Saturday, May 9, 2009

First Ward Ball

There are few events in Chicago history about which more has been written by journalists, historians, and social reformers than the First Ward Ball, otherwise known as the "Grand Reception of the First Ward Democratic Club," the "Annual Masquerade and Fancy Ball," or simply "The Derby". Between 1896 and 1909, the annual fete took place at the Chicago Coliseum, which was located here at 15th and Wabash.

The raison d’etre of the First Ward Ball was campaign fundraising for those famous 1st Ward alderman, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin. The 1st Ward included the old Custom House Place vice district in the 1890s and early 1900s, and later, the infamous 22nd and Dearborn “Levee”. In order to remain open and advertising widely, the madams, gambling-house owners, and saloon-keepers needed protection from the police, and the First Ward Ball was one of the major means by which Kenna and Coughlin received these payments. Every employee of a house of ill-repute or gambling den, every robber, pickpocket, safe-cracker, and streetwalker, and every bartender, bawdy house entertainer, and low groggery proprietor, all were required to buy tickets, which cost between 50 cents and $1, if they wanted to maintain their livelihood.

The larger establishments bought hundreds of tickets each at the strong “suggestion” of the aldermen, with the number of tickets to be purchased rising with the lawlessness of the establishment and the degree of police protection required to remain open. If sales fell behind expectations, even the police were forced to “sell” tickets (the captains of police stations within the ward being political appointees). Officers would then resell these tickets to business-owners on their beats. The newspapers reported one such transaction:

"I see you're down to take three tickets from me, Pete," says the policeman.

"I don't see how that is, I've taken my tickets -- a whole bunch of them -- from the alderman," indignantly exclaims the saloon-keeper.

"Well, that's all right; but I've got to get rid of mine. Do you think I am the government mint or the First National bank? I don't want to use them to take my wife and children. Better come across with the coin. You know it's only a few you take from me."

So the saloon-keeper usually takes the tickets. The policeman protested that nothing was said about the matter of protection, or anything in the way of favors that were supposed to go with the tickets.

Every major underworld figure of the 1890s and 1900s attended, including Andy Craig (who was facetiously named “belle” of the 1903 ball), Ike Bloom, “Polack Ben” Zeller, “Big Jim” Colosimo, “Big Jim” O’Leary, the Everleigh Sisters, Vic Shaw, and many, many more. Over time, the Balls began to draw in more respectable elements of society as well, including the city’s top businessmen and political figures from Chicago and Washington. Mayor Carter Harrison attended, although he always claimed to leave long before the real mayhem began.

The annual take from the event, which accrued to the campaign fund of whichever alderman was running for re-election in the upcoming year (Chicago wards then having two aldermen each), ran upwards of $25,000 each year, with 10,000-15,000 attendees buying not only tickets, but also liquor (supplied at a discount by local breweries) in quantities that allowed them to show their loyalty to Kenna and Coughlin.

In order to receive a waiver of the city's midnight closing laws, by which alcohol could not be sold after 12:00 a.m., the First Ward Balls were officially "charity" events, not campaign fundraisers. An investigative reporter from the Tribune inquired of Kenna skeptically in 1906:

"Where does this money from the ball go?" the alderman was asked.

"Charity, education, burying the dead, and general ward benefits for the people. One or two consumptives will be sent down to Phoenix, Ariz. There is plenty of use for it. When anybody connected with the First Ward Democratic club needs help he applies to Ald. Coughlin or to me, and the money finally comes out of the fund by action of the executive committee of the club."

When pressed to define the “educational” aspects of the First Ward Ball, Kenna admitted:

"It consists of hiring good halls and good speakers to teach the people of the First ward to vote the straight democratic ticket."

The First Ward Ball had several predecessors. Carrie Watson, Chicago’s top madam after the Great Fire, ran an annual benefit ball at Frieberg's during the 1880s in support of her house’s famous “professor” (ragtime piano-player), known as “Lame” Jimmy. As with the later First Ward Balls, drunkenness and acts of wild debauchery were common (as Carrie Watson put it, “joy reigned unrefined”), and rival underworld characters competed to see who could purchase the most champagne -- although in this case it was merely an act of oneupsmanship, instead of an attempt to buy the favor of politicians. The Lame Jimmy benefits lasted until drunken policemen attending the 1894 ball became embroiled in a shootout, leading to public condemnation. A similar, but separate underworld event, the “Veiled Prophet Bal-Masque” was shut down as a consequence of the shooting as well. But it so happened that in 1894, John Coughlin was running for his first reelection campaign, and was opposed in the Democratic primary by Billy “The Clock” Skakel, a gambling-house proprietor from S. Clark St. Skakel had the bright idea to hold a fundraising ball for saloon-keepers in the district, at which he led a fabulous “grand march” of attendees. Late in the evening, a band of Coughlin supporters invaded the festivities and started a fist-fight melee, but the idea no doubt impressed Coughlin.

