Archive for the 'CHICAGO PEOPLE' Category

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.



Johnny and Phil

The Cubs have been around, under various names, since 1876.  The White Sox have been with us since 1901.  At some time in our lives, most of us Chicago boys have dreamed of playing with one of the teams.

Of course, few people grow up to be major leaguers.  The Chicagoans who do usually wind up with other ballclubs.  Even those local boys who do make it onto one of the local teams—like Moose Skowron, for instance—often spend part of their careers on the side of an enemy.

With the baseball season underway, let’s look at two players, one from the Sox and one from the Cubs.  Both were natives of Chicago, and both played their entire major league careers in a Chicago uniform.  And both of them were stars.

Johnny Mostil was born in Chicago in 1896.  When he was a boy, his family moved a few miles over the state line to Whiting.  He started playing semi-pro baseball as a teenager.  He was mostly an infielder.
Mostil played 10 games for the Sox during the war-year 1918.  The war ended, the regulars returned, and Johnny went back to working at Montgomery Ward’s and getting in some ball on the side.  Then the “Black Sox” scandal hit.
Suddenly the Sox needed players.  Mostil rejoined the team as an outfielder in 1921, and showed superb defensive skills.  Writers compared him to the legendary Tris Speaker.  Once Centerfielder Mostil managed to catch a fly ball in foul territory, something even Speaker never did.

He became one of the team’s most popular players.  During his rookie year, his former colleagues at Ward’s staged a Johnny Mostil Day at the ballpark.  People in Whiting were proud of him.  Traffic on the South Shore Line spiked whenever Mostil and the Sox were playing at Comiskey.

Mostil twice led the American League in stolen bases.  He could hit, too—his batting average was usually over .300, peaking at .328 in 1926.  That year he was runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Sox were in spring training at Shreveport in 1927.  On the morning of March 9, Mostil tried to commit suicide by slashing his chest and wrists with a razor.  The team announced he was suffering from neuritis, and had endured constant headaches and sleepless nights.  Insiders whispered that he was depressed over a shattered love affair.

Mostil recovered and came back late in the 1927 season.  But he was never the same player.  The Sox released him in 1929.

He later managed in the minor leagues, and eventually became a White Sox scout.  Johnny Mostil died at his home in Midlothian in 1970.

Phil Cavaretta was born twenty years after Mostil, in 1916.  Unlike Mostil, he made it to the major leagues quickly.  He was only 18, and a few months out of Lane Tech, when the Cubs signed him in 1934.  In his first appearance at Wrigley Field, he hit a home run.

The next season Cavaretta became the Cubs’ regular first baseman.  He developed into a solid left-handed hitter known for his hustling style of play.  Injuries plagued him.  Separate broken ankles kept him out of action for much of two seasons.

Cavaretta was rejected for World War II service because of a hearing problem.  Now in his late 20s, he hit his playing peak.  In 1944 he made the All-Star team for the first time.  The next year was Cavaretta’s year.

In 1945 Cavaretta hit .355 to win the National League batting championship.  He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, and led his team into the World Series—the last time the Cubs made it that far until last year.  Though the team lost, Phil batted .423 for the seven games.

After the war ended, Cavaretta was named an All-Star twice more, showing he was more than a wartime flash.  Meanwhile, the Cubs were going into a long decline.  In 1951, Cubs’ owner P.K. Wrigley made his most popular player the team’s manager.

Cavaretta continued to play part-time.  His record as a manager was mixed.  Just before the start of the 1954 season, Wrigley fired him.  Always honest, Cavaretta had told his boss that the team had no hope of making the first division.

After 20 years with the Cubs, Cavaretta now signed with the White Sox as a first baseman and pinch-hitter.  He got into 71 games and hit .316.  That proved to be his last hurrah.  The Sox released him early in the 1955 season.

Phil Cavaretta stayed in baseball another two decades, managing in the minor leagues, working as a hitting coach, and doing some scouting.  He died in 2010 at the age of 94.  At the time of his death he was the last major leaguer to have played against Babe Ruth.



