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Biographies & Memoirs of Illinois People – Illinois Life Stories

This webpage has links to free online biography books & memoirs of well-known people from Illinois, with book descriptions. There are also ‘Collective Biographies’; each with profiles of many individuals prominent in their communities. Included are:

  • Authors,
  • Musicians,
  • Social activists,
  • Politicians,
  • Entertainers,
  • Entrepreneurs,
  • Pioneers,
  • Native American leaders,
  • Architects,
  • Aviators,
  • Gangsters,
  • Lawmen,
  • Doctors.

Illinois Biography & Memoirs – Collection

About 90 free online Illinois biographies at the Internet Archive. Some subjects are: 25 Illinois women, Governor Rod Blagojevich, General Jon A. McClernand, President Barack Obama, Governor George Ryan, Adlai Stevenson, President Abraham Lincoln, Christiana Holmes Tillson, Laurie Dann, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard.

For books about President Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois native, please visit our Abraham Lincoln page.

Chicago Biography & Memoirs Collection

About 130 free online Chicago biographies at the Internet Archive. Some subjects are: 250 famous Chicagoans, Al Capone, Rahm Emanuel and brothers, Gurdon Hubbard, Jean du Sable, Michelle Obama, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Marva Collins, Barack Obama, Cardinal Bernardin, William Daley, Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, Illinois governors, Charles Tyson Yerkes, Bertha Van Hoosen, Margaret A. Haley, Dee Brown, Dennis Hastert, Paul Simon.

‘Collections’ take longer to appear on your screen than single books.  On a phone, only about 25 books in a collection may appear.

American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams

Davis, Allen Freeman
Oxford University 1973

Jane Addams, as the founder of Hull House – a famous settlement house in Chicago – was the best known woman in America during the first decade of the twentieth century. … [she] was important for what she did and for what she wrote, but she was equally important for what she symbolized. Her work as a labor organizer and social reformer, and her influence as the author of ‘Twenty Years at Hull House’ and many other books, inspired fantastic praise. Then came World War I and Addams, as a pacifist, helped to organize The Woman’s Peace Party … For this she was accused of being a traitor.” – Book jacket

Addams, Jane (1860-1935)

See our Biography Page for free online biographies of many historical figures

The Jack Benny Show: The Life and Times of America’s Best-Loved Entertainer

Josefsberg, Milt
Arlington House 1977

“Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky) was an American comedian, vaudevillian, radio, television and film actor, and violinist. Benny was known for his comic timing and the ability to cause laughter with a pregnant pause or a single expression, such as his signature exasperated “Well!” His radio and television programs, popular from 1932 until his death in 1974, were a major influence on the sitcom genre.” – Wikipedia

Benny, Jack (Benjamin Kubelsky) (1894-1974)

I am a Man: the Indian Black Hawk

Cole, Cyrenus
Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa 1938

A biography of Chief Black Hawk, as well as a history of the conflict between Indians and Americans from prior to the War of 1812 until after the Black Hawk War of 1832. The author was an Iowa newspaperman and historian who became a U.S. congressman.

Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) (1767-1838)

The Life of Black Hawk; Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak

Quaife, Milo Milton, ed.
Chicago: Donnelley 1916

The autobiography was dictated by Black Hawk in 1833, using the official U.S. interpreter for the Sacs and Foxes. This took place shortly after the Black Hawk War, when Black Hawk was in the custody of the Government.
This volume is a re-issuance by the Wisconsin Historical Society, with a new introduction, of an 1834 publication named:

“Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk, embracing the tradition of his nation – Indian wars in which he has been engaged – cause of joining the British in their late war with America, and its history – description of the Rock-River village – manners and customs – encroachments by the whites, contrary to treaty – removal from his village in 1831. With an account of the cause and general history of the late war, his surrender and confinement at Jefferson Barracks, and travels through the United States, dictated by himself.”

There are many resources on this site for: The Black Hawk War of 1832

Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) (1767-1838)

Growing up with a City

Bowen, Louise de Koven
NY: Macmillan 1926

A memoir of life in Chicago from about 1870 to the early 1920s, and of hospital, charity and social work there.

