Archive for the 'CHICAGO PEOPLE' Category

The Life and Death of Nails Morton

Nails Morton wasn’t your ordinary gangster. Nor was his death ordinary. And the aftermath of that death became the stuff of legend.

He was born Samuel Marcovitz in New York in 1893, the oldest of seven children. Around 1900 the family moved to the Maxwell Street area of Chicago. Marcovitz was changed to Morton at that time.

Young Sammy quickly became involved with the Jewish street gangs in his neighborhood. His weapon of choice was a baseball bat studded with nails—hence, his nickname.  He was in and out of scrapes with the law, and a judge finally gave him the choice of going to prison or enlisting in the army.  Morton chose the army.

Samuel "Nails" Morton

Samuel “Nails” Morton

“Channel those aggressive instincts!” Maybe the judge told him that.  World War I was on.  Fighting in France, Morton was twice wounded and earned a major decoration for bravery. He entered the army as a buck private; he came home a first lieutenant.

Back in Chicago, he went back to his old ways. He opened some gambling houses.  In 1920, with Prohibition taking hold, Morton joined up with Dion O’Banion’s North Side mob.  O’Banion put him in charge of liquor distribution and enforcement.

The public first became acquainted with Nails Morton in 1921, when he was put in trial for killing two cops. He was acquitted in court.  There was talk that jurors had been threatened or bribed.

Morton became a gangland celebrity. He was seen at the city’s fanciest restaurants and in the best seats at sporting events, a female companion or two keeping him company.  He wore custom-tailored suits and drove a block-long touring car.  Leaving Maxwell Street behind, he bought a graystone two-flat facing Humboldt Park.

For relaxation he took up horseback riding. When he wasn’t busy shooting competitors or romancing ladies, Morton could usually be found atop a mount in Lincoln Park.  By 1923 the kid from the inner city was an accomplished horseman.

On the morning of May 13th he was riding through the park with some friends.  A stirrup strap broke, the horse bolted, and Morton fell to the ground.  The excited horse kicked him in the head, killing him instantly.

Morton was interred at Waldheim cemetery. The eulogists at his brief funeral service spoke of his war heroics.  They also noted that Morton had “organized a defense society to drive Jew-haters from the West Side.”  His other activities were passed over.

"The Public Enemy"--Cagney learns Nails has been killed

“The Public Enemy”–Cagney learns Nails has been killed

The North Side mob was shocked that their buddy had met death in such a prosaic manner. A few days after the funeral, Louie Altiere kidnapped the horse that had killed Morton.  Altiere led the animal to the spot where Morton had fallen, then shot it dead.  “We taught that damned horse of yours a lesson,” he told the stable owner.

Now we move forward to 1931, and the movie The Public Enemy.  Gang boss James Cagney learns that his buddy “Nails Nathan” has been killed by a horse.  So Cagney leaves Jean Harlow behind, goes to the stable, and shoots the horse.

And they say Hollywood movies aren’t true to life . . .


Cherokee Ben?

In 1920 Ben F. Parker was voted out as president of the Chicago waiters’ union.  Shortly afterward, he read that the federal government was awarding oil land in Oklahoma to “descendants of American aborigines.”  Now Parker recalled that his great-great-grandfather had been a Native American known as Squattingheffer.

Ben F. Parker

Parker went home and started rummaging through some trunks.  He found a peace pipe inscribed with great-great-grandpa’s tribal name.  Soon Parker was off to Tulsa to re-establish contact with his kinfolks.

Three weeks later, Parker returned to Chicago.  Some of the older chiefs in Oklahoma did have memories of Squattingheffer.  He was a Cherokee and had been “a great fighter.”  One of the chiefs said that Parker had Squattingheffer’s chin.  Then Parker was invited to smoke the pipe with the chiefs.

“At my first puff the world began whirling like a top,” Parker said.  “The ground leaped up and smacked me in the face.  I was flat on my face trying to swim across a vacant lot when I came to.”  Parker was so shaken by the ritual that he gave Squattingheffer’s pipe to a porter on the train ride home.

Thus was the story reported in the Chicago Tribune on January 23, 1921.  It also noted that “Mr. Parker declined to state how many oil gushers he had been awarded.”

Ben F. Parker died in 1943.  At the time of his death he was serving as president of the Chicago Waiters’ Alliance.  None of his obituaries mentioned anything about Native American ancestry.


The Story of a News Photo

During the 1920s, a daily newspaper would go to outlandish lengths to top its rivals. If you were the first one with the big story, you sold more papers.  Ditto if you had an exclusive story—a “scoop.”  Ditto again if you had an exclusive photo.

