Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

Cross of Gold (7-9-1896)

On this date, a little-known, 36-year-old newspaper editor gave a speech before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The next day he was the party’s candidate for President of the United States.

The economy was in bad shape in 1896.  The country was arguing about how to solve the problem.  Put simply, it was about Gold vs. Silver.

Governor William McKinley

Governor William McKinley

The Gold group wanted each dollar in paper money backed by a dollar’s worth of gold.  They thought America needed a stable currency to bring back prosperity.

The Silver group wanted paper money backed by both silver and gold.  That would put more money in circulation, and lead to inflation.  But in the short term, the economy would rebound.

The Republicans nominated Governor William McKinley of Ohio for president.  He was a Gold man.  When the Democrats gathered in Chicago for their convention, none of their possible candidates seemed very exciting.

They met at the original Chicago Coliseum, at 63rd and Stony Island.  On the second day, July 9th, various delegates gave speeches about the party platform.  William Jennings Bryan was one of the Silver speakers.  He had served in Congress, and was now editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Bryan was young, handsome, and dynamic.  He had a deep, booming voice that carried to all corners of the hall—which was important, since microphones hadn’t been invented yet.  And he knew how to give a speech.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Maybe it wasn’t what he said, but how he said it.  His Silver arguments were nothing new.  But two minutes into his oration, the delegates were interrupting him with applause.  As he went on, the applause came more often, and grew louder.

Then Bryan concluded, with imagery from the Bible—“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this Crown of Thorns!  You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold!”

The convention had become a revival meeting, and the delegates went wild.  They stood on chairs, shouting themselves hoarse.  They threw hats, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and anything else handy, into the air.  The party had found the man to lead it into battle.

One speech had done it.

Bryan was barely a year older than the age requirement for president.  He was the youngest person ever nominated—and still is.  He waged a vigorous campaign through all parts of the country.

In the end, the voters chose colorless competence over charisma.  McKinley was elected.



A New Deal (7-2-1932)

The Great Depression was in its third year.  Banks were failing and unemployment stood at around 25%.  Many Americans felt hopeless.

This was an election year.  President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to fight the Depression had failed.  So Hoover and the Republicans were on the way out.  The next president would probably be a Democrat.

President Hoover

The Democratic Convention met at the new Chicago Stadium in the summer of 1932.  On the third ballot, they nominated Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York as their candidate.  Then they appointed a committee to go to New York, and notify Roosevelt at a later date.

That’s the way it had always been done.  But now there was radio.  Everybody knew whom the Democrats had picked, as soon as it happened.  Roosevelt sent word to the delegates to forget about the committee, and stay put.  He would come to Chicago.

And to get there in a hurry, he would travel by airplane!

That’s wasn’t easy to do.  Since Roosevelt couldn’t walk, he had to be transported everywhere in a wheelchair.  The flight itself took several hours, battling storm and heavy headwinds.

But now, on the evening of June 2, the candidate was at the Chicago Stadium.  He didn’t look like someone who was in constant pain from his disability.  He didn’t look like someone who had just endured a bumpy, marathon flight in a 1932-model plane.  He was smiling.

Roosevelt radiated confidence.  He told the Convention that the times called for bold action.  That’s why he had abandoned the ridiculous idea that he should wait around, pretending to be ignorant, until he was formally notified.

FDR, with ever-present cigarette holder

Of course he knew that the delegates had chosen him.  So he was accepting in person.  Now it was time to get busy, win the election, and get the country moving again.  And he said: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

Roosevelt had captured the mood of a nation ready to break with tradition.  That fall he beat Hoover in a landslide.  The new president’s program came to be known by the phrase he used in his acceptance speech—the New Deal.

Today historians debate whether Roosevelt’s policies helped the country recover from the Depression.  But he sure did restored America’s belief in itself.


The State of Chicago (6-27-1925)

On this date, Chicagoans were talking secession.  Maybe the city should break off from Illinois and form a new state.

The Illinois Constitution was being violated.  Every ten years, following the federal census, the legislative districts were supposed to be redrawn.  That hadn’t been done since 1901.

