Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rev. Jeremiah Porter, Chicago's First Moral Crusader

Because Chicago has always the country's first city in crime, it has also witnessed countless righteous uprisings against the underworld. The city's first battle between religion and vice was centered here, on the Southwest corner of Clark and Lake, at the First Presbyterian Church.

In 1833, Chicago's population numbered around 300, the majority of whom were soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, French trappers, and "civilized" Potowotomie Indians. As in most frontier towns, the male-to-female ratio was far from one, and men with extra time on their hands and no female companionship will seek excitement in countless ways. Prostitution was an early growth industry on Wells Street, booze flowed freely, and horseracing was a perennial sport. Cards and dice games were also popular, and the city's proximity to the Mississippi River brought a wide range of card sharks and confidence men through on a regular basis.

To make those games of chance more interesting, gambling became a common occupation of frontier Chicagoans, especially during the long, cold winters. It was after one such winter in May, 1833 that the Revered Jeremiah Porter arrived in town. Religion was not a particularly important part of the city's life up to that time, although one tireless believer, Philo Carpenter, had begun a Methodist Sunday School with 15 pupils earlier that year.

Rev. Porter was born in Massachusetts in 1804, and had graduated Williams College in that state at age 21 before matriculating at Andover Theological Seminary. By 1831, he was stationed at Ft. Brady in Sault Ste. Marie, ministering to the soldiers on the wild frontier. After the Black Hawk War of 1832 in Chicago, in which 72 soldiers were killed, a regiment from Ft. Brady was transferred to Fort Dearborn in May, 1833, to replace those lost and to relieve others. Rev. Porter took the opportunity to travel with the regiment.

Porter was apparently an exceptional minister, and had converted all of the Ft. Brady soldiers save one lone couple, who somehow managed to resist. When he arrived in Chicago, he was utterly dismayed at the unchristian standards of the city. He wrote in his journal that his first sight upon alighting in Illinois was a group of Indians playing cards in front of a primitive saloon, with a group of soldiers looking on.

Rev. Porter held his first services almost immediately upon arrival, ministering to 26 members in the carpenter shop at Fort Dearborn. As the Reverend described it later, "I gathered the first church ever formed in Chicago since 'the morning stars first sang together.'"

Again, the Reverend's talents grew the little group to 67 members within a year, and demand began to be made for a formal church edifice. A site was selected on the Southwest corner of Clark and Lake Streets, which at the time was nothing but prairie bog, quite a distance from the first sprouts of the city huddled around the Fort. Members complained that the church was remote and inaccessible, but the foresighted minister made plans to build a wooden frame structure on the lot, at a cost of $316. First, however, a group of squatters who had erected shanties had to be cleared, which they were in the dead of night, pulled down by a team of horses driven by church members, which dragged the squatters' residences several blocks west on Lake Street.

By winter, the church was built, and the group of believers, thinking that Yankee Congregationalism would be unsuited to the new territory of Illinois, founded their congregation as the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The dedication took place on January 4, 1834, when the temperature was 24 below zero. In his diary, Rev. Porter wrote of that day:
Many witnessed the solemn scene, but a majority were females, as two vessels were unloading in the harbor, causing a wanton abuse of the holy day by many who sin against clear light, and abuse divine compassion and love.
One of the soldiers' children who attended church at First Presbyterian was the future Mrs. Henry Durant, founder of Wellesley College.

All the time, Reverend Porter's assault on gambling and other vice continued. Records of the church include the following:
12/30/33: William Cole, having used intoxicating drink several times during the past year, so as to be sensibly affected to the wounding of his own peace and the cause of Christ, was called before the session this evening and made full confession, promising to reform.

9/5/34: Brothers William Cole and John Guy, having been laboured with by the pastor and one of the elders for drinking ardent spirits, acknowledge their sin and express a determination to reform.

12/13/34: The church committee visited Mrs. Boyer and her daughter and learned that both of them attended a party where dancing had been introduced. Both confessed their error.
Reverend Porter led city committees to eradicate gambling, and focused his attention on the problem in the summer of 1835, which he called a "season of prayer," with many rousing sermons. Responding to increased public pressure, several gambling sports were imprisoned, though none for very long.

Growing a church was not the Reverend's only activity in Chicago at the time. About the same time Porter arrived in Chicago, a young teacher, Eliza Chappell, came to the city and opened the first school for girls, space for which she rented from the Presbyterians for the sum of $9 per month (given the lack of suitable buildings in the city, the church was able to price discriminate heavily -- they rented the building for county court at the much higher rate of $30 per month).

Close quarters between the young teacher and the man of the cloth blossomed into romance, and in 1835, Chappell and Porter were married. Even with a godly wife at his side, Chicagoans' taste for vice was too much for Reverend Porter, and in late 1835, he accepted a position at a church in Peoria, leaving the church he started and the crusades he founded.

Chicago's wickedness grew over the years, and so the city became fertile ground for religious revivalists. Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and William Moody all got their starts in Chicago. Gipsy Smith and Mother Cabrini thrived there, as have Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.

As for the Reverend Jeremiah Porter, his career after Peoria took him to Green Bay, Wis. for eighteen years, followed by a return to Chicago, where he ministered to a Congregationalist church on the west side for many years before retiring to California. During the Civil War, Rev. Porter traveled with the Illinois First Artillery Regiment as company chaplain (one of the Reverend's nine children was a member of the regiment).

However, Chicago was always his home; when Eliza Porter passed in 1888, her remains were brought by train across the country back to Chicago for burial. The old crusader himself remained active, giving lectures to large crowds up until just before his own passing in 1893.

The First Presbyterian congregation held together through the years, though they quickly outgrew the old wooden shack at Clark and Lake. The issue of slavery tore the congregation into three parts: in 1842, a pro-slavery contingent splintered to found Second Presbyterian, and in 1851, another group left to found a radical abolishonist Congregationalist church.

The church slowly shifted its focus to the city's Southside, eventually settling on 64th and Kimbark in the Woodlawn neighborhood in the 1920s. During the 1960s, the church was investigated by federal authorities for links with Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers. Despite its troubles, the congregation of First Presbyterian still holds services today, attracting Chicagoans away from the lures of easy pleasure and vice, 176 years after Reverend Porter first began the crusade.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Haymarket Speakers' Wagon

At the time of the Haymarket Riot, during the 1880s, a typical laborer in the United States worked ten hours per day, six days per week. Today, the average is below 40 hours per week (even if you count only male primary family "breadwinners"), and almost all of the 33% decline in hours worked has been converted directly into increased leisure time. Additionally, there is the dramatic improvement in the types and variety of entertainment options today that did not exist then (such as reading -- and writing -- blogs) which improve the quality of the leisure time we take, not to mention the many ways in which the tedium and exhaustion traditionally associated with work have been ameliorated (are you reading this blog post at your job?). We are truly pampered on a colossal scale compared to our forefathers of only 120 years ago -- barely the blink of an eye in human history.

In perspective, then, it's easy to see the attraction socialism and anarchy held to workers of the day. With low levels of education and little modern technology, labor productivity was low and the going wage rates reflected this low productivity. Thus, a laborer typically needed to work many hours in order to earn enough to feed himself and his family.

This work truly was miserable, protracted, and repetitive, and with the government providing few of the "social safety net" benefits that the New Deal and Great Society would bring during the 20th century, many workers felt trapped in a life of hopeless tedium, unable to consider quitting for fear of literally starving themselves and their families to death. That phrase, "wage slavery," so key to socialist rhetoric, seems offensive to the modern ear in its analogy between freely entered employment contracts and the violence of whip and chain, but would not have fallen on such deaf ears in the 1880s.

Organized labor, as a movement, was in its infancy, but May of 1886 was a turning point. Like all cartels, workers' groups of that day and today sought to lower production levels (hours worked) in order to raise pries (wages). Naturally, such actions benefit workers with jobs, who receive higher wages, but at the expense of the unemployed, who find it harder to get work at the higher rates. A regulated and enforced eight hour workday was seen as a solution to this tradeoff, as it would in theory share wage gains more broadly across workers, rather than enriching some and punishing others.

Legislation in some states had enforced maximum ten hour workdays for several decades, although there were generally relaxed rules for cases where both employer and employee mutually desired longer days. With productivity (and wages) at such low levels, many workers wanted to work longer hours in order to earn more.

