Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

Katie and Howard (1-21-1937)

The Ambassador East was hosting two of America’s A-list celebrities.  The question on everyone’s mind was—would Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes get married in Chicago?Poster

At 29, Hepburn had already won an Oscar as Best Actress.  She was in town appearing in a stage version of “Jane Eyre.”  Hughes was a dashing 30-year-old oil millionaire who had become a Hollywood producer.  He was also a famous aviator.

On January 19, Hughes broke his own speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in 7 hours, 28 minutes.  Then he flew to Chicago and checked into Hepburn’s hotel.  He got a separate room, three floors away.  That’s the way things were done in 1937.

The wedding rumors immediately started.  County Clerk Michael Flynn helped the story by announcing he was ready to personally issue a marriage license to Katie and Howard.  When the County Building opened for business on January 21, a crowd had already gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of the happy couple.

By mid-day, over 3,000 people clogged the corridors.  Many in the throng were County employees who had abandoned their offices to join the stake-out.  The few couples who came to get their own marriage licenses had trouble getting through the mob.

Closing time arrived.  Hepburn and Hughes still hadn’t shown up.  Now attention shifted to the Ambassador East, where photographers and hundreds more fans kept vigil.  Hepburn finally emerged and left for the theater, without Hughes.  The paparazzi followed.

After the performance, Hepburn tried to avoid her pursuers with a decoy—she dressed her maid in a mink jacket and slacks, and sent the woman off in a cab.  The trick didn’t work.  When the actress did leave, the press was still on her tail.

Hepburn returned to the hotel at 3 a.m., accompanied by her co-star.  When one waiting photographer snapped a picture, the escort stepped forward and smashed the camera.  Meanwhile, Hughes remained out of sight.

Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes never did get married, in Chicago or anyplace else.  They eventually went their separate ways.  Hughes became a billionaire and died an eccentric recluse in 1976.  Hepburn won three more Oscars and lived to be 96.

As a postscript, Cate Blanchett won an Academy Award for portraying Hepburn in the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.  So, does that count as a fifth Oscar for Katie H?






Super Bowling (1-8-1901)

It’s 1901 and it’s winter.  The football season has ended, and baseball is just a memory.  Only Canadians care about hockey.  You say there’s a new sport called basketball?

But there’s big sports news in Chicago today.  The first national bowling championships are being held here.

Americans had played various forms of bowling since colonial times.  In 1895 a group of New York clubs founded the American Bowling Congress.  They drew up a list of standard rules and equipment specs.

Opening squad of the first ABC Tournament

Within a few years, bowling clubs in other cities joined the ABC.  Now there was talk about having a tournament to decide who the country’s best bowlers were.  Chicago was given the honor of hosting the first ABC Tournament in 1901.

The Chicagoans leased the second floor of a warehouse on Wabash Avenue.  Six bowling lanes were donated by Brunswick, an equipment manufacturer eager to promote the sport.  The tournament was planned for three divisions—Team (5-man), Doubles (2-man), and Singles (individual).

Forty-one teams signed up for the three-day event.  The tournament attracted added publicity when Cap Anson announced he would compete.  The recently-retired baseball star was the most famous athlete in the country.  It was like getting Michael Jordan to bowl a century later.

Frank Brill

January 8th, opening day, was for five-man teams.  The early lead was taken by a quintet from Erie, Pennsylvania.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and the Tribune reported only one problem—there wasn’t enough room for all the fans who wanted to watch the action.

On the second day, Standard Five of Chicago clinched the Team championship.  The Doubles event was won by two New Yorkers, C.K. Starr and Johnny Voorhies.  Meanwhile, Cap Anson was bowling terribly.

The final day brought the Singles.  A total of 115 men rolled three games each to determine who would win the medal as the first National Bowling Champion.  And another ex-ballplayer stole the show.

Frank Brill had pitched one season for Detroit.  He was never the diamond star that Anson had been.  But Brill was a master of the 19-pound, no-hole bowling ball.  His 648 score took the Singles.

After this modest start, the ABC Tournament became an annual event.  Today it is known as the United States Bowling Congress Open Championship.  With a field of over 80,000 men and women, it is the largest participatory sporting event in the world.


Black Chicago at Mid-Century (12-28-1949)

The 20th Century was reaching its mid-point.  It was a time to consider where we had been, and where we were going. On this date, the Chicago Tribune began a three-part series on the city’s African-American community.

In 1910 the city’s Black population had been 44,000.  By 1940 the number had grown to 277,000, and was projected to rise to about 400,000 in 1950—over 10% of Chicago’s population.  That was a significant number of people.  They could no longer be ignored.