Sic Transit Gloria Hinky Dink

Michael Kenna was known as Hinky Dink because he was a little man. Yet during the first half of the Twentieth Century, he cast a giant shadow in Chicago politics—if not actually in power, then certainly in image.

Kenna was the model of the saloonkeeper politician. His bailiwick was the First Ward, which took in the Loop and stretched down to 22nd Street and the vice district known as the Levee.  Besides serving inexpensive beverage and free lunch, Kenna’s establishments also provide cheap lodging for down-and-outers who could be counted on to vote as he directed.  The most famous of his places was the Workingmen’s Exchange, at 426 South Clark Street.

Aldermen Kenna and Coughlin

In 1897 Kenna joined Bathhouse John Coughlin in the City Council as one of the First Ward’s two aldermen. The two men complemented each other—Coughlin was big and loud, while Kenna preferred to work behind the scenes.  For the next four decades they conducted a virtual master class on Urban Politics for Fun and Profit.

After Coughlin died in 1938, Kenna continued on alone. He ran for his old friend’s vacated council seat and easily won. Past eighty now, he seldom emerged from his hotel suite.  His mind wandered, though some days he was as sharp as ever.

Coughlin blew through cash as fast as he collected it, and often faster. Kenna held onto his money.  He was reckoned to be a millionaire several times over when he died on October 9, 1946.

Kenna had once been married to Catherine Devro, a devout Irish woman who shunned the spotlight. While her husband ran his saloon, she had become a temperance worker.  Mrs. Kenna had died several years earlier.  The marriage had been childless, so now Hinky Dink’s estate became a matter of contention.

“Rush To Claim Hinky Dink’s Millions Is On” read the headline in the Tribune a week after Kenna’s death.  Bank officials had estimated the late alderman’s fortune might run as high as $9 million—over $100 million in today’s money.  Already, dozens of prospective heirs were coming out of the woodwork and lawyering up.

Kenna (white trousers) at his Workingmen’s Exchange

The list was long and confusing. John Kenna, Hinky Dink’s father, had been married twice, producing a total of six children.  This fact was disputed by a man claiming to be the descendant of a third John Kenna marriage.  Thus Hinky Dink had three full siblings, and at least two—or maybe more—half-siblings.  And unlike the alderman, these Kennas had been fruitful and multiplied.  Meanwhile, relatives of Hinky Dink’s late wife were also after a share of the wealth.

When Hinky Dink’s six safe deposit boxes were finally opened, the contents were disappointing, with a mere $872,000 in cash and securities on hand. The size of the estate was revised downward to a paltry $1.3 million.  The alderman’s will, dated 1935, detailed bequests to more than 70 individuals, including relatives, politicians, and friends.  The largest single bequest was $30,000 for the construction of his mausoleum.

Months passed. Now it was 1947.  A woman came forward saying she was Hinky Dink’s love child.  Another woman claimed to be a long-lost half-sister.  An auction of the alderman’s personal effects brought in $5,129.   In August Kenna’s gross estate was officially pegged at $1,014,000.  After deducting $368,000 for taxes and various legal fees, $646,000 remained.  The 72 detailed bequests took $209,000.  That left $437,000 to be split among 17 heirs.

Two more years went by. The final accounting of the Kenna estate took place in July 1949.  An additional $66,000 was distributed to the heirs.  Of that amount, $36,000 came from an unneeded tax reserve.  The remaining $30,000 was the money set aside for the alderman’s mausoleum.

Years before, Hinky Dink’s wife Catherine had been buried in a simple grave at Calvary Cemetery. The alderman had planned to have her rest next to him in his mausoleum.  But Catherine Devro Kenna’s relatives were miffed at being cut out of her husband’s estate.  They refused permission for her to be moved, so the mausoleum was never built.


Still, Hinky Dink’s heirs did not forget him.  After splitting the $30,000 mausoleum fund, they purchased an $85 slab to mark his final resting place.  If you root around in the grass at Calvary, you might be able to find it.


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.