Tom Howard being fitted with his ankle camera

Tom Howard being fitted with his camera

Tom Howard was part of this milieu. In 1928 the young Chicago Tribune photographer took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history.  And it all began with a scruffy little murder in Queens, New York.

Ruth Snyder was an unhappily-married housewife in her early thirties who was having an affair with a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. On March 19, 1927 they killed Ruth’s husband Albert for the insurance money.  They tried to make it look like part of a robbery gone wrong.

But the lovers proved to be inept criminals. The police quickly demolished their story, and they wound up accusing each other of dreaming up the scheme.  Ruth and Henry were tried for first-degree murder.  Both of them were found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the state prison in Sing Sing.

The New York Daily News was a tabloid that had built its reputation on sensational news photos.  Ruth Snyder was going to be the first woman executed in several years, and publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted a picture of the execution.  Trouble was, photographing an execution was not allowed, and prison authorities knew all of the Daily News photographers.  So Patterson phoned his cousin, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick.

McCormick agreed to lend Tom Howard to the Daily News. In New York, Howard obtained press credentials to attend the executions as a writer.  On January 12, 1928 he arrived at the prison with a miniature single-shot camera strapped to his ankle.  A wire attached to the shutter ran up his trouser leg to a trigger-release concealed in his coat.

Howard waited while Henry Judd Gray was executed. Then came Ruth Snyder’s turn.  Howard edged forward.  As the current surged through her body, Howard squeezed the trigger release.  Then it was over, and he rushed back to the Daily News offices in Manhattan.

The famous photo

The famous photo

Howard had no way of knowing if the plan had worked, until the photographic plate was actually developed. But it had worked.  Four hours after Ruth Snyder’s execution, Daily News extras were on the street, the entire front page filled with Howard’s photo of her death throes.  The headline simply read “DEAD!”

Prison officials were outraged by the picture. They talked about bringing charges against Howard and the Daily News.  But since no laws had actually been broken, the matter was dropped.  Still, in the decades since, anyone admitted to an execution site undergoes a thorough search for concealed cameras.

Tom Howard returned to his career in Chicago. When he died in 1961, he was the chief photographer at the Sun-Times.


Going Stagg

Amos Alonzo Stagg did not invent football.  But during his 41 years at the University of Chicago he developed much of the modern game.

Stagg was born in New Jersey in 1862.  He began making his football headlines while a divinity student at Yale University.  Playing end on the varsity squad, he was named to the very first All-American Team in 1889.

Young Stagg

After graduating from Yale, Stagg wanted to remain connected with football.  Coaching offered the best opportunity—there was no NFL in those days.  So when the brand-new University of Chicago asked him to take charge of its athletic program, Stagg headed west.

The year was 1892.  Stagg was given an ample budget and also faculty rank, something no full-time coach had ever had at any college.  His title was Director of the Division of Physical Culture.

Though he never did become a minister, Stagg felt he could promote the Christian ethic through football.  “The coaching profession is one of the noblest and most far-reaching in building manhood,” he once said.  Of course, that didn’t mean he had to field a losing team.

And Stagg’s teams were winners.  The University of Chicago Maroons won seven Big Ten championships between 1899 and 1924.  The undefeated 1905 and 1913 teams were ranked #1 in the nation.

Stagg was an innovator.  He invented the huddle, the direct pass from center, the lateral, the man-in-motion, the backfield shift, and cross-blocking.  Wanting his players to develop stamina along with strength, he introduced wind sprints.  He was also the first to put numbers on uniforms.  “All football comes from Stagg,” Knute Rockne declared.

Stagg Field (original), University of Chicago

But at the university, football wasn’t Stagg’s only responsibility.  He ran the entire athletic program.  At different times he coached baseball, basketball, track, and swimming.  Oh—and while he was at it, he also invented the batting cage.

Stagg led a sedate life.  He didn’t smoke or drink, went to church, raised a family, and stayed married to the same woman.  That didn’t mean he shied away from publicity, or that he wouldn’t express his opinions.  Stagg didn’t like college fraternities.  And he thought that pro football was a “menace” to amateur athletics.

Old Stagg

In 1929 Robert Maynard Hutchins became U of C president.  His vision of a university didn’t include high-powered football teams.  When Stagg turned 70 in 1932, Hutchins forced him to retire.

The Grand Old Man of Football wouldn’t go quietly.  Stagg told the press he was leaving the university against his will.  Moving to California, he signed on as head coach at College of the Pacific.

In 1946, at 84, Stagg retired from the Pacific job.  He had 314 wins to his credit, the most for any football coach.  Still refusing to obey the calendar, he then went to work for his son, as an assistant coach.

He celebrated his 100th birthday in 1962.  Asked by a reporter about his future plans, Stagg quipped: “I may go on forever—statistics say that very few men die after the age of 100.”