Downstaters controlled the state legislature.  Letting Chicago have more seats would take away their power.  So the legislature had simply refused to redistrict after the 1910 census.  They had again refused after the 1920 census.


According to Alderman John Toman, the city deserved five more state senators and fifteen more state reps.  So now Toman offered a resolution to the city council—that the city’s lawyer should investigate how Chicago might secede from Illinois.  The resolution passed unanimously.

Obviously, there were going to be problems.  The U.S. Constitution specifically stated that no new state could be carved from part of an existing state, unless the existing state approved.  Would downstate be willing to let Chicago go, and lose all that tax revenue?

Probably not yet.  But perhaps sometime in the future.  Besides, there were ways of getting around the Constitution.  West Virginia had been torn away from its mother state Virginia during the Civil War.

The proposed State of Chicago would take in all of Cook County.  Suburbia was tiny in 1925.  Out of 3 million people in the county, about 2.7. lived within the Chicago city limits.  The secessionists said they’d consider including DuPage and Lake counties, too.

Most Chicagoans seemed to like the idea of being a separate state.  Along with being freed from the downstate dictators, Chicago would enjoy more clout on the national stage.  The new state would rank 11th out of 49 in population.

Even if the plan didn’t become a reality, the threat was worth making.  “Chicago is having trouble getting a square deal from the state,” a South Side electrician said.  “I believe the only way to get back at them is to rebel.  That would give them something to think about.”

Faced with all the legal roadblocks, secession talk eventually died out.  During the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court’s various “one man, one vote” rulings gave the city its fair share of legislature seats.


Waiters’ Revenge (6-22-1918)

One hundred years ago today, Chicagoans heard the shocking news.  More than 100 local waiters had been taken into police custody during raids on union headquarters.

Over the past week, nearly two dozen people, including Mayor Thompson, had become violently ill after dining in downtown restaurants.  The Hotel Sherman had then hired a detective agency to investigate why several of its guests had gotten sick.  The detectives found that the victims had been given a “Mickey Finn cocktail”—a concoction used to induce vomiting.

Victim Thompson

The world was in turmoil in June 1918.  While the Great War dragged on and on, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and were promoting other revolutions.  Chicagoans remembered the anarchist poison outrage at Archbishop Mundelein’s installation banquet a few years earlier.  So now those 100 waiters were rounded up, to see if they were involved in some larger conspiracy.

The police later determined that the Mickey Finns were not part of a dastardly plot.  A few waiters had simply been using them as a revenge on “tightwads” who didn’t leave big enough tips.

The emetic powder had been packaged in envelopes and sold to the waiters by a man working in union headquarters.  Each envelope was labeled “Mickey Finn Powder—12 doses triple strength.”  Only the uninitiated believed the further text that said the powder was an “antidote for drunkenness.”

In the end, despite the efforts of grandstanding politicians, no conspiracy was proven.  A few people got off with a little jail time.  Whether Chicago restaurant patrons began leaving bigger tips was never determined.


The Smoke-Filled Room (6-11-1920)

On this date in history, the President of the United States was chosen in a suite at the Blackstone Hotel.  And a new phrase entered the political dictionary.

In 1920, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was finishing up eight years in the White House.  The Republican Convention was being held at the Chicago Coliseum that June, and it looked like a good year for the party.  The country was in the mood for change.

Blackstone Hotel, 1920

The political conventions of today are nothing more than media events—by the time the opening gavel is banged, one candidate has locked up the nomination.  That wasn’t the case in 1920.  Back then local party bosses controlled things.  Several roll-call ballots were usually needed to pick a nominee.

When the Republicans gathered, there were two front-runners—General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.  The balloting began.  Neither man could get a majority.  The party elders called a recess, then met behind closed doors at the Blackstone to work out a compromise.

Warren G. Harding was a Senator from Ohio.  He was one of the minor candidates, and few people outside his state had ever heard of him.  His main selling point seemed to be that he “looked like a President.”

Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, had predicted the convention deadlock.  Then, he said, at about 2 in the morning, 15 or 20 men would be sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room, bleary-eyed from heat and lack of sleep.  The men would be looking for the best presidential candidate.

