Dr. Frank the Body-Snatcher

Frank Billings (1854-1932) was one of the giants of American medicine.  After receiving his M.D. from Northwestern in 1881 he studied in Europe, before return to set up a practice in Chicago.  He was the longtime dean of Rush Medical College during its affiliation with the University of Chicago. (Contrary to common belief, the university’s Billings Hospital is named for A.M. Billings, no relation.)  Frank Billings also served a term as president of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Frank Billings

Billings knew all of Chicago’s prominent families.  Once of his acquaintances was young Ernest Poole, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.   Poole delighted in re-telling a story of Dr. Frank’s medical school days.

The laws of the time made it difficult to get cadavers for classroom instruction.  Medical students sometimes solved the problem by digging up fresh corpses from the county Potter’s Field.  One night Billings and two Northwestern classmates set out in a wagon to retrieve the mortal remains of a murderer who’d recently been hanged.  On the way they came upon a brightly-lit tavern.

Parked outside the tavern was a wagon belonging to Rush Medical College.  A figure wrapped in blankets was propped up in the driver’s seat.  The Rush students had gotten to the prize first.  Now they were inside the tavern celebrating.

Billings and his two friends transferred the body to their own wagon.  Just then the tavern door opened.  Telling his colleagues to get away, Billings quickly wrapped himself in the blankets.  He climbed into the Rush wagon and assumed the dead man’s place.

One by one, the Rush students staggered out of the tavern.  The first man got into the wagon and checked the corpse.  “Hey fellas,” he shouted, “this stiff don’t feel as cold as he ought to be!”

“And neither would you be, if you were burning in hell like I am!” Billings announced in a spooky voice.

The frightened Rush student tumbled out of the wagon.  With that, Billings grabbed the reigns and drove off in the Rush wagon, laughing all the way.

No, medical school ain’t what it used to be.


Dirty Tricks at The Wigwam (5-18-1860)

On this date, for the first time ever, a citizen of Illinois was nominated for President of the United States.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.  And it happened in Chicago.

The Republican Party was a new, dynamic, anti-slavery party.  Four years ago, in their first presidential campaign, they’d run a surprisingly strong race.  Now the Democrats were split on the slavery issue–so Republicans would be picking the next occupant of the White House.

The Wigwam

Chicago was hosting a party convention for the first time.  The site was a big wooden barn at Lake and Market (Wacker) called The Wigwam.  Local boosters bragged the building could hold 10,000 people, making it the largest auditorium in the country.

Senator Seward

As the Republicans gathered, the smart money was on New York’s William Seward to win the nomination.  Lincoln was a longshot, an obscure lawyer from Springfield.  He was known mainly for the vigorous, unsuccessful campaign he’d run against Senator Stephen Douglas.

And now begins Chicago’s reputation for hardball politics.

On this great nomination day, thousands of Seward fans marched through downtown Chicago.  They waved their banners, they shouted, they sang.  But when they got to The Wigwam, they couldn’t get in.  Lincoln’s supporters had printed counterfeit tickets and packed the hall.

The nominations got under way.  As expected, Seward led on the first ballot.  Yet whenever a speaker mentioned Lincoln’s name, the audience exploded into cheers that threatened to take the roof off The Wigwam.

Uncommitted delegated were impressed.  Honest Abe seemed to be the people’s choice!  The maneuvering went on behind closed doors.  And on the third ballot, Lincoln was nominated.

The Republican nominee

The Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, owned by his friend Joseph Medill, was ready.  A special souvenir edition was rolled out, with a discount price for bulk purchase.  The paper also offered the delegates a variety of mail subscriptions, so they could follow the campaign once they returned home.

Following tradition, Lincoln had not attended the convention.  He stayed in Springfield and got his news by telegraph.

If he had come to Chicago, Lincoln might have walked a few blocks from The Wigwam to McVicker’s Theater to see the hit comedy Our American Cousin.  Four years later, when he was president, Lincoln finally caught the play in Washington—and was assassinated during the performance.


The Rise and Fall of Jesse Binga

Today the street where Jesse Binga lived is named for Dr. Martin Luther King.  That’s appropriate.  When the street was called South Park Avenue and Binga occupied house at #5922, the building became a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Jesse Binga was a go-getter.  Born in Detroit in 1865, he started out to be a barber like his father.  He moved through a number of jobs before settling in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.  A few years later he entered the real estate business.