Coughlin won the election of 1894, and in 1896, he appropriated Skakel’s concept for a dance ball held at the Seventh Regiment Armory, even including a “grand march”, which Coughlin personally led starting at midnight. This was the original First Ward Ball.

The grand march was essentially a conga-line, twenty persons wide and including thousands of followers snaking their way back and forth around the dance floor, while thousands more sat in boxes above the floor, cheering and shouting. Like a Brazilian carnival, the marchers included a wild representation of the excesses of the underworld; women dressed scandalously in bathing suits, bloomers, and slit-cut dresses, men dressed as women, and everyone wore an elaborate and sometimes vile mask. All were on their way – if not already there – to a state of inebriation. Coughlin himself was always attired in one of his world-famous over-the-top suits; for the 1900 ball, he wore a green swallowtail coat and lavender trousers, a white silk waistcoat, brocaded with heliotrope rosebuds and saffron carnations, accompanied by pink gloves and a silk hat. As one Protestant minister and Ball critic later put it, Coughlin appeared "like Satan at the head of the hosts of the damned, leading the grand march of vice and degeneracy."

(Pictured: editorial cartoon in the Tribune depicting the First Ward Ball. The sign on the barrell in front reads, "Guests not contributing voluntarily will regret it!")

In 1899, the new Chicago Coliseum was built at 15th and Wabash, and First Ward Balls between 1903 and 1909 were held there. The Coliseum was actually the third building by that name in Chicago, the first being a Loop beer-hall, and the second a Jackson Park convention center that burned down in 1897. The origin of the third Chicago Coliseum on Wabash was in 1887, when William H. Gray, one of the city’s top businessmen, toured the Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, on vacation. During the Civil War, the Libby Prison held over 45,000 union soldiers in the South, and Gray saw the opportunity to re-appropriate the building as a profitable museum in Chicago. He found a group of investors, and each brick of the old prison building was painstakingly shipped by rail to Chicago (except for a few that were lost in a train accident in Kentucky), where it was reassembled in replica. The Libby Prison opened in Chicago in 1889, and was a success for nearly a decade. By the end of the 1890s, however, interest had waned, and the building was sold to the Chicago Coliseum Company, which was looking to replace the burned second Coliseum. The new owners kept the surrounding wall of the old Libby Prison, but otherwise rebuilt from scratch.

(Pictured: Chicago Coliseum at 15th and Wabash)

Late nights at the First Ward Balls in the Coliseum were notorious. The grand march took place at midnight, but, as Kenna once explained to a reporter, the party “don't never get good until about three in the morning.” By that time, drunken men began to maul women, couples stole away to dark corners of basement or annex, and others with less capacity for strong drink began passing out on the floor. The increasing depravity of late nights at the First Ward Ball, and the increasing prominence of respectable members of society at the annual orgy began to generate a fervor of reform to shut down the event, where before only a bemused tut-tutting had prevailed. In 1907, Ald. Kenna invited a critical minister of the cloth to attend, who reported back to various pastoral conventions that year about the "scenes unmentionable among self-respecting men,” which were “undisguised and frequent," reminiscent of "pagan Rome in her most degenerate days".

Thus was the beginning of the end for the First Ward Ball. The battle over the 1908 Ball was vigorous, beginning in October of that year, when a Methodist conference passed a resolution condemning the Ball, and demanding that Mayor Fred Busse refuse a liquor permit to the Coliseum. A week later, the Federation of Women’s Clubs joined the chorus condemning the First Ward Ball.

These reformers were surprised on November 27, 1908, when advertisements were nevertheless posted around the 1st Ward, declaring the annual “Derby” would take place that year on December 14. In response to the protests, Ald. Coughlin wrote one of his famous poems:

Strike up the march, professor, and I will lead the way;
We'll trip the light fantastic too until the break of day.
Who knows that ere another ball we'll be outside the city hall;
Be gay, but not too gay.

