Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, the central figure in Gary Krist’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes chilling, always informative chronicle of a very bad couple of weeks in the history of Chicago, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, out and about in the city he ran for his own fun and profit, circa 1919.
Of all the words the people who hate President Obama use to call him an “other”, to avoid the word they really want to use but that they know ought to stick in their throats, to demonize and delegitimize and denigrate him, and to justify their contempt and their fury at a black man’s holding the office of President of their country---Kenyan, Socialist, Marxist, fascist, terrorist’s pal---the word they use least often is the one that actually had a measure of truth behind it.
Chicago.Not that they don’t use it. It just gets less emphasis because it doesn’t carry quite the same force of anger and vituperation. It doesn’t imply his otherness as much as those other words. There is a racist tinge to it. Chicago is a city and cities are where they live. But mainly cities are where Democrats live and vote, early and often and even after they’re dead. Cities are where Democrats run the show for their own personal gain. Cities are corrupt, city politicians are corrupt, and no city and no city’s politicians are more corrupt than Chicago.
That’s the rap on the Windy City, which supposedly got its nickname not from the winds blasting in from Lake Michigan but from the longwinded politicians fanning the town with their hot air, and it’s thanks to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Boss, that this reputation was engraved on the living public’s imagination. Tying the word Chicago to Barack Obama is tying him to the Daley Machine, and that’s enough to give even good Democrats a pause or two. The President did learn the political trade in Chicago. The Daley Machine was broken by the time young Barry Obama arrived in town to take up work as a community organizer, and the truly relevant figure in his political biography is Harold Washington not Richard Daley, but he has close ties to the living Daleys, close enough to have made one, William, his chief of staff for a while, a blessedly short while. (See? What did I say about even good Democrats?) And then, of course, there’s Rahm.
So there are reasons Chicago ought to work as a smear against the President and you’d think the Right would hit with it harder. The problem is that it doesn’t otherize him to the degree they want to otherize him. In fact, just the opposite.
Chicago isn’t just the Daleys. It’s the Cubs. It’s the White Sox. It’s the Bears. It’s Michael Jordan! It’s deep dish pizza. It’s sweet home to the Blues Brothers and his kind of town to Sinatra. It’s Mrs O’Leary’s cow, who did not cause the fire, but never mind. It’s Carl Sandburg’s city of the big shoulders, hog butcher for the world, home of Carson’s Ribs, immortalized in an episode of M*A*S*H as Adam’s Ribs, for whose specialty characters would walk all the way in from Joliet on their knees in the snow. It’s Al Capone and John Dillinger and the Roaring ‘20s, and what’s more American than our fascination with gangsters?
Baseball. Apple pie. Chevrolet. And…corrupt politicians.
They’re everywhere. Southern small town pols are notorious. Northeastern suburbs have their fair share of corruption too. There’s an upscale suburb close to us whose supervisor is being investigated for arson, the suspicion being that he arranged a fire to cover up evidence of a dozen instances of his robbing and bilking his constituents. And he was re-elected with this going on. By voters who knew he was robbing and bilking them. But, what the heck, the roads get plowed…by the highway department run by his brother. In towns and cities where things aren’t corrupt or aren’t as overtly corrupt, it’s because rival factions keep each other from laying sole hands on the spoils or powerful bosses make sure they have a say in every bribe and payoff and scam. Things aren’t as wide-open as they once were, but it can still be the case that “honest” politicians are the ones who wait until after leaving office to collect their payoffs or the ones who are most subtle and least overtly greedy when they practice what the old-time Tammany boss George Washington Plunkitt defined as “honest graft,” getting rich off of public works projects that are actually necessary and good for their constituents.
And Republicans as well as Democrats have been good at lining their pockets this way. That’s what Daley did. But he may not have been the most corrupt mayor of Chicago ever. That distinction may belong to a Republican. Willam Hale “Big Bill” Thompson. Who was mayor when Al Capone ran the city’s underworld and a good deal of the rest of it, as well.
The basis of Capone’s affection for Thompson was Prohibition. Thompson opposed it, which didn’t make him a rarity among big city mayors at the time. But unlike most of the others he didn’t even make a show of enforcing the law. In fact, he promised to do the opposite.
