In September of 1920, John Powers had been alderman from the 19th Ward for 32 years, but a month before, he had publicly embarrassed his political rival, underworld figure Tony D’Andrea. So everyone pointed to D’Andrea when a dynamite bomb rocked the front porch of Powers’ house, which was located here at 1284 Macalister (now 1284 W. Lexington; the home has since been replaced).
John Powers was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1852, but moved to the United States at age 20, settling in Chicago. After serving an apprenticeship with a grocer, he started his own grocery store on S. Halsted. From a young age, he was interested in politics, and began working to elect Democrats in his home ward, the 19th. In those days, saloons were a major gathering point in Irish communities like the 19th, and owning a saloon was a common way to rise in the political order. Hence, Powers, who was a teetotaler, opened a saloon in the annex to his grocery.
The move worked, and Powers’ political star rose as he became a ward captain. In the 1880s, Powers’ saloon was a major center of support in Chicago for presidential candidate Grover Cleveland. In 1888, he ran for, and was elected, alderman from the 19th, a position he held almost continuously until 1927.
After his election, he closed the grocery store, but kept the saloon, though Powers’ success meant that he needed to expand. Together with a fellow alderman, William O’Brien, he opened a larger saloon downtown, on Madison St., near LaSalle. When allowed under various liberal mayoral administrations, gambling was also featured there, including the city’s largest pool room.
(Pictured: 19th Ward Alderman John Powers)
As an alderman, Powers’ capacity for graft and corruption was eclipsed only by the Kenna-Coughlin machine in the 1st ward. Called “Prince of Boodlers” by the newspapers, nearly a third of the eligible voters in the ward were on the public payroll, and so were dependent on Powers for their jobs. He was famous for buying votes by handing out over a thousand free turkeys each year at Christmas-time, and throwing out handfuls of coins to supporters at campaign events. A notorious gladhander, it is said that he appeared at every funeral and wake in his ward, earning him the nickname, “The Mourner”.
As one detractor said, "Johnnie Powers distributed turkeys on Christmas day, but he has robbed the people 364 days in the year and he can afford to give them a little back on the 365th". The Chicago Herald wrote, "Powers is as fit to be an Alderman as an elephant is to take part in a roller-skating match.”
Powers’ legendary corruption attracted the attention of Jane Addams and her troop of reformers at Hull House. In the 1890s, Addams sent investigators into the 19th, who reported on streets and alleys piled high with garbage and dirt, a complete lack of usable parks and bathhouses, and severely overcrowded schools, where they found 3,000 more students than seats. Addams attempted to chase Powers out of office, fielding reform-minded opponents and holding campaign rallies against him. But to no avail. As Addams herself admitted, "An Italian laborer wants a 'job' more than anything else, and quite simply votes for the man who promises him one." In the 19th, John Powers was that man.
The only lacuna in Powers’ stint on the city council was in 1903, when he decided to enter state-wide politics by running for state senator against the incumbent Peter F. Galligan. That campaign season saw the first (attempted) act of violence at Powers’ home. Powers was holding open office hours for his ward constituents one day when his opponent Galligan showed up.
Galligan forced his way past the servant at the door and declared that he had come to settle a score with his rival. In his hand was a handkerchief wrapped about a small parcel, and the excited inmates feared that a bomb or other weapon was concealed in its folds. Mrs. Powers fled screaming to an upper room, while the Alderman and several of his friends seized the excited man, who was making attempts to swing the weapon towards Powers. After a short struggle it was taken from him and found to be a brickbat with which Galligan is said to have declared he intended putting Powers out of the Senatorial race.Powers defeated the mentally unstable Galligan, but found himself unsatisfied in Springfield, where he was a small fish in a big pond. The next year, he returned to Chicago to retake his seat as alderman.
That Powers enjoyed being a “big fish” was humorously illustrated after a fishing trip took him to Northern Wisconsin in June, 1900. Returning by train, he loaded his catch into a trunk with his name on it. A game warden inspector, traveling on the same train, found Powers’ box to be too heavy by state regulations.
Alderman Powers, who was also on the train, had wandered with a party of friends up to where the game warden was engaged with his inspection. On being informed that his box did not come within weight the Alderman smiled blandly, and, taking the warden aside, whispered in his ear, "I am Alderman John Powers of Chicago."At the time John Powers held its aldermanship, the 19th ward included the area between Van Buren and 12th (now Roosevelt Rd.), and between Loomis and the south branch of the Chicago River. Always a poor immigrant neighborhood, it was adjacent to “Bloody Maxwell,” the famously crime-ridden district just to the south. The Tribune described conditions in the 19th graphically in 1897:
But that did not make any difference to the warden, and all the winking and whispering the Chicago man could do did not convince him....Alderman Powers' fish were sold at auction, and were the most palatable offering on the menu of a Milwaukee restaurant today.