Chicago’s African-American population was small at the turn of the 20th Century, but that was about to change.  Here Binga saw his opportunity.

During the first decades of the new century, Southern blacks began moving north.  Chicago’s neighborhoods were segregated, like most northern cities.  The newcomers settled in a narrow section of the South Side.  But as more people arrived, they began to burst the boundaries of the “Black Belt.”

Jesse Binga became the main agent of racial succession.  He bought property from whites who wanted to move out, fixed it up, then resold to blacks who needed a place to live.  He helped his community—and he got rich.

From real estate he moved into banking.  He took over a failed bank at 36th and State, and reopened it as the Binga Bank, the city’s first black-owned financial institution.  In 1910 he ran for the County Board as a Republican, but lost.  After that he steered clear of politics.

Binga moved into 5922 S. South Park Avenue in 1917.  The Washington Park neighborhood was then all-white.  He received death threats and the house was repeatedly bombed.  He had to hire 24-hour security guards. Binga defiantly refused to move, saying he was an American citizen and could live where he pleased.  Years passed before the violence stopped.

The Binga business empire reached its peak during the 1920s.  He rechartered his bank as the Binga State Bank and erected a new building at the northwest corner of 35th and State.  Next to it he constructed a five-story office building called the Binga Arcade.  He announced plans to open another, federally-chartered bank.

Then the Stock Market crashed.  The Depression followed, the Binga State Bank failed, and thousands of African-American depositors were wiped out.

Jesse Binga was wiped out, too.  He later served a prison sentence for embezzlement, though many people thought the charges were trumped up.  He spent his last years working as a janitor at St. Anselm Church, for $15 a week.

Jesse Binga died in 1950.  His home is a registered Chicago Landmark, and is privately owned.


Then and Now, 115th-Michigan

1895–115th Street @ Michigan Avenue, view east

2017–the same location

In 1880 George Pullman began building railroad sleeper cars in a plant at 111th Street and Cottage Grove  Avenue.  By 1895 an independent settlement had developed to the west, partially populated by Pullman workers who didn’t want to live in the boss’s company town.  Michigan Avenue, running along the top of a glacial ridge, was the main business thoroughfare.

The Pullman company’s car-building business went into a long decline before finally closing during the 1980s.  Meanwhile, the surrounding area went into a similar decline.  Now the designation of the Pullman National Historic Park has brought hope of revitalization.



How the School Board Spends Money (5-9-1922)

William Hale Thompson—otherwise known as Big Bill—was in his seventh year as mayor of Chicago. While he was celebrated as a builder of great public works, his administration was not noted for its honesty.

On this date, the Chicago Board of Education was under scrutiny. Mayor Thompson’s appointees formed a majority on the board, and had been involved in one controversy after another. Now a special grand jury was looking into examples of their waste and fiscal mismanagement.

Mayor Thompson

Mayor Thompson

State’s Attorney Robert Crowe conducted the investigation. The state’s attorney loved any kind of publicity—reporters said the most dangerous spot in the city was getting between Crowe and a news camera. Many thought Crowe was positioning himself to challenge Big Bill in next year’s primary.

Still, the probe was turning up all sorts of things.

State's Attorney Crowe

State’s Attorney Crowe

The board had recently purchased a thousand phonographs from a clout-heavy wholesaler for $157 each. The wholesaler had paid $40 for each machine and pocketed over $100,000. In other deals, the board bought $133 potato-peelers and $133 electric hand-driers. Principals reported receiving mahogany tables they had not asked for, and window shades that were not needed. At some schools, working clocks were smashed so that new ones could be ordered. Once again, the trail led to politically-connected suppliers.

The revelations didn’t seem to be altering the board’s methods. Mayor Thompson’s loyal majority was planning to ram through $1,032,000 in no-bid contracts for cleaning, decorating, and general repair. The reform minority could only fume.

One of the reformers had protested that the public might not be happy over the expensive mark-ups the board was paying for textbooks. He was told: “To hell with the public!  We’re at the trough now, and we’re going to feed.”