Ald. Kenna was more forthright in his criticism of the Ball’s detractors:

There has been so much talk about the First ward ball being disorderly, that this year we decided to invite a dozen ministers and let them see for themselves. If the ball ain't respectable alongside of some camp meetings I have been to I'll give each minister who attends a present of $100....

Preachers are a good deal like saloon-keepers. Most of them are jealous of everybody else in the business if a fellow is going along. If I've got a slot machine and the fellow across the street hasn't, because he ain't in right, he's going to knock. See what I mean?....But whenever you hear one of them fellows shouting that Hinky Dink is a menace to society and that he has horns, just keep your hand on your watch. Savvy?

The day after the advertisements went up, the city’s protestant ministers declared open war on the Ball, in concert with the Law and Order League, an anti-crime pressure group organized by Hyde Park-based reformer Arthur Burrage Farwell. Farwell pleaded with the mayor not to issue a liquor license for the event, arguing for government control to protect the city’s residents from their own ignorance:

Everybody knows that this gathering of criminals under the name of "Ball" permits them to mingle with some young men and women who do not realize the depths to which they are sinking. To prevent crime such a gathering of objectionable citizens should under no circumstances be tolerated…

You must stop this disgrace to Chicago. You must stop it in the name of the young men who will be ruined there. I put this matter up to you personally, Mr. Busse. Suppose you had a young friend whose character and life you prized highly. How would you like to have such scenes of debauchery as are allowed at this ball used to bring degradation and perhaps destruction to your friend?

One wonders how anyone in Chicago could “not realize” the lascivious nature of the First Ward Ball by 1908, but a subtler incentive of the reformers, as with alcohol temprance and Sunday closing laws, was to allow wives to socialize the cost of monitoring their husbands. By the 1910s, women held increased political power and the prospect of attaining the vote in just a few years’ time. Indeed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union joined in the chorus of boos associated with the Ball, saying that "it always engenders immorality and sends out a vicious influence for our young people."

Rev. William O. Walter, pastor of Grace Episcopal, filed a formal request for an injunction against the Ball, in which the prosecutor argued explicitly in favor of the monitoring motive: "We are not trying to correct public morals, but protect our property rights. Many of the old communicants of the church will not permit their daughters to attend after one of these balls." But it was all to no avail – the injunction was denied and the liquor license was approved. The Ball would take place on December 14th that year.

The night before the event, at 8:20 p.m., a bomb exploded in the passageway between the Coliseum Annex and an adjacent junk room on the grounds, blowing out windows of buildings 200 feet away on Michigan and Wabash Aves. Dynamite attacks were common in those years, mostly associated with the Gamblers’ War between Mont Tennes, “Big Jim” O’Leary, and others. But this bomb was more likely thrown by a frustrated reformer, for what kind of amateur could throw a stick of dynamite and miss the entire Coliseum entirely, only blowing a hole in an barely-used adjacent out-building?

A more serious problem for Kenna and Coughlin was the Tribune’s announcement that reporters would be in attendance and the following day’s paper would print the names of all respectable members of society who attended. These social leaders were a major source of revenue, purchasing thousands of dollars of champagne, and their money, if not their persons, would be seriously missed. In fact, the Tribune’s threats did keep many of Chicago’s elite away from the 1908 Ball; many of them contrived elaborate alibis, such as holding a big dinner party that night in which reporters were invited. A few others did attend, but masked their faces before entering.

By the evening of December 14, 1908, tens of thousands of curiosity-seekers and protesters flocked to Wabash Ave., joining the throng attempting to enter the event. The police admitted the first 12,000, but then shut the doors to prevent overcrowding. Thousands more attempted to break in through the exit doors, which the police then locked from the inside. The crowd was so enormous that when women fainted – a common occurrence – they had to be passed overhead from hand to hand towards the exits. Cigar smoke settled on the floor in such thick fogs that visibility was no greater than 30 feet in any direction. The noise of shuffling feet and murmuring overpowered the sound of the dance band, and fist-fights and shoving erupted in all quarters.