“When I’m elected we will not only reopen places these people have closed,but we’ll open ten thousand new ones…. No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask.”
Once in office, he not only kept his promise, but he seems to have regarded Prohibition as a government program to supplement the incomes of cops, judges, and politicians, himself included. Bribes and payoffs were a form of sales tax.
That was during Thompson's second go round as mayor. His first time through--- he served two terms between 1915 and 1923---he made his money and his reputation as a politician with his hand in the till the old -fashioned way, by straight-forward skimming, not scrupling, apparently, between honest and dishonest graft. Thompson was a builder. We meet him in City of Scoundrels, Gary Krist’s engaging narrative history of twelve very bad days during Thompson’s second term, proudly presiding over the opening of the Monroe street drawbridge and Krist credits him with encouraging and initiating the developments and improvements, including Michigan Avenue's Miracle Mile, that made Chicago into the most architecturally advanced and inspiring cities in the United States. But he promised far more than he delivered, gave the go ahead and financing to projects that were never completed or in many cases never even started, with the money appropriated disappearing into many pockets including Thompson's own, and did not bother to check if the city could actually pay for any of it.
Just trying to hold it together.
The trouble started during a heat wave in late July of 1919 with the very first Goodyear blimp crashing in flames on top a bank in the Loop. It continued with the disappearance of six-year old Janet Wilkinson and the citywide manhunt for who the police were sadly sure would turn out to be her molester and murderer. Then there was a transit strike, and then came five days of racial riots that left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and much of the South Side's African American neighborhoods burnt and looted.
Thompson was the son of well-to-do parents, a star athlete in high school who skipped college to go to work on ranches in Nebraska and Wyoming. By the time he became mayor, the only trace of the star athlete he’d been was how he’d gone to fat in the way many former linemen and heavyweight boxers do. He liked to wear a Stetson to remind people he’d once been a real cowboy, but when he saddled up for parades and campaign appearances, the sympathy of the crowds was with the horse. In those days there was still reason for Republicans to think of themselves as belonging to the Party of Lincoln, but the party was already divided between corporatists and money men, whom Thompson openly despised and defied, and progressives of the likes of Theodore Roosevelt brand, reformers, do-gooders, and good government types, and Thompson was not one of those either. He was a populist who didn’t believe in good government or using government to do good. He believed that it was a good…as long as it was useful. At a time when Republicans tended to see immigrants and their children either as infections or as projects for improvement, Thompson saw them as people who needed jobs and good schools and safe streets.
Or maybe he just figured that the surest way to buy their votes was to give them jobs and good schools and safe streets. Promise them those things, at least.
It didn’t hurt him with his Irish and German constituencies that he was an outspoken Wet and opposed Prohibition. To his surprise and chagrin, it didn’t help him as much as he expected when he opposed America’s entry into the Great War in Europe. It got him branded “Kaiser Bill” and there was concern (or hope, depending on how you felt about him) that accusations of a lack of patriotism would hurt him as he prepared to run for re-election in 1918.
But Thompson had another constituency he’d been cultivating while his political rivals, Democrats and Republicans, either ignored them or outright despised and dismissed them.
As an effect of the Great Migration that was bringing black people up from the South in search of jobs in Northern factories and some measure of escape from Jim Crow, Chicago had quickly growing African American population, whom Thompson courted with promises of jobs and public works projects in their neighborhoods, promises he often kept. He appointed African Americans to important positions in his administration, as well. And when he campaigned he was open in his appeals to black voters. This was tricky politically for him. Besides racial antagonisms, his black voters and his white ethnic voters were economic rivals. White workers tended to be union members while black workers were generally non-union (often because they were excluded from the unions). He managed the trick well enough to get himself re-elected, but it became an even larger and more dangerous problem when the riots began.
As you would expect, the riots, which began when a group of black teenagers swimming in the lake crossed an imagined line in the water and a white thug threw a rock that knocked one of the swimmers unconscious causing him to slip under the water and drown, take up the largest sections of City of Scoundrels. They went on for nearly a week, ranged over wide swaths of the city, caught thousands up in their violence, and caused Chicago’s second great fire.
