Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

The Human Comedy (9-16-1936)

The Great Depression was a grim time.  And yet, sometimes people needed a laugh.  On this date, Chicagoans were chuckling over two stories.  Both of them were somewhat risqué—at least by 1936 standards.

The first tale begins with Hazel LaBreck, a 27-year-old singer from Wisconsin, traveling to Chicago for a concert audition.  On the bus she became acquainted with an older man named Mr. LaRue.  LaRue told the young lady he was a movie agent, and that he might be able to get her a job in Hollywood.  But first she would have to demonstrate that she had a shapely figure.

9-16--skyline 1930s.jpg

LaBreck might have come from farm country, but she was no hick.  Once off the bus, she called police.  Now joined by two detectives, the young singer went to the Morrison Hotel, where she had arranged to meet LaRue in his room.  The cops waited outside.

When the young lady arrived,  LaRue produced copies of official-looking studio contracts and a silhouette chart.  Then, taking out a tape measure, he told her to get undressed.

With that, Hazel LaBreck gave a signal, and the detectives burst in.  LaRue quickly confessed that he was not a Hollywood agent, but a clothing salesman.  He also gave the cops his right name—which wasn’t LaRue.  As he was being led away to the police station, he explained: “Something snapped in my brain when I saw this girl on the bus, that’s all.”

The second story involved a movie that Stephen Holish had shot at a nudist camp in Indiana.  The Eastman Company had refused to develop the film, claiming it was obscene.  So Holish filed suit against the company in Small Claims Court.

Judge Samuel Trude heard the case.  With attorneys from both sides in agreement, the judge decided to view the film.  The courtroom lights were dimmed, and Wonders of the Human Anatomy was screened.

When the lights came back on, Holish’s attorney argued that the film was “just as good and clean as movies of any Sunday school picnic–except that the people haven’t got any clothes on.”  This film was not obscene, because “the leer of the sensual” was absent.

Judge Trude disagreed.  He declared the film indecent, and ruled Eastman could destroy it.

I wonder if Holish hired Mr. LaRue to direct his next film?



The Rains of August (8-31-1987)


On this date in Chicago history, everybody was talking about the weather.

It had been horrible in August, the wettest month ever.  July had been hot and dry—very hot.  When the rains came in the opening days of August, people were relieved.  At last we were cooling off.

But the rains continued . . . and continued . . . and continued.  The Des Plaines River overflowed.  Water backed up into suburban basements.  As the water receded, swarms of mosquitoes appeared.  And then the rains returned.  People joked about building an ark—but what was a “cubit,” anyway?

So what did you do for relief?  The parks and forest preserves were all mud.  Spectator sports were not a happy solution—the Cubs and the Sox were floundering, and the Bears’ pre-season was not going well.  TV was all summer reruns.  If you were one of the fortunate few who had cable, there were plenty of black-and-white 1950’s sitcoms to choose from.

The internet—what was that?  Something to do with your computer?  Well, you could forget about the weather and play a modern video game.  The people next door might even have Super Mario!

Maybe there was comfort in irony.  The National Weather Service had predicted that August 1987 was going to have normal precipitation.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac had told us we were going to have a drought.  But what did scientists know?  Ten years ago, they had said that a new Ice Age was on the way.  Now there was talk about something called Global Warming.

But we are Chicagoans, and we are tough.  Let’s take pride in what we have endured.  The normal rainfall for August is 3.53 inches.  We’re just finishing a month with 17.10 inches, a new record!  And after all, the average temperature for the past month came out to 81 degrees, which was about where it should be.  (Okay, some days the high was 97, and other days the high was only 62—but it all averages out!)

Besides, fall is on its way—and the Hawks are looking good this year!



A Star Is Born (8-21-1914)

In August 1914 golf’s United States Open championship was being staged at the south suburban Midlothian Country Club. Among the entrants was a 21-year-old pro from upstate New York named Walter Hagen.

Hagen had finished fourth in the previous Open. But he’d been ready to abandon golf in favor of a baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was back at the Open only because a wealthy friend had bankrolled the trip.

Hagen at Midlothian

This was Hagen’s first visit to Chicago. The night before the tournament, Hagen and a buddy had dinner at a Loop restaurant. Within a few hours, the young golfer was throwing up.

Hagen wanted to withdraw from the tournament. His buddy convinced him to at least give it a try. Popping pills and stumbling around in a daze, Hagen shot 68, a course record. He was leading the Open.

By now, Hagen was feeling better. His scoring fell off the next two rounds. Still, he held the lead going into the final eighteen holes.

On his way to the most important round of golf in his life, Hagen stopped to watch a 7-year-old boy knocking a golf ball around the practice green. Hagen asked what he was doing. “Playing golf,” was the answer. As Hagen listened intently, the kid proceeded to give him a lesson.

Fourth round. Hagen’s play was raggedy now. Yet he managed to drain a long putt on the last green and post a final total of 292. When local amateur Chick Evans just missed holing out a chip on that same green, Hagen became the 1914 U.S. Open champion.

Afterward, at the ceremony where officials presented Hagen with the trophy, nobody was prouder that a certain 7-year-old boy. He went around telling everyone that he’d taught the new champ to play golf only a few hours earlier.

For his part, Hagen didn’t stick around the clubhouse too long after his victory. During his final round, he’d become acquainted with a young lady in the gallery, and they’d made a date. Now he hurried off to meet her.

