Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Sands

The area on the north bank of the Chicago River, near the lake shore, was originally populated by saloons and inexpensive motels of the sort popular among seafaring men working the docks of the River, or passing through Chicago on some merchant vessel. By the 1850s, however, the area had developed into the toughest criminal district in the city, known as the Sands, and was composed almost entirely of gambling dens and brothels, occupying around thirty poorly-constructed shacks which had the unfortunate tendency to burn down or simply fall apart on a regular basis.

Drunkenness, fighting, robbery, murder, and general misbehavior was the order of the day, every day, in the Sands, and the besotted residents of the district were the bane of the town's respectable population. Annie Stafford was a famous cyprian denizen of a Sands brothel. Another resident, Margaret McGuinness, it is said, was not sober for five years straight, and did not bother to wear clothes for three of those years.

Chicago's mayor at the time was Long John Wentworth, of whom an important Southside thoroughfare is now named. Wentworth, an educated man of New England and a former newspaper editor, wanted the Sands razed. In April of 1857, William Ogden, who had been Mayor before Wentworth, and who was now an important businessman in the city, managed to purchase several properties in the Sands. He immediately ordered the squatters living in these properties out, but when they refused to budge, he begged the help of Mayor Wentworth, who was only too happy to see an opportunity to eliminate the hated vice district.

On April 20, Wentworth organized and advertised a major horse race at a Chicago race track. Most of the male residents of the Sands were inveterate gamblers, so the event attracted the substantial majority of their population. While the men were gone, Wentworth and Ogden crossed over to the Sands, accompanied by a team of horses. After serving eviction notices, the horse team was hitched to the foundations of several of the shanties, and each was pulled down. The destruction led to a small riot, with the remaining residents of the Sands running into the streets, looting their neighbors' properties, and destroying most of the rest of the district in the process. A few hours later, what was left went up in flames. The next day's Chicago Tribune reported a fanciful hope:
This congregation of the vilest haunts of the most depraved and degraded creatures in our city has been literally "wiped out," and the miserable beings who swarmed there driven away. Hereafter, we hope the Sands will be the abode of the honest and industrious, and that efficient measures will be taken to prevent any other portion of the city from becoming the abode of another such gathering of vile and vicious persons.
The last sentence was wishful thinking, but curiously, it is the Tribune Building itself (pictured above) that sits on the property that was once the Sands. The space on which sits the Wrigley building (pictured below) across Michigan Ave., would also have been part of the Sands during the 1850s.


MU RA said...

What sources are you gathering this information from? I am trying to research this area currently.

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