Death and Remembrance (4-18-1924)

The tale begins exactly 90 years ago today. And like 2014, April 18th that year was Good Friday.

At 7:30 in the evening, a passerby noticed smoke coming from Curran Hall, a four-story brick hulk at 1363 South Blue Island Avenue.  The man ran to the corner fire-alarm box and pulled the lever.

Two miles to the west, at Engine Company #107, Fireman Francis Leavy was washing a window.  The call came in and Leavy rushed out with the rest of the company.  He told the captain he’d finish the window when they got back.

Chicago firemen at work, 1924

Chicago firemen at work, 1924

Five squads converged on Curran Hall.  The blaze seemed to be minor.  The firemen were getting it under control when one of the outer walls began buckling.  Then it collapsed, trapping eight men.

The falling wall knocked out electrical power at the site.  Portable lighting was brought in, while firemen combed the wreckage for their comrades.  But all eight men had been killed.  Among the dead was Francis Leavy.

Arson was the suspected cause of the Curran Hall fire.  No one was ever convicted of the crime. Now for the rest of the story . . .

The day after the fire, one of the men at Engine Company #107 noticed the window that Leavy had left half-washed.  In the middle of the window was a handprint.  The man tried scrubbing it out.  The handprint stayed.

From that time forward, so the legend goes, every fireman assigned to Engine Company #107 attempted to remove the handprint.  They used water, soap, ammonia, acid.  They scraped it with razor blades.  Nothing worked.

The "ghostly handprint" in 1939

The “ghostly handprint” in 1939

The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company was called in. My dad was a glazier at PPG, though years later. The way he heard it told, PPG applied their strongest chemical solvents to the handprint–and still couldn’t remove it.

Was the handprint a ghostly souvenir of the dead fireman?  It’s said that Leavy’s thumbprint was obtained from his personnel records, and compared with the print on the window.  They matched perfectly.

The end of the tale is prosaic.  A newsboy threw a paper through the window and broke it.  Most accounts say this happened some time in 1946.

But one version claims that the window was broken on April 18, 1944–twenty years to the day of Francis Leavy’s death.


When Wrestling Was Wrestling (4-14-1909)

Professional wrestling was a recognized sport in 1909. When Frank Gotch defended his world heavyweight championship in Chicago, the match was a major news story.

A 30-year-old son of Iowa, Gotch had held the title for a year. Tonight he was scheduled to face Yussif Mahmout, the latest wrestler to call himself The Terrible Turk. The site was the Dexter Park Pavilion.

Champion Frank Gotch

Champion Frank Gotch

The main event was scheduled to start at 11 p.m. But by 7 o’clock, a half-block-long line was already snaking down Halsted Street from the Pavilion entrance. Police were called out to keep order. Over 20,000 people finally jammed into the building. That was a crowd the White Sox or Cubs might envy.

When the wrestlers met at center ring, the Turk was barefoot. That was a violation of the rules, and would make it harder for Gotch to use his signature toe hold. The champ decided to go on with the match anyway.

In 1909, wrestling matches were hard-fought and scientific–but not very flashy.  The two opponents would grab each other, then struggle to gain an advantage. To an untrained observer, the wrestlers looked like they weren’t doing anything but pose. Often this went on for an hour.

Tonight’s match was best-of-three falls. The first round had some action. The two men rushed each other, broke a few holds, and bounced off the ropes. Gotch pinned the Turk in 8 minutes flat.
The Terrible Turk

The Terrible Turk

After a 10 minute break, they went at it again. The champ kept his dominance.  He was now using the half-nelson and the crotch grip. At 9 minutes and 10 seconds, Gotch again pinned the Turk.

The match was over. Twenty thousand throats cheered the American victory.  The Tribune reported that “several prominent men from Western cities climbed into the ring, seized the victor, and carried him in triumph to his dressing quarters.”

The Turk was dazed. “I didn’t know Gotch was so good,” he admitted. “I don’t know anyone who can beat him.”

