Hinky Dink was one of the famous "Lords of the Levee," the inveterately corrupt Aldermen of the First Ward, who ran an enormous protection and collection racket that kept every disorderly saloon, brothel, and gambling outfit open for decades, despite city and county laws to the contrary.
Almost every major Chicago criminal figure from the first half of the 20th century got their start working under Alderman Kenna. Ike Bloom, the owner of Frieberg's Dance Hall, was the official collector of protection money, until he was replaced by a promising newcomer, "Big Jim" Colosimo, the founder of the Chicago Outfit. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone were close friends of "The Hink", and used his political influence, which continued unabated until his death in 1946, to keep their operations running smoothly.
Andy Craig, bail bondsman and old-time saloon keeper, was a precinct captain, as was Max Guzik, father of Jake and Harry Guzik, two top Capone lieutenants and major underworld figures in their own right. The Everleigh Sisters, madams of the world's most famous brothel, were his special protectorate.
Legitimate businesses, too, supplied Hinky Dink with plenty of opportunities for graft. Did you own a hotel, restaurant, or department store anywhere between the Chicago River and 31st St.? Then when you needed a business license, zoning ordinance, street-level sign clearance, or parking permit, you paid Alderman Kenna.
Hinky Dink was crucial in the election of Democratic mayors for over 40 years. He could easily deliver -- or not, if he so chose -- thousands of votes from his First Ward Democratic Club, of which every First Ward resident was automatically enrolled, and who each received a personalized membership card. It was Kenna who brought Carter Harrison, Jr. back from retirement in California to run for mayor in 1911, and it was Kenna to brought Harrison down in the 1915 election after he bowed to public pressure in closing the Levee.
The Workingmen's Exchange was more than a name -- it was what actually took place there. If you were a street peddler and needed a license to sell pencils, bread, socks, or any other goods, you found your way to 426 S. Clark and exchanged your money for a license.
The saloon was one of the most spacious in the city, featuring a 30 foot walnut bar, and free lunches to any of the poor unfortunates (and potential voters) of the district who wandered in. It was not uncommon for 10,000 drinks to be served in a week. No doubt this had a lot to do with the low prices: for a nickel, you could have a "goldfish bowl" full of beer, known as a "tub", pictured here with an inset of Alderman Kenna himself:
No wonder then that the Workingmen's Exchange was Carrie Nation's first stop when she arrived in Chicago in 1901. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself to run such a hellhole as this. You are sending scores of persons to hell every day," she scowled to the besotted customers.
"O' shut up and get out of here," yelled the bartender as a crowd of drunks pushed the hatcheteer out the door.
The Workingmen's Exchange was closed at the start of national Prohibition in 1919, at which point Hinky Dink moved his political headquarters to a back room in a cigar shop a block north on Clark. As a tongue-in-cheek gift, he sent one of the famous "tubs" to the president of the Evanston Womens' Christian Temperance Union for use as a flowerpot. For the occasion, his fellow Alderman and Lord of the Levee, John Coughlin, wrote one of his (in)famous poems:
Dear gentle, gracious, efficient president of the WTCU,A newspaper account of the event followed with "There are more of the verses, just as sad."
This souvenier of pre-Volsteadean days I beg to present to you.
My compliments go with it, and as you gaze upon it filled with flowers sweet,
I prithee remember that it oft contained Manhattan "suds" on Clark Street.
The Alaska House, a 30 cents per day lodging-house for hobos and other itinerants operated above the Workingmen's Exchange, providing the bar with a constant supply of nearby customers. In the 1950s, the name was changed to the Ewing Annex Hotel. Over the years, a variety of colorful characters lived at the hotel, including one Swan Carlson, who, upon his death, left a room full of stale bread, cheese, a box of cigarette butts he had hoarded over a period of years -- and $40,000. No one knew where the money came from. Another resident, David Steele, had to be rescued in 1965 by firemen after he climbed the 8th St. fountain in Grant Park to win a bet. A bevy of other small time crooks and robbers came and went from the tiny hovel rooms over the years.
The building that held the Workingmen's Exchange and the Ewing Annex still stands, in the middle of one rather seedy block in an otherwise gentrified downtown business area. The saloon has been divided into a pawn shop and a restaurant serving "deep fried lobster". The Ewing Annex hotel is still in business, and over 100 years later, it still offers cheap lodging to transient men.