Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

Chicago’s First Mother’s Day (5-9-1909)

Chicago first celebrated Mother’s Day exactly 110 years ago—May 9, 1909.

The American version of Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis, after the death of her own mother in 1905.  To honor all mothers, Jarvis asked people to wear white carnations on the second Sunday in May.  The first observances were held in Grafton, West Virginia, where the late Mrs. Jarvis had been a teacher.

Anna Jarvis

By 1908 Mother’s Day was being celebrated in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and a few other places.  Meanwhile, Jarvis worked to spread the holiday.  She sent pamphlets to women’s clubs in various cities, asking for help.

In Chicago, the Mother’s Day cause was taken up by Sarah Warrell.  On May 4, 1909, the Tribune ran a short interview in which she described the holiday.

Warrell called on ministers, teachers, and charitable institutions to get out the word.  Wearing the white carnation was the first step.  Then people should use the holiday for positive action, to help the aged, the sick, and the needy.  “If everyone in the city would volunteer to do what he could to observe the spirit of Mother’s Day, much happiness would result,” Warrell said.

May 9th came.  Men, women, and children were seen sporting the white carnation.  Some groups, like the YMCA and the Grand Army of the Republic, had enlisted their entire membership.  Pastors mentioned Mother’s Day in sermons, and in Oak Park, the First Presbyterian Church was filled with the symbolic flower.  Carnations were also distributed at various hospitals and orphanages.

With less than a week’s publicity, the first Chicago Mother’s Day was a great success.  During the next few years, the local movement grew.  In 1910 Governor Charles Deneen declared Mother’s Day a state holiday.  Not to be outdone by a Republican, Chicago’s Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. issued his own proclamation in 1911.

The holiday was a likely time to remind Chicagoans of the problems faced by single mothers—“illegal mothers,” as they were then called.  On Mother’s Day 1911, the St. Margaret Relief Society held a special meeting at the La Salle Hotel.  Single moms told their stories to an audience of 200 local club women, asking for help to maintain the “maternity home for dependent women.”

1912 Chicago newspaper ad

 Chicago’s 1912 Mother’s Day was the biggest one yet.  The holiday had become so popular that local florists ran out of carnations.  The Tribune published a special section in which prominent Chicagoans wrote about their mothers.  There was some talk about changing this first Sunday in May to a Parents’ Day—or maybe even having a separate Father’s Day.

Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation officially designating Mother’s Day as a national holiday.  We’ve been celebrating it ever since.



Paderewski’s Piano (4-23-1893)

The World’s Fair was opening in a week.  Chicago and the nation were ready.  But now, there was a good chance that the musical headliner would not perform.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a Polish-born pianist.  At 32, he was already the world’s most famous musician.  He had sex appeal.  Women fainted at his concerts, and even when they saw him on the streets.  There was a popular name for the phenomenon—“Paddymania.”

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Paderewski had just finished a series of Chicago concerts, and was about to leave for Europe.  Conductor Theodore Thomas asked him to stay around for a week and play at the Fair.  Paderewski agreed to do it, without fee.  Everything was set.

Then the Fair’s bureaucrats got into the act.  Paderewski performed on Steinway pianos.  Steinway was not an exhibitor at the Fair.  Therefore, Paderewski would have to use one of the “official” pianos.

Paderewski refused.  He said a musician should be free to select his own instrument.  He had signed a contract to use only Steinway pianos.  Besides, the company had been good to him, and he was loyal.

Thirty years later, Paderewski still plays a Steinway

The dispute hit the front pages and stayed there.  Negotiations went on behind closed doors.  A compromise was suggested, where Paderewski would alternate between a Steinway and one of the other pianos.  He wouldn’t budge.

Many newspapers thought he was being a temperamental prima donna, and said so.  Theodore Thomas angrily reminded everyone that Paderewski had already delayed his departure from Chicago.  The pianist was also offering to play for free, when he might have demanded several thousand dollars.

Now the arguments became more heated.  President Grover Cleveland was arriving soon to open the Fair.  Maybe the President could settle the piano problem.

Finally, Fair officials gave in.  Paderewski performed on his Steinway—brilliantly, as usual.

Paderewski continued his concert career until his death in 1941.  Along the way, he served as the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland, and later starred in a feature film titled Moonlight Sonata.

He loved Chicago, and often returned.  He said that three things in America impressed him—Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the City of Chicago.  Today the Polish Museum of America maintains a Paderewski Room filled with memorabilia.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is the artist’s personal piano.

It’s a Steinway, of course.



Great Civil War Ended! (4-11-1865)

Peace!  Victory!  My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!  After four bloody years, the War of the Rebellion was over.

General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army in Virginia.  There were still some rebel forces fighting in other places.  But now that Lee had given up, the rest of the South would surely accept defeat.

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Chicago had been on edge for days, waiting for Lee to capitulate.  Then, early on  Sunday evening, the joyous tidings flashed over the telegraph.  And the city celebrated.