In order to force the question of the eight-hour day, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, an early labor organization, designated May 1, 1886 ("May Day") as the day when workers would simply walk off the job after eight hours. However, the lack of solidarity among workers and the desire of many to work more than eight hours, doomed the effort. The radicalism at the fringes of the labor movement, displayed in the Haymarket Affair, also turned public opinion against legislation that would enforce shorter workdays.

These events filled the early days of May, 1886 in Chicago with clashes between groups with varying interests: workers seeking to fulfill the promise of the eight hour day, workers who wanted to work more than eight hours, employers who wanted to hire workers for more than eight hours, the unemployed who wanted to work any hours they could, and the police. On May 3, a walk-off at McCormick's Reaper Works on the Southwest side led to a clash with police in which two workers died.

August Spies, the editor of the radical daily Arbeiter-Zeitung, witnessed the bloodshed (though he mistakenly believed six, not two, were killed), and returned to his Wells St. office where he penned a passionate leaflet calling for retribution. The English version of Spies' copy (which was also printed in German) read:
Workingmen to Arms!!! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds -- the police; they killed six of your brothers at McCormick's this afternoon. They killed the poor wretches, because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them, because they dared ask for the shortening of the hours of toil. They killed them to show you, "Free American Citizens," that you must be satisfied and contented with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed!

You have for years endured the most abject humiliations; you have for years suffered unmeasurable iniquities; you have worked yourself to death; you have endured the pangs of want and hunger; your children you have sacrificed to the factory-lords -- in short: you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master? When you ask them now to lessen your burden, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, kill you!

If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms!

Your brothers.
A copy editor at the newspaper added the word "Revenge!" in bold face at the top of the leaflet, thus giving it the name it became known later at the trial, the "Revenge Circular." 2,500 copies of the Revenge Circular went out, including to a Westside meeting of radical anarchists run by Adolph Fischer, a printer at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and George Engel. At that meeting, a protest was planned for the following evening at Haymarket Square. Haymarket was chosen because it was large enough that the planners felt escape would be possible if a clash with police occurred. Fischer printed up 25,000 handbills, which included the phrase:
Workingmen arm yourselves and appear in full force!
Fischer then went to his job at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and convinced Spies to speak at the meeting and to print the handbill in the next day's newspaper. Spies objected to the handbill's violent tone, and printed the bill without the offensive "arm yourselves" line. Also in the same issue of the paper mysteriously appeared the word "Ruhe" (rest) in a prominent position, a signal previously determined to designate the start of outright revolution.

The evening of the protest, May 4, was rainy and cold. Albert Parsons, a major anarchist leader in the city, and alone among the Haymarket defendants, a native-born American, was supposed to open the meeting in English, but he had been delayed, and at 8:15 the meeting had still not begun. The weather -- and possibly the whiff of violence -- had kept many potential attendees at home, and the late start led others to assume the meeting was canceled.

When Spies arrived to begin his speech at 8:15, he noted the poor attendance and decided to move the group around the corner on to Desplaines Street, where he found an empty wagon, which he appropriated as a podium. Standing on the podium, he began addressing the crowd. The speakers' wagon from which Spies spoke has been commemorated by the sculpture which stands today on the location of the real wagon, pictured above.

After Spies finished speaking, Parsons arrived and spoke for another hour to a rapidly thinning crowd. Those who were left, however, were among the most radical, and they repeatedly shouted slogans and affirmations to what they heard from the wagon. One attendee waved a pistol above his head in defiance.

As the weather worsened, Parsons told the attendees that a final speaker, Samuel Fielden, would be the final speaker, and those who wished could then continue the discussion at Zepf's tavern, just north of the Haymarket. Fielden concluded his talk, which included some incendiary, though circumspect, language:
He that has to obey the will of another is a slave. Can we do anything except by the strong arm of resistance?...I have some resistance in me; I know that you have, too; you have been robbed and you will be starved into a worse condition."
At this moment, a police force arrived to break up the meeting. Fielden began stepping down from the platform, as his speech was essentially finished at the point anyway. Spies, who was sitting at the edge of the wagon, was about to remind everyone about the post-protest meeting at Zepf's.

At this point that the fatal bomb was thrown, and the riot begun. The police began firing randomly into the crowd, though they primarily shot each other. Men and women ran in all directions, trampling each other in a mad attempt to escape. The air was clouded with smoke from gunshot and cries from those shot and wounded. Ten men, including seven police, lie dead on the street. Probably over a hundred were wounded.

Eight men, including Fischer, Parsons, Engel, Fielden, and Spies, were tried and convicted on murder charges, though six of them were demonstrably not even in attendance at the Haymarket meeting at the time of the bomb (including Fischer and Parsons, who had already retired to Zepf's), and the two who were in attendance, Fielden and Spies, were both on the speakers' wagon in full sight of all when the bomb was thrown.

Nevertheless, their history of radical behavior and incendiary rhetoric had turned public opinion strongly against the anarchists, and a fair trial was an impossibility. Spies, Parsons, Engel, and Fischer were executed in November, 1887. A fifth convict committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were pardoned after serving seven years in prison.

While a statue to the fallen police was erected in Haymarket Square soon after the incident, over time, the cause of workers' rights led to a more sympathetic view of the anarchist "conspirators". In 1992, a bronze plaque was sunk into the sidewalk at the location of the speakers' wagon, and in 2004 the pictured sculpture was unveiled.

While the eight-hour day is a reality today for most workers, there is little evidence that the Haymarket Riot, or labor organization and agitation generally, had much to do with it. Improvements in education and labor-saving technology, which vastly increased labor productivity, led to higher wages. Workers then were able to to cut their hours of work without reducing their standard of living.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mrs. William Hale Thompson, Mayor's Wife, Robbed at Gunpoint

In the fall of 1930, William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson was serving his third term as mayor of Chicago, having defeated the incumbent "Decent" William Dever in 1927. Funded by Al Capone's syndicate and unrepentant in his connections with the city's bootleggers, Thompson was in bed with criminals, and his popularity was declining as the city's crime rates rose. Yet he never guessed just what a close encounter his wife would have with the underworld on the evening of October 6 at this spot on the corner of Barry Ave. and Sheridan Rd.

William Hale Thompson was the scion of one of Chicago's greatest families. On his mother's side, Thompson's grandfather, Stephen F. Gale, was one of the signatories to the city's original 1837 charter of incorporation. His father, Col. William H. Thompson, Sr., was a Bostonian who came to Chicago after serving at high rank in the Navy during the Civil War. Col. Thompson started a real estate business, building the "Thompson Block" on W. Madison St. The Colonel's location turned out fortuitous, as his buildings were the closest ones to downtown not burned in the Great Fire. With the higher rents he was able to charge, he made himself into one of the city's major rebuilders, and his family became the toast of society.

His oldest son, William, Jr., was a wild young man, perhaps spoiled by his family's wealth and power. Once, after his son was arrested for fighting, Col. Thompson marched directly into the mayor's office to demand William, Jr., be released, and then watched as the mayor dressed down the police chief for arresting him. Instead of heading off to Yale, as his parents demanded, young William, Jr., went adventuring in Wyoming, learning the trade of the cowboy, and then to New Mexico to start a ranch. After the passing of his father in 1891, though, he returned to Chicago to take over his father's real estate business. Nevertheless, he retained his cowboy hat as a political trademark for the rest of his life.

(Pictured: William Hale Thompson, as cowboy, on the left, with two other cowboys)

"Big Bill", as his friends began calling him, also brought back a physique in top form from years of hard work on the range, and so he became seriously involved in amateur athletics. Once, in 1893, his mother fired one of her coachmen for indolence. When the man later turned up drunk and angry at the family's summer home in Wisconsin, he shoved Thompson, who returned the aggression with his fists. With one punch from Big Bill, the man dropped dead.

Thompson excelled at swimming, yachting, and football, and quickly rose in the ranks of the Chicago Athletic Association. The football teams he managed played and defeated some of the top college teams of the day, including Northwestern and Yale. In January, 1899, however, Big Bill learned his first lesson in politics when he lost the Presidency of the Association. The Tribune reported:
Although Mr. Thompson said that good feeling prevailed between the rival factions, some of his friends said the regulars [Thompson's opponents] had employed the tactics of ward politicians to gain votes and charged a breach of good faith in one or two particulars.
Thompson took the opportunity of his defeat to run for Alderman from the Southside 2nd Ward in 1900. Nominated by the Republicans at Frieberg's Dance Hall, Thompson won the race, and represented an area that included the newly-forming "Levee," the red light district that would soon become world-famous. The Tribune endorsed Thompson's opponent, beginning a long history of antagonism between Big Bill and the Trib.

