The First Cullerton

Alderman Timothy Cullerton is retiring. The Cullertons are Chicago’s oldest political dynasty. Let’s take a look at the dynasty’s Founding Father.

Edward Cullerton was born in Chicago in 1842. Quitting school at a young age, he became a canal boat driver, and eventually bought his own boat. For a few years he lived in Canada.

Foxy Ed Cullerton

Foxy Ed Cullerton

He returned to Chicago in 1871. That October, the Great Fire leveled most of the city. A month after the fire, Tribune publisher Joseph Medill was elected mayor on the “Fire-Proof” ticket. Also elected was a new Democrat alderman from the Lower West Side, Edward Cullerton.

The young alderman soon developed a reputation for political astuteness. He was known to be careful with his words, never speaking a sentence when a single word would do, and never speaking a single word unless it was necessary. Friends called him Silent Eddy, Smooth Eddy—or, most often, Foxy Ed.

While serving as alderman, Cullerton also served a term in the Illinois House of Representatives. That was a legal political strategy then. As the years went by, however, Cullerton became a target of the good-government reformers. In 1892, sensing a tough re-election fight, he managed to get the endorsement of both the Democrat and Republican parties. But when the votes were counted, Foxy Ed had lost.

Six years later, the voters gave him back his old job. More years passed, and Cullerton became chairman of the Finance Committee, the council’s most powerful post.

Being an alderman was only a part-time job. In 1901 the city directory listed Cullerton’s occupation as “detective.” In 1903 he was called a “real estate broker.” The 1905 directory said Cullerton was head of the Chicago Tax Adjusting Company. He also published a weekly newspaper called The Taxpayer.

Cullerton sign--01

Early in 1914 the alderman became ill and nearly died. Still, his health improved enough for him to once again win his council seat that April. As usual, he ran solely on his past record, with no platform. “I make no re-election promises,” he said in a campaign speech. “I judge each ordinance or resolution when it comes up and in the light of the circumstances that then exist.”

On February 1, 1920, Alderman Edward Cullerton died in his home at 1632 West 20th Street. The cause of death was pneumonia. A few weeks later, the city council changed the name of 20th Street to Cullerton Street.

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America’s Bank Robber (7-22-1934)

Chicago was sweltering through another day of 100-degree heat on July 22, 1934. In the working-class Lincoln Park neighborhood, many people tried to cool off by taking in a movie at the air-conditioned Biograph Theater. The feature was a Clark Gable crime picture called Manhattan Melodrama.

Among the crowd at the Biograph that Sunday evening was a 32-year-old Indiana farm boy named John Dillinger. He was the most famous criminal in America.Dillinger

Dillinger had started making his name in the summer of 1933. With a half-dozen other thugs, he staged a series of gaudy bank robberies, mostly in small Midwestern towns. There were ambushes, shootouts, high-speed car chases through crowded city streets and over dusty country roads. Once the cops actually caught Dillinger–and he bluffed his way out of jail with a wooden gun.

He had become a national celebrity. It didn’t seem to matter that Dillinger and his associates had killed over 20 people during their exploits. In the middle of the Great Depression, here was one independent operator sticking it to the fat cats!

Dillinger himself had a fine nose for public relations. He could be charming when it suited his purposes. He claimed that he robbed only the rich. Of course, there was little profit in robbing the poor.

So now, in July 1934, America’s Bank Robber was hiding in Chicago. Dillinger had undergone plastic surgery and grown a mustache in an attempt to alter his famous face. He was working as a clerk under an assumed name, planning his next move.

Dillinger was seeing a woman named Polly Hamilton. She knew his true identity. Hamilton innocently passed the information on to her friend Anna Sage. Sage went to the FBI.

Immigration authorities were trying to send Sage back to Romania. Sage told the FBI that Dillinger was taking Hamilton to the movies. Sage was going with them. If the feds promised to let Sage stay in the country, she’d set Dillinger up.

Chicago Historic Site--Dillinger's Last Stand

Chicago Historic Site–Dillinger’s Last Stand

That’s why 16 FBI agents and policemen were fanned out on the street around the Biograph when Dillinger and the two women entered at 8:30 p.m. Two hours went by. Then Dillinger emerged. Sage was with him, wearing a bright reddish-orange dress, so she could be easily spotted in the crowd.