People took to the streets, shouting and firing guns into the air.  An impromptu parade started marching down Lake Street.  As night fell, bonfires were lit.  Straw-filled dummies labeled with the names of rebel leaders were tossed into the fires.  Other dummies were hung from trees, where they served as handy targets for revelers flinging horse dung.

At midnight the hundred guns of the Dearborn Light Artillery boomed.  The noise continued through the night and into the dawn.  Whether any of the city’s 200,000 residents got much sleep was doubtful.

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Monday came.  Nobody felt like going to work, and most businesses remained closed.  The Court House, the newspaper offices, and other important buildings were decorated with bunting.  Street vendors selling tiny American flags on sticks couldn’t keep up with the demand.  Another night of celebration followed.

As the sun rose on Tuesday, Chicago finally started getting back to normal.  Though the war had not always been popular in the North, the Tribune had supported it whole-heartedly.  Publisher Joseph Medill was a leader in the Republican Party and a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Now the Tribune reminded readers that many Democrats had defended the evil of slavery.  Those Democrats had urged the North to make peace with the rebels.  And as long as the North had fought the war in a “Democrat” way, the South could not be conquered.

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But then the government had decided to fight in a “Republican” way—total war.  “There was no more foolery or conciliation,” the paper declared.  “The war was made on the principles of coercion and subjugation.”  Victory had followed.

The period of postwar euphoria was brief.  Before the week was over, President Lincoln was killed by an assassin.


The Fugitive in Custody (4-2-1934)

The fugitive from Chicago had been the object of a manhunt across three continents.  Today the chase ended in Turkey.

The fugitive was 74 years old.  His name was Samuel Insull.  And he was no ordinary fugitive.

Insull was born poor in London.  As a young man he caught the eye of Thomas Edison, becoming the great inventor’s private secretary.  Electricity was the new technology of the 1890s, and Insull got in on the ground floor.  It was like being the right-hand man of Bill Gates a century later.

1926–Insull the Hero

Insull helped build America’s electrical industry.  His talent was financial, not scientific.  After revamping the General Electric Company, he settled in Chicago.  Insull merged, modernized, expanded.  By the 1920s his holdings included Commonwealth Edison, Peoples Gas, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, and several interurban railroads.

He knew how to make money, and the public bought into his companies.  Insull was also a philanthropist.  He built the Civic Opera House and footed much of the opera company’s bill.

In 1929 the Stock Market crashed.  As the country moved into the Depression, Insull’s companies suffered tremendous losses.  Thousands of investors lost their life savings.  Insull, the hero of the 1920s, was now the villain of the 1930s.

Insull was in London in October 1932.  Back in Chicago, a county grand jury indicted him for fraud and embezzlement.  That was followed by federal charges a few months later.  Before he could be extradited, Insull skipped out of England.

He dodged authorities for over a year.  Then, in the spring of 1934, he was arrested in Turkey.  He had been on a ship headed for Egypt.  On April 2, the Turkish cabinet decided to let the U.S. have him.

Insull was brought back to Chicago to face the music.  He claimed to have done nothing wrong.  He said he was being made a scapegoat by ambitious politicians.

1934–Insull the Scapegoat

He did have a point.  Insull was tried three separate times, in three different courts.  He was acquitted all three times.

After the last trial, Insull left the U.S. for good.  He died penniless in a Paris subway station in 1938.  But he has been immortalized, in an offbeat way.

Monopoly, the board game, was introduced when the Insull trials were front page news.  The next time you play, take a look at the cartoon Monopoly Man.  He’s the image of Samuel Insull.


Dingbat’s Funeral (3-11-1930)

In Washington today, the big story was the funeral of William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States.  In Chicago, the big story was also a funeral.  The city was saying good-bye to the Dingbat.

The Dingbat was John Oberta, his nickname derived from a comic strip.  He was 27 at the time of his death.  Like Taft he was a Republican politician, the 13th Ward Committeeman.  Unlike Taft, he was a gangster.

Mr. & Mrs. Dingbat

Oberta was a protege of Big Tim Murphy, bootlegger and labor racketeer in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood.  One morning Big Tim opened his front door and had his head blown off by a shotgun blast.  A few months later, Dingbat married Big Tim’s widow.

Now Dingbat was gone, too.  He had been found shot dead in his car, along with his chauffeur, on a deserted road near Willow Springs.

By 1930 the garish gangster funeral had become a familiar Chicago custom.  Dingbat’s friends would not scrimp.  “I’m giving him the same I gave Tim,” Mrs. Murphy Oberta told reporters.

Dingbat was waked in his home on South Richmond Avenue.  He lay in a $15,000 mahogany coffin with silver handles, under a blanket of orchids.  Joe Saltis, Bugs Moran, Spike O’Donnell, and all of Dingbat’s pals were present.  So were assorted politicians.