The neighboring First Ward, directly to the north, was run by those famous "Lords of the Levee," Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and John J. "Bathhouse" Coughlin, who became rich collecting protection from the brothels and gambling dens in their district. But the old Custom House Place levee district was under pressure and public condemnation, and there was talk of closing the old segregated vice district in favor of a new levee in the 2nd ward. Some operations, including the world-famous Everleigh Club, had already opened near Dearborn and 22nd, and others were soon to follow. Kenna and Coughlin decided they needed to broaden the boundaries of their Ward to include the new vice district in the freshman Thompson's ward.

Some accounts indicate that Kenna and Coughlin tricked Thompson into voting to shift the boundary of the 1st Ward down to 31st street; others say the vote was a back-room deal in which the 1st Ward aldermen promised to support Thompson's future mayoral aspirations. In any case, Thompson stepped down from his Aldermanic post after one term, and ran for county commissioner, serving in that capacity for two years before running, unsuccessfully, as an independent candidate for mayor in 1905.

At about the same time he left his Aldermanic office, he fell in love with Mary "Maysie" Walker, a secretary in his father's bookkeeper's office. Thompson's mother disapproved of the marriage, so the couple eloped to Michigan to marry. Settling down with his bride, Thompson continued running his real estate business, dabbling in Republican politics, taking control of the Columbia Yacht Club, and managing amateur football teams for the next decade.

(Pictured: Mary Walker "Maysie" Thompson)

Finally, in 1915, he ran again for mayor, this time on the Republican ticket. A newspaper account at the time described him:
Even in his forties, with some of the signs of middle age in his face and figure, he has the great depth of chest and the breadth of shoulder which mark the athlete. There is nothing about him which suggests the student.
Running against Democrat Robert Sweitzer, the campaign was dirty from the outset. Both sides accused the other of close ties to disgraced Illinois Sen. William Lorimer. As it was the first Chicago election in which women were allowed to vote, Thompson never missed an opportunity to display his rugged good looks and handsome frame. He also promised to enforce the Sunday saloon closing laws, a policy supported by most women. On the evening of his victory in the 1915 campaign, Mrs. Thompson told a reporter, "It is a women's victory...Billy stands for everything that is good for the city, and I will stand by him and second him in everything that he will do for us."

Upon election, Thompson immediately began floating his name for the 1918 Illinois Senatorial contest, and as a potential candidate for U.S. President in 1920. After all, if he was able to win solidly Democratic Chicago by 148,000 votes, just think what he could do for the Republican party on the national level.

But Thompson's first term was a disaster. At the onset of WWI, Thompson was an avowed peacenik, opposing America's involvement in Europe, and courting the vote of Chicago's large German population. Detractors began referring to him as "Kaiser" Bill Thompson, and he was consistently booed and hissed in Peoria and other downstate locations during his 1918 Senatorial campaign. The Tribune chimed in,
Having opposed the war and the draft and having objected to the sending of drafted men to Europe, it is not likely that Thompson will be very sincere in his promise to do all he can to help prosecute the war "until the United States can obtain peace with honor."
When it was revealed that the Germans were using Thompson's speeches in propaganda used against American troops, he lost his Senatorial campaign. Though he managed to maintain the mayor's office in the 1919 re-election, his popularity continued to slide as several major graft scandals arose, including his failure to keep some parts of the old Levee district, which had been shut down in the early part of the 1910s, from reopening (perhaps as a payback to Kenna and Coughlin?). His slow response to the deadly race riots of 1919 didn't help either. By 1923, Big Bill realized he couldn't win a third term, and he "retired" from politics.

During the 1920s, Thompson maintained a high profile, contributing to political campaigns, becoming involved in civic affairs, and continuing his passion for yachting. He was a major investor in the "Fish Fans Club," a sort-of booze cruise in Belmont Harbor, which when the police raided, was found to be full of illegal liquor. However, to the majority of Chicagoans who opposed Prohibition, Thompson, unlike his mayoral successor, "Decent" William Dever, was a man of the people.

Thus, in 1927, Thompson ran against Dever in one of the nastiest political campaigns in the city's history. Implicitly promising to "take off the lid" on alcohol consumption in Chicago, Thompson kicked off his campaign at the Sherman House, where he had recently become close friends with Al Capone. In one memorable speech, Thompson referred to Dever as "the biggest liar and the biggest crook who ever broke an oath of office." For his part, Dever returned the compliment: "I don't know what ails the man. I don't like to say he's crazy. But there is mental trouble of some sort there, I am sure....There isn't anybody home with that man. He simply can't conceive serious or consecutive thought."

By cobbling together the votes of Southside African-Americans, a wide range of recent immigrants, and other Chicagoans who just wanted a beer, Thompson won in 1927. It also didn't hurt that Thompson's campaign coffers were filled with Capone money, a fact that was evident to anyone who cared to look carefully.

(Pictured: Thompson as mayor, with trademark cowboy hat)

On the night of his victory, Mrs. Thompson was triumphant. "Anytime anybody wants to try to run against that boy, he's in for a smashing licking....He showed 'em. You bet he showed 'em; he showed 'em!"

By 1930, however, the Thompsons' marriage (like Big Bill's political career) was on the rocks (they separated a few years later), so it's no surprise that on the night of October 6, Mrs. Thompson went out to a show downtown together with her sister. At around 11:00, Mrs. Thompson's driver, a Chicago police officer, picked the two up outside the theater, and drove first to Lincoln Park to drop off the Mayor's sister-in-law at her apartment. Just before midnight, Mrs. Thompson's driver pulled up to the Barry St. entrance to their apartment building, at 3100 N. Sheridan (entrance pictured above, building pictured at bottom).

As her driver exited the car to help Mrs. Thompson with her door, three men stepped out of a Nash automobile parked in front and jumped the officer, forcing him back into the vehicle, where one of the robbers held a pistol to his head, disarmed him, and ripped the police star off his vest. The other two forced the city's first lady into the vestibule of the building, pressed guns against her forehead and side, and demanded her jewels. Liberating her of a 6.5-carat blue diamond ring, a 40-diamond bracelet, and a diamond brooch set, the men took off in their car.

Mrs. Thompson fainted and fell to the ground. At just that moment, two fellow residents of the 3100 building, Barney and Mrs. Balaban happened on the scene, and carried Mrs. Thompson up to her apartment, where she spent several days ill as a nervous wreck (Balaban was a Chicago theater magnate and would soon become president of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood).

The mayor arrived home at 2:00 a.m., and the next morning called the chief of police into his office. "Remember what I say. I want action, and I want action immediately," he demanded. Thompson had fired a previous police chiefs during his first term for political gain, so the implications were obvious. With no leads except Mrs. Thompson's description of one of the gunmen as "handsome, a good-looking youth," the police picked up a criminal they wanted out of the way, in the hope that a jury would convict him based on his unsavory police record alone.

That man was Sam Battaglia (also known as "Teets"), leader of the "42" gang. The 42s were a group of toughs from the impoverished Bloody Maxwell neighborhood who specialized in beatings and auto thefts, lending their services out to bootleggers (especially the Gennas) and union racketeers throughout the 1920s. Battaglia and a fellow 42, William Carr, were arrested for the robbery and put on trial, but witnesses were unable to identify Carr on the stand, and he was dismissed from court. Despite being identified by Mrs. Thompson and others, Battaglia was acquitted due to insufficient evidence, and the missing jewels were never recovered.

(Pictured: Sam "Teets" Battaglia)

Mayor Thompson's political rivals were quick to make a point of his wife's victimization: "The mayor, two months ago, should have supported my resolution for an investigation of the police department with the same vigor with which he fought King George," said one Alderman.

The crack about Big Bill fighting King George refers to Thompson's 1927 campaign, in which he famously courted the votes of Southside Irish with ridiculous arguments that King George V (then King of England) was the greatest contemporaneous threat to the United States. Thompson promised that if the King visited Chicago, the mayor personally would "bust him on the snoot."

