Big Bill’s Rat Show (4-6-1926)

Political campaigns aren’t what they used to be.  Consider what happened in Chicago on this April 6th in 1926.

The Republican U.S. Senate primary was a week away.  Incumbent W.B. McKinley was being challenged by Frank L. Smith.  McKinley was supported by most of the party elite, including Fred Lundin.  Lundin was a backroom campaign strategist known as The Poor Swede.  He was sort of the 1920s combination of Karl Rove and David Axelrod.

The Poor Swede

Smith was backed by former Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson—Big Bill.  Thompson was looking forward to 1927, when he could try to get his old job back.  But Lundin was grooming another candidate for mayor, Dr. John Dill Robertson.  That was more important to Big Bill than any Senate race.

The Smith campaign held a rally at the Cort Theatre.  When it was Big Bill’s turn to speak, he walked on stage carrying a cage, and set the cage on a table.  In the cage were two rats.

Thompson pointed at one of the rats.  “This one is Doc,” he told the packed house.  “I can tell him because he hasn’t had a bath in twenty years.  But we did wash him, and he doesn’t smell like a billy goat any longer.”

The crowd gasped—then laughed, then cheered.  “Go on! Go on!” they shouted.

Thompson pointed to the other rat.  “Don’t hang your head, Fred,” he said.  “Wasn’t I the best friend you ever had?  Isn’t it true I came home from Honolulu to save you from the penitentiary?”

Big Bill

He went on this way for a half hour.  The audience loved it.  Big Bill told them he’d always lived up to the cowboy code, but that Lundin had double-crossed him.  Lundin had a Jekyll and Hyde personality.  “When he was associated with me, the best in him came to the surface,” Thompson said.  “Since then he has been only evil.”

Big Bill concluded his performance by telling the crowd that he’d planned to bring six rats—“but Fred and Doc ate up the other four.”  That brought down the house.

Big Bill’s Rat Show became national news.  Smith upset McKinley in the primary, and later won the general election.  But because of various irregularities, the U.S. Senate refused to seat Smith.

That didn’t seem to bother Big Bill Thompson too much.  In 1927 he completed his comeback, and was again elected Mayor of Chicago.

No, political campaigns aren’t what they used to be.


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


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