When Lyman Atwell, photographer for the Tribune, showed up outside and began setting up his flash and tripod, security notified Coughlin, who emerged from the Coliseum, personally jumping on Atwell, breaking his camera and knocking him to the ground. Coughlin had previously announced that no photography would be allowed (on the grounds that pictures of the poorly-dressed women at the Ball would be used as ammunition by the reformers). Later, defending himself in court, Coughlin claimed he thought Atwell's flash bulb would be perceived as another bomb, causing a riot and a stampede.

As usual, things started to get interesting at midnight, when the regiments of madams and their inmates showed up, led by the Everleigh Sisters. This caused another influx of thousands of men to attempt to enter the building, and everyone craned their necks to get a look at the scarlet women.

The most infamous party in Chicago history lasted until 5 a.m., when the last drunken revelers staggered out of the orgy.

In 1909, when the date of that year’s ball was announced for December 13, the forces of reform returned even stronger than the year before. The Law and Order League and the protestant ministers of Chicago were joined by Roman Catholic leaders, including the Young Men’s Association of SS. Peter and Paul Church, who passed a resolution that was read at city council, over the protests of Ald. Coughlin. While the resolution was read, Ald. Kenna (who was Catholic) hid under his desk. Again, note the argument that government intervention is required to protect "ignorant" citizens from themselves:

Whereas, The experience in past years, as testified to by persons who attended the saturnalia, has shown that unfortunate and vicious men and women of the so-called red light districts display their degradation in public to great injury to morals of others who go there because of ignorance, curiosity, and other reasons....The First ward ball is notoriously reported to be the means of collecting illegal tribute from the lowest and most unfortunate denizens of vicious resorts and is a disgrace to all who, pretending to be respectable, encourage the saturnalia by attending it....

Finally, on December 10, the city revoked the liquor license for the 1909 event, causing Ald. Coughlin to write the shortest of all his poems:

No Ball;
That’s All.

That wasn’t the end of his complaint, though:

Not until within the last two or three years has the press or clergy ever entered a word of protest against the holding of the ball. The reason, I suppose, is that what the people would stand for ten or twelve years ago won't be tolerated at present. Chicago is growing better. There's no mistake about it. And let me tell you I'm just as glad to see the change in social conditions as any man in the city.

On the date of the Ball, Coughlin and Kenna instead held a sober concert at the Coliseum, in which a classical orchestra plodded through the William Tell overture, then selections from popular musical comedies. Only 2,500 attended, and most of these only for a short while, until they could be sure they had been seen by one of the Aldermen. Instead of an enormous dance hall and a grand march, the Coliseum was filled with thousands of wooden chairs, nailed to the floor. The 1909 “Ball” ended at 11:00 p.m.

After the fizzle of the 1909 event, Kenna and Coughlin admitted defeat and did not attempt to hold any future Balls. However, the First Ward Ball became a perennial comparison for any hedonistic event in the city for decades to come. The closest thing to a modern First Ward Ball is the "Players Ball," held every year in the Chicago area as a nationwide convention of pimps, which, like the First Ward Ball, inevitably attracts wide public protest.

After its heyday in the era of the First Ward Ball, the Coliseum continued to hold major conventions, trade, automobile, and livestock shows, circuses, and sporting events until 1971. Each Republican National Convention between 1904 and 1920 was held there. During the 1920s, the fledgling Chicago Blackhawks held home ice at the Coliseum, and in 1935, the “sport” of roller derby was invented there. During WWII, the Coliseum was a training facility for Navy aircraft radio operators. By the 1960s, most major conventions were bypassing the Coliseum for the larger and more modern McCormick Place, but an NBA expansion team, the Chicago Zephyrs, played their home games there for several years before decamping for Baltimore (the successor of that team is the Washington Wizards, where Chicago basketball hero Michael Jordan played and coached during his declining days). Due to structural defects, after 1971 the city refused to issue permits for any further shows, and the Coliseum was shuttered until 1982, when it was sold for $375,000 and demolished.

The site of the Coliseum is now the parking lot for a Buddhist temple. A park commemorating the Coliseum stands across the street.


holly said...

We're bringing the First Ward Ball back to life! Come one, come all! Tell your friends!​vent.php?eid=1799687753966​04

Jim said...

Great overview of the Coliseum. One minor correction ... the Chicago Zephyrs only played in the Coliseum for one year, not several. The year was 1962-63, then they moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets. In 1961-62, the franchise was known as the Chicago Packers and played at the Amphitheatre.

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