Do the drivers on the wagons indulge less freely in profanity? Do the workmen in the street show love and peace? Halsted street betrays it not. Ewing [now 12th Pl.] and Forquer [now Arthington St.] streets look otherwise. Bunker [now Grenshaw St.] and De Koven streets hide it well. Soiled children play upon the walks. The tin can travels on its endless way. Girls bend low over their work in the sweatshops making shirts at eight cents apiece. Six hundred saloons, twenty for each church in the ward, cast their exhilirating influence over the scene. The only thing bearing indisputable marks of a celestial nature is a Chinese laundry.When Powers was first elected in 1888, the ward was almost entirely Irish, but in the 1890s and 1900s, Italian immigrants flooded into the neighborhood, and by 1910 the voting population was over 80% Italian. The savvy Irishman Powers managed to hold onto his seat, however, by assiduously incorporating potential Italian rivals into the lower levels of his political organization, who then promoted him to their fellow countrymen, even giving him quasi-Italian names like “Johnny de Pow” and “Gianni Pauli”.
However, in off-the-cuff remarks, Powers often denigrated his constituents. "I can buy the Italian vote with a glass of beer and a compliment," he was overheard to say once, and condescending comments like these wore away at his popularity in the ward. Eventually, John Powers met an Italian rival who was too powerful to buy off: Anthony “Tony” D’Andrea.
D’Andrea was a long-time political player in Chicago. Born in Salerno, he had come to Chicago and worked as a Roman Catholic priest until he fell in love with a woman and left the ministry for her. Later he was prominent in the corrupt political process associated with the red-light Levee district; he helped gang leader “Big Jim” Colosimo and “Dago” Mike Carrozzo take over labor unions and raise the political profile of the city’s Italians.
In February, 1916, D’Andrea decided to challenge Powers’ fellow alderman in the 19th, James Bowler (each Chicago ward at that time had two aldermen). While D’Andrea had a natural constituency among Italians in the ward, city newspapers pilloried him for his underworld connections in the Levee and for being a “defrocked priest.” It also came out that D’Andrea was an ex-con, having served a sentence for counterfeiting in 1902 (D’Andrea admitted have been in prison, but insisted he was innocent of the crime).
Finally, just days before the election, a major supporter of Bowler, Frank Lombardi, was murdered in a saloon on Taylor St. Everyone immediately suspected D’Andrea supporters in the crime, although the police also considered the theory that Lombardi was involved in a feud with a Black Hand gang.
Nevertheless, D’Andrea’s name was tarnished throughout the campaign and Bowler prevailed on election day. Despite his loss, D’Andrea remained influential in the Italian community, and three years later, in 1919, he was elected president of the Chicago branch of the Unione Siciliana, the largest Italian political organization in the country. It was a position that gave him tremendous influence, as well as access to the resources of powerful elements of organized crime.
Recognizing that D’Andrea would likely prevail if he chose to run for alderman again, John Powers decided to endorse him for a different, but equally important political position in the 19th, ward committeeman, a position that Powers himself had previously filled. This was a major concession, since it was the committeeman who truly held control over which constituents received plum city jobs (similarly, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna was the long-time committeeman in the 1st ward).
Given D’Andrea’s popularity and Powers’ endorsement, D’Andrea was elected ward committeeman in April, 1920. However, the election that year was marked by serious voting irregularities all across the city (but especially in the 19th). News of sluggings, kidnappings, shootings, ballot box stuffing, and selective culls of voter registration lists reached Springfield, where on June 6, 1920, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled all Chicago ward committeemen election outcomes null and void.
Still, D’Andrea assumed Powers would stand by his endorsement and allow D’Andrea to represent the ward as committeeman at the Democratic County Central Committee meetings in August. When the powerful party convention opened, the secretary called out each ward by name, and the party’s representative from that ward rose to announce his presence. When the secretary asked for the representative from the 19th, John Powers stood up and began to respond.