Contents:1. A Grandchild in Early Chicago 2. A Fashionable Career and a Fire 3. Church, Hospitals and Nurses 4. The United Charities 5. Hull-House 6. The Juvenile Court 7. The Juvenile Protective Association 8. Presidents, Meetings and Speeches 9. Suffragists and Stockholders 10. Woman’s City Club 11. Women in War Work 12. Women in Public Affairs

See also: Addams, Jane, Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes in Illinois Social History Books and Articles

Also see related works at: Social issues; Labor, Social work, Slums, Poverty

Bowen, Louise de Koven (1859-1953)

Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction

Eller, Jonathan R.
Kent State University 2004

Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction is the first comprehensive textual, bibliographical, and cultural study of sixty years of Bradbury’s fiction. Drawing on correspondence with his publishers, agents, and friends, as well as archival manuscripts, The Life of Fiction examines the story of Bradbury’s authorship over more than a half-century, from his earliest writings, which include The Martian Chronicles, to his most recently published novel, Let’s All Kill Constance. It shows in detail the often devious and unsuspected interconnections between his unpublished fiction, his story collections, and his most celebrated novels.
Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction will be welcomed by Bradbury fans and scholar, adding greatly to the understanding of his work and affecting the way Bradbury is read.

Bradbury, Ray Douglas (1920-2012)

“”Mother by the Tens”: Flora Adelaide Holcomb Bronson’s Account of Her Life as an Illinois Schoolteacher, Poet, and Farm Wife, 1851-1927″

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol 76, No. 4, Winter 1983, pp 283-307

Leiber, Justin and others, eds.
Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society

Bronson, Flora Adelaide Holcomb (1851-1927)

Diary of Orville Hickman Browning Volume 1, 1850-1864

Pease, Theodore C. ed.
Chicago: Illinois State Historical Library. 1925

Browning was a Whig politician and lawyer in Illinois. He was also a friend of Abraham Lincoln who went to Washington as a member of Lincoln’s cabinet. He maintained a diary, from which this book was compiled by two history professors from the University of Illinois.

In 1850 Browning worked as a lawyer in Quincy, ILL. Diary entries in the early 1850s (1851 is missing) were often brief references to his work “attending court”, travel details as he rode the court circuit (like Lincoln), or weather updates. There are occasional finely detailed entries describing personal or political events of interest. Notes by the editors fill in details about many of the persons or events that Browning mentions in passing.

For numerous resources on Lincoln, see: Abraham Lincoln: Free online Books & other Resources

Browning, Orville Hickman (1806-1881)

A True Picture of Emigration, or, Fourteen Years in the Interior of North America …

Being a Full and Impartial Account of the Various Difficulties and Ultimate Success of an English Family who Emigrated from Barwick-in-Elmet, near Leeds, in the Year 1831

Burlend, Rebecca
London: Berger. 1848

A couple with five children decide to emigrate from Yorkshire, England to the American west. This narrative is written by the wife from her own viewpoint. It begins with the decision to leave England and describes the voyage to New Orleans followed by a riverboat trip up the Mississippi and their lives on their new farm. Although the writing style is old-fashioned British English, her descriptions are fresh and realistic. Burlend neither glamorized nor glossed over the hardships. The result is a forthright and honest account of her experiences, with many interesting details that are normally missed or skimmed over by male authors of similar memoirs.

Burlend, Rebecca (1793-1872)

Burnham of Chicago, Architect and Planner

Hines, Thomas S.
Oxford University 1974

2009 marked the centennial of the influential Plan of Chicago. Designed by Daniel H. Burnham, coauthored by Edward Bennett and produced in collaboration with the Commercial Club of Chicago, the forward-thinking plan proposed many of the city’s most distinctive features, including its lakefront parks and roadways, the Magnificent Mile, and Navy Pier. As a result, by the time he died in 1912, Burnham was one of the most famous architects in America as well as an internationally renowned city planner. Thomas S. Hines’s book is at once both a biography of Burnham and a vivid portrait of the birth and growth of an American city.

Burnham, Daniel Hudson (1846-1912)

“Octave Chanute, The Chicago Connection, and the Birth of Aviation”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 8, No. 1, 2001, pp 14-16

Launius, Roger D.
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Octave Chanute was an American civil engineer and aviation pioneer, born in France. He provided many budding enthusiasts, including the Wright brothers, with help and advice, and helped to publicize their flying experiments. At his death he was hailed as the father of aviation and the heavier-than-air flying machine. -Wikipedia

Chanute, Octave (1832-1910)

“Edward Coles, Patrician Emancipator”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 12, No. 1, 2005, pp 2-5

Monroe, Dan
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

See the description at Alvord, Clarence, “Governor Edward Coles”, on this web page.

