Before there were telephone directories, there were city directories, which listed (or tried to list) every person in the city by address and occupation. Needless to say, these are great resources for historians doing research in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I found the perfect one for my story–Polk’s Chicago Directory of 1923, the exact one that would have been on the shelf of most Chicago businesses and in all libraries. Few individuals owned copies. With this, I’ve been able to understand how my main character, Maddie, is able to investigate certain people.
So I was confident about writing this short passage:
“If we could find those men—we might learn something from them. We know their names.” I checked my notes and added, “Samuel Brown and Earl Smith.”
“How we gonna find two men with names like that in a city this size? Chicago’s got more than a million people, and I’ll bet half of them are named Brown and Smith. Samuel and Earl are pretty common too.” To prove his point, he reached for Carlotta’s Chicago Directory and handed it to me.
I flipped a few pages and started counting. “There are eleven pages of Smiths but only twenty-four Earl Smiths. And . . . and . . . geez, you’re right. Fifty-one Samuel Browns!” I sighed. Although most names had occupations listed with them, we didn’t know what sort of work the two men did. None had telephone numbers, of course—these were people, not businesses. I racked my brain for a way past this roadblock. Knocking on that many doors would keep me busy until Easter. Supposing Brown and Smith were relatives—cousins, say, or in-laws—might they live at the same address? I crosschecked the two lists without success. Freddy was right. Stumped, I could only say, “Well, here’s an idea: the police know who they are, because they questioned them after the drowning.”
“You’re gonna walk into the police station and ask them for their files?” Freddy snorted.