He almost made 103, dying in the spring of 1965.  Today he is memorialized by a number of athletic fields in various cities.  There are also two Amos Alonzo Stagg High Schools, in Palos Hills and in Stockton, California.



Chicago’s Little Green Book

In 1966, as the so-called Cultural Revolution spread through China, Americans became aware of a little red book called Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.  The title said it all—here were 304 pages of observations on life, the universe, and everything, drawn from the works of Communist China’s dictator.  Millions of Chinese youth were seen carrying copies of this secular Bible as they ran amuck through their country.

Mao Book

Such a book was a natural for parody.  In 1968 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s wisdom was collected in Quotations From Chairman LBJ.  Conservative pundit William F. Buckley was the subject of Quotations From Chairman Bill.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, longtime mayor Richard J. Daley had become a polarizing figure.  In June 1969, University of Wisconsin grad student Peter Yessne compiled a little green book titled Quotations From Mayor Daley.Daley Quotations

The book is 125 pages long, divided into 24 chapters.  Some of the chapter titles include How to Get Elected, The Correct Handling of Riots and Demonstrators, On the Power of Patronage, Graceful Concessions, and The Limits of Conviction.  There’s even a chapter called Bipartisanship—which consists of a single quotation from Daley telling how the Democrats will spread the word about their candidates in the upcoming election.

There are plenty of the famous Daley malaprops here.  Reading the book, it’s best to keep in mind the advice of the mayor’s press secretary, who told reporters to print what Daley meant, not what he said.  (Come to think of it, today we still hear political lackeys covering for their boss the same way.)

Quotations From Mayor Daley is an entertaining book for anyone interested in the golden age of the Chicago Democrat Machine.  Inexpensive copies are easy to find.


Renaissance Woman

Kellogg Fairbank was an honest, upright, somewhat dull lawyer who spent much of his time managing the estate of his late father, Chicago’s lard and soap king.  We’re not interested in him.  His wife is the one worth remembering.

In 1900, at the age of 21, Janet Ayer became Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank.  That was the name she preferred to use, and that’s what we will call her here.  Like her husband, she came from an old WASP family.  While raising three children Mrs. Fairbank took time to do some writing.

Writing was one of the few acceptable careers for a woman of her station.  She started with a few political articles and some drama criticism for local magazines.  In 1910 she published her first novel.

Seven novels, a play, and numerous short stories eventually flowed from her pen.  Mrs. Fairbank was a rich blue-blood, so her plots usually revolved around other rich blue-bloods.  Probably she’d had an English teacher who told her “Write about what you know!”

The lady did have talent.  Her 1925 novel The Smiths was about a couple growing up along with the city of Chicago.  It was runner-up that year for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Mrs. Fairbank performed all the Social Register duties.  She gave money to the arts, she organized benefits, she served as Board President of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital for over twenty years.  Her picture was always in the paper for some charitable cause.

Somewhere along the line, she became something more than a wealthy airhead.  Mrs. Fairbank became a political player.

In most states, voting was still limited to men.  Mrs. Fairbank never accepted that.  She was a champion of women’s rights, an ardent campaigner for the suffrage movement.  And she knew how to get publicity without being “unladylike.”  Once she advertised the cause by riding a white charger down Michigan Avenue.

Her social connections gave her entree to politics at the highest level.  Mrs. Fairbank didn’t stick with one party.  Over the years she jumped all over the political map.

In 1912 she was active in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign for president.  Later she became a Democrat and served a term as National Committeewoman from Illinois.  By 1940 she was a Republican, national vice-chair of the isolationist America First Committee.

She knew her way around Chicago politics, too.  In 1923 Mrs. Fairbank put together a non-partisan committee of reformers for the coming mayoral election.  When the Democrats nominated Judge William E. Dever, the reformers threw their support behind him, and he was elected.  That gave Mrs. Fairbank the reputation of a political kingmaker.

Fairbank Row Houses

Throughout it all, Mrs. Fairbank and her husband remained pillars of Chicago society.  Each New Year’s Day they gave a reception at their home at 1244 North State Street.  An invitation to the Fairbank gala was highly-treasured.

From noon to midnight, hundreds of people passed through the doors.  The cloistered denizens of the Gold Coast were always there, mingling with writers, opera singers, social activists, and cigar-chewing politicians.  At most other places it would have been an unlikely gathering.  Here it was just a reflection of the many interests of the hostess.

Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank died on December 28, 1951.  A few days later, the final reception at 1244 North State Street became her memorial service.


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 returning 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 terrified Rush student tumbled out of the wagon.  With that, Billings grabbed the reins and drove off in the Rush wagon, laughing all the way.

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