“At that decisive time,” Daugherty declared, “the friends of Senator Harding will suggest him.”

Daugherty was quite a prophet.  After several hours of wrangling, the party bosses summoned Harding to the power suite at the Blackstone.  It was just after 2 a.m.

Harding said it, 40 years before JFK (though not as poetically)

Harding was asked if there were anything in his past that might embarrass the party.  He said there was not.  He didn’t mention that he’d fathered a child outside his marriage, which would not have played well with the voters in 1920.

So the bosses annointed Harding.  He was quickly nominated, and won the November election in a landslide.  When he died in office in 1923, he was one of the most popular presidents in history.

And today—even with all the restrictions on smoking—we still call a private gathering of political fixers a “smoke-filled room.”


Jack Johnson Sentenced to Prison (6-4-1913)

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was sentenced to 366 days in the Joliet penitentiary and fined $1,000 today.  He’d been convicted of violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

The law was supposed to curb prostitution.  But for the federal government of 1913, the big problem was that Johnson was black, and the woman he’d brought from Pittsburgh to Chicago was white.

“This defendant is one of the best known men of his race,” the judge said.  “His example has been far reaching.”  Johnson was allowed to remain free on $30,000 bail while his conviction was under appeal.  Rather than take his chances with the appeal, he jumped bail and left the country.

Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in a 1915 bout.  In 1920 he returned to the United States, served his prison time, and was released.  He died in an auto accident in 1946.

Recognizing the injustice done to Johnson, President Donald Trump granted the boxer a posthumous pardon on May 24, 2018.


Chicago’s Crime of the Century (5-21-1924)

The Lindbergh Kidnapping . . . The O.J. Simpson Case . . . The Murder of Stanford White. . .

The 20th Century had an abundance of crimes that were labeled The Crime of the Century.  Chicago’s version took place on this date, 94 years ago.

Bobby Franks

Bobby Franks

Shortly after 5 in the afternoon, 13-year-old Bobby Franks left the Harvard School for Boys in the Kenwood neighborhood, and began walking the three blocks to his home.  He never got there.

The next morning Bobby’s wealthy parents received a ransom note.  But before any money could be paid, the boy’s body was discovered near Wolf Lake.

Teachers at the school were considered prime suspects.  Then police found a pair of eyeglasses near the crime scene.  The glasses were traced to 19-year-old neighbor Nathan Leopold.

Leopold said he must have lost the glasses while bird-watching.  On the night of the murder, he had been out with a friend, 18-year-old Richard Loeb.  Loeb was called in.  He supported Leopold’s story.

The police continued to question Leopold and Loeb separately.  Their alibis broke down.  They admitted they’d kidnapped Bobby Franks.  Leopold said that Loeb had done the actual killing.  Loeb claimed that Leopold had done it.

Leopold and Loeb were unlikely criminals.  They were wealthy.  They were intellectually brilliant.  But they also considered themselves superior to the common herd of humanity, above any arbitrary rules of conduct.  They had killed Bobby Franks because they wanted to commit “the perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb with Darrow in court

Leopold and Loeb with Darrow in court

The Leopold and Loeb families hired Clarence Darrow for the defense.  To avoid a jury trial, Darrow had his clients plead guilty.  Otherwise, he felt certain they would be hanged.

At the sentencing, Judge John Caverly heard Darrow’s arguments.  Darrow reminded the judge that Leopold and Loeb were legally minors.  They might be intellectuals, but they had diseased minds.  The murder had not been brutal.  And besides, capital punishment itself was brutal and uncivilized.

Judge Caverly

Judge Caverly

Darrow convinced the judge.  Leopold and Loeb were each sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks.  Added to that was a 99-year sentence for kidnapping.

The killers were sent to the state prison at Joliet.  Both of them used their time organizing a school for the other convicts.  In 1936 Richard Loeb was killed in a brawl with another inmate.

Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958.  He moved to Puerto Rico and worked in a hospital.  He died in 1971.

The best book on the Leopold-Loeb case is For the Thrill of It (2008) by Simon Baatz.  A somewhat fictionalized movie version of the story—using different names—is the 1959 feature Compulsion, starring Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles.