Posts Tagged 'Politics'

Your City Council at Work (2-19-1894)

Today Chicagoans were given a lesson on how their city council did business.  The story in the Chicago Record didn’t read like any civics textbook.

In 1894 Chicago had 35 wards, each represented by two aldermen.  The aldermen served two-year terms.  Their pay was $150 a year.

(That $150 is equivalent to about $3,700 today.  To convert 1894-dollars into 2018-dollars, multiply by 25.)


According to the Record, most of the aldermen could be bribed.  The paper did say there were some honest men in the council.  There had even been times when the honest aldermen were in the majority.  That was not the case in 1894.

Anybody who needed some kind of business permit had to pay bribes.  There was a definite price schedule.  If a coal company wanted to build a track-connection to a freight railroad, it cost $1,000.  For the same track, a brewery had to fork over $2,500—because a brewery made more money than a coal company. But the aldermen got their largest payoffs from granting city franchises.

A franchise was a legal monopoly.  They went to transit carriers or utilities.  Since any company that held a city franchise earned big bucks, the bribes were stupendous.  A few years before, when a certain railroad franchise was up for renewal, four aldermen had collected $25,000 each.

If you were going to pay bribes, you had to pay each alderman individually.  That way there were no witnesses.  Of course, with forty or so men in on the deal, that took some time and effort.


One businessman came up with a more efficient method.  He left packages of currency marked “$1,000” in the men’s washroom at City Hall.  Then, one by one, each alderman would come in to pick up his share of the loot.

The system worked until an innocent citizen wondered into the washroom.  The man found one of the discarded “$1,000” wrappers on the floor.  He chased down the alderman who had just left, gave the alderman the wrapper, and said “You lost something.”

The alderman laughed and said “Thank you.”  Then he tore up the evidence.

The Chicago Record expose gained considerable attention.  It also led to permanent reform.  From that day to this, there has never been another case of a Chicago alderman accepting a bribe in a public washroom.



Sic Transit Gloria Hinky Dink

Michael Kenna was known as Hinky Dink because he was a little man. Yet during the first half of the Twentieth Century, he cast a giant shadow in Chicago politics—if not actually in power, then certainly in image.

Kenna was the model of the saloonkeeper politician. His bailiwick was the First Ward, which took in the Loop and stretched down to 22nd Street and the vice district known as the Levee.  Besides serving inexpensive beverage and free lunch, Kenna’s establishments also provide cheap lodging for down-and-outers who could be counted on to vote as he directed.  The most famous of his places was the Workingmen’s Exchange, at 426 South Clark Street.

Aldermen Kenna and Coughlin

In 1897 Kenna joined Bathhouse John Coughlin in the City Council as one of the First Ward’s two aldermen. The two men complemented each other—Coughlin was big and loud, while Kenna preferred to work behind the scenes.  For the next four decades they conducted a virtual master class on Urban Politics for Fun and Profit.

After Coughlin died in 1938, Kenna continued on alone. He ran for his old friend’s vacated council seat and easily won. Past eighty now, he seldom emerged from his hotel suite.  His mind wandered, though some days he was as sharp as ever.

Coughlin blew through cash as fast as he collected it, and often faster. Kenna held onto his money.  He was reckoned to be a millionaire several times over when he died on October 9, 1946.

Kenna had once been married to Catherine Devro, a devout Irish woman who shunned the spotlight. While her husband ran his saloon, she had become a temperance worker.  Mrs. Kenna had died several years earlier.  The marriage had been childless, so now Hinky Dink’s estate became a matter of contention.

“Rush To Claim Hinky Dink’s Millions Is On” read the headline in the Tribune a week after Kenna’s death.  Bank officials had estimated the late alderman’s fortune might run as high as $9 million—over $100 million in today’s money.  Already, dozens of prospective heirs were coming out of the woodwork and lawyering up.

Kenna (white trousers) at his Workingmen’s Exchange

The list was long and confusing. John Kenna, Hinky Dink’s father, had been married twice, producing a total of six children.  This fact was disputed by a man claiming to be the descendant of a third John Kenna marriage.  Thus Hinky Dink had three full siblings, and at least two—or maybe more—half-siblings.  And unlike the alderman, these Kennas had been fruitful and multiplied.  Meanwhile, relatives of Hinky Dink’s late wife were also after a share of the wealth.