Two priests of the Polish National Catholic Church conducted a brief service.  Then the pall bearers prepared to carry the coffin to the waiting hearse.  Out on the street, a crowd of 20,000 people had gathered.  (In Washington, half as many were reported at Taft’s funeral.)

The scene on Richmond Avenue

“Carry my Johnny out the back way,” Dingbat’s mother wailed.  “Don’t let them see him!  They didn’t care about him!”  The pall bearers ignored her and brought Dingbat out the front door.

The coffin was loaded, then the hearse moved away.  Following it were four carloads of flowers and a procession two miles long.  When the funeral cortege arrived at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, hundreds more curiosity seekers were there to greet it.

Dingbat was laid to rest a few feet from Big Tim Murphy.  There was just enough space between them for another grave.  Presumably that spot was reserved for their mutual wife.

The murder of Dingbat Oberta was never officially solved.  And with the Great Depression fast descending on the country, the gaudy gangland funeral went out of fashion.


Skyscraper! (3-1-1884)


We’re so used to hearing that word, we don’t really think about it.  Today we have airplanes.  We’ve flown to the Moon.  Scraping the sky doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

But go back to this date in 1884.  Today the city issued a permit to build an office building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Adams.  The Home Insurance Building would become the world’s first skyscraper.  It would start a revolution.

Before 1884 buildings were supported by their walls.  The higher you went, the wider the bottom.  That’s because the base had to support the weight of everything above it.  Think of the pyramids.

Of course, you could take some of the weight off the walls by putting support columns inside the building.  Trouble was, you reduced interior space, and wound up with a bunch of small rooms.

And because your outside walls were weight-bearing, glass windows had to be small.  That limited the sunlight coming into your building.  You want larger windows?  Then you build buttresses holding up your walls, like the Gothic cathedrals.

William LeBaron Jenney, architect of the Home Insurance Building, changed this.  Metals had become easier to use and stronger.  Jenney built an interior metal frame as the main support of his building.

Most of the frame was iron.  But Jenney also used steel, making Home Insurance the first building to use structural steel in its frame.  The 10-story structure topped off at 138 feet in 1885.

Jenny’s building was not totally supported by the metal frame.  Home Insurance is important because it showed the way of the future.  That’s why it is called the world’s first skyscraper.

William LeBaron Jenney

Now other architects began going higher and higher.  Windows were made bigger and bigger.  Compared to older structures, the walls of the new buildings looked like curtains of glass.  This was the so-called Chicago School of Architecture.

About this same time, electricity was being harnessed.  That was vital.  The new power source made construction easier.  And once the building was completed, electricity ran the elevators and provided the lighting.

The Home Insurance Building added two additional floors in 1890.  By then it was already being dwarfed by other nearby construction.  In 1931 Chicago’s pioneer skyscraper was demolished—to make way for a taller building.


A Different St. Valentine’s Day Story (2-14-1936)

If you’re from Chicago, you probably know about the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.  On February 14, 1929, seven men were gunned down in the SMC Cartage garage at 2122 North Clark Street.  Most of the dead men were members of the Bugs Moran bootlegging gang.  The killings were likely ordered by rival ganglord Al Capone.


After 90 years, there’s not much new to be said about the massacre itself.  So I’m going to be talking about a neglected postscript.

The original “Scarface” was one of the movie hits of 1932.  As the name suggests, it’s a thinly-disguised biography of Capone.  Paul Muni is the star.

About halfway through the story, Muni decides to eliminate rival mobster Boris Karloff.  Karloff learns about the plot and disappears.  But he can’t stay put.  One night he goes bowling.

Meanwhile, Scarface Muni is at the opera when word comes that Karloff has been spotted.  So Muni and a few henchmen head for the bowling alley.  And they don’t take their bowling equipment with them.

Out on the lanes, Karloff is happily spilling pins.  “Now watch this one,” he tells the guy next to him.  He grabs his ball and trots to the line.

Boris Karloff goes bowling

Just as Karloff lets go of the ball, gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor.  But the camera follows the ball down the lane.  The ball hits the pins and they scatter–all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally falling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene.  They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of a slowly toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen.  In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original.  That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too.  Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white.  Among those members was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.  McGurn is often credited as the planner of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Some writers claim he was the lead gunman.

McGurn was a sportsman.  He was a scratch golfer and an expert bowler.  Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

Machine Gun Jack in court

On Saint Valentine’s Evening 1936, McGurn decided to go bowling.  Along with two friends, he drove into the city.  They arrived at Avenue Recreation, 805 North Milwaukee Avenue, about midnight.

McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl.  Suddenly, three armed men rushed in, announcing a stickup.  During the confusion one of the intruders ran up to McGurn and pumped three slugs into him.

Machine Gun Jack died on alley two with a house ball in his hands.  One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body:

You’ve lost your job,

You’ve lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know–

You haven’t lost your trousers.

Machine Gun Jack goes bowling

The murder was never solved.  What’s unmistakable is the eerie echo of Karloff’s death in “Scarface.”  Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it.  Once again, life imitates art.

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day.