Coles, Edward (1786-1868)

Books and articles on education, the arts, journalism, recreation and architecture are in Illinois Cultural History

Governor Edward Coles

Alvord, Clarence W. ed.
Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library. 1920

This volume consists of two parts:
Part 1: Washburne, E. B. “Sketch of Edward Coles, Second Governor of Illinois, and of the Slavery Struggle of 1823-4”, pp 15-201.
Edward Coles was a Virginia slave-owner and the private secretary to President Madison in 1814 when he began a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson on the subject of slavery. Coles decided to resign his position, sell his plantation, leave Virginia, and then liberate his slaves. He moved to Illinois in 1819 with his slaves and liberated them there. After becoming governor in 1822, his efforts were critical in preventing Illinois from legalizing slavery in the state constitution.

Part 2: Appendix. pp 205-398. This is a collection of transcribed documents and letters; many of them related to personal business or legal actions involving Coles, but also including some official documents from his governorship. The last document in this section, pp 376-398, is Coles’ “History of the Ordinance of 1787”.

Coles, Edward (1786-1868)

American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation

Cohen, Adam and Taylor, Elizabeth
Back Bay 2001

“Profoundly divided racially, economically, and socially, Chicago was indeed a microcosm of America, and for more than two decades Daley ruled it with an iron fist. As the last of the big-city bosses – the man who transformed a city in decline into a thriving metropolis – Daley was a towering national figure in American politics. Through his rough-and-tumble story, this brilliant biography reveals the surprising ways in which Daley’s outsize presence continues to influence American urban life.” – Book cover

Daley, Richard Joseph (1902-1976)

So What: The Life of Miles Davis

Szwed, John F.
Simon & Schuster 2002

Musical genius, visionary artist, enigma — Miles Davis still looms large as a cultural icon. In this, the first new biography since Davis’ death, John Szwed draws on various archives and never-before-published interviews with those who knew him to produce the richest and most revealing portrait of Miles Davis to date.
The shy son of a dentist from Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III would go through several transformations before becoming the image of cool. Change, says Szwed, was the driving force in both Davis’ life and music — as quickly as he established a new direction in his music and a new identity, he would radically reinvent both.
Elegantly written and carefully researched, ‘So What’ is the authoritative life of an artist who was always ahead of his time.

Davis, Miles Dewey III (1926-1991)

The Life of Henry Dodge from 1782 to 1833 with Portrait by George Catlin …

and maps of the battles of the Pecatonica and Wisconsin Heights in the Black Hawk War

Salter, William
Burlington, Iowa: 1890

According to the author, Dodge was the first “American” (white?) child born (1782) in the area that later became the state of Indiana. He had 19 public service commissions from 1806 to 1846, including many years of military service up to the rank of Colonel, and capped by three 3-year appointments as Governor of the Territory of Wisconsin. This short, admiring biography contains highlights of Dodge’s career, a fairly extensive description of the Black Hawk War, and copies of letters from participants in that war describing key actions.

Dodge, Henry (1782-1867)

“The Character and Leadership of Stephen A. Douglas”

Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association Vol X, 1918-21, 454-67

Lynch, William O.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Mississippi Valley Historical Association

“Stephen Arnold Douglas was an American politician and lawyer from Illinois. He was the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1860 election, but he was defeated by Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had previously bested Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois election for the United States Senate, which is known for the Lincoln–Douglas debates. During the 1850s, Douglas was one of the foremost advocates of popular sovereignty, which held that each territory should be allowed to determine whether to permit slavery within its borders. Douglas was nicknamed the “Little Giant” because he was short in physical stature, but a forceful and dominant figure in politics.” – Wikipedia

Douglas, Stephen A. (1813-1861)

Books and articles about workers, medical care, business & industry, etc. at Illinois Economic History

“Biographical Sketch of Joseph Duncan, Fifth Governor Of Illinois”

Fergus Historical Series No. 26-29

Chicago: Fergus 1888
Kirby, Julia Duncan

“Read before the Historical Society of Jacksonville, Ill, May 7, 1885.” The author was the subject’s daughter. Joseph Duncan was born and raised in Kentucky, moving to Illinois in 1818. He served in the Illinois legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected Governor in 1834.

Duncan, Joseph (1794-1844)

Life in Prairie Land

Farnham, Eliza W.
NY: Harper & Brothers, 1846

Eliza Farnham (1815-1864) was a novelist, feminist, abolitionist and activist for prison reform. She moved to Illinois from New York in 1835 and married, returning to New York in 1841. This memoir covers those years on the Illinois prairie, near Pekin.

