Was there ever really a Bathhouse John Coughlin? Did such a man truly stalk the corridors of City Hall? Wasn’t he just a character of fiction, created by a fanciful journalist or scriptwriter as a symbol of every crooked-but-colorful ward politician in Chicago history?
Banish your doubts. Yes, Virginia–and Virgil–there really was a Bathhouse John.
Coughlin as a young man
John Joseph Coughlin was born in Chicago in 1860. His boyhood home was in the First Ward, at Wells and Polk, where his Irish immigrant father owned a grocery store.
Young John grew up tall, strong, friendly, and not very bright. He scuffled through a series of jobs that depended more on brawn than brain. One of them was giving rubdowns to patrons at a Clark Street bathhouse. From that time on he was known as Bathhouse John–or simply the Bath.
Along the way he got into politics, working his way up in the First Ward Democratic organization. He was an entertaining public speaker, and he didn’t ask questions. That qualified him to be elected alderman in 1892.
Chicago then had 35 wards, with two aldermen from each. Coughlin’s longtime colleague was Michael Kenna, known as Hinky-Dink because he was so small. Coughlin had the charm, Kenna the brains. They made an effective team.
Effective in bringing in votes, that is. Besides taking in the Loop, the First Ward stretched down past 22nd Street (Cermak Road) and included most of the city’s gambling halls and brothels. These businesses were technically illegal, so the operators paid bribes to operate.
Bathhouse John the composer
By the turn of the 20th Century, Coughlin represented everything the clean government crowd hated. He was basically a good-natured man, whose attitude was live-and-let-live. He answered the reformers’ scorn with cheerful bluster. That made them even madder.
Reporters loved him, because he was good copy. If there wasn’t much news, the Bath could be counted on for a story. The city’s nine newspapers were always quoting one of outrageous pronouncements, or detailing his latest brainstorm.
One example was his Dress Reform Movement. The Bath decided men’s clothing was too dull, so he began appearing at council meetings in a bright green suit. A friend told him that he looked like “an Evanston lawn kissed by the morning dew,” and that encouraged the Bath to try even gaudier costumes. His most bizarre outfit combined a blue-and-white flannel coat, yellow vest with orange spots, and brown-and-white checked trousers.
He was also a writer. Coughlin composed a ballad titled “Dear Midnight of Love” which was performed at the opera house by a brass band and a chorus of fifty. His poetry included such works as “She Sleeps By the Drainage Canal,” “They’re Tearing Up Clark Street Again,” and “Ode to a Bathtub.” A reporter later admitted he had “helped” the alderman with his literary output.
Coughlin in later years
The Bath’s ambitions never grew bigger than the First Ward. He “stuck to the small stuff.” Coughlin and Kenna ruled their little fief, pocketed their money, and delivered votes to the candidate who offered the best deal. The party went on unchanged for three decades.
In 1923 the Chicago ward system was changed, to the current fifty wards with one alderman each. Kenna stepped aside so Coughlin could keep the spotlight. By that time it was all show. Control of the First Ward had passed to Al Capone. Since the Bath didn’t pose any threat, Capone allowed him to go on as before.
Coughlin grew older and fatter. His fortune trickled away. He attended council meetings but seldom spoke. He’d become a living souvenir of a wild and woolly past, like the crazy uncle who’s tolerated in his dotage. Even his old nemesis the Tribune now published nostalgic articles about the once-notorious First Ward Ball.
He died on November 8, 1938, leaving behind debts of $56,000 and a string of lethargic race horses. The City Council draped its chambers in mourning. And in the front row, at the desk John Coughlin had occupied for 46 years, someone placed a bowl of roses.