William (E, or is it G?) Swekosky (1894-1963) was a character in the one-of-a-kind sense.
Florence Shickle of the Post Dispatch wrote of him in 1976: “He was a dentist by profession, a photographer by choice, and a romantic by nature.” He worked in a cramped office on South Jefferson Avenue (right where Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken stands today), and slept in a bungalow on Jules Street in the Benton Park neighborhood.
But Swekosky “lived grandly, exuberantly in the past”, and during a 40 year period amassed a very loosely organized collection of over 4000 photographic negatives. These were sometimes unattributed, and sometimes extensively annotated, but the photos speak for themselves, in their depictions of everyday life in St Louis of the early 20th century. Outside of Depression-era WPA project film and photos from the papers, Swekosky’s collection is critical, not just to an understanding of what St Louis looked like, but also how it felt in those days. There may be no better collection; and if his commentary was factually dubious at times, it was always colorful and intriguing.
He had a habit, too, of finding buildings about to be razed, and writing to the newspapers about their heritage and history. He always made a note of when the structure would be lost, and attached photos. Though he associated with Landmarks Association and Missouri Historical Society, he seldom argued publicly for preservation, but rather acted as an obituary writer, pointing out the builders, owners and stories associated with each building.
On September 9th 2018 at 3 pm, Andy Hahn of Campbell Houses and the Lafayette Park Conservancy will be presenting a lecture at the Kern Pavilion in the Park. It concerns Swekosky’s photos and the stories they tell. It is highly recommended.
There is much to say about this fellow, so lost in his hobby that he scarcely had time for his occupation. Let’s start at the beginning – how an incurable romantic; a man who referred to himself as the “pallbearer for old mansions” got his start.
Young William Swekosky was raised in the family home on Preston Place in the Bohemian Hill neighborhood near Lafayette Square. As a boy, he would roam the neighborhood, enthralled by the mansions with their imposing facades and fountains and statues in neatly kept yards. His father was a grocer who prospered enough to have retired at age 40. William began his career working as a title researcher for a Clayton bank. Here he developed a working interest in local buildings and architecture. His father was dismayed by William’s career choice, and the limited opportunities that career provided toward making his sons own fortune. He convinced the young man that the chances were better of eventually owning his own mansion in the Square if he became a professional. With that, he put up the funds to send William to St Louis University Dental School, from where he graduated in 1916,
And here is where I have to digress into an odd occurrence in the story, one that doesn’t feature in what you can readily learn about Swekosky.
At a New Year’s Eve party in 1915, William first met Anna Hodgins. He was immediately smitten, and because William’s father wanted him to marry a Bohemian, they kept their relationship clandestine. William and Anna finally eloped in 1917, while continuing to live separately and maintaining a secret marriage. They were finally outed when William refused to let another gentleman dance with Anna, protesting loudly that she was his wife.
From later court testimony, it appears that William was a somewhat unlikely Lothario. He took up with another woman named Louise, and in mid-1919, when he would not break off that relationship, Anna filed for, and was granted a divorce.
Two days later, William was trying to convince Anna that they should be together, and they began dating. He seems to have promised to remarry her, and this went on for some time.
According to Anna, they planned a wedding for the Hotel Statler, but he failed to show up, calling her later to explain that he had been too ill to travel there. She testified that he set a second date, but that on another phone line, she heard him planning a rendezvous with yet another woman for the same day.
Frustrated and angry, Anna decided then to confront William in his dental office. She showed up with a gun and fired a shot at him. William high-tailed it out of there, and, according to police reports, Anna then claimed she drank approximately two ounces of chloroform in a suicide attempt. She was taken by police to City Hospital, where the attending physician could find no trace of poisoning. Anna attributed this to having drank a cup of coffee before the medical examination.
On December 18, 1921, Anna was charged with assault with intent to kill, and released from the Soulard Station jail on $500.00 bond.
The charges appear to have been dropped by Swekosky in a cooler moment. Then an old chestnut became real for him, proving that Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned. Anna filed a breach of promise suit for $25,000. She told the Post Dispatch “There is no dictating to the heart; I love him still, and always will”.
For his part, William claimed that he only dated her again to keep her from appearing at his office and making a scene. He never intended to remarry, and never told her he would. He added that she had also tried to kill him. His attorney introduced a 1920 letter from Anna, agreeing to a $2000.00 lump sum alimony, which released William from all future claims.
Up until the mid-1930’s there were laws in most states for breach of promise suits applying to broken engagements. Virginity was serious business, and there could be severe financial consequences to making off with one’s virtue under the promise of a permanent bond. These cases sought relief in what was termed “heart balm”, and it became an interesting topic as to who was being victimized.. As the courts did tend to sympathize with the jilted party, almost exclusively the woman in a relationship, it was fairly easy for Anna to come away with a judgement against Swekosky of $6,500.00.
In August 1923, William E. Swekosky of 1730 Preston Place filed for bankruptcy. The unpaid judgment against him left him with assets of $789.00 and liabilities of $7,641.00. At this point we lose track of Anna entirely, and William for a short while. He will reappear (sporting a new middle initial) in an entirely different context soon. Stay tuned for that post.
Thanks to research sources including:
St Louis Post Dispatch articles from 1921, 1922, 1923
St Louis Star Times from 1923
Detroit Free Press from 1923
For an enlightening look at the subject of heart balm, I recommend this article by Smithsonian: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-heart-balm-racket-convinced-america-women-were-no-good-180968144/