When Hinky Dink’s six safe deposit boxes were finally opened, the contents were disappointing, with a mere $872,000 in cash and securities on hand. The size of the estate was revised downward to a paltry $1.3 million.  The alderman’s will, dated 1935, detailed bequests to more than 70 individuals, including relatives, politicians, and friends.  The largest single bequest was $30,000 for the construction of his mausoleum.

Months passed. Now it was 1947.  A woman came forward saying she was Hinky Dink’s love child.  Another woman claimed to be a long-lost half-sister.  An auction of the alderman’s personal effects brought in $5,129.   In August Kenna’s gross estate was officially pegged at $1,014,000.  After deducting $368,000 for taxes and various legal fees, $646,000 remained.  The 72 detailed bequests took $209,000.  That left $437,000 to be split among 17 heirs.

Two more years went by. The final accounting of the Kenna estate took place in July 1949.  An additional $66,000 was distributed to the heirs.  Of that amount, $36,000 came from an unneeded tax reserve.  The remaining $30,000 was the money set aside for the alderman’s mausoleum.

Years before, Hinky Dink’s wife Catherine had been buried in a simple grave at Calvary Cemetery. The alderman had planned to have her rest next to him in his mausoleum.  But Catherine Devro Kenna’s relatives were miffed at being cut out of her husband’s estate.  They refused permission for her to be moved, so the mausoleum was never built.


Still, Hinky Dink’s heirs did not forget him.  After splitting the $30,000 mausoleum fund, they purchased an $85 slab to mark his final resting place.  If you root around in the grass at Calvary, you might be able to find it.


Practical Tattoos (8-1-1950)

The city’s health experts were urging all Chicagoans to get a tattoo.  The Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb, the Korean War was raging, and the Chicago Civilian Defense Committee painted a grim picture of what might happen if The Bomb were dropped on the Loop.  Dr. Andrew Ivy said that a nuclear blast would kill 61,000 people outright and injure 231,000.

Dr. Andrew Ivy

In such an event, emergency blood transfusions would be necessary.  Treatment would be easier if a victim had a tattoo identifying blood type.  Dr. Ivy suggested that the best place for this tattoo would be below the left armpit, an area that would likely be protected from the blast.

Dr. Henrietta Herbolsheimer, the only woman on the committee, had a different idea.  She said that future fashions in women’s clothing were difficult to predict, and that a location on the inside of a leg might be better.  In the meantime, the committee said that a list of facilities where the public might obtain the medical tattoo was being developed.


Chicago’s Little Green Book

In 1966, as the so-called Cultural Revolution spread through China, Americans became aware of a little red book called Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.  The title said it all—here were 304 pages of observations on life, the universe, and everything, drawn from the works of Communist China’s dictator.  Millions of Chinese youth were seen carrying copies of this secular Bible as they ran amuck through their country.

Mao Book

Such a book was a natural for parody.  In 1968 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s wisdom was collected in Quotations From Chairman LBJ.  Conservative pundit William F. Buckley was the subject of Quotations From Chairman Bill.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, longtime mayor Richard J. Daley had become a polarizing figure.  In June 1969, University of Wisconsin grad student Peter Yessne compiled a little green book titled Quotations From Mayor Daley.Daley Quotations

The book is 125 pages long, divided into 24 chapters.  Some of the chapter titles include How to Get Elected, The Correct Handling of Riots and Demonstrators, On the Power of Patronage, Graceful Concessions, and The Limits of Conviction.  There’s even a chapter called Bipartisanship—which consists of a single quotation from Daley telling how the Democrats will spread the word about their candidates in the upcoming election.

There are plenty of the famous Daley malaprops here.  Reading the book, it’s best to keep in mind the advice of the mayor’s press secretary, who told reporters to print what Daley meant, not what he said.  (Come to think of it, today we still hear political lackeys covering for their boss the same way.)

Quotations From Mayor Daley is an entertaining book for anyone interested in the golden age of the Chicago Democrat Machine.  Inexpensive copies are easy to find.


Renaissance Woman

Kellogg Fairbank was an honest, upright, somewhat dull lawyer who spent much of his time managing the estate of his late father, Chicago’s lard and soap king.  We’re not interested in him.  His wife is the one worth remembering.

In 1900, at the age of 21, Janet Ayer became Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank.  That was the name she preferred to use, and that’s what we will call her here.  Like her husband, she came from an old WASP family.  While raising three children Mrs. Fairbank took time to do some writing.