In the end, nobody was punished. The school board scandal did force Thompson to drop out of the 1923 mayoral race. But he came back for one more term in 1927, and it was more of the same. As for State’s Attorney Crowe, he ran into some scandals of his own, and was eventually voted out of office.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History


The Tallest Rock (5-3-1973)

Chicago put one over on New York today.  The Sears Tower was topped off.  Our city had the tallest building in the world.

Sears had maintained its main office in North Lawndale for decades.  During the late 1960s the company decided to build new headquarters.  After looking in the suburbs, they chose a downtown site.

The original plan was to build two separate buildings.  That was changed to a single structure, 1,454 feet high.  As board chairman Gordon Metcalf explained, “Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest headquarters in the world.”

Construction began in 1970.  The foundations were dug, and the steel frame began to rise slowly over Wacker Drive.  On the way up, the Sears Tower passed the former record holder, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Today’s ceremony was almost postponed.  The weather was raw and windy.  The final girder contained the signatures of the 12,000 people who had worked on the project.  The construction chief was worried that the 2,500-pound beam might smash into some windows on the way up.

But a few hundred people had already gathered at the site.  Cardinal Cody and Mayor Richard J. Daley had come to give their blessings.  The girder was hoisted and set in place.

That was the signal.  A chorus of electrical workers burst into song, serenading the crowd with such lyrics as:

“She towers so high,

Just scraping the sky.

She’s The Tallest Rock.”

Speeches followed from various dignitaries.  Then the mayor brought the proceedings to a close.  “I want to thank [Sears] for staying in Chicago when so many are leaving,” he said.  “Sears, Roebuck—a name that means everything to the people of America—has no equal in the business world of Chicago.”

Everyone went home happy.  The Sears Tower lifted the spirits of Chicago.  Having the World’s Tallest Building helped the city get through some tough years.

Still, records are made to be broken.  The Sears Tower kept is title until 1996.  Today all the sky-piercing structures are going up in Asia.

Meanwhile, in 1992, Sears again moved its headquarters, this time to Hoffman Estates.  The tall building on Wacker Drive is now known as the Willis Tower.


What Color Is Your Street Sign?

When I was very young and we’d go for rides in the car, I could always tell when we left the city and crossed into the suburbs.  The street signs would be different.

Traditional City of Chicago street sign

Chicago had yellow street signs with black letters.  The outlying villages had any colors that struck the fancy of the local politicians.  Some of those hamlets, like Park Ridge, even substituted vertical pillars for conventional signs.

(The yellow Chicago street signs gave me my first lesson in air pollution.  When I was ten we went to visit some relatives at 83rd and Brandon.  The street signs there had all turned a rich tan, courtesy of the nearby U.S. Steel plant.)

Chicago Park District street sign

Somewhere along the line I discovered that Chicago actually had two styles of street signs.  The boulevard system was controlled by the Chicago Park District, in those days an independent entity.  Park district streets had brown signs with white letters.  After the city took over the park district, the brown signs were retained, as a convenient way of warning trucks to stay off the boulevards.

In the 1970s, the feds told Chicago that all the street signs would have to be green and white.  Somehow a local salvage company got hold of hundreds of the old yellow signs.  I bought a Ridgeway Avenue sign for my father-in-law, who’d grown up on that street.  Now that he’s passed on, the sign hangs on my garage.

Transition–both old and new style signs (1977)

Meanwhile, the feds have expanded their guidelines over what constitutes a proper street sign.  In 2009 our government in Washington announced that existing signs had to be junked if the letters were all caps.  Having both capital and small letters would make the signs easier to read at a distance.  The decree was accompanied by the usual threat that federal funds would be withheld if a town didn’t comply.  After a massive public outcry, the feds backed off—for now.

But perhaps we haven’t yet become totally homogenized.  A few years ago, a friend told me of seeing a pair of the old yellow signs at an intersection on the far South Side.  I went down to 127th Place and Eggleston Avenue—and it was true!  For whatever reason, the authorities had missed these two.

The last survivors?

I don’t know whether those signs are still in place today, and I realize that I’m taking a chance pointing out this anomaly.  Somewhere, deep in the bowels of government, there’s probably an official who won’t be able to sleep nights, knowing that there are at least two yellow street signs remaining in Chicago.

My advice—leave them alone.  Consistency is an over-rated virtue.