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Jan. 22, 1922: An organ grinder's despair

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Crime Updated: November 30, 2009 - 5:34 PM
Bylines were rare in Twin Cities newspapers of the 1920s. Women’s bylines were rarer still. And any woman who specialized in first-person feature stories – as the Minneapolis Tribune’s Lorena A. Hickok did – was likely to be referred to as a “girl reporter” in the accompanying headlines.
 
  Lorena A. Hickok
Hickok, a native of East Troy, Wis., wrote scores of stories for the Tribune in the early 1920s. She endured a lot of hokey first-person assignments – or maybe she gravitated toward them. She allowed herself to be hypnotized by a vaudevillian performer. She filled in for a department store Santa. And she covered a “secret” Gophers football practice, using her professed ignorance of the game to get a foot in the door at a “rehearsal” before a big game with the Badgers. But she also scored entertaining and insightful interviews with polar explorer Roald Amundsen and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her writing shows wit and sensitivity and a flair for the dramatic – although the story below might seem a bit purple to the modern reader.
Hickok went on to write for the Associated Press, covering the Lindbergh kidnapping and Franklin Roosevelt’s run for president in 1932. During that assignment, “Hick” hit it off with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two developed a close friendship that lasted until Roosevelt’s death in 1962. The intimate letters they exchanged over the years have prompted much speculation about the depth of their relationship. But historians remain divided on whether the two were romantically involved.
 

Hurdy Gurdy Man, Already Deep
in Despair, Told Wife Is Dying

Grief Over Demise of Pet
Monkey Accentuated By
Greater Tragedy.
 
By Lorena A. Hickok
 
Jenny, Carmen Biondi’s performing monkey, is dead.
 
Wherefore the heart of Carmen Biondi, the old hurdy gurdy man, is heavy with grief and impotent despair.
 
And from her bed in the General hospital yesterday, Rafella Biondi, Carmen’s wife, swore eternal vengeance upon the villains who abducted Jenny from her master’s home, tied her up in a cold wood shed, and let her die there – of cold and hunger.
 
Carmen was not doing any cursing yesterday, however. He had no heart for revenge. For another tragedy reared its grizzly head above Carmen’s black horizon and threatened to crush him with a sorrow that would make him forget even the loss of his pet.
 
Told Wife Is Dying.
 
When Carmen went to the hospital yesterday morning to see his wife, he was told that she was dying – that she would never return alive to the little tar-paper shack out at 648 Johnson street northeast, where drying herbs and red peppers hang in bundles from the ceiling, and where she used to sing the long winter evenings through while Carmen ground the music of sunny Italy out of his old hand-organ.
 
From her death-bed, Rafella Biondi directed that a reward of $10 be offered to anybody who caught the suspected abductors of Jenny trespassing on Carmen’s property again.
 
She instructed Carmen to pay this reward out of “monkey money” deposited in the St. Anthony Falls bank – money earned by Carmen and his pets in happier days gone by and turned over to her.
 
Pet Disappears From Home.
 
Jenny disappeared from her cage the afternoon of January 10, while her master was down at the hospital visiting his wife. Yesterday he said her body had been found, stiff and cold, in a woodshed. Her kidnapers, Carmen said, had tied her there and let her die of hunger and exposure.
 
For more than 20 years Carmen has gone with his organ on summer Sunday afternoons to the Minneapolis parks and to the summer homes at Lake Minnetonka to play for the children. Often in those happy days he was accompanied by Rafella, who used to laugh delightedly at the antics of the “lit-tla ones.”
 
That was his play, however – he called it his “idle work.” He earned his living mainly by working in the city sewer department. Last summer he found that the work was getting pretty heavy for him – he will be 60 years old on his next birthday.
 
So he sent to Brazil for Jenny, a ring-tail monkey, and Mike, her mate. For six months he had been training them to dance and bow and pass the little tin cup, while he ground the “Marsellaise” and haunting melodies from “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” out of his old hand-organ.
 
Mike Not Himself Since.
 
And then Jenny disappeared. Mike has never been himself, Carmen says, since they took Jenny away. He refuses to eat, and shows no inclination whatever to try his stunts – nor has Carmen the heart to make him try. They spend much of their time huddled together on the edge of the tumbled bed in Carmen’s shack – discussing, in musical Italian and shrill monkey jargon, the fate of Jenny and the fate they wish would befall Jenny’s abductors.
 
Carmen came from the hospital to tell me about it yesterday.
 
“I finda my monk,” he said, when I went out to talk to him. “Dead. She die in da shed. Hungry. Cold. Breaks my heart.
 
“And my Rafella – she die, too. Never getta well. Never come home again. I play no more. I sella my organ.”
 
Carmen pulled out a little blue paper – a perpetual pass into the ward where his wife is. He pointed to it and said:
 
“Put in a paper, please – nobody can see my Rafella. Too sick, now. Nobody see her – only me.”
 
He stood silent for a long time, gazing at the floor. His eyelids, I noticed them, were red and swollen. I said nothing – there wasn’t anything to say. At length he looked up, held out his hand, and said brokenly:
 
“Good-bye, lady. I go home. Tella Mike. Gooda-bye.” 
 
An organ grinder and his monkey in about 1923: What ever happened to this form of street entertainment? (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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