He was interrupted. A swarthy, spectacled youth with an Italian accent had also arisen. "I'm here to speak for the Nineteenth ward," he began.Powers responded:
"For thirty-two years I have been alderman of the ward," he began. "I’ve been on the committee for thirty-five years. Last spring, Anthony D'Andrea wanted to be committeeman. For the sake of harmony I yielded. I withdrew after he promised to support Ald. Bowler, my colleague, for reelection. D'Andrea was elected. He hasn't kept his promises. I'm not willing to desert Bowler. The Supreme Court has declared that the newly elected committeemen have no authority and I'm still committeeman."D’Andrea protested loudly, insisting that he, not Powers, had the support of the majority of the ward’s voters. “Why,” he argued, “Powers only keeps a home in the 19th so he can remain alderman, but he actually lives almost all of the time in the 3rd ward on Michigan Ave.!” But Powers prevailed and D’Andrea left the meeting embarrassed and infuriated.
Just over a month later, on September 28, 1920, John Powers arrived at his 19th ward home and headquarters late in the evening, just before midnight. A few minutes later, a tremendous explosion rocked the neighborhood.
The blast blew the alderman and five others out of bed, tore the front of the house apart, broke most of the windows in the neighborhood, shattered all the glass in the bookcases that line the dining room walls, and woke up all the sleepers for six blocks around, but no one was hurt.(Pictured: Ald. Powers' home at 1284 Macalister after the bombing)
Powers has lived there for four decades, but now mostly lives in another place 4500 S. Michigan, but that night he had just arrived at the home. The alderman has had a private watchman on guard over the house for some time. Why, he did not care to say.
Perhaps what John Powers did not care to say was that he was familiar enough with D’Andrea and his underworld friends to know he was a target.
After D’Andrea announced he would run against Powers himself in the 1921 aldermanic elections, the feud only intensified. A second bomb exploded during a meeting of D’Andrea supporters on Blue Island Ave. in February, seriously injuring several, and another bomb was later detonated at the home of Joseph Spica, father-in-law of a major figure in the D’Andrea campaign.
The 1921 vote was extremely close, but Powers squeaked by with a tiny 435 vote margin. In the election, Powers had again highlighted D’Andrea’s unsavory history, contrasting it with a picture of himself as a devoted god-fearing, churchgoing family man.
The latter was only partially true. While Powers had been married for many years and was never known to indulge in liquor or gambling, there were none-too-private rumors of an affair. Back in 1910, word reached Chicago that Mayme McKenna, widow of a former alderman, had been charged in New York City with attempting to smuggle $1,000 worth of Parisian ball gowns into the United States without declaring them at customs (she claimed to have forgotten in her rush to return to Chicago). She was caught when a customs inspector found a gown with the label of a Chicago dressmaker sewn into it, but which was obviously brand new, arousing suspicions.
The attention of Deputy Surveyor John O'Connor, known as the custom house expert on styles, was called to the garment. O'Connor concluded it was too far ahead of American styles to be other than of Parisian make.
When she [McKenna] appeared at the custom house in the morning she was accompanied by an elderly man who declined to give his name, but said he was a friend of the family.It turned out that the “elderly man” was none other than Alderman John Powers, and furthermore, the two had traveled to Europe together under the pretense that she was Mrs. John Powers. The newspapers noted that the register of the Waldorf Hotel in New York bore the names of Mr. and Mrs. John Powers, while the real Mrs. Powers was still in Chicago.
At the time, it seemed like possibly a misunderstanding – perhaps Powers had loaned his powerful name to McKenna in order to facilitate her trip as a favor to his deceased fellow alderman. However, the notion that Powers and McKenna were more than just friends is supported by the fact that, after John Powers’ first wife died in Feb. 1917, he married McKenna the following year.
(Pictured: Ald. Powers with Mayme McKenna on their wedding day)
After the election, D’Andrea swore off 19th ward politics, but it was too late: he was assassinated on the street in front of his home in May, 1921. His political organization, and even his headquarters on Taylor street, the Italian-American Educational Club, was inherited by the Genna brothers, which turned it into a giant dispersed network for the production of bootleg liquor during Prohibition.
Despite his victory over D’Andrea, Powers’ ability to control the burgeoning Italian vote was clearly eroding, and he likely would have lost in the next election to some other Neopolitan politician. However, just after the election, the number of wards was increased from 35 to 50, and the old 19th was carved up into the 20th, 25th, 26th and 27th wards. The Italian supermajority in the old ward turned into substantially smaller pluralities in the new wards. Thus, John Powers was able to remain an alderman in the 25th until his retirement in 1927, at which point he had been on the Chicago city council for 38 years. Powers died in 1930.
John Powers' two-story frame house on Lexington Ave. is gone now, replaced by a handsome three-story brick structure looking out over Arrigo Park.