Reporters found Gotch relaxed and mellow. “I had him beaten when I laid my hands on him,” the champ said. “He is a strong fellow, but I am stronger and know more about wrestling.”

As the years passed, the public began to turn away from pro wrestling and its slow pace. That’s when the sport became more–how should we put it?–”theatrical.”



Then and Now, Harrison-Fifth

1951--Harrison Street @ Fifth, view west

1951–Harrison Street @ Fifth, view west

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

As a half-section street located exactly one-half-mile south of the Madison base-line, Harrison Street developed into a major West Side thoroughfare. In the 1951 photo the north side of the street is lined with a variety of businesses. The “green hornet” streetcar–the latest innovation in transit vehicles–is preparing to turn left onto diagonal Fifth Avenue, and will eventually reach the Loop via Madison Street.

Two years after the first photo was taken, work began on the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway. The buildings along the north side of Harrison were demolished, converting the street into a frontage road. Fifth Avenue was chopped in two by the expressway, and CTA service on that street was discontinued.


Cermak and Beer (1922)

Cermak Token 01Cermak Token 02

One of my grandfathers was a Democratic precinct captain and collected all sort of political souvenirs. I recently rediscovered this brass token among my files.  In November 1922, 22nd Ward alderman Anton J. Cermak was running for a seat on the Cook County board, and also for president of that board. Therefore, voting for Cermak twice was legal–at least in this election.

Cermak was also sponsoring a referendum to modify the Volstead Act, the law which enforced the national Prohibition Amendment. The idea was to permit light wines and beer.

Cermak won the election, and served as Cook County board president until he was elected mayor of Chicago in 1931. However, though the “damp” referendum carried by a 2-to-1 margin, it was not binding. The country finally junked Prohibition in 1933.


Dangerous Crossing (4-4-1912)

A Chicago railroad was in the news today, and that news was grim.  Twenty people had been injured at a rail crossing on the Southwest Side.  Three of them had died.

Chicago was the rail hub of the nation.  There were hundreds of locations where the tracks crossed city streets.  With all traffic getting heavy, the city council had passed laws requiring the railroads to elevate their tracks.

The Chicago & Alton line ran through the Southwest Side.  In 1911 the city ordered the C&A to build viaducts over the cross streets.  The railroad had delayed, citing poor weather and other excuses.

Flagging a 75th Street car across the Illinois Central tracks, 1908

Flagging a 75th Street car across the Illinois Central tracks, 1908

On this particular morning, Alderman Charles Martin was in a meeting discussing ways of forcing the railroad to act.  Over on Kedzie Avenue, a northbound streetcar approached the C&A crossing near 37th Street and stopped.  The conductor got off to make sure the track was clear.  That was standard procedure.

The conductor watched a four-car C&A freight train pass through the crossing.  Then he signaled his streetcar to moved ahead.  He hadn’t noticed another freight on a parallel track.

Too late, the conductor saw the second train.  He shouted and waved at the motorman of the streetcar.  But the streetcar was already moving through the crossing.
Kedzie @ 37th Street today

Kedzie @ 37th Street today

The freight train slammed into the streetcar, toppling it over and crushing it.  Hearing the noise, people rushed to the scene.  The police arrived.  Along with the train crew, they went to work rescuing the passengers from the wreckage.  The injured were taken in carriages to nearby St. Anthony Hospital.

The three people killed were all members of a single family–a 26-year old woman, her infant daughter, and the woman’s adult sister.  The victims were later identified by the woman’s husband.  Ironically, the man was a conductor on another streetcar line.

When word of the accident reached Alderman Martin, he drew up an ordinance ordering all C&A trains to make a full stop before crossing any intersection.  The city council took up the matter the same afternoon.  It passed unanimously.

CTA train crosses Francisco at grade in 1976--and it's still the same in 2014

CTA train crosses Francisco at grade in 1976–and it’s still the same in 2014

The C&A Kedzie crossing was later elevated.  So were most of Chicago’s other railroad crossings.  But on the outskirts of the city, many remain at grade.  And in the densely-populated Albany Park neighborhood, the CTA Brown Line still runs on the ground.



