Monday, January 26, 2009

The Workingmen's Exchange

After finding success running his original saloon, Hinky Dink's Place, in 1897, Alderman/vice lord Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna opened an even bigger saloon here at 427 S. Clark, in the midst of the old Cheyenne district. The "Workingmen's Exchange," as he called it, became perhaps the most famous bar in Chicago history.

Hinky Dink was one of the famous "Lords of the Levee," the inveterately corrupt Aldermen of the First Ward, who ran an enormous protection and collection racket that kept every disorderly saloon, brothel, and gambling outfit open for decades, despite city and county laws to the contrary.

Almost every major Chicago criminal figure from the first half of the 20th century got their start working under Alderman Kenna. Ike Bloom, the owner of Frieberg's Dance Hall, was the official collector of protection money, until he was replaced by a promising newcomer, "Big Jim" Colosimo, the founder of the Chicago Outfit. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone were close friends of "The Hink", and used his political influence, which continued unabated until his death in 1946, to keep their operations running smoothly.

Andy Craig, bail bondsman and old-time saloon keeper, was a precinct captain, as was Max Guzik, father of Jake and Harry Guzik, two top Capone lieutenants and major underworld figures in their own right. The Everleigh Sisters, madams of the world's most famous brothel, were his special protectorate.

Legitimate businesses, too, supplied Hinky Dink with plenty of opportunities for graft. Did you own a hotel, restaurant, or department store anywhere between the Chicago River and 31st St.? Then when you needed a business license, zoning ordinance, street-level sign clearance, or parking permit, you paid Alderman Kenna.

Hinky Dink was crucial in the election of Democratic mayors for over 40 years. He could easily deliver -- or not, if he so chose -- thousands of votes from his First Ward Democratic Club, of which every First Ward resident was automatically enrolled, and who each received a personalized membership card. It was Kenna who brought Carter Harrison, Jr. back from retirement in California to run for mayor in 1911, and it was Kenna to brought Harrison down in the 1915 election after he bowed to public pressure in closing the Levee.

The Workingmen's Exchange was more than a name -- it was what actually took place there. If you were a street peddler and needed a license to sell pencils, bread, socks, or any other goods, you found your way to 426 S. Clark and exchanged your money for a license.

The saloon was one of the most spacious in the city, featuring a 30 foot walnut bar, and free lunches to any of the poor unfortunates (and potential voters) of the district who wandered in. It was not uncommon for 10,000 drinks to be served in a week. No doubt this had a lot to do with the low prices: for a nickel, you could have a "goldfish bowl" full of beer, known as a "tub", pictured here with an inset of Alderman Kenna himself:

No wonder then that the Workingmen's Exchange was Carrie Nation's first stop when she arrived in Chicago in 1901. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself to run such a hellhole as this. You are sending scores of persons to hell every day," she scowled to the besotted customers.

"O' shut up and get out of here," yelled the bartender as a crowd of drunks pushed the hatcheteer out the door.

The Workingmen's Exchange was closed at the start of national Prohibition in 1919, at which point Hinky Dink moved his political headquarters to a back room in a cigar shop a block north on Clark. As a tongue-in-cheek gift, he sent one of the famous "tubs" to the president of the Evanston Womens' Christian Temperance Union for use as a flowerpot. For the occasion, his fellow Alderman and Lord of the Levee, John Coughlin, wrote one of his (in)famous poems:
Dear gentle, gracious, efficient president of the WTCU,
This souvenier of pre-Volsteadean days I beg to present to you.
My compliments go with it, and as you gaze upon it filled with flowers sweet,
I prithee remember that it oft contained Manhattan "suds" on Clark Street.
A newspaper account of the event followed with "There are more of the verses, just as sad."

The Alaska House, a 30 cents per day lodging-house for hobos and other itinerants operated above the Workingmen's Exchange, providing the bar with a constant supply of nearby customers. In the 1950s, the name was changed to the Ewing Annex Hotel. Over the years, a variety of colorful characters lived at the hotel, including one Swan Carlson, who, upon his death, left a room full of stale bread, cheese, a box of cigarette butts he had hoarded over a period of years -- and $40,000. No one knew where the money came from. Another resident, David Steele, had to be rescued in 1965 by firemen after he climbed the 8th St. fountain in Grant Park to win a bet. A bevy of other small time crooks and robbers came and went from the tiny hovel rooms over the years.

The building that held the Workingmen's Exchange and the Ewing Annex still stands, in the middle of one rather seedy block in an otherwise gentrified downtown business area. The saloon has been divided into a pawn shop and a restaurant serving "deep fried lobster". The Ewing Annex hotel is still in business, and over 100 years later, it still offers cheap lodging to transient men.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Kendall. Here's Nelson Algren's classic take on Kenna and his "procuring" of votes, from Chicago: City on the Make:

By the time Hinky Dink Kenna came along you had to cut in closer to answer the reverend's question ["Are you a Christian?"]. For in The Hink the border apache became a working citizen, a property owner assuming civic responsibilities, commanding a ward-wide loyalty and professing some sort of faith or other come Sunday morning. A hustler's hustler, part philanthropist and part straight brigand, The Hink sought his personal salvation in the ballot box.

Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler's imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman's Exchange.

He'd paid fifty cents in cold cash for every vote he'd bought, he'd let the archangels know - but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.

Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs - while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.

Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running one bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody's evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston's command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.

Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?

For always our villians have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes someone like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot rum and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein the warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one.

Kendall said...

Thanks very much for adding this.

The analogies between criminals and politicians are closer than most would like to admit, and Kenna exemplified them more than anyone else.

joe Sikora said...

Wendt and Kogan refer to the Hink's bar as the Workingmen's Exchange in their 1942 book Lords of the Levee.(instead of the Workingman's Exchange. not sure which one is correct.)
Your sight is incredible. Thank You.

Kendall said...

Hmmm. You might be right about that. I'll look into it a little more closely.

Glad you enjoy the blog!

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The 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago nominated home-state candidate Abraham Lincoln. The tragic years that followed divided the nation and cost many lives but proved to be very good for the City by the Lake. Since it was situated at the apex of the Great Lakes and in the center of the nation, Chicago rapidly grew into a major transit hub.

The large numbers of troops needed by the Union had to be supplied and many of those goods came from Chicago. The Meat Packers were born and grew to large success as did the Major Railroads that were constructed with Chicago as the center.

Where there are large sums of money to be made, there are criminals ready to take it. Such was the case in the Windy City. The Labor Unions that came to power in the 1870's and 80's were dominated by criminal figures who kept their power via bare knuckles and guns when needed.

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Anonymous said...

If the address is 427 S Clark, it would be on the east side of Clark, where the jail is. Right?