Farnham, Eliza (1815-1864)

The Marshall Fields: The Evolution of An American Business Dynasty

Madsen, Axel
Wiley 2002

Like J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field was one of the overlords of triumphant capitalism in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. However, his phenomenal wealth and generous philanthropy masked a disastrous personal life. Deserted by his wife and alienated from his children, the founder of the Field dynasty left a legacy of immense wealth and misery to match.
The Marshall Fields recounts the classic tale of Field s spectacular success as well as the tragic story of a man who, while making millions by knowing what women wanted, had no inkling of his own wife s emotional needs. This revealing account follows the next five generations of the Field family, concentrating on the most important and controversial figures in each generation. What emerges is a startling saga of money, madness, and mystery.

Field, Marshall (1834-1906)

Irma: A Chicago Woman’s Story, 1871-1966

Steinberg, Ellen Fitz Simmons
University of Iowa 2004

Ellen Steinberg’s Irma, painstakingly crafted out of Irma Rosenthal Frankenstein’s voluminous writings, gives us an inspiring and richly rewarding account of the life and times of an active, socially engaged woman who devoted herself to her family and her community over the course of a long and full life. Irma (1871-1966) was born in Chicago—just before the Chicago Fire—of German Jewish parents who had come to the U.S. shortly after the Civil War. Irma attended public schools and the University of Chicago, participated energetically in Jewish women’s and social-welfare activities, raised her family, and published one poem and a small book.
Irma’s journals and diaries were private accounts in which she chronicled the rhythm of her days and the shape of her life.
In each chapter, Ellen Steinberg has set Irma’s contemporary entries and later memoirs against the context of the Chicago history that Irma knew so well. Irma’s story will fascinate those interested in diaries and autobiography, women’s history, and Chicago history. From a plethora of rich source materials—including over half a million words of Irma’s writings alone—Steinberg has created a seamless, fascinating narrative about a Chicago woman who, although “nobody famous” (in her words), lived a vital life in a vibrant city.

Frankenstein, Irma Rosenthal (1871-1966)

Betty Friedan: Her Life

Hennessee, Judith
Random House 1999

There is no one in the women’s movement more renowned or pervasive in her presence, more long-lasting–or more contentious–than Betty Friedan.
But what sort of person is she, really? Judith Hennessee, a wonderfully penetrating writer who lived through many of the events recounted in this book, has dug deep and come up with a story of a woman of many paradoxes, a woman who survived disastrous moments and who continues to this day to lead, to find new energies and crusades.
Betty Friedan is a book whose candor some will find objectionable, but most will come away with a new appreciation of a memorable woman whose rich life is here riotously revealed.
“Her insecurities were as great as her achievements,” Judith Hennessee writes in her Introduction, “and her flaws costher her leadership. But the movement she ushered in is immense, worldwide; it has permeated our lives; it is intrinsic to the public debate, and its issues have to be addressed. What she did for women outweighs the rest.”

Friedan, Bettye Naomi (1921-2006)

Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman

Firestone, Ross
Norton 1993

Before Elvis Presley and rock-‘n’-roll, another King ruled the roost of American popular music. His name was Benny Goodman and his domain, the gilded age of Swing. Benny’s concerts, records, and radio shows catapulted the hot and controversial sounds of jazz into the hearts and homes of a hungry public. Swing, Swing, Swing at once illustrates Goodman’s enormous impact on American music and culture, reflects the rich textures of the times in which he lived, and evokes the very private life of a complicated, difficult man. Raised in a tenement in Chicago’s Maxwell Street ghetto, he grew up to become the symbol of glamorous high-society living. Benny’s undeniable position as social groundbreaker – his were the nation’s first racially integrated bands – was characteristically downplayed by the man himself: he simply wanted the finest musicians he could find. Here are the sounds and stories that define the remarkable life of the world’s most demanding and idiosyncratic band leader. The violent clashes between his smiling public persona and his intensely private nature; the infamous “Goodman Ray” (no musician who played with Benny escaped its wrath); the conflicting stories of Goodman’s parsimony and his largess – these stories and many more paint a vibrant portrait of a truly original, undeniably American artist.

Goodman, Benjamin David “Benny” (1909-1986)

The Valley of Shadows

Grierson, Francis
London: Lane 1913

Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard (1848-1927) was an Illinois composer and pianist, who also wrote under the pen name of Francis Grierson.

