By Gary Krist, Broadway Books, April 17, 2012, 0307454304

I really enjoy Gary Krist’s books. He makes history into a story with many personal details that ordinary history books wouldn’t cover.

Chicago’s history was new to me. The summer of 1919 was a pivotal moment in politics, air travel, race relations, and the reform movement. As Krist said in the Acknowledgements, “There were times in my research when it seemed that more happened in Chicago in a single week of 1919 than happened in most places over the course of several years.”

The book is jam packed with detailed events. At times it reads like a crime drama, and at others you feel like you in the backrooms with the most unscrupulous politicians you have ever met. The battle between the govenor and mayor, unfortunately, was devastating for Chicago. (Interestingly, there’s a battle between the Atlanta mayor and Georgia’s govenor going on today.)

Krist’s books always highlight endemic racisim in the US. For me this is the unwritten history that needs to be told. He writes with convincing details that make it hard to ignore the reasons people of color have it so hard today.

[k164] “There is no reason why passenger blimps cannot go direct from Chicago to London and vice versa,” Adams concluded. “The seacoast city as a ‘port’ will become obsolete in the day of aerial travel.”

[k180] In the meantime, the entire city of Chicago had begun to take notice of the Wingfoot Express.

[k247] Finally, Boettner wheeled the airship west, toward the crenellated wall of buildings that lined Michigan Avenue like a rampart at the edge of the park. The pilot had decided that they would fly over the downtown Loop before heading south back to White City. That would give Norton an opportunity to take some spectacular photographs of the city’s skyscrapers from above. It would also mean that the Wingfoot would be seen by thousands and thousands of Chicagoans as they left their offices at the 5 p.m. close of business. No one could ask for better publicity than that.

[k271] “Over the top, everybody,” he yelled as loudly as he could. “Jump or you’ll burn alive!”

[k296] “It was the most quickly reported accident that ever occurred,” Sherman Duffy, the Chicago Daily Journal’s sportswriter, later reported. “The blazing balloon had not reached the ground before its fall had been telegraphed to newspaper offices both here and in New York.”

[k302] At least two of the other parachutes also seemed to be afire, though they were burning more slowly.

[k379] How had this experimental blimp–this enormous, floating firebomb–been allowed to fly over one of the most densely populated square miles on Earth? Shouldn’t

[k381] The crash of the Wingfoot Express–the first major aviation disaster in the nation’s history–had taken the lives of more than a dozen people, while injuring dozens more, and had brought utter panic to the heart of the second largest city in the country.

[k435] For one project alone–the creation of a grand Michigan Avenue boulevard with a monumental bridge connecting the North and South Sides–the city had had to settle more than eight thousand lawsuits.

[k453] Fifteen hundred trains, more than 20,000 streetcars, and 130,000 individual vehicles entered this muddle every business day, creating traffic snarls that wasted an estimated 100,000 man/days every year.

[k456] To make matters worse, the smoke from hundreds of coal furnaces, smokestacks, and railroad locomotives left a residue of soot and grime on every surface in the city.

[k578] Except, that is, for one small peculiarity: Young Bill really wanted to be a cowboy. Never one for study and discipline, he instead harbored dreams of busting broncos under a spacious Western sky.

[k605] Now he wanted Big Bill to run for the ward’s other council seat.

[k608] “This money says Bill Thompson is scared!” It was a challenge no true sportsman could leave unmet. Acting before Pike could answer, Thompson put his hand out and covered the bill. “I’ll take this one myself,” he said. “George Jenney, you’ve got yourself a bet!”

[k622] Yes, this was the capable, can-do mayor Chicago had elected four years ago. Never mind the venal and incompetent Mayor Thompson depicted by the “lying newspapers.”

[k631] He had taken to politics immediately. Elections, after all, were not so different from the sporting matches he loved–you played hard, you worked your advantages, and at the end of the game there was a winner and a loser.

[k638] “I’ve worn out two pairs of shoes and I’ve gained 14 pounds. Fellows, politics is really the life!”