With the city's crime wave out of control, Mayor Thompson faced an uphill battle in the 1931 mayoral election, in which he faced off with Democratic challenger Anton Cermak, and if the mayor couldn't keep his own wife safe, what were other Chicagoans supposed to expect? Thompson's poorly-run campaign, in which he gave up on his winning strategy of courting immigrant votes by belittling Cermak, making fun of his name, and never failing to point out his foreign birth, didn't help his cause either. In an early sign of the Democratic wave sweeping the country, "Big Bill" lost the '31 election by the widest margin in the history of the city up to that time. Though he ran as a reformer, Cermak turned out to be only marginally less corrupt that Thompson.

After running unsuccessfully for Illinois governor in 1936, and for Chicago mayor again in 1939, William Hale Thompson died in March, 1944. When his family checked the ex-mayor's three safe deposit boxes, they were shocked to find $1,840,000 in unreported cash. Thompson's friends argued that it was likely the fruits of the real estate business Thompson had run while not in office. But safe deposit boxes pay notoriously low interest rates, so the presence of the cash suggests an illegal source. Were these payoffs from Capone and other mobsters? Or was Thompson able to reap large real estate returns while in office, based on inside information about city public works plans? We'll never really know, but after the IRS took its share, Mrs. Thompson lived on the rest until her passing in 1958.

One of Sam Battaglia's fellow 42s, Sam "Mooney" Giancana, later became a major figure in the Chicago Outfit, organizing its lottery gambling operations in the 1940s. He brought Battaglia and several other 42s into the hierarchy of the gang, making them rich beyond the wildest dreams they ever had on the tough Westside streets where they grew up. Battaglia lived until 1972.

The Barry Apartments, where the Thompsons lived during the 1920s, still stands, and is still an apartment building. Perhaps not quite as tony as it was when the Mayor and the future president of Paramount Pictures lived there, it is still a desirable location in the Lakeview neighborhood, near the beach.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Cap" Hyman's Sunnyside Resort

Captain "Cap" Hyman was one of Chicago's most infamous characters before the Great Fire. An inveterate gambler, he was one of the kings of "Hairtrigger Block", a gambling mecca on Randolph St., west of State.

Hairtrigger is a word that also describes Hyman's personal character. In an inebriated state, he was well-known in the city for wandering into public places and brandishing his pistol. In 1862, he did just that in the Tremont House hotel.

On the evening of August 2, 1868, around midnight, Cap Hyman found himself at the New York Sample Room, a low saloon in Clark Street. The following day's Tribune detailed what happened next:
[Hyman] entered the saloon about midnight, meeting at the entrance a friend named James McKenna, barkeeper at the Sherman House. He invited him to drink and the two, accompanied by others, stepped up to the bar. A dispute arose between them as to who should "treat," when McKenna spiritedly accused his companion of owing a bill for liquor, etc., at the Sherman House. Hyman stepped from the barroom, which is in the rear portio of the place, to the front compartment, and, drawing a revolver, discharged it at McKenna. The contents, probably a blank cartridge, failed to do any injury. He fired again, the ball entering the groin of M. Kasprowicz, inflicting a serious but not very dangerous wound. At latest accounts the victim was doing well.
Kasprowicz, also a noted gambler, was also the son of the saloon's proprietor. The article referred to both Hyman and Kasprowicz as "[g]amblers of the worst kind and very dangerous members of society." A police search for Hyman the next day failed to find him, but eventually he turned himself in, and after lengthy legal maneuvering, he was released back into the city to create more mayhem.

During his time on the lam for the Kasprowicz shooting, Hyman laid low at his place in suburban Lake View, which was in the 1860s farmland not incorporated into Chicago. Two years earlier, in 1866, Hyman and his wife, the fat brothel-keeper and former Sands resident, Annie Stafford, had opened to the public their Sunnyside Resort in Lake View, a roadside inn on the old Evanston Road (now Broadway) near the intersection with eponymous street, Sunnyside Ave. (pictured above).

The grand opening was on a Wednesday evening in December, 1866, and reporters from the major Chicago papers were brought to the gala affair in a huge four-horse sleigh. Hyman declared to all, "I would like you gentlemen of the press to understand that this affair will be straight to the wink of an eyelash. All the ladies are here on their honor, and Mrs. Hyman will see to it that nothing unseemly takes place."

Nevertheless, opening night was portentous. Hyman and Stafford intended the Resort to cater primarily to the well-to-do country traveler, and to stand as their entree into Chicago's upper crust society. But all of the couple's friends were from a distinctly different social class. A newspaper article at the time described the opening night guest list: "[t]he list was select, embracing chiefly the women keepers of some of the more fashionable brothels, and those who contribute most liberally to their support."

Everything went swimmingly until around midnight, when a fight broke out among three rival cyprians at the party, which turned into an all-out wrestling match. In a drunken fit, Hyman shot out the lights, and several of the harlots began "entertaining" clients upstairs. By dawn, the evening's tired and mangled party guests departed, and the bad publicity associated with the evening's melee doomed the business; it shut down to the public within six months.

Hyman and Stafford continued to make trouble in Chicago for a few more years before they separated, with the Captain heading to New York in 1868. Rumor had it that the old gambler's mental health was not good, perhaps the result of too many evenings spent in brothels like Annie Stafford's. In possibly the most sarcastic editorial ever published in the Tribune, the paper wrote of news of Hyman's decline:
Report has just reached Chicago of the fall of a great man. As a gambler he stood at the head of his profession, in braggadocio he had not his equal, and as a shooter at defenceless cripples and women he stood without a rival. Of course, this means the Adonis, Captain Hyman. How his diamonds used to flash in the sunlight of our streets! With what elegance of deportment he used to pick his teeth on the steps of our hotels! How immaculate was wont to be his toilet! But, alas! he left Chicago about a year ago, and with it has come his fall. Detective Ellis, just returned from New York, met him in the great metropolis, and at first mistook him for a peddler of "hot corn." The change seemed incredible. Not even a brass band ornamented his nimble digits, and he looked as if he had not enjoyed a square meal for a week. In other words, the whilom proprietor of sumptuous Sunnyside and the hero of innumerable bouts is broke clear out of his boots. Wonder if he will ever "come up smiling" again?"
Suffice it to say Cap Hyman was not a popular figure in Chicago, and his demise in the mid-1870s was welcomed by all. Annie Stafford continued to run brothels on Federal St. (then Fourth Ave.) and Wells Street until about 1880.

Accounts published in the 1860s put the location of the Sunnyside Resort on the Evanston Road (Broadway) "about two or three miles from the city limit", at what is now Sunnyside Ave. Based on educated guesses from other sources, I believe the Southeast corner of Broadway and Sunnyside would have been the most likely location for the Resort. This is pictured above.

A later account in 1941 by an old-timer describes a place called the Sunnyside Tavern, where Chicagoans of the 1880s used to go out sledding in the wintertime on Clark Street at Sunnyside. Since Clark is just west of Broadway at this point, it's possible this is the same establishment (perhaps under the control of a later owner), but I cannot corroborate that. Also, in Gem of the Prairie, published in 1940, Herbert Asbury also puts the location of Hyman's Resort on Clark St., possibly based on the same source. Nevertheless, I have chosen to rely on the contemporaneous accounts.

In any case, the Resort was gone by the turn of the century, and the southeast corner of Broadway and Sunnyside became the site of a dull gray three-story building, which was razed in 1929 and rebuilt as an equally dull gray three-story building (pictured above), inhabited by administrative offices of the Illinois Bell company. In the 1950s, Illinois Bell quit the building, which then became the offices of the city's Department of Urban Renewal. By the 1970s, the building was under the control of the Salvation Army, which ran it as a soup kitchen and shelter through the 1980s and 1990s. It appears to be closed now, possibly slated for destruction along with the buildings across from it on Broadway, which have already fallen, to be replaced by a Target.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Al Capone Arrested for DWI

After growing up in the Italian slums of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Al Capone briefly worked as an accountant in Baltimore. But in 1921 when his old friend from New York, Johnny "The Fox" Torrio, called and offered him work in his Chicago crime syndicate, Capone jumped at the opportunity.

