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.

5 comments:

T said...

I am the great nephew of Big Bill and would be interested to see who wrote this article. It was very well done and gave me more information on some of the stories I have heard over the years.

Tom Gehl
tpglaw@gmail.com

Laura said...

That is so funny! I am the great niece of Big Bill...are we related?? Great minds must think alike!

Laura Sellers
charlja@aol.com

m knox said...

Does anyone know the ranch Thompson worked on when he was in New Mexico? Did he ever own a ranch in New Mexico?

Kalai Kennedy said...

My family is from Chicago, the Healys. My dad talks about growing up in this time and seeing an "Uncle Nicki Deani Circella" and and Uncle Sammi Teets. He also remembers the family talking about how his mother (my grandmother) was a "26 Girl" for one of Uncle Nicki's clubs. Most of them are long gone and I'd love to find any information about my family. As it turns out, there was a fake BC from my Grandmother, she was extremely secretive about her past, my father's father and good or bad, I'm trying to find out who my grandfather was.

MG said...

Sir, you say that Mayor Anton Cermak was only 'marginally less corrupt' that Thompson. On what corruption do you base this? Cermak was the most industrious and successful public servant of the time and deserves much more than this cursory slap. Ergo, your essay smacks of amateurism.