[k659] The most important connection Thompson made during these years, however, was with Fred Lundin, a one-term congressman who had quickly risen to become a major figure in the Lorimer organization.

[k665] “Get a tent,” he was wont to tell his proteges in a lilting Swedish accent. “Give them a show, forget about the issues. Give them a good time and you get the votes.”

[k668] “He may not be too much on brains,” Lundin allegedly once said of him, “but he gets through to people.”

[k673] And so, from the routed elements of the West Side Republican machine, he gathered together a core group that would come to be known as “the Five Friends,” including Lundin himself, Thompson, George Harding, the brick-dropping James Pugh, and Thompson’s old friend Gene Pike. Together they planned what one historian called “a thrust for power never before attempted by any little political group.” Their goal, as far-fetched as it may have sounded at the time, was to elect from their number a mayor, a governor, and, finally, if they were lucky enough, a president of the United States.

[k683] To Thompson, these were the “lying, crooked, thieving, rotten newspaper editors”; they were the “great cancer gnawing at the very heart of our city of Chicago.” Calling them “crooks” and “hypocrites,” he claimed that they used their enormous influence “to destroy men in public life, men who had the courage to fight for the people!”

[k729] When the ballots were counted, Thompson stunned everyone by staging a landslide victory, winning by no fewer than 147,477 votes–the largest victory margin of any mayoral candidate in Chicago history.

[k776] Thompson and Lundin, he concluded, “have used the vast public expenditures, the great public enterprises, the enormous business activities of the city, to build up a personal machine for themselves.” That such accusations were largely true is indisputable; less clear is how much these issues really mattered to the average Chicagoan just trying to make a living and raise a family. After all, machines such as the Thompson-Lundin organization may have been corrupt, but at least a portion of the monies they skimmed tended to percolate down rather than up the socioeconomic scale.

[k1018] This was not the first racially motivated bombing to occur in Chicago in the past several months. In fact, the Indiana Avenue explosion was only the latest in an apparently systematic bombing campaign dating back to July 1917, when the home of Mrs. S. P. Motley, an African American woman who had moved her family into a formerly all-white block of Maryland Avenue, was damaged by explosives. Eleven other bombings occurred in 1918, followed by several more in the new year 1919–most of them targeting black-inhabited dwellings or properties held by black real estate agents, and mostly on blocks where families from the Black Belt were moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods.

[k1044] The result was what came to be known as “the Great Migration.” In the three years after 1916, half a million southern blacks flocked to the large industrial cities of the North. In some cases, ministers transplanted entire congregations at once, chartering special train cars for the trip. Chicago alone saw more than fifty thousand new arrivals in the years from 1916 to 1919, doubling the city’s black population in less than three years.

[k1054] “Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves” ran an all-too-typical headline in the Tribune.

[k1060] Egged on by the ever-helpful Tribune–which consistently overreported black crime and tended to depict the migrants as lazy, banjo-plucking idlers–many white Chicagoans soon found confirmation of their ugliest prejudices wherever they looked in the Black Belt.

[k1065] And South Side streetcars were indeed full of black laborers in dirty, threadbare work clothes–but mainly because African Americans were the only major group of industrial workers forced to live beyond walking distance from their workplaces.

[k1084] Real estate agents were discouraged from renting or selling to African Americans, and propaganda campaigns urged residents to protect property values by preserving the “lily white” character of the area.

[k1094] One of the major beneficiaries of this mushrooming of Chicago’s black population was William Hale Thompson.

[k1096] Blacks were still overwhelmingly Republican at this time; they would not begin abandoning the party of Lincoln until the 1930s, when FDR’s New Deal lured them to the Democratic side.