The advent of Prohibition created opportunities for enterprising and intelligent men to make a fortune in the underworld, and Capone was just that type of man. Upon his arrival in Chicago in 1921, the future gang leader was first tested by Torrio with street-level enforcement work at the Four Deuces and organization of a prostitution enterprise in Rogers' Park. But with his business acumen and willingness to employ violence, Capone quickly climbed the corporate ladder, and he became Torrio's closest business partner within a year.

It was at this point that Al Capone first came to the attention of the Chicago police department, when, intoxicated, he slammed one of Torrio's cars into a parked taxi cab at the corner of Randolph and Wabash, pictured above. The story in the Tribune, reprinted below in full, tells what happened next:

Capone was right. Torrio's "pull" within the police department, as evidenced by his phony sheriff's badge, kept Capone out of prison. Needless to say, if Capone had been sentenced for his DWI in 1922, the entire course of the 1920s in Chicago would have been different.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bobbie Arnstein's Death at the Maryland Hotel

In January, 1975, the FBI's attempt to take down Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire on drug distribution charges effectively ended with the apparent suicide of the feds' key witness, former "bunny" Bobbie Arnstein, here at the Maryland Hotel, 900 N. Rush Street (now 40 E. Delaware Place).

The Maryland Hotel was built in 1928 with 300 rooms, and immediately became one of the city's most well-known institutions. Boasting a drug store, a restaurant, and a swinging dance club, there was ceaseless activity in the building.

The basement of the Maryland in the 1950s showcased some of the top entertainers and comedians of the day in "the swingingest show in town" at the famous Cloister Inn. There were typically three nighly shows, at 10 p.m., midnight, and 2 a.m. With jazz legend Ramsey Lewis leading the house band, popular acts that played the Cloister included Duke Ellington, Anita O'Day, Damita Jo, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Sally Rand, Redd Foxx, and Bill Cosby. Lenny Bruce had his first Chicago engagement there before moving on to the Gate of Horn club around the corner on State and Oak streets, where he was arrested and assaulted by police. Some period ads from the 1950s, enticing clubgoers with major acts including George Carlin, Della Reese, and Jim Backus (?):

In its 1950s heyday, Rush Street was packed with upscale nightclubs, cafes, and dance halls that kept the near North side swinging. Besides the Cloister, the Bambu, the Tradewinds, Mr. Kelly's, and The Happy Medium were some of the most popular clubs, and in just about any given week, one could hear performers there who today would be considered legendary, if they weren't already then.

Over time, however, the neighborhood began a slow decline. In 1960, the owner of the Cloister Inn faced a lien on his establishment due to unpaid taxes, and he sold to a new group, which renamed the basement club "The Celebrity Lounge." Great musical acts, including trombonist Si Zentner and the King Fleming Trio continued to play the Maryland throughout the early 1960s.

By the late 1960s, however, the North Rush Street area had taken on a distinctive seediness, and the small size of the Maryland's rooms, in comparison with those of more luxurious modern hotels, made it an especially unwelcome host for business and entertainment travelers. In time, most of the rooms became occupied by long-term tenants, who paid around $175 per month. The Celebrity Lounge closed and a dirty go-go club, the Rush Over, re-opened in that space, while an oyster bar, Alfie's, inhabited the first floor restaurant space. Alfie's eventually converted to a disco in 1974, offering "Plastic hanging plants, leatherette swivel chairs, some plaid upholstery....pulsating strobe lights and a mirrored ball," in the words of the Tribune's unimpressed reviewer.

Like the old Cloister Inn, The Tradewinds and Mr. Kelly's also closed, and seedier establishments such as an adult movie house and The Candy Store -- the latter of which was a strip club and thinly-disguised brothel -- took over all along Rush during the 1970s.

Given its hopping history, minor crime was commonplace at the Maryland throughout its history. Like any hotel, it had its share of unfaithful husbands seeking assignations and petty thefts. One in particular from the "I-think-there's-more-to-the-story-than-they're-letting-on" file, as described in the December 17, 1960 Tribune:

A woman in a fur coat invaded the ninth floor room of Robert Soley, 40, in the Maryland Hotel, 900 N. Rush Street, yesterday and fled with $20....Soley, a salesman from Cleveland, told police he awoke at 6:30 a.m. to find the invader rifling through his trouser pockets. He described her as an attractive blonde.
The Maryland was also involved in two of the major criminal scandals of the 1960s and 1970s. Starting in 1966, the proprietor of Alfie's, along with several other bars, strip joints, restaurants, and theaters in the Near North district, became subject to extortion by a rogue group of Chicago police calling themselves the "vice club." Officers demanded shakedowns on the order of $300 per month in return for not framing the paying clubs for selling alcohol to minors. The scheme, involving over 40 officers, was not discovered until 1972, when it became a major embarrassment for the city.

But it was suicide that brought the Maryland national headlines in 1975. Bobbie Arnstein was one of Hugh Hefner's Playboy bunnies, and his executive assistant at the Playboy Mansion, just a few blocks north of the hotel. By this time, Hefner was spending most of his time at his Beverly Hills mansion, but the Chicago mansion still housed the headquarters for the magazine empire. In 1974, Arnstein was arrested at the mansion on cocaine distribution charges, along with her boyfriend and another friend. Based on wiretap evidence, the feds charged that the entire Playboy empire, including Hefner's declining, but still popular chains of clubs, resorts, and hotels, was fronting for a massive illegal drug distribution operation.

When Miss Arnstein was convicted in federal court and sentenced to the exceptionally lengthy punishment of 15 years of hard time, the FBI decided to offer her immunity in return for blowing the cover off the drug ring -- and putting Playboy out of business.

While free on bond and awaiting appeal, Bobbie Arnstein received word that she was about to be subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating the alleged Playboy drug distribution scheme. Facing 15 years in the slammer, or ratting our her best friends and lover(s) at the mansion, she started to become unglued. State's Attorney (and future Illinois governor) James R. Thompson didn't help her mental state when he called Arnstein to his office and attempted to turn her against Playboy with claims of unmistakable evidence that Hefner had put a contract out on her life to keep her from talking.

Thus, on January 20, 1975, Bobbi Arnstein left the home of some friends after a dinner party and checked into a top-floor room at the Maryland Hotel under an assumed name. The next day, hotel staff broke into her double-locked room to find her dead, having overdosed on a combination of barbituates, sleeping pills, and valium. She left several notes to friends, including one which declared her innocence and loyalty to Hefner:

My immediate employer, Hugh Hefner, showed courage, perhaps to his own detriment, tho I hope not, and the kind of loyalty for which I hope -- even as I write this -- he is not wrongfully punished....I am innocent...despite the perjured testimony of the government's star witness, I was never part of any conspiracy to transport or distribute the alleged drugs connected with this case.
The day after her suicide, "Hef" flew to Chicago and called a press conference where he became emotional, complaining of a government "conspiracy to get me and Playboy," and blamed Arnstein's death on Thompson's prosecutorial ardor:

If she had produced evidence against me, she would never have been indicted. She was unjustly persecuted because of her relationship to me....There was no contract on her life....This is a politically inspired witch hunt.
Despite his denial, rumors continued to swirl that Arnstein's death was not entirely a suicide, and that Hefner or someone else at Playboy had her killed to stop her from testifying. Lending credence to these inuendoes was the similar apparent suicide of another bunny the year before, which also took place under unusual circumstances. Nevertheless, there has never come forth any probative evidence that Arnstein's death was anything more than it seemed. In fact, Arnstein had attempted suicide twice before, and it seems likely that she simply had a fragile nature, pushed to the breaking point by her conviction and looming prison sentence.

Without their potential lead witness against Hefner, the government turned to the two men arrested along with Arnstein on drug charges, offering them immunity for their testimony against Hefner and Playboy. Both refused, and in December, 1975, the investigation was dropped. Nevertheless, Bobbie Arnstein's death is remembered both as a sad consequence of the hedonism of the period, and of the government's zeal to prosecute those with alternative lifestyle choices.

(pictured: Bobbie Arnstein)

By 1980, the decline of the Rush Street district was complete; it had become something of a skid row on the Northside, and the Maryland was falling apart, literally. Of the 300 rooms, only 50 were occupied in July, when the hotel was sold to a group of far-sighted investors, who renovated the buildilng, combining rooms to create 87 plush condos, and adding the distinctive bay windows visible on the bulding today. They moved the entrance around the corner to Delaware Street; the previous main entrance was on the Rush Street side, near where the entrance to the high-end fashion shop Intermix is now.