“Written more than a century ago, The Valley of Shadows is a passionate recounting of Grierson’s experiences as a boy growing up on the prairies of central Illinois in the few short years leading up to the Civil War. Set in a region that was neither north nor south; neither for nor against slavery, it foreshadows the coming of a bitter conflict that would divide families and set neighbors against one another.”
– Open Library Review

“A superb narrative. . . . Grierson combines many aspects of Illinois mythology: prairie and dream, Lincoln and freedom, struggle and redemption. He also depicts the Lincoln country as a mythic Garden, inhabited by heroic pioneers who are swept into the valley of shadows, the coming national conflict . . . a unique achievement of uncommon power and symbolic depth—an Illinois masterpiece.”
— Reader’s Guide to Illinois Literature review of The Valley of Shadows

Grierson, Francis (Benjamin Francis Shepard) (1853-1937)

Hugh Hefner: An Unauthorized Biography

Brady, Frank
Macmillan 1974

“Hugh Hefner was an American magazine publisher and life-stylist. He was the founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, a revolutionary publication, aimed at a sophisticated young readership, with revealing glamour photographs and sensational articles provoking charges of obscenity. The first issue, in 1953, featuring Marilyn Monroe in her nude calendar shoot, sold over 50,000 copies. Hefner extended the brand into a world network of Playboy Clubs, as well as his own luxury mansions where the Playboy ‘playmates’ shared his wild partying life, keenly reported in the media. An advocate of sexual liberation and freedom of expression, Hefner was a political activist in other causes too.” – Wikipedia

Hefner, Hugh Marston (1926-2017)

Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story

Baker, Carlos
Collier 1988

“Now hailed as a classic, Carlos Baker’s bestselling Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story brings into sharp focus one of the titans of twentieth-century American literature, a writer whose life itself was the stuff of legend. Baker draws not only on Hemingway’s diaries, letters, and unpublished writings, but unlike more recent biographers, on the personal testimony of the artists and writers, sportsmen and soldiers-indeed, virtually all the men and women who played a part in Hemingway’s career. . . Here are the many faces of Hemingway: boxer, drinker, humorist, fisherman, hunter, lover, heroic activist; but above all, here is Hemingway, the most influential prose stylist of the century.” – Publisher

Hemingway, Ernest Miller (1899-1961)

Works of Fiction set in Illinois

Wild Bill Hickok: The Man & His Myth

Rosa, Joseph C.
University Press of Kansas 1996

Eulogized and ostracized, James Butler Hickok was alternately labeled courageous, affable, and self confident; cowardly, cold-blooded, and drunken; a fine specimen of physical manhood; an overdressed dandy with perfumed hair; an unequaled marksman; a poor shot. Born in Illinois in 1837, he was shot dead in Deadwood only 39 years later. By then both famous and infamous, he was widely known as “Wild Bill.”
Excavating the reality behind the myth, Joseph Rosa delves into the exploits and ego that defined Hickok and shows how the man was overtaken by his own legend. Rosa exposes a controversial and charismatic man—army and Indian scout, wagon master, courier, frontiersman, gunfighter, lawman, prospector, addicted gambler, and short-time actor—who was elevated from regional fame to national notoriety by inadvertently being in the right place at the right time.
Culminating four decades of research by one of the top authorities on Wild West legends, Wild Bill Hickok is a highly readable, fun, and accurate account of the larger-than-life character whose reported accomplishments-both real and imaginary-in Kansas, Missouri, and the surrounding territory frequently brought him unwanted publicity. Setting the record straight, Rosa exposes some of the deliberate lies that vested Hickok with a “man-killer” reputation he didn’t deserve. In fact, Rosa shows, the number of men he killed is probably a lot closer to ten than to the more than 100 he is often credited with.

Hickok, James Butler “Wild Bill” (1837-1876)

The Autobiography of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, Pa-pa-ma-ta-be, “The Swift Walker”

Hubbard, Gurdon S.
Chicago: Donnelley 1911

Hubbard came to Chicago in 1818 as an employee of the American Fur Company. He went by way of the Illinois River to St. Louis and Cahokia, spent the winter at a post near Hennepin and in the spring returned to Mackinac. He was with the Illinois brigade again in the winters of 1821-22 and 1822—23 and in 1822 he established “Hubbard’s Trail” from Chicago to Danville. From 1828 to 1834 he lived in Danville and after that in Chicago. The autobiographical material covers his career to 1830, and furnishes a valuable picture of northern Illinois during the fur trade period.

For a fictional biography of Hubbard, see: Holt, Alfred Hubbard, Hubbard’s Trail in Michigan Novels and Historical Fiction

Hubbard, Gurdon Saltonstall (1802-1886)

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