As Dillinger walked down the sidewalk, the FBI agents began closing in. He saw them and ran into an alley. Before he could get his gun out, he was knocked to the pavement in a hail of bullets. He died on the way to the hospital.

Dillinger was dead, but the legend lived on. Soon after the shooting, his fans were in the alley, sopping his blood off the pavement with handkerchiefs.

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The Boobs and Sally Rand (7-18-1933)

In the summer of 1933, the Century of Progress Exposition was drawing huge crowds at Burnham Park.  One of the most popular attractions was a performer named Sally Rand.  She was a nude fan dancer.

Sally RandRand would walk on stage, holding two giant fans made of ostrich feathers in front of her naked body.  A music ensemble would play some classical piece–DeBussy’s Claire de Lune was a favorite–while Rand strutted slowly around, waving the fans in time with the music.

The audience didn’t really see much of Rand’s body.  But the whole premise was pretty daring for 1933.  Now Judge Joseph B. David was hearing a petition to stop the performances.

Attorney Jay J. McCarthy represented the plaintiff.  He called Rand’s act “lewd and lascivious.”  She was a threat to public morality.  Such entertainment didn’t belong at a wholesome, family-friendly place like the World’s Fair.

Judge David didn’t agree.  He refused to summon Rand to his court.  And he wasn’t interested in seeing her act, for any reason.  “I’ve never been down there and I don’t want to go,” he said.  “I go where there’s a good glass of beer.”

McCarthy pleaded that Chicago’s youth were being corrupted.  But Judge David cut him off.  There was no need to over-react.  “Lots of people in this community would like to put pants on horses,” the judge declared.  Rand was dancing–she wasn’t running a house of prostitution.

The petition was denied.  Sally Rand could stay in business.  Her fans could watch her wave her fans.  “If you ask me, they are just a bunch of boobs,” Judge David said.  “But we have the boobs, and we have the right to cater to them.”

"Which way to Sally Rand?"

“Which way to Sally Rand?”

The World’s Fair made Sally Rand famous.  She continued to do her fan dance for another forty years.  Near the end of the movie The Right Stuff, there’s a scene where a 60-year-old Rand performs for the astronauts at a giant Texas party.  That really happened.

As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “What a country!”

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The Student Nurse Murders (7-14-1966)

As usual, the Jeffery Manor neighborhood was quiet on this Thursday morning.  Then, a little after dawn, a woman began screaming from the balcony at 2319 East 100th Street.  “All my friends are dead!” she shrieked.  “Oh God! I’m the only one alive!”

It was true.

2319 E. 100th St.

2319 E. 100th St.

The woman was Corazon Amurao, a 23-year-old Filipino nursing student.  She shared the dorm apartment on 100th Street with other students.  Now eight of them had been murdered.

Amurao told police her story.  At about 11:30 the night before, she had answered a knock at the door, and been confronted by a young man.  He smelled of alcohol.  Pointing a pistol at Amurao, he said he needed money to get to New Orleans.

The man forced his way in.  He ordered the six nurses present to lie on the floor face down.  He gagged them and tied their hands behind their backs.  Within the next hour three more nurses arrived, and he repeated his action.

The intruder led one of the nine women into the next room.  After fifteen or twenty minutes–Amurao couldn’t say how long it was–he returned.  He led another woman away.  One by one, throughout the night, Amurao’s friends disappeared.

No one resisted.  The intruder said he only wanted money, that he wouldn’t harm anyone.  Meanwhile, Amurao slid under one of the beds and hid.  For whatever reason, the intruder missed her.

Corazon Amurao

Corazon Amurao

Finally, after an eternity, Amurao crawled out.  The sun was up, the intruder gone.  She worked her way free from her bonds, pushed open the door to the adjoining room–and stumbled over the bodies.

Chicago was horrified by the brutality of the crime.  Was the city faced with a new Jack the Ripper?  But the survivor provided a good description of the killer.  The most telling item was a tattoo on his left forearm.  It read: “Born To Raise Hell.”

Within days police arrested Richard Speck.  He was a 24-year-old drifter with a long record of trouble.  While trying to get a merchant seaman card at a nearby hiring hall, he’d noticed the nurses’ dormitory.

The eight victims had been strangled or stabbed.  One of them had been raped.  Speck was brought to trial and convicted of murder, based on Amurao’s testimony.  He was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Speck claimed he’d been high the night of the murders, and didn’t remember anything.  He eventually admitted his crimes.  Because of a later Supreme Court ruling, he escaped the death penalty.  Richard Speck died while serving a life sentence  in 1991.

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Then and Now, Cottage Grove-35th

1939--Cottage Grove Avenue @ 35th, view northwest

1939–Cottage Grove Avenue @ 35th, view northwest

2014--the same location

2014–the same location

Following the path of an old trail, Cottage Grove Avenue originally began at 22nd-Indiana and angled southeast to 39th Street, where it continued due south at 800 East. As one of Chicago’s oldest thoroughfares, Cottage Grove was lined with commercial buildings. This particular intersection also marked the starting point of Vincennes Avenue, the street behind the Standard Oil sign in the older photo.

In 1955 the city began clearing land for the Lake Meadows development and other renewal projects. Since then the area has been completely transformed, and  most of Cottage Grove north of 35th Street has been vacated.

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Jimmy Carter Builds a House (7-7-1986)

Abraham Lincoln split wood to build houses–before he was president. On this day, a former president was in Chicago getting ready to build a house.

Five years after leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter was volunteering at Habitat for Humanity, a Georgia-based ministry that constructed homes for the poor. His wife Rosalyn was with him. This week they’d be doing their part in West Garfield Park.

Carter told reporters that Habitat for Humanity had given him and his wife “a new dimension in our lives.” They’d begun the Jimmy Carter Work Project by renovating a six-story, 19-unit apartment in New York in 1984.

The House That Jimmy Built, 2010

The House That Jimmy Built, 2010

Now they were building a new four-unit townhouse on the southeast corner of Maypole and Kildare Avenues. During their time in Chicago, the Carters would live in the neighborhood, at the Guyon Hotel on Pulaski Road.

Over 150 people worked on the townhouse. Among them were about 70 volunteers from local building trades unions. The ex-president himself clocked a 14-hour day, sawing and hammering. Though the weather was rainy, construction was completed in four days, and the first families happily moved in.

Three decades later, Habitat for Humanity continues its work. The 2014 project is scheduled for Dallas in October, to coincide with President Carter’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, the West Garfield Park townhouse he helped build eventually became derelict, and was torn down in 2010.

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Woodrow Wilson Road

As any true Chicagoan knows, Western Avenue is the longest street in the city.  Would you believe it was once named Woodrow Wilson Road?

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, died on February 3, 1924.  He’d been an icon of the Progressive movement and had led the country through the First World War.  The Chicago City Council wanted a suitable way to honor him.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

A few years before, when Theodore Roosevelt had died, the aldermen had changed 12th Street to Roosevelt Road.  What was good for a dead Republican president should be good for a dead Democrat one.  Since the city already had a Wilson Avenue, it was decided to use both the honoree’s names.

It’s not clear why the lawmakers chose Western Avenue for renaming.  On April 25 they officially re-designated the street as Woodrow Wilson Road.

The 12th-to-Roosevelt change had caused little controversy.  But now the property owners along Western objected to the expense involved in renaming their street.  Within a few weeks they’d gathered over 10,000 signatures asking that the old name be restored.

The Tribune sent its Inquiring Reporter to the corner of “Washington Boulevard and Woodrow Wilson Road” to gauge public opinion.  Most people said the change didn’t make any difference to them.  One young lady did say she favored the new name because “it sounds lots nicer, [and] we see enough old things around here.”

The property owners prevailed.  Less than a month after its original action, the council ordered the street changed back to Western Avenue.  A proposal to rename Navy Pier after Wilson was shelved.

Detroit still has a Woodrow Wilson Street

Detroit still has a Woodrow Wilson Street

In 1927 the council changed Robey Street to Damen Avenue without serious incident.  But when Crawford Avenue was renamed Pulaski Road in 1933, that set off a 19-year long battle  The lesson seems to be that nobody can predict when changing a street name will rub some people the wrong way

By the way, the move to change Woodrow Wilson Road back to Western Avenue was spearheaded by Alderman Joseph Kostner.  Today the city remembers him with a street named Kostner Avenue.

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