The sections of City of Scoundrels covering the riots are harrowing and informative, especially if like me you didn’t know anything about this part of Chicago’s history. But they aren’t the most entertaining sections. Not that riots are entertainments or that nonfiction writing about riots and the attendant deaths and destruction ought to be entertaining in the way of writing about the Battle for Helm’s Deep. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t entertain readers by engaging their sympathies and stirring their emotions. It should be more than interesting. It should excite our interest. And the best way to do that, in nonfiction as well as fiction, is to give readers people to identify with and care about. Krist does a fine job of laying out the terrain and explaining the situation as it unfolds and leading us through the confusion and tumult. But there’s a distance in the presentation, as if we’re hearing about the riots from reporters who can’t get past the police cordons and are relaying what they’re being told by officials who are relaying what they’ve been told by other officials who are too busy trying to do their jobs to keep track exactly of what’s going on. Effectively, the sections on the riots read like a summarization of an official report pieced together from second and third hand reports well after the fact. The people involved appear more or less as statistics. So and so was beaten. So and so shot. So and so’s house was burned down. So and so was arrested along with…The neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the violence are located more than describe and treated as scenes of crimes or accidents instead of places where people lived, worked, and died.
Most of Chicago’s African Americans lived in neighborhoods on the South Side in an area that taken together was known as the Black Belt, and that’s where the rioting was concentrated. But we don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to live in the Black Belt under normal circumstances let alone during a nearly week long series of riots. Krist presents the Black Belt more as an object of sociological and historical study than as a place alive and bustling at a particular point in time with its own particular culture and ways of doing business, enlivened by the comings and goings of particular people with their own particular interests, passions and concerns. We see the Black Belt from the outside, through the eyes of outsiders, white outsiders. Krist’s two main eyewitnesses to the riots are Carl Sandburg, who was working as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and Sterling Morton, an heir to the Morton Salt fortune who was a lieutenant in the state militia that summer, and Sandburg’s reports from the scene are…reports, and Sterling, along with his unit and the rest of the militia sent to backup the police if the mayor called on them, spent the first several days waiting and then when the militia marched in at last, he was naturally more focused on the immediate dangers to him and his men than on gathering information about the people he was there to protect or round up. Morton viewed the Black Belt as a battleground not a part of his hometown.
So we don’t get anyone speaking for the neighborhoods and the people who live there or speaking for themselves as people living in the neighborhood. In fact, Chicago’s African American community has practically no voice of its own in the book. The journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (whom Krist refers to throughout by her full legal name, Wells-Barnett) has a prominent role in City of Scoundrels, and she lived on the South Side and was active in helping victims during the riots, but Krist mostly has her speaking in her role as a public figure and rarely as a private citizen of a city coming down around her ears. And in her public persona she often comes across as representing a party and community of one.
That’s a big chunk of the city to leave voiceless. And it gets at something I would have liked to have more of. Characters. City of Scoundrels is populated by many biographies but not enough characters, that is, we’re introduced to a lot people and get to know them through the facts of their lives, but we meet fewer people who speak for themselves and come off as having real lives off the page and in the process give us an intimate sense of what it was like to live in the city of Chicago a hundred years ago.
Two of the most alive characters, in that sense, are Thomas Fitzgerald, the suspect in Janet Wilkinson's abduction and murder---that's not a spoiler. From the beginning of her part of the book, there's not a doubt about what happened. The details are too familiar from the countless similar cases that make the news to this day. In newspaper interviews neighbors of the suspect and Janet's family sound depressingly like any you'd hear on Nancy Grace.---and a diary-keeping University of Chicago student who is the ingenue of City of Scoundrel's romantic subplot.
Twenty year old Emily Frankenstein (Yes. Really. Frankenstein. There’s more. Her doctor father was named Victor!) was the daughter of a prosperous Jewish family secretly engaged to a recently demobbed soldier her parents disapproved of because of his working class background and his growing interest in Christian Science. Emily wasn't comfortable with the Christian Science thing either, but she was convinced she could argue him out of it and improve him in other ways as well.