Walter Hagen went on to become one of history’s greatest golfers.  He was the winner of eleven major championships—or sixteen, if you count his five Western Open titles, a big event in those times.  He summed up his philosophy of life memorably: “You’re only here for a short time. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”


Dr. King Comes to Marquette Park (8-5-1966)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had brought the civil rights movement to the cities of the North.  In January he had rented an apartment on the West Side of Chicago.  Today he met a violent reaction in his adopted city.

King was leading a series of protest marches against housing segregation.  The city’s white realtors often refused to show homes in white neighborhoods to African-American buyers.  This was a particular problem in the Marquette Park area, the scene of today’s march.

The protesters planned to demonstrate at three realty offices along 63rd Street.  Opponents of open housing were determined to demonstrate against the demonstrators.  The police were deployed to keep the two groups separate and peaceful.

A few of the open housing demonstrators arrived on the scene early, and marched without serious incident.  The thousand or so opponents behind the police lines jeered and yelled insults, but did nothing more.  Then the main body of 700 demonstrators arrived in a motorcade.

King’s car pulled up at 63rd and Sacramento.  As he got out, a rock sailed through the air and hit him in the back of the neck.  He fell to one knee.  After a few seconds he got up, and prepared to lead his people.

“I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open,” he told them.  “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

The march began.  Now the crowd behind the police lines hurled rocks, bottles, firecrackers, chunks of concrete, and anything else within reach.  Someone threw a knife.  From time to time, the people on the sidewalk tried to push through to get at the marchers.  The cops held firm.

The day ended with 30 people injured, including King and 4 policemen.  Forty-one persons had been arrested, mostly whites who had tried to block off Kedzie Avenue.

Later in the year an agreement was reached between the demonstrators and the Chicago Real Estate Board.  The first, faltering steps were taken to ending segregated housing in the city.


Race Riot (7-27-1919)

One hundred years ago today.

It was a hot summer afternoon in Chicago. A black teenager named Eugene Williams was swimming in the lake with friends off 26th Street. Williams drifted over toward the segregated beach reserved for whites. A white man on the beach threw rocks at Williams and hit him on the head, or scared Williams so much he couldn’t come ashore—the narrative is unclear here. What did happen for sure is that Eugene Williams drowned.

When the police arrived, and arrested a black man instead of the white rock-thrower, that infuriated the blacks. A fight broke out. Rumors spread. The South Side erupted in a race riot.

Chicago’s Mayor Thompson was feuding with Illinois’s Governor Lowden, and said the National Guard wasn’t needed. Four days of bloodshed and burning went on. The mayor finally asked for the guard, and peace was restored. Five hundred people had been injured, thirty-eight were dead, in the country’s worst race riot to date.


“Hidden Chicago Landmarks”

This is not a quiz, so there’s no need to send in any answers.  Rather, this is a selection of photos from my new book Hidden Chicago Landmarks.

These are the places that aren’t on the usual tour.  You might recognize some of them.  Now you can learn the fascinating history behind them.

The book has 60 stories.  Besides 42 current landmarks, there are 10 lost landmarks that are now gone.  The final section visits 8 interesting neighborhoods that most people simply drive by.

Hidden Chicago Landmarks is now available on Amazon.  Buy several and stock up!  Or wait until it comes to your library.  But whatever you do, I hope you have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it.

Here is the Amazon link—


Big Wheel (6-21-1893)

The directors of the Columbian Exposition wanted to outdo the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.  The big hit of that fair had been Gustave Eiffel’s soaring iron tower.

On this date, the world saw Chicago’s answer to the challenge—George Washington Ferris’s giant wheel.


Ferris was a young Pittsburgh engineer.  He’d gotten his idea from that new fad, the bicycle.  With boyish enthusiasm, he convinced investors to spend $400,000 so he could build a 300-foot-high, spinning bicycle wheel.

So now, a month into the Exposition, it was ready.  At 4 in the afternoon, a crowd of 2,000 people gathered at the base of the wheel.  Overhead, in one of the 36 cars–which were more like sheds, and could each hold 60 passengers–a brass band pumped out patriotic tunes.  Red, white, and blue bunting were everywhere.

George Washington Ferris

The speeches began.  They followed the theme that American ingenuity had once again triumphed.  One of the speakers, General Nelson Miles, said that Mr. Ferris’s wheel had surpassed the Seven Wonders of the World.

Finally, the man of the hour spoke.  He thanked all those who’d been involved in the project.  He especially thanked his wife Margaret for her unwavering support.

Then Mrs. Ferris stepped forward and handed her husband a golden whistle.  He blew it once.  On that signal, the giant wheel began to slowly turn.

The crowd applauded.  Then, in good order, they lined up for a ride.

A trip on the 1893 wheel consisted of two revolutions.  The first time around, six stops were made to load the cars.  After that, the riders got a second, non-stop spin.  The whole ride lasted about twenty minutes.  The cost was fifty cents.

The public loved the big wheel.  On a clear day, you could see Wisconsin, or all the way across the lake to the Michigan shore.  By the time the Exposition closed in October, neary 1.5 paid admissions had been rung up.  There was not a single accident or injury.

George Washington Ferris was hailed as a modern Da Vinci, but he did not enjoy his fame for long.  He died of typhoid in 1896, only 37 years old.

The original Ferris Wheel played a number of engagements in later years.  The novelty gradually wore off, and it was blown up in St. Louis in 1906.