supposedly paid the tuition of Marquette students who were on the verge of dropping out.

It is uncertain whether my mother actually had whooping cough on the day when she visited the Sunflower Inn with her parents. Indeed, my grandmother always insisted that she did not. Not surprisingly, my grandparents stopped patronizing the Sunflower Inn after this incident. Maybe good-hearted, profane, wicked Dirty Helen simply understood that the Sunflower Inn was no place for a six- or seven-year-old girl, and in calling the Health Department on the parents, she made sure that the child would never have to return.

 

References

  1. Pertussis. In: Control CfD, ed. Bethesda, MD: Centers for Disease Control; 2020.
  2. Hoffman J. How Anti-Vaccine Sentiment Took Hold in the United States. New York Times. September 23, 2019;A.
  3. Howson CP, Fineberg HV. Adverse Effects of Pertussis and Rubella Vaccines: A Report of the Committee to Review the Adverse Consequences of Pertussis and Rubella Vaccines. Washington DC: Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Review the Adverse Consequences of Pertussis and Rubella Vaccines;1991.
  4. Cromwell H, Dougherty R. Good Time Party Girl: The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell, 1886-1969. 2nd ed. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House; 2019.
  5. Kogan R. ‘Good Time Party Girl’ is the story of Milwaukee saloon keeper Helen Cromwell — her legendary life and notorious mouth. Chicago Tribune. January 13, 2020;Entertainment.

 


 

LEA COLQUHOUN DACY is a research secretary at the Mayo Clinic, a freelance musician, and a native of Milwaukee. As an only child, she was often a captive audience for her older relatives’ reminisces. As an older adult, she now wishes she had paid more attention.

 

Winter 2021  |   Sections  |  Infectious Diseases