Apartments on South Wabash Avenue

Housing was the number one problem.  True, the number of African-Americans in the city had kept growing and growing and growing.  But because of segregation, they were still crammed into the narrow “Black Belt” on the South Side.

Unscrupulous landlords had taken advantage of the situation.  Countless old apartment buildings had been chopped up.  A former six-flat might now have twenty or more kitchenettes.  These units had a single room, equipped with a bed, stove, and ice box.  One mother was struggling to raise seven children in these cramped quarters.

New public housing units

The housing conditions led to social problems.  The crime rate among African-Americans was high.  With several families using the same bathrooms and cooking facilities, quarrels resulted.  Parents would avoid returning to their congested living quarters, and the children would be neglected.

There did seem to be hope for the future.  The city was planning to expand public housing, hoping to lessen the over-crowding.  And just last May, restrictive real estate covenants—which promoted segregation—had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Congressman William L. Dawson

African-Americans had traditionally been “last to be hired, first to be fired.”  That was slowly changing.  The Urban League reported that the percentage of Blacks employed in many industries had risen sharply—in printing and publishing, for example, the figure had jumped from 1.2% to 19.7% between 1940 and 1945.  But with the end of World War II the job market had tightened, and equal employment opportunity was not yet a reality.

Still, the community was starting to flex its political muscle.  Chicago had a number of African-American government officials, and three of the city’s fifty aldermen were Black.  The South Side was also the home of William L. Dawson, one of only two Blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Chicago’s African-Americans had made great progress in the first half of the century.  The second half would see even greater advances.


The Great Escape (12-11-1921)

Tommy O’Connor was a young punk who specialized in armed robbery in the area around Maxwell Street.  In the spring of 1921 he killed a policeman who was trying to arrest him.  O’Connor was later caught, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang on December 15.

O’Connor was housed in the fourth-floor cell block of the old County Jail, just north of the Loop.  Things were quiet there on Sunday, December 11.  At 9:30 that morning the cells were open, and prisoners were taking their exercise in the common area of the cell block.  A single guard was on duty.

Suddenly, O’Connor produced a gun.  He took the guard’s keys, bound and gagged the man, and locked him in a cell.  Then O’Connor opened the gate to the cell block.  With four companions, he walked out.

“Chicago Tribune” diagram of O’Connor’s escape

On the third floor, O’Connor’s group subdued three more guards.  Next they took a freight elevator to the basement, where they overpowered a fifth guard, as well as five trusties.  The escapees then ran across the open-air yard, climbed over a shed, and dropped down into the alley behind the jail.

By this time, the alarm had been sounded.  Two guards rushed out of the building just in time to see O’Connor jump on the running board of a passing car, and force the driver at gunpoint to get-the-hell-away.

Two of O’Connor’s companions were immediately recaptured.  The other two were caught later.  Tommy O’Connor was never seen again.

Rumors persisted that O’Connor’s escape had been an inside job, but nothing was ever proven.  In later years, O’Connor-sightings were reported in various places around town.  The Legend of Terrible Tommy grew.  One story said he had gone to Ireland to fight for the IRA.  Another claimed he had repented his wicked ways and become a Trappist monk.


Now for a footnote on the nature of bureaucratic mind.  Tommy O’Connor had been sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until dead.”  A few years later, when the state abandoned hanging in favor of the electric chair, some nitwit decided that the gallows had to be saved, in case O’Connor were ever recaptured.

So the gallows was taken apart and stored.  When the new County Jail opened, it was moved there.  In 1977, officials concluded they weren’t likely to see O’Connor any time soon, and the macabre keepsake was finally sold.


Capital of the World (12-6-1945)

Was Chicago finally going to get some respect?  That seemed possible on this date.  There was a good chance the city would become headquarters of the United Nations.

The old League of Nations had been unable to prevent World War II.  Now that the war was over, the UN had been created as a replacement.

William McFetridge

The delegates were temporarily meeting in London.  Most member countries favored putting the permanent headquarters in America.  But where?  Among the sites proposed were Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, New York City, Westchester County New York—and Chicago.

A four-man delegation from Chicago had traveled to London to meet with UN officials.  Now the Chicagoans were on their way home.  Before boarding their plane, they talked with reporters.

“We feel absolutely confident that Chicago ranks high in the running,” said Corporation Counsel Barnet Hodes.  “We are more convinced than ever that Chicago meets every requirement.”

The war had been over less than six months, and much of Europe was still devastated and poor.  UN officials were frankly worried about the high cost of living in the United States.  That was one area where Chicago had an advantage over other American sites.

“We impressed on these people that they can get more for their money in Chicago,” labor leader William McFetridge said.  Housing, food, recreation, and education were cheaper than in any of the other cities.  Foreign diplomats could live very well in the Windy City.

