Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Alderman John Coughlin's Basement Bathhouse

John J. Coughlin was the proprietor of a bathhouse in the basement of the Brevoort Hotel at this location, 143 W. Madison (now 118 W. Madison), in the 1880s. Just a few years later in 1892, with powerful backing from Chicago gambling king Mike McDonald, "Bathhouse" John became Alderman for the richest single district in the world, Chicago's First Ward, a position he held for 46 years until his death in 1938. During that time, he was not only the city's most famous politician, but presided over -- and profited from -- the greatest red light district in American history, the Chicago Levee.

Coughlin was born in 1860 in Connelly's Patch, an Irish neighborhood on the west side of downtown, between Madison and Adams Streets. With only a few mediocre years of schooling, he began working at age 11 as a rubber in a Turkish bathhouse, learning the trade and saving fastidiously. By 1887, he had earned enough to buy the bathhouse in the basement of the recently-refurbished Brevoort House hotel on Madison Street. The Brevoort, one of Chicago's oldest inns and always one of the best-furnished (it was the first in Chicago to offer an elevator), was rebuilt after the Great Fire as an eight-story high premier European-style hotel, and offered its visitors what was at the time considered a true luxury -- the opportunity to take a bath. The Tribune reported:
The bath rooms occupy all of the basement of the hotel, and is divided into fifty rooms, well ventilated and provided with folding couches. It is under the proprietorship of John J. Coughlin, formerly at No. 169 Wabash avenue. He has secured artesian well water at considerable expense, and will give all of the popular baths, including the swimming baths, for which a large basin has been constructed in the centre of the apartments. This will prove a popular place for the general public as well as hotel guests, because of its central location and conveniences.
And who would want to take an unpopular bath? With his earnings from the Brevoort bathhouse, Coughlin purchased several other city bathhouses, opened the Silver Dollar saloon two doors down on Madison, and also developed business interests in insurance. His social star rising, but with a dirt-poor Irish background, he made an ideal political candidate for the McDonald syndicate, and in 1892, he became First Ward Alderman.

Though he never lost an election, Bathhouse John was not exactly the model of efficient politics, but he was a flamboyant character who knew how to get his name in the newspapers and endear himself to voters. There seems to have been no end to his eccentricities. Reading through newspaper reports, one learns of Coughlin at one time or another: running a baseball team, opening his own zoo and amusement park in Colorado, challenging his neighbors to a footrace, acting as his own attorney in defense of a charge of assault on a newspaper reporter, offering a $50 reward to the first Chicagoan to see a spring robin (with "incontestable proof"), learning to play the guitar, calling on the police to regulate the length of women's skirts, releasing a list of the city's top ten most handsome men (!), and running a stable of race horses in suburban St. Charles.

The photo below shows "The Bath" atop an elephant at his zoo in Colorado, alongside his wife.

Alderman Coughlin's most famous excesses, however, were probably his attire and his poetic license. Sartorially, the Bath was internationally famous for his colorful suits, which included at any one time, some combination of silk hat, pink gloves, yellow shoes, green coat, lavender pants, cream-colored vest, diamond studs, and floral embroidery. It was in such clothes that Coughlin led the grand parade of the annual First Ward Ball, an all-night saturnalian orgy attended chiefly by prostitutes and saloon denizens, which eventually brought about such rage from high-minded urban reformers that the mayor was forced to end the tradition.

The Alderman's literary sense was just about as finely tuned as his attire. As the author of a wide range of masterfully constructed verses, including "Ode to a Bathtub", "I Wish I was a Bird", "Ode to a Bowl of Soup", and the ever-popular "Why Did they Build Lake Michigan So Wide?", Bathhouse John was constantly the target of scorn from newspaper editors, who painted him as a buffoon. Coughlin made use of the criticism masterfully, however, cultivating an image as a man of the people, not the press.

In 1909, Coughlin threatened to publish a book of his poems, and he told reporters he would be dedicating it to his long-time colleague on the city council, and fellow Lord of the Levee, Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna. The Tribune reported:
Ald. John J. Coughlin is going to publish a book of his poems. The title may be 'Ballads of the Bathhouse'....The book will be dedicated to his colleague, Ald. Michael Kenna. Kenna declared last night that if Coughlin dared to do any dedicating to him he would sue him for slander and libel...."If that book of poems was dedicated to me I'd never be able to live down the disgrace."
On another occasion, Ald. Coughlin waited patiently outside the Mayor's office for over an hour to pester him about adjourning a city council meeting early so that all the council members could see the premier of his newest poetic work, "Dear Midnight of Love," which was to be performed at the Chicago Operahouse that afternoon. "I've tried hard to get John to cut this out, but he won't and I can't hold him down," the Mayor told reporters.

Together with Ald. Kenna, he ruled the First Ward, selling protection to the brothels, gambling houses, drug dens, white slave operations, and saloons of the Levee for over forty years. He was part owner in Frieberg's Dance Hall, and employed his business partner, Ike Bloom, as the official collector of tribute. Later, Bloom's position was taken by "Big Jim" Colosimo, the founder of the Chicago Outfit, which Al Capone would later run. Nearly every famous Chicago criminal of the early 20th century got their start working under Coughlin and Kenna, including Capone, Johnny Torrio, Andy Craig, Jake and Harry Guzik, Mushmouth Johnson, and the Everleigh Sisters.

In his later years, while he continued to sit on the city council, Coughlin largely became a doddering figurehead for the Torrio-Capone syndicate, a kindly old gentleman who enjoying telling self-aggrandizing stories about days gone past. Bathhouse John passed in November, 1938. Having lost tens of thousands of dollars on his racehorse hobby during the last decades of his life, his will left only a meager $25,000 to his family.

The Brevoort House, where Coughlin first became a Chicago powerbroker, in later years became best known for its exceptionally smoky chimney, which caused endless complaints from nearby residents. Ironically, the hotel burned down in 1905. Today, the location where the Brevoort once stood is occupied by St. Peter's Church in the Loop, an imposing Franciscan Roman Catholic edifice built in 1953.

Despite his reputation as a blowhard, in 1898 John Coughlin spoke some of the truest words ever uttered by a politician regarding politics:
...he told the children of St. John's Roman Catholic parish that politics is a mockery and a sham, a beautiful fruit that turns to gall and ashes on being tasted. So sad did the lord of the First become in painting the woes and hardships attendant on being a politician that some of his loyal henchmen among the audience missed the rest of the speech in an eager discussion of the possible heir to the throne....No one doubted that he knew what he was talking about, though some wondered in a sort of hopeless way whether there was any chance of the preacher taking a small dose, just for one term say, of his own advice.


Kimberly said...

Wow! Thanks for the information. It's more information about a family relative than I've been able to accrue in a long time. He's a great-great uncle of mine!

RL said...

Do you know anything about Harvey Thompson, who apparently owned the hotel and was Lake Forest's first Mayor? Thanks, RL

missy said...

I would love to get in touch with Kimberly - he's my great great uncle too!

Kimberly Boucher said...

I have forgotten about my post. Missy, I can be reached at KimBoucherRealtor@gmail.com... I live in Albuquerque, NM. RL, I don't know anything about Harvey Thompson... My Uncle might, he's the genealogist on our family.