Archive Page 2

Haven School

Chicago’s Haven Elementary School was located at 1472 South Wabash Avenue.  I often drove by the school in the early 1970s, when few people lived in the South Loop, and wondered how a neighborhood school could continue operating in that particular neighborhood.  It couldn’t—I took the picture in 1973, and Haven closed in 1974.

Haven School was named for early school board president Luther Haven.  The first school was built on the site in 1862.  Within twenty years it proved to be too small, and was replaced in 1885 by a new Haven, the building in the photo.  Today Coliseum Park occupies the property at the southwest corner of Wabash Avenue and 14th Place.

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Then and Now. Madison-Ogden

1947–Madison Street @ Ogden Avenue, view west

2017–the same location

Chicago’s first stock yards opened near the triple intersection of Madison, Ogden, and Ashland in 1848.  After the animals moved south a few years later, a commercial district grew up in the area.  The 1947 photo is dominated by the Wendell Bank Building in the triangle between the three streets.  The building was later headquarters of the Turtle Wax Corporation, and sported a giant turtle statue on its roof.

Today the Wendell Bank Building has been replaced by a mini-park, and the other buildings in the older photo are also gone.  However, the Billy Goat Tavern now has an outpost on the southeast corner of Madison and Ogden, a few blocks east of its original site.

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Bleacher Bums (5-24-1920)

Forty-seven people were arrested today in the year’s biggest gambling raid.  The location was the bleachers at Cubs’ Park.

Club officials had been aware of the problem for some time.  The gamblers had staked out their own section of the stands.  Anybody in the park who wanted to place a bet knew exactly where to go.

So today undercover cops infiltrated the open-air casino.  They wore various disguises—“teamsters, sailors, soldiers, ice wagon drivers, sewing machine agents, bootblacks, farmers.”  They ate peanuts and drank pop like ordinary fans.  They watched the gamblers operate.

The Cubs were playing the Phillies.  Betting started as soon as the umpires announced the batteries.  Once the gamblers knew who was pitching, they could calculate the odds and accept wagers on the outcome of the game.

When play got underway, the action in the bleachers was even more intense.  Now there was betting on each pitch.

“Ten cents says he swings!”

“A dollar the pitcher changes his windup on the next one!”

“Two bits they send in a pinch-hitter the next time around!”

“Who wants ten dollars on the runner?  Ten dollars says he streaks down to second!”

At the end of the first inning, the undercover cops all stood up.  In one voice, they announced: “You’re all under arrest!”

Fans.jpg

The gamblers went meekly.  One of them tried the sympathy angle.  “Do you want to break up a home?” he pleaded to the nearest officer.  “My wife will get a divorce if she finds out about this.”

The cop was unmoved.  “Six bits says she finds out,” was his answer.

At the Town Hall Station, the 47 gamblers were charged.  They were each released on $25 bond.  Four of them didn’t have enough money.  They’d have to spend the night in jail, and probably lose their night-shift jobs.

Then one of the other accused stepped forward and posted their bond.  He didn’t know any of the four, but that made no difference.  “I have faith in human nature,” the Good Samaritan said.  “I’m betting they show up in court.”

What happened next?  The papers lost interest in the story, and nothing more was reported.  The final decisions are buried somewhere in a set of musty court files.

Cubs’ Park is now called Wrigley Field.  Is there still gambling in the bleachers?

Wanna make a bet on it?

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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 reigns and drove off in the Rush wagon, laughing all the way.

No, medical school ain’t what it used to be.

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Dirty Tricks at The Wigwam (5-18-1860)

On this date, for the first time ever, a citizen of Illinois was nominated for President of the United States.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.  And it happened in Chicago.

The Republican Party was a new, dynamic, anti-slavery party.  Four years ago, in their first presidential campaign, they’d run a surprisingly strong race.  Now the Democrats were split on the slavery issue–so Republicans would be picking the next occupant of the White House.

The Wigwam

Chicago was hosting a party convention for the first time.  The site was a big wooden barn at Lake and Market (Wacker) called The Wigwam.  Local boosters bragged the building could hold 10,000 people, making it the largest auditorium in the country.

