The Last First Ward Ball (12-14-1908)

Chicago has never seen another political fundraiser like the annual First Ward Ball.  The last one, in 1908, was the gaudiest.

The city’s wards had two aldermen each then.  The First Ward incumbents were a pair of colorful characters, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky-Dink Michael Kenna.  Their domain took in the Loop and the Near South Side down to 26th Street.  Included was the red-light district known as the Levee.

Coughlin & Kenna had held their first fundraiser ball in an armory in 1896.  Word on the street was that anyone who wanted a favor from the aldermen should buy a ticket—or better still, a book of fifty tickets.  The denizens of the Levee turned out in full force, and the sponsors cleared $25,000.  That would be about $750,000 in today’s money.

From there, the First Ward Ball grew.  The raffish crew of locals was joined by people from all parts of the city and all walks of life.  Even the Gold Coast was represented—it was thrilling to rub shoulders with the lowlifes, the gamblers and pickpockets and prostitutes!  Coughlin & Kenna finally had to move their party to the Coliseum, the city’s largest hall.

By 1908, the ball was drawing 20,000 people.  The annual intake of refreshment amounted to 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer, and that led to some rowdy behavior.  The self-appointed guardians of Chicago’s morals called for the event to be shut down. The Tribune announced it would print the names of any “respectable” person attending.

When the proceedings got underway on the evening of December 14, a number of people took the precaution of wearing masks.  But the ball went on, a “lollapalooza, the biggest and best ever,” Bathhouse John said.   At midnight, the band played “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here!”  The revelers marched around the Coliseum, then got down to some serious partying.

The Chicago Coliseum, 1513 South Wabash Avenue

The next day’s Tribune devoted its first three pages to the spectacle.  The paper told about the empty champagne bottles stacked in pyramids, the young toughs trying to undress unescorted ladies, the men wearing women’s costumes, the topless hookers, the fist fights, and the one stabbing with a hatpin.

Fun was fun, but this was going too far—at least too far for 1908.  The next year Mayor Busse refused to give Coughlin & Kenna a liquor license.  That finished the First Ward Ball.


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