Their investment turned out well, though it took a few years. Today, the adult theaters and SRO hotels are gone from the area, replaced by couture stores like Ikram and expensive boutique hotels like the soon-to-open Elysian. There are few signs of the swinging days of the Cloister Inn and Celebrity Lounge here today. The upscale clubs two blocks north, centered around Rush and Bellevue Place (recently, though universally, known as the "Viagra Triangle" for the prevalence of graying divorced men throwing cash at bleached blondes), offer only a faint echo of those that once brought some of the greatest musicians in history to Chicago. The seediness of the 1970s and 1980s-era Rush Street can be experienced to some degree at the top end of Rush, at Division St., where streetwalkers and drug-pushers mix with boozy carousers every weekend.

The basement of 40 E. Delaware Place, where jazz once blasted from the stage at the Cloister Inn, now holds bicycle storage for the residents of the upscale condos.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Colosimo's First Brothel

"Big Jim" James Colosimo started his first brothel at this location, 2001 S. Archer, known as "The New Brighton". Interestingly, at around the same time, Paul Kelly, the famed leader of New York City's Five Points gang, also opened his headquarters on the Lower East Side under the same name. Both men began long-lived criminal empires: the Five Pointers were later absorbed into the New York mafia, while Colosimo founded the Chicago Outfit, which would continue major crime operations in Chicago, Florida, and Las Vegas through the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Big Jim's career began in 1897, when he found a job working as a street sweeper, cleaning horse manure out of the alleys in pre-automobile Chicago. He quickly moved up from this lowly job to alley inspector in 1901, a position that gave him substantial ability to extort business and home owners. He also began unionizing the street sweepers, working together with Italian political power Tony D'Andrea and "Dago Mike" Carrozzo to create a powerful voting block of immigrant voters who could be purchased for the right price.

Colosimo had always dabbled in the underworld, working briefly in the business of writing Black Hand extortion letters, and pimping a group of streetwalkers in the old Custom House Place red light district. By 1902, however, he had left low-level criminality behind and was charting a path to becoming the city's first king of vice. He opened a pool room with gambling apparatus, renting space above one of "Mushmouth" Johnson's later resorts, the Frontenac, on 22nd and Dearborn. He also met and married a young madam in the Levee named Victoria Morseco.

Moresco grew up in the Northside Italian conclave known as Little Hell or Little Sicily, but as a teenager became involved in prostitution, and rose quickly to the position of madam at the brothel at 2001 S. Archer. In 1902, at age 20, she married Colosimo, who was three years her elder, and taught him the business of running a "disorderly hotel". He quickly took over the management of his wife's brothel, renaming it "The New Brighton".

Later, he opened a second brothel next door on Armour, which he named in honor of his wife, who operated the business for the remaining years of their marriage, "The Victoria" (Armour Ave. was vacated south of 20th St. to make way for the Hilliard Towers housing project in the 1960s; also, the rest of Armour was renamed Federal Street). He also opened a restaurant, the Brighton Cafe, on the first floor of the New Brighton.

By 1909, Colosimo had convinced Johnny Torrio (coincidentally, a member of Paul Kelly's gang) to move to Chicago from New York and take charge of his prostitution operations, headquartered at the New Brighton. Upon Colosimo's death in 1920, Torrio took over the entire organization, leading it into the Prohibition era.

Thus, it was Torrio who was cited as the proprietor for the New Brighton in 1914, when Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., was finally forced by public acclaim into closing down the Levee, and on May 30, 1914, the New Brighton's business license was revoked. The Tribune noted that Harrison's reason for shutting down the brothel "was not so much the activities of women as the character of the man habitues," an indication that the New Brighton was no peer of the Everleigh Club in class or amenities.

Through Colosimo's deep influence with aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, he was finally able to reopen the New Brighton, though most of his other gambling houses, drug dens, and brothels were closed as public pressure on the police forced the end of open vice in Chicago, forcing him to expand further into the suburbs, a process which Torrio and Al Capone continued in the 1920s.

The spot where the New Brighton stood -- and where most of the major Levee institutions stood -- has been completely vacated and turned into parkland surrounding the Hilliard Towers apartment buildings.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Terrible Genna" Headquarters

The Genna brothers, Pete, Sam, Jim, Tony, Angelo, and Mike, organized the massive dispersed labor force that produced distilled spirits for the Torrio-Capone syndicate during Prohibition. Their warehouse and headquarters, disguised to almost no one as an olive oil and cheese import business, was located on this parking lot, at 1022 W. Taylor, in the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy. The Gennas were the most crucial element in the liquor supply chain, and control over their operations was largely the source of the bloody Chicago Beer Wars of the 1920s.

There were seven Genna Brothers born in Sicily, and six of these came to America in 1910, settling in Chicago. They represented the worst of the dark, superstitious, and vengeful stereotypes of that island, and most everyone – the police and even other violent gangsters included – was deeply afraid of them. They got their start as Black Hand extortionists and as enforcers for Italian politician Tony D’Andrea in his long-running and violent feud with rival 19th ward alderman Johnny Powers. After D’Andrea’s assassination in 1921, the Gennas took control of the old D’Andrea headquarters at 1022 W. Taylor, known as the Italian-American Educational Club, and began reorganizing D’Andrea’s constituents into a massive and dispersed distilling organization.

Jim Genna was the oldest and the leader of the clan. Pete started as a saloonkeeper on the Westside and was the master of operations in the business. Sam was the political connection, Angelo supplied the tough guy muscle, and Mike was the runt of the family, subordinate to the others. Tony was a self-styled aristocrat, working as an architect and living at the posh Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue. He publicly disdained the criminal activities of his brothers, although when needed, he helped out in the family business as well, and in fact, he eventually gave his life for it.

The photo below shows the Genna family at the height of its power. From left to right, the men in the picture are Sam, Angelo, Pete, Tony, and Jim. Mike was likely the photographer.
The purpose of the Volstead Act, otherwise known as federal Prohibition, was to reduce alcohol consumption, which it did to a mild degree: a study of cirrhosis death rates indicates that alcohol consumption declined around 10-20% during the 1920s. At the same time, Volstead had a number of important unintended consequences, particularly for the way illegal alcohol was produced.

Since large distilleries would be difficult to keep hidden from law and revenue enforcement officials, and because a single raid on such an outfit could have a major impact on profits, the Gennas devised an ingenious method of dividing up their operations among thousands of small back-room stills. They offered $15 per day (a pittance of their profit, but roughly three times average unskilled labor earnings at the time) to each Sicilian family that would keep 50 gallons of corn sugar alcohol “cooking” in their home. Largely illiterate and impoverished, but accustomed to the home distilling process from life in the Old World, these families were more than willing to comply, and so all the streets of Little Italy reeked with the sweet smell of Genna mash. Through the inability to take advantage of the substantial economies of scale in distilling, Prohibition led to an enormous waste of societal resources, including the labor of thousands of immigrant Sicilians, drawn into the industry by the Gennas.

Prohibition also severely limited the ability of alcohol producers to brand and advertise their product and so build public reputations for quality. In doing so, it eliminated incentives for producers to engage in quality controls common in legal industries. Indeed, the Gennas’ product was disgusting and often deadly. Ordinarily, scotch and whisky achieve their amber hue and smooth flavor through a lengthy process of aging in wooden casks. Genna spirits, on the other hand, were no better than industrial quality, colored with food dye, and cut with glycerol in order to make it swallowable. Police raids in later years found dead rats and other impurities in the liquor barrels stored at the warehouse. These issues led to frequent alcohol poisonings, blindings, and deaths in Chicago that, in a legal market for booze, would have turned the Genna brand name to mud and scared customers away.

A third consequence of Prohibition was increased levels of violence as alcohol producers could no longer rely on the legal system to adjudicate disputes with employees, suppliers, and each other. The Gennas were among the most violent gangsters in Chicago history. In May, 1921, Angelo Genna was arrested for the murder of Paul Labriola, a supporter of Tony D’Andrea’s political rival. Twenty-five witnesses from the Club the Gennas later controlled as their headquarters testified that Angelo had been at the Club during the shooting. Moreover, on the last day of the trial, the state’s chief witness changed his story and claimed he had been paid to finger Angelo Genna as the killer. Genna went free.

Less than a year later, Angelo Genna was again arrested for murder, in this case of Paul Notte, in a long-running family feud. Notte named Angelo as his assassin with his dying words, but the testimony was thrown out of court when it was revealed that Notte was under the influence of medication at the time of his death. Again, Angelo went free.

He was not quite so lucky later in 1922, when he was arrested for threatening to kill Genevieve Court, a 15 year old girl who was prepared to testify in a Mann Act case against a Genna family associate, Henry Maltese, that Maltese had kidnapped her to Milwaukee and raped her before attempting to sell her into prostitution. Angelo Genna told Court that she and her family were marked for death if she testified. On the day of her testimony, Angelo sat in the gallery directly opposite the witness stand and gave her the famous Italian “Look,” reminding her of his threats. She recanted on the stand, but later admitted to police what Angelo had done. So fearsome was Angelo’s reputation that in this case, local officials refused to enter Little Italy to serve his arrest warrant. Federal marshals, however, did arrest Genna, and he was convicted and served one year at Leavenworth prison. Angelo Genna is pictured below:

Corruption of public officials was another inevitable consequence of Prohibition, and Genna headquarters was so frequently visited by police officers receiving bribes that it became jokingly known as “the police station.” The Gennas paid out over $8,000 per month in bribes to over 300 officers, mostly from the nearby Maxwell district stationhouse. After the Genna empire tumbled, police “raided” the headquarters and produced a few barrels of liquor for the press, but the true purpose of the raid was to destroy as much evidence of their graft as possible (and to steal and sell the rest of the booze in the warehouse).

By 1923, the Gennas' alky-cooking labor force had become the source for most of the distilled spirits sold by the Syndicate run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Though neither Torrio nor Capone were Sicilians, they cultivated close ties with Mike Merlo, the president of the Unione Siciliana, a political and community organization widely trusted among Little Italy’s Sicilian populace.

One person upset by this partnership was Dion O’Banion, the leader of the Northside gang, which was nominally connected to – or at least at a truce with – Torrio and Capone. Like the Gennas, O’Banion’s gang specialized in spirits, and when the Gennas began selling on the Northside, the former alterboy-turned-singing waiter-turned-florist-turned-gangster O’Banion sought revenge.

“To Hell with the Sicilians,” he was heard to say, and he began hijacking trucks distributing Genna liquor. The Gennas probably would have killed O’Banion immediately, but Torrio and Merlo imposed peace for the sake of business interests and profit.

However, after O’Banion framed Johnny Torrio during the May, 1924 raid on Seiben Brewery, and after Mike Merlo died from natural causes on November 8, 1924, no one was left to shield the Northside Irishman from Sicilian vengeance. Two days after Merlo's death, on November 10, 1924, Mike Genna and two feared Sicilian hitmen, John Scalisi and Alberto Anselmi, killed Dion O’Banion in his flower shop on State St., starting a feud between the Northsiders and the Torrio-Capone Outfit that would last the rest of the decade, culminating in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The end of the Genna empire came quickly and spectacularly. In May, 1925, Angelo Genna was shot while driving his car, sending him careening into a lamppost on Ogden Ave. One month later, in June, Mike Genna (pictured below) was in a car with Scalisi and Anselmi that ended up in a wild high-speed chase with police through the streets of the Southside. After the car carrying Genna crashed, a shootout took place which ended the lives of two police officers and Mike Genna. The next month, July, saw Tony Genna, the aristocratic architect, murdered on a Westside street corner. With their ranks thinned by 50%, the three remaining brothers quit the Chicago rackets and fled back to Italy.

The murders of Tony and Angelo, and the rationale for the battle that killed Mike, were never known with certainty. The most likely theory involves revenge attacks by O’Banion’s followers, who blamed the Gennas for their leader’s death. At trial, Scalisi and Anselmi, who survived the gunplay that killed Mike Genna, claimed they had been involved in a shootout with Northside gangsters “Schemer” Drucci and “Bugs” Moran earlier in the day; thus, they mistakenly believed the police cruiser tailing them was Drucci and Moran pursuing a continuation of the battle, and the shooting of the two police officers was thus self-defense (they also conveniently claimed the shooter was the dead man, Mike Genna).

An alternative theory is that the Gennas had become powerful and rich enough to do without Capone, and were planning a takeover of the Big Fellow’s operations. In this theory, Capone became aware of the plot and hired Scalisi and Anselmi to kill Angelo and Tony, and to take Mike Genna “for a ride,” which they were doing when they were surprised by the police, starting the shootout.

In any case, the “Terrible Genna” reign of terror in Chicago was over by the fall of 1925, although there were other gangsters only too happy to pick up where they had left off. Jim Genna (pictured below) continued his criminal behavior in Italy, serving two years in prison there for jewel theft. Later, he entered into respectable business, operating a vacuum repair shop in Rome. Pete and Sam lived the rest of their lives in anonymity.
Public outrage over the Gennas’ crimes, and the Sicilian community’s complicity, reinforced political attempts to limit Southern European immigration. Even the Tribune cited the example of the Gennas in a 1926 editorial, published during Scalisi and Anselmi’s trial, using rhetoric that just as easily could have come from commentators in some quarters today:

As long as this country permits the importation of murderers, so long will it make little progress in suppressing murder. The city and state officials are not chiefly to blame; the responsibility falls directly upon the federal government. The immigration laws are not enforced. The examination of prospective immigrants is not sufficiently rigid. The sifting process is bungled. The meshes are too large and the work is too hasty. Men whose criminal records might easily have been learned are permitted through carelessness or indifference to enter the country. If by chance a criminal is excluded at Ellis Island he is able without much difficulty to cross the border at another point. There are countrymen of his within the gates to give him a helping hand.
After Prohibition, the Genna headquarters building was converted into a hardware store owned by the Chiarugi family, which remained until the mid-1960s, when it was demolished in urban renewal efforts (the Chiarugis moved their shop a few blocks west, where it exists today). The spot holds a parking lot today. The Little Italy neighborhood, far from the impoverished slum it was only a few decades ago, is a desirable and gentrified town-and-gown neighborhood, home to many students and faculty from nearby University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

O'Leary Cottage, where the Great Fire Began

On the evening of October 8, 1871, at 9:15 p.m., a fire began in a barn on this site, at 137 De Koven Street (now 558 W. De Koven). By the next morning, the entire city was aflame in one of the most destructive conflagrations in human history, the Great Chicago Fire. The burned district spread over 2,200 acres, leaving nearly 300 dead and 100,000 homeless (roughly 1/3 of the city's population.

Patrick O'Leary, an Irish laborer, had purchased the lot on De Koven St. in 1864 for $500. On it he built a small white frame cottage where Patrick, his wife Catherine, and six children lived, plus a second home closer to the street, which the O'Learys rented out. Next to the cottage, abutting Jefferson St., was a cow barn, which housed five cows, a horse, and a calf. The family also parked their wagon in the barn.

Mrs. O'Leary sold the milk from their cows throughout the neighborhood, a working-class Irish immigrant district sometimes known as "the Patch," (a common name for Irish areas in the city). With her income added to that of her husband's, plus rents from the second home on their lot, they supported a middle-class lifestyle, notably better than most of their neighbors. Much of the rest of the neighborhood was composed of simple wooden shanty houses, plus several factories and warehouses.

The summer of 1871 was an especially dry one in Chicago, with barely any rain. Minor fires had broken out several times, putting a strain on the city's fledgling fire department, which had been formed only a bit more than ten years before, after the big Water Street Fire of 1857.

The day before the Fire, October 7, was a Saturday, and a substantial conflagration just north of the Patch, at Canal and Adams, had destroyed several city blocks, employing all available firefighting equipment and men in the city. On Sunday, many of the city's firefighters took the day to sleep off the exhaustion, and those who didn't tended to the upkeep of the engines and other equipment which had taken damage in the Saturday fire.

In those days before telephones, every fire house had a tower where a man was stationed at all hours to watch the city for blazes. In addition, a fireman always occupied the top of the courthouse at Washington and Clark Streets. If a fire was spotted, an alarm was pulled that signified the area of the fire, and a runner notified the nearest station. On Sunday night, October 8th, the atmosphere above the city was still full of cinder and smoke from the Saturday night fire, so when the courthouse watcher saw a red glow coming from the Southwest side, he perceived the fire as much farther off than it really was, and a call was sent out to Canalport and Halsted Streets, more than a mile beyond the O'Leary barn, where the real fire was ablaze at 9:15 that evening.

Had there not been a major fire the day before, and had the courthouse watcher correctly perceived the area of the fire, the Great Fire never would have been. But the dry conditions and the brisk southwesterly wind that evening quickly moved the flames east toward the Chicago River, where the furniture factories supplied tinder and the coal warehouses lining the riverbank supplied coke. At midnight, fire crossed the River, and the very real prospect of losing the city became apparent. Buildings were blown up with gunpowder in an attempt to create a barrier to save downtown, but to no avail. The business district went under, and by morning, the flames leapt the central branch of the Chicago River, attacking the North side, where the vast majority of the fatalities occurred as residents unsuccessfully attempted to escape over the Chicago Ave. and North Ave. bridges.

The scene throughout the day on Monday was worse than any described by Dante as desperate men ravaged the city under the heat of impending doom, looting anything that could be carted off, killing each other in the streets over pocket change, and drinking dry the bars behind abandoned saloons. Horses, dogs, cows, and vermin, made wild by the heat and smoke, ran through the streets in thundering herds to their demise.

The Chicago Post described the scene a few days later:
The people were mad. Despite the police -- indeed, the police were powerless -- they crowded upon frail coigns of vantage, as fences and high sidewalks propped on wooden piles, which fell beneath their weight, and hurled them, bruised and bleeding, in the dust. They stumbled over broken furniture and fell, and were trampled under foot. Seized with wild and causeless panics, they surged together, backwards and forwards, in the narrow streets, cursing, threatening, imploring, fighting to get free. Liquor flowed like water; for the saloons were broken open and despoiled, and men on all sides were to be seen frenzied with drink...Everywhere dust, smoke, flame, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, wind, tumult, and uproar!
Finally, by Monday evening the fire burned itself out against Lincoln Park, having reached as far north as Fullerton Ave. The city police, which had been powerless to stop the endless acts of crime the evening before, were joined by the Illinois militia and U.S. army in patrolling the streets, and finally ended the violence -- although there was really little left to fight over. Chicago remained under martial law for another two weeks, during which time seven arsonists caught attempting to restart fires were executed, and an eighth was stoned on site by a lynch mob.

The extent of obliteration was unparalleled. The first photo below shows Michigan Ave. (note the Water Tower at Michigan and Chicago Ave., visible in the middle of the photo, which still stands today). The second photo shows the intersection of State and Madison Streets, one of the world's busiest corners.

That the Fire started in the O'Leary barn, no one disputes. However, it is the greatest mystery in Chicago history exactly how the Fire started. The traditional theory, and one that gained currency immediately after the Fire (possibly due to jealous and angry neighbors) was that Mrs. O'Leary had gone to the barn to milk a cow for a delivery the next morning. Placing her lantern in the hay while she procured the milk, the bovine kicked over the lantern, setting the dry hay on fire.

While not out of the realm of possibility, the story seems unlikely on several counts. First, as the O'Leary family habitually repeated when asked about the Fire, "Why would anyone milk a cow at 9:15 in the evening?" The cows were typically milked in the late afternoon around 4:30, when no lantern would be needed. Next, several eyewitnesses placed the O'Leary family at home in bed at the time of the Fire, being awakened by the cries of a neighbor. Finally, if Mrs. O'Leary had seen the fire start, why wouldn't she have notified neighbors or pulled a fire alarm in an attempt to save her home and livelihood?

Admitting these weaknesses with the traditional theory, a number of alternative theories have been put forward, though none has any substantial evidence to support it.

The O'Leary family always supported a theory of spontaneous combustion in the dry green hay. Others theorized that neighborhood toughs were accustomed to settling into the barn at night to drink beer and carouse, and that one of them dropped a cinder from a pipe that night. Others argued that perhaps the family renting the front cottage on De Koven from the O'Learys were stealing milk from the barn for a celebration that evening, and knocked over a lantern when they heard someone coming -- but, as a 1948 investigative writer asked, "who ever heard of an Irishman using milk punch as a chaser for beer?"

Another theory, and perhaps the most intriguing, is that the Fire was started by one of the O'Leary neighbors, who was initially feted as a hero. Dennis Sullivan, who lived across the street, was known as "Pegleg" for the wooden prosthesis he wore in place of a lost limb. It was he who first noticed the fire in the barn, shouted "fire! fire! fire!" up and down the street, and knocked on the door of the O'Leary cottage to awaken the family. In the common story of the fire, upon seeing the flames, Pegleg first ran into the barn in an attempt to save the cows and the family wagon. He tripped and broke his wooden leg, then was able to use one of the animals as a crutch to escape the barn, at which point he awakened the O'Learys and the rest of the neighborhood.

In the alternative, but unproved, version of the story, Pegleg was relaxing in the barn, smoking his pipe and enjoying a surreptitious drink when he himself started the fire by accident. He broke his leg attempting to escape from the fire, then awakened the O'Learys and the rest of the neighbors. Sullivan and his relatives denied this claim for years, but the possibility remains.

A Tribune editorial from November 16, 1871, lists the "Mormon" theory, as well as some other rather implausible ones:
Leaving out of account the fact that Chicago, according to the architects, ought to have burned up years ago, and leaving the Fire Commissioners to settle the responsibility of the Fire Department were they may, we still have the O'Leary cow, the man with a pipe who passed through the O'Leary back-yard just before the fire, the Paris Communists, the petroleum in the building stones, the wrath of God, the presence of distilleries in the city, the iniquity of the divorce business, the loyalty of Chicago during the war while the South was being ravaged (this is the Southern rationale of the fire), and various other primal causes of our disaster to fall back upon, -- all of which, taken together, ought to prove sufficient at least.

But, as if this were not so, and more causes still were needed, Elder Lindsley, one of Brigham Young's colonization agents, has informed the public of New York, in a sermon preached last Sunday, that the fire happened because the people of Illinois drove "God's chosen people" (i.e., the Mormons) out of the state some twenty years ago.
Despite the fact that the Fire burned down most of the city, it is ironic that the O'Leary cottage itself survived the flames. Nevertheless, the family had lost a substantial portion of its income with the livestock gone, their reputation in the city was destroyed, and they were constantly harassed by reporters and curiosity-seekers. Several circuses offered to pay Mrs. O'Leary handsomely to travel with them and be displayed, alongside a cow, in the sideshow.

Catherine forced her husband to sell the cottage, and the family moved to what was then the far South side, in the stockyards district, where they lived on Halsted Street until Mr. O'Leary's death in 1894 and his wife's in 1895. Their son, "Big Jim" O'Leary, who was only two years old at the time, had a difficult time living down his family name, and became a major underworld gambling figure between the 1890s and 1920s. The last of the O'Leary children passed in 1936.

The O'Leary cottage at 137 De Koven Street passed through several hands, including those of Max Lipman, who owned the property during another (much smaller) fire in the cottage in 1899, and Sarah Koal, who was injured in 1901 at a theater on Twelfth Street when someone mistakenly yelled "Fire!", causing a stampede. During the latter part of the 1880s and 1890s, the neighborhood, which had never been particularly tony, became a notoriously blighted slum, and most of the old buildings left after the fire simply fell apart. In the 1910s, the cottage was finally razed and replaced with a three-story brick apartment flat.

In 1928, the owner of the building, Angelo Pacelli, sold it to the city for over $30,000, and plans for a memorial were announced. But the Depression intervened, and no memorial was ever built. In 1954, the city committee in charge of urban renewal claimed the property for $6,500 (a sign of just how far the neighborhood had fallen) with plans to rezone it for warehouse use. Mayor Richard J. Daley, however, saw the opportunity for symbolic political effect, and managed to save the property for use by the Chicago Fire Department.

In 1961, the Chicago Fire Academy was built on the site, and an Evanston sculptor, Egon Weiner, was commissioned to build the 30 foot "Pillar of Fire" which sits today on the spot where the O'Leary barn once stood. Describing the religious symbolism of the sculpture, Weiner said:
The three intertwined flames symbolize the Holy Trinity, as does the triangular source of light at the base. Fire itself is a symbol in all religions.