Senator Seward

As the Republicans gathered, the smart money was on New York’s William Seward to win the nomination.  Lincoln was a longshot, an obscure lawyer from Springfield.  He was known mainly for the vigorous, unsuccessful campaign he’d run against Senator Stephen Douglas.

And now begins Chicago’s reputation for hardball politics.

On this great nomination day, thousands of Seward fans marched through downtown Chicago.  They waved their banners, they shouted, they sang.  But when they got to The Wigwam, they couldn’t get in.  Lincoln’s supporters had printed counterfeit tickets and packed the hall.

The nominations got under way.  As expected, Seward led on the first ballot.  Yet whenever a speaker mentioned Lincoln’s name, the audience exploded into cheers that threatened to take the roof off The Wigwam.

Uncommitted delegated were impressed.  Honest Abe seemed to be the people’s choice!  The maneuvering went on behind closed doors.  And on the third ballot, Lincoln was nominated.

The Republican nominee

The Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, owned by his friend Joseph Medill, was ready.  A special souvenir edition was rolled out, with a discount price for bulk purchase.  The paper also offered the delegates a variety of mail subscriptions, so they could follow the campaign once they returned home.

Following tradition, Lincoln had not attended the convention.  He stayed in Springfield and got his news by telegraph.

If he had come to Chicago, Lincoln might have walked a few blocks from The Wigwam to McVicker’s Theater to see the hit comedy Our American Cousin.  Four years later, when he was president, Lincoln finally caught the play in Washington—and was assassinated during the performance.

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The Rise and Fall of Jesse Binga

Today the street where Jesse Binga lived is named for Dr. Martin Luther King.  That’s appropriate.  When the street was called South Park Avenue and Binga occupied house at #5922, the building became a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Jesse Binga was a go-getter.  Born in Detroit in 1865, he started out to be a barber like his father.  He moved through a number of jobs before settling in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.  A few years later he entered the real estate business.

Chicago’s African-American population was small at the turn of the 20th Century, but that was about to change.  Here Binga saw his opportunity.

During the first decades of the new century, Southern blacks began moving north.  Chicago’s neighborhoods were segregated, like most northern cities.  The newcomers settled in a narrow section of the South Side.  But as more people arrived, they began to burst the boundaries of the “Black Belt.”

Jesse Binga became the main agent of racial succession.  He bought property from whites who wanted to move out, fixed it up, then resold to blacks who needed a place to live.  He helped his community—and he got rich.

From real estate he moved into banking.  He took over a failed bank at 36th and State, and reopened it as the Binga Bank, the city’s first black-owned financial institution.  In 1910 he ran for the County Board as a Republican, but lost.  After that he steered clear of politics.

Binga moved into 5922 S. South Park Avenue in 1917.  The Washington Park neighborhood was then all-white.  He received death threats and the house was repeatedly bombed.  He had to hire 24-hour security guards. Binga defiantly refused to move, saying he was an American citizen and could live where he pleased.  Years passed before the violence stopped.

The Binga business empire reached its peak during the 1920s.  He rechartered his bank as the Binga State Bank and erected a new building at the northwest corner of 35th and State.  Next to it he constructed a five-story office building called the Binga Arcade.  He announced plans to open another, federally-chartered bank.

Then the Stock Market crashed.  The Depression followed, the Binga State Bank failed, and thousands of African-American depositors were wiped out.

Jesse Binga was wiped out, too.  He later served a prison sentence for embezzlement, though many people thought the charges were trumped up.  He spent his last years working as a janitor at St. Anselm Church, for $15 a week.

Jesse Binga died in 1950.  His home is a registered Chicago Landmark, and is privately owned.

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Then and Now, 115th-Michigan

1895–115th Street @ Michigan Avenue, view east

2017–the same location

In 1880 George Pullman began building railroad sleeper cars in a plant at 111th Street and Cottage Grove  Avenue.  By 1895 an independent settlement had developed to the west, partially populated by Pullman workers who didn’t want to live in the boss’s company town.  Michigan Avenue, running along the top of a glacial ridge, was the main business thoroughfare.

The Pullman company’s car-building business went into a long decline before finally closing during the 1980s.  Meanwhile, the surrounding area went into a similar decline.  Now the designation of the Pullman National Historic Park has brought hope of revitalization.

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