Writing was one of the few acceptable careers for a woman of her station.  She started with a few political articles and some drama criticism for local magazines.  In 1910 she published her first novel.

Seven novels, a play, and numerous short stories eventually flowed from her pen.  Mrs. Fairbank was a rich blue-blood, so her plots usually revolved around other rich blue-bloods.  Probably she’d had an English teacher who told her “Write about what you know!”

The lady did have talent.  Her 1925 novel The Smiths was about a couple growing up along with the city of Chicago.  It was runner-up that year for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Mrs. Fairbank performed all the Social Register duties.  She gave money to the arts, she organized benefits, she served as Board President of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital for over twenty years.  Her picture was always in the paper for some charitable cause.

Somewhere along the line, she became something more than a wealthy airhead.  Mrs. Fairbank became a political player.

In most states, voting was still limited to men.  Mrs. Fairbank never accepted that.  She was a champion of women’s rights, an ardent campaigner for the suffrage movement.  And she knew how to get publicity without being “unladylike.”  Once she advertised the cause by riding a white charger down Michigan Avenue.

Her social connections gave her entree to politics at the highest level.  Mrs. Fairbank didn’t stick with one party.  Over the years she jumped all over the political map.

In 1912 she was active in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign for president.  Later she became a Democrat and served a term as National Committeewoman from Illinois.  By 1940 she was a Republican, national vice-chair of the isolationist America First Committee.

She knew her way around Chicago politics, too.  In 1923 Mrs. Fairbank put together a non-partisan committee of reformers for the coming mayoral election.  When the Democrats nominated Judge William E. Dever, the reformers threw their support behind him, and he was elected.  That gave Mrs. Fairbank the reputation of a political kingmaker.

Fairbank Row Houses

Throughout it all, Mrs. Fairbank and her husband remained pillars of Chicago society.  Each New Year’s Day they gave a reception at their home at 1244 North State Street.  An invitation to the Fairbank gala was highly-treasured.

From noon to midnight, hundreds of people passed through the doors.  The cloistered denizens of the Gold Coast were always there, mingling with writers, opera singers, social activists, and cigar-chewing politicians.  At most other places it would have been an unlikely gathering.  Here it was just a reflection of the many interests of the hostess.

Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank died on December 28, 1951.  A few days later, the final reception at 1244 North State Street became her memorial service.


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.


How the School Board Spends Money (5-9-1922)

William Hale Thompson—otherwise known as Big Bill—was in his seventh year as mayor of Chicago. While he was celebrated as a builder of great public works, his administration was not noted for its honesty.

On this date, the Chicago Board of Education was under scrutiny. Mayor Thompson’s appointees formed a majority on the board, and had been involved in one controversy after another. Now a special grand jury was looking into examples of their waste and fiscal mismanagement.

Mayor Thompson

Mayor Thompson

State’s Attorney Robert Crowe conducted the investigation. The state’s attorney loved any kind of publicity—reporters said the most dangerous spot in the city was getting between Crowe and a news camera. Many thought Crowe was positioning himself to challenge Big Bill in next year’s primary.

Still, the probe was turning up all sorts of things.

State's Attorney Crowe

State’s Attorney Crowe

The board had recently purchased a thousand phonographs from a clout-heavy wholesaler for $157 each. The wholesaler had paid $40 for each machine and pocketed over $100,000. In other deals, the board bought $133 potato-peelers and $133 electric hand-driers. Principals reported receiving mahogany tables they had not asked for, and window shades that were not needed. At some schools, working clocks were smashed so that new ones could be ordered. Once again, the trail led to politically-connected suppliers.

The revelations didn’t seem to be altering the board’s methods. Mayor Thompson’s loyal majority was planning to ram through $1,032,000 in no-bid contracts for cleaning, decorating, and general repair. The reform minority could only fume.

One of the reformers had protested that the public might not be happy over the expensive mark-ups the board was paying for textbooks. He was told: “To hell with the public!  We’re at the trough now, and we’re going to feed.”

In the end, nobody was punished. The school board scandal did force Thompson to drop out of the 1923 mayoral race. But he came back for one more term in 1927, and it was more of the same. As for State’s Attorney Crowe, he ran into some scandals of his own, and was eventually voted out of office.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History