Emily's account of their courtship is lively, entertaining, and, for a twenty year old in love, psychologically astute. But, understandably, her focus is herself and her attention doesn't range far beyond her own front porch, and she was protected from the calamities and tragedies shaking the city by privilege and distance. We learn a lot from her about what it was like to be Emily Frankenstein. We don't get much of a picture of what it was like for Emily Frankenstein to be out and about in Chicago in the summer of 1919.
We get a much more detailed and illuminating picture of the daily life of the city and how ordinary people lived and worked and interacted in the sections on Janet Wilkerson's murder, since the investigation depended on tracing the comings and goings of Janet and her friends and family and their neighbors on the day of her disappearance.
The most vivid sections of City of Scoundrels, the ones with the most chills thrills, excitement, and, to me, news, are also ones in which Chicago and its people come to life, although, horrifyingly, in a number of cases, in the moments before they are burnt or crushed to death, and those are the sections dealing with the flaming crash of the airship The Wingfoot Express on top of Illinois Trust and Savings just as the bank was closing up for the day.
But it’s Big Bill Thompson who dominates the book, casting his hulking, cowboy-hatted shadow over every page. He was a colorful and amusing personality although not all that interesting a person. He doesn't seem to have left much of an account of himself or attracted the interest of any writers in a way that made them want to write seriously about him, the way Richard Daley would come to obsess Mike Royko. Mostly Thompson inspired the broadest satire or the narrowest sort of demonization. If there's a book out there like Royko's Boss or A.J Liebling's classic The Earl of Louisiana, Krist doesn’t make a lot of use of it. The result is that Thompson doesn't have much of a voice in City of Scoundrels. We "hear" him mainly through his speeches and public pronouncements in which he tended to mix populist rabble rousing with patriotic bombast typical of the day and the professional politician's usual forms of boasting and self-flattery. Thompson doesn't come across as intellectually or emotionally engaged in any of the events Krist is chronicling, except in a reverse way during the riots when he was trying his damnedest not to be engaged---he couldn't figure out how to appear active and in charge without alienating his white and black voters. The police were overwhelmed. The governor had the state militia ready to march in. All he was waiting for was for Thompson to ask for the help. But the governor was a political rival, and Thompson wanted his police department to get the credit for saving the city.
But people did write about him. He made news. And while. as he presented himself in public, he was all show and he seems to have had no friends or intimates of a literary bent who recorded his private thoughts and feelings, his enemies couldn't say enough about him. None of what they had to say was kind or even grudgingly complimentary. But what they did say and write (and you can imagine the most even-tempered of them writing much of what Krist quotes with red faces and clenched jaws) leaves no doubt that Thompson was very, very, very good at playing politics.
Few of his opponents and rivals came away from any dealings with Big Bill feeling they'd got the better of him. Often they came away feeling as dirty as they thought him. Nobody believed Thompson represented anyboby's best interests but his own. Nobody except the voters. Which led to a number of his enemies among the Chicago and Illinois political and economic elite giving vent to the not always well-suppressed suspicion, held by many elitist reformers regardless of party, that the problem with democracy is that the little people get to thinking they run things.
It wasn't a difficult leap from thinking the mayor was corrupt to thinking the people who voted for him were corrupt.
Democracy, as practiced in Chicago under Big Bill Thompson, and in every city for that matter, was a system by which the poor and undeserving voted to give themselves unearned goods and services bought with rich and deserving men's money.
And there you have it, the roots of Mitt Romney' 47 %, of the fear and loathing and self-righteous indignation behind Republican legislatures passing laws designed to keep people, particularly city people, those people, from voting, of some of the small town and suburbanite Tea Party types’ feeling that their country has been stolen from them, of the corporatist Right's contempt for the Welfare state and democracy itself as forms of theft.
It can all be summed up in that one word. Chicago.
Big Bill's second stint as mayor lasted just one term. When Democrat Anton Cermak defeated him in 1931, the Chicago Tribune delivered Thompson's political eulogy:
For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.
Of course I believe that the President not even in spite of but because of the political lessons he learned in Chicago is no Big Bill Thompson, but still Thompson is a relevant figure in this year's election and that makes City of Scoundrels not just an interesting and entertaining book but a useful one for understanding some of what's still going on today.
City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist, published by Crown, available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.