[k1101] Thompson, whose father fought the slave-owning rebels at Mobile Bay, had actually been attentive to black concerns since the beginning of his political career. One of his few accomplishments as an alderman had been sponsoring an ordinance to build a playground in a black section of his ward–allegedly the first municipal playground in the nation. “

[k1105] Later, at a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he threw away his prepared speech and spoke plainly to his audience of fifteen thousand African Americans: “My task is not easy,” he said. “Prejudices do exist against Negroes….But to deny equal opportunity to the Negro in this land would be out of harmony with American history, untrue to sacred history, untrue to the sacred principles of liberty and equal rights, and would make a mockery of our boasted civilization.” At a time when alleged progressives were falling pitifully short in their support of equal rights, such words showed significant political courage.

[k1115] Whether Thompson’s election was truly a boon for Chicago’s blacks is debatable, but he did deliver on many of his promises.

[k1158] Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Wells-Barnett had been a controversial figure for most of her adult life. Called everything from “the mother protector” of her race (by the Illinois State Journal) to “a slanderous and nasty mulatress” (by the New York Times), she had been on a one-woman “crusade for justice” since her early twenties, when she filed suit against the C&O Railroad for ejecting her from a first-class coach on a train out of Memphis.

[k1262] The fact that such “justice and equality” had been denied them so often in Woodrow Wilson’s segregated army–where they routinely faced abuse from white officers–just highlighted the mayor’s enduring appeal to the city’s African American community.

[k1496] (the cost of living had risen 75 percent since December 1914),

[k1517] On May 21, a mob of twenty-five thousand eastern European Jews stormed downtown Chicago to protest the pogroms in Poland, jamming streets and sidewalks and stopping traffic in the Loop.

[k1617] AT 11:59 P.M. on Monday, June 30, every saloon, tavern, and beer hall in Chicago was filled to bursting. Men–and more than a few women–were packed three to ten deep at every bar, with long lines of would-be patrons snaking out into the beer-soaked streets.

[k1954] Rumors were flying that surface line president Leonard Busby had proposed a compromise contract that would raise salaries to sixty-two cents an hour, with a standard nine-hour day, but the unions claimed to know nothing about it.

[k1957] According to McClenathan, the workers were fighting for their very livelihood. “There are certain basic principles that are not open to arbitration and compromise, and the right to live and get a living wage are two things that are not arbitrable.”

[k2388] But as other information emerged, it began to look more likely that Dolan was a suicide. Back in April, the judge had suffered a nervous breakdown, apparently as a result of an attack of Spanish influenza.

[k2888] According to many witnesses, police were often “grossly unfair” in their conduct toward the rioters, frequently arresting black victims while letting their white assailants go free.

[k2967] “Things are quieting down steadily,” he said. “The police have [the situation] as well in hand as it could possibly be.” But the absurdity of this last statement became more and more obvious as the day progressed.

[k2966] As reporters prepared to leave, Chief Garrity told them that there was nothing to worry about. “Things are quieting down steadily,” he said. “The police have [the situation] as well in hand as it could possibly be.” But the absurdity of this last statement became more and more obvious as the day progressed.

[k2994] Two major newspapers reported that 155 whites and 151 blacks had been injured by the third day of the rioting; the actual figures were 136 whites and 263 blacks.

[k3001] Arrest rates for white and black rioters were grossly disproportionate to the actual numbers of perpetrators of each race. Roughly twice as many blacks as whites were being apprehended for violent assaults, yet only half as many whites as blacks were being killed and injured on the streets, suggesting that the arrest rate for black rioters was far higher than that for whites.

[k3183] “A number of politicians, whose aim was solely to get votes,” Brundage said, “fanned this feeling [of hostility] among the Negroes and encouraged them in their ideas of race equality.”

[k3200] As one alderman said when requesting the suspension of search-and-seizure laws in the Black Belt, “That may be unconstitutional, but we should not waste time over details.”

[k3312] But it was probably the timely rain that had done the most to keep the fires under control, and there is some evidence that pressure from the big meatpacking companies, which had been losing money every day that rioting prevented their workers from reporting for duty, may have been the truly decisive factor in Thompson’s decision to finally use the militia.

[k3316] Had the troops been deployed on Monday, when they were first mobilized, much of the violence would likely have been avoided.

[k3326] Alderman Anton Cermak, head of the anti-temperance United Societies, tried blaming the city’s drys: “It was claimed [that] Prohibition would reduce the need for police,” he said, “but we needed more police last month and last year, and we will need them next year.” But it was the great antireformer himself–Alderman “Bathhouse John” Coughlin–who put it most bluntly: “Five years ago we were a peaceable city. Reformers spoiled it. Those were happy days. Now we’re discontented and everybody knows it!”

[k3455] The Memphis Commercial Appeal, for instance, claimed that Chicago’s leaders would “better understand [the race problem] if they get the viewpoint of the South, which is based on no insane prejudice, but on an experience running through half a century….Mobs in the South vent their revenge only upon the Negro who has been guilty of some foul crime. The innocent seldom if ever suffer.”

[k3542] Maclay Hoyne’s tendentious and one-sided prosecution of the riot cases was actively alienating large sections of the population, redirecting much of the public’s ire toward himself. The alleged rioters on the state’s attorney’s prosecution list, the Evening Post noted acidly, were “all the shades of black and chocolate and tan, but…no sign of white.” Even the all-white grand jury was soon denouncing the prosecutor.

[k3575] “We cannot dodge the fact that whites and blacks will not mix any more than fire and tow,” the editors of the Evening Post argued in one editorial. “They cannot live peaceably as next-door neighbors, and any solution of the problem…must be built upon these basic facts.”

[k3598] For the mayor of Chicago, the controversy was another welcome distraction, another exploitable hullabaloo to transform the city’s summer crisis from a referendum on his own failed leadership into something quite different. As always, he and Lundin worked best in an environment of divisiveness and confusion. They took advantage of every opportunity to misrepresent facts and use them to attack their enemies and redeem themselves in the eyes of their supporters. And as in any street fight, it was the toughest brawlers, not the fairest fighters, who came out on top.

[k3857] “Had the 17 votes in the Illinois delegation controlled by Mayor Thompson been cast on any ballot for Lowden,” the historian and politician Edward F. Dunne would later write, “his nomination would have been practically assured.” Sterling Morton, writing about Lowden many decades later, would express the lasting regret of many in the country when he nostalgically exclaimed, “What a great President he would have been!” And thus did Big Bill and the Poor Swede ultimately triumph in their long-fought war against the governor who had betrayed them.

[k3878] The election of Small (“a ferret-faced Kankakee banker” who would go on to undo many of his predecessor’s achievements in office) made Thompson and Lundin’s demolition of Lowden complete. And now, with thirty-eight thousand local, county, and state offices in their control and an annual payroll of $78 million at their disposal, they were in firm command at virtually every level of government in the state.

[k3885] At his suite in the Hotel Sherman, Fred Lundin was characteristically more reserved. “Oh, I don’t mix in politics,” he told some visiting reporters in his still-noticeable Swedish accent. “I’m only a private citizen, y’know.” Then he and the reporters burst into laughter and passed around a bottle of bourbon.

[k4044] The reality of city politics in the early twentieth century was in any case never as simple as the good-government types liked to think. Reform, for all its good intentions, too often put the city’s struggling masses in the role of children, wards of the state who had to be cared for and improved through the wise guidance of a privileged, well-educated, native-born white elite. Thompsonism, for all its venality, actually gave them a measure of real representation in government. And while the educated white reformers were by and large the ones who went on to write the history of the era, casting their enemies as the villains, it was the machine politicians who made that history, by being elected again and again. Big Bill Thompson was not, to be sure, some kind of misunderstood benefactor of the common man. He was a deceitful, intellectually limited opportunist whose first loyalty was to himself and his cronies. But for all his faults and transgressions, he did manage to lead the sixth largest city in the world for well over a decade, keeping it afloat amid the conflicting energies of a vast and deeply divided population at a time of great stress. And when it was all over, the results were hard to dismiss, for Thompson left behind him a city as vigorous, as deeply flawed, and as improbably magnificent as himself.