Adlai Stevenson

The Chicago delegation had another reason to be optimistic.  The city had its own “inside man” at the UN.

Adlai Stevenson, an up-an-coming Chicago lawyer, was then serving in London as deputy U.S. delegate to the UN.  Stevenson wanted to get into politics.  Helping make Chicago the Capital of the World would also help young Adlai’s career.

If the UN did come to Chicago, where exactly would it be located?  The delegation did not comment on that.  Rumors were already circulating that the site would be Northerly Island.

Of course, Chicago never did become the UN headquarters.  A timely donation from the Rockefeller family secured the prize for New York City.  Back home, Northerly Island became an airport called Meigs Field.

Hey, since we didn’t get the UN, should we try to land the Olympics?


Chicago Gets a Newspaper (11-26-1833)

Chicago had just been incorporated as a town.  There were already 300 people living here.  On this date, we got our first newspaper.

Our 21st Century media like to portray themselves as unbiased and non-partisan.  And sometimes they are.  But in 1833, newspapers let you know their agenda right up front.  That first local paper was named the Chicago Weekly Democrat.


The man behind it was James Calhoun.  He’d run a succession of unsuccessful papers in New York State, most recently in Watertown.  After hearing travelers’ tales about the boomtown on Lake Michigan, the young editor headed west.

Calhoun set up shop in a building on Clark Street.  Like anyone who owned a printing press in 1833, he depended on job-lot printing orders to make his living.  The newspaper was more of a sideline, a vehicle to publicize his personal views.

(Hmmm.  Sounds like a blog.)

Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, was president.  The opposition party was called the Whigs.  But the feature story in the first issue of the Chicago Weekly Democrat was not a political manifesto.  Instead, it was an account of a powwow between two Indian tribes, the Sioux and the Sac-and-Fox.

And that tells you something about the newspaper business in those times.  Calhoun had copied the whole powwow story from a St. Louis paper.  Was this plagiarism?  There weren’t any wire services yet, so editors got their out-of-town news by lifting it from other papers.  Hey, even Ben Franklin had “borrowed” stories!

The one piece of original work was the editorial.  There Calhoun came out boldly in favor of building a canal or railroad to link Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.  Oddly enough, that was the type of editorial you’d expect to find in a Whig paper, not in a paper calling itself the Democrat.

Calhoun continued to publish, with some interruptions.  In 1836 a group of local party leaders bought him out.  The Democrat was later purchased by John Wentworth, who operated it for several years before finally closing down in 1861.  By then Long John was a Republican.

James Calhoun himself died in 1859.  Chicago’s first newspaper editor is memorialized in Calhoun Place, an alley between Madison and Washington in the Loop.


The Big Broadcast of 1921 (11-11-1921)

On this date, Chicago was introduced to the latest method of instantaneous communication.  They called it radio-telephony—or just plain radio.

The city was a late starter in this particular technology.  Scientists had been transmitting sound via radio waves for years.  In the summer of 1920 the first America broadcast went out over the air from Detroit.  A few months later, Pittsburgh launched a regular radio station.

In Chicago, the impetus came from the Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of Pittsburgh’s pioneer station.  The Department of Commerce granted Westinghouse a license for a Chicago radio station with call-letters “KYW” on November 9, 1921.  Two days later, the station made a test broadcast.

Mary Garden

KYW had scheduled regular broadcasts with the Chicago Grand Opera Company.  The site of the test was the opera’s home, the Auditorium Theater.  A microphone was hung over the stage and telephone wires carried the sound to the KYW transmitter on the roof of the Commonwealth Edison building, three blocks away.

Mary Garden, director of the opera, made the opening address.  Newspaper reports said she began with the introduction, “This is station KYW, Chicago.”  But according to legend, the first words that went out over the air were her slightly-earlier adlib—“My God, it’s dark here!”

Garden’s speech was followed by an orchestra selection and an aria from “Madame Butterfly.”  That was all.  In a little over ten minutes, Chicago’s first radio broadcast was over.

An estimated 50,000 people had listed in on their primitive crystal receivers.  The transmission was received over a wide area, from upstate New York to Kansas, and from southern Kentucky to northern Minnesota. The signals were reported to be “loud and clear.”

The Tribune saw radio as an agent of democracy.  High culture was now available to everyone, everywhere.  “No longer will it be necessary to dress up in evening togs to hear grand opera,” the paper said.  “No longer will grand opera consist solely of [recordings] in towns 500 or 1,000 miles from Chicago.  All that is necessary is to acquire a radio telephone outfit.”

Today, the Chicago area hosts over 100 radio stations.  But don’t look for KYW.  Since 1934, those call letters have been assigned to a Philadelphia station.