Cap Anson, Baseball Superstar

His life sounded like the plot of a dime novel from the turn of the 20th Century.

He was born in a log cabin in Iowa in 1852, and grew up in a little farm settlement called Marshalltown.  At 19 he set out for the big city to earn his fortune.  He worked hard at his profession, got rich, became a leading citizen of Chicago, and one of the most famous men in the country.


His name was Adrian Constantine Anson.  He was a baseball player.

Professional baseball was a risky career choice when Anson started playing.  The pay was low and the top league was loosely organized, with a haphazard schedule.  Anson spent one year with Rockford, then four more in Philadelphia.

When the National League was founded in 1876, the game stabilized.  Anson already had a reputation as a hard-hitting first baseman.  The Chicago team wanted him, and they got him.

Anson was a big man for his time, about 6’1″ and 210 pounds, when most players were four inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter.  He became the sport’s #1 star.  There was no All-Star game or MVP award yet, or Anson would have claimed each honor several times.

He took over as Chicago’s captain-manager in 1879, and afterward became known as Cap Anson.  During his watch, the team won five National League pennants.  Anson was the first player to collect 3,000 hits, and one of the first elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

He had one negative legacy.  Anson refused to play against African Americans.  He was probably no more unconsciously racist than most white Americans of his time, but he was also baseball’s leading player.  His example prompted the sport to adopt an informal “color line” which lasted until 1945.

Anson retired from active play in 1897.  The next year he opened a combination billiard hall and bowling alley in the Loop known as Anson’s Emporium.  It was the largest business of its kind in Chicago.  The Emporium became a local hangout for the sporting crowd and a major tourist attraction.

He was an expert billiard player and a fine golfer.  In 1904 Anson took a team to the American Bowling Congress tournament in Cleveland and came home with the first place trophy.  That made him the answer to a sports trivia question: “Who is the only man elected to the baseball Hall of Fame who also won a national bowling championship?”

Fresh from his bowling triumph, Anson entered politics.  In 1905 he was elected Chicago city clerk as a Democrat.  But within a few years, everything came crashing down.

1907--City Clerk Anson (right) swears in Mayor Fred Busse

1907–City Clerk Anson (right) swears in Mayor Fred Busse

Anson had traded on his fame to become city clerk.  That proved to be his limit.  In 1906 he ran for Cook County sheriff and lost in the primary.  The next year he was defeated in his re-election bid as clerk.  His Emporium went bankrupt in 1909.  As a businessman and as a politician, Cap Anson was one helluva baseball player.

He was broke.  He sold his house, moving into a small apartment at 320 East 30th Street.  Years went by, and now people were calling him Pop Anson.  “He was an oddly anachronistic figure, like a rugged fragment from an ancient mountain,” one journalist wrote.  “Not forgotten, but not really part of the world around him any more.”

Today he might support himself autographing baseballs or working as a casino greeter.  In Anson’s time, his best option was the vaudeville stage.  His friends Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan helped Anson put together a monologue, and for several years he toured with two of his daughters.

Cap Anson died in 1922.  He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery.  The graveyard later became the final resting place of Jesse Owens, Harold Washington, and other prominent African Americans.  But if Anson had any objection to this form of integration, he has not been heard from.


Early Traffic Signals

Chicago’s first traffic lights were installed along Michigan Avenue in 1923. By the middle of the next decade the city had settled on a standard style of signal. I don’t know if they could be called art deco, art nouveau, or what. All I do know was that they were classy.

Traffic Signal (old)

For a kid growing up in the 1950s, there was a bonus. You could put your ear next to the box and hear a clicking sound each time one of the lights changed. A simple pleasure–but then, we didn’t have video games.

When better traffic signals were developed, these relics had to go. As it should, public safety trumped aesthetics. The last city intersection I recall having a complete set of the older